Palestine and Israel, 1947-2002

[1] The report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine came before the General Assembly for a vote on November 29, 1947. On the basis of their four month investigation, the majority of UNSCOP’s members concluded that a partition creating two states, one Jewish and one Arab, in the territory that Great Britain had ruled as the League of Nations mandate of Palestine since 1920 represented the best chance for stability in a region that had already experienced decades of upheaval. The General Assembly endorsed their recommendation.

[2] Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, European Jews had been immigrating to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. When Great Britain assumed the administration of Palestine following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, it accepted a dual obligation that proved impossible to fulfill. The Balfour Declaration, a 1917 statement of British policy that supported the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, was incorporated into the mandate charter. At the same time, the basic premise of the mandate concept required Great Britain to promote the development of political and governmental institutions enabling the population under its supervision to achieve self-government. The first commitment necessitated the continuation of extensive Jewish immigration to Palestine; the second required cooperation with the Arabs, who constituted more than 90% of the population and resented the influx of European Jews into their lands. As immigration accelerated in the 1930s following the rise of Nazism, Palestinians’ fears of being swamped heightened and recurrent violence between the two communities increased. Whatever Great Britain did to placate one side inevitably alienated the other.

[3] In 1945, Jews in Palestine stood ready to absorb the survivors of the Holocaust – a scenario that the Palestinians vehemently opposed and that the British knew would ignite a civil war. Faced with a “Jewish revolt,” Great Britain referred the Palestine question to the United Nations and, with the passage of the partition resolution, declared that its mandate would end on May 15, 1948.

[4] The UN plan envisioned an Arab state of three geographical sectors and a similarly constructed Jewish state, with Jerusalem and its environs an international zone. The Jewish population had swollen to a third of Palestine’s total, but UNSCOP allotted the Jews 55% of the land. Given the interwoven patterns of settlement, Arabs constituted almost half the population of the proposed Jewish state. The Jews accepted partition, but the Arabs did not, in part because of the proposal’s inequities, but more fundamentally from the conviction that the United Nations had no right to deprive them of their land against their will.

[5] From November 1947 until the British mandate ended, both communities jockeyed for position on the ground. Jewish forces prepared to defend what the UN had allocated to them; the Palestinians, who had no armed forces of their own, made plans with neighboring Arab states to prevent partition from materializing. Consequently, when Jewish leaders proclaimed the creation of Israel on May 14, 1948, forces from five Arab armies invaded. The new state was defended by an army that had grown out of the Haganah, a Jewish militia.

[6] The ensuing war resulted in a victory for Israel that left it in control of not only the territory assigned to it by the UN, but of all the rest of the former mandate except for an area successfully defended by the Trans-Jordanian army (the West Bank) and a strip along the Mediterranean coast around the city of Gaza. In neither of these areas, however, did a Palestinian Arab state emerge. By annexing the West Bank in 1950, Trans-Jordan became Jordan. The Gaza district, where Egyptian troops had fought during the war, fell under Egyptian administration.

[7] The first Palestine War solved none of the region’s problems, even as it spawned new ones. It ended not with the finality of borders sealed by peace treaties among the combatants, but with the impermanence of UN mediated cease-fire lines. At the end of the war, three-quarters of a million Palestinians who had fled their homes in what became Israel were living as refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and adjoining Arab states. Israel refused to consider their repatriation until a peace treaty came into effect; the Arab states would not embark upon such a process until the refugees were permitted to return to their homes. The war also left Jerusalem, with its enormous religious and political significance for Jews and Arabs alike, divided, its western portions under Israeli control and its eastern neighborhoods within the West Bank.

[8] Rage and bitterness over the war and its aftermath permeated the Arab world, generating implacable hostility to Israel. Not only did the war leave the Palestinians stateless, but it also so thoroughly rent the fabric of civil and political society as to deprive them of common institutions and viable national leadership. Many of the refugees lived as wards of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. In Israel, the 1950 Law of Return expedited Judaization by automatically granting Israeli citizenship to any Jewish immigrant. The confiscation of Palestinian refugees’ property facilitated the settlement of newcomers, including European and Arab Jews, many of the latter of whom found their situation following the Palestine War untenable. Aided by Western financial support, contributions from world Jewry, and German reparations, the government of Israel embarked upon the task of building a prosperous, modern state.

[9] Sporadic raids into Israeli territory by Palestinian guerrillas from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, followed by Israeli retaliatory attacks, persisted throughout the early 1950s. One such incident in the Gaza Strip in 1955 initiated a chain of events that culminated in the 1956 Suez War. Pitting Israel, France, and Great Britain against Egypt, the war did not directly affect the Palestinians, except for a brief Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. It did, however, enhance the prestige of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (despite his military defeat) and of the ideology of Arab nationalism that he personified.

[10] The desirability of controlling Palestinian militancy in order to maintain pressure on Israel while preventing the outbreak of renewed fighting for which the Arabs were unprepared, prompted Nasser to promote the formation, in 1964, of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO included a deliberative body (the Palestine National Council) and a military wing (the Palestine Liberation Army). Its charter set forth as its objective the creation of a secular state in all of the territory of the former mandate. Recruiting guerrillas from among the alienated youth of the refugee camps, the PLO launched attacks against Israel, primarily from the West Bank. Israeli reprisals took the lives of many non-combatants (as did the PLO raids) and the inability of the Jordanian government to protect the refugee camps worsened relations between it and the West Bank Palestinians.

[11] In the spring of 1967, powerful Israeli assaults on Palestinian camps in Syria and the West Bank from which PLO guerrillas were thought to operate spurred regional tensions. Syria activated a military alliance with Egypt, to which Jordan also adhered. Convinced that its Arab enemies were about to strike, Israel pre-empted them. When surprise air raids on the morning of June 5 had assured it of air superiority, its army moved against Egyptian ground forces in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, Jordanian troops in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Syrian outposts on the Golan Heights along Israel’s northeastern border. In less than a week, the Arab armies were defeated and Israel had tripled the territory under its administration. For the Palestinians, the war’s main consequences were the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip – the only parts of their land salvaged in 1948 – and the creation of a new wave of refugees who fled across the Jordan River before the advancing Israeli forces. The magnitude of the defeat left no doubt that the Palestinians could not depend on their fellow Arabs to secure their interests against Israel. It also cemented the hold of a militant PLO leadership headed by Yasser Arafat.

[12] At an August summit in Khartoum, the Arab states vowed not to recognize, negotiate, or make peace with Israel until it had withdrawn from the lands occupied during the war and acknowledged the Palestinians’ rights. The broader international response to the June War came in November in the form of UN Resolution 242, which pointed to trading land for peace as the key to a permanent settlement. Noting the right of all people in the region to live in peace, its most important provisions called for a mutual end to belligerency, Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and a settlement of the refugee problem. The PLO rejected the resolution because it made no provision for a Palestinian state (as had the 1947 UN partition plan) and referred to the Palestinians only obliquely, and only as refugees.

[13] As subsequent efforts at mediation between Israel and the Arab states (but not the PLO) by both the United Nations and the United States failed, Palestinian anger rose. In violation of international law, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and began constructing Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It further contravened accepted practice in the occupied territories by imposing communal punishments, deporting Palestinian residents, and suspending normal judicial procedures. With their links to Jordan and Egypt largely cut, Palestinians became economically dependent on Israel.

[14] Deprived of its West Bank bases, the PLO regrouped in adjacent countries, from which its attacks on Israel invited retaliations against its hosts. In Jordan, the large and increasingly militant Palestinian population assumed the status of a “state within a state.” Several commercial aircraft hijackings carried out in September1970 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical component of the PLO, along with the revelation of a plot to assassinate King Hussein, convinced the monarch that the PLO threatened to undermine his government and draw his nation into unwanted renewed conflict with Israel. The king unleashed his army, defeating the Palestinian guerrillas and expelling them from Jordan. Most of them relocated to south Lebanon, the only remaining Arab controlled territory offering direct access to Israel. The events of “Black September” reinforced the Palestinian conviction that they could rely only on their own resources in their efforts to regain their land.

[15] Humiliated by the 1967 defeat, but unsuccessful in persuading the United States to urge Israel to negotiate, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor as Egyptian president, concluded that only a major jolt would break the stalemate. In October 1973, he enlisted Syria in a military campaign to regain the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Initially successful Arab offensives were halted, and then reversed, by Israel, in large part due to the dispatch of American military equipment to replace materiel lost in the war’s opening days. The advantage thus afforded Israel threatened to provoke a parallel response from the Arabs’ Soviet patrons, particularly when Israel disregarded a UN cease-fire resolution until it had assured itself of the Egyptian army’s total defeat.

[16] The war returned the situation in the Middle East to the international spotlight by demonstrating its capacity to cause a superpower clash. When a multinational conference co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union in late 1973 (but at which the Palestinians were not represented) failed to provide a viable forum for negotiations, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger orchestrated a series of bilateral talks between Egypt and Israel that resulted in the disengagement of their troops in Sinai. As one inducement for Israel’s participation in the discussions, Kissinger promised that the United States would not engage the PLO diplomatically until it had recognized Israel. Convinced that the international community (including many Arab states) cared little about Palestinians, and eager to preclude Jordan from speaking on behalf of West Bank residents, the PLO successfully campaigned for the designation of sole official representative of the Palestinian people at an Arab League summit meeting in 1974.

[17] Despite another attempt at a multinational conference under Soviet – American auspices in 1977, no discernible movement towards meaningful peace occurred. In November, Sadat made the dramatic gesture of traveling to Jerusalem and offering to make peace in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and its acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. His initiative stagnated until a year later, when United States President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to talks at Camp David. There they reached agreement on a plan for peace between Egypt and Israel and a framework for the settlement of the broader problem of Palestine. The two states signed a formal peace treaty in March 1979, but the PLO discounted Sadat’s right to negotiate on its behalf and most Arab states ostracized Egypt for abandoning the positions adopted after the 1967 War.

[18] The neutralization of its most powerful Arab enemy enabled Israel to address an increasingly serious problem without fear of an Egyptian military response. Since their eviction from Jordan, PLO guerrillas had been raiding Israel from southern Lebanon. Israeli reprisals created tensions between the Palestinians and a Lebanese government loath to confront Israel in their defense. The replication of the autonomy the Palestinians had earlier enjoyed in Jordan disturbed many Lebanese, and especially the Maronite elite that dominated national politics and the economy. In 1976, a civil war, whose causes reached deep into the roots of Lebanon’s multi-religious society, erupted, inevitably drawing in the Palestinians.

[19] The United States brokered a cease-fire between Israel and the PLO in 1981, but in June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, ostensibly to establish a buffer zone to protect northern Israeli communities. In fact, the operation’s objective was the destruction of the PLO as a military force. Palestinian fighters retreated to Beirut where they, along with the civilian population of the predominantly Muslim quarters of the city, were besieged by the Israeli army. In August, Arafat agreed to withdraw the guerrillas and disperse them throughout the Arab world. The PLO relocated its headquarters to Tunis. Shortly after the departure of the Palestinian fighters, the Israeli army stood by as Lebanese militia allies of Israel massacred Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Units of the Israeli army remained in occupation of parts of south Lebanon until 2000.

[20] Although the physical removal of its fighters from the proximity of Israel prevented the Palestinian political leadership from challenging Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a spontaneous uprising (intifada) broke out in the occupied territories in 1987, the twentieth anniversary of the June War. Its main participants were young Palestinians who had lived their entire lives under Israeli military occupation and had grown frustrated with their elders’ apparent inability to alter the situation. Israel’s military superiority allowed it to crush the revolt, but the insurrection underscored the urgent need for a political solution to the problem of the occupied territories.

[21] The intifada galvanized the PLO, prompting its leaders to embark on a new initiative in November 1988. The Palestine National Council proclaimed the formation of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, a tactic facilitated by King Hussein’s renunciation of Jordanian claims to the West Bank. The PNC also foreswore the use of violence outside the occupied territories and embraced UN Resolution 242 as the basis for a solution to the conflict. In April 1989, the PLO executive committee elected Arafat president of the state (which did not yet control any territory). In light of this policy reversal, United States officials began to engage the PLO in diplomacy.

[22] The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War short-circuited any immediate prospect of moving towards a Palestinian – Israeli settlement. PLO support for Saddam Hussein, who vowed to use Iraqi weaponry to liberate Palestinian lands, heightened Israeli mistrust, but also alienated the Gulf states that provided extensive financial backing to the organization. Israel responded to Iraqi missile attacks by imposing a curfew on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that brought the territories’ already crippled economy to a standstill. The victory of the American-led coalition in the war, in conjunction with the collapse of the Soviet Union, dramatically altered the Middle East’s political environment and paved the way for a peace conference in Madrid in October 1991. For the first time, all the parties to the dispute met together, although Palestinians were permitted to participate only as members of the Jordanian delegation.

[23] The unwieldy Madrid format gave way to bilateral discussions on an array of topics, but produced no breakthroughs. In 1993, however, secret Norwegian-sponsored talks between Palestinians and Israel resulted in the PLO’s recognition of the Jewish state, its renunciation of terrorism, and the invalidation of articles in its Charter that denied Israel’s right to exist. In return, Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians. On September 13, in Washington, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a “Declaration of Principles.” The document envisioned the formation of a Palestinian Authority to govern those territories, beginning with portions of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, from which Israel was prepared to withdraw. Subsequent negotiations were to produce a permanent settlement.

[24] The implementation of the Oslo Accords proceeded slowly. Almost a year passed before Israel evacuated the areas referred to in the Declaration of Principles and the Palestinian Authority took shape only in the summer of 1994, when Arafat arrived from Tunis. A second agreement in 1995 (Oslo II) extended Palestinian rule to additional parts of the West Bank, but divided the remaining 90% of the region into areas over which the Palestinian Authority exercised administrative and police powers while Israel retained responsibility for security and others that remained fully under Israeli control. Arafat’s Fatah faction won a majority in the 1996 elections for the Palestine Council and the veteran leader became its president. With Israel and the PLO seemingly resolving their differences, some Arab states amended their policies towards Israel. Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 and other Arab states opened contacts at one level or another.

[25] The thorniest issues dividing Palestinians and Israelis centered on the determination of secure, defensible, and mutually acceptable borders; the disposition of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; the status of Jerusalem; and the right of Palestinian refugees (or their descendants) to return to land, now inside Israel, from which they had fled in 1948. To further complicate peacemaking, militants from the Islamist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a wave of terrorism intended to derail a process they believed had already conceded too much to Israel. Their views were mirrored by Israeli extremists, one of whom assassinated Rabin in 1995.

[26] Following the election of Binyamin Netanyahu, an outspoken critic of the Oslo Accords, as Prime Minister in 1996, the peace process ground to a halt. In an attempt to revive it, United States President Bill Clinton brought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for a summit in 1998. By the terms of the Wye River Memorandum that summarized the talks, Netanyahu agreed to turn over additional West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority in return for Arafat’s cooperation with American intelligence agencies to contain Palestinian extremists. Despite the Israeli public’s broad support for the arrangement, Netanyahu ultimately reneged on it in order to appease his right wing constituencies. In the 1999 elections, he lost the prime ministry to Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. Clinton tried again to broker an accord in the summer of 2000. Meeting at Camp David, Arafat rejected Barak’s territorial offer on the grounds that it would create isolated pockets of Palestinian territory while Israel retained its hold on the area. This, plus the leaders’ inability to reach agreement on the final status of Jerusalem and the refugees’ right of return led to the collapse of the negotiations.

[27] Throughout the post-Oslo years, Palestinian frustration mounted and violence flared across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In this tense atmosphere, Palestinians interpreted the September 2000 visit to East Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, the city’s most important Islamic shrine – by the prominent right-wing politician Ariel Sharon, as a deliberately provocative assertion of Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem. The ensuing clashes mushroomed into a renewed wave of Palestinian rebellion, the al-Aqsa intifada. Marked by increasingly aggressive behavior on both sides – including the assassination of Palestinian leaders, a virtually complete shut down of the territories, and a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel – the intifada produced the worst violence in the West Bank since 1967. The decision of Sharon, now the prime minister, to occupy most of the urban centers of the West Bank in March 2002 produced fierce fighting and extensive casualties among Israeli soldiers, Palestinians who resisted the incursions, and civilians. Israeli forces besieged the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah for several weeks and destroyed much of the infrastructure of the nascent Palestinian state. In the wake of this episode, mutual recriminations, unreserved hostility, and bitter mistrust left the peace process in tatters.