Arab-Israeli conflict: A clash of faith-based nationalisms

The violence in Israel and Palestine continues till this day due to multiple factors such as the presence of Hamas which is opposed to peace with Israel, the dominance of right-wing Likud Party in deciding official Israeli policies, and multiple external interests which keep derailing the prospect of peace in the region

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Arab-Israeli conflict: A clash of faith-based nationalisms
Palestinian supporters of Hamas militant group flash V-signs, calls for the release of prisoners being held in Israeli jails on June 20, 2003 in Gaza City


Last month, the United Nations passed a resolution against Israel strongly “condemning its settlement building activities in Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 including East Jerusalem.” This was followed by a resolution passed in the US House of Representatives last week condemning the UN’s move as “an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace, undermining Washington’s decades-long position of opposing anti-Israel action at the United Nations.”

These diplomatic skirmishes is just the latest scuffle in a 68-year-long conflict between the Israel and its neighbours which began with a war on the establishment of the Jewish state on May 15, 1948.

The Promised Land

Born in the 20th century, Israel’s traces its antiquity to pre-Biblical times as the Promised Land of Canaan promised by God to the Jewish people. The modern state was born out of a movement for an independent homeland for Jews in Palestine, revered as the Holy Land by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Efforts for such as homeland began in the 19th century by Jewish nationalists who laid the ground by organising a slow but sustained migration of Jews which altered the region’s demographics. The movement’s idea of a Promised Land clashed with the Islamic ideal of Jerusalem as the Chosen City due to the belief that Prophet Muhammad left for heaven through the city, apart from important mosques on the Mount Temple.

A national home for Jews

In the nineteenth century, the political situation was not in favour of the Jews as the region came under the Ottoman Turk Empire whose rulers were Sunni Muslims. However, post-World War I, the region came under the control of the British as the ‘British Mandate of Palestine’ which comprised of modern-day Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip.  The British declared their supportive stance for a Jewish homeland under the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which favoured “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” while protecting the rights of the other communities. This created widespread discontent among the Arabs who violently opposed each fresh wave of Jewish immigrants and their policy of purchasing lands from Arab landlords. Jewish immigration peaked in the 1930s due to the installation of the Nazi regime in Germany. This led to rising tensions between the two communities though the British, under pressure from Arab representatives, tried to limit immigration by declaring such settlers illegal.

Outbreak of civil war

Tensions continued to rise in the 1940s as the Holocaust in Europe brought East European Jews to the region and local groups began fighting openly, refusing to subject themselves to British authority. The exasperated British authorities deferred the problem to the newly-formed UN,  which voted on it on May 15, 1947, excluding major Western powers to prevent accusations from either side. The UN gave two solutions, one for partition and another for a unified country, though the partition plan was preferred by a majority of countries. The UN Committee’s final recommendation of a partition of the region only increased the violence. The British government announced the end of the British Mandate on May 14, 1948.

NEGEV, ISRAEL - DECEMBER 2, 1949 David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the Jewish State; (right) RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - SEPTEMBER 30: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat smiles as he appears outside his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah

However, a group of Jewish nationalists called the Jewish People’s Council gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum on May 14, 1948 under the leadership of David Ben Gurion and declared the independent state of Israel. This unilateral declaration of independence by the nascent state provoked five Muslim states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to jointly attack Israel on 15 May 1948. However, Ben Gurion had foreseen this scenario and assembled a nascent military force called the Israel Defence Force (IDF) formed of various Jewish militant groups. The IDF managed to quell the attack, and took over larger portions of the region, leaving only West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Arab coalition. Importantly, the war led to the eviction of a large number of Arab Palestinians who became refugees. The 10-month war also generated a Jewish exodus from Arab countries to Israel.

Power politics

Ben Gurion became the first Prime Minister of Israel and Minister of Defence. Under his leadership, the new country built a systematic military after outlawing irregular Jewish militia. He also oversaw in 1956 an invasion of Egypt in coalition with the British and French forces over Egypt’s exclusive control over the Suez Canal; this gave it access to a separate shipping route via the Straits of Tiran, boosted IDF morale, gave Israel control over the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, as well as an 11-year respite on its border with Egypt. The invasion also brought in UN peacekeeping forces which oversaw Egyptian-controlled territories. It thus laid the ground for the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees began to arm themselves and launched the Palestinian Liberation Organisation on June 2, 1964, under the leadership of Ahmad Shukeiri with the avowed goal of an armed struggle for the restoration of the Palestinian homeland. The PLO was recognised by the Arab states as the sole representative of the Palestinian people but Israel and USA condemned it as a terrorist organisation.

The six-day war

The third Arab-Israeli War popularly called the ‘Six-Day War’ took place between 5 and 10 June 1967. It began with Egypt mobilising its armed forces to invade the Sinai Peninsula leading to Israel launching preemptive air strikes on the Egyptian airforce and destroying it completely. Egypt prompted Syria and Jordan to launch attacks on Israel’s eastern borders; however, an alert IDF launched counter-attacks taking complete control over East Jerusalem and West Bank from the Jordanians and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Arab forces sought a ceasefire on June  11, eventually leading to the expansion of Israel and giving it control over Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem and the strategic Golan Heights.

The Yom Kippur war

The next major offensive was the Yom Kippur War launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel on the Yom Kippur Day ‘Day of Atonement’ on October 6, 1973 from the Sinai and Golan Heights borders respectively. The Arab coalition made impressive gains initially with the Egyptian army wading into Sinai Peninsular region comfortably and the Syrians launching a co-ordinated attack on Golan Heights. However, three days into the war, Israel retaliated, pushing both armies back and even moving into Suez city, and reaching the outskirts of Damascus on its eastern border. Since the two sides were supported by the USA and Soviet Russia, respectively, the war increased the risk of a nuclear confrontation. Hence, the UN brokered a ceasefire on October 25, 1973. The Yom Kippur War had important implications for Israel as it realised its victory was not as decisive as its earlier ones. It agreed to take part in the US-sponsored peace talks and later sign the Camp David Accords in September 1978 with Egypt, largely due to the efforts of US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli PM Menachem Begin. The latter two later signed the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty which forced Israel to return Sinai to Egypt and gave Israel access to Suez and other waterways along with retention of Gaza. These conditions led to a normalisation of relations between the two countries.

The Oslo Peace Process

The PLO, now headed by Yaseer Arafa, moved its base to Lebanon from where it launched a host of terror attacks against Israel, including the Munich Olympics’ massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. The PLO organized a rebellion in West Bank and Gaza called Intifada which began in December 1987 and lasted till 1991 when the Madrid Conference urged both sides to start talking. US President Bill Clinton got PLO and Israel to sign the Oslo Accords, under which Israel recognized PLO as the official representative of Palestinians. The Oslo Accords eventually led to the setting up of the ‘Palestinian Authority’ (also called Palestinian National Authority) whose functions were limited self-governance over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the Accords did not set up a Palestinian State.

A second Intifada started in September 2000 after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the controversial Temple Mount. This second round of conflict continued till February 2005, resulting in counter-military operations by the IDF against the civilian Palestinian population. The end to the uprising came after Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Ariel Sharon came together to stop the Palestinian attacks and the Israeli occupation of Gaza which was vacated by Sharon much to the surprise of his political opponents.

The current scenario is confused with West Bank being under the control of the Palestinian Fatah Party which runs the government under the Palestinian National Authority with Mahmoud Abbas as its president and Gaza being controlled by terror group Hamas although the two came together briefly to form a Unity Government in 2014-15 under Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership. Israel gives limited recognition to the Palestinian Authority but does not recognize it as a sovereign authority though the US recognises area under the PA as a country in a limited way.

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