Israel and Palestine have agreed to renewed peace talks. This is the first time in three years that the two will engage in direct negotiations, and comes after a major push from the U.S.’s new Secretary of State, John Kerry.
Israel and Palestine’s conflict is a long-simmering problem that everyone is aware of on the periphery, but I feel like not a lot of people know a lot about in detail. So before we get into some of the contemporary issues leading up to these talks, we’re going to have a crash course in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Crash Course: Israel and Palestine
The Jewish Diaspora dates back to biblical times, when the Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of Judah. Over time, they dispersed throughout the world, but a movement known as Zionism emerged. Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism, advocating the establishment of a Jewish nation in the holy land. (Spoiler alert: they succeeded and established Israel.)
Fast forward to 1922. The British are formally awarded the mandate for the territory known as Palestine, which includes Jerusalem. There were several unsuccessful Palestinian rebels over the course of the next two decades or so.
During and immediately after World War II, Palestine, which already had a Jewish population alongside its Arab population, saw a huge influx of Jewish refugees from Europe. During this time, two Jewish nationalist terrorist groups emerged: Irgun and Lehi, targeting both Arab Palestinians and the British administering the region. I think it is important to mention this because while everyone is familiar with the narrative of Israel as victims of terrorism, they have also been involved in terrorist actions as well.
In 1947, the British announced that they intended to give up their mandate to govern the territory. The United Nations General Assembly took that idea and ran with it, introducing a resolution calling for establishment of a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem. Jewish leadership accepted the plan, but the Arab Higher Committee rejected it. A civil war ensued. In 1948, the Jewish State of Israel was established and the Palestinian Exodus, the flight of 700,000-900,000 Palestinians from their homes, occurred.
The U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to their old homes, but Israel refused to implement it. Subsequent conflicts, most especially the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, have created more Palestinian refugees. There are now 4.2 million of them across the Middle East, and others in other parts of the world. They are the world’s biggest refugee population.
Key Points of Contention
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a complex issue with a lot of factors, but here are a couple of the most important sticking points that come up repeatedly in negotiations.
– Right of Return: This goes back to the Palestinian Exodus. Palestinians think the original families displaced in the 1948 war should be able to return to their old homes. In a lot of cases, their lands have been taken over by Israeli settlers, which complicates the issue. And so the Israelis are not really down.
– The status of Jerusalem: Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims consider Jerusalem a holy city. Israel has integrated West Jerusalem as part of their country following the 1967 war, and currently occupies East Jerusalem as well. This occupation is widely viewed, both by Arab countries and others around the world, as illegal. Nonetheless, Israel has a policy of integrating all of Jerusalem in to their territory.
– Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights: This is a related issue. Israel continues to build settlements in territories that are in territories legally recognized by the international community as Palestinian. So even when the two parties are not engaging in actual battle, the Israeli state continues to expand. These settlements are increasingly creating a geographic split between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
– Palestinians want any negotiations to be based on the borders established prior to the 1967 war, with some possibilities for land swaps.
– Israel wants Palestinians to recognize their sovereignty/legitimacy of the Israeli Jewish state. This has actually been a sticking point for a while, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently said that is not a necessary peace condition this time around. However, he has pointed out that negotiations would not make much progress without such recognition. Palestinians object to this because they argue that recognition of Israel specifically as a Jewish state because of how it would impact the possibility of a right to return (see above).
– Finally, Palestinian fighters in Gaza often fire rockets across the border into Israel. Israel has in the past demanded that they stop.
The new talks have given some people hope for a solution, but the decision to engage in them may have been driven more by internal needs for Netanyahu.
The European Union has issued new guidelines for their dealings with Israel, essentially restating their opinion that the settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights are not part of Israel. While it will not affect trade between the EU and Israel, it will deny EU funding and loans for Israeli projects in the occupied territories. It may also help build the foundation for regulations to label products coming from the occupied territories, a popular idea among EU citizens.
While Israeli officials have decried the move, more liberal sectors of Israeli society have supported it, both as a method of holding Israel accountable for its illegal settlements and argue that it could help Israel avoid being targeted with broader sanctions because of the settlements.
However, the EU has also recognized Hezbollah’s military branch as a terrorist organization, which is something that Israel has pushed for for a long time (Israel and the U.S. already recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.)
This is all part of a greater push by the EU community to be more involved in the peace process, one that has long been dominated by the U.S. And despite what some in the U.S. might think, that is probably a good thing.
For more information on the current situation in Israel and Palestine, I recommend a recent episode of the (very excellent) podcast Citizen Radio.