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Early History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A peaceful solution to one of the world's most intractable conflicts has proven elusive for decades

By Beth Rowen

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu


Yasir Arafat

Palestinian Liberation Organization Leader Yasir Arafat



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Few international disputes have generated as much emotion, passion, anguish, and diplomatic gridlock as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rooted in decades of clashes over religion, borders, and territory, the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians has engulfed scores of politicians, diplomats, and others in a peace process in which the ultimate goal has been tantalizingly close on numerous occasions only to be dismantled at the 11th hour. While the tortured history of the conflict dates back more than a century, this article covers the conflict beginning in 1948, when the state of Israel was declared. For detailed information about the early history of the region, see Palestine.

The Partition of Palestine and the Formation of Modern Israel

As part of the 19th-century Zionist movement, Jews had begun settling in Palestine as early as 1820. The effort to establish a Jewish homeland received British approval in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. During the 1930s, Jews persecuted by the Hitler regime poured into Palestine. The post-World WarII acknowledgment of the Holocaust—Hitler's genocide of 6 million Jews—increased international interest in and sympathy for the cause of Zionism. The British mandate to govern Palestine, which had been in place since 1923, ended after the war, and, in 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a small international zone. Arabs rejected the idea, but the plan moved forward and the British officially withdrew on May 14, 1948, and the Jewish National Council proclaimed the State of Israel.

Hostilities broke out almost immediately after the state of Israel was proclaimed. Neighboring Arab nations invaded, intent on crushing the newly declared State of Israel. Israel emerged victorious, affirming its sovereignty. By the cease-fire on Jan. 7, 1949, Israel had increased its original territory by 50%, taking western Galilee, a broad corridor through central Palestine to Jerusalem, and part of modern Jerusalem. The new border is called the Green Line. As many as 750,000 Palestinians either flee or are forced from Israel and settle in refugee camps near Israel's border. The status of the refugees goes on to become a sticking point in further Arab-Israeli relations. The Palestinian defeat and exodus is known as the Nakba, or disaster.

Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion became Israel's first president and prime minister. The new government was admitted to the UN on May 11, 1949. The remaining areas of Palestine were divided between Transjordan (now Jordan), which annexed the West Bank, and Egypt, which gained control of the Gaza Strip. Through a series of political and social policies, Jordan sought to consolidate its control over the political future of Palestinians and to become their speaker. Jordan even extended citizenship to Palestinians in 1949.

Israel Expands Territory in a Series of Wars

The next clash with Arab neighbors came when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 and barred Israeli shipping. Coordinating with an Anglo-French force, Israeli troops seized the Gaza Strip and drove through the Sinai to the east bank of the Suez Canal, but withdrew under U.S. and UN pressure.

In the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Israel, over a period of six days, defeated the military forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and annexed the territories of East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and all of the Sinai Peninsula, expanding its territory by 200%. On November 22, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, the "land for peace" formula, which has been the starting point for further negotiations. The resolution called for "the establishment of a just and lasting peace" in the Middle East based on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from territories occupied in 1967 in return for the end of all states of belligerency, respect for the sovereignty of all states in the area, and the right to live in peace within secure, recognized boundaries.

The peace was short-lived, however, and violence continued along the Suez Canal. In April 1969, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser declared the 1967 cease-fire void along the canal, and the War of Attrition began. Neither the Eyptians nor the Israelis emerged victorious, and a cease-fire was signed in August 1970.

In the face of Israeli reluctance even to discuss the return of occupied territories, the fourth Arab-Israeli war erupted on Oct. 6, 1973, with a surprise Egyptian and Syrian assault on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. Initial Arab gains were reversed when a cease-fire took effect two weeks later, but Israel suffered heavy losses.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), formed in 1964, was a terrorist organization bent on Israel's annihilation. Palestinian rioting, demonstrations, and terrorist acts against Israelis became chronic. In 1974, PLO leader Yasir Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly, the first stateless government to do so.

Peace Treaty with Egypt Brings Temporary Calm to Mideast

A dramatic breakthrough in the tortuous history of Mideast peace efforts occurred on Nov. 9, 1977, when Egypt's president Anwar Sadat declared his willingness to talk about reconciliation. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on Nov. 15, extended an invitation to the Egyptian leader to address the Knesset in Jerusalem. Sadat's arrival in Israel four days later raised worldwide hopes, but an agreement between Egypt and Israel was long in coming. On March 14, 1979, the Knesset approved a final peace treaty, and 12 days later, Begin and Sadat signed the document, together with President Jimmy Carter, in a White House ceremony. Israel began its withdrawal from the Sinai, which it had annexed from Egypt, on May 25.

Although Israel withdrew its last settlers from the Sinai in April 1982, the fragile Mideast peace was shattered on June 9, 1982, by a massive Israeli assault on southern Lebanon, where the Palestinian Liberation Organization was entrenched. The PLO had long plagued Israelis with acts of terrorism. Israel destroyed PLO strongholds in Tyre and Sidon and reached the suburbs of Beirut on June 10. A U.S.-mediated accord between Lebanon and Israel, signed on May 17, 1983, provided for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel eventually withdrew its troops from the Beirut area but kept them in southern Lebanon, where occasional skirmishes would continue. Lebanon, under pressure from Syria, canceled the accord in March 1984.

Jewish Settlements Increase Tension Between Israelis and Palestinians

A continual source of tension has been the relationship between the Jews and the Palestinians living within Israeli territories. Most Arabs fled the region when the state of Israel was declared, but those who remained make up almost one-fifth of the population of Israel. They are about two-thirds Muslim, as well as Christian and Druze. Palestinians living on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip fomented the riots begun in 1987, known as the intifada. Violence heightened as Israeli police cracked down and Palestinians retaliated. More than 20,000 people are killed in the fighting. Continuing Jewish settlement of lands designated for Palestinians has added to the unrest.

In 1988, Arafat reversed decades of PLO polemic by acknowledging Israel's right to exist. He stated his willingness to enter negotiations to create a Palestinian political entity that would coexist with the Israeli state.

Israelis and Palestinians Sign the Oslo Accord

In 1991, the U.S. and Soviet Union organized the Madrid Conference, in which Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Palestinian leaders met to establish a framework for peace negotiations. Included in the discussions were proposals for Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and a plan for economic growth in the region.

In 1993, highly secretive talks in Norway between the PLO and the Israeli government resulted in the Oslo Accord. The accord stipulated a five-year plan in which Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would gradually become self-governing. On Sept. 13, 1993, Arafat and Israeli prime minister Rabin signed the historic "Declaration of Principles." As part of the agreement, Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip and Jericho in the West Bank in 1994. The Palestinian Authority (PA), with Arafat as its elected leader, took control of the newly non-Israeli-occupied areas, assuming all governmental duties.

Further progress followed in 1994, when on October 26 Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a historic peace treaty ending the state of belligerency between the two countries. A phrase in the agreement, however, calling the king the "custodian" of Islamic holy shrines in Jerusalem angered the PLO. In the wake of the agreement, Jordan's relations with the U.S. and with the moderate Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, warmed.

On Nov. 4, 1995, Prime Minister Rabin was slain by a Jewish extremist, jeopardizing the tentative progress toward peace. Shimon Peres succeeded him until May 1996 elections for the Knesset gave Israel a new hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by a razor-thin margin. Netanyahu reversed or stymied much of the Oslo Accord, contending that it offered too many quick concessions and jeopardized Israelis' safety.

Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in 1997 were repeatedly undermined by both sides. Although the Hebron Accord was signed in January, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron, the construction of new Jewish settlements on the West Bank in March profoundly upsets progress toward peace.

Progress Toward Peace Inconsistent

Terrorism erupted again in 1997 when radical Hamas suicide bombers claimed the lives of more than 20 Israeli civilians. Netanyahu, accusing Palestinian Authority president Arafat of lax security, retaliated with draconian sanctions against Palestinians working in Israel, including the withholding of millions of dollars in tax revenue, a blatant violation of the Oslo Accord. Netanyahu also persisted in authorizing right-wing Israelis to build new settlements in mostly Arab East Jerusalem. Arafat, meanwhile, seemed unwilling or unable to curb the violence of Arab extremist.

An Oct. 1998 summit at Wye Mills, Md., generated the first real progress in the stymied Middle East peace talks in 19 months, with Netanyahu and Arafat settling several important interim issues called for by the 1993 Oslo Accord. The Wye peace agreement, however, began unraveling almost immediately. By the end of April 1999, Israel had made 41 air raids on Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The guerrillas were fighting against Israeli troops and their allies, the South Lebanon Army militia, who occupied a security zone set up in 1985 to guard Israel's borders. Public pressure in Israel to withdraw the troops grew.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak won the 1999 election and announced that he planned not only to pursue peace with the Palestinians, but to establish relations with Syria and end the low-grade war in southern Lebanon with the Iranian-armed Hezbollah guerrillas. In Dec. 1999, Israeli-Syrian talks resumed after a nearly four-year hiatus. By Jan. 2000, however, talks had broken down over Syria's demand for a detailed discussion of the return of all of the Golan Heights. In Feb., new Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon led to Israel's retaliatory bombing as well as Barak's decision to pull out of Lebanon. Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon on May 24, 2000, after 18 consecutive years of occupation.

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