History, Maps, Glossary
History from MERIP

Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
A Primer

By Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar
From The Middle East Research and Information Project:

The conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Jews is a mod-
ern phenomenon, which began around the turn of the
20th century. Although these two groups have different
religions (Palestinians include Muslims, Christians and
Druze), religious differences are not the cause of the con-
flict. It is essentially a struggle over land. Until 1948, the
area that both groups claimed was known internationally
as Palestine. But following the war of 1948-49, this land
was divided into three parts: the state of Israel, the West
Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip.

This is a small area: approximately 10,000 square miles,
or about the size of the state of Maryland. The competing
claims are not reconcilable if one group exercises exclusive
political control over the total territory.

Jewish claims to this land are based on the biblical
promise to Abraham and his descendants, on the fact that
this was the historical site of the Jewish kingdom of Israel
(which was destroyed by the Roman Empire), and on Jews’
need for a haven from European anti-Semitism. Palestinian
Arabs’ claims to the land are based on continuous residence
in the country for hundreds of years and the fact that they
represented the demographic majority. They reject the no-
tion that a biblical-era kingdom constitutes the basis for a
valid modern claim. If Arabs engage the biblical argument
at all, they maintain that since Abraham’s son Ishmael is
the forefather of the Arabs, then God’s promise of the
land to the children of Abraham includes Arabs as well.
They do not believe that they should forfeit their land to
compensate Jews for Europe’s crimes against them.

The Land and the People
In the 19th century, following a trend that began earlier
in Europe, people around the world began to identify
themselves as nations and to demand national rights,
foremost the right to self-rule in a state of their own (self-
determination and sovereignty). Jews and Palestinians
both began to develop a national consciousness, and mo-
bilized to achieve national goals. Because Jews were spread
across the world (in diaspora), their national movement,
Zionism, entailed the identification of a place where Jews
could come together through the process of immigration
and settlement. Palestine seemed the logical and optimal
place, since this was the site of Jewish origin. The Zionist
movement began in 1882 with the first wave of European
Jewish immigration to Palestine.

At that time, the land of Palestine was part of the Otto-
man Empire. However, this area did not constitute a single
political unit. The northern districts of Acre and Nablus
were part of the province of Beirut. The district of Jerusa-
lem was under the direct authority of the Ottoman capital
of Istanbul because of the international significance of
the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem as religious centers
for Muslims, Christians and Jews. According to Ottoman
records, in 1878 there were 462,465 subject inhabitants of
the Jerusalem, Nablus and Acre districts: 403,795 Muslims
(including Druze), 43,659 Christians and 15,011 Jews. In
addition, there were perhaps 10,000 Jews with foreign
citizenship (recent immigrants to the country), and several
thousand Muslim Arab nomads (bedouin) who were not
counted as Ottoman subjects. The great majority of the
Arabs (Muslims and Christians) lived in several hundred
rural villages. Jaffa and Nablus were the largest and eco-
nomically most important Arab towns.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, most Jews
living in Palestine were concentrated in four cities with
religious significance: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad and Tibe-
rias. Most of them observed traditional, orthodox religious
practices. Many spent their time studying religious texts
and depended on the charity of world Jewry for survival.
Their attachment to the land was religious rather than na-
tional, and they were not involved in — or supportive of
— the Zionist movement which began in Europe and was
brought to Palestine by immigrants. Most of the Jews who
immigrated from Europe lived a more secular lifestyle and
were committed to the goals of creating a Jewish nation
and building a modern, independent Jewish state. By the
outbreak of World War I (1914), the population of Jews
in Palestine had risen to about 60,000, about 33,000 of
whom were recent settlers. The Arab population in 1914
was 683,000.

Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, is a modern political
movement. Its core beliefs are that all Jews constitute one
nation (not simply a religious or ethnic community) and
that the only solution to anti-Semitism is the concentra-
tion of as many Jews as possible in Palestine/Israel and the
establishment of a Jewish state there. The World Zionist
Organization, established by Theodor Herzl in 1897, de-
clared that the aim of Zionism was to establish “a national
home for the Jewish people secured by public law.”
Zionism drew on Jewish religious attachment to Jerusa-
lem and the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel). But the politics
of Zionism was influenced by nationalist ideology, and by
colonial ideas about Europeans’ rights to claim and settle
other parts of the world.

Zionism gained adherents among Jews and support from
the West as a consequence of the murderous anti-Jewish
riots (known as pogroms) in the Russian Empire in the late
19th and early 20th centuries. The Nazi genocide (mass
murder) of European Jews during World War II killed
over six million, and this disaster enhanced international
support for the creation of a Jewish state.

There are several different forms of Zionism. From the
1920s until the 1970s, the dominant form was Labor Zion-
ism, which sought to link socialism and nationalism. By
the 1920s, Labor Zionists in Palestine established the kib-
butz movement (a kibbutz is a collective commune, usu-
ally with an agricultural economy), the Jewish trade union
and cooperative movement, the main Zionist militias (the
Haganah and Palmach) and the political parties that ulti-
mately coalesced in the Israeli Labor Party in 1968.
The top leader of Labor Zionism was David Ben-Gurion,
who became the first Prime Minister of Israel.

A second form of Zionism was the Revisionist move-
ment led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. They earned the name
“Revisionist” because they wanted to revise the boundar-
ies of Jewish territorial aspirations and claims beyond
Palestine to include areas east of the Jordan River. In the
1920s and 1930s, they differed from Labor Zionists by
declaring openly the objective to establish a Jewish state
(rather than the vaguer formula of a “national home”) in
Palestine. And they believed that armed force would be
required to establish such a state. Their pre-state organi-
zations that included the Betar youth movement and the
ETZEL (National Military Organization) formed the core
of what became the Herut (Freedom) Party after Israeli
independence. This party subsequently became the cen-
tral component of the Likud Party, the largest right wing
Israeli party since the 1970s.

Although many Jews became Zionists by the early 20th
century, until the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and
the institution of a “Final Solution” to exterminate world
Jewry, most Jews were not Zionists. Most orthodox Jews
were anti-Zionist. They believed that only God should re-
unite Jews in the Promised Land, and regarded Zionism as
a violation of God’s will. Some Jews in other parts of the
world, including the United States, opposed Zionism out
of concern that their own position and rights as citizens in
their countries would be at risk if Jews were recognized as
a distinct national (rather than religious) group. But the
horrors of the Holocaust significantly diminished Jewish
opposition or antipathy to Zionism, and following World
War II most Jews throughout the world came to support
the Zionist movement and demand the creation of an
independent Jewish state.

Although orthodox Jews continued to oppose the cre-
ation of a Jewish state for several more decades, they sup-
ported mass settlement of Jews in Palestine as a means
of strengthening and protecting the community. And
following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, most orthodox Jews
who previously had resisted Zionism adopted the belief
that Israel’s overwhelming victory in the war was a sign
of God’s support, and a fulfillment of God’s promise to
bring about the Messianic era. The areas captured and oc-
cupied in 1967, especially the West Bank, were important
to religious Jews because they are the core of the biblical
Land of Israel (Judea and Samaria). Consequently, Israel’s
victory in 1967 gave rise to a more religious variation of
Zionism. Some existing political parties representing or-
thodox Jews came to embrace religious nationalism, and
new parties and movements formed to advocate Israel’s
permanent control and extensive Jewish settlement in the
West Bank and Gaza.

The religious-nationalist parties and groups that
constitute the far right of the Israeli political spectrum
maintain a hard line on matters relating to territory and
the Arab-Israeli conflict. They have allied with the Likud
Party. Although the Labor Party also has supported Jew-
ish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, a key differ-
ence is a willingness to consider a territorial compromise
with Palestinians as a means of ending the conflict. The
Likud and its allies oppose any territorial withdrawal. In
1977, the Likud won the national election, for the first
time unseating the Labor Party that had governed Israel
since independence. Since then, Likud and Labor have
alternated as the governing party, sometimes forming
coalition governments when neither could achieve a clear
electoral victory.

A minority of Jewish Israelis belongs to left-wing Zion-
ist parties, which formed a political coalition known as
Meretz in the 1980s. Meretz often joins Labor-led govern-
ments. Leftist Zionists are fully committed to maintaining
Israel as a Jewish state, but tend to be more willing than
the Labor Party to compromise on territorial issues, and
have relatively greater sympathy for Palestinian national
aspirations for a state of their own. A tiny minority of
ultra-leftist Jewish Israelis identify themselves as non- or
anti-Zionists. Some of them aspire to see all of Israel/
Palestine transformed into a single state with citizenship
and equal rights for all inhabitants, and others advocate
the creation of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank
and Gaza Strip.

The British Mandate in Palestine
By the early years of the 20th century, Palestine was be-
coming a trouble spot of competing territorial claims and
political interests. The Ottoman Empire was weakening,
and European powers were entrenching their grip on areas
in the eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. During
1915-16, as World War I was underway, the British High
Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, secretly
corresponded with Husayn ibn `Ali, the patriarch of the
Hashemite family and Ottoman governor of Mecca and
Medina. McMahon convinced Husayn to lead an Arab re-
volt against the Ottoman Empire, which was aligned with
Germany against Britain and France in the war. McMahon
promised that if the Arabs supported Britain in the war,
the British government would support the establishment
of an independent Arab state under Hashemite rule in
the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including
Palestine. The Arab revolt, led by T. E. Lawrence (“Law-
rence of Arabia”) and Husayn’s son Faysal, was successful
in defeating the Ottomans, and Britain took control over
much of this area during World War I.

But Britain made other promises during the war that
conflicted with the Husayn-McMahon understandings. In
1917, the British Foreign Minister, Lord Arthur Balfour,
issued a declaration (the Balfour Declaration) announc-
ing his government’s support for the establishment of “a
Jewish national home in Palestine.” A third promise, in
the form of a secret agreement, was a deal that Britain and
France struck between themselves to carve up the Arab
provinces of the Ottoman Empire and divide control of
the region.

After the war, Britain and France convinced the new
League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations),
in which they were the dominant powers, to grant them
quasi-colonial authority over former Ottoman terri-
tories. The British and French regimes were known as
mandates. France obtained a mandate over Syria, carving
out Lebanon as a separate state with a (slight) Christian
majority. Britain obtained a mandate over the areas
which now comprise Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza
Strip and Jordan.

In 1921, the British divided this region in two: east of
the Jordan River became the Emirate of Transjordan, to
be ruled by Faysal’s brother ‘Abdullah, and west of the
Jordan River became the Palestine Mandate. This was the
first time in modern history that Palestine became a uni-
fied political entity.

Throughout the region, Arabs were angered by Britain’s
failure to fulfill its promise to create an independent Arab
state, and many opposed British and French control as a
violation of their right to self-determination. In Palestine,
the situation was more complicated because of the Brit-
ish promise to support the creation of a Jewish national
home. The rising tide of European Jewish immigration,
land purchases and settlement in Palestine generated
increasing resistance by Palestinian Arab peasants, jour-
nalists and political figures. They feared that this would
lead eventually to the establishment of a Jewish state in
Palestine. Palestinian Arabs opposed the British Mandate
because it thwarted their aspirations for self-rule, and op-
posed massive Jewish immigration because it threatened
their position in the country.

In 1920 and 1921, clashes broke out between Arabs and
Jews in which roughly equal numbers of both groups were
killed. In the 1920s, when the Jewish National Fund pur-
chased large tracts of land from absentee Arab landowners,
the Arabs living in these areas were evicted. These displace-
ments led to increasing tensions and violent confrontations
between Jewish settlers and Arab peasant tenants.

In 1928, Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem began to clash
over their respective communal religious rights at the Wail-
ing Wall (al-Buraq in the Muslim tradition). The Wailing
Wall, the sole remnant of the second Jewish Temple, is one
of the holiest sites for the Jewish people. But this site is
also holy to Muslims, since the Wailing Wall is adjacent
to the Temple Mount (the Noble Sanctuary in the Muslim
tradition). On the mount is the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque
and the Dome of the Rock, believed to mark the spot from
which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on a
winged horse.

On August 15, 1929, members of the Betar youth move-
ment (a pre-state organization of the Revisionist Zionists)
demonstrated and raised a Zionist flag over the Wailing
Wall. Fearing that the Noble Sanctuary was in danger, Ar-
abs responded by attacking Jews throughout the country.
During the clashes, sixty-four Jews were killed in Hebron.
Their Muslim neighbors saved others. The Jewish commu-
nity of Hebron ceased to exist when its surviving members
left for Jerusalem. During a week of communal violence,
133 Jews and 115 Arabs were killed and many wounded.

European Jewish immigration to Palestine increased
dramatically after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, leading
to new land purchases and Jewish settlements. Palestin-
ian resistance to British control and Zionist settlement
climaxed with the Arab revolt of 1936-39, which Britain
suppressed with the help of Zionist militias and the com-
plicity of neighboring Arab regimes. After crushing the
Arab revolt, the British reconsidered their governing poli-
cies in an effort to maintain order in an increasingly tense
environment. They issued a White Paper (a statement of
political policy) limiting future Jewish immigration and
land purchases. The Zionists regarded this as a betrayal of
the Balfour Declaration and a particularly egregious act in
light of the desperate situation of the Jews in Europe, who
were facing extermination. The 1939 White Paper marked
the end of the British-Zionist alliance. At the same time,
the defeat of the Arab revolt and the exile of the Palestin-
ian political leadership meant that the Palestinian Arabs
were politically disorganized during the crucial decade in
which the future of Palestine was decided.

The United Nations Partition Plan
Following World War II, escalating hostilities between
Arabs and Jews over the fate of Palestine and between the
Zionist militias and the British army compelled Britain to
relinquish its mandate over Palestine. The British request-
ed that the recently established United Nations determine
the future of Palestine. But the British government’s hope
was that the UN would be unable to arrive at a workable
solution, and would turn Palestine back to them as a UN
trusteeship. A UN-appointed committee of representatives
from various countries went to Palestine to investigate the
situation. Although members of this committee disagreed
on the form that a political resolution should take, there
was general agreement that the country would have to be
divided in order to satisfy the needs and demands of both
Jews and Palestinian Arabs. At the end of 1946, 1,269,000
Arabs and 608,000 Jews resided within the borders of
Mandate Palestine. Jews had acquired by purchase 6 to 8
percent of the total land area of Palestine amounting to
about 20 percent of the arable land.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly
voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish
and the other Arab. The UN partition plan divided the
country in such a way that each state would have a majority
of its own population, although some Jewish settlements
would fall within the proposed Palestinian state and many
Palestinians would become part of the proposed Jewish
state. The territory designated to the Jewish state would
be slightly larger than the Palestinian state (56 percent and
43 percent of Palestine, respectively) on the assumption
that increasing numbers of Jews would immigrate there.
According to the UN partition plan, the area of Jerusalem
and Bethlehem was to become an international zone.

Publicly, the Zionist leadership accepted the UN parti-
tion plan, although they hoped somehow to expand the
borders allotted to the Jewish state. The Palestinian Arabs
and the surrounding Arab states rejected the UN plan
and regarded the General Assembly vote as an interna-
tional betrayal. Some argued that the UN plan allotted
too much territory to the Jews. Most Arabs regarded the
proposed Jewish state as a settler colony and argued that
it was only because the British had permitted extensive
Zionist settlement in Palestine against the wishes of the
Arab majority that the question of Jewish statehood was
on the international agenda at all.

Fighting began between the Arab and Jewish residents
of Palestine days after the adoption of the UN partition
plan. The Arab military forces were poorly organized,
trained and armed. In contrast, Zionist military forces,
although numerically smaller, were well organized, trained
and armed. By the spring of 1948, the Zionist forces had
secured control over most of the territory allotted to the
Jewish state in the UN plan.

On May 15, 1948, the British evacuated Palestine, and
Zionist leaders proclaimed the state of Israel. Neighbor-
ing Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq) then in-
vaded Israel claiming that they sought to “save” Palestine
from the Zionists. In fact, the Arab rulers had territorial
designs on Palestine and were no more anxious to see a
Palestinian Arab state emerge than the Zionists. During
May and June 1948, when the fighting was most intense,
the outcome of this first Arab-Israeli War was in doubt.
But after arms shipments from Czechoslovakia reached
Israel, its armed forces established superiority and con-
quered territories beyond the UN partition plan borders
of the Jewish state.

In 1949, the war between Israel and the Arab states
ended with the signing of armistice agreements. The
country once known as Palestine was now divided into
three parts, each under separate political control. The
State of Israel encompassed over 77 percent of the terri-
tory. Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and the hill country
of central Palestine (the West Bank). Egypt took control
of the coastal plain around the city of Gaza (the Gaza
Strip). The Palestinian Arab state envisioned by the UN
partition plan was never established.

The Palestinian Arab Refugees
As a consequence of the fighting in Palestine/Israel between
1947 and 1949, over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became
refugees. The precise number of refugees, and questions
of responsibility for their exodus are sharply disputed.
Many Palestinians have claimed that most were expelled
in accordance with a Zionist plan to rid the country of its
non-Jewish inhabitants. The official Israeli position holds
that the refugees fled on orders from Arab political and
military leaders. One Israeli military intelligence docu-
ment indicates that at least 75 percent of the refugees left
due to Zionist or Israeli military actions, psychological
campaigns aimed at frightening Arabs into leaving, and
direct expulsions. Only about 5 percent left on orders from
Arab authorities. There are several well-documented cases
of mass expulsions during and after the military opera-
tions of 1948-49 and massacres and atrocities that led to
large-scale Arab flight. The best-known instance of mass
expulsion is that of the 50,000 Arabs of the towns of Lydda
and Ramle. The most infamous atrocity occurred at Deir
Yasin, a village near Jerusalem, where estimates of the
number of Arab residents killed in cold blood by Israeli
fighters range from about 125 to over 250.

Today this term refers to the Arabs — Christian, Muslim
and Druze — whose historical roots can be traced to the
territory of Palestine as defined by the British mandate
borders. About 3 million Palestinians now live within this
area, which is divided between the state of Israel, and the
West Bank and Gaza; these latter areas were captured and
occupied by Israel in 1967. Today, over 700,000 Palestin-
ians are citizens of Israel, living inside the country’s 1949
armistice borders. About 1.2 million live in the West Bank
(including 200,000 in East Jerusalem) and about one mil-
lion in the Gaza Strip. The remainder of the Palestinian
people, perhaps another 3 million, lives in diaspora, out-
side the country they claim as their national homeland.

The largest Palestinian diaspora community, approximately
1.3 million, is in Jordan. Many of them still live in the refugee
camps that were established in 1949, although others live
in cities and towns. Lebanon and Syria also have large
Palestinian populations, many of whom still live in refugee
camps. Many Palestinians have moved to Saudi Arabia and
other Arab Gulf countries to work, and some have moved to
other parts of the Middle East or other parts of the world.
Jordan is the only Arab state to grant citizenship to the
Palestinians who live there. Palestinians in Arab states generally
do not enjoy the same rights as the citizens of those states.

The situation of the refugees in Lebanon is especially
dire; many Lebanese blame Palestinians for the civil war
that wracked that country from 1975-91, and demand
that they be resettled elsewhere in order for the Leba-
nese to maintain peace in their country. The Christian
population of Lebanon is particularly anxious to rid the
country of the mainly Muslim Palestinians because of a
fear that they threaten the delicate balance among the
country’s religious groups.

Although many Palestinians still live in refugee camps
and slums, others have become economically successful.
Palestinians now have the highest per capita rate of uni-
versity graduates in the Arab world. Their diaspora expe-
rience has contributed to a high level of politicization of
all sectors of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel
In 1948, only about 150,000 Palestinian Arabs remained
in the area that became the state of Israel. They were
granted Israeli citizenship and the right to vote. But in
many respects they were and remain second-class citizens,
since Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people
and Palestinians are non-Jews. Until 1966 most of them
were subject to a military government that restricted their
movement and other rights (to speech, association and so
on). Arabs were not permitted to become full members
of the Israeli trade union federation, the Histadrut, until
1965. About 40 percent of their lands were confiscated by
the state and used for development projects that benefited
Jews primarily or exclusively. All of Israel’s governments
have discriminated against the Arab population by allocat-
ing far fewer resources for education, health care, public
works, municipal government and economic development
to the Arab sector.

Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel have had a difficult
struggle to maintain their cultural and political identity
in a state that officially regards expression of Palestin-
ian or Arab national sentiment as subversive. Until 1967,
they were entirely isolated from the Arab world and were
often regarded by other Arabs as traitors for living in Is-
rael. Since 1967, many have become more aware of their
identity as Palestinians. One important expression of this
identity was the organization of a general strike on March
30, 1976, designated as Land Day, to protest the continu-
ing confiscation of Arab lands. The Israeli security forces
killed six Arab citizens on that day. All Palestinians now
commemorate it as a national day.

 Many Palestinian Arabs have also come to understand
that their political status as Israeli citizens and their pro-
tracted contact with Israeli society has differentiated them
from other Palestinians. Although most of them support
the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip, few would pursue the possibility of
relocating there if such a state comes into existence.

The June 1967 War
After 1949, although there was an armistice between Israel
and the Arab states, the conflict continued and the region
remained imperiled by the prospect of another war. This
was fueled by an escalating arms race as countries built
up their military caches and prepared their forces (and
their populations) for a future showdown. In 1956, Israel
joined with Britain and France to attack Egypt, ostensibly
to reverse the Egyptian government’s nationalization of the
Suez Canal (then under French and British control). Israeli
forces captured Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, but were
forced to evacuate back to the armistice lines as a result
of UN pressure led by the US and the Soviet Union (in
an uncharacteristic show of cooperation to avert further
conflict in the Middle East). By the early 1960s, however,
the region was becoming a hot spot of Cold War rivalry
as the US and the Soviet Union were competing with one
another for global power and influence.

In the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union misinformed
the Syrian government that Israeli forces were massing in
northern Israel to attack Syria. There was no such Israeli
mobilization. But clashes between Israel and Syria had
been escalating for about a year, and Israeli leaders had
publicly declared that it might be necessary to bring down
the Syrian regime if it failed to end Palestinian commando
attacks against Israel from Syrian territory.

Responding to a Syrian request for assistance, in May
1967 Egyptian troops entered the Sinai Peninsula bordering
Israel. A few days later, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-
Nasser asked the UN observer forces stationed between
Israel and Egypt to evacuate their positions. The Egyptians
then occupied Sharm al-Shaykh at the southern tip of the
Sinai Peninsula and proclaimed a blockade of the Israeli
port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, arguing that access
to Eilat was through Egyptian territorial waters. These
measures shocked and frightened the Israeli public, which
believed it was in danger of annihilation.

As the military and diplomatic crisis continued, on June
5, 1967 Israel preemptively attacked Egypt and Syria, de-
stroying their air forces on the ground within a few hours.
Jordan joined in the fighting belatedly, and consequently
was attacked by Israel as well. The Egyptian, Syrian and
Jordanian armies were decisively defeated, and Israel
captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and
the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights
from Syria.

The 1967 war, which lasted only six days, established
Israel as the dominant regional military power. The speed
and thoroughness of Israel’s victory discredited the Arab
regimes. In contrast, the Palestinian national movement
emerged as a major actor after 1967 in the form of the
political and military groups that made up the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO).

The Occupied Territories
The West Bank and the Gaza Strip became distinct geo-
graphical units as a result of the 1949 armistice that divided
the new Jewish state of Israel from other parts of Mandate
Palestine. From 1948-67, the West Bank, including East
Jerusalem, was ruled by Jordan, which annexed the area in
1950 and extended citizenship to Palestinians living there.
During this period, the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian
military administration. In the 1967 war, Israel captured
and occupied these areas, along with the Sinai Peninsula
(from Egypt) and the Golan Heights (from Syria).

Israel established a military administration to govern
the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and
Gaza. Under this arrangement, Palestinians were denied
many basic political rights and civil liberties, including
freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of
political association. Palestinian nationalism was criminal-
ized as a threat to Israeli security, which meant that even
displaying the Palestinian national colors was a punishable
act. All aspects of Palestinian life were regulated, and often
severely restricted by the Israeli military administration.
For example, Israel forbade the gathering wild thyme
(za`tar), a basic element of Palestinian cuisine.

Israeli policies and practices in the West Bank and Gaza
have included extensive use of collective punishments
such as curfews, house demolitions and closure of roads,
schools and community institutions. Hundreds of Pales-
tinian political activists have been deported to Jordan or
Lebanon, tens of thousands of acres of Palestinian land
have been confiscated, and thousands of trees have been
uprooted. Since 1967, over 300,000 Palestinians have been
imprisoned without trial, and over half a million have
been tried in the Israeli military court system. Torture of
Palestinian prisoners has been a common practice since
at least 1971, and dozens of people have died in detention
from abuse or neglect. Israeli officials have claimed that
harsh measures and high rates of imprisonment are neces-
sary to thwart terrorism. According to Israel, Palestinian
terrorism includes all forms of opposition to the occupa-
tion (including non-violence).

Israel has built hundreds of settlements and permitted
hundreds of thousands of its own Jewish citizens to move
to the West Bank and Gaza, despite that this constitutes a
breach of international law. Israel has justified the violation
of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other international
laws governing military occupation of foreign territory on
the grounds that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not
technically “occupied” because they were never part of the
sovereign territory of any state. Therefore, according to
this interpretation, Israel is not a foreign “occupier” but a
legal “administrator” of territory whose status remains to
be determined. The international community has rejected
the Israeli official position that the West Bank and Gaza
are not occupied, and has maintained that international
law should apply there. But little effort has been mounted
to enforce international law or hold Israel accountable for
the numerous violations it has engaged in since 1967.

The UN partition plan advocated that Jerusalem become
an international zone, independent of both the proposed
Jewish and Palestinian Arab states. In the 1948 Arab-Is-
raeli War, Israel took control of the western part of Jeru-
salem, while Jordan took the eastern part, including the
old walled city containing important Jewish, Muslim and
Christian religious sites. The 1949 armistice line cut the
city in two. In June 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem
from Jordan and almost immediately annexed it. It reaf-
firmed its annexation in 1981.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its “eternal capital.” Arabs
consider East Jerusalem part of the occupied West Bank
and want it to be the capital of a Palestinian state.
The Palestine Liberation Organization
The Arab League established the PLO in 1964 as an ef-
fort to control Palestinian nationalism while appearing
to champion the cause. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war
enabled younger, more militant Palestinians to take over
the PLO and gain some independence from the Arab

The PLO includes different political and armed groups
with varying ideological orientations. Yasser Arafat is the
leader of Fatah, the largest group, and has been PLO chair-
man since 1968. The other major groups are the Popular
Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Demo-
cratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and,
in the occupied territories, the Palestine Peoples Party
(PPP, formerly the Communist Party). Despite factional
differences, the majority of Palestinians regard the PLO
as their representative.

In the 1960s, the PLO’s primary base of operations
was Jordan. In 1970-71, fighting with the Jordanian army
drove the PLO leadership out of the country, forcing it to
relocate to Lebanon. When the Lebanese civil war started
in 1975, the PLO became a party in the conflict. After the
Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the PLO leadership
was expelled from the country, relocating once more to

Until 1993, Israel did not acknowledge Palestinian na-
tional rights or recognize the Palestinians as an indepen-
dent party to the conflict. Israel refused to negotiate with
the PLO, arguing that it was nothing but a terrorist orga-
nization, and insisted on dealing only with Jordan or other
Arab states. It rejected the establishment of a Palestinian
state, insisting that Palestinians should be incorporated
into the existing Arab states. This intransigence ended
when Israeli representatives entered into secret negotia-
tions with the PLO, which led to the Oslo Declaration of
Principles (see below).

UN Security Council Resolution 242
After the 1967 war, the UN Security Council adopted
Resolution 242, which notes the “inadmissability of the
acquisition of territory by force,” and calls for Israeli with-
drawal from lands seized in the war and the right of all
states in the area to peaceful existence within secure and
recognized boundaries. The grammatical construction of
the French version of Resolution 242 says Israel should
withdraw from “the territories,” whereas the English ver-
sion of the text calls for withdrawal from “territories.”
(Both English and French are official languages of the
UN.) Israel and the United States use the English version
to argue that Israeli withdrawal from some, but not all,
the territory occupied in the 1967 war satisfies the require-
ments of this resolution.

For many years the Palestinians rejected Resolution 242
because it does not acknowledge their right to national
self-determination or to return to their homeland. It calls
only for a just settlement of the refugee problem. By call-
ing for recognition of every state in the area, Resolution
242 entailed unilateral Palestinian recognition of Israel
without recognition of Palestinian national rights.

The October 1973 War
After coming to power in Egypt in late 1970, President
Anwar Sadat indicated to UN envoy Gunnar Jarring that
he was willing to sign a peace agreement with Israel in
exchange for the return of Egyptian territory lost in 1967
(the Sinai Peninsula). When this overture was ignored
by Israel and the US, Egypt and Syria decided to act to
break the political stalemate. They attacked Israeli forces
in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in October
1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. The surprise
attack caught Israel off guard, and the Arabs achieved
some early military victories. This prompted American
political intervention, along with sharply increased mili-
tary aid to Israel. After the war, US Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger pursued a diplomatic strategy of limited
bilateral agreements to secure partial Israeli withdrawals
from the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights while
Palestinians in Ramallah demonstrating against Israeli ocuppation forces.
avoiding negotiations on more difficult issues, including
the fate of the West Bank and Gaza. By late 1975 these
efforts had exhausted their potential, and there was no
prospect of achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace

In late 1977, Sadat decided to initiate a separate overture
to Israel. His visit to Jerusalem on November 19, 1977 led
to the Camp David accords and the signing of an Egyp-
tian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.

Camp David I
In September 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat
and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp
David, a presidential retreat in Maryland. They worked
out two agreements: a framework for peace between Egypt
and Israel, and a general framework for resolution of the
Middle East crisis, i.e. the Palestinian question.

The first agreement formed the basis of the Egyptian-
Israeli peace treaty signed in 1979. The second agreement
proposed to grant autonomy to the Palestinians in the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to install a local administra-
tion for a five-year interim period, after which the final
status of the territories would be negotiated.

Only the Egyptian-Israeli part of the Camp David ac-
cords was implemented. The Palestinians and other Arab
states rejected the autonomy concept because it did not
guarantee full Israeli withdrawal from areas captured in
1967 or the establishment of an independent Palestin-
ian state. In any case, Israel sabotaged negotiations by
continuing to confiscate Palestinian lands and build new
settlements in violation of the commitments Menachem
Begin made to Jimmy Carter at Camp David.

The Intifada
In December 1987, the Palestinian population in the
West Bank and Gaza started a mass uprising against the
Israeli occupation. This uprising, or intifada (which
means “shaking off” in Arabic), was not started or or-
chestrated by the PLO leadership in Tunis. Rather, it was
a popular mobilization that drew on the organizations
and institutions that had developed under occupation.
The intifada involved hundreds of thousands of people,
many with no previous resistance experience, including
children, teenagers and women. For the first few years,
it involved many forms of civil disobedience, including
massive demonstrations, general strikes, refusal to pay
taxes, boycotts of Israeli products, political graffiti and
the establishment of underground schools (since regu-
lar schools were closed by the military as reprisals for
the uprising). It also included stone throwing, Molotov
cocktails and the erection of barricades to impede the
movement of Israeli military forces.

Intifada activism was organized through popular com-
mittees under the umbrella of the United National Lead-
ership of the Uprising. The UNLU was a coalition of the
four PLO parties active in the occupied territories: Fatah,
the PFLP, the DFLP and the PPP. This broad-based resis-
tance drew unprecedented international attention to the
situation facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,
and challenged the occupation as never before.

Under the leadership of Minister of Defense Yitzhak
Rabin, Israel tried to smash the intifada with “force,
power and blows.” Army commanders instructed troops
to break the bones of demonstrators. From 1987 to 1991
Israeli forces killed over 1,000 Palestinians, including
over 200 under the age of sixteen. By 1990, most of the
UNLU leaders had been arrested and the intifada lost its
cohesive force, although it continued for several more
years. Political divisions and violence within the Palestin-
ian community escalated, especially the growing rivalry
between the various PLO factions and Islamist organiza-
tions (HAMAS and Islamic Jihad). Palestinian militants
killed over 250 Palestinians suspected of collaborating
with the occupation authorities and about 100 Israelis
during this period.

Although the intifada did not bring an end to the oc-
cupation, it made clear that the status quo was untenable.
The intifada shifted the center of gravity of Palestinian
political initiative from the PLO leadership in Tunis to
the occupied territories. Palestinian activists in the oc-
cupied territories demanded that the PLO adopt a clear
political program to guide the struggle for independence.
In response, the Palestine National Council (a Palestin-
ian government-in-exile), convened in Algeria in No-
vember 1988, recognized the state of Israel, proclaimed
an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and
the Gaza Strip, and renounced terrorism. The Israeli
government did not respond to these gestures, claiming
that nothing had changed and that the PLO was a ter-
rorist organization with which it would never negotiate.
The US did acknowledge that the PLO’s policies had
changed, but did little to encourage Israel to abandon
its intransigent stand.

The Madrid Conference
US and Israeli failure to respond meaningfully to PLO
moderation resulted in the PLO’s opposition to the US-led
attack on Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. The PLO did not
endorse Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, but it saw Saddam
Hussein’s challenge to the US and the Gulf oil-exporting
states as a way to alter the regional status quo and focus
attention on the question of Palestine. After the war, the
PLO was diplomatically isolated. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
cut off financial support they had been providing, bring-
ing the PLO to the brink of crisis.

After the Gulf War, the US sought to stabilize its po-
sition in the Middle East by promoting a resolution of
the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite their turn against the
PLO, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were anxious to resolve
the Arab-Israeli conflict and remove the potential for
regional instability it created. The administration of
President Bush felt obliged to its Arab allies, and pressed
a reluctant Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to
open negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arab
states at a multilateral conference convened in Madrid,
Spain, in October 1991. Shamir’s conditions, which the
US accepted, were that the PLO be excluded from the
talks and that the Palestinian desires for independence
and statehood not be directly addressed.

In subsequent negotiating sessions held in Washing-
ton, DC, Palestinians were represented by a delegation
from the occupied territories. Participants in this del-
egation were subject to Israeli approval, and residents
of East Jerusalem were barred on the grounds that the
city is part of Israel. Although the PLO was formally
excluded from these talks, its leaders regularly consulted
with and advised the Palestinian delegation. Although
Israeli and Palestinian delegations met many times,
little progress was achieved. Prime Minister Shamir
announced after he left office that his strategy was to
drag out the Washington negotiations for ten years, by
which time the annexation of the West Bank would be
an accomplished fact.

A new Israeli Labor Party government led by Yitzhak
Rabin assumed office in June 1992 and promised rapid
conclusion of an Israel-Palestinian agreement. Instead,
the Washington negotiations became stalemated after
December 1992, when Israel expelled over 400 Pales-
tinian residents of the occupied territories who were
accused (but not tried or convicted) of being radical
Islamist activists. Human rights conditions in the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip deteriorated dramatically after
Rabin assumed office. This undermined the legitimacy
of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks
and prompted the resignation of several delegates.

Lack of progress in the Washington talks and de-
terioration of the economic and human rights condi-
tions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip accelerated
the growth of a radical Islamist challenge to the PLO.
Violent attacks against Israeli targets by HAMAS (Is-
lamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad further
exacerbated tensions. Ironically, before the intifada,
Israeli authorities had enabled the development of
Islamist organizations as a way to divide Palestinians
in the occupied territories. But as the popularity of
Islamists grew and challenged the moderation of the
PLO, they came to regret their policy of encouraging
political Islam as an alternative to the PLO’s secu-
lar nationalism. Eventually, Yitzhak Rabin came to
believe that HAMAS, Jihad and the broader Islamic
movements of which they were a part posed more of
a threat to Israel than the PLO.

The Oslo Accords
The weakness of the PLO after the Gulf War, the
stalemate in the Washington talks, and fear of radical
Islam brought the Rabin government to reverse the
long-standing Israeli refusal to negotiate with the PLO.
Consequently, Israel initiated secret negotiations in
Oslo, Norway directly with PLO representatives who
had been excluded from the Madrid and Washington
talks. These negotiations produced the Israel-PLO Dec-
laration of Principles, which was signed in Washington
in September 1993.

The Declaration of Principles was based on mutual
recognition of Israel and the PLO. It established that
Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Jericho,
with additional withdrawals from further unspecified
areas of the West Bank during a five-year interim pe-
riod. During this period, the PLO formed a Palestinian
Authority (PA) with “self-governing” (i.e. municipal)
powers in the areas from which Israeli forces were re-
deployed. In January 1996, elections were held for a
Palestinian Legislative Council and for the presidency
of the PA, which was won handily by Yasir Arafat. The
key issues such as the extent of the territories to be
ceded by Israel, the nature of the Palestinian entity
to be established, the future of the Israeli settlements
and settlers, water rights, the resolution of the refugee
problem and the status of Jerusalem were set aside to
be discussed in final status talks.

The PLO accepted this deeply flawed agreement with
Israel because it was weak and had little diplomatic sup-
port in the Arab world. Both Islamist radicals and local
leaders in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip challenged
Arafat’s leadership. Yet only Arafat had the prestige and
national legitimacy to conclude a negotiated agreement
with Israel.

The Oslo accords set up a negotiating process with-
out specifying an outcome. The process was supposed
to have been completed by May 1999. There were many
delays due to Israel’s reluctance to relinquish control
over the occupied territories, unwillingness to make
the kinds of concessions necessary to reach a final
status agreement, and periodic outbursts of violence
by Palestinian opponents of the Oslo process, espe-
cially HAMAS and Jihad. During the Likud’s return to
power in 1996-99, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
avoided engaging seriously in the Oslo process, which
he distrusted and fundamentally opposed.

A Labor-led coalition government led by Prime Minister
Ehud Barak came to power in 1999. Barak at first concen-
trated on reaching a peace agreement with Syria. When he
failed to convince the Syrians to sign an agreement that
would restore to them less than all the area of the Golan
Heights occupied by Israel in 1967, Barak turned his at-
tention to the Palestinian track.

During the protracted interim period of the Oslo
process, Israel’s Labor and Likud governments built
new settlements in the occupied territories, expanded
existing settlements and constructed a network of by-
pass roads to enable Israeli settlers to travel from their
settlements to Israel proper without passing through
Palestinian-inhabited areas. These projects were un-
derstood by most Palestinians as marking out territory
that Israel sought to annex in the final settlement. The
Oslo accords contained no mechanism to block these
unilateral actions or Israel’s violations of Palestinian
human and civil rights in areas under its control.

Final status negotiations between Israel and the Pal-
estinians were to have begun in mid-1996, but only got
underway in earnest in mid-2000. By then, a series of
painfully negotiated Israeli interim withdrawals left the
Palestinian Authority with direct or partial control of
some 40 percent of the West Bank and 65 percent of
the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian areas were surrounded
by Israeli-controlled territory with entry and exit con-
trolled by Israel.

The Palestinians’ expectations were not accommo-
dated by the Oslo accords. The Oslo process required
the Palestinians to make their principal compromises at
the beginning, whereas Israel’s principal compromises
beyond recognition of the PLO were to be made in the
final status talks.

Camp David II
In July 2000, President Clinton invited Prime Minister
Barak and President Arafat to Camp David to conclude
negotiations on the long-overdue final status agreement.
Barak proclaimed his “red lines”: Israel would not return
to its pre-1967 borders; East Jerusalem with its 175,000
Jewish settlers would remain under Israeli sovereignty;
Israel would annex settlement blocs in the West Bank
containing some 80 percent of the 180,000 Jewish set-
tlers; and Israel would accept no legal or moral responsi-
bility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
The Palestinians, in accord with UN Security Council
resolution 242 and their understanding of the spirit of
the Oslo Declaration of Principles, sought Israeli with-
drawal from the vast majority of the West Bank and the
Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem, and recognition
of an independent state in those territories.

The distance between the two parties, especially on
the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, made it impos-
sible to reach an agreement at the Camp David sum-
mit meeting in July 2000. Although Barak offered a far
more extensive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank
than any other Israeli leader had publicly considered,
he insisted on maintaining Israeli sovereignty over East
Jerusalem. This was unacceptable to the Palestinians and
to most of the Muslim world. Arafat left Camp David
with enhanced stature among his constituents because
he did not yield to American and Israeli pressure. Barak
returned home to face political crisis within his own
government, including the abandonment of coalition
partners who felt he had offered the Palestinians too
much. However, the Israeli taboo on discussing the fu-
ture of Jerusalem was broken. Many Israelis began to
realize for the first time that they might never achieve
peace if they insisted on imposing their terms on the
The Fall 2000 Uprising
The deeply flawed “peace process” initiated at Oslo,
combined with the daily frustrations and humiliations
inflicted upon Palestinians in the occupied territories,
converged to ignite a second intifada beginning in
late September 2000. On September 28, Likud leader
Ariel Sharon visited the Noble Sanctuary (Temple
Mount) in the company of 1000 armed guards; in the
context of July’s tense negotiations over Jerusalem’s
holy places, and Sharon’s well-known call for Israeli
annexation of East Jerusalem, this move provoked
large Palestinian protests in Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers
killed six unarmed protesters. These killings inaugu-
rated over a month of demonstrations and clashes
across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For a brief
period, these demonstrations spread into Palestinian
towns inside Israel.

In relative terms, the second intifada is already
bloodier than the first. As in the previous intifada, Pal-
estinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli
soldiers, who responded with rubber-coated steel bul-
lets and live ammunition. But both sides have employed
greater force than in 1987-1991. The militant wing of
Fatah, which has coordinated many street actions, now
has a substantial cache of small arms and has fired often
on Israeli troops. The Israeli military response escalated
dramatically after two soldiers, allegedly “lost” in the
PA-controlled West Bank town of Ramallah, were killed
October 12 by a Palestinian mob returning from the
funeral of an unarmed young man whom soldiers had
shot dead the day before. The IDF attacked PA instal-
lations in Ramallah, Gaza and elsewhere with helicopter
gunships and missiles. Subsequently, the IDF has not
always waited for Israelis to die before answering Pal-
estinian small arms fire with tank shells and artillery,
including the shelling of civilian neighborhoods in the
West Bank and Gaza.

For these actions and the use of live ammunition
to control demonstrations of unarmed Palestinians,
several international human rights organizations have
condemned Israel for use of excessive force. The UN
Security Council passed a similar condemnation, from
which the US abstained, and on October 20, the UN
General Assembly approved a resolution condemning
Israel. Israel, the US and four Polynesian island na-
tions voted no, and a third of the assembly abstained.
Despite a truce agreement at Sharm al-Sheikh, a later
agreement to quell violence between Arafat and Shi-
mon Peres and Bill Clinton’s attempts to restart nego-
tiations in January 2001, the second intifada did not
look like it would end soon. In December 2000, Barak
called early elections for prime minister to forestall a
likely vote of no confidence in the Knesset. He will
face Ariel Sharon in the February 6 election. To date
over 350 people, about 90 percent of them Palestinian,
have been killed in the violence. While the outcome
of the uprising is very unclear, it is probably impos-
sible to resume the Oslo peace process without major
modifications to its basic framework. The Palestinian
street has definitively rejected Oslo, and top officials
of the PA now say that UN resolutions must form the
basis of future final status talks.