The State of Israel came into being in 1948, largely the product of international sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Second World War. Zionists had long argued that Jews could only enjoy security if they had a homeland of their own, and the events of the Holocaust appeared to confirm their arguments, particularly in the United States. However, the Arabs of Palestine bitterly resented the creation of a Jewish State on what they perceived as their homeland. Their anger was intensified as many were forced to flee their homes in the war between Israel and her Arab neighbours which followed Israel’s birth. A Palestinian refugee problem was thus created in the late 1950's which still affects the region today.
In the decades following the creation of the Israel a series of wars were fought between Israel and her neighbours. The Arab states did not recognise Israel’s right to exist, but largely thanks to US support Israel was able to survive successive conflicts. In 1967 Israel achieved a spectacular victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria, leaving her in possession of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These areas have provided the main source of tension in recent decades. The West Bank and Gaza contain a large Palestinian population and it is the status of these territories which is currently at issue.
In the 1970's the peace process between Israel and her Arab neighbours began with Egypt and Israel making peace and Egypt regaining the Sinai as a peace dividend. In the 1990s the focus has shifted towards the creation of a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, but the process has been fraught with difficulty.
The Peace Process in the 1990sEdit
The process of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians began in earnest in 1993 when Yasser Arafat for the Palestinians and Yitzak Rabin for the Israelis concluded an historic agreement. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation for the first time accepted Israel’s right to exist and the Israelis accepted the right of the PLO to speak for the Palestinian people. The Palestinians hoped that this was the beginning of a road which might lead to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, at that time still under Israeli occupation. Interim arrangements were agreed whereby a timetable was set for the step by step handover of responsibilities from Israel to a newly elected Palestinian Authority in these areas. These interim arrangements survived the assassination of Rabin but began to falter in the late 1990s as the status of Jerusalem and the development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza became major barriers to progress.
Developments since 2000Edit
In 2003 a comprehensive peace plan was developed by the UN, the United States, the EU and Russia. The so-called Roadmap envisaged a three stage process:
An end to terrorist violence, a normalisation of Palestinian life and the building of Palestinian institutions, an end to the building of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories,
The creation of a Palestinian state,
A final end of the conflict, with resolution of the remaining areas of dispute (borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements).
The roadmap remains the basis for peace recognized by all the major players, but progress through the stages stalled. Attention then shifted to the programme of the Israeli administration of Ariel Sharon.
Sharon won praise for his withdrawal from Gaza, but other aspects of his policy were highly controversial. He refused to disengage from the West Bank, where Israeli settlements remain. 240,000 Israelis live in 120 settlements which are not recognized under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49) prohibits any occupying power from transplanting its citizens from its territory to occupied land. Israel claims that the Convention does not apply to its settlements as the West Bank was not recognized as being under the legitimate sovereignty of any country in the first place. Whether the growth of the settlements is legitimate under the terms of the roadmap is a source of contention, with the expansion of Maale Adumim to the east of Jerusalem the greatest cause of tension. Critics of Israel accused Sharon of intending to join the settlement with East Jerusalem, isolating the city from other Palestinian territory and making a viable Palestinian state a more remote possibility.Israel’s Security Barrier is source of division. The 420 mile long structure, in places consisting of an 8 metre high concrete wall, has been built according to the Israelis to protect Israel from terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank. The Barrier leaves 6-8% of the West Bank on the Israeli side of the wall and is claimed to be causing severe economic hardship to the Palestinians living in the area. In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled against the Barrier and demanded that it be dismantled, arguing that it was “tantamount to de facto annexation”.
The prospects for a lasting settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians received another blow with the success of Hamas in Palestinian elections in early 2006. In recent years the peace process has been able to make some progress due to the willingness of the Fatah party to recognise the state of Israel. However, the rise of Hamas has transformed the situation; they refuse to recognise Israel or the need to give up the armed struggle, and their success has added additional complications to the peace process. The Palestinian territory is now divided into a Hamas governed Gaza strip and a Fatah governed West Bank.
At the end of 2008 Israel launched a major assault on the Gaza strip in response to rocket attacks on its territory. After three weeks of fighting much of Gaza lay in ruins; between 1166 and 1500 Palestinians were killed, as well as 9 Israelis. The UN Goldstone Report later found that both Hamas and the Israeli military were guilty of war crimes during the conflict. Having concluded its military assault Israel has maintained a strict blockade of Gaza, only allowing limited supplies into the territory. Food and medical supplies are allowed in, but most international observers say that conditions in Gaza are very difficult for ordinary civilians. Egypt has also been criticised, as it maintains restrictions on what can pass through its border with Gaza; Israel defends is ongoing blockade on security grounds. In 2010 Israel’s enforcement of the blockade provoked an international outcry when Israeli forces boarded a flotilla of ships heading for Gaza, an action which resulted in nine deaths.
The election of right wing Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister in 2009 appeared to weaken President Obama’s hopes for a new peace initiative. However, in September 2010 the US administration managed to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. The talks quickly stalled when the Israeli government refused to renew its ban on settlement building in the West Bank, a key demand of the Palestinians. Both sides appear in a weak position, with Netanyahu concerned to maintain support for his fragile coalition government and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas engaged in his ongoing struggle with Hamas.