The constant fighting between Israel and the Palestinians has been going on for decades. How and why did this terrible conflict start? Does the death of Arafat change anything?
– Laura M., Albany, NY
Word War I
The land we know today as Israel and Palestine was ruled for centuries by Egyptians, Assyrians, Israelites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, various Arab empires and until 1917, the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) joined forces with Germany and Austro-Hungary in war against the Allies (Britain, France, Russia ).
During the War, the British Empire promised local Arab rulers in the Middle East that Britain would support Arab independence from their Ottoman-Turkish rulers in return for Arab assistance in fighting the Turks. Anticipating the defeat of the Ottomans, Britain engaged in various treaties and promises with France, Arab rulers and other allies that divided the entire region into specific areas of control by Britain and the Allies.
A Gateway to Egypt
Because the area around Palestine was a traditional gateway to Egypt, Britain had deep concerns about having an unreliable ruler in the area. Britain needed desperately to keep control over Egypt, the Suez Canal and overall access to India, the crown jewel in the British Empire. Concerned about the potential of having France, the United States or an international party ruling the area prior to possible Arab independence, the British, strong supporters of the emerging Zionist Movement, also promised Jews land in Palestine. The British government considered a friendly Jewish presence in the area with strong ties to Britain would provide better security for their Empire.
The End of the War
With the defeat of Germany and Turkey in 1918, Britain was granted a mandate or control over various Middle Eastern states, including Palestine, under the newly formed League of Nations. With Britain in control of Palestine, problems soon surfaced as both Arabs and Jews believed that they were to be the heirs of a new nation in Palestine.
Trying desperately to appease both Arabs and Jews, British authorities were soon attacked politically and militarily by both groups. Accelerating immigration by Jews into Palestine deeply upset Arabs living in the area for generations. Jews gained more control over more land and businesses within the country. Growing tension between all three parties erupted into savage terrorist attacks on British authorities.
World War II
During and after World War II, there was a deluge of Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine to escape or recover from Nazi Germany’s extermination campaigns. In 1947, the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, recommended that the British mandate over Palestine should end immediately and that Palestine be divided into an Arab and Jewish state.
Aggressive Jewish political and lobbying successes within British, European and American power structures, both financial and governmental, allowed for more favorable terms of partition. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. After the vote, British military and police forces were withdrawn.
The Partition of Palestine
Arabs and Jews clashed as each group took control over areas approved during partition. Eventually full scale war broke out. Jewish forces were better organized and quickly dominated the entire region. When neighboring Arab states joined Palestinians in their battle, Jewish forces defeated armies from Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. The new state of Israel, founded on May 20, 1948, gained control of 77% of the area of Palestine instead of the 56% allotted by the United Nations.
Arabs in the region felt humiliated, first having a Jewish state imposed in their midst and then consequently losing a war. Palestinian Arabs became displaced after the war and with the declaration of the new state of Israel. Many Palestinians fled to Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. The majority, almost a million people, became virtual prisoners in their own land, living in camps and fed and housed by the United Nations.
In the early and mid 1950’s, Gamal Abdul Nasser, ruler of Egypt, and other consequent Arab leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used the plight of the Palestinians as a rallying point against Israel. Palestinians were given financial and military support in their fight against the Israelis. Rising Arab nationalism and Palestinian / Arab resentment towards Israel combined to produce multiple wars against the state of Israel. The wars went poorly for the Arabs and instead of gaining territory back from Israel, the Arabs and Palestinians lost more land and power.
Poor, disenfranchised and lacking an effective military, Palestinians resorted to bloody terrorism strikes against Israeli military and civilian targets. Unfortunately, strong Israeli military response against the Palestinians has resulted in an ongoing cycle of violence that has continued for decades.
With the death of the Palestinian PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, there is hope that major world leaders can attempt yet again to broker a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.