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  • Saberi Mallick

Israel-Palestine – The Historical Trail

British Intervention in Palestine (1917 – 1948):

The Ottoman rule of Palestine in the 19th century largely saw the peaceful co-existence of a Muslim majority and a Christian and Jewish minority population, with large sections of the population simply identifying themselves as Arab, rather than Palestinian. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War led to the annexation of Palestine by the British Empire. This also coincided with a large number of Jewish refugees seeking refuge in Palestine. The establishment of a Zionist settlement for the Jewish population can be traced back to 1882, with the earliest demand for a separate Jewish state expressed in Thomas Herzl’s newsletter, Der Judenstaat. The city of Jerusalem was regarded as ancestral land by the Jewish population, a claim which was refuted by the Palestinians on grounds of self-determination and sovereignty. Eventually, the Palestinian opposition to Zionism culminated in the Balfour declaration by the British in 1917. It supported “the establishment in Palestine a national home for the Jewish People” and was introduced by the British to win Jewish support.

‘Mandatory Palestine’, which came into effect in 1923, drew its name from the League of Nations mandate that facilitated its existence. It legitimised British rule in the region and tasked them with the creation of a Jewish state in the region. Faced with the twin challenges of the waning of popular support for British intervention in Palestine, and the confrontation of a home economy ravaged by war, the British Government was forced to terminate its mandate in Palestine in 1948. The ‘Palestinian Question’, as it was then known, was left to the newly established United Nations.

Creation of the state of Israel and Expulsion of Palestinians (1947 – 48):

The United Nations adopted a partition plan for Palestine termed Resolution 181 – a measure that proved to be unpopular amongst the Palestinian population – even with rapid migration, gerrymandering of borders, it was impossible to carve out a portion of land with a clear Jewish majority as the migrants constituted a small portion of the total population. Discontent surrounding the partition had led to a decade of violence between both communities in the 1930s culminated in a full-fledged revolt from 1936 – 39. Resolution 181 came to be implemented and in May 1948, David Ben Gurion was recognised as the prime minister of the newly independent state of Israel. International support for Israel was evident from its immediate recognition by the United States and the Soviet Union.

While the settlers of Israel revelled in their newfound statehood, for the Palestinians, the fateful day or al nakba (the catastrophe) as it came to be known, signifies the trauma of occupation, an oppressive statelessness that informs the Palestinian national identity and resistance to this day. Initially, the upper and middle class elites within Palestine fled to escape the violence within the country. In 1948, the Israeli government launched concentrated efforts, such as the Deir Yassin massacre, to ensure the displacement and massacre of Palestinians. Israeli militia were employed to create terror and military campaigns like Plan Dalet attempted an ethnic cleansing of Arab communities to produce a wholly Jewish settlement. Palestinians fled the country in droves, with an estimated 700,000 – 800,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. The remaining minority population was placed under martial law and Israel systematically erased evidence of Palestinian society through the renaming and sometimes, annihilation of old towns and villages and massive expropriation of nearly 80% of Palestinian property to settlers. The Palestinian refugees were not allowed to return to their homeland and many lost their properties and homes. Their displacement was seen as conducive to the emergence of a Jewish majority state. The Palestinian minority still living in Israel was granted citizenship in 1967.

The experience of the nakba was fundamental to the development of national Palestinian identity with refugees, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and the few second class Arab citizens of Israel united through the shared experience of the ongoing horror of occupation. In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 providing support for the return of Palestinian refugees and in 1949 established the UNRWA for their welfare.

Increased Israeli aggression and the formation of the PLO (1949 – 1967):

The Egyptian Israeli General Armistice Agreement was signed in 1949 under the aegis of the United Nations and was meant to facilitate peace in Palestine. It condemned the use of violence or military force in the settlement of the conflict in Palestine. It also stipulates that the provisional boundaries of Israel and Palestine were not to be taken as a formal political or territorial boundary.

The West Bank was annexed by Jordan in 1950 and it consequently came to account for thirty per cent of Jordan’s Gross Domestic Product. Jordanian annexation was unacceptable to Israel and Palestinians living in the Israeli occupied areas were viewed with suspicion.

The Six Day War, the third of the Arab – Israeli wars, took place from June 5- June 10, 1967. Israel’s decisive victory in the war was conducive to the state’s occupation of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the old city of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, all of which went on to become central points of contention in the conflict. The war came to an end after a call for a ceasefire from the UN Security Council. Months after the war, the UN passed Resolution 242 which mandated Israeli withdrawal from the occupied areas in exchange for lasting peace.

Meanwhile, Israeli aggression within this period led to the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964 to facilitate the centralisation of various disjointed pro-Palestinian revolutionary groups. The PLO was dedicated to the cause of Palestinian self-determination and the disintegration of Israeli occupation. The radicals within the PLO favoured the complete disintegration of Israel and the establishment of a secular state to facilitate the co-existence of Arabs and Jewish people. The moderates supported the establishment of a separate, sovereign Palestinian state, separate from Israel.

First intifada and the signing of the Oslo Accords:

The first Intifada (shaking off) has been attributed to a number of factors: the increasingly severe expropriation of land, creation of more occupation settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, increasing Israeli repression to Palestinian protests, the emergence of revolutionary activists unattached to the PLO and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, among others. The death of four Palestinian workers by an Israeli vehicle set off the uprising in 1987.

With no solution in sight, a wave of demonstrations, rioting and occasional violence against Israeli settlers broke out in the Gaza Strip. Protestors armed with as little as rocks and sticks attacked the Israeli forces who shot them down with rifles. Some revolutionaries adopted the use of hand grenades in response to an increase in the severity of repression dealt by the Israeli military and police. Hamas, a radical Islamic organisation, was opposed to the secular nationalist movement and accommodation of Israel within the two-state solution. They sought control of the leadership of the Intifada. In addition to revolutionary violence, Palestinians adopted a number of other measures like union strikes, boycotts and demonstrations in order to impact damage on the economic front. As per B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, the first Intifada resulted in 1490 Palestinian and 184 Israeli casualties.

US – Palestinian dialogue in 1988 was preceded by the PLO’s acceptance of three conditions put forward by the US: a rejection of terrorism; recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of UN Resolution 242, which called for the Arab states to accept Israel’s right “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries”. In 1993, dialogue between PLO and Israel, mediated by the Norwegian government resulted in the signing of a series of agreements included within the ambit of Oslo Accords. These accords affirmed the PLO’s commitment to the agreement signed in 1988. In turn, Israel formally recognised the PLO as the formal representative of the Palestinian people, withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and agreed to set up a Palestinian governing body to administer these areas. The next five years saw a major breakthrough in the implementation of the two-state solution in the area.

Second Intifada (2000 – 2005):

All groups were not in agreement with the PLO’s position of compromise and one of its major opponents was Hamas, which continued to be dedicated to the disintegration of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in all of historical Palestine. In rejection of the Oslo Accords, they initiated a series of suicide bombings against Israel. The fragile consensus generated by the Oslo Accords broke down as the Israeli government continued to create settlements in the occupied areas and Palestine continued to import arms and train security forces in defence. In 2000, the visit of Ariel Sharon, right-wing Likud’s presidential candidate from Israel, to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, was the last straw in what had been seen as a long chain of transgressions on part of Israel. The event set the stage for the second Intifada.

The second Intifada registered more casualties than the first, a total of 4300 deaths with a ratio of Palestinian – Israeli deaths being 3:1. A suicide bombing in 2002 incited the Israeli government to launch Operation Defensive Shield which set out to reoccupy the West Bank and parts of Gaza. A barrier was erected in the West Bank as in Gaza and over two hundred state backed assassinations of Palestinian military operatives and political leaders were carried out to dampen the freedom struggle. Even as the Intifada came to an end by 2005, conditions in Palestine worsened. Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank with increasing aggression. A restriction was imposed on the movement of Palestinian goods and people which stifled economic activity and growth. The Palestinian authority lost popular support in light of charges of corruption and the people turned their support towards Hamas which won elections in 2006.

Israeli attacks on Gaza (2008 – 2014):

In December 2008, the Israeli army launched a major military offensive campaign in Gaza called Operation Cast Lead and prevented media and aid agencies from entering the area. As per Amnesty International, the Palestinian armed groups killed 13 Israelis, out of which 3 were civilians and the Israeli army killed 1383 Palestinians, 333 of which were children.

A temporary ceasefire in 2012, achieved through Egyptian mediation, was shattered as Israel initiated Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 with an airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari as well as at least ten Palestinians perished in the Israeli attempt to thwart Hamas’ rockets and infrastructure. Hamas leaders promised retaliation for the violation of the ceasefire. Israel was condemned by both the rival Palestinian party Fatah as well as the Egyptian government and the Arab League for violating the ceasefire.

Operation Protective Edge was an Israeli military offensive launched in July 2014 resulting in thousands of Palestinian deaths and injuries. Many were forced to flee their homes and those who stayed behind had no access to requisite medical aid or resources. Investigations conducted by Amnesty International found a deliberate targeting of Palestinian civilians and landmark buildings. Israel’s retaliatory shelling was condemned by Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister who dubbed it ‘deliberately disproportionate’ and amounting to ‘collective punishment’. Hamas launched an arsenal of rockets in Israel, killing 6 civilians. The Israeli offensive left in its wake 2000 Palestinian deaths (including 500 children).

Palestinian conditions leading up to the May 2021 clash:

Forcible transfers, evictions, economic blockades, surveillance, vaccine apartheid, excessive force, restrictions on movement and arbitrary detention- these are just some of the human rights excesses committed againt the Palestinians residing in the occupied territories.

As per the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israel is responsible for the destruction of 848 Palestinian residential structures in the occupied West Bank, displacing 996 people. Discrimination against Palestinians in Israel is evident in areas like planning, budget allocation and policing. The Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel has recognised sixty five Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinians. The distribution of Covid 19 vaccines in December 2020 under the Israeli Health Ministry excluded the nearly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military and police have a record of using unnecessary and excessive force during operation and when patrolling protests. According to the OCHA, 31 Palestinians, including nine children, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank perished at the hands of the Israeli army in 2021. Out of the numerous raids conducted in Israel, thousands have been detained without a trial. At times, Israel has resorted to arresting children as well. Torture of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli police and army is carried out, often with impunity. Military courts which often do not meet international standards have been used to try Palestinian adults and children alike.

In a bid to restrict the movement of people and goods in and out of the area, Israel continued its illegal air, land and sea blockade. The maritime closure limited the transport of food and medicines and the blockage of construction materials into Gaza shut down the only Gazan power plant, restricting electricity supply. Checkpoints and roadblocks act as a heavy restriction on the movement of Palestinians. These measures impeded Palestinian access to healthcare which exacerbated the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Al Aqsa mosque clash – May 2021:

Public opinion in Palestine had begun to shift over the years. Popular support for Hamas was waning with Palestinians seeking to prioritise economic growth over war. Gaza was no longer Israel’s top military priority. The US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was met without unrest and four Arab countries announced the normalisation of relations with Israel. Subsequently, the events of May 2021 brought the region to a complete standstill.

After seven years without any major Israeli military action in Palestine, violence broke out once again in May 2021. On April 13, the first day of Ramadan, the loudspeakers installed at the Al Aqsa mosque to broadcast prayers to followers were disconnected. The Israeli President was scheduled to deliver a speech at the West Wall, the Jewish holy site beneath the Al Aqsa mosque and it was believed that the prayers would drown out the speech. Police action within the Al Aqsa mosque proved to be the turning point that reinvigorated the conflict between Hamas and Israel. In addition, communal tension between Jewish people and Muslims living in multi-ethnic Israeli cities also flared up. Israel’s attack upon a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon drew diplomatic ire from both Jordan and Lebanon with many marching in protest.

The Israeli decision to evict Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem provoked a resurgence of nationalist identity among Palestinian youth with many breaking out in protest. As images and videos of police brutality streamed out of Sheikh Jarrah, it garnered international media attention and became a rallying point within the struggle for self-determination. In addition, the closing off of a plaza outside the Damascus Gate, one of the entrances to the old city of Jerusalem was another slap in the face. Being locked out of a beloved public space, in addition to facing restrictions on building permits and experiencing demolitions, created discontent among Palestinian citizens in the annexed East Jerusalem, who felt that they were being driven out of their city. Palestinian youth took to social media to highlight their plight, with some even clashing with Israelis. Far-right Jewish extremist groups launched attacks on Palestinians. The Netanyahu government in Israel seemed to be largely disinterested, with Benjamin Netanyahu being accused of pandering to extremist groups to get them to join his coalition after the March election.

On May 13, the last day of Ramadan, the Al Aqsa mosque witnessed unprecedented violence as Israeli soldiers armed with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets clashed against Palestinians with nothing but stones and rocks, with both sides alleging that the other had started the clash. An attack on one of the holiest sites of Islam was perceived as an egregious insult by Muslim Palestinians. In a misguided attempt at reconciliation, the Israeli government shut off the Al Aqsa compound to Palestinians and postponed the eviction case in Sheikh Jarrah. The police and Israeli extremists raided the Al Aqsa compound again after a few days and the holy site was marred by a barrage of weapons flying throughout its courtyard. In retaliation, Hamas and some other armed groups fired thousands of rockets from Gaza, many of which were intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome air defence system. The missiles also damaged a building that housed the Associated Press and the office of Al- Jazeera. As per Israeli authorities, 10 Israelis have been killed in the crossfire. The Gazan death toll has been fixed at 240, with the cost of reconstruction running into millions of dollars. After eleven days of fighting, a ceasefire was declared on May 22, 2021, with both Hamas and Israel claiming credit for the victory, but leaving behind widespread devastation and questions surrounding the solution of this seemingly eternal stalemate.

By Saberi Mallick


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