73 Years of Israel: The Arab-Israeli conflict continues

Today, amid an escalating Arab-Israeli conflict, is the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. While Israelis positively associate this day with the declaration of their own independence, Palestinians have a rather pessimistic and grieving view on it, as it is remembered as the gateway for the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians from their home. It is to no surprise that the latter refers to this historical event as Nakba, which is the Arabic term for “catastrophe”. 

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion in May 1948, may have triggered the first international war between Israel and its neighbouring Arab countries, but that was by no means the starting point of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, it was the rising immigration of Jewish people to the Palestinian land, which, in the face of increasing antisemitism in Europe and Russia, started taking off in the early 1880s. This development, combined with the emergence of the modern Zionists, who advocated the formation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, led to a land-, resource- and religious-based conflict between the Jewish immigrants and the Arab residents. 

The consequence was a total of six international wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, accompanied by two Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation known as the First and the Second Intifada, as well as three wars in Gaza. The Arab-Israeli conflict has, since its emergence in the late 19th century, caused many fatalities on both sides, and despite several attempts to find a solution, today we are still far away from one, as the recent escalation between Israelis and Hamas has shown once more. In order to understand this deadlock situation, it is vital to take a look at the major conflict issues that impede this solution. 

The two-state solution

Palestinians have long sought to break free from life under Israeli occupation and build up their own independent nation. The two-state solution – which would allow this vision to become a reality – is supported by the vast majority of the international community. In fact, according to the United Nations, it is the only path for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace. However, the realization of a two-state solution is undergoing a backlash. On the one hand, the Israeli government disapproves of the creation of an independent Palestinian state because of security concerns. In that scenario, Israel would have to give up control over the Palestinian territory, which would also impede any military activities in Palestine – an unacceptable scenario for Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. In the election campaign of 2015, he claimed that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch.

On the other hand, the territorial integrity of a potential Palestinian state poses a problem. Although there is a general consensus that it would consist of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), it is unclear how these two Palestinian territories would be connected, given the fact that they are separated by Israeli land. This issue is reinforced by political cleavages between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter is being governed by the controversial Hamas – designated by the U.S. Department of State as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” – since 2007 and is based on different authorities and legislation than the West Bank. If a Palestinian state were to be established, the question remains how these two differently governed and territorially split areas could come together and form a unitary state.

Another important factor that impedes the two-state solution is the different stance that Israelis and Palestinians hold in regard to the question of Jerusalem. The “holy” city, which has deep historical and religious roots for both Jews and Muslims (and also Christians), was divided in the wake of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948 when Jordan occupied its Eastern part. It was not until the Six-Day War in 1967 that the Israeli military gained control of the Eastern part and was, therefore, able to “reunite” the city. While for Palestinians it is absolutely essential that East Jerusalem constitutes the capital of their future independent state, Israelis have claimed the city of Jerusalem to be indivisible ever since the occupation and annexation of the Eastern part in 1967 and 1980 respectively.

Jewish Settlements

Israeli governments started building Jewish settlements on Palestinian land right after its occupation in 1967 and have continued to do so until this day, despite it being a violation of international law, as stated in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), more than 620,000 settlers were living in the West Bank as of the end of 2017. The Israeli settlement policy has led to a fragmentation of Palestinian land and therefore further decreases the feasibility of the establishment of a unitary Palestinian state. Another issue arising with the settlements is the rising radicalization of the settlers. In recent years, Jewish settlers, who are allowed to carry weapons for their own protection, have increasingly assaulted Palestinian civilians and vandalized mosques, sometimes also attacking Israeli peace activists and even soldiers. It is expected that, if the Israeli government were to decide to remove the settlements, this would lead to a violent resistance by these radical settlers. However, amidst the growing influence and lobbying activities of settlement leaders in Israeli politics, such a settlement drawback is highly unlikely anyway. 

Refugees and the question of return

As a consequence of the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948 around 700’000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes in what is known today as the state of Israel. Many of these people fled to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, but also to neighbouring Arab countries. According to the UNRWA , today there are around 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees, including the descendants of the originally displaced. In Jordan for example, these refugees make up around 30% of the country’s total population.

The UN Resolution 194 of 1948 recognizes the right for Palestinians to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours. Most of the Palestinian refugees continue to claim this right and wish to return. This perspective is also supported by most of the host countries of these refugees, who largely deny them citizenship. The Israelis, however, refuse to grant these refugees a return. They fear that this would lead to the loss of the Jewish majority of the population. Today, Arabs make up only around one fifth of the Israeli population, but with the return of millions of Arabs, this share could suddenly increase significantly. If this were to occur, Israelis would be stripped from their self-declared entitlement of calling themselves a Jewish state. 

Of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be reduced to these three conflict issues. This analysis focused especially on the land- and ideology-based aspects of the conflict. In reality, however, it is much more complex, and also includes for example resource-related issues such as the dispute over the water supply system. But today, we look back at 73 years of Israel shaped by violent conflict and constant bloodshed. The recent escalation has shown once again that the Arab-Israeli conflict is still acute, far from over and in desperate need of a solution. Some are still hopeful that it will be solved, others have already given up faith. 

Israel’s illegal settlement-expansion

In 1967, the Israeli army defeated its Arab neighbors in a bloodshed combat that is widely known as the Six-Day War. Suddenly, Israel’s territory had significantly expanded, capturing territories such as the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights as well as the territories that today make up the Palestinian land, namely the Gaza strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the latter having been (illegally) annexed. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been under Israeli occupation ever since, despite being governed by the Palestinian authorities. 

One would imagine that the Israeli government would be satisfied with this development and that it would settle on these new-drawn boundaries. However, history has shown this interpretation to be an illusion. Israel continues to enforce its expansion policy by setting up one Israeli settlement after the other. As of 2019, around 650’000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some of these settlers are known to be extremely radical, which results in a widespread phenomenon called “settler violence” towards Palestinian residents nearby. Especially in recent months, settler attacks against Palestinians have been increasing rapidly.

Undermining international law

In order to build these settlements, Israel continuously relies on methods such as the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian homes, and therefore also on the forced transfer or eviction of Palestinian residents. These actions clearly violate international law, as the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly states that “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory” are illegal.

However, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to respect these international norms. In fact, he went one step further in breaking international law by proposing his own annexation plans for the Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory that make up around 30% of the West Bank. The implementation of the project was supposed to begin in July 2020, but Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz demanded to postpone the annexation due to the government’s responsibility to set its focus on combatting Covid-19. Though fading into the background, it is plausible that Netanyahu will resume his annexation plans once the pandemic is under control. 

Netanyahu has benefited from a Trump Administration that does not criticize Israel’s illegal settlement-expansion. On the contrary, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in November 2019 that the United States do not consider Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory to be violations of international law. The administration’s Middle East Peace Plan also pushed for the illegal annexation of these settlements as well as that of the Jordan Valley, an important economic area for Palestinians. The plan also stated that the remaining 70% of the Palestinian territory would be subject for discussion to form a future Palestinian state. This is an unrealistic promise that would, if indeed implemented, be tied to strict constraints. Handing over the Jordan Valley to Israel or giving up the dream of having East Jerusalem as their capital city are only a few of the sacrifices Palestinians would have to make if they were to accept the US plan. It is to no surprise that this peace proposal, which clearly aims to justify the illegal annexation of Israeli settlements, does not include a plan for the return of the three million Palestinian refugees that were forced to leave the Palestinian territory in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. 

US elections as a driver of change?

Israel’s Prime Minister cannot expect the same amount of support for his illegal activities from the next US Administration – Joe Biden has stated that he does not approve of Netanyahu’s annexation plans. Not surprisingly, Israel accelerated the construction of settlements after it was clear that Trump would be leaving office in the beginning of 2021. It remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration will oppose the Israeli settlement expansion, but at least it can be expected that the annexation of the existing settlements will be met with resistance by the Oval Office. 

A Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution is far from reachable. A first step in the right direction, however, is to put an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, which does not conform with international law and leads to a severe fragmentation of the Palestinian territory. Without this necessary condition the hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict will remain an illusion. 

The European Union has taken a leading role in opposing Israel’s settlement politics, but its influence on Israeli politics remains limited. The United States, however, have had close political and economic ties to Israel for decades and are most likely Israel’s closest ally. It is, therefore, of great importance that the Biden Administration “exploits” this privilege and pushes Netanyahu to finally abandon the illegal settlements. This is the only way to create the foundation for a peaceful two-state solution.