Explained: Why is a solution to Israel-Palestine so complicated?
The growing humanitarian crisis in Israel-Palestine has (again) caught the world's attention. Nearly 250 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes since the latest escalation on May 10. Everyone is looking for a solution to end this decades-old crisis. But to find a solution, one needs to know the history of Israel-Palestine first. Here's all you need to know.
Israel-Palestine fell under the Ottoman Empire until its collapse after World War I. According to an 1878 census, the population was 87% Muslim, 10% Christian, and 3% Jewish, who lived in harmony. Post-WWI, Britain and France divided territories in the Middle-East. The British Mandate for Palestine was carved out and the land was later split into Palestine—which now includes both Israel and Palestine—and Jordan.
Around the same time, in the then-Austro-Hungarian Empire, secular Austrian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl started a nationalist movement for a Jewish state, Zionism. Due to anti-Semitism in European nations, the Jews were convinced they could not survive settling into another country. They believed Judaism is not just a religion, but a nationality, and demanded a separate Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jews.
Jews trace their origins to the land back to the biblical kingdoms of David and Solomon, around 950 BC. However, the Palestinians claim their ancestry is tied to Canaanites, Jebusites, and others mentioned in the Bible. Both are Abrahamic religions and are hence tied to the same land. The city of Jerusalem is also home to key holy sites of both Islam and Judaism.
In 1917, under the Balfour Declaration, Britain announced the establishment of a home for the Jews in Palestine. Notably, this is before WWI ended and Britain had already promised the land to both the Jews and the Arabs, according to an interpretation of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. The British later refuted this interpretation. Jewish people then started migrating to the Palestinian land.
The Jews in Europe were facing genocide (the Holocaust) during World War II. Amid the genocide and anti-Semitic sentiments, Britain limited Jewish migration to Palestine, leaving them nowhere else to go. By the 1940s, lakhs of Jews had moved into Palestine, which led to tensions with the existing inhabitants. The Palestinians revolted but were suppressed by the British and the Jewish militia.
In 1939, Britain issued a White Paper, calling for the formation of an independent Arab-Jewish state in 10 years. The British rule had already caused tensions between the Arabs and the Jews. After WWII ended, the British left a resolution to the issue to the United Nations. The UN voted to partition the territory into scattered regions of Palestine and Israel in 1948.
While the Jews accepted the UN's plan, the Palestinians rejected it, which led to war. The Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria also fought against Israel, albeit not to defend the Palestinians. Israel won against the Palestinians and the Arabs in 1949, occupying more territory. Jordan claimed the West Bank region of Palestine, while Egypt took Gaza.
Several Palestinians lost their home in the war and an estimated 7 lakh were displaced in the exodus, becoming refugees in other nations. The Israelis remember the war as the day they got their ancestral homeland. The Palestinians remember it as al Nakba ("The Catastrophe").
Another war in 1967 struck a blow to the Palestinians as Israel claimed East Jerusalem, home to Islam's third holiest site: the al-Aqsa mosque. It is also home to Judaism's holiest site: Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Jerusalem itself is believed to be the site where Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Israel also captured most of the Syrian Golan Heights, Gaza, and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.
Since the 1967 war, famously called the Six-Day War, Palestinians have lived under Israeli military control (except in Gaza since 2005 after Israel's withdrawal). Israel started forming settlements in the West Bank to assert its claim to the region and hinder any future withdrawal. International law states these settlements are illegal. Israel disputes it. The United Nations objected to Israel's actions, but nothing happened.
In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed to free Palestine from Israeli control through armed struggle. The Palestinian frustration gave way to the first intifida (uprising) in the 1980s. It began with protests and boycotts and soon turned violent as Israel started cracking down. A few hundred Israelis and over a thousand Palestinians died. The period saw a rise in militancy.
In 1987, Islamist fundamentalist party, Hamas was born. Hamas grew popular for its militancy, but it helped build schools, mosques, etc., in Gaza. It deemed the PLO too secular. The PLO and the semi-autonomous Palestinian National Authority (PA) government are controlled by the secular nationalist political party Fatah. The PA (governing West Bank) and Hamas (Gaza) fail to find a common voice.
In the 1990s, the Oslo Accords were signed, which established the Palestinian Authority and allowed self-governance in some areas. However, this period is punctuated by the second intifada, triggered by Israeli politician (soon-to-be Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon's armed visit to the Temple Mount. The second intifada went on from 2000-2005 and led to the deaths of over 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis.
Although Israel withdrew from Gaza (now under Hamas control), both Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade, turning Gaza into an "open-air prison." Israel has eased the blockade over time, but the obstruction of basic supplies like fuel impacts electricity, food, and medicine. In the West Bank (under part-PA, part-Israeli control), Palestinians live under military occupation. Security checkpoints keep them away from Israeli settlements.
Barriers demarcating Israel-Palestine borders were placed well into the West Bank, cutting some Palestinians from accessing their own agricultural lands. Israel justifies its actions as means to counter Palestinian terrorism. An April Human Rights Watch report details Israel's crimes of "apartheid and persecution."
During the holy month of Ramadan/Ramzan, Israeli police prevented Palestinians from gathering near East Jerusalem (supposed to belong to Palestine, but claimed by Israel). Protests turned violent and the police stormed a compound that houses the holy al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinians were also evicted from the Arab majority Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Jerusalem Day celebrations on May 9-10 to commemorate the Six-Day War also heightened tensions.
As Palestinian protests continued to be suppressed, Hamas fired rockets. Israel neutralized most rockets and retaliated. In the first week alone, 200 Palestinians, including 59 children, were killed. Israel also bombed a building in Gaza housing the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. Journalists were given an hour's evacuation notice. Israel claims all attacks targeted militants, including those hiding among civilians.
Israel and Palestine (PA and Hamas) have yet to adhere to a solution to share the disputed territory, particularly Jerusalem. Decades of conflict has also led to a deep distrust of the neighbor. Whether the Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory should stay or be removed also presents a hurdle. Meanwhile, refugees of the Palestinian exodus are yet to find justice and cannot return home.