The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often seen as the defining struggle of the Near East, and while it remains a significant factor, it is part of a larger regional context involving religious, political, and cultural clashes.
The Holy Land is significant to the three Abrahamic faiths for different reasons. For the Jewish people, the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, Israel is core to their identity and represents their origin and historic homeland for millennia, both as free people and under foreign rule, until their expulsion after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132AD when the last group of Jewish rebels failed in their attempt to overthrow Roman rule. Thus began the Jewish diaspora and the renaming of the land to “Palaestina” by the Romans. After their expulsion, Jews became a minority in the land although their presence remained throughout history and Jewish prayer and literature always made reference to the longing and hope of returning to the land someday. After the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, the Ottoman Empire conquered the territory in 1517 and ruled it until the British came in 1917 nearing the end of World War I. Following the Sykes-Picot agreement in which Britain and France divided up the Near East for their rule, the Holy Land became the British Mandate of Palestine until 1948 when the modern Jewish State of Israel was established.
Some scholars contend that Palestinian identity developed in the twentieth century as a reaction to the growing Jewish presence in Palestine. In the late 1800s until the late 1930s, growing antisemitism caused mass waves of Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine as Jews sought to return to their ancient homeland and flee persecution. Noting the concerning wave of antisemitism, Jewish journalist Theodore Herzl argued that the only way Jews could remain safe from persecution was self-determination — if they had their own Jewish State. In 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration which was the first formal declaration from a sovereign nation supporting the Jewish right to self-determination in their ancient homeland. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, clashes between Arabs and Jews were frequent. The local Arab population in Palestine felt threatened by the changing demographics, and their sense of Palestinian nationalism and identity was fortified. Palestinian riots broke out to end Jewish immigration and establish self-rule. In 1937, Palestinians rejected a British proposal, The Peel Commission, to partition the land between the Jewish and Arab population. Unable to squelch the ongoing conflict, the British handed over the issue to the United Nations.
In 1947, the UN issued a Partition Plan to divide the land between Jews and Arabs. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, while the Arabs unanimously rejected it. With the status of the land unresolved, the last of the British troops pulled out and Jewish leaders declared Israeli independence on May 14, 1948. Within 24 hours, five Arab armies (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) attacked Israel. Although outnumbered, Israel defeated the Arab armies and thus the War of Independence, or Nakbe (catastrophe in Arabic) was completed.
In the subsequent years after 1948, violent political upheavals took place with most of Israel’s Arab neighbors. In 1967, Israel preemptively attacked Egypt after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran (considered an act of war), called for Israel’s destruction over the radio, and ordered Egyptian troops to aggregate in the Sinai. The “Six Day War” was over in less than a week, and Israel made major territorial gains including the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Following the war, Arab leaders resolved to reject any recognition, peace, or negotiations with the State of Israel. Shortly thereafter, Israel was engaged in another war, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, hoping to win back territory they lost in 1967. Although Israel suffered many casualties, they managed to deter Arab armies until a UN-brokered ceasefire went into effect. The war ultimately paved the way for the historic Israel-Egypt peace agreement. Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel when in 1979 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. As a result, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League.
In December 1987, Palestinians launched the First Intifada against Israel, ultimately localizing the conflict directly between Israelis and Palestinians (instead of other major Arab states) and bringing prominence and acceptance by the Palestinian people of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yasser Arafat. The PLO was established in 1964 as the representative body of the Palestinian people and considered a terrorist organization by Israel.
In 1991, the Madrid Conference became the first time Israelis, Palestinians, and other participating Arab nations convened together in person to outline a future roadmap for reconciliation. The bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations eventually led to the historic signing of the Declaration of Principles (Oslo I) in 1993, which established mutual recognition by both parties and granted the creation of a Palestinian interim self-government by the Palestinian Authority until permanent status negotiations took place. Oslo II divided the West Bank into three areas, giving the Palestinian Authority autonomy over Area A and civil control of Area B (with Israeli security control). Israel would maintain both civil and security control of Area C. Oslo II was intended to lead to further permanent status negotiations but any momentum gained was lost shortly after the accords were signed. Instead of ushering in an era of peace, Oslo II brought about one of the most violent periods in Israeli-Palestinian history. In September 2000, Palestinian militants declared a Second Intifada and began a series of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians. The intifada lasted for five years and left 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead. The violence ultimately destroyed the peace movement in Israel, and drastically changed Israeli perception of Palestinians, who they no longer saw as serious partners for peace. Since then, Israel has put an emphasis on security over anything else. Attempts at revisiting peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have occurred scarcely since Oslo, including the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the Abbas-Olmert talks in 2008.
Thousands of lives have been lost to violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict– whether it be as an effect of war, military operations, or terrorism. But there are many other implications both internal and external.
To begin with, the 1948 war created 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Because the UN has designated special status to Palestinian refugees that allows them to pass on their refugee status to their children, there are an estimated 5 million in the world today.
The implications of growing up in a conflict zone are wide-ranging and both Palestinians and Israelis suffer from PTSD, depression, and anxiety as a result of the ongoing conflict (particularly those in/from volatile areas such as Gaza or southern Israel). The conflict has also specifically impacted the Israeli psyche to value security as the primary objective. Ever since its modern rebirth, Israel has been under attack, which has prevented its ability to integrate into the Near East.
The external implications of the conflict center around domestic and foreign policy. The West is becoming increasingly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In European countries specifically, this division has been substantiated by the evident and growing animosity toward Israel. Campaigns like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seek to end international support for Israel, have gained support across college campuses worldwide. In the East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created a de facto policy of Arab opposition to Israel as an outcome of Israel’s establishment.
We support Jewish security and self-determination in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; we also support Palestinian security and self- determination in the same area. Broadly, then, we support some variant of the two-state solution – ideally a Jewish state with a Palestinian minority and a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority – although we are open to new approaches that recognize both Jewish and Palestinian rights, including innovative ideas about confederation. We adamantly oppose those who deny the connection of Jews or Palestinians to the land, or who call for violence against the other. Both the Jewish state and the Palestinian state should be democratic and pluralistic.
We believe that the Jewish nation is an indigenous nation of the Near East with a right to live in its ancient homeland. We believe that the State of Israel is a legitimate expression of Jewish nationhood. We also believe that Israel has the right to defend itself, as well as the obligation to protect its citizens regardless of race, creed, or color. Our support for Israel’s legitimacy does not imply support for any particular party, ministry, legislative or executive action, or public statement issued by any government official. Israel is a state and should be judged according to the same standards as any other state.
Furthermore, we are encouraged by the détente between Israel and certain Arab states and support the normalization of Israel in the Near East, as an equal member of the region.
Further Resources on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Robert Nicholson proposes ways in which Christians can respond to the plight of Palestinians and support their right to self-determination in his piece in Christianity Today entitled, “Beyond the Nakba: 7 Ways Christians Can Affirm a Positive Future for Palestinians.”
In the first attempt by an Israeli author to directly address his Palestinian neighbors and describe how the conflict appears through Israeli eyes, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbors by Yossi Klevin Halevi beautifully and sensitively untangles the conflict in an attempt to humanize both peoples. Palestinian Christian and Philos Fellow Khalil Sayegh responds to Yossi’s book here.
For a detailed account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the years of the George W. Bush Administration, read Elliot Abram’s Tested by Zion.
For a comprehensive guide to the Arab-Israeli conflict written by AJC CEO David Harris, read Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
- Zionism Was Not a Colonialist Venture—Here’s Why Jewish Review of Books
- Palestine Should Have Jewish Citizens George E. Assousa | Providence Magazine
- Most Palestinians Don’t Want Two States Daniel Polisar | Mosaic Magazine
- Hamas’ Psychological Warfare on Israel Yossi Klein Halevi | The New Republic
- Palestinians Should Understand; Israel Isn’t Leaving Walter Russell Mead | Wall Street Journal
- Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Are Grim Damir Marusic | The American Interest
- How Christians Can Support Palestinians Robert Nicholson | Christianity Today
- The Secret to Israeli-Palestinian Peace Salam Fayyad | Foreign Affairs
- Denial of ‘The Other:’ The Evil Driving the Conflict Yossi Klein Halevi | The Atlantic
- Regional Context Key in Understanding I/P Conflict Matti Friedman | The New York Times
- Eight Steps to Shrink the Conflict Micah Goodman | The Atlantic
- How the 1929 Riots Birthed Conflict in Palestine New Books in Jewish Studies
- Arab and Jews in Israel and Palestine Ian Black | New Books in Israel Studies
- Palestine in the Twentieth Century Salim Tamari | Ottoman History Podcast
- Catch 67 in Israel: A Discussion with Micah Goodman Micah Goodman | The Tikvah Podcast
- Interview: Son of Hamas Turned Israeli Spy Spycast
- A Reflection of Israeli Independence Day A Reflection of Israeli Independence Day
- Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life Sari Nusseibeh
- The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace Dennis Ross
- Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Elliott Abrams
- Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor Yossi Klein Halevi
- The Arab Awakening: The Story Of The Arab National Movement George Antonius
- Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn Daniel Gordis
- Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War Micah Goodman
Judah Ari Gross | The Times of Israel
Steve Holland, Dan Williams | Reuters