With the crisis in Palestine reaching a peak in recent months, Motley’s Aaron Noonan explains the history behind the conflict today.
The seemingly perpetual conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people is arguably one of the longest running and obdurate conflicts in modern history. Despite years of war and several concerted attempts at peace-making, bloodshed and destruction remain a common occurrence in the region. As the Israeli government and the Palestinian militant group Hamas sporadically engage in rocket-attacks on one another, most of the repercussions are being felt by Palestinian civilians. The latest round of hostilities began with the murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June followed by the reprisal killing of a young Palestinian boy in Israel. The month of July saw rocket attacks and air raids turn into a full on ground invasion by the Israeli Defence Forces, in a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of over 1,900 Gazan civilians and roughly three Israeli civilians. The disparity in the numbers of dead has led to widespread condemnation of the Israeli government, who have been routinely condemned by nations and organisations around the world, perhaps most notably the US and the UN, for using a disproportionate amount of force in staving off the Hamas offensive. Israel maintains it is acting within its rights to defend itself.
Yet, the July clash is just a drop in the ocean when one considers the conflict as a whole. Beginning in earnest in the year 1948, but arguably decades before that, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly one of the world’s most complex. It cannot be defined as war of good versus evil, nor can it be explained through a single narrative of, say, religiosity, or nationality, or territoriality. It has evolved into a much more labyrinthine monster, so intricate and so polarising that the idea of a genuine peace settlement or a two state solution seems like an impossibility. To explain the entire conflict in the space of a single article is unfeasible, but the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 is a good starting point.
Before the year 1948, Britain controlled a region named Mandatory Palestine, carved out of the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 saw the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour promise the Zionist movement in Britain a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Such a promise eventually became a reality, when in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, which called for the state of Palestine to be partitioned, to create the State of Israel.
The partition plan recommended that independent Jewish and Arab states be created, a two state solution. Jerusalem, a city of huge symbolic importance for both Muslims and Jews, would become an international zone under an initiative called ‘Corpus Separatum.’ The declaration was a huge victory for Jewish Zionists, who maintained that a Jewish state would bring solace to an ethnoreligious group that had been persecuted for hundreds of years, most recently in the Holocaust. The resolution also stipulated the end of British occupation in Palestine, a prospect Britain welcomed as increasing sectarian violence in the region had made it incredibly difficult to govern. Arabs within Palestine and the surrounding nations were staunchly against the partition plan, which would supplant a Jewish state in the centre of the uniformly Muslim Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, sectarian violence increased in Palestine once the resolution passed. At midnight on the 14th of May, 1948, when British occupation of Palestine officially ended, The Arab League, consisting of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, invaded the newly created state of Israel. Episodic fighting, interspersed with truce periods, lasted ten months before Israel won a decisive victory and an armistice was agreed. The original partition plan before the war proclaimed that Israel was to take up 56% of Mandatory Palestine, but that never came into effect, because the Arabs rejected it. Now, after defeating the Arab League, Israel controlled 78% of the region.
Israel’s land grab created a much greater problem however, one that still affects the conflict today – refugees. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war created a Palestinian exodus, as they became refugees in what was once their own country. Upwards of 700,000, or 80%, of Arab inhabitants of what was now Israel fled or were expelled from their homes. Such a flight of refugees created a huge humanitarian crisis, which the UN struggled to resolve. UN General Assembly Resolution 194, Article XI stipulated that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so” – a recommendation Israel did not fulfil, who claimed that no Palestinian wanted to live at peace with the Jews in Israel.
The descendants of these refugees, who expelled from Israel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, today number in the region of five million. The “Right of Return” of Palestinians refugees remains a contentious issue even to this day, but is in essence an impossibility as those refugees now almost outnumber the entire Jewish population of Israel.
Since the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 essentially destroyed one state, replaced it with another, and displaced an entire population, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only grown more incandescent and complex. In the Middle East today, war is perpetual. Millions die over lines drawn on a map and hands raised in a distant country. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Sykes-Picot agreement divided up the Middle East for the Western nations who would control it, with little concern or understanding for the effect those lines would have. In 1947 the UN would do just the same, with 33 nations raising their hands in support of the creation of the State of Israel. The actions of those thirty-three nations, none of which were from the Middle East, doomed the Israeli and Palestinian people to decades of war and terror. As Israel and Gaza stand off against one another yet again, no amount of rocket-fire or ground invasions will forge an end to this war. In Gaza, just as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, genuine peace will only come about through political and diplomatic resolutions.
UCC will hold a week long humanitarian aid fundraiser from the 15th of September.