The Israeli Palestinian conflict is the longest running contemporary conflict, still ongoing, to date. The origins of the conflict and its history provide the context necessary to understanding the obstacles to a to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The obstacles to a peace agreement are both numerous and complex. Some of the more major obstacles, recent and still current today include: (1) land issues over the West Bank and Gaza strip, (2) status of Jerusalem (3) security concerns, (4) Palestinian refugee problems, and (5) issues over water resources. The purpose of this academic essay is to provide a brief overview of the origins and history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, placing a primary focus on providing a detailed account of the aforementioned major obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The origins and particularly the history of Israeli Palestinian conflict can become mindboggling as the conflict has gone on for so long; a simple, selective and brief overview would best facilitate an understanding of this epic saga like conflict. Starting from the very beginning; in ancient times Judea was originally the home of the Jews until it was conquered by the Romans, renamed Palestine, and later reconquered and inhabited by Arabs for over a thousand years. Zionism, “a movement of national liberation to achieve a homeland for Jews” (Heywood, A. 2007) later came about and it aimed to restore the Jews to Israel, largely ignoring the existing Arab population. In 1917, Britain was granted Palestine as a League of Nations mandate under the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain committed itself to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Arab resentment over the loss of their land to the Jews fostered repeated riots and a revolt that later prompted Britain to cease Jewish immigration to Palestine. Jewish immigration to Palestine resumed due to the pressure created by the Holocaust and murder of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and in 1947 the UN partitioned Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. This would cause Arab tempers to flare, they could not accept the partition and as a result a war broke out. Israel would win a decisive victory and expand as a state, and in doing so create Palestinian refugees in the hundreds of thousands. This was only the beginning of the conflict. The Arab states would refuse Israel both recognition and peace; wars would break out in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. There were also many terror raids and Israeli reprisals. Each side blames the other entirely for the conflict and expects an apology. The intensity of the Israeli Palestinian conflict has varied over the years, but with the continued involvement of the international community, the calls for peace are growing ever louder. The Peace process began in 1993 with
“The Oslo Declaration of Principles…. In this document, both sides recognized the rights of the other to exist as a people within the borders of Palestine/Israel, and committed themselves to negotiating a permanent settlement and to improving relations between the two peoples.” (“MidEastWeb,” 2008)
Since then, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), currently led by Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli government, currently led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has been committed to an eventual two-state solution. The two parties have taken part in direct and official negotiations mediated by the Quartet on the Middle East, represented by and consisting of the United Nations, United States, Russia, and the European Union. Since 2003, however, the Palestinian side has become divided between its two major factions, that of Fatah, traditionally the dominant party, and that of Hamas, its later electoral challenger. Hamas’ seizure of power over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, caused a division of governance over the territory formerly controlled by the Palestinian National Authority (the Palestinian interim government) between the Fatah in the West Bank, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Annapolis Conference of 2007, would set out the central issues, and therefore the major obstacles needed to be overcome, in order for a peace agreement to be reached.
Land issues over the West bank and (until 2005) the Gaza Strip is just one of the major obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The 2,200 square miles of land was occupied in the 6 day war of 1967, and since then Israel re-established old communities (destroyed in 1929 and 1948) and built new settlements for its people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the majority of which reside in the West Bank. Israel expanded these settlements throughout the peace process that began in 1993 with the Oslo Declaration of Principles. The United States, United Kingdom, European Union along with the International Court of Justice have declared these settlements illegal under international law. In 2005, Israel enacted its unilateral disengagement plan, evacuating all residents of Jewish settlements located in the Gaza strip, as well as four settlements in the northern West Bank, and demolishing all residential buildings. The West Bank, however, still remains in dispute. The Palestinians demand a complete hand over of the West Bank in its entirety. Israel on other hand maintains that it needs to retain some land and settlements in the West Bank to act as a buffer against future acts of aggression. This issue remains unresolved and as such is one of the major obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The status of Jerusalem is another major obstacle to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians because of its significant religious importance to the three largest Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Both Israel and Palestinians assert claims over the eastern part of Jerusalem. For Israel, Jerusalem was the capital of Judea in ancient times and the site of the Jewish holy temple, of which only the Western Wall remains. For Palestinians, Jerusalem is also the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque, regarded by many as the third holiest Islamic site. Both sides also have grave concerns regarding the welfare of their respective holy sites being under the control of the other. Israel asserts that Jerusalem should not be divided, rather it should remain unified under Israel’s control. Palestinians claim the parts of Jerusalem that were not a part of Israel prior to June 1967. As of 2005, of the 719,000 people that lived in Jerusalem, 465,000 were Jews, most of which lived in West Jerusalem, and 232,000 were Arabs, most of which lived in East Jerusalem. At the Camp David in 2000 and Taba Summits in 2001, the United States proposed that the Arab parts of Jerusalem should be given to the Palestinians while the Jewish parts of Jerusalem should be retained by Israel. Both sides accepted the proposal in principle, but the summits ultimately failed. No concrete action has been taken on this matter as of yet and it remains a major obstacle to an Israeli Palestinian conflict resolution.
Israeli security concerns are also a major obstacle in the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Throughout the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Palestinian political violence has been of particular concern to the Israelis. The Palestinian political violence against Israel, its civilians and military are considered acts of terrorism. Although violent Palestinian groups may disagree with each other on specific issues, they are united and motivated by a common goal; to eliminate the state of Israel, replacing it with a Palestinian Arab state. Another concern is the close proximity of Israeli cities to Palestinian territories. Many of Israel’s cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are within the Palestinian’s artillery range and the threat of Qassam rockets fired from the Palestinian territories is of great concern to Israeli defence. The Israeli government recorded 1,726 such rocket launches in 2006 alone. It is because of this Israel insists that the Palestinian state should be demilitarized. These are not the only security concerns Israel has. The West Bank is of enormous strategic importance to any country intent on invading Israel. Israel insists that the Palestinian state provide guarantees that foreign armies will not be permitted to enter its borders; to ensure this Israel insists on the establishment of bases within the West Bank as a safeguard.
Another major obstacle in the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is how to deal with the Palestinian refugee problem. In 1948, about 726,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed shortly after the creation of Israel. Additional Palestinians fled from their homes in the 6 day war of 1967. Today there are about 4.6 million Palestinian refugees. Many of them live in poor conditions in crowded refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Palestinians demand that these refugees should have the right to return to their homes in Israel under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 which states that:
“the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”
Israelis refute this right arguing that in 1948 Jews fled Arab lands to Israel in almost equal numbers. One of the main reasons Israelis oppose the return of the Palestinian refugees is because that would create an Arab Palestinian majority and thus would put an end to Israel as a Jewish state. Most Palestinian groups agree with and support this outcome wanting to see a resolution to the refugee problem and the end of Israel; killing two birds with one stone, as it were. The Israeli government also asserts that the Palestinian refugee problem is largely due to the refusal of all Arab governments, with the exception of Jordan, to grant citizenship to Palestinian Arabs who reside within those countries’ borders.
Water resources and their management is another major obstacle peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as it is a scarce commodity. The Israel National Water Carrier, however, has made a high population density and standard of living possible. The carrier works by pumping water from the Sea of Galilee and carrying it to areas in the centre and to the south of Israel and the Palestinian areas as well. Up to 1.7 million cubic meters of water can flow through the carrier in just one day; but this is not enough. Israel receives a great deal of its water supply from two large underground aquifers that continue under the Green Line. The use of this underground water has been contentious as some of the wells used to draw the water reside within Palestinian Authority areas. Even though Israel withdraws some water from these areas, it also supplies the West Bank with approximately 40 million cubic meters annually, contributing to 77% of the Palestinians’ water supply in the West Bank, which is to be shared among a population of about 2.3 million. Both sides need water for survival and development and want to ensure an adequate water supply from the limited resources available. Israel has reserved for its own use a large percentage of the water in West Bank aquifers. One of the Palestinians most central concerns is obtaining land and resources that have enough contiguity to provide them with a viable society, and not be forced to give up too many resources to Israel, as this may lead to economic collapse.
The purpose of this academic essay was to provide a brief overview of the origins and history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, placing a primary focus on providing a detailed account of the aforementioned major obstacles to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. There are 5 major obstacles to a to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. (1) Land issues over the West Bank and Gaza strip consisting of the Palestinians demanding a complete hand over of the West Bank in its entirety and Israel wanting to retain some land and settlements to act as a buffer against future acts of aggression. (2) The status of Jerusalem with both sides asserting claims over the eastern part of Jerusalem and fearing for the welfare of their respective holy sites being under the control of the other. (3) Israeli security concerns regarding: the Palestinian political violence and terrorism, Israeli cities being within the Palestinian’s artillery range, with the threat of Qassam rocket attacks; and the defence of the West Bank from foreign invasion. (4) Palestinian refugee problems and finding a proper home for 4.6 million refugees living in poor conditions in crowded refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. (5) Issues over water resources, with both sides needing water for survival and development and wanting to ensure an adequate water supply from the limited resources available.