The Arab-Israeli Conflict The roots of the conflict can be traced to the late 19th century, with the rise of nationalmovements, including Zionism and Arab nationalism. The Jewish population of Europe and theMiddle East began to more actively discuss immigration back to the Land of Israel, and the re-establishment of the Jewish Nation in its national homeland, only during the 1870s and 1880s,largely as a solution to the widespread persecution of Jews due to anti-Semitism in Russia andEurope. As a result, the Zionist movement, the modern movement for the creation of ahomeland for the Jewish people, was established as a political movement in 1897. The Zionistmovement called for the establishment of a nation-state for the Jewish people in Palestine. TheWorld Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund encouraged immigration and fundedpurchase of land, both under Ottoman rule and under British rule, in the region of Palestine.The First Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland (1897). Before World War I, the Middle East region was under the control of the OttomanEmpire for nearly 400 years. Towards the end of the 19th century, Palestine, was inhabitedpredominantly by Arab Muslims, however, there were also small numbers of Christians, Druze,and Jews (predominantly Sephards). At that time most of the Jews worldwide lived outside ofPalestine, mostly in Europe, with large communities in the Mediterranean, the Middle East andthe Americas. After WWI, Britain was given control of Palestine. They wanted to split it into two states,one for Jews, and one for the Palestinians. Both the Arabs and Jews did not like Britain’s plan,so Britain asked the United Nations to help them. The UN sent a commission to survey the situation in Palestine. With both Jews andArabs demanding complete control of Palestine, the UN General Assembly voted to end theBritish mandate and recommend that Palestine be partitioned into three separate areas. Thefirst area was to be a Jewish state inhabited mostly by Jews. The second area was to be an Arabstate. The third area was to be an international zone that would include Jerusalem, Bethlehem,and other nearby holy sites. Both sides were prepared to fight for their goals. The Palestine Arabs protested that theUN recommendation violated their right to rule themselves. They began to use force to opposepartition and the establishment of a Jewish state. Armed bands from Syria and Trans-Jordanbegan to sneak into Palestine to assist the Palestinian Arabs. The Zionists, on the other hand, thought the United Nations proposal with was greatand resolved to implement it regardless of Arab reaction. The Jews had previously formed adefense force called the Haganah, largely to protect themselves against Arab attacks. Out of theHaganah, and other underground military units, the Jews of Palestine began to build a nationalarmy. At first their troops were familiar only with light arms and hit-and-run guerilla tactics.Gradually, however, they were able to acquire heavier weapons from sympathetic parties. After the UN partition resolution in November 1947, conflict between Jews and Arabsgrew more intense. Attacks from both sides were frequent. Neither the British nor the UN wasable to stop the fighting. The British mandate ended on May 14, 1948, the same day that Israelproclaimed its independence. The next day Arab armies from five neighboring Arab states(Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) invaded the new Israeli state. However, the Arab
armies could not defeat the Israelis. Finally by July 1949, the UN persuaded all the invadingnations except Iraq to sign separate armistice agreements with Israel.CONTINUING TENSIONS, 1949-1956: Several issues caused problems in Israel’s relations with Arab nations during the earlyyears of its independence. One of these was the refugee question. About 725,000 Arabs fledIsrael to settle in surrounding Arab territories. The fleeing refugees said that they were drivenfrom their homes by the Israelis. The Israelis, however, claimed that most Arab refugees fledbecause they were persuaded to leave by their own Arab leaders. Israel refused to allow themto return to their homes, so armed Palestinian groups crossed Israel’s borders, causinghundreds of minor and several major incidents of terrorism. Many of the Palestinian refugeepopulation, which today numbers over two and a half million, have continued to demand areturn to their homes to Israel. Besides demands on Israel to allow the return of Arab refugees, Arab leaders demandedpayment for property acquired by Israel and the surrender of territory held by Israel beyond theborders set by the armistice. The Israelis rejected most demands; they believed that giving inwould be seen as a sign of weakness. They accused the Arab states of trying to destroy Israel;they stated that they would never surrender territory gained in a conflict they did not start. Asinvaders, Israel said, the Arab states were responsible for the flight and continuing plight of thePalestinian refugees. Israel said allowing refugees to return to Israel with a hatred of Israelwould seriously jeopardize Israel’s security. Still another issue was the presence of a UN peacekeeping force in the Middle East. TheUN was supposed to enforce the 1949 armistice agreements. Its main job was to patrol theborders between Israel and its neighbors. After Egypt’s conflict with Israel, Great Britain, andFrance over the Suez Canal in 1956, a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was set up topatrol the frontiers between Egypt and Israel. But Egypt continued to bar Israeli shipping fromthe Canal. Although the UNEF did have some success in preventing terrorist acts along theborder between Israel and Egypt, such incidents continued along the Syrian and Jordanianfrontiers.THE SIX-DAY WAR, 1967: Egypt was getting weapons from the Soviet Union. In May 1967 Egypt demanded thatthe UNEF leave its territory and began to send troops and tanks into the Sinai Peninsula tothreaten Israel. They also closed the Strait of Tiran, cutting off Israel’s access to the Red Sea andpreventing ships from reaching the Suez Canal. Egypt also threatened to destroy Israel, so Israelattacked Egypt. Syria and Jordan then entered the fight against Israel. Within six days theIsraelis had destroyed the Arab armies. Israel took the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip fromEgypt; East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria. Duringthe height of the brief war, Egypt sank ships in the Suez Canal to block traffic. The waterwayremained closed long after the Six-Day War had come to an end.THE OCTOBER (YOM KIPPUR) WAR, 1973: Because Israel believed it had the best army in the Middle East, they did not want togive back any of the territory they won during the Six-Day War. Egypt wanted the Sinai
Peninsula back though, and their president convinced Syria to help them launch a surpriseattack on Israel during October 1973. The attack occurred on the holiest of Israel’s holy days. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement),which in 1973 occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The war lasted only threeweeks. Some of the heaviest battles fought since World War II took place on the Egyptian andSyrian fronts. More Israelis were killed in the war than in the entire period since 1948. AlthoughIsrael was taken by surprise and lost at first, it soon recovered and started attacking back atEgypt and Syria. But the war ended in a stalemate when the United States, the Soviet Union,and the United Nations intervened. During 1973 and 1974, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State of the United States,negotiated a treaty between the countries. Israel agreed to withdraw its troops from parts ofboth the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. It was also agreed that there would be aninternational peace conference to settle the issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conferencemet only once, however, before it fell apart due to disagreements.THE WEST BANK AND GAZA STRIP: Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continues to causeproblems in the region. Since the areas were taken over by Israel in the 1967 war, Israelis havebeen divided over them. Except for Jerusalem, which Israel has made its capital, many Israelishave opposed the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those who favor occupationargue that all of Palestine belongs to the Jews and should not be given up, even as part of apeace settlement. Opponents feel that it is not smart to keep territory with such a large Arabpopulation and argue that Arabs would outnumber Jews if Israel included the West Bank andthe Gaza Strip.LEBANON INVASION: Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip made the PalestinianArabs very angry. By the 1980s demonstrations and protests were frequent. Most people wholived there sympathized with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a Palestinianorganization that led the fight against Israel. Israeli leaders believed that unrest in the occupiedterritories could be stopped if the PLO’s bases and headquarters in Lebanon were destroyed.They thought that destruction of the PLO would end the terrorist attacks launched fromLebanon across Israel’s northern border. In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. The invasion was supposed to destroy the PLO andto force Lebanon to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s minister of defense,confidently told his government that the fighting would be over in a few days. The fightinglasted much longer, however, and Israeli forces surrounded Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, pushingfarther into Lebanon than was planned. The Israelis surrounded the PLO forces in Beirut for several weeks. Then the UnitedStates stepped in and put a stop to the fighting. Thousands of civilians had been wounded, andmany killed. Large-scale destruction took place in southern Lebanon and in the capital. Israelpulled its troops out in August after an agreement was reached to withdraw PLO forces fromBeirut.
After the PLO forces were withdrawn, Lebanese Christian militias, allies of Israel,entered two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and massacred hundreds of Palestinian men,women, and children. The massacre had a traumatic effect in Israel. To begin with, the war inLebanon had been unpopular. The massacre caused widespread criticism and mass protestsagainst the war. Many young men refused to serve in the occupation forces in Lebanon.Although Israel agreed to a gradual withdrawal of its troops, the opposition wanted a fasterdeparture. None of Israel’s major goals in the 1982 invasion were achieved. Syrian forces remainedin Lebanon, which refused to sign a peace treaty with Israel. After several months, PLO forcesreturned to Lebanon. Lebanon’s civil war left the economy and much of the country in ruins.FIRST PALESTINIAN UPRISING: In December 1987 a major uprising of Palestinians, known as the intifada, in theoccupied West Bank and Gaza Strip started. More than half the inhabitants in these territorieshad lived all their lives under Israeli military control. They had become angry about therestrictions put on them by the Israeli army: including curfews, deportation of many politicallyactive leaders, arrests without trial for hundreds suspected of terrorist acts, school anduniversity closings, and interference in daily life. Although the uprising began as a demonstration, it soon became an organizedmovement with an underground leadership that demanded an end to Israeli occupation, therelease of all political prisoners, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.More than 800 people were killed during the intifada. Most Palestinians supported the PLO asthe leader of the Palestinian nationalist movement. Israel, however, never recognized the PLO,labeling it a “terrorist” organization and never allowing it to operate in its territories.