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From its beginnings, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been more than a local fight between two groups who want the same piece of land. It has confounded the expectations of the great powers trying to resolve it and created unintended consequences that have had a substantial impact beyond the region.
Arguably no conflict on earth combines so complex a mixture of religious fervor, national aspirations, historical and economic grievances, territorial rivalry, and geopolitical impact.
For Palestinians, and for Arabs and Muslims around the world, the conflict with Israel is viewed through a prism of anger at past humiliations - the bloody crusades of medieval times, centuries of domination of Jerusalem and the Arab world by European colonialists, and a belief that predominantly Muslim Palestinians have been forced to pay with their homeland for the sins of Europeans during the Holocaust.
For Israelis, and for the global Jewish diaspora, the conflict's narrative grows out of centuries of anti-semitism and abuse at the hands of Christians and Muslims alike. From 11th century pogroms against Jews in North Africa, the Spanish Inquisition of the middle ages, to the Holocaust during World War Two, Jews remained outsiders in the lands of their birth. In the nineteenth century, Jewish intellectuals founded the Zionist movement with the intention of establishing a national homeland for Jews, and the land around the holy city of Jerusalem was a natural point of focus.
The seeds of the conflict were already sown when the British government was given a mandate to rule Palestine in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. As part of that mandate was a commitment, the Balfour Declaration, to Jewish national home in the territory. Arabs cite a competing pledge - made by British officers eager to foment the 1916 Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during World War One - to create an Arab state on the same land.
The conflict between Zionist Jews and Arabs - only later would they be Israelis and Palestinians - was simmering and ready to come to a boil.
Starting in 1920 and for the next quarter of a century the British would face riots and uprisings, first from the Arab side and then from the Jewish side. The rise of the Nazis to power prior to World War Two accelerated Jewish emigration to Palestine, though Britain tried to prevent this migration. The Holocaust in Europe, and the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who spoke for many of Palestine's Arabs during the Mandate years, also radicalized some groups. A determination 'never again' to be herded into death camps led to extreme measures in support of an independent Jewish homeland, most notoriously the 1946 bombing of British military headquarters at Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
Unable and unwilling to continue governing a territory in which it was under fire from both sides, the British announced in early 1947 they would withdraw from Palestine. The issue of what to do next became an early test for the newly-created United Nations. In November 1947, the U.N. agreed to a partition plan for the territory that was accepted by the leadership of mainstream Zionist groups. But it was rejected by the main Arab leaders, some Jews and the British. In early 1948, Palestine descended into civil war. On May 14, 1948 the day before the British mandate ended, Israel declared its independence. Though Britain abstained, Israel was quickly recognized by the United States, France, and the Soviet Union.
The Arab nations, however, attacked, invading from multiple directions. The Israelis defended themselves, and mounted a series of counter-offensives to regain territory lost in the initial Arab invasion. When a U.N. brokered cease-fire ended the fighting, Israel held about 50 percent more territory than the U.N. partition plan had originally envisioned, though Egypt held the Gaza Strip and Jordan controlled the west bank and Jerusalem's old city. In years following, Jordan prevented Jews from praying at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Meanwhile, at least a half million Palestinians found themselves refugees, having either fled or been expelled from areas controlled by the new Jewish state. Jerusalem and the refugees would remain emotionally charged issues for all sides in the decades to come.
Israel spent its early years consolidating its independence, absorbing waves of refugees from a devastated Europe, and another wave expelled from Arab lands. Arab states, including several now hosting displaced Palestinians, seethed at what became known as the "nakba" - the catastrophe. As more and more Arab states won independence from France and Britain, the idea of erasing Israel from the map became a unifying aspect of a new pan-Arab ideology.
These resentments came to a head when Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Franco-British-controlled Suez Canal in 1956. Britain, Israel, and France mounted an attack designed to reverse Nasser's move and reduce his stature. But U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, with larger cold war concerns in mind, including Hungary's anti-Soviet uprising, used economic pressure to force Britain to abort the attack. British and French influence in the region would never recover. America's, however, would become inescapable.
The next decade brought the high water mark of pan-Arabism, with Egypt and Syria even briefly uniting to form a "united Arab republic." But a debacle loomed for the Arabs. The June 1967 war, a pre-emptive action by Israel, thoroughly defeated Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces. Israeli tanks rolled to the edge of the Suez Canal, up the Golan Heights and united Jerusalem. But Israel's swift comprehensive victory left the nation in charge of Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. The 1967 war altered the map in a way that continues to define today's Middle East. It encouraged Israelis to believe they could settle and absorb conquered territories. Far beyond the Holy Land, the war it discredited the leaders of the pan-Arab dream and shook Arab faith in Soviet armaments. It also bolstered Islamists and others fed up with the Arab world's ruling elites, creating a dynamic which fuels modern international terrorism to this day.
The world's response to the 1967 war was U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the 1967 conflict, at the same time it called for the right of every state in the area to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries. But passing resolutions is one thing; changing reality is quite another.
It was the Yom Kippur war of 1973 that more than any single event showed the capacity of this local conflict to threaten the equilibrium of the world. The Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack failed, but pushed the United States and Soviet Union close to a nuclear exchange. For the first time, oil was used as an economic weapon by Arab countries to change the diplomatic balance in favor of the Palestinians. Oil prices rose 400 percent in a few months stimulating great inflation and slowing world economic growth. Yet the oil price hikes enriched the Arab states that controlled much of the world's oil supply, breeding corruption and a regional arms race as western countries vied with one another and the Soviet Union to sell expensive weapons systems.
American efforts, led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, helped end the 1973 conflict and bring about the separation of Israeli and both Egyptian and Syrian forces. Several years later, diplomacy achieved its first lasting accomplishment in the region. Seizing on a peace initiative launched by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who paid a dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace between these two most powerful of Middle Eastern adversaries. The 1978 Camp David accords, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that followed in 1979, led to the removal of Israeli settlers from the Sinai Peninsula and its return to Egypt. The resulting peace, critics are quick to note, is a cold one: unpopular among average Egyptians, and still freighted with mutual suspicions. Nonetheless, it broke the "united front" of Arab opposition to Israel's existence, promised further talks on the future of the Palestinians, enhanced Israel's security, and set an important precedent, suggesting that the conflict might not be totally intractable.
Camp David continues to stand out as a rare and durable diplomatic success. It was a Nobel Peace Prize winning effort for its two principals, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat would pay with his life, gunned down in 1981 while reviewing troops in Cairo by assassins from Egypt's nascent Islamic militant movement, which two decades later would supply the core of Al Qaeda's leadership.
No lack of energy has gone into subsequent efforts at peacemaking nor have opponents passed up any opportunity to ensure that these efforts fail. Since 1979, American administrations of both political parties have tried to mediate solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to the dispute over Golan between Syria and Israel. Some notable progress has been achieved - the Madrid Peace Conference, which in 1991 brought together senior representatives of Israel, Arab states, and the Palestinians for the first time face-to-face for peace talks; the 1993 Oslo accords, in which Israelis and Palestinians negotiated a step-by-step plan for peace; the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty in 1994.
Yet forward momentum has proven elusive. In a chilling echo of Sadat's 1981 murder, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo process against the wishes of many of his compatriots, was gunned down by a right-wing Israeli in 1995. The Oslo process foundered and violence flared anew.
Still, determined negotiations came close to agreement again at Camp David in 2000, only to fall short. Since then, unilateral moves changed the situation on the ground. Israel pulled its forces in 2000 from a self-declared "security zone" in south Lebanon after an 18 year occupation. Syria ended a 29-year military presence in Lebanon in 2005. Later that same year, Israel dismantled its settlements and evacuated its citizens from the Gaza Strip. In the wake of each, elements on both sides have sown dissension and filled power vacuums with hardline opponents of compromise that keep the region at a boil.
Irony, too, plays its part. 2006 saw historic Palestinian elections usher into power Hamas, an Islamic resistance movement which recruits suicide bombers and rejects Israel's right to exist. A year later, Palestinian society itself had split. Hamas held sway in Gaza, refusing to countenance talks with Israel and enabling daily rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities. Their Palestinian rivals, Yasir Arafat's Fatah old guard, now led by President Mahmoud Abbas, engaging in new talks through the Annapolis process, and administering the population of the West Bank.
Explore the varied complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the rest of the crisis guide, including the history of diplomatic mediation efforts, the importance of territorial claims, the roles of major state and non-state actors, and the text of treaties, speeches, and other essential historical documents.
Britain encourages the Arab Hashemite tribe to rebel against the Ottoman Empire, which sided with Germany during World War I. In exchange, British officers pledge support for an independent Arab state in the region, though the promise is vague and its boundaries are disputed. The Arab Revolt begins in 1916. The next year, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour expresses official support to Britain's Jewish community for a Jewish "national home" in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration spurs Jewish immigration and lays the foundation for the eventual establishment of Israel. It also expresses concern for the "rights of existing non-Jewish communities," and Britain repeatedly affirms its desire for Palestine to be home to Jews and Arabs.
The League of Nations grants Britain and France administrative control over much of the former Ottoman Empire until local populations are deemed ready for self-rule. The division is based upon the 1920 San Remo Resolution and affirms the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret pact between London and Paris defining their spheres of influence in the postwar Middle East. The British control territory equivalent to modern-day Israel and Jordan. France gains control of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. The League of Nations reiterates the Balfour Declaration's concerns for a Jewish nation and the rights of non-Jews. The arrival of French and British colonial forces undermines the Faisal-Weizmann agreement, an early effort to forge Arab-Jewish peace.
As Jewish immigration continues, violence breaks out between Jews and Arabs living in the British Mandate. In 1929, clashes over Jerusalem's Western Wall and in Hebron leave hundreds dead on both sides. A Jewish militia, the Haganah, emerges and works with British forces to protect Jewish communities. In 1936, a second Arab revolt kicks off a three-year period of sustained violence, with Arab militants attacking Jewish and British installations. To protest Jewish immigration, Arabs hold a general strike and stop paying taxes.
Pogroms against Jews in Europe began in the Middle Ages, and additional murderous campaigns occurred in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in the early twentieth century. But in 1933, events transpire in Germany that cast a lasting shadow over the Middle East. Parliamentary elections lead to Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor. Hitler quickly consolidates power and ends Germany's interwar experiment with democracy. Germany immediately establishes its first concentration camp, Dachau, and in 1935 propagates the Nuremberg Race Laws, codifying Nazi ideology toward Jews and other "undesirables." Many Jews in Germany, and later Austria, flee to Palestine or other nations. Far more remain in the lands of their birth.
The Peel Commission, a British effort to explore the causes of Arab-Jewish violence and recommend a long-term solution, issues a report in July. It proposes eventual abolition of the Mandate for Palestine by partitioning the land into two states: one Jewish and one Arab. The commission proposes resettling approximately 225,000 Arabs and 1,250 Jews to their respective areas. The dominant Arab leadership, led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, staunchly opposes the plan, though some moderate Arabs are open to the idea. Mainstream Jewish groups, led by David Ben-Gurion, embrace it.
Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem since 1922, emerges as a radical advocate of the Arab cause during the 1930s, inciting violence and intimidating more moderate Arab voices. In 1936, the Mufti creates the Arab Higher Committee to fight British rule and Jewish nationalism. The following year, British officials dissolve the committee and banish the Mufti, who flees to Lebanon. During World War II, Husseini finds his way to Germany, where he advocates the extermination of Jews in radio broadcasts, convincing many Jews in Palestine that they face an existential struggle. According to documents from the Nuremburg trials, Husseini's efforts to stir up the Arab revolt of the 1930s were financed in part by Nazi Germany. After the war, he returns to Egypt and arranges for the murder of Jordan's King Abdullah in 1951. He dies in exile in 1974.
During World War II, Germany systematically kills 6 million Jews living in Europe. The Holocaust, as the genocide becomes known, has major implications for the Middle East. Many survivors of the slaughter seek to immigrate to Palestine, though British policy, outlined in a 1939 white paper, limits the influx of Jewish refugees. After the war, many nations horrified by the mass murder become more sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish national home. Despite British policy, Jews make their way to Palestine. A 1945 survey by the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry finds some 600,000 Jews living in Palestine, up from 175,000 in 1931. The Jewish population in Palestine reaches 1.2 million by 1950.
Seven nations sign the Pact of the League of Arab States, formally inaugurating the Arab League. Though originally conceived in wartime by the British as a means of rallying Arabs against the Axis powers, the league quickly adopts a nationalist tone, pressing for freedom from colonial rule and the prevention of a Jewish state in Palestine. The league's expressed goals are to "safeguard [Arab states'] independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries." A special provision allows Palestine to send an Arab delegate to Arab League functions.
Enraged by British policies, especially the restriction of Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Jewish resistance gives rise to some radical factions, including Irgun and Lehi (a.k.a. the Stern Gang), who organize attacks on both Palestinian and British targets. On July 22, the Irgun group plants bombs in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, where the British Secretariat and military leadership is based. The blast kills over ninety people and injures forty-five in the deadliest attack against the British government in Palestine during the Mandate Period. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee deems the bombing an "insane act of terrorism," and mainstream Jewish leaders denounce it as a "criminal act." Irgun leaders, including future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, claim responsibility but blame the British for failing to evacuate despite advance warning.
By 1947, the British have made plans to leave and the mandate is engulfed by civil conflict. Each side accuses the other of atrocities; massacres of Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, and of Jews in a Hadassah medical convoy, enter the lore of each side. The fledgling United Nations passes Resolution 181 calling for separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. Arabs object to the partition, which gives more land to the Jews. Fighting intensifies, and when the British complete their withdrawal in May 1948, Israel declares itself an independent state. The next day, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq invade, but ultimately lose much of the land the UN had set aside for Arabs. Egypt and Jordan are left in control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively.
In response to Arab-Israeli fighting, the UN General Assembly passes Resolution 194, one article of which asserts that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date," and those who do not should be compensated. Palestinians cite Resolution 194 as the basis for their "right of return." Other notable articles include protection and free access to the Holy Places and Jerusalem, with UN control over the city. Several attempts to offer a negotiated solution fail; Arab countries, with the partial exception of Jordan, choose to perpetuate the refugee status and camps rather than offer avenues of naturalization.
Israel's Knesset passes the Law of Return, granting Jews and their families the right to settle in Israel as automatic citizens. The law marks the realization of the Zionist vision of a national home for the Jewish diaspora in the Holy Land. In the three years before the law's passage, 500,000 Jews had arrived in Israel; another 500,000 arrive in the following decade. Many are effectively refugees from Arab countries, where they faced hostility and persecution. Some are also motivated to come by Zionist ideology and religious yearnings.
In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal, which had been operated by the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company, a private company jointly owned by the British government and French investors. Nasser also warns of settling scores with Israel. Israel invades the Sinai Peninsula in October, while Britain and France attack the canal zone. Although Egyptian forces are driven back, the intervention stokes Cold War tensions. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower compels a withdrawal lest the invasion spur a showdown with the Soviet Union. U.S. influence in the region soon eclipses that of the European powers. The war also makes a hero of Nasser, who moves to harness "pan-Arab" sentiment into a geopolitical force over the next decade.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is founded by members of the Arab League as the sole representative for the Palestinian people. The PLO, which is heavily under Egypt's influence, vows to use "material, military and spiritual forces" to resist Zionism and form a Palestinian state. The PLO's first chairman is Ahmad Shukeiri, a former Saudi ambassador to the United Nations with Palestinian ancestry. The PLO Charter, adopted by the Palestinian National Assembly in 1964 and later amended in 1968 to include a call for armed struggle, defines "liberation" of Palestine as a Palestinian and Arab duty. It also declares as "null and void" the 1917 Balfour Declaration and asserts that "Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality."
Erroneous Soviet reports of an Israeli troop buildup along Syria's border prompt Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser to expel UN peacekeepers, send troops into the Sinai Peninsula, and blockade Israel's sole Red Sea port, access to which the U.S. had guaranteed after the 1956 war. Israel responds with a preemptive strike on Egyptian air forces, catching most of it on the ground, followed by an armored thrust into the Sinai that sweeps Egyptian troops back across the Suez Canal. Jordan and Syria attack from the east but Israeli forces resist, seizing the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. The war deeply scars the Arab psyche and fatally weakens Nasser and his pan-Arab dream. The UN passes Resolution 242, calling for the return of Arab lands in exchange for a "lasting peace." Israel holds onto the lands, and after the 1977 election of the Likud Party, begins a major expansion of Jewish settlements
Late in the summer of 1967, eight Arab heads of state attend an Arab League conference in Khartoum, Sudan, where they reach a consensus that guides their nations' policies toward Israel for the next six years. On September 1, the Arab League approves the Khartoum Resolution, famous for its "Three Nos": No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.
Bolstered by a large population of displaced Palestinians living in Jordan-by some estimates Palestinians constitute one-third to more than one-half of Jordan's population-the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) attempts to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy. Following a failed assassination attempt on King Hussein in June and a spate of airplane hijackings in September, the Jordanians endeavor to drive the PLO out of their country. Syria sends a division of tanks to intervene on behalf of the Palestinians, but this unit is mauled by Jordanian forces. At Washington's behest, Israel prepares to act in support of Jordan, though it never intervenes. After ten months, the PLO is completely ejected from Jordan and relocated to Lebanon.
During the Munich Olympics, Palestinian terrorists from Black September, a clandestine arm of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's Fatah, storm the Olympic village, killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine hostage. The terrorists demand the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prison, but Israel refuses to negotiate. German officials agree to grant the hostage takers passage to Egypt, but a botched rescue attempt at the Munich airport results in the murder of all remaining hostages and the deaths of five of their eight captors.
During the month of Ramadan, Egypt and Syria mount a surprise attack in the Sinai and the Golan Heights on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. The war brings the United States and Soviet Union perilously close to open confrontation, and spurs the Arab-dominated OPEC oil cartel to embargo shipments to Western nations that support Israel. The embargo intensifies a shift by France and several other leading European states toward a more pro-Arab stance. After early military gains, the Arab forces are driven back before a UN cease-fire takes effect. Preliminary success in the three-week conflict restores Arab military confidence and provides an opening for the United States to begin a diplomatic process that brings Egypt and Israel to the table. UN Security Council Resolution 338 echoes 242's call for a land-for-peace deal. As for Egypt, two agreements prompt step-by-step Israeli withdrawal in Sinai-in the process confirming Egypt's shift from the Soviet to the U.S. camp in the Cold War.
With Israel, Syria, and Egypt still bristling from war, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger employs "shuttle diplomacy," serving as an intermediary between the hostile parties in an attempt to negotiate a disengagement agreement. Such a deal between Israel and Syria establishes a UN observer force, which still remains, to monitor an area of separation between the two countries along the Golan Heights. The Egypt-Israel track will bear greater fruit, setting the mood for talks leading to the Camp David Accords at the end of the decade.
In June, the Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), ratifies a ten-point political program aimed at "liberating Palestinian territory" and establishing a Palestinian state. In November, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat speaks at the UN General Assembly. "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand," he tells the chamber. "I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand." The United Nations grants the PLO observer status in November 1975 and recognizes Palestinians' right to self-determination.
In late June, terrorists belonging to an offshoot of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)-hijack an Air France flight out of Tel Aviv with 248 passengers on board. The flight is redirected to Libya, where it refuels before heading on to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The terrorists occupy an airport terminal, releasing their non-Jewish and non-Israeli hostages and threatening to kill the rest unless Palestinian prisoners in Israel and elsewhere are freed. In early July, an elite Israeli military unit raids the airport. Six hijackers, one Israeli soldier, and forty-five Ugandan troops die in the assault, as does one hostage. The remaining hundred hostages are freed.
Responding to raids on northern Israel by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel invades Lebanon, occupying land south of the Litani River as a "security buffer" in which local Lebanese forces cooperate with Israel to resist Palestinian control. With the United States lobbying for UN action, the Security Council responds, passing Resolution 425, which calls for Israel's withdrawal, and Resolution 426, which mandates the creation of a peacekeeping force.
Following a surprise 1977 visit to Israel by Egypt's Anwar Sadat, the first by any Arab leader, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin meet at Camp David for twelve days of secret negotiations, producing a "Framework for Peace in the Middle East." Brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Camp David Accords, as the agreements become known, set the stage for an Egypt-Israel peace treaty the following year. Sadat and Begin receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. The framework calls for similar agreements between Israel and its other neighbors, but to little effect. For the next decade, Egypt is suspended from the Arab League and shunned by other Arab states.
Israel effectively annexes the Golan Heights, a strategic rocky plateau in southwest Syria. The land was first seized by Israel in 1967, and was the scene of further fighting in the 1973 war. The Golan Heights Law, which is not recognized by the United States or the international community, replaces military rule over the Golan with Israeli civilian law.
Israel attacks Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) installations in Lebanon following the shooting of an Israeli diplomat. PLO retaliation prompts Israel to push further into Lebanon-which is in the midst of a civil war-shelling and besieging Beirut. U.S., French, and Italian troops intervene, evacuating the PLO to a new home in Tunisia. Israel eventually withdraws to a self-declared "security zone" after helping install a sympathetic president in Beirut, who is soon assassinated on Syrian orders. During the withdrawal, Israeli-allied Christian militiamen massacre at least seven hundred people-perhaps far more-in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. An Israeli inquiry, the Kahan Commission, later holds Ariel Sharon, Israel's defense minister, indirectly responsible for the massacre.
In April, a suicide bomber detonates a delivery van packed with explosives in front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people. In October, two massive truck bombs kill fifty-eight French and 241 American servicemen in almost simultaneous attacks on their respective barracks. A U.S. court eventually rules that the bombings were the work of an emerging Islamic militant group, Hezbollah, which the court says received assistance from Iran. While Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria all deny any role, Israeli officials cite evidence that the Syrian regime was involved. Within five months, U.S., French, and other foreign troops leave Lebanon, which lapses into deeper civil conflict.
Following the 1982 assassination of Lebanon's Israeli-backed president, Bashir Gemayel, U.S. mediators help Israel and Lebanon reach an agreement ending hostilities between the two nations. Syria, which had a hand in Gemayel's death, refuses to recognize the pact, keeping some forty thousand of its troops stationed in Lebanon. Syrian pressure leads the Lebanese government to abandon the accord. In turn, Israel decides to maintain a twelve-mile security barrier in southern Lebanon patrolled by the locally recruited South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia armed by Israel.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists take over an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in Egyptian waters, killing a Jewish wheelchair-bound U.S. tourist and demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners. After two days of negotiations, Egypt grants the hijackers safe passage to Tunisia on an Egyptian airliner. U.S. fighter jets intercept the flight, forcing it to land in Sicily. Italian officials arrest some of the terrorists, but others are allowed to go, though they are later convicted in absentia in Italian court. One of these men, Abu Abbas, is captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003. He dies in custody the following year.
Palestinian spiritual leader and activist Sheikh Ahmed Yassin founds Hamas, a violent offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood seeking "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." Published in August 1988, the Hamas covenant calls on Muslims to liberate the territory through violent jihad. The group's emphasis on religion stands in stark contrast to other prominent Palestinian groups, which tend toward secularism. Some Israelis initially welcome the development, viewing it as a blow to their mortal enemy, Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The first Palestinian uprising (intifada) begins throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Anger and outbursts over four Palestinian deaths in a traffic accident help young local leaders, and later cadres operating on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to mobilize a more general, coordinated rebellion against the two-decades-old occupation. Some Palestinians use civil disobedience, strikes, and graffiti, while others attack Israeli troops with axes, Molotov cocktails, grenades, and firearms. Demonstrations that throw stones at groups of heavily armed Israeli Defense Forces become symbolic acts of defiance for Palestinians.
With the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) enjoying broad international support as the "sole representative" of Palestinians, Jordan's King Hussein cedes to the PLO all his country's territorial claims in the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem, partly out of fear that the intifada will spread to Jordan. In December, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat delivers a conciliatory speech at the UN General Assembly in Geneva, but is criticized by Washington, which had expected Arafat to renounce all forms of terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders. At a news conference the following day, Arafat obliges. As a result, U.S. President Ronald Reagan authorizes a "substantive dialogue" with the PLO although Israel remains hostile.
Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait sparks the first Middle East crisis of the post-Cold War world. The United States leads a UN-sanctioned force, with troops from several Arab states, to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia, for the first time, sanctions the stationing of foreign forces on its territory. During the brief war, Iraq fires Scud missiles at Israeli population centers and at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. U.S. diplomatic pressure keeps Israel from retaliating. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is one of only three Arab League members to oppose a resolution condemning Iraq's aggression, and PLO leader Yasir Arafat remains a staunch backer of Iraq President Saddam Hussein even after Iraq's defeat. The war rearranges the region's diplomatic dynamic and sets the stage for the Madrid Conference.
The United States and Soviet Union jointly sponsor the Madrid Conference, involving Israeli, Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Palestinian delegates. The peace conference establishes a framework for multilateral negotiations to address broad regional issues as well as bilateral talks between Israel and each of the other delegations. The ensuing dialogues lead to Israel-Jordan and Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.
Following an escalation of clashes in southern Lebanon, Israel launches "Operation Accountability," during which the Israeli army carries out its heaviest artillery and air attacks on targets in southern Lebanon since 1982. The fighting claims the lives of 120 civilians, almost all Lebanese. Competing accounts put the death toll for Islamic militant group Hezbollah anywhere from eight to fifty. In addition, some 300,000 Lebanese civilians flee north during the weeklong assault.
After months of negotiations outside the Norwegian capital, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agree to a Declaration of Principles, resulting in each side officially recognizing the other and renouncing the use of violence. The so-called Oslo Accords establish the Palestinian Authority, which receives limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The PLO leadership regards this as a step toward a permanent status agreement based on pre-1967 boundaries and recognition of the "right of return." Israelis, on the other hand, see this as the beginning of a step-by-step process leading to compromise.
After twenty-seven years in exile, Yasir Arafat returns to Gaza, taking the reins of the newly formed Palestinian Authority. Throngs of Palestinians line the streets of Gaza City to greet him.
The day after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel and Jordan agree to work together toward a "just, lasting and comprehensive peace." One year later, the two nations sign a peace treaty ending years in which their close relationship and security cooperation had to be kept well hidden.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reach an agreement aimed at giving Palestinians more autonomy without compromising Israeli security. The so-called Interim Agreement, also known as Oslo II, designates some areas of the West Bank and Gaza under full Palestinian civil and security control, some under Israeli civil and security control, and some under Palestinian civil control with Israeli security. The deal creates a 24,000-strong Palestinian police force to provide security and ensures "safe passage" for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank. Accusations of violations by both sides begin shortly after the agreement is signed.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is gunned down as he leaves an election rally supporting the Oslo peace process. The assassin, Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist, opposed making concessions to the Palestinians. In death, Rabin becomes a symbol for the Israeli peace movement.
Responding to increased Hezbollah attacks near the Lebanese border, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, orders a sixteen-day bombardment of Lebanon, code-named "Operation Grapes of Wrath." Hezbollah militants retaliate, firing Katyusha rockets at populated areas of northern Israel. On April 18, an Israeli shell hits a UN post in Qana, killing about one hundred Lebanese civilians sheltered there. Violence ends with an informal written agreement, which calls for future avoidance of civilian casualties. Both sides fail to live up to the deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' reelection bid falls short when he suffers a narrow electoral defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres campaigned on a platform of further implementation of the Oslo Accords. A torrent of suicide bombings by Palestinian militant movement Hamas in the preceding months had helped sour the Israeli public on further concessions to the Palestinians.
Israeli agents posing as Canadian tourists in Jordan botch an attempt to poison Khaled Meshal, a top leader of the Palestinian militant organization Hamas. A crisis ensues between Israel and both Jordan and Canada. In order to defuse the situation, Israel must deliver a life-saving antidote to Meshal and release the imprisoned Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Under intense pressure from U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat seek to revive the stalled Oslo peace process with the Wye River Memorandum. The deal outlines measures Palestinians should take to help guarantee Israel's security. As each requirement is met and verified, with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency assigned the role of monitor, Israel agrees to transfer a specified percentage of land promised to the Palestinians. The final handover of territory isn't set to occur until March 2000. Implementation problems with the deal lead to the collapse of the Netanyahu coalition.
In July, U.S. President Bill Clinton hosts two weeks of intense Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offers substantial concessions, including withdrawal from more than 90 percent of the occupied territories, possible partition of Jerusalem's Old City, and a Palestinian state in the area of withdrawal. According to U.S. negotiators involved, Palestinian President Yasir Arafat turns down the deal. Though Arafat is often blamed for the summit's failure, many Palestinians argue Barak was offering something that he couldn't deliver and that didn't satisfy their requirements for a deal: pre-1967 borders and a recognized "right of return." The summit ends with a Trilateral Statement to serve as a framework for future negotiations, though subsequent efforts by Clinton and others to rekindle the process yield little.
Ariel Sharon, the head of the Likud Party and formal opposition leader, makes a September visit to the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem-also the site of Islam's third-holiest site, the al-Aqsa Mosque. Sharon's presence provides the spark that ignites a round of fighting, dubbed the "second intifada" by Palestinians. Unlike the 1987 rising, however, this conflict is marked from the beginning by fewer mass demonstrations and a much greater use of firearms and suicide bombs. This, in turn, leads to harsh preventive measures by Israel, including the reoccupation of parts of the West Bank, air strikes, targeted killings, and the construction of a barrier separating Palestinians from Jewish population centers in the West Bank.
U.S. President Bill Clinton leaves office, and President George W. Bush announces he will not appoint a Middle East envoy, consciously disengaging from the diplomatic process. The next month in Israel, Ariel Sharon defeats Ehud Barak's bid for a new term as prime minister, in part as a result of spiraling violence. In April, a committee led by former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell (D-ME) issues a report calling for an immediate cease-fire, cessation of terrorism, freezing of settlement activity, and resumption of peace talks. It cautions, "The culture of peace, nurtured over the previous decade, is being shattered." After Israel intercepts an arms shipment from Iran, undermining Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's claim that he is trying to control the violence, Bush delivers a 2002 speech calling for new Palestinian leadership.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States force Washington to rethink its posture toward the Middle East. Appalled at images of Palestinians celebrating the attacks, the United States distances itself further from Palestinian leaders. Meanwhile, Israel deepens its U.S. ties, providing material support and intelligence in the United States' newly declared "war on terror."
Two days after a Hamas suicide bomber kills twenty-eight Israelis celebrating Passover, the Israel Defense Forces launch an assault on the West Bank, seizing control of the city of Jenin and laying siege to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat's compound for five weeks. Palestinian militants take refuge in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, resulting in a thirty-eight-day standoff with Israeli troops. In June, Israel begins construction of a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. A second assault on Arafat's headquarters in September reduces most of the compound to rubble.
With Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat isolated, Mahmoud Abbas-a longtime Arafat advisor-is appointed Palestinian prime minister, though Arafat remains president. The next week, with the region in flux due to the invasion of Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush outlines the "Road Map for Peace," which seeks to restart the peace process by outlining specific benchmarks for progress. Endorsed by the Quartet-the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations-the road map calls for Palestinian reforms and an abandonment of terrorism in exchange for an end to Israeli settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state. Bush initially outlined these ideas in a 2002 speech, when he became the first U.S. president to publicly endorse the notion of a Palestinian state.
In response to the renewal of Hamas suicide attacks, Israel assassinates Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group's founder, in a March air strike. The move receives widespread international condemnation and precipitates calls for Israel to cease targeted killings. Suicide bombings, however, begin to decline as Israeli security measures take hold. Weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a pro-settlement hawk for much of his career, unveils his "Disengagement Plan," calling for the removal of all Israeli settlements in Gaza. In October, Palestinian President Yasir Arafat falls ill. He is flown to France for medical treatment and dies the following month. In January 2005, Palestinians elect Mahmoud Abbas as Arafat's successor.
Though the so-called second intifada never officially comes to an end, violence abates in 2005. Scores of suicide attacks by Palestinian terrorists, plus preventive and punative measures by Israeli security forces, have taken a heavy toll on both sides. According to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, the violence claimed the lives of 1,050 Israelis and 3,358 Palestinians from September 2000 through January 2005.
Israel begins a unilateral withdrawal of nine thousand Jews from settlements in Gaza in August. Some settlers accept government compensation and leave voluntarily, while others are forcibly removed by the Israel Defense Forces. The move is designed to diminish attacks on Israel, though Israel soon begins taking rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinians fear Israel will isolate Gaza and consolidate control over the West Bank. Within months, much of the optimism surrounding the disengagement is dashed when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffers a pair of strokes, leaving him incapacitated. Ehud Olmert is chosen to head the centrist Kadima Party government and vows to pursue Sharon's design for a similar disengagement on the West Bank.
Hamas scores a victory in Palestinian Authority elections in January, causing the United States, the European Union, and other international donors to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority. The vote also leaves the Palestinian house divided between Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement, represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which will control the cabinet and parliament. Efforts at cohabitation fail almost immediately.
Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas infiltrate Israel and abduct Israel Defense Forces soldiers, prompting Israel to invade both Gaza and Lebanon. The two-front war lasts for more than a month, with Israeli air strikes gutting Lebanese neighborhoods and Hezbollah missiles landing frequently in northern Israel. The war ends with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, deployment of the Lebanese army in the south, and the arrival of additional UN peacekeepers. Though Israel inflicts heavy casualties among Hezbollah's ranks, the war accomplishes little strategically. Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors emerge highly popular in some sections of Lebanon but reviled in others. Egypt and Saudi Arabia also denounce Hezbollah's actions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for West Bank disengagement, meanwhile, appears to be another casualty.
Formation of a joint Fatah-Hamas government, brokered by Saudi Arabia, prompts resumption of some of the foreign aid that was suspended after the Hamas election victory. Neither the European Union nor the United States, however, agrees. In June, after months of sporadic clashes, the Hamas-Fatah deal collapses and Hamas militants drive Fatah from Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounces the violence as a "Hamas coup" and appoints a new government in Ramallah, which is quickly recognized by the United States and European Union. Aid is resumed, and Israel releases Palestinian tax revenues collected but not delivered to the Palestinian Authority since Hamas took office. Gaza remains under Hamas control, and southern Israeli towns are subjected to almost daily rocket attacks, prompting frequent Israeli retaliation.
U.S. President George W. Bush hosts a conference aimed at restarting the peace process. Israeli and Palestinian officials are joined by members of the Quartet-the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations-the Group of Eight nations, and others. More than a dozen Arab nations also attend, including Saudi Arabia and Syria. The conference endorses a Joint Understanding between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take part in ongoing negotiations with the goal of a peace agreement by the end of 2008. The sides agree that implementation of any agreement will wait until confidence-building measures outlined in the "Road Map" have been met.
Introduction: It's impossible to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict without understanding the territorial dispute it's rooted in and the questions of national and religious identity therein. For Israelis, the conflict is about the establishment of a secure home for the Jewish people on the site of their ancient homeland. Palestinians, on the other hand, believe the Jews-with Western backing-have usurped their homeland. These basic differences provide the backdrop for the conflict. Land remains an essential bargaining chip. The status of the West Bank and Jerusalem remain in dispute, as does Israel's control over who and what goes in and out of the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip, and Syria's claim on the Golan Heights.
Israel: Israel's pre-1967 borders comprise about twenty thousand square miles, or 78 percent of the land once ruled as Palestine by the British. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war left Israel in control of a much larger area, and yet even if it retreated to its 1948 borders, some elements in the Islamic world, including powerful states like Iran and non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, insist they would continue to reject Israel's existence.
Like its survival, Israel's designated capital, Jerusalem, also remains in dispute. More than half of Israel's seven million citizens live along the Mediterranean coast in and around Tel Aviv.
A bit over three-quarters of the population of Israel's pre-1967 borders is Jewish, with Israeli Arabs, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, comprising another sixteen percent.
West Bank: The West Bank, the area some Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria, is twenty-two hundred square-miles of land sandwiched between Israel and Jordan. Its major cities include: Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of Palestine; Nablus, a commercial center; and Hebron in the south. Israel took control of the West Bank in the 1967 war and began establishing security outposts there immediately. In 1977, the advent of a Likud government which embraced a "greater Israel" or "Eretz Israel" made the establishment of settlements official government policy. The expansion has continued, though at a slower pace, right up until the present day. Today, settlements range in size from small outposts to large communities. The extent to which these settlements can be dismantled is an open question, particularly the three large clusters known as Ma'ale Adummim, Modi'in Illit, and Ariel, a policy which successive Israeli governments have pressed the Palestinian Authority to recognize. Israel also remains intent on preserving small settlements in the West Bank towns of Hebron and Gush Etzion destroyed during Arab-Jewish violence in the years preceding Israeli independence.
Gaza: The Gaza Strip is an arid, one hundred thirty square mile enclave located near Israel's southwestern border along the Mediterranean Sea. Between 1949 and 1967 it was administered by Egypt. Israel occupied the strip after 1967, but relinquished control of Gaza City and day-to-day administration in most of the territory during the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally removed Jewish settlements from the territory, though it continues to control international access by air, sea, and land and has mounted military operations repeatedly in response to rocket attacks on towns along Israel's southwestern border.
With a population of about 1.4 million Palestinians, many in refugee camps, the Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated places on Earth. Its uncertain political status, plus poverty, lawlessness, and lack of natural resources, have made it fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic militants of Hamas. This made it a difficult place for Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement to govern after Israel turned much of the Gaza Strip, and parts of the West Bank, over to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Following Arafat's death, Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, largely on the strength of its support in Gaza. In mid-2007, after repeated political rows with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah man, a Hamas putsch in Gaza City sent Fatah loyalists fleeting to the West Bank, in effect, splitting the Palestinian movement geographically.
Golan Heights: The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the June 1967 war. The Israelis maintain a large military presence on the Golan Heights, and most military analysts believe denying Syria access to the hilly border region is critical to the defense of northern Israel. Israel effectively annexed the territory in 1981. While that move is not recognized internationally, about 17,000 Israelis now live in Golan along with a sizable indigenous population of Syrian Druze. Talks in 1999 and 2000 aimed at returning the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace fell short, and several efforts by later Israeli governments to restart talks have failed.
Jerusalem: Jerusalem's Old City is home the holiest sites in Judaism and Christianity, and to the third holiest site in Islam. From 1948 to 1967 the city was divided: Israel controlled the western section and located many of its government institutions there; Jordan controlled the east and denied Jews access to their holy sites in the Old City. The Israeli military victory of 1967 gave it physical control of the entire city. Israel promptly declared Jerusalem its undivided, eternal capital, and annexed it in 1980. However Israel has allowed the Jordanian monarchy to retain custodial control of Islamic holy sites in the old city. Few governments recognize Israel's claim over all of Jerusalem. Since shortly after the 1967 war, Israel has encouraged Jewish residents to live in East Jerusalem and created legal hurdles for Arabs to claim residency, pass down property to descendants, or establish businesses. Almost entirely Arab between 1949 and 1967, the population of the section of Jerusalem annexed by Israel has grown steadily more Jewish in the past four decades.
Settlements: After Israel's territorial gains resulting from the 1967 war, the Labor-led government faced pressures to support the establishment of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Only in 1977, when a government led by the Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin took power, did Israel begin planting settlements as a high national priority, fueled in part by a religious claim to ownership of "Eretz Israel" - a "greater land of Israel" tracing its boundaries to Biblical texts. The settlements drew international criticism and seriously exacerbated tensions with Palestinians living under occupation, contributing to the outbreak of the intifada or "uprising" in 1987.
In 2005, Israel elected to remove the nine thousand Jews living in twenty one Gaza Strip settlements. Nonetheless, the Jewish population of the West Bank's settlements had swollen to more than a quarter million by that time, and has continued to grow. These West Bank settlements vary enormously in size and sophistication. Some, like the three large blocs of settlements known as Ma'ale Adummim, Modi'in Illit, and Ariel, are large communities of tens of thousands with sophisticated city services, municipal infrastructure, and heavily armed military encampments. Others resemble small trailer parks, and the smallest amount to no more than outposts, though their founders often pledge to expand and reject the idea of exchanging any of these Israeli settlements in a peace deal.
Refugee Camps: Overcrowding and grinding poverty typify Palestinian refugee camps, leaving them susceptible to extremist ideologies and violence. These camps were fed by two great waves of refugees. The first fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's independence. A second group left in 1967 after Israeli troops gained control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem's Old City.
The refugee camps are scattered across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank and are mostly maintained by the United Nations, which puts the total number of refugees at 4.4 million, though Israel disputes that number. Palestinians believe the refugees should be allowed to return to the lands from which they were driven in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Israel, which absorbed many Jewish refugees ejected from Arab lands after 1948, rejects this so-called "right of return," particularly for those who left areas within Israel's pre-1967 borders. Israel chides Arab governments - Jordan being an important exception - for refusing over the decades to accept these refugees as their own citizens. Arabs contend, in turn, that such a move would relieve pressure on Israel to accept a "right of return."
The Separation Barrier: The separation barrier - referred by Israelis as the "security fence" and Palestinians as a "wall," began taking shape in 2002 amid a wave of suicide bombings in Israeli cities. The barrier brought international condemnation on Israel, but the number of suicide bombings inside Israel has significantly decreased. The barrier is predominantly fence with some walled sections, and in places it traces the Green Line - the original cease-fire lines of the 1948 war - dividing Israel from the West Bank. Yet in other areas, it cuts deep into what Palestinian negotiators have viewed as their own territory, particularly in areas where such a route is necessary to ring one of the huge settlement blocs Israel has insisted will never be dealt away in peace talks. In 2004, Israel's supreme court forced a change in the barrier's route after finding certain sections created hardship out of proportion to the security gained.
The separation barrier came along with an additional security regime of hundreds of check points and physical barriers along West Bank roads designed to protect Jewish population centers. But these measures severely disrupt Palestinian mobility in areas nominally turned over to the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, and, as such, are the source of enormous resentment.
Water Rights: The dispute between Israelis and Palestinians is not just about what's above ground but what's below as well. Palestinians charge that Israel takes more than its fair share of the water in aquifers beneath the West Bank and Israel proper. Israelis counter that their engineering work has actually provided more water for Palestinians. The Gaza strip, for instance, relies entirely on Israel for water and electricity.
After World War One, France and Britain carved the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence, with Britain gaining a mandate over Palestine and neighbouring Trans-Jordan. Throughout its rule, Britain faced competing nationalist claims from Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine, often resulting in violence between the two groups, or violence aimed at ending the British colonial presence. In the run up to World War II, risings by Arab and Jews led to a descent toward civil war. As Europe itself plunged into conflict and the Holocaust took shape, Jerusalem's Grand Mufti - spiritual and de facto political leader of Palestine's Arabs, aligned himself with Adolf Hitler, ultimately making broadcasts on Nazi radio channels advocating extermination of the Jews. After the war, Britain proved unable to control rival Arab and Jewish groups seeking to establish dominance in Palestine.
Unable to contain Arab and Jewish violence, Britain withdrew its forces from Palestine in 1948, leaving responsibility for resolving the competing claims to the newly created United Nations. The U-N presented a partition plan to create independent Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. Most Jews in Palestine, led by David Ben Gurion, accepted the partition. Most Arabs, including the now exiled Grand Mufti, did not. In 1948, the Jews declared Israel's independence, quickly winning recognition from the United States, Soviet Union, and France. But the declaration prompted surrounding Arab states to attack. After more than a year of back and forth fighting, Israel controlled about 50 percent more territory than originally envisioned UN partition plan. Jordan, however, controlled the West Bank and Jerusalem's holy sites, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.
With Europe's colonial powers drained by war, pan-Arabism took root across the Middle East, overshadowing Palestine's own Arab nationalism. In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the moment and nationalized the Suez Canal. Seeking to protect their interests in the Canal Zone, Great Britain and France colluded with Israel, which regarded Nasser's Egypt as a threat to its security, and invaded Egypt in November. Israeli forces made large gains in the Sinai peninsula, though Britain and France had less success in the canal zone. Fighting was cut short when President Eisenhower pressured Britain to withdraw. The war ended with national boundaries unchanged, Egypt holding the canal, and European designs to reestablish prewar influence in the region in tatters. As part of the terms that ended the fighting, the United States made a commitment to help keep the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea open to navigation, addressing Israeli fears of an Egyptian blockade. The American commitment was not kept, an issue which would contribute to the cause of the next war in 1967.
The story of the June 1967 war is complicated and various aspects of what led to the conflict are disputed by the different parties. In May 1967 as tensions rose between Israel and Syria, the Soviet Union warned its Egyptian ally that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian border. Although the Israelis had not taken this step, as a show of strength, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the UN forces that had served in Sinai as a buffer between Egypt and Israel after the 1956 war to withdraw. In the UN's place, Nasser sent his army to Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea to Israeli shipping, exposing as hollow a 1956 promise from the United States to keep the straits open. Perceiving a threat to their security and responding to an opportunity to strike at their enemies, Israel launched a preemptive attack on Egyptian forces in the Sinai, destroying the Egyptian air force in a matter of hours and routing Egypt's army in three days. Syria and Jordan attacked from the north and west, but Israeli forces repelled the onslaught. After six days, Israel had captured the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. These gains set the stage for the conflict we see unfolding today in the Palestinian territories.
Seeking to redeem Arab pride and regain lands lost in 1967, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel across the Suez Canal and Golan Heights respectively, in October 1973. Egypt scored surprising gains against Israeli forces in the Sinai, and Syrian forces caught Israel off guard as well, though there the Arab armies quickly went on defensive. The Israeli military also regrouped and recovered its initial losses in Sinai, yet Israel was bloodied enough to consider negotiations. The war shook others, too, as Arab oil exporters embargoed western governments, causing a major recession. Additionally, the war, which pitted the Arabs' Soviet arms against Israel's western supplied military, very nearly brought the Soviet Union and United States to blows, at one point prompting American forces in the region to increase their "DEF-CON" levels of nuclear readiness. The talks following the war to disengage in the Sinai, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, set the stage for the Israel-Egypt peace agreement at decade's end and the eventual return of the entire Sinai to Egypt in 1982.
In June 1982, the Israel Defence Forces invaded Lebanon, driving as far north as the Lebanese capital. The goals of the invasion were twofold: First, Israel sought to protect its northern communities from Palestinian terrorist groups operating from southern Lebanon. Second, the government of Menachem Begin intended to install a friendly government in Beirut. While the invasion did drive the PLO from Lebanon, Israel's other goals were not met, and the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Israel's allies in Lebanon further tainted the invasion. Afterward, Syrian agents assassinated Israel's hand-picked president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, undoing a brief peace treaty between the two countries. Israel, meanwhile, established a self-proclaimed "security zone" in Lebanon in which it would fight a war of attrition with a new actor, the Shiite extremist organization Hezbollah, until a unilateral Israeli withdrawal 18 years later. Hezbollah staked a claim to driving Israel out and has grown in power and stature within Lebanon since the 2000 withdrawal.
In 1987, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank attempted to resist by force the Israeli occupation. Although it started with teenagers hurling stones at Israeli soldiers, what became know in Arabic as the intifada or "uprising" grew into a small war between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army. By 1992, Israeli military tactics had worn down the intifada. Yet, Israeli attitudes about occupation of the Palestinian territories changed as a result of the brutal realities of the struggle and wider geopolitical changes, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Gulf War. As such, the intifada helped set the stage for diplomatic initiatives, including a groundbreaking U.S.-PLO dialogue in 1988, that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, establishing Palestinian political autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the intifada also brought a new force into being: Hamas, a radical Islamic movement which ultimately would challenge Arafat's secular Fatah movement for leadership of the Palestinian cause.
In September 2000, violence erupted anew. Unlike the first intifada, stones and sticks were not the Palestinian weapons of choice. In this new wave of violence - dubbed the "second intifada" by Palestinians, coordinated attacks and suicide bombings by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade targeted Israeli civilians and soldiers. Israel hit back hard, targeting Hamas and other leaders for assassination, often killing civilians in the process. By April 2002, Israel had retaken control of parts of the West Bank relinquished under the Oslo process and created a network of security checkpoints throughout Palestinian areas. The violence poisoned relations between the governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Authority President, Yasir Arafat. Ties broke down completely as demands for an end to Palestinian terrorist infiltrations went unmet. By September, Israeli troops had besieged Arafat in his West Bank headquarters, and Sharon had enlisted President George W. Bush in effectively boycotting further contacts with Arafat. The PLO founder never recovered politically, and after falling ill, died two years later. Israel under Sharon adopted a new, unilateral approach, building a separation barrier to thwart infiltrators in the West Bank, and pulling its 9,000 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Within two years Hamas would eject its rival Fatah from Gaza, and almost daily rocket attacks on southern Israel resumed.
With Hamas and Hezbollah holding sway along Israel's southwestern and northern borders, the two groups in the summer of 2006 engineered separate infiltration operations, taking hostage three Israeli soldiers from posts inside Israel. In late June, the Israeli army invaded the Gaza Strip, battling Hamas through crowded refugee camps and arresting hundreds. The response in Lebanon followed swiftly afterward, with Israeli warplanes pounding Hezbollah positions and the neighborhoods where it holds sway, with Hezbollah unleashing missile attacks on northern Israel. The month of fighting proved frustrating for Israel, particularly in Lebanon, where international coverage of bomb damaged parts of Beirut and other cities drew an outcry. Israel launched a belated ground invasion, but ultimately withdrew having failed to achieve Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge to destroy "Hezbollah's state-within-a-state." Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, claimed victory, though his movement took devastating casualties. France, Italy, Spain, and other countries hastily reinforced the longstanding UNIFIL peacekeeping force in Lebanon as the two sides disengaged.
In Gaza, the Israeli incursion ran on through November, when a truce took effect. As part of the truce, the Palestinian Authority was to police the border area to prevent rocket attacks on Israel. That truce became moot in July 2007 when Hamas rose against rival Fatah loyalists, evicting them from Gaza. Rocket attacks occurred on an almost daily basis thereafter.
After prolonged negotiations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the United States unveiled a Joint Understanding in which leaders from both sides agreed to a new round of diplomacy. U.S. President George W. Bush presented the document to representatives of over forty nations and international organizations at a widely publicized conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Endorsed by the Quartet-the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the European Union-the road map calls first for security guarantees followed by creation of a Palestinian state with "provisional borders." In proposing this in 2002, George W. Bush became the first U.S. president to endorse a Palestinian state, calling for "two states, living side by side in peace and security." The Annapolis process hopes to retain elements of the road map.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah presented a peace plan stipulating Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 boundaries and creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Arab League endorsed the plan and reaffirmed that stance at the group's 2007 Riyadh summit. The thorny issue of Palestinian refugees remained unresolved. Israel reacted cautiously. Some Israelis attacked Saudi Arabia's credibility, citing a 2001 Saudi TV documentary repeating the anti-Semitic blood libel that has dogged Jews since the nineteenth century.
Seeking to address the "final status" issues-refugees, borders, security, and Jerusalem-President Bill Clinton sponsored talks at Camp David. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a proposal that included a Palestinian state in Gaza, much of the West Bank, and a large part of East Jerusalem-more than 90 percent of the occupied territories. In exchange, Palestinians had to end the conflict and forego future claims on Israel. Palestinian President Yasir Arafat rejected the offer, and many experts questioned domestic Israeli support for Barak's plan
In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, which called for mutual respect for sovereignty and territory. Though Jordan and Israel had enjoyed relatively stable relations for some time, openly peaceful relations with Israel were politically untenable in Jordan until the breakthrough of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Beginning in 1993, Israel and Syria tried several times to negotiate a peace agreement. The framework called for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace. The sides seemed close in the mid-1990s when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appeared open to withdrawal provided the nations first normalized relations, but Syria rejected this condition. Talks resumed in late 1999, but broke off when Damascus demanded a commitment to a complete Israeli pullout from Golan. Syria insisted on a return to the pre-1967 lines, incorporating Syrian military gains of 1948 and 1950.
A series of talks -- beginning in 1991 at the Madrid Conference and culminating in the Olso process -- shaped the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts for a decade. The Oslo Accords sought to trade Palestinian autonomy for Israeli security guarantees. The transfer was to happen in phases: The deal created the Palestinian Authority, which was to assure Israeli security in exchange for increased control over the occupied areas. Extremists on both sides violently opposed the deals, which were only ever partially implemented.
During its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel tried to negotiate a deal to facilitate Israel's withdrawal, ensure Israeli security, and win diplomatic recognition from the Maronite Christian government of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. After Gemayal's assassination, an agreement was reached in May 1983. But the deal was contingent on Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, which did not occur. Internal opposition and external pressure from Damascus kept Lebanon from ever ratifying the agreement.
In 1981, Saudi Crown Prince Fahd proposed a peace plan entailing an Israeli withdrawal from all territory gained in the 1967 War, removal of Israeli settlements, and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Arab League adopted the plan at a 1982 summit in Fez, Morocco. The so-called Fez Initiative drew tacit support from the United States and Europe, but Israel rejected it, citing insufficient security guarantees. Israel also rejected U.S. President Ronald Reagan's proposal for Palestinian autonomy in association with Jordan, as did the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat
Building on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, President Jimmy Carter hosted Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for talks at Camp David. The talks produced two agreements. One, an outline of an Egypt-Israel peace treaty-signed in 1979-called for the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for peace. The second, peace talks between Israel and its other neighbors and a resolution to the "Palestinian problem," remained unfulfilled, with Arab States shunning Egypt for its actions.
Following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began a process of "shuttle diplomacy," traveling back and forth between Israel and its neighbors in an attempt to mediate disengagement agreements. Kissinger's efforts produced three such pacts: two between Israel and Egypt and another between Israel and Syria. These efforts marked the first major U.S. attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and served as a stepping-stone toward the Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed at Camp David in 1978.
Following the 1967 War, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 242 calling for "a just and lasting peace." This established the principle of land-for-peace—an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in exchange for peace agreements. The resolution deliberately avoided a call for withdrawal from "the" territories, leaving open prospects of territorial compromise. When war broke out again in 1973, Security Council Resolution 338 demanded an immediate cease-fire and implementation of Resolution 242. The United States voted in favor of both resolutions.
UN mediator Folke Bernadotte sought to broker a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors after the 1948 war. Bernadotte was murdered by Jewish extremists, but the UN secured separate armistice agreements in 1949. Bernadotte's replacement, Ralph Bunche, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. All sides violated their agreements, yet the cease-fire held until 1967, and the 1949 "Green Line" dividing Israel from the West Bank remains relevant to contemporary negotiations.
Israel's very existence remains a point of contention with many Arabs, though increasingly its neighbors have signaled a willingness to accept it in exchange for territorial and other compromises. Israel's decision to build settlements in lands occupied during the 1967 War have complicated the conflict. Most Israelis now say they are eager to end the occupation, but only if iron-clad security guarantees-backed by Washington-can be obtained.
Created by the 1993 Olso Accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is the official governing body of the Palestinian people, led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction. Hobbled by corruption and by political infighting, the PA has failed to become the stable negotiating partner its creators had hoped. The death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in 2004 and the subsequent electoral successes of the militant Hamas movement have seriously threatened its existence. The split in Palestinian politics became bloody in 2007 when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Abbas government.
Egypt and Israel were fierce adversaries until 1978, when they signed the Camp David Accords. Though sometimes strained, peace between the countries has withstood repeated challenges. Egypt remains actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the Egyptian government receives the second-largest annual allotment of U.S aid in the region, just behind Israel.
Israel and Jordan have enjoyed normal relations since signing a 1994 peace treaty. Since then, Amman has played an active role in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. Jordan, which before 1967 controlled the West Bank, renounced its claim to the territory. However, many Jordanians have Palestinian ancestry, and the country remains host to nearly 2 million Palestinian refugees. Estimates of the Palestinian component of Jordan's population range from one-third to more than one-half.
Unlike Israel's other neighbors, Lebanon was not a combatant in the 1967 or 1973 wars. However, the country contains groups bent on eliminating the Israeli state. Over the years these have included the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and more recently, Hezbollah. Israel regularly has pursued its assailants into Lebanese territory, including a major invasion in 1982 and an occupation in the south which lasted until 2000, and a brief war in 2006. Syria's deep involvement in Lebanese politics-including its claim that Lebanon should rightly be part of Syria-and Iran's support for Hezbollah further strains Beirut's relations with Israel.
Syria has fought three wars against Israel, and has since antagonized its neighbor through its support of a proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah Party. Israel's capture and annexation of the Golan Heights in the 1967 War continues to draw hostility from Damascus. Diplomacy has consistently failed to solve the impasse, leaving the two nations in a state of war.
As the region's most prominent Shiite-ruled power, Iran's influence has risen in recent years as its two Sunni regional rivals, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, both fell to U.S.-led invasions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map" heightened tensions between Israel and Iran and are in line with the revolutionary regime's broader agenda in the region. Iran's support of Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as Tehran's nuclear ambitions, have led to speculation that Israel may attack Iran if it feels too threatened. Iran pointedly was not invited to the 2007 Annapolis peace conference.
Saudi Arabia has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, though it has played an important behind-the-scenes role in regional mediation efforts while at the same time bankrolling the activities of some Islamist groups. The Arab League has repeatedly backed a 2002 Saudi proposal as the foundation for Arab-Israeli peace. Riyadh holds considerable influence in Washington, due largely to its oil wealth.
Economics, geopolitics, and other arguments all underpin the United States' intense interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Washington's closest ally in the volatile, oil-rich region, Israel long has been the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and the two nations often share intelligence and military technology. These ties have cast Washington as Israel's protector and arsenal, however, and in some cases hurt U.S. standing in the wider region. On the other hand, Arab leaders have often recognized Washington's importance as a diplomatic player. Still, successive U.S. efforts to mediate a solution since the 1967 War have fallen short.
In 1949, Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, became the first predominantly Muslim state to recognize Israel. Yet Turkey denounced the 1967 War and in 1988 formally recognized a Palestinian state. Since the 1990s, however, Turkey and Israel have enjoyed a close alliance, characterized by a free trade agreement, weapons sales, and joint military exercises.
Though one of the first nations to recognize Israel, the Soviet Union soon aligned itself with Arab nationalist regimes and lent support to Palestinian militants. In the post-Soviet era, Moscow became more involved in diplomacy, joining the diplomatic Quartet, which includes the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. Arms deals with Syria and support for Iran's nuclear program, however, continue to raise questions about Moscow's motives. Since Israel declared independence in 1948, over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel.
The "special relationship" between Israel and Germany arises out of Germany's murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Germany paid large financial reparations to Israel in 1952 and established diplomatic relations in 1965. The countries enjoy close security, trade, and inter-parliamentary ties, though recent German governments have urged Israel to compromise in territorial disputes with its Arab neighbors.
After World War I, France ruled colonies in modern-day Syria and Lebanon. Though it gave these up a few years prior to Israel's independence, France remained a prominent player in the region until the 1956 Suez Crisis. In fact, France provided Israel with nuclear assistance and remained the nation's primary weapons supplier until the 1967 War. Paris remains involved in the region, but its diplomacy shifted sharply toward the Arab parties after the oil embargo that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. After the 2006 Lebanon war, French peacekeepers played a significant role in enforcing a cease-fire.
Because of its post-World War I mandate over Palestine, Britain's fingerprints are all over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jews and Arabs alike point with dismay to contradictory promises of national independence issued by the British Empire. Though it withdrew from Palestine in 1948 and further disengaged from the region after the 1956 Suez Crisis, Britain remains involved in efforts to resolve the conflict, offering support and criticism to both sides. Shortly after resigning as British prime minister in 2007, Tony Blair became the envoy of the Quartet-the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations-charged with institution building among Palestinian society.
The historic enmity between Christianity and Judaism, interest in the region's holy sites, and support for Arab Christians led the Vatican to oppose the creation of Israel. In 1993, the church recognized Israeli sovereignty over its pre-1967 borders; it refuses, like most governments, to recognize the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, home to the holiest sites in Christianity and Judaism, and some of the most sacred in Islam. The Vatican endorses a two-state solution.
A member of the diplomatic Quartet, the European Union (EU) seeks to provide a coordinated European position on the conflict. It advocates a two-state solution as outlined in the Road Map for peace. The EU also provides substantial economic assistance to Palestinians, but refused to aid the Hamas-run government before it was disbanded by Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
The United Nations has repeatedly been at the center of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beginning with its 1947 proposal for a two-state partition of the British Mandate of Palestine. Israel has a tenuous relationship with the international body: It has repeatedly been criticized for its alleged violation of various Security Council resolutions; and it took deep umbrage at a 1975 General Assembly resolution, pushed through by an Arab-Soviet bloc coalition, equating Zionism with racism, which has since been rescinded. The United States has often chastised the world body for what it sees as an obsession with castigating Israel. Still, UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, passed following the 1967 and 1973 wars, remain instrumental to peace talks.
The Arab League maintains a hostile stance toward Israel. After the 1967 War, the league passed a resolution calling for no peace, recognition, or negotiations with Israel. Following the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the league suspended Egypt's membership for a decade. The league has since changed course, promoting the Arab Peace Initiative as a means for Israel to normalize relations with the Arab world. The body's Sunni governments also have sought to advance peace talks to counterbalance the growing influence of Shiite Iran over rejectionist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas. However, many Israelis doubt the sincerity of Arab League peace plans, citing inciteful articles in Arab media and anti-Semitic propaganda in the textbooks used in many Arab school systems.
Some 4.4 million Palestinian refugees live in refugee camps or urban areas in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring countries. Many of them fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Now, a majority are the descendants of those who actually experienced flight in those wars, creating an unusual situation in which a large group of people perceive refugeehood as an inherited status. The fate of these Palestinians has become the subject of international concern, and resolving their status will be a necessary component of any peaceful resolution.
Founded by the late Yasir Arafat in the 1950s, Fatah is the largest Palestinian political faction. Unlike Hamas, Fatah is a secular movement, has nominally recognized Israel, and has actively participated in the peace process. However, its military wing has proven hard to reign in and occasionally conducts "retaliatory attacks."
Hezbollah is a Lebanese umbrella organization of radical Islamic Shiite groups and organizations. Listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, Hezbollah opposes Western influence, seeks to create an Islamic state modeled on Iran, and is a bitter foe of any compromise with Israel. Hezbollah receives financial and material support from Iran and Syria, and is often seen to be acting in those countries' interests.
Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. In January 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian Authority's legislative elections. Hamas's refusal to accept the Palestinian Authority's 1993 decision to renounce violence, recognize Israel, and adhere to previous signed agreements has led to crippling sanctions and Western support for its political rival, Fatah. A Hamas putsch ejected Fatah from Gaza in June 2007, splitting the Palestinian movement geographically, as well.
Copyright 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. All Rights Reserved.