The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always a hot subject on the news nowadays; we hear of terrorist explosions and failed peace processes, forced land purchases and expelled people. The Middle East oozes with emotions and everyone seems to have an opinion on who to blame and how to solve it. But how did it all really start?
The reasons stretch a hundred of years back into a complex web of aspirations, hopes and greed articulated by Zionists, Palestinian nationalists and the British government. The history of the conflict is not about numbers of displaced or deceased people; those are the consequences. The history is rather about recognising the ambitions and desires of Israelis and Palestinians, and it is through our understanding of those forces that we can end the conflict today.
Palestine in 1880s under the Ottoman Empire was politically and economically undermined. Many Arabs were indebted and illiterate, and, according to Professor Mark A. Tessler the land was initially uncultivated, lacking urban centres. Zionists, Jewish intellectuals advocating for an independent Jewish state who migrated to Palestine because of Eastern European pogroms, purchased land from indebted Arab peasants, often employing more Arabs than Jews on farms. Zionist settlers and the Arab indigenous population therefore often lived in peace, much because Zionists enhanced Arab economy. Only Palestinian nobles expressed antagonism, as they believed Zionist settlers posed a dangerous economic competition.
It was the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 and the British Mandate period between the two world wars that created real tension between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The Young Turk Revolution ensured the spread of Arab nationalism, and Palestinian newspapers and societies soon adopted an anti-Zionist view. Political activity against Jews emerged in the 1920s, and one riot in 1920 killed five and injured 211 Jews. At the same time, Zionists exclusively dealt with the question of the creation of a national home instead of dealing with the increasing Arab antagonism. Believing in the superiority of Western culture, they did not mingle with the Arab population but instead relied on the relationship with Britain. Thus the two groups failed to recognise each other’s aspirations.
Britain proved to be the big villain in the creation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pursuing her own interests through the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement with France which would divide the Middle East into British and French spheres, promises of the creation of an own state were given to both Zionists and Palestinians. The 1917 Balfour Declaration and the Holocaust paved way for the creation of the Israeli state on May 14, 1948.
The Palestinian disappointment can be appreciated, and the Independence War, or Nakba (the Disaster) as Palestinians call it, that followed the British military withdrawal from Palestine created 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Radical Zionist paramilitary groups like the Irgun attacked and threatened Arab villages to force the migration of Palestinians. Arab neighbouring states refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees who were forced to live in United Nations camps. Today, the descendants number almost 5 million. Simultaneously, 300,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries and forced to migrate to Israel. 41 per cent of the Israeli population today descend from these Jews, which surely explain some of the antagonism against Arabs.
The displacement of millions of people, both Jews and Arabs, and the creation of one of the biggest contemporary conflicts was thus a result of Britain’s poor and selfish political decisions. Professor Mark A. Tessler argues that a peaceful coexistence could have been possible if Britain had honoured her promise to Arabs, giving them political and economic rights, and so ensuring that the development of the Jewish state would have grown from a relationship with Arabs rather than with the British government. It is an interesting thought, although the antagonism between Jews and Palestinians is undermined, if not ignored. Because of the inability and the resignation to understand each other, Israelis and Palestinians might not have been able to solve their differences even without British involvement.
After the 1948 war, displacement and dispossession of Palestinians continued, for example through spreading rumours of Jewish rule being harsh to encourage Palestinians to move. Palestinian land was also bought with Jordanian currency to ensure a Palestinian future in Jordan. Israel believed that a peaceful coexistence would come from Palestinian settlement in other Arab countries. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) established in 1964 disagreed. With the aim to liberate Palestinians through armed struggle, for example through attacking a school bus and hijacking airlines flying to Israel, they advocated the Palestinian return to Israel.
The Six-Day War in 1967, created, however, another 300,000 Palestinian refugees from the conquered territories Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. The threat of annihilation before the war, turned into total victory for Israel, made the West Bank an important incorporation into the Israeli state. Israeli consciousness equated the borders of contemporary Israel with those of biblical Israel, making it impossible to return the West Bank to Palestinians.
At the end of 1967, the majority of Palestinians were therefore living outside of Israel, being deprived of the land that once had belonged to them. It is however important to remember that this was a result of two groups being partly played by the greater power of Britain, and partly unable to understand and reason with each other’s aspirations.