A brief history of a long war: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict

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"Jerusalem 155" by Simone Baldini is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A mosque located in the city of Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Introduction

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the longest in modern history, spanning 70 years.

Most have heard of it, but few are aware of what it means for Palestinians, for Israelis, and for Americans.

On the right, hear from students and staff as they share their personal accounts, hopes for the future, and ideas of peace. On the left, read about the history between Palestinians and Israelis. 

Here in America

Although U.S. involvement today is generally restricted to foreign aid, America was, at one point, key to the progression of the conflict. However, movements such as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), which was founded in 2005 to put an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, continue to be debated among American politicians. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an anti-hate organization that is dedicated to defending Jewish people around the globe, BDShas incited antisemitic attacks on American college campuses in the past.

The current senior adviser to President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, has stated that Palestinians "should have self-determination" but were "unready" to govern themselves

Quick Facts

The Makings of the Conflict (1896-1917)

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish military officer who was wrongfully convicted for selling French military secrets to Germany. Although he would be completely exonerated and free of all charges, it served as a reminder of how deeply antisemitism was ingrained in Europe. 

Following Dreyfus’ exoneration, Jewish political activist Theodor Herzl wrote the novel "The Jewish State," which called for the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland in Palestine. The long-persecuted community had lived in diaspora for several centuries, but returning to Israel remained a core part of their identity.

Herzl strongly believed in Zionism, which, although a hotly-debated term today, is generally defined as the movement that mobilized the establishment of Israel. Palestine, as it was known then, was majority Arab, but housed a Jewish minority. 

“Palestine is our unforgettable historic homeland,” Herzl wrote in an excerpt from the novel. “Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who will it shall achieve their state. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die.”

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, written by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, promised to create a “national home for the Jewish people."

“His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” Balfour wrote. “[We] will use [our] best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object."

Hearing from Students and Staff

For Palestinian sophomore Natalie Nour*, a two-state solution is possible, but would be "very hard to achieve.”

“My grandfather used to live in Palestine and he had a lot of land but it was taken away,” Nour said. “We were pushed out, and we are impacted in the way that if we want to visit Palestine, it is a very hard process to go through and they’d be interrogating us for hours. Even if we get there, they can deny us entry.”

In 1970, her grandfather, who was a physician working for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was in prison for a year for providing medical treatment to Palestinians. According to Nour, he was physically and medically tortured and given the choice to either leave the country or stay in prison, to which he chose to flee to Jordan.

Nour’s mother would grow up there and immigrate to America for college.

“There’s a lot to know about the conflict and there are two sides to it obviously, and, I don’t want to sound politically incorrect, but Palestine was there,” Nour said. “The Ottoman Empire dissolved, and they gave us to Britain, who allowed Israel to have a certain share in Palestine.”

According to the American Community Survey, there are an estimated 85,000 Palestinians living in the U.S. as of 2013.

“Right now, we are being pushed out,” Nour said. “Palestinians have curfews, they’re restricted, and they can’t move. There is an occupation happening, and that is a fact." 

She attributes some of Israel’s success in defense to America’s support.

“I feel like America is intervening in the sense that Israel has money, so they can influence the media,” Nour said. “So America sides with Israel because they have money, and that’s how they look at it.”

According to Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who sympathize with Palestine has decreased dramatically since 2001, in correlation with the 9/11 attacks. Ninety-nine percent of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip today identify as Muslim, and, when asked in a January 2017 survey of how warmly Americans felt towards Muslims, an average score of 48 out of 100 was given. Despite 9/11 and other terrorist attacks being largely unrelated, some Americans have conflated it with their perception of Islam as a whole. This generalization is doubly harmful as it has silenced the voices of Palestinian religious minorities; one example is the Eastern Orthodox Christian community in Palestine, which has declined significantly over time.

“I feel like the history is kind of mixed up, and people don’t know the full story of what’s happening,” Nour said. “People don’t know the full extent of what is going on.”

Number of Deaths

Israel's Beginnings (1948-1956)

The U.S. President after World War I, Woodrow Wilson, stood against annexing colonies that had belonged to the Allied powers before the war. Instead, he drafted a peace settlement with the League of Nations that gave Britain part of the territory previously belonging to the Ottoman Empire.

In the coming years, Britain increased the immigration of Jewish people into Palestine. The Arab revolt of 1936-1939 against the British administration highlighted rising tensions between the Jewish and Arab populations. Britain was forced to declare martial law, and over 5,000 Arabs died in the subsequent violence.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Jewish people were subjected to genocide, further contributing to the necessity of the Zionist movement.

By 1948, the Jewish population in Palestine were drawn into action after a U.N. resolution divided the mandate into two: one nation for Jewish people, and another for the Arabs. Israel was declared a state by the head of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion, on May 14, 1948, as Britain withdrew. 

“We extend the hand of peace and good-neighborliness to all the States around us and to their people,” Ben-Gurion said in Israel's Proclamation of Independence. “We call upon them to cooperate in mutual helpfulness with the independent Jewish nation in its land.”

The surrounding Arab nations, including Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, invaded the new state immediately following the proclamation. This would initiate the Israeli War for Independence;  it concluded with Egypt taking control of the Gaza strip and the new state being formally established.

During this period, nearly 800 thousand Palestinians either fled or were expelled from the region between 1947-1949 in what is today called "al-Nakba," the Arabic word for "catastrophe." Instances of massacres, rape, and forced expulsions left a significant impact on the Palestinian identity, opening up a refugee problem that has not since been resolved. 

The largest exodus of Palestinians came from Lydda and Ramle, where a combined estimate of 50,000-70,000 were expelled. Beginning on July 9, 1948, the Israeli air forces led a two-day bombing campaign to urge surrender. The 89th battalion, led by Moshe Dayan, then seized the city of Lydda from Arab militias. On July 11, Ben-Gurion ordered that "the inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regards to age."

The military offensive, Operation Dani, was successful, as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) compelled the 35,000 Palestinian residents of Lydda -- which had been suffering from food shortages and unemployment since the beginning of the hostilities in May -- to flee. One survivor who lost his sister to the violence, George Habash, would later become the controversial leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). 

"The whole village went to the church... I remember the archbishop standing in front of the church. He was holding a white flag," writes one first-hand account of the events at Lydda. "Afterwards, we came out, and the picture will never be erased from my mind. There were bodies scattered on the road and between the houses and the side streets. No one, not even women or children, had been spared if they were out in the street."

The author compared it to the Deir Yassin massacre that happened prior to the war, where several hundred villagers were killed and the town was looted.

Dozens of villages in Palestine were emptied following al-Nakba. The largest share of refugees headed to the neighboring countries of Lebanon and Jordan; many still live in refugee camps today.

What is often forgotten is a similar number of Jewish people from across the Middle East who fled to Israel, in part due to rising antisemitism in the Arab world. Over the course of 30 years, 850,000 Mizrahi Jews immigrated to Israel; the last wave emerged from Iran in 1979 after fundamentalist leader Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power. 

Although a student at Carlmont High School, sophomore Jessica Klein opted to study abroad in Israel for the second semester of her sophomore year. She enjoyed her experience and stated that she has learned much about the conflict. 

“I know more than the majority of people my age in America,” Klein said. “I know what the conflict is, I have formed my own opinions on it, and I know various facts that people have told me.”

Similar to Nour, Klein believes that facts can become muddled in regards to the conflict.

“The thing is, everything I know is from a very biased source. Everything I know is from my mom, people from my synagogue, and friends.” Klein said. “I feel like people should make sure that they’re getting the right education.”

Klein worries about the misrepresentation of Israel in the media.

“If you just pay attention to those headlines, you are going to hate Israel, because there are some really biased things out there to make it look bad,” Klein said. “People don't realize that Israel is defending themselves. Facts will be misgiven because they won’t say everything that happened.”

Klein says that she has noticed multiple instances of this occurring.

“Palestine would bomb Israel, and Israel would want to defend themselves. They don’t want to kill people there, but want to stop the people from bombing them,” Klein said. “They’d tell them before that they were going to bomb them so that they would have time to get out but not be able to bring weapons. But they would stay, or have children come in too because there are children there who are willing to die for their cause."

Most of Klein’s information on the conflict comes from her community and family members.

“My grandpa from my dad’s side has very strong opinions about it,” Klein said. “He’ll go around with newspapers that are pro-Israel and leave them places hoping someone would pick them up.”

Klein sees looking at both sides as most important when reading on the conflict.

"It's important to know all of the facts before judging," Klein said.

Most Important Locations
Timeline of Events

The Arab-Israeli Wars (1956-1973)

The second of the Arab-Israeli Wars began in 1956 over the Suez Canal, an important maritime trading route that linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The president of Egypt at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had nationalized the Suez Canal, upsetting France and Britain. Egypt's blockade on the port of Eilat led Britain to encourage Israel, which had also been prevented from traveling on the canal, to invade Egypt.

The young country entered through the Sinai Peninsula to take control of Gaza, Rafah, and Al-Arish. The Eisenhower administration of the U.S. joined the Soviet Union in supporting Nasser. Israel was instructed to wait for British and French intervention. A U.N. Emergency Force, supported by Eisenhower, was placed in the area. Israeli troops were forced to withdraw, and Egypt removed the blockade on Eilat.

But the Suez Crisis did not mark the end of the violence — in fact, it was only the beginning.

In 1964, after a meeting at the Arab League Summit, the PLO was formed to assert Palestinian independence. They would play a key role in the events surrounding the conflict thereon. The most prominent of these guerilla movements was al-Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat.

After Palestinian guerilla groups launched attacks on Israel from Syria and Egypt, which had been planning to invade, Israel struck the village of Al-Samu in the West Bank, killing 18. This resulted in the Six Day War. 

“Our path to Palestine will not be covered with a red carpet or with yellow sand. Our path to Palestine will be covered with blood,” Nasser said in his re-election speech in 1965. “In order that we may liberate Palestine, the Arab nation must unite, the Arab armies must unite, and a unified plan of action must be established.”

In support of Syria, which had been weakened by an Israeli air strike, General Nasser mobilized the Egyptian army and closed the Gulf of Aqaba off from Israel. Following a defense pact made between Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, Israel made a preemptive strike that killed 90 percent of the Egyptian Air Force.

The war culminated with the U.N. calling for a cease-fire. Israel tripled in the size of its territories, taking control of the whole of the West Bank and Gaza. There was a dramatic increase in the number of Palestinian refugees; commemorated on June 5, this event is known as "al-Naska," or "the setback," in Arabic. 

Heightened Tensions (1973-1993)

The next Arab-Israeli war took place on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973, when Egypt and Syria invaded through the Suez Canal and Golan Heights respectively. After facing heavy casualties, Israel drew up a series of peace agreements with Egypt that gave the latter the Sinai Peninsula for their acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist.

The Camp David Accords in 1978, witnessed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, marked the end of Egypt’s involvement in the conflict.

“[The Camp David Accords are] a collusion at the expense of and behind the backs of the Arabs aimed at helping Israel entrench [itself] on captured Arab land, including Palestine, and prevent implementation of the Palestinians' inalienable national rights," the PLO released in a statement regarding the accords.

Although peace was made with Egypt, not six years later would mounting tensions with Palestinians push Israel to bomb Beirut, Lebanon, a center for PLO strongholds. 

The next day, Israel invaded the city, occupying it from 13 June 1982 until a partial withdrawal in 1985 after negotiations with the PLO. The Israeli occupation in Lebanon did not end completely, however, until May 14, 2000.

The Southern Lebanon Conflict at first took place in the context of the Lebanese Civil War. The Iranian-backed militia group Hezbollah fought against conservative Lebanese Maronites, who were allied with Israel. The Phalanges, members of a right-wing Maronite party in Lebanon, killed between 460 to 3,500 Sunni Muslim and Christian Palestinians, Kurds, and poor Lebanese, during the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

According to If Americans Knew, the first Intifada (1987-1993) was a series of Palestinian uprisings that began after four Palestinians in the Jabaliya refugee camp were killed by an Israeli Jeep. However, other sources, such as the Jewish Virtual Library, consider these accusations to be false.

Both would agree that these protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank totaled to an estimated 1,376 Palestinian deaths, including 23 minors, and 94 Israeli deaths, including 4 minors.

The Intifada left a permanent mark on the West Bank. After all, "intifada" is the Arabic word for “tremor.”

Omri Osteryung, meanwhile, who served in the Israeli army in the rocket division and as a combat soldier, believes that a two-state solution is possible, where each can exist with their own beliefs and cultures. 

“I think that first of all, people need to understand the root of the issue, the reason of why it’s happening,” Osteryung said. “There is no such thing as black-and-white, no such thing as right-or-wrong, no such single solution. We need to be open-minded to people who are different from us. We need to open up.”

He added that, even though it affects him in all aspects of his life, Israel is not defined solely by the conflict.

“The conflict is a little bit big here, but it’s not the only thing here. Unfortunately, a lot of people see that as the main topic here, but there’s a country here,” Osteryung said. “Israel supplies innovative technological inventions that improve the lives of many people around the world.”

He hopes everyone feels welcome to visit. 

“I think that it’s important that not only Jews, but any man or woman who wants to walk here in Israel can also come here,” he said.

Through the perspective of a history teacher, Patricia Braunstein believes that it is imperative to look for unbiased sources when researching into a controversial topics such as this. 

“One of the challenges of modern journalism, just because of technology, and because the format has changed so much, is that there is a lot of bias that is inserted into modern writing,” Braunstein said.

Braunstein teaches World History, Life Skills, and AP European History at Carlmont, and uses assignments -- such as writing reflections on current events -- to help her students better understand the differences between news and opinion.

“It’s important to know your sources because there are so many things out there,” Braunstein said. “It's concerning — I see it a lot with students. People don’t realize what’s biased or not. And if people have that awareness, it’s not that hard to figure it out. The danger is that people are unaware of a difference.”

Braunstein also had a few tips to share for avoiding biased sources.

“I would look at things from fairly standard news sources and from more than one,” Braunstein said. “You should be aware that what you think is reading news should not be inserting opinion.”

Since its history is still in the making, opinion is often confused with fact in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

As proven by the many misconceptions surrounding the conflict, it is clear that it is not a black-and-white issue. Between biased news and heated debate, there is only one word that everyone agrees should be used to describe it: controversial. Only time will tell how long the conflict will persist.

*Name has been changed to secure the identity of the speaker

Modern Day (1993-Today)

The Oslo Accords, proposed in 1993 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Negotiator Mahmoud Abbas, was the first instance of active involvement on the part of the U.S. in bringing peace since the Camp David Accords. Signed at the White House under the Clinton administration, it was agreed that Israel would recognize PLO for the PLO to recognize Israel. However, the accords swiftly fell apart after Rabin was assassinated by a radical in 1995.

The Hebron Protocol, which transferred the town of Hebron to Palestinian control, was drafted in order to prevent further violence from breaking out. The Clintons negotiated for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank; however, the Hebron Protocol was never ratified by either party as representative Benjamin Netanyahu, who was involved in the proceedings, lost the position of prime minister to Labor Party Representative Ehud Barak. 

Instead, Barak signed the Sharm al-Shayuk memorandum in his efforts to set a timetable for the Oslo Accords, but initial meetings were to no avail. The Clintons organized a meeting at Camp David between Barak and Arafat, but numerous disagreements over borders, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees ended again with failure. 

“[The Palestinians] did not in the past and do not in the present constitute an existential threat to the state of Israel,” Rabin said following the ratification of the accords. 

Riots broke out after Israeli Likud Party Leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, one of the holiest places in both Islam and Judaism, that Israel had been intending to incorporate into Jerusalem. Any chance of peace from the Oslo Accords was lost. 

The second Intifada between 2000 and 2005 began as Palestinian protesters threw rocks at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They were met with the bullets of surrounding officers. In this specific incident alone, four Palestinians died, and another 200 were injured. Additionally, 70 Israeli officers experienced substantial injuries.

This conflict between Palestinians and Israeli officers sparked another five years of violence, which included terrorist bombings and a number of civilian deaths. Angry crowds beat, stabbed, and disemboweled officers, while the IDF returned with bullets and tanks. This was all within the first week.

Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel the following year under the promise of "eliminating terrorism" against the Israelis. After implementing greater preventative measures in 2005, Israeli deaths have declined significantly. The ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths has gone from 13-2 to 24-1 from before and after 2005.

In 2006, Hezbollah, the radical political organization that had risen to power in Lebanon following Israel’s assault on Beirut, killed Israeli officers in their efforts to coerce the country into freeing Lebanese prisoners. Israel recaptured the prisoners, and, in the process, killed one thousand Lebanese and displaced another million. While there were leaders who condemned the actions taken by Hezbollah, it was largely seen as a victory by the surrounding nations.

Barriers to Peace

Today, the PLO manifests itself in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), an autonomous Palestinian government that was created following the Oslo Accords. Most acts of terrorism are either committed by or are linked to the militant organization Hamas, which carried out several suicide bombings against Israel from the early 1990s to mid-2000s. Hamas took control of Gaza after war with Fatah in 2007. 

One issue that remains to be addressed are the number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Palestinian children have reported being blindfolded, cuffed, and abused, while Palestinian women state that they have faced sexual violence. Yet, the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons is said to motivate acts of terror such as that of summer of 2014, when three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed by Hamas.

After the bodies were discovered, three Israeli students sought revenge for the murders by kidnapping a Palestinian teenager, bringing him to a secluded area in the forest, and setting him on fire. The attack was immediately condemned.

During the subsequent assault on Gaza, Israel launched an attack to disarm suspected Hamas terrorist sites. This resulted in 2,200 Palestinian civilians and 64 Israeli soldiers dying. Twenty thousand homes were rendered uninhabitable as a result, and 500,000 Palestinians were displaced. 

The struggle remains as Hamas and other terrorist groups, such as Islamic Jihadists, continue to launch rockets into Israel. However, these attempts lead to fatal consequences. A more recent case of is that of a family of 8 who were killed during Israeli air raids on Deir al-Balah in response to rocket fire from Islamic Jihadists in Gaza.

The occupation that currently takes place in the West Bank is further exacerbated by Israeli settlers. Cited as a major barrier to peace, the Israeli settlers have expanded into space that Palestinians hope to incorporate as part of their potential state. In the Old City of Jerusalem, which is holy to all three Abrahamic religions, Israeli settlers buy out land in the historic Christian, Muslim, and Armenian quarters.

The Israeli settlers have long had controversial relationships with Palestinians, as Palestinian police are not allowed to react to violence from settlers. In 2011, 90% of reports of settler violence from Palestinians led to no indictments.

Palestinians outside of the West Bank and Gaza face struggles of their own. 

The most immediate example is that of the neighboring Arab countries. According to the Jerusalem Post, 80% of Palestinians believe the Arab world has abandoned them. Severe employment restrictions being placed on Palestinians in Lebanon is only one example of how the refugee crisis continues today.

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