The Palestinian issue is at the centre of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world. Starting with the early Zionists’ lobbying around Europe’s capitals in the early twentieth century, through Britain’s “Balfour Declaration” and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War; the League of Nations Mandate given to Britain, increased Jewish migration to Palestine and terrorism against the British and the Palestinians; and the establishment of the Zionist state of Israel in 1948, the issue played a massively important role in Middle East politics. Post-1948 and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and subsequent wars, Palestine is still the issue to be resolved if peace and stability is going to come to the region.
A struggle over the land is the essence of the Palestinian cause, and the establishment of a Jewish state on the land and in the homes of the Palestinian people following their displacement is the essence of the conflict with the Zionist movement. The Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 provides a clear reference point for the loss of Arab hegemony and sovereignty over the land of Palestine, a land holy to Arab Muslims and Christians alike.
The occupation of more Arab land in the wake of the June 1967 war, and the complete occupation to the rest of Palestine changed the political discourse. We started to hear talk of establishing a Palestinian state within the cease-fire line of 1948-1967, in what is commonly called the West Bank plus the Gaza Strip.
There is no doubt that Israel has the support of the United States and Europe as well as those Arab leaders allied with the West. Such leaders use the “West Bank-Gaza option” in their speeches, in support of US political objectives. However, that approach to this whole issue means that the legal and moral right of the Palestinian refugees and their descendents to return to their homeland is being pushed to one side, as is the basic fact that Israel is occupying someone else’s land, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but also in the Golan heights, which belong to Syria.
The right of return is diminishing in prominence in discussions to be replaced by efforts to improve the situation of refugees in their camps; the hope being, no doubt, that they will see these camps – in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the West Bank and Gaza – as their new home and give up their legal right to return. Many Palestinians see this as a conspiracy against them by the West and its allies among the Arab states; resistance is, they believe, the only way to keep the issue alive. Such efforts are not easy, because they have to resist not only Israel and its brutal occupation but also supporters of the “resettlement solution”.
The discredited 1993 Oslo accords and subsequent agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization ushered in a new era of the Arab-Israeli conflict. PLO slogans such as “full liberation” and “armed struggle” were replaced by “negotiation instead of struggle”, “independence instead of liberation” and “a State instead of the return of the refugees”. This has had a profound effect on the fundamental issue of refugee rights and the political settlement of the Palestinian state, its borders and sovereignty. Today, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has taken on the slogans abandoned by the PLO, notably the very concept of Palestinian resistance. The movement is facing enormous pressure internally from the Fatah movement, and externally from the “international community” and is being besieged in order to force a change in its position.
The past few years have seen major developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with the Second Intifada (uprising) in 2000 which undermined the credibility of the Oslo accords and created instability across the Middle East. Weak Arab regimes started to regard the Palestinian issue as a local matter for the Palestinians alone and have as a result generally stood by and watched from the sidelines, with occasional words of condemnation but little determined action.
Israel started to build the separation wall, taking even more Palestinian land in the process and began to speak of Palestinian “autonomy” rather than a state with full independence; the wall, settlements and settler-only roads have divided the West Bank into non-contiguous blocs. The Palestinians, meanwhile, speak of going back to the political situation before the second intifada. An “Arab initiative” launched in 2002 was rejected by Israel but remains on the table.
That rejection did not appear in a vacuum. Changes in US policy after 9/11, especially in attitudes towards the Arab states, gave Israel the confidence to impose its own position on the region. To that was added the Palestinians’ internal division between Hamas and Fatah, which tore the community apart to the extent that there are now two Palestinian entities, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza.
Following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the balance of power shifted; Israel’s military might was no longer seen as a deterrent. For the first time, Sunni and Shia Muslims were behind an Arab party resisting Israeli aggression, Hezbollah, even though the latter was linked with Iran. Israel is again beating the drums of war against Lebanon in order to restore its image in the region and across the world.
Political dialogue and a truce called by Hamas with Israel, which held for six months in 2008 until it was broken by the Israelis, preceded the bloody war against Gaza at the end of 2008 and early in 2009, opening a new chapter in the conflict. On this occasion, Gaza stood alone, without Arab or even West Bank Palestinian support. Despite the massive human cost and destruction of the war, Israel has not reaped any political gains; quite the reverse, in fact. Nevertheless, the suffocating siege of Gaza goes on. The almost total blockade has been added to a litany of sieges that are part of Palestinian consciousness, including the siege of the PLO in Beirut and the siege of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in his compound in Ramallah.
Settlements and settlers are central to the colonial Zionist project that is the state of Israel. Strategic settlement began in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and tore apart these occupied Palestinian territories. Resistance in Gaza eventually forced Israel’s ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to uproot the settlers and leave Gaza unilaterally. Sharon’s and subsequent Israeli governments have ploughed ahead with increased settlement expansion across the West Bank, with a focus on Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah now links the end of settlement activity to participation in peace talks, but Israel’s current right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu won’t accept such a precondition, despite pressure from the US on this point. Obsessive Israeli settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem is a real obstacle to peace as it is the intended capital of a future Palestinian state.
As the occupation of Palestine enters its 63rd year it still casts a shadow across the world. No core issues have been resolved in that time; the refugees are still refugees and Jewish colonist-settlers continue to build on occupied Palestinian land. A new political lexicon has developed specifically for this conflict but it seems to be incapable of solving it. Sad as it may sound, the Palestinian issue looks set to be with us for many years to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.