The Heart of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
September 30, 2012 Leave a comment
There is a conception amongst people, who learn about the Israeli Palestinian conflict from the media, that the negotiations are not going on because the Palestinians have set a condition to stop the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank and Israel would not or is unable to comply. This statement is partially true, however, anyone thinking that this is the heart of the conflict or that the ongoing settlement is the issue that needs to be tackled is missing the most important point altogether.
The conflict started well before the Second World War, when Jews started arriving to Israel from Europe. It is important to mention that there were already Jews in the land, however they were a minority at the time (The fact they were a minority was a result multiple expulsions from foreign rulers such Shalmaneser V, Nebuchadnezzar II, the Greeks, the Romans, etc). Since historically there has always been friction between Jews and Arabs, due to the different faiths, manifesting itself in the violence and discrimination in the Arab lands where Jews lived, the Arabs were already wary of the immigration and the prospect of becoming a minority in the future.
Due to the Arab’s fear, in the beginning of the 1900’s the local Arabs fought both on the ground and politically trying to restrict the arrival of Jews to the land. Following the Balfour declaration of making the land the home of the Jews, they put great pressure on the British mandated ruler to stop the Jewish population growth by restricting Jewish immigration.
The British realising that this is a problem set up the Peel Commission to find ways to settle the dispute. The gist of the commission’s conclusions, after conducting a thorough investigation including interviewing leading figures on both sides, was that it is not likely that Jews and local Arabs would be able to live side by side. There is an animosity between them and as Arabs would not be happy living under a Jewish rule, the Jews would not be happy living under an Arab rule (the Zionist movement’s aim was to establish a Jewish leadership rather than returning to being a minority under a foreign rule). Therefore the most conceivable conclusion would be to divide the land to Jewish and Arab.
It would be unfair to history to claim that the Jews happily accepted the Peel Commission’s conclusions. It is reported that some of the Jewish leaders who came had big plans to turn the entire land to be their own. Backed up by European consent and their biblical and historical ties to the land, they believed that it was their right to live on the land and turn it completely to a Jewish state, where Jews could return and be free. According to historians such as Ben Morris, it was the start of WW II and other practical reasons that made the Jewish leadership realise that the ambition of owning the whole state is unachievable and therefore agree to a territorial division.
On the Palestinian side things were viewed quite differently. They did not want a Jewish state on the land. The Palestinian leadership wanted to maintain the Arab majority, which rules over the Jews, who were present prior to the European immigration. When Britain suggested the division, the Jews accepted it, while the Palestinians refused. When the UN voted on the partition plan in 29 of November 1947, the Jewish representatives accepted it and curbed the “Revisionists” groups, who claimed that land compromises should not be made. The Palestinians on the other hand rejected the vote and declared a war, described by some of their leaders as a war of extermination. Ultimately and possibly against all odds the Arab nations lost the war and Israel was founded.
Since the founding of Israel the Palestinians have rejected the idea of a Jewish rule. Even after their big defeat in the six days war in 1967 they were adamant to rule the whole land and accordingly they replied to peace talks with the conclusion of their conference in Khartoum in Sudan with the famous 3 no’s (No to peace, no to negotiation and no to recognition of Israel).
The fear Israeli rulers have always had is that the Palestinians are adhering to what has become known as the “Phased Plan”. This plan is claimed to be the Palestinian pragmatic strategy, which is attributed by some historians to the “moderate” Palestinian leaders. This approach, as stated in the PLO resolution in 1974, involves accepting a settlement to establish a Palestinian Statehood, however then to continue an armed struggle, until the entire land is liberated. This resolution has been talked about and agreements have been made to change it (during the Oslo Accords), however it has never been modified.
The fear of Israel that making concessions would not lead to peace, rather give the Palestinians a better grounding to continue their struggle has dominated several negotiations and peace conferences between Israel and Palestinians. In some of these talks some breakthroughs have been made, resulting in Israel handing over control over land and cooperation, however they always side-stepped two main issues: Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.
Jerusalem is a complex issue as a holy place to three religions, neither party wants to hand over control, there have already been suggestions on how to resolve it (for example an international rule or division of the city to East and West sections), however, no one has had the courage or deemed it is the right time to take this big step.
The second point about the refugees goes straight into the heart of the issue and is possibly never properly explained in the mainstream media. The Palestinians demand justice for their people by allowing them to return to their houses, which they fled as part of the conflict. Even though many of the people are already dead, they deem their descendants have the right to return. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable request, which would help the Palestinian feel that justice has been done and therefore accept a long-term settlement. However in reality this issue causes great concern to Israel and is much more complex.
In 1948 there were an estimated 7000,000 refugees that fled the land. In 2012 their descendants are estimated to be just under 5 million. If those 5 million return to Israel and therefore become citizens, the Arabs would immediately become a political majority and Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish State. Therefore this request, which is often presented as a minor dispute over territory, in its current capacity trumps any talks, as land division would be meaningless, if Israel loses its Jewish majority and hence Jewish rule.
Once the Jews become a minority two scenarios are likely to occur. In the first scenario, the Arab rule will preside and Israel will become a country made of two major ethnic groups. Judging on the treatment of other religions such as Christianity in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries such as Egypt as well as the experience of the jews who have fled from Arab countries, the future is looking very bleak. Especially with the recent re-birth of Islamic rule as a result of the Arab uprisings, which is sweeping the region.
The second scenario is that the Jews would maintain their rule and preserve their values. However, preserving their values and rules is compatible with being a minority in this situation, as one of the main values of Israel is a free democracy. In order for the Jews to preserve control, they would have to employ tactics of an Apartheid country, something which would find many opposers both internationally and at home.
The repercussions of the demographics on Israel may at times sound like a conspiracy theory, as there are some assumptions made such as all refugees would choose to return, all Arabs will vote the same…etc. However considering the military balance, whichgives Israel the upper hand inthe region, it is the Palestinians’ best prospect to regain control of the whole land. It is then no surprise that many of Israel’s harshest critics such as Norman Finkelstein, George Galloway and other Palestinian figures have abandoned the two state solution and are calling for a one state.
Since the Palestinian refugees right to return issue is far from being resolved, the prospect for an imminent peace is minimal if not non-existent. So, it is unlikely to be any progress, before the Palestinian leadership and the international community would address specifically what rights the Palestinian refugees should get, using as a basis the other refugees in the world, who have been settled after a conflict, possibly starting with the Jews who fled Arab countries.