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21 JUL 2024

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  • Uri Pilichowski

Who Started The Mideast Crisis, Israel, or The Palestinians?


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and not easily understood.  This article aims to help unravel the complexity and explain the situation by presenting both sides of the conflict and its history. It includes the role of various Arab countries in the conflict and how past failures to compromise have led to the current state of affairs. 


Israel troops and helicopter

Photo by IDF Spokesperson Unit licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license


The Basic Facts


  • In the early 1900’s the international community attempted to create a compromise in Palestine between the Arab and Jewish people living there. 


  • In the mid-1900’s the international community and the Jewish people made various offers of statehood to the Palestinians. The Arab people, especially the local Arab population in British Mandate Palestine repeatedly turned down offers for these offers. 



  • From 1948 until now, the State of Israel has sought peace with its Arab neighbors. Some efforts have succeeded, such as the Abraham Accords; some have failed, like the Oslo Accords.


  • Multiple solutions to these Mideast crises have been proposed, most popularly the two-state solution. Nonetheless, all will require a willingness by both the Palestinians and Israelis to compromise. 



The International Community Tries to Create A Compromise Between Jews And Arabs In Palestine


In 1918 over four hundred years of Ottoman rule over Palestine came to an end when the British defeated the Ottoman Empire’s forces in the Battle of Megiddo. Almost two years earlier, Britain and France reached a secret pact, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement which detailed how the international community would divide the Ottoman Empire’s land when it eventually fell. On November 2, 1917, the British government issued a letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, expressing the government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. The Versailles Treaty of 1919 created a mandate system, and Britain was given control of Palestine with the understanding that it would work to create both a Jewish and Arab state. In 1920, the Third Palestinian Congress met in Haifa and condemned British support of Zionism, rejecting the Balfour Declaration as a violation of international law and of the rights of the indigenous population. 


In 1936 a British royal commission was sent to investigate violence in Palestine. Later referred to as the “Peel Commission,” it released a proposed solution to the frequently occurring Arab-Jewish violence in Palestine. Its solution called for a Partition. Under the partition plan, the Jewish State would include the Galilee, the Plain of Esdraelon, and the coastal plain; the Arab State would be comprised of most of the rest of Palestine and Trans-Jordan.


 Jewish leaders grudgingly accepted the commission’s proposal, while the Arabs rejected it. George Antonius, Lebanese author of “The Arab Awakening” said the Peel Report was unjust “because it placed the rival claimants to Palestine on the same footing, offering the Jews a good deal more and the Arabs a good deal less than they possess or were promised to them. It made starkly different demands of each: of the Arabs, the real and substantial sacrifice of something they own and want to keep; of the Zionists, the nominal sacrifice of something they do not own but want to have.”



The Partition Plan And The Start of The Mideast Crisis As We Know It 


On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed Resolution 181 which called for a partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab States. Under the Partition, 55% of Palestine would be used to create a Jewish state while 42% would become the Arab state. The city of Jerusalem, revered by both religions, would be controlled by the international community.


 Arabs in Israel claimed the partition plan favored the Jewish side, saying Palestine had not been Jewish for almost two thousand years. In 1947, Jewish residents barely made up a third of the population. Jews owned only six percent of the land and only 10 percent of the area of the proposed Jewish State. Jewish leaders accepted UN Resolution 181, whereupon Arab armies went to war with the new Jewish state. 



Reaction to the Internationally Proposed Partition Plan


In response to the British Peel Commission’s proposed partitioning of the land, the Arab Higher Committee, an organization that represented Arabs living in Palestine, issued a statement objecting to the very idea of a Jewish state, demanding the termination of the British Mandate and recognition of the Palestinians' right to complete independence while insisting on the cessation of all Jewish immigration and land purchases. The Arab street’s response to the United Nations Partition Plan was similar, and Arabs rejected any form of territorial compromise with the Jewish people. After repeated attempts at forming an independent Arab state in Palestine made up of local Palestinian Arabs, the international community felt it had exhausted all efforts and the British ended its Mandate over Palestine in May of 1948. 


The Palestinian people rejected the Jewish claim to the land and the international community’s acceptance of the Jewish claim. Rather, Palestinian Arabs insisted the Jews last lived in Palestine in large numbers over 2000 years prior, on the basis of a religious text. In the Palestinian view, rights to the land belonged to the current inhabitants who had been living there for a millennium and a half. 


Thus, Palestinian Arabs didn’t deny Jewish historical and religious ties to the Holy Land. Instead, they weren’t willing to accept secular Jews from Europe, who had rejected religion, and were instead using the Bible to support a political goal of a Jewish state in an already settled land. Conversely, the Jews pointed to their continuous history in the land as a counter to Palestinian claims.



Arabs Declare War on the Jewish State and the Start of The Mideast Crisis 


When Jewish leaders in Palestine declared their independence on May 14, 1948, in accordance with the United Nations Partition Plan, the Arabs rejected it, and the surrounding Muslim countries launched a war against the newborn Jewish state, now called Israel. Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia simultaneously attacked Israel. 


Though newly formed, Israel’s army was able to defend the country and establish its independence. The Arabs would forever call the war they started, the “Naqba,” meaning catastrophe, while Israel called the battles its “War of Independence.” The Arabs would again try to end the Jewish state with subsequent wars including the Sinai Campaign in 1956,  the Six Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In each of these wars, Israel beat their Arab attackers, retaining its sovereignty and its land. 



The Six-Day War and the Expansion of the Mideast Crisis 


In May of 1967, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq threatened war with Israel. In contradiction to armistice agreements, these Arab armies threatened Israel’s borders. Government-controlled Arabic radio announced the imminent end to the Jewish state.  


In early June, Israel preempted the Arab attack by bombing the Egyptian air force while its planes were still on the runway.  In what would later be called “The Six Day War,” Israel trounced the Arab armies while also conquering the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, annexing them from Egypt. Israel also took possession of the  Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Israel’s subsequent occupation of these lands exacerbated the crisis in the Mideast. 


Israel would eventually return the Sinai to Egypt, but it kept control of the Gaza Strip until 2005 and still holds the Golan Heights and the West Bank. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew over 7,000 Israeli civilians and its military from the Gaza Strip and handed control of the territory to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians continue to believe Israel stole all these lands from them. 


The international community maintains the Gaza Strip and West Bank are Palestinian lands and Israel is violating international law by governing these lands. Israel extended its sovereignty to the Golan Heights in the early 1980’s. Excluding the United States, the international community and Syria rejected Israel’s extension of sovereignty and considers the Golan Heights illegally occupied. 


In 2007, Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, violently took control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority. Over the next 15 years, Hamas would repeatedly fire rockets into Israel threatening the country and its civilians. 


As over 25,000 rockets were fired into Israel since Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel has conducted three military operations against Hamas. In 2009, 2014, and 2021 Israel retaliated against these rocket barrages. 


Then, on October 7th, 2023 Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups took advantage of the Jewish holiday, Simchat Torah, to breach the border and attack Israeli towns that sit directly opposite the Gaza-Israel boundary. Palestinian terrorists based in Gaza killed 1,200 Israelis along with foreign agricultural workers. Hamas terrorists also raped, tortured hundreds, and kidnapped 240 civilians including children and the elderly. Israel responded by launching a war against Hamas. 



The Role of Terrorism In The Mideast Crisis 


War hasn’t been the only tool of violence the Arab nations surrounding Israel and the local Arab population have used to fight the Jewish State. According to the Jewish Agency, a branch of the Israeli government, Arab and Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla) attacks against Israeli civilians were responsible for over 400 Israeli civilian deaths and 900 injuries between 1951 and 1956. Acts of terrorism would become a plague that Palestinians have used against Israeli civilians for decades.

 

The Palestinians also started two violent uprisings–the first in 1987, the second in 2000– called “intifada” in Arabic. These uprisings were responsible for thousands of Israeli deaths.


As frustration and anger rose year after year among Palestinians on the backdrop of the refusal of successive Israeli governments to abide by international accords and end what Palestinians called the occupation of Palestine, Arabs claimed their violence was legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation and oppression. Arabs in Palestine and around the Middle East don’t consider the wars fought against Israel to be wars they’ve started, nor do they view the two intifada to be criminal terrorism as Israel charges. They consider themselves oppressed by Israel and thus have a right under international law to use any means necessary to overthrow their oppressors. 



The Role of The Peace Process In The Mideast Crisis


After Israel’s victory in 1967’s Six Day War, Arab countries gathered in Khartoum, Sudan, and issued the Khartoum Resolution, more commonly known as the “Three No’s.” The more common name comes from the  Arab League’s response to Israel’s offer of land for peace with "no peace," "no negotiations" and "no recognition" of Israel. 


However, in 1993 The Oslo Accords, signed between the Israelis and the Palestinians, were supposed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), then the most powerful of the Palestinian factions, agreed to forgo terrorism and recognize Israel. In response, Israel agreed to accept the PLO as the representatives of the Palestinian people, and to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that would be responsible for governing the West Bank and Gaza Strip over a five-year period. When trust had been built between the two sides, permanent status talks on the issues of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem would be held.


As Palestinian terrorism ramped up in the mid-1990s and as Palestinians didn’t see the progress they expected from the Oslo Accords, and as Israel continued building settlements, the trust that had been anticipated on both sides never materialized. In a last-ditch effort to save the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, then American President Bill Clinton invited PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David to try and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Bill Clinton’s book “My Life,” the former president blamed Arafat for refusing to compromise, thereby dooming the talks. 


In 2008, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank — proposing that Israel retain only 6.3 percent of the territory in order to keep control of major Jewish settlements. Olmert said he offered to compensate the Palestinians with Israeli land equivalent to 5.8 percent of the West Bank, along with a link to the Gaza Strip. He also said he proposed placing the section of Jerusalem known as the Old City under international control.


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he rejected the offer because he was not allowed to study the map. Abbas said he supported the idea of territorial swaps, but that Olmert pressed him to agree to the plan without giving him time to study the proposed map. Still, Abbas described the talks as the most serious negotiations since the Oslo Accords. 


While some Arab countries–Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco–would ultimately sign peace deals with Israel in the intervening years, other Arab bloc countries along with the Palestinians would continue to reject Israeli offers of peace during numerous negotiations. There have been no serious negotiations to end the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians since Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 2009. 



The Future of Peace Between Israel And The Palestinians 


Arab countries and the Palestinians claim that Israel’s numerous offerings of peace weren’t genuine. They point to Israel’s refusal to compromise on key issues like Jerusalem and the claim that Arab refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel proper. Many Palestinian advocates also claim Israel prefers the status quo and won’t come to fair terms to compromise with Palestinians. 


The Abraham Accords hold great promise for an eventual end to the current, long-running Middle East conflict. It is well known that Arab Gulf countries like the UAE and Bahrain wouldn’t sign normalization agreements with Israel without Saudi Arabia’s ascent. The Saudi royal family has been cooperating with Israel on security matters and trade for over a decade and normalization seems around the corner between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 


Until both sides are willing to negotiate directly and compromise on key issues, the conflict will continue. An honest assessment of the triggers continuing to fuel the conflict will find fault with both sides as to why a solution hasn’t been reached. Still, to date, the Arab refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, forgo terrorism as a legitimate tool of resistance, and negotiate and compromise remains a  fundamental, underlying cause of the ongoing Mideast conflict. 


As former US President Barack Obama said, “I know Israel has taken risks for peace.  Brave leaders -- Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin -- reached treaties with two of your neighbors.  You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis.  You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon and then faced terror and rockets.  Across the region, you’ve extended a hand of friendship and all too often you’ve been confronted with rejection and, in some cases, the ugly reality of anti-Semitism. So I believe that the Israeli people do want peace, and I also understand why too many Israelis -- maybe an increasing number, maybe a lot of young people here today -- are skeptical that it can be achieved.”

 

Sources 






Oren Kessler (2023), “Palestine 1936” Published by Rowan & Littlefield


Institute for Middle East Understanding; The UN Partition Plan for Palestine. November 27, 2012





Benny Morris (2008). 1948: a history of the first Arab-Israeli war. Yale University Press. p. 73.



Benny Morris Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956Oxford University Press. p. 101(1993). 






The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, “A Short History of Palestinian Rejectionism.” Dr. Edy Cohen, February 16, 2020



Economic Cooperative Foundation, Israeli PM Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan Speech, June 14, 2009


Times of Israel, Abbas admits he rejected 2008 peace offer from Olmert, November 19, 2005


The Guardian, “Israel-Palestine: the real reason there’s still no peace” by Nathan Thrall, May 16, 2017



The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks of President Barack Obama To the People of Israel, March 21, 2023

 

Uri Pilichowski

Uri Pilichowski


Uri Pilichowski is an author, speaker, and senior educator at institutions around the world. 

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