The Missing Puzzle Pieces of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
I’d like to start this piece with a disclaimer: no one can be expected to know absolutely every single detail of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everything I write will have a counterclaim and more evidence or context I omitted. As a student of political science and history, my grasp on the extraordinarily complex geopolitical situation spanning centuries is as good as it can be for a twenty year old from New York. And as a Jewish journalist, I feel compelled to add my voice and address a crucial problem in the reporting of this conflict.
Sometimes it's okay for journalists to provide a small snapshot of a larger issue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the time for that. Every article on the matter should have historical context, detail on the present ongoing, and equal perspectives. That last bit is tricky, but crucial.
Americans are currently missing so many of the puzzle pieces requisite to understand the fuller picture of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In this article, I will do my best to sum up the entire history of the conflict stretching back thousands of years in as few words as possible and explain why this historical context is so crucial.
By now you might have read a lot of articles on the issue. Perhaps you have not read any. I promise this one will be worth your time. Give me a few minutes and I’ll give you valuable information. I’m not an expert, but I’ve done my research, so I include a wealth of hyperlinks to resources I used in the creation of this piece. Please also use them yourself. I offer you my good intentions and earnest commitment to better your understanding of the world we live in.
A Terribly Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Under 1,500 Words
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Judaism is the oldest Abrahamic religion in the world, tracing its roots back to “the land of Canaan,” which includes present day Israel, over four thousand years ago. The Book of Exodus, part of the Old Testament, recounts that the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt were led back to Israel by Moses. In 70 A.D, The Roman Empire expelled all the Israelites from the land they called “Judea'' in what was known as the First Diaspora.
Islam, the youngest Abrahamic religion, was founded in the seventh century. It is believed that in 610 A.D the Prophet Muhammad visited Jerusalem, also the Jewish and Christian religious capital, and prayed before his night journey and ascension to Heaven. The region experienced centuries of rule under Islamic caliphates, and nomads from the Arabian Peninsula settled in present-day Israel.
For centuries, Jews were known as “dhimmi,” second-class citizens nonetheless afforded full legal rights by being “people of the book.” Persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe, especially in the Iberian Peninsula where they had previously coexisted with Muslims and Christians, led to many Jews returning to the Middle East. The Medieval Age also included several Crusades, wars for “the Holy Land” of Jerusalem and Israel, which marked mass bloodshed and persecution for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike in Europe and the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire took control of the region in the fourteenth century and provided regional stability and important achievements for hundreds of years. Muslims and Jews coexisted in a state of relative harmony unseen in any part of Europe during the same period. The Reconquista was completed by the Spanish Empire in 1492 to expel all Muslims living in the Iberian Peninsula, forcing them to flee to the Middle East
Flash forward to 1917. The British issued the Balfour Declaration, stating their desire to take the land known as Palestine (then under Ottoman control with a small Jewish minority) and establish “a national home for the Jewish people.” The declaration also called for safeguarding the civil and religious rights for the Palestinian Arabs, who composed the vast majority of the local population as well as the rights and political status of the Jewish communities in other countries outside of Palestine.
Britain became the first political power to publicly support Zionism, the movement for the reestablishment, development, and protection of a Jewish homeland in Israel that saw a revival spurred by Theodore Herzl in 1897. However, this meant the British reneged on promises of independence to Palestinian Arabs in 1915 and international rule to the French in 1916. The land remained under the British Mandate, a system of colonialism and forced occupation, depriving Palestinian Arabs of sovereignty and many political rights, until after WWII.
Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor in 1933 with anti-semitic agenda to unite all German people in Europe and form a ultra-powerful nation. Decades of persecution, from Kristallnacht to the Anschluss, led to the forced migration and eventual systematic killings of Jews all over Europe. Every single nation in the world (except Switzerland, the Netherlands, China, and Britain who at some point each had specific programs supporting Jewish migration) barred their doors almost completely from Jewish migration, fearing a wave of anti-semitic backlash and the inability to take care of their own. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, suggested an executive order to expand the quota system restricting refugees and immigrants fleeing Nazi rule. Roosevelt responded with a short note-- Do not file.
In 1947, the newly-formed United Nations voted on Resolution 181 known as the “Partition Resolution” or “two-state solution” that divided the land into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with international control of Jerusalem. Western nations and the Soviet Union supported the plan, which passed 33-13 while all Arab nations opposed it. When British troops left the land at the expiration of their mandate on May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence. Palestinian Arabs fled and in the first Arab-Israeli War, the Israeli army fought against the Palestinian army and other Arab nations’ armies until 1949. Israel gained control of some of the land the UN had granted to the Arab state, but Egypt controlled Gaza and Jordan controlled the West Bank.
13,000 Palestinians were killed and over 750,000 forced to leave their homes, known as Nakba or “the catastrophe.” The international community recognized the fighting as an ethnic cleansing. Israelis felt the fighting was self defense and necessary to protect their right to exist in a sovereign state after being attacked. Since the creation of Israel, Palestinians have faced unequal treatment and discrimination including, but not limited to, blackouts, land and sea blockades, evictions, limited access to education, restriction of movement and goods, and Palestinian identification cards. The situation is often called one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time.
For a number of reasons, including complex colonial borders to a lack of political leadership, Palestinians were unable to form their own sovereign state in either the Gaza Strip or the West Bank after 1949. Israel, of course, remained the largest actor preventing the formation of Palestine. A mass exodus forced Palestinians out of their homes in favor of Israel settlements until 1956, when Israel invaded Egypt for nationalizing the Suez Canal. Yet Palestinian leadership was not well organized, and colonial actors such as Britain, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria did not provide the support that could have made a sovereign Palestine possible. Palestinians still maintained legitimacy and international recognition that they too had the right to a homeland.
In 1967, Israel once again fought against its neighboring Arab nations. Israel preemptively attacked Egypt for blocking a key trade route, and within six days it had seized the West Bank, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula, known to Palestinians as Naksa or “the setback.” The leaders of the Arab nations were humiliated, their militaries crippled, and the casualties they faced were heavy. Israel received greater international support and security afterwards, including significant military funding from the United States.
In 1972, Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization attacked the Israeli Olympic team in West Germany, killing eleven athletes and coaches. Israel responded with a targeted campaign of assassinations and bombings of the groups responsible. One year later, a coalition of nations led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, a holy Jewish holiday marked by rest and fasting, which coincided with Ramadan, the holy month of Islam characterized by a similar tradition of fasting and prayer. The Arab nations took Israel by surprise in their goal of reclaiming occupied territories, but Israel defeated their military advances at the cost of heavy casualties.
The Yom Kippur War did lead to a decade of disengagement deals, territorial returns, and peace treaties mostly brokered between Egyptian President Anwar Saddat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Camp David Accords in 1978 were signed by Saddat, Begin, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter as a first step towards working for peace. Another major breakthrough occurred in 1993 when the President of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (the authority that serves as a governing body for Palestinians) Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo I Accord, which renewed a commitment to establish a multilateral framework for peace. The State of Israel also officially recognized the PLO and the PLO responded in turn. The followup Oslo II Accord in 1995 envisioned a Palestinian interim-self government in control of three zones.
The peace treaties, though promising on paper, never materialized in reality. In 2005, Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip and returned it to the PLO. Within two years, Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, took control of the land. Hamas had been launching protests and attacks known as Intifada or “shaking off '' against Israel for three decades in response to a lack of international concern for Palestinians’ plight. The conflict in the last decade has been defined by asymmetrical fighting between the two sides, disputes over Israeli settlements and institutional discrimination in Palestinian occupied areas, and occasional intensification of the violence as in 2014.
And so that brings us to the present day. After 11 days of violence, Israel and the PLO signed a ceasefire on May 20, 2021. On June 15, Israel broke the terms of the truce and bombed the Gaza Strip, reigniting tensions. Here I will leave an explanation of the fighting and current situation to the actual experts. Use this New York Times Morning Letter, this BBC explanation, this Reuters piece, this Al Jazeera article, and this Jerusalem Post opinion piece. Note how I compiled a variety of American, British, Israeli, Arab, and academic research journals throughout the article. Not once did I use an Instagram story or Tweet, which were rife with lies and misinformation, as a valid form of objective information for this issue. I encourage you to do the same.
Why Historical Context Matters
Every event throughout the entire history of the conflict is tangential. They are woven together through a web of bloodshed, sacrifice, and human progress that cannot be discounted. Peace negotiations have been ongoing throughout most of our lifetime, so it is natural to wonder why we have yet to find a solution. Knowing this historical context in full can provide an answer for that reasonable question. Although this situation remains complicated, having the full understanding of these events should aid you in making your own conclusions.
I did not want to taint this piece with any of my internal biases. We all have them. I could have included commentary on each event and detail, but that would have blurred the lines of objectivity. Fortunately, I've been the co-editor-in-chief of this wonderful publication for over a year, so I have a bit of experience with nonpartisanship and providing our readers with a space to form their own opinions.
So with that, I hope I was able to provide you with additional pieces to understand the complicated puzzle that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a situation that requires restraint and nuance. The actions of Israel do not represent the views of all Jewish people, and the actions of Palestine do not represent the views of all Muslim people. There is no place for hate in this debate. There is no black and white, only a hazy grey from the smoke of toppled buildings and lives lost. And it is certainly not going away anytime soon. My Israeli friend lost a friend serving in the IDF in May. My Jordanian friend told me his family had to leave the West Bank many years ago. There is no right and wrong in this conflict, just real people dealing with the consequences. The narrative needs to reflect that.