It is obvious that peace in the Middle East will not be achieved easily. Negotiations always seem to stumble and break down after promising starts. The issues which make negotiations so complicated are multi-faceted, and long established. There is no one factor you could point to which make things so difficult.
However, there are a number of ongoing issues which make peace less likely, both in this generation, and the next, as the mutual hate and mistrust becomes more firmly entrenched. This is a brief summary of some of those key issues.
The Gaza Strip-
The Gaza Strip has been blockaded by Israel since Hamas came to power in 2007. This has caused extraordinary suffering for the people living in Gaza- most pertinently through a lack of food and medical supplies.
Gaza was also severely damaged by Israeli bombardment in 2009. Much of it remains in ruins, many families living in tents beside the rubble of their homes. The blockade has only allowed a limited amount of building material into the region, despite NGO estimates that thousands are required to rebuild the infrastructure.
Aid flotillas attempting to break the blockade were attacked in international waters by the IDF last year, in breach of international law. Despite international protests, the blockade remained in place, although there are predictions that it may soon end, with the new Egyptian government announcing they will open their border with Gaza.
The Israeli West Bank Barrier, dubbed the apartheid wall by opponents, is a construction of fences, trenches and vehicle barriers constructed through the West Bank and partly along the borders established in 1949. Israel claims it needs the wall as security barrier against terrorism and argues that a decrease since 2002 is testament to its success.
However the construction of the wall causes serious problems for Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Parts of the wall are built on captured Palestinian territory, meaning it annexes land into Israel. The wall also cuts communities off from each other, and leaves some without access to health care. In 2004 the International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion stating that the construction of the wall was contrary to international law.
Return of refugees-
Probably one of the most difficult issues, the problem of Palestinian refugees began in 1948 when nearly 700, 000 people (although estimates vary) fled or were forced from their homes by settlers in Palestine. Israel, viewing them as hostile, passed a law preventing their return and took over the land they had left. Today the number of refugees is estimated at close to four million, many of whom live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Conditions in the camps have been described as poverty stricken and overcrowded.
The fate of these refugees is a huge, growing problem, with no resolution in sight. While many Palestinian groups demand their return, where they would go is not an easy question to answer. Israel and Palestine are already two of the most overcrowded countries on the plant. The question of refugees was the sticking point at the Camp David peace talks in 2000, and continues to be a hugely divisive issue, but there is unlikely to be an effective end to the conflict if their rights are not taken into account.
Human Rights Violations-
Reports of abuses of the human rights of civilians are an ongoing source of tension and bitterness in the region. One of the most controversial of these is the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli Defence Force. This involves using armoured bulldozers, or sometimes explosives for larger buildings to destroy the homes of Palestinians. The IDF claims that it carries out the policy as a deterrent to potential terrorists or an active counter terror measure, destroying bomb laboratories or the headquarters of terror cells.
However, human rights groups have called it a collective punishment for Palestinians, or sometimes a means to clear land for the building of settlements. A report published by Amnesty International in 2005 accused the IDF of war crimes, including unlawful killing, torture and destruction of property. They accused the IDF of recklessness in their use of force against militants that endangers the lives of civilians.
The construction of settlements, Israeli communities built on the land captured during the 1967 Six Day War, has been identified as one of the issues that must be resolved before peace talks can begin. These settlements currently exist in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Obama initially demanded the Israel should end settlement construction, but the USA have since backed down on this demand. The construction of settlements was a key sticking point in peace negotiations last year, when Israel announced the construction of 238 new homes in East Jerusalem.
Since 2001 civilians in Southern Israel have been subject to rockets fired by groups based in Gaza. According to statistics from 2009, rocket fire has killed 13 civilians in Israel. Last month, a 16 year old boy died from his injuries after a rocket hit a school bus. Despite a growth in attacks since 2006, and Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza, the IDF notes that 2010 saw the lowest number of attacks since 2002.
Preventing rocket attacks was the justification for Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, in which over 900 Gazan civilians, including 300 children, were killed by Israeli forces.
Attacks on Israel-
Israeli civilians have been the victims of numerous attacks this decade, including suicide bombings, shootings and in 2008, a bulldozer attack on a busy high street. Between 2000 and 2007, there were 140 suicide bombings in Israel causing 542 deaths, according to statistics on the website of the Israeli government. The worst year was 2002 with 55 attacks, but the number decreased dramatically after this, with only one in 2007.