The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most complex, controversial and long-running conflicts in world history, characterised by intense violence and uncompromising nationalism.
Since the late 19th century, the disputed territory in the Middle East has been the scene of frequent clashes and desperate attempts by both sides to forge their own nation-state.
Rarely has a territorial dispute such as this impassioned politicians, activists, and the public alike, yet years later and despite numerous attempts at peace, the conflict continues.
1. The conflict is not a religious one, but rather more about land
Despite being commonly portrayed as a divisive clash between Islam and Judaism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one rooted in competing nationalism and territorial claims.
The 19th century saw an increased sense of nationalism in Europe, with countless nations calling for their own independent states. Among the politicians and thinkers advocating nationalism was Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist who called for the creation of a state for Jews. Today, he is considered as the founding father of Zionism.
Palestinians, having been controlled first by the Ottomans and then colonised by the British, had too long desired an independent and autonomous Palestinian state. Consequently, the conflict was one centred around colliding and fervent ideas of nationalism, with each side failing to recognise the legitimacy of the other’s claim.
2. Despite recent conflicts, Palestine was once characterised by multiculturalism and tolerance
During the Ottoman period, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived, for the most part, harmoniously together. Contemporary accounts tell of Muslims reciting prayers with their Jewish neighbours, allowing them to collect water before the Sabbath, and even sending their children to Jewish schools so that they might learn to behave properly. Marriages and relations between Jews and Arabs were also not unheard of.
Despite Muslims accounting for almost 87% of the population, a collective Palestinian identity was emerging during this time that transcended religious divisions.
3. Issues and divisions began during the British Mandatory period
Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One, Britain took control of its Palestinian territories in a period known as the British Mandate. During this time the British created different institutions for Muslims, Christians, and Jews which stunted communication and encouraged a growing divide between the groups.
Additionally, as laid out in the Balfour Declaration, the British facilitated the immigration of European Jews to Palestine. This marked a significant change in relations between the two groups, and in the period between 1920-1939 the Jewish population increased by over 320,000.
Unlike Palestinian Jews, the European Jews did not share a common lived experience with their Muslim and Arab neighbours – instead they spoke Yiddish and brought with them their own cultures and ideas.
The growing tension is reflected in a statement by Palestinian activist Ghada Karmi:
“We knew they were different from ‘our Jews’… We saw them as foreigners who came from Europe more than as Jews.”
This in turn contributed to the rise of Palestinian nationalism, resulting in a failed revolt against the British in 1936.
4. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War was a turning point in the conflict
In 1948, after years of increasing tensions and a failed attempt to partition Palestine into two states by the UN, war broke out between Israel on one side and a coalition of Arab nations on the other.
It was during this time that Israel made their Declaration of Independence, formally establishing the state of Israel. The day after has been officially declared ‘Nabka Day’ by Palestinians, meaning ‘Day of Catastrophe’. After 9 months of heavy fighting, Israel emerged victorious, controlling more land than before.
For Israelis this signified the beginning of their nation-state and the realisation of their long-held desire for a Jewish homeland. For Palestinians though, it was the beginning of the end, leaving many stateless. Around 700,000 Palestinians were displaced during the war, fleeing to neighbouring Arab countries.
5. The First Intifada was the first organised Palestinian uprising
Beginning in 1987, the First Intifada saw the organisation of wide-spread Palestinian civil disobedience and active resistance, in reaction to what Palestinians claimed to be years of Israeli mistreatment and repression.
The Palestinians employed several tactics during the uprising, leveraging their economic and political power, including a boycott of Israeli institutions and a refusal to pay Israeli taxes or work on Israeli settlements.
However, more violent methods such as the throwing of stones and Molotov Cocktails at the IDF and Israeli infrastructure were widespread.
The Israeli reaction was harsh. Curfews were enforced, Palestinian homes demolished, and water supplies limited. 1,962 Palestinians and 277 Israelis were killed during the troubles.
The First Intifada has been heralded as a time when the Palestinian people were able to organise themselves independent of their leadership, and gained widespread media coverage with Israel facing condemnation for their disproportionate use of force. A second and far more violent Intifada would follow in 2000.
6. Palestine is governed by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas
As set out by the Oslo Accords of 1993, the Palestinian National Authority was granted governing control over parts of Gaza and the West Bank. Today Palestine is governed by two competing bodies – The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) largely controls the West Bank, whilst Hamas has hold of Gaza.
In 2006, Hamas won a majority in the Legislative Council Elections. Since then a fractured relationship between the two factions has led to violence, with Hamas seizing control of Gaza in 2007.
This growing anger and frustration came to a head in 1987 when a civilian car collided with an Israel Defense Forces truck. Four Palestinians died, sparking a tidal wave of protests.
7. Excluding East Jerusalem, over 400,000 Jewish settlers are living in West Bank settlements
Under international law these settlements are deemed illegal as they encroach on Palestinian land, with many Palestinians arguing that they infringe on their human rights and freedom of movement. Israel however vigorously disputed the illegality of the settlements, with claims that Palestine is not a state.
The issue of Jewish settlements is one of the main roadblocks to peace in the region, with many Palestinians forced from their homes as Israeli settlers are moved in. Palestinian President Abas previously stated that peace talks will not be held unless the building of settlements halts.
8. The Clinton talks were the closest both sides have come to forging peace – yet they failed
Peace talks between the two conflicting states have been ongoing for years without success, including at the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995. In July 2000, President Bill Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to a summit meeting at Camp David, Maryland. After a promising start, the talks broke down.
In December 2000, Clinton published his ‘Parameters’ – a guideline to resolving the conflict. Both sides agreed to the guidelines – with some reservations – and issued a statement saying that they had never been closer to an agreement. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, both sides were unable to reach a compromise.
9. The West Bank barrier was built in 2002
During the Second Intifada, the West Bank wall was built separating the Israeli and Palestinian territories. The fence has been described as a security measure by Israel, preventing the movement of arms, terrorists, and people into Israeli territory, however Palestinians view it more as a racial segregation or apartheid wall.
Earlier in 1994, a similar construction was built separating Israel and Gaza for the same reasons. However, Palestinians claimed the wall did not follow the borders set out after the 1967 war and was essentially a shameless land grab.
Both Palestine and human rights organisations have also argued that the barriers violate human rights by restricting freedom of movement.
10. The Trump Administration attempted a new peace deal
Trump’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan was unveiled in 2019 outlining a huge $50bn investment in the Palestinian territories. However, despite its ambitious promises, the plan ignored the central issue of Palestinian statehood and avoided other contentious points such as settlements, the return of refugees, and future security measures.
Despite being dubbed the deal of century, many believed it demanded too few concessions of Israel and too many restrictions of Palestine, and was duly rejected by the latter.
11. Further escalations in the violence threaten war
In May 2021, new conflicts arose following days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at a holy hilltop site in East Jerusalem, revered by both Jews and Muslims as sacred. Hamas issued the Israeli police an ultimatum, which when left unmet was followed by the launching of rockets, with a total of 1,000 fired into Israel by Palestinian militants over the coming days.
In retaliation hundreds of Israeli air strikes on Gaza followed, destroying three tower blocks and killing a number of high-up Hamas officials alongside dozens of civilians. In towns with mixed Jewish and Arab populations mass unrest broke out causing hundreds of arrests, with Lod near Tel Aviv declaring a state of emergency.
With the easing of tensions unlikely, the UN fears a ‘full scale war’ between the two sides may loom on the horizon.