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The Middle East’s Unsettled History: Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


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The conflict between Israel and Hamas, which flared up on a surprising attack on Saturday, is part of a deeply rooted struggle that has spanned seven decades, involving Israelis, Palestinians, and external powers, and has caused significant instability in the broader Middle East region.

Historical Roots of the Conflict

The conflict revolves around Israeli concerns for security in a region it perceives as hostile and the Palestinian desire for their own state. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, declared the establishment of the modern State of Israel, providing a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution. This move was based on their deep historical ties to the land.

However, Palestinians see this as the Nakba, or catastrophe, leading to their dispossession and thwarted aspirations for statehood. The subsequent war saw around 700,000 Palestinians, half of the Arab population in British-ruled Palestine, fleeing or being displaced, ending up in neighboring countries and territories, including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Israel, a close U.S. ally, refutes allegations of driving Palestinians from their homes, highlighting that it faced attacks from five Arab states immediately after its establishment.

Those Palestinians who remained within the borders of Israel are now known as the Arab Israeli community, constituting about 20% of the country’s population.

Major Wars and Conflicts

Over the years, several significant wars and conflicts have occurred in the region. In 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt and Syria, marking the beginning of the Six-Day War. This resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Golan Heights, which continues to this day. In 1973, Egypt and Syria initiated the Yom Kippur War by attacking Israeli positions, but Israel managed to push back both armies.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, leading to the evacuation of thousands of Palestinian fighters. Conflict erupted again in Lebanon in 2006 when Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers, triggering Israeli retaliation. Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the region witnessed multiple flare-ups in 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021, involving Israeli air raids and Palestinian rocket fire.

Additionally, two Palestinian intifadas or uprisings occurred between 1987-1993 and 2000-2005, with the second featuring waves of Hamas suicide bombings against Israelis.

Efforts for Peace

Various attempts have been made to achieve peace in the region. Notably, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, ending three decades of hostility. In 1993, the Oslo Accords, which outlined limited Palestinian autonomy, were agreed upon between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan.

Despite these efforts, significant challenges persist. The Camp David summit in 2000, involving President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Arafat, failed to produce a final peace deal. In 2002, an Arab plan proposed normalizing ties between Israel and all Arab countries in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the lands it occupied in 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state, and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees. Peace talks have remained stalled since 2014.

The Trump administration’s rejection of the two-state solution further complicated matters, leading Palestinians to boycott dealings with the U.S. administration. Under President Joe Biden, the focus has shifted toward securing a “grand bargain” in the Middle East, including the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Key Issues

The central issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict include the two-state solution, Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and the plight of refugees.

The two-state solution envisions the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but this is challenged by groups like Hamas, which reject it. Israel insists that a Palestinian state must be demilitarized to ensure its security.

Settlements built on land occupied by Israel in 1967 are widely considered illegal by most countries. Israel disputes this and cites historical and religious connections to the land.

The status of Jerusalem is contentious. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital, whereas Israel insists on the city’s complete sovereignty, a stance that lacks international recognition.

The refugee issue remains unresolved, with millions of Palestinians living as refugees in various countries and territories. Palestinians demand the right to return, while Israel maintains that any resettlement must happen outside its borders.

In conclusion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply rooted in history, with multiple attempts at peace and numerous challenges remaining to be addressed. The conflict continues to have far-reaching implications for the region and the world.

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