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Prospects for a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict


The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the longest running of modern times and is not comprehensible without some knowledge of its history.  I will first revisit the most important points of that history.  Then I’ll look at the attempt, beginning around 1991, to solve the conflict within the framework of the so called two state solution and why this has run into the sand.  Finally I will sketch an alternative framework which a growing number of people see as the only productive way forward.

Palestine under British Rule: 1917 to 1947

You won’t find Palestine on a current map of the world, but if you look at a map of the Eastern Mediterranean dated any time between the wars, say around 1926, you will see that the place where Israel now sits is labelled “Palestine”. Before 1948 the land that is called Israel today was called Palestine and its majority population were Palestinian Arabs.

Originally part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was ruled after WWI by Britain under a League of Nations Mandate – an international trust in which a great power looked after the interests of the mandated territory until its people were deemed ready for independence.  Palestine was recognised as a state by the International Court of Justice in 1926, with the expectation that it would in due course become fully independent.  Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations described the duty of the Mandatory to prepare the people of the mandated territory for sovereignty and independence as “a sacred trust of civilisation”.

However, in 1917 Britain had also promised a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine “without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish population”.  This, the Balfour declaration, was incorporated into the text of the Palestine mandate, creating a potential contradiction with the Mandate’s primary purpose, depending on what was intended by the term Jewish National Home.

In 1917 Jews were 10% of the Palestine population. The emigration of European Jews to Palestine increased sharply after 1933 when the Nazis assumed power in Germany and by 1947, following WWII and the Holocaust, Jews were 30% of the population of Palestine (note that the Arab majority was still 70%).  The leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, David Ben Gurion, demanded that a Jewish state be created in all or most of the territory, which was strongly opposed by representatives of the Arab majority. The British handed the problem to the United Nations.

Partition 1947-9

On 29 November 1947 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution (UNGA 181) recommending that Palestine be partitioned into two states – a “Jewish State in Palestine” with 55% of the land, an “Arab State in Palestine” with  43% of land and, as a corpus separatum under international control, the holy city of Jerusalem (including Bethlehem).

The details of the proposal were completely impractical – neither state was contiguous, the Jewish state had an Arab minority of 49% and only 10% of the land within it was Jewish owned.  Nevertheless the Jewish side accepted, probably on tactical grounds, knowing that the Arabs would reject it.

The proposal was rejected by the Arab Higher Committee, representing the Arabs of Palestine, and by the Arab League, representing the Arab states.  The Arab position was for Palestine to stay as one country with a government elected by all its citizens, both Arabs and Jews.

The General Assembly resolution was a recommendation under article 10 of the UN charter.  Only the Security Council could make the plan legally binding and authorise the use of force to implement it.  The Security Council debated the plan for weeks without adopting it – another proposal was put on the table (likewise never adopted) to make Palestine into a UN Trust territory.

In the meantime civil war broke out in Palestine, from December 1947.  In March 1948 Jewish forces, having gained the upper hand, began the mass expulsion of Arab civilians.  On 14 May 1948 the State of Israel was declared in Tel Aviv and the following day, 15 May, the Arab States intervened, sending their armies into Palestine for the declared purpose of protecting the Arab population.  Note that Jewish forces outnumbered Arab forces at every stage of the war.  When the fighting stopped, in January 1949, the new state of Israel held 78% of Palestine in an area from which around 730,000 Arab civilians had been expelled, creating a substantial Jewish majority.

No Arab state recognised the newly created state of Israel, but during January to April 1949 Israel and the Arab states negotiated agreements defining armistice (cease fire) lines – the so called “Green Lines” – which served as Israel’s de facto borders until 1967.  The remaining 22% of Palestine consisted of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (20%), which were annexed by Jordan, while Egypt held the Gaza strip (2%).

In December 1948 the General Assembly passed a resolution (UNGA 194) affirming the right of return and of compensation for Palestinian refugees and calling for the removal of all military forces from Jerusalem.

In May 1949 Israel was admitted to the UN, without legal recognition of its borders but on an understanding that it would negotiate with the Arab states to resolve outstanding issues – borders, refugees and Jerusalem – on the basis of resolutions 181 and 194.  The Lausanne conference on these matters broke up in September 1949 without reaching any agreement.  It remains the case today that Israel has no internationally agreed borders and no internationally recognised sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.

The mass expulsion of Arab civilians in 1948 is the central event of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Without it there would have been no Jewish majority in what became Israel.

1967: the Six Day War

In June 1967, in response to threats by Egypt,  Israel took the initiative, defeating three Arab armies in 6 days and gaining control of the rest of Palestine –  East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza – now called the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), together with Egyptian Sinai and the Golan Heights, belonging to Syria.

In November 1967 the UN Security Council passed a resolution (UNSC 242) calling for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”.  Sinai was eventually returned to Egypt in a treaty of 1979 but East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were annexed by Israel, both annexations being declared unlawful by the UN.

Israel continued to rule West Bank and Gaza without annexing them – leaving their Palestinian inhabitants under Israeli military rule.   However Israeli settlers, introduced into these territories from 1967 in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, retain their rights as Israeli citizens and are subject to Israeli civilian law.

In 1974 the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), created in exile with the aim of overthrowing Israel and restoring an Arab Palestine,  gained observer status in the UN General Assembly and was recognised as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.  Factions of the PLO waged irregular warfare against Israel, which responded with strikes against PLO targets.

The Madrid/Oslo “peace process”

In December 1987 an intifada (uprising) of Palestinians living under occupation began in Gaza and rapidly spread through the OPT.  Israel resorted to brutal methods to suppress unarmed civilians, damaging its international reputation.

In this situation the PLO intervened unexpectedly, announcing in November 1988 that it now accepted the principle  of partition (after rejecting it for 40 years!) and offered to negotiate a two state agreement with Israel.

In 1991 a conference took place in Madrid, under American auspices, between Israel and the Arab states (the PLO was not allowed to attend but represented by Jordan) leading to bilateral negotiations, including between Israel and a Palestinian negotiating team.  The latter eventually led to the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO, signed in 1993 and further elaborated in Oslo II (1995).   By these Yasser Arafat, as president of the PLO, recognised Israel within the Green Lines (78% of Palestine) potentially allowing 22% for a Palestinian State in Gaza and the West Bank with its capital in East Jerusalem.

The text of the agreement, however, does not refer to a Palestinian state.   It created a “Palestinian Authority” (PA) with Arafat as president – since his death in 2004, replaced by Mahmoud Abbas.  This initially covered Gaza and Jericho, subsequently expanded to full authority for the PA in “area A” (the main Palestinian towns, which are 18% of West Bank) and partial authority in “area B” (an additional 20% surrounding the towns) while Israel retains full control of “area C” which is 62% of West Bank including the Jordan valley – and all of East Jerusalem.

This was all supposed to be temporary, allowing for negotiations on a final status agreement to be concluded by end of 1999.  The deadline passed and an attempt by the Americans to broker a deal at Camp David in 2000 failed, reportedly because Israel refused to offer Arafat any meaningful sovereignty over East Jerusalem (although the Israeli account differs).

After Camp David Palestinian frustration boiled over into a second intifada triggered when Ariel Sharon, a right-wing Israeli politician, visited the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem accompanied by 1000 armed soldiers.

In the meantime Israel has continued to build settlements.  In 1993, when Oslo was first signed there were 160,000 Israel settlers in the Occupied Territory, now (2017) there are 620,000 including 200,000 in East Jerusalem.  Israel has also continued to demolish Palestinian homes to make way for Israeli settlers.

If you look at a map of the West Bank areas A and B are disconnected islands of Palestinian self-rule surrounded by a sea of Israeli control.  Israeli settlers now outnumber Palestinians in area C (most of the West Bank).

In 2005 Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza but continues to control Gaza’s borders. In 2006 elections to the PA legislative assembly were won by Hamas, a Palestinian group that is not part of the PLO and did not support the Oslo agreements.  Israel and USA refused to recognise the result of the Palestinian elections, with the eventual outcome of Hamas holding power in Gaza only.  In the hope of overthrowing Hamas, Israel has placed Gaza under siege, with periodic exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas.  The consequences are devastating for the civilian population of Gaza, numbering 1.9 million, half of whom are children under 16.

Areas A and B of the West Bank continue to be administered by a PA government that has little democratic legitimacy, as Fatah (the largest party within the PLO) lost the 2006 legislative elections.  Mahmoud Abbas (of Fatah) remains in office as president of the PA, although his presidential term legally expired in January 2009.

The international community maintains its official stance of promoting a two state solution and there are periodic attempts to revive negotiations, most recently by John Kerry in 2014, but many diplomats will admit in private that the two state solution is effectively dead.

The causes for the failure of Oslo were largely in the agreement itself.  First, the agreement was not symmetrical – Arafat recognised Israel but Israel recognised only the PLO, not a Palestinian state.  Second, everything important – Jerusalem, borders, statehood, refugees – was left to final status negotiations.  But the fatal omission was the absence of any ban on Israel continuing to expand its settlements, which it has done relentlessly.  The international community has  failed to apply any meaningful sanctions on Israel to deter this.

Assuming that the intention was to retain control of the Occupied Territory without making its inhabitants citizens, from Israel’s point of view Oslo was not a failure but a resounding success.

What Israel is carrying out in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is a continuation, in modified form, of the ethnic cleansing by which Israel was created in 1948.  In the West Bank Palestinians are being gradually concentrated in areas A & B, leaving area C, the bulk of the land including the Jordan valley, free for Jewish settlement.

The “Palestinian state”, if it ever emerges, is likely to consist of Gaza plus areas A & B of the West Bank, amounting to 10% of historic Palestine.  It will be demilitarised, a fundamental Israeli requirement which the PLO has long accepted, and will not control its own borders.  This is not a state but a native self-rule area within an apartheid state.

The Single State Reality

Between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean there is one army – the Israeli army, which can go anywhere, while the PA has only a police force which requires Israeli permission to go outside area A.  There is one economy – the Oslo accords cement the Occupied Territory in a single market and customs union with Israel.  There is one currency – the Israeli shekel, which circulates even in Gaza. There is one electricity network and one telephone system.  The Israeli government controls all external borders – Palestinians, even those in Gaza, require permission from Israel to travel abroad and to return.  De facto this is a single state ruled by the government of Israel.

The powers of the PA are in reality those of a municipal authority operating with Israeli permission, not those of a national government.  The collaboration between the Palestinian security forces and the Israeli military in suppressing resistance to the status quo makes the Palestinian Authority part of the apparatus for maintaining Israeli domination.

In international law the Palestinian territories are occupied by Israel, but the material reality is that Israel has annexed them.  Israel’s legal borders remain undefined – the 1949 Green Lines were cease-fire lines, not de jure borders. But Israel’s de facto borders are those of Mandate Palestine (apart from the Golan, which belongs to Syria) and Israel has ruled the whole of this space for the last 50 years.

The Green Line is invisible to Israelis – they can drive from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea without crossing a check point, using a network of roads through the West Bank on which only cars with Israeli number plates are allowed. Palestinians face check points manned by Israeli soldiers even when travelling between West Bank towns and require permits, which can be withdrawn at any time and do not allow them to stay overnight, to enter Israel from the West Bank.

The existence of internal borders which are invisible to one ethnic group but constrict the movement of another is characteristic of an apartheid state.

Within the de facto single state of Greater Israel there are 6.5 million Israeli Jews and 6.7 million Palestinian Arabs (as of March 2017). Israeli Jews  are citizens with a vote and the same rights regardless of whether they live inside the Green Line or in the Occupied Territory.   But Palestinians have different rights depending on where they live.  Only those inside the Green Line (1.7 million) are citizens and have a vote – they are second class citizens in a Jewish state.  The Palestinians in East Jerusalem (300k) have civil rights but no vote in Israeli national elections, those in the West Bank (2.8 million) have no vote and live under military law and those in Gaza (1.9 million) have no vote and live under siege in an open air prison guarded by Israel.

In addition there are several million stateless Palestinian refugees living in nearby countries who have a right of return to what is now Israel under international law, but are unable to exercise it.

The Binational Alternative

The current situation is clearly unjust and in the long run unsustainable.  The two state solution has failed, not only for contingent reasons, but because it is based on a false analysis.   The Israel/Palestine conflict is not a dispute between two neighbouring peoples, one of whom is occupying the territory of the other.  It is a conflict about rights between two peoples who inhabit the same land.

A just solution requires Israel to change from being a Jewish state ruling over millions of non-Jews to a binational democratic state in which Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights – equal individual rights and equal national rights. These would include a right of return to what is now Israel for those Palestinian refugees who wish to return.  This would be a political entity of perhaps an entirely new type.  There would have to be constitutional provisions to ensure the representation of both groups in all important institutions of the state and “parity of esteem” between the two national cultures.

This will not be easy to bring about, starting from the current situation, but the first step is to recognise that the continued pursuit of the failed “two state solution” is not merely futile but actively harmful, as it provides Israel with cover to continue policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid in the whole of historic Palestine.


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