The Arab-Israeli conflict in 10 points

The conflict in Israel and the occupied territories has been going on for almost a century. Here, Ben Ehrenreich picks out 10 key events and themes

1 Not an ancient conflict

In the late 19th century, Palestine's Jewish population stood at less than 5 per cent. Tensions between the region's Jews and Arabs did not begin to rise until after 1917, when British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour declared that the British authorities "view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object." After the first World War and the breakup of the Ottoman empire, the League of Nations granted Britain a "mandate" to rule over Palestine. The first serious outbreak of violence there came in 1929. A parliamentary inquiry later determined that "there had been no recorded attacks of Jews by Arabs" in the previous eight decades and that the aggravating factor had been British support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

2 Colonial roots, colonial realities

Many of the laws and practices that would later become essential to Israel’s governance of its Palestinian population were inherited from the colonial regime. The British Defence Regulations, codified in 1945 and incorporated into Israeli law three years later by the first legislative act of the new Jewish state, allowed for the prosecution of civilians by military courts, indefinite “administrative detention” without trial, home demolitions, official censorship, the criminalisation of “unlawful associations”, the establishment of “closed military zones”, the imposition of curfews and restrictions on travel, and the arbitrary confiscation of land and property. All of these measures would be used against Palestinians in Israel and, after 1967, in Gaza and the West Bank as well.

3 Refugees, infiltrators, émigrés

By 1949, when Zionist forces defeated Palestinian militias and the armies of several neighbouring Arab states, more than 700,000 Palestinians had fled or been expelled from their homes. Some ended up in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which fell under Egyptian and Jordanian control. Others began lengthy exiles outside historic Palestine. In 1949 the Israeli military adopted a “free fire” policy, allowing soldiers to shoot returning refugees on sight. By 1956, 2,700-5,000 such “infiltrators” had been killed. There are now more than seven million Palestinian refugees around the world. By contrast, any individual with one Jewish grandparent, regardless of their place of birth, is entitled to emigrate to Israel and become a citizen of the Jewish state.

4 An illegal occupation

After six days of fighting in June 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula. Five months later, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories it had occupied. Israel had at that point already established its first civilian settlement in the West Bank, though international law forbids occupying powers from transferring “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. In the years since, Israeli governments of both the left and right have consistently encouraged the settlement enterprise with financial, infrastructural and military support. About 500,000 Israeli citizens now live in more than 130 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in more than 100 “outposts” not yet formally approved by the state. Forty-two per cent of the land in the West Bank currently falls under settlers’ control.


5 The peace that wasn’t

In September 1993, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat signed an agreement that, along with several subsequent treaties, would be collectively known as the Oslo Accords. “The fact is,” wrote the scholar Edward Said at the time, “that Israel has conceded nothing.” Meant as a temporary measure until “permanent status negotiations” were complete, Oslo divided the West Bank into zones of Israeli and Palestinian control, giving the Israeli military control over 61 per cent of the West Bank. The deal created the Palestinian Authority and delegated to it responsibility for the security, health, and education of Palestinians living in the 18 per cent of the West Bank over which it exercises a highly limited form of authority. Israel still controls Palestinian borders, movement, economic relations, airspace, telecommunications, and access to water and other resources. The PA frequently acts as Israel’s proxy, suppressing protests and potential resistance to the occupation on Israel’s behalf.

6 Segregation and the wall

In 2002, during the Second Intifada, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the construction of a physical barrier to separate Israel from the West Bank and prevent the entry of Palestinian suicide bombers. The barrier – which in some places takes the form of a 2m electrified fence, in others an 8m concrete wall – has since grown to 709km, twice the length of the internationally recognised boundary between Israel and the West Bank known as the Green Line. Despite its ostensible security purpose, the barrier has functioned primarily to seize Palestinian land: 85 per cent of its length falls within the Palestinian side of the Green Line, annexing nearly 10 per cent of the West Bank. It snakes deeply into Palestinian territory, separating communities from one another and farmers from their fields. The Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman has described the wall as “a discontinuous and fragmented series of self-enclosed barriers that can be better understood as a prevalent ‘condition’ of segregation . . . rather than one continuous line neatly cutting the territory in two.”

7 Permits and checkpoints

In the early 1990s, Israel began requiring Palestinians to obtain permits before entering Israel or moving between the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. During the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, the military began establishing checkpoints, not only along its borders but within the territories it occupies, restricting movement in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Palestinians are now in many cases required to apply for permits to visit and farm their own land. More than half of the nearly 100 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank regulate travel within Palestinian territory, preventing the free movement of people and goods, and making fear, humiliation, and uncertainty an elemental part of Palestinian life. Checkpoints are frequently sites of clashes, and of Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli security forces.

8 Courts and prisons

Israel administers separate legal systems for Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli civil and criminal law, with extensive due process protections. Palestinians live under martial law and are tried by military courts in which they lack even basic procedural rights. Nearly all West Bank Palestinians have at least one relative in prison and nearly 40 per cent of all Palestinian males there have been in detention at some point. In 2010, the last year for which figures were released, the conviction rate for Palestinians in the military court system was 99.74 per cent. Israel now holds more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners. More than 400 are children and nearly 600 “administrative detainees”, held on secret evidence without charge or trial. More than 50 prisoners are on hunger strike to demand the freedom of Bilal Kayed (35), who was placed on administrative detention in June immediately after completing a 14½-year sentence.

9 The siege of Gaza

In 2005, by order of then prime minister Ariel Sharon, Israel evacuated all settlements in the Gaza Strip. One year later, the Islamist party Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections. Months of fighting between Hamas militants and forces loyal to the secular nationalist party Fatah followed. Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip while Fatah, under PA president Mahmoud Abbas, maintained power in the West Bank. Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza, limiting the import of food, fuel, and all goods into the Strip, which had been walled off since the mid-1990s. In the years since, responding to sporadic rocket fire from armed groups there, the Israeli military has launched three major “operations” against Gaza, killing more than 3,800 people, nearly two-thirds of them civilians and a quarter children. In the 15 years since Hamas first fired rockets into Israel, projectiles from Gaza have killed 30 Israeli civilians, about the same number that die in traffic accidents each month. According to the UN, the devastation Gaza has endured may render it uninhabitable by the end of this decade.

10 Boycott

Inspired by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in 2005 170 Palestinian civil society groups put out a call for a nonviolent, international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The campaign has lately won some major victories, with several multinational firms and national investment funds breaking ties to Israeli firms. It has also come under attack. In a speech to pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton characterised the BDS movement as anti-Semitic, and several US states have passed laws to penalise those that boycott Israel. In May, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charles Flanagan affirmed that those advocating boycott hold a “legitimate political viewpoint” and that the Irish Government “does not agree with attempts to demonise” them. Last year, Ireland imported more than €90 million of Israeli goods, and sold more than €1 billion of Irish products to Israel.

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, published by Granta Books