The Israeli-Palestine conflict, which is still occurring today, is one of the most deadly conflicts in modern history. From January 6th, 2008 to August 21st, 2020, there have been a total of 125,438 casualties due to the conflict. While we cannot be certain about what's to come, we can get a better idea by looking at the conflict’s past.
One of the biggest myths about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that religion is the main cause. While religion is involved, the conflict is mainly over land disputes and only goes back a century to the early 1900s. Around then, the region along the eastern Mediterranean (which we now call Israel-Palestine) had been under the rule of the declining Ottoman Empire for centuries. This area of land was religiously diverse; it had Muslims, Christians, and Jews. However, this region was changing in two important ways, the first being that more people in the region were developing a distinct national identity. The second is in Europe, where many Jews were joining the Zionist movement, which says that Judaism was not just a religion, but a nationality as well. After centuries of persecution, many believed a Jewish state was their only way of safety and saw their historic homeland in the Middle East as the only way of establishing it. In the first few decades of the 20th Century, tens of thousands of European Jews moved to Palestine.
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the British and French Empires carved up the Middle East, with the British taking control of a region called the British Mandate of Palestine. At first, the British allowed Jewish immigration, but as more Jews arrived, tensions between Jews and Arabs grew. Both sides committed acts of violence, and by the 1930s, the British began limiting Jewish immigration. In response, Jewish militias formed to fight the local Arabs and to resist British rule. Then came the Holocaust, leading many more Jews to flee Europe for British Palestine. After World War II, much of the world supported the creation of a Jewish state. In 1947, as sectarian violence between Arabs and Jews grew, the United Nations approved a plan to divide British Palestine into 2 separate states: one for Jews, and one for Arabs. The city of Jerusalem, where Jews, Muslims, and Christians all have holy sites, was to become a special international zone. The plan was meant to give Jews a state, to establish Palestinian independence, and to end the sectarian violence the British could no longer control.
The Jews accepted the plan and declared their independence as Israel, but the Arabs saw the UN plan as just a continuation of European colonialism. Many of the Arab states declared war on Israel to establish a unified Arab Palestine where British Palestine had been. The new state of Israel won the war but in the process, they pushed well past their borders under the UN plan, taking the western half of Jerusalem and much of the land that was to have been part of Palestine. They also expelled huge numbers of Palestinians from their home, creating a massive refugee population whose descendants today number about 7 million. At the end of the war, Israel controlled all of the territories except for Gaza— which Egypt controlled— and the West Bank, which Jordan controlled. This was the beginning of the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict. During this period, many Jews in Arab-majority countries fled or were expelled, arriving in Israel. Then, something happened that transformed the conflict for years to come.
In 1967, Israel and the neighboring Arab states fought another war. When it ended, Israel had seized the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and both Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. This left Israel responsible for governing the Palestinians - a people it had fought for decades. In 1978, Israel and Egypt signed the US-brokered Camp David Accords, and as part of the peace treaty, Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt. At the time this was hugely controversial in the Arab world. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in part because of outrage against making peace with Israel, but it marked the beginning of the end of the wider Arab-Israeli conflict.
Over the next few decades, the other Arab states gradually made peace with Isreal, even if they never signed formal peace treaties, but Israel’s military was still occupying the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and this is when the conflict became an Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which formed in the 1960s to seek a Palestinian state, fought against Israel, including acts of terrorism. Initially, the PLO claimed all of what had been British Palestine, meaning it wanted to end the state of Israel entirely. Fighting between Israel and the PLO went on for years, even including a 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to kick the group out of Beirut.
The PLO later said it would accept dividing land between Israel and Palestine, but the conflict continued. As this was happening, something dramatic was changing in the Israel-occupied Palestinian territories: Israelis were moving in. These people are called settlers, and they made their homes in the West Bank and Gaza whether Palestinians wanted them or not. Some moved for religious reasons, some because they wanted to claim the land for Israel, and some just because housing are cheap— and often subsidized by the Israeli government. Some settlements are cities with thousands of people; others are small communities deep in the West Bank. The settlers were followed by soldiers to guard them, and the growing settlements forced Palestinians off of their land and into divided communities. Short-term, they make the occupation much more painful for Palestinians.
Long-term, by dividing up Palestinian land, they make it more difficult for the Palestinians to ever have an independent state. Today there are several hundred thousand settlers in an occupied territory even though the international community considers them illegal. By the late 1980s, Palestinian frustration exploded into the Intifada, which is the Arabic word for “uprising”. It began with mostly protests and boycotts but soon it became violent, and Israel responded with heavy force. A few hundred Israelis and over a thousand Palestinians died in the First Intifada. Around the same time, a group of Palestinians in Gaza who considered the PLO too secular and too compromise-minded, created Hamas, a violent extremist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
By the early 1990s, it’s clear that Israelis and Palestinians must make peace, and leaders from both sides signed the Oslo Accords. This is meant to be the big, first step toward Israel someday withdrawing from the Palestinian territories and allowing an independent Palestine. The Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority, allowing Palestinians a little bit of freedom to govern themselves in certain areas. Hard-liners on both sides opposed the Oslo accords. Members of Hamas launched suicide bombings to sabotage the process. The Israeli right-wing protested the peace talks, with ralliers calling Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a traitor and a Nazi. Not long after Rabin signs the second round of Oslo Accords, a far-right Israeli shoots him to death in Tel Aviv. This violence showed how extremists on both sides can use violence to derail peace and keep a permanent conflict going as they seek the other side’s destruction. That is a dynamic that has been around ever since. Negotiations meant to hammer out the final details on peace drag on for years, and a big Camp David Summit in 2000 comes up empty. Palestinians come to believe that peace isn’t coming, and rise up in a Second Intifada, one much more violent than the first one. By the time it wound down a few years later, about 1,000 Israelis and 3,200 Palestinians had died.
The Second Intifada changes the conflict; Israelis become more skeptical that Palestinians will never accept peace or if it’s even worth trying. Israeli politics shift right, and the country builds walls and checkpoints to control Palestinians’ movements. They are not trying to solve the conflict anymore, just manage it. The Palestinians are left feeling like negotiating didn’t work and violence didn’t work, and that they are stuck under an ever-growing occupation with no future as a people. That year, Israel withdraws from Gaza, Hamas gains power but splits from the Palestinian Authority in a short civil war, dividing Gaza from the West Bank. Israel puts Gaza under a suffocating blockade and unemployment rises drastically to 40%.
This is the state of the conflict as we know it today. The current state is relatively new and unbearable for Palestinians. In the West Bank, more and more settlements are smothering Palestinians, who often respond with protests and sometimes with violence, though most just want normal lives. In Gaza, Hamas and other violent groups have periodic wars with Israel. The fighting overwhelmingly kills Palestinians, including a lot of civilians. In Israel itself, most people have become apathetic and for the most part, the occupation keeps the conflict relatively removed from their daily lives, with moments of brief but horrible violence. There is little political will for peace. No one knows where the conflict will go from here; a Third Intifada, the Palestinian Authority collapses, but everyone agrees that things, as they are now, can not last much longer, that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is too insatiable to last and that unless something dramatic changes, whatever comes next will be much worse.