Arab–Israel Conflict

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Conflict over the postWorld War I mandated territory of Palestine.

In Palestine, the conflict began at the end of the nineteenth century, more than fifty years before the state of Israel was established in 1948. The crux of the conflict has been between Jewish nationalism (called Zionism) and Palestinian Arab nationalism for political control over the area that, in the peace settlement after World War I (19141918), became the League of Nations mandated territory of Palestineheld by Britain from 1922 to 1948. When Israel was established, the struggle became known as the ArabIsrael conflict.

Palestine before 1948

Soon after the first late-nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine (whose population in 1882 consisted of about 450,000 Arabs and 25,000 Jews), they clashed with local Arabs over Jewish-owned land and grazing rights. By the 1920s, Palestinian opposition to Jewish settlement and to the Zionist movement became widespread because Palestinians feared that continued Jewish immigration would lead to their domination or expulsion. During 1920, 1921, 1929, 1933, and from 1936 to 1939, Palestinian nationalist demonstrations led to violence. Palestinians demanded that the British authorities halt further Jewish immigration into Palestine; that sale of Arab and government lands to Jews cease; and that immediate steps be initiated toward granting Arab Palestinian independence.

The 1929 riots in Jerusalem arose over prayer rights at the Temple Mount, site of the sacred Western (or Wailing) Wall, which is believed by pious Jews to be the last remnant of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e.). Because the wall adjoins the third most sacred site in Islam, the Haram al-Sharif (Sacred Enclosure, containing two important mosques), it has been a source of continuing conflict. Many Muslims believed then and continue to believe that Jews seek to destroy the mosques and replace them with a new temple.

By 1936 Palestine's Jewish community, the Yishuv, increased to 384,000, mainly from European immigration; the number of Jewish cities and towns, industries, and agricultural settlements extended widely through the country, raising fears among Palestinians that they would soon become a minority in their native land. The 1936 to 1939 uprising, called the Palestine Arab Revolt, galvanized most of the Palestinian community to oppose the British authorities, and the Yishuv Zionist attempts to assuage Palestinian fears were unsuccessful. Even proposals by a small group of Jewish intellectuals in favor of establishing a binational ArabJewish state based on political parity between the two communities received only a faint response from Arab leaders. Both Arabs and Jews rejected proposals by the 1937 British Royal Commission under Lord Peel (the so-called Peel Commission) to partition Palestine between its two communities, although many Zionist leaders accepted the partition principle, if not specific details of the Peel plan. Massive British force ended the Arab revolt in 1939, just as Britain became involved in World War II (19391945). Focus on Europe then kept the ArabJewish conflict quiescent until 1946.


With international postwar pressure on Britain to remove all restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestinebecause of the Holocaust in Europeand calls for for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth, tensions between the Yishuv, the mandatory government, and the Arab community brought Palestine to the brink of civil war. Britain appealed to the United Nations, which recommended that Palestine be partitioned into Arab and Jewish states with an international enclave containing the Jerusalem area. The mainstream of the Zionist movement accepted the proposal (but a nationalist minority continued to insist on a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River). Palestinians, supported by leaders throughout the Arab world, rejected the principle of partition. Clashes that occurred between Palestinians demonstrating against violation of their right to self-determination and Jews celebrating their coming independence soon turned into a full-scale civil war. Since Britain's mandate was to end on 14 May 1948, a disorderly withdrawal of British troops began from disputed areas. By May 1948, as the Yishuv organized its military forces, many Palestinians retreated, fled, or were expelled from territory held by the new state of Israel despite military assistance from the Arab world, which continued until 1949. After Israel was established on 15 May 1948, the term Palestinians referred to members of the Arab community while Palestinian Jews were called Israelis.

ArabIsrael Wars

The first ArabIsrael war lasted until Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria signed armistice agreements with Israel in 1949. As a result of that war, Israel was able to extend its frontiers approximately 2,000 square miles from the UN partition borders to those of the armistice agreements. More than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees, unable to return to their homes and lands, which were confiscated by Israel; most lived in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries, but some moved to North Africa, Europe, and North America. Territory intended as part of the Arab state in the UN partition plan became controlled by Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. Jerusalem was divided between Jordan and Israel.

Since the end of the first ArabIsrael war there has been continuing dispute between Israel and the surrounding countries over borders, refugee rights to return or to compensation, the status of Jerusalem, the equitable division of Jordan River waters, and Arab recognition of Israel. The United Nations dealt with these issues through several organizations. An armistice regime was established with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization to oversee the 1949 agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. In 1948 the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine was established to achieve a peaceful settlement by dealing with the refugee problem, Middle East economic development, and equitable distribution of water resources. But the Arab states refused to enter direct negotiations unless Israel withdrew to the UN partition borders and permitted the refugees to return. U.S. and UN proposals for refugee resettlement in the context of the broad economic development of the Middle East were also rejected without the resolution of the other key issues.

Opinion in the Arab world was so strongly anti-Israel that defeats sparked antigovernment uprisings in several countries and led to the assassination of several Arab political leaders. Egypt's setbacks in the 1948 war, for example, contributed to its 1952 revolution. In Israel, tensions heightened by 1955, when Egypt's new ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser (who had led the coup that overthrew Egypt's monarchy) was perceived as a growing threat, and relations with Egypt deteriorated with an increase of infiltrations and attacks into Israel by Palestinians from Egyptian-held Gaza. The situation sparked an arms race; Egypt acquired large amounts of military equipment from the USSR and the Eastern bloc, while Israel obtained advanced aircraft from France.

By 1956, uneasy relations between Egypt and Israel became part of the larger conflict between Egypt and the West over control of the Suez Canal. Israel formed a secret alliance with Britain and France to overthrow Nasser after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. As Israel attacked Egypt in October, Britain and France occupied the northern Canal Zone. This tripartite scheme was stymied by U.S. and Soviet intervention at the United Nations and by Moscow's threat of military action to aid Egypt. In November 1956 the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to supervise the withdrawal of the invaders' troops and to act as a peacekeeping body between Egypt and Israel. EgyptIsrael frontiers were relatively quiet until the 1967 ArabIsrael War. But incidents also erupted along other Israeli borders. Continued Palestinian refugee infiltration and guerrilla attacks from Jordan plus clashes with Syria over Israeli projects to divert the Jordan River created obstacles to a peace settlement. In 1960, the Arab League (officially, the League of Arab States) called Israel's Jordan River diversion scheme "an act of aggression" and in 1963 adopted its own diversion blueprint, which would have greatly diminished Israel's access to water.

1967 ArabIsrael War

The tensions caused by the Jordan River dispute, the escalation of border incidents, the Middle East arms race, and increasingly bitter rhetoric led to several border clashes in 1967. When President Nasser threatened to blockade Israel's passage through the Strait of Tiran (at the southeast Sinai Peninsula), ordered UNEF to leave the Sinai, and massed his troops on the border, Israel's leaders responded with a preemptive strike in June 1967 against Egypt. After firing on Israel-controlled Jerusalem, Jordan also became involved, and Israel mounted an attack against Syrian positions on the Golan Heights several days later. After six days Israel emerged from the 1967 ArabIsrael War as the dominant power, with the Arab states thrown into disarray. Israel had conquered the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The war intensified competition in the Middle East between the United States, which supported Israel, and the Soviet Union, which backed Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. It led to further escalation of the arms race, Egypt's closing of the Suez Canal, and an additional 300,000 West Bank and Golan Heights refugees, who fled to Jordan and to Syria.

Although defeated, the Arab states refused direct negotiations with Israel, demanding that Israel first withdraw to the 1967 armistice lines and permit the return of refugees. Efforts to end the conflict through the United Nations were blocked by disagreements between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets supported resolutions condemning Israel and called for return of the territories. The United States supported Israel's insistence that territory be returned only through direct negotiations and the signing of a peace agreement.

The stalemate was somewhat eased by UN Security Council compromise Resolution 242 in November 1967, which called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories" occupied in the war, termination of belligerency, "just settlement of the refugee problem," and "the need to work for a just and lasting peace." The parties disagreed over interpretation of Resolution 242. The Arab side insisted it meant Israel's withdrawal from all territory seized in 1967; Israel and its supporters insisted that the resolution did not mean total withdrawal. Most Arab states no longer demanded that Israel withdraw to the 1947 partition lines, only to the 1949 armistice frontiers; they also recognized that a just solution of the refugee problem would have to include alternatives to total repatriation of the Palestinians and their descendants to their original homes, since twenty years had passed.

After the 1967 war, Palestinian nationalists brought several guerrilla factions into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an umbrella group established in 1964. Israeli and Palestinian forces clashed along the borders, and Palestinian guerrillas attacked Israeli civilians at home and abroad. After King Hussein ibn Talal of Jordan put down a Palestinian-initiated civil war and drove guerrilla factions from the protection of his country in September 1970, several factions set up bases in south Lebanon to attack northern Israel.

1973 ArabIsrael War

With the failure of diplomacy, Egypt and Syria attempted to regain territories lost in 1967 through a two-front surprise attack on Israel in October 1973. Initially, Egypt recaptured large sectors of the Sinai, and Syria retook the Golan but within a few days, Israel recovered the territory. Nevertheless, the 1973 ArabIsrael War shattered the myth of Israeli invincibility. Following a formalistic two-day conference in Geneva in December 1973, the United States initiated a step-by-step process that led to disengagement agreements in which Egypt regained parts of Sinai and Syria reoccupied al-Kuneitra in the Golan region.

In November 1977 the visit to Jerusalem by Egypt's President Anwar al-Sadat made direct negotiations possiblethis marked a new phase in ArabIsrael relations. As the talks faltered, U.S. president Jimmy Carter convened a conference in September 1978 of Egypt's and Israel's leaders at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, where they eventually agreed on Israel's withdrawal from Sinai and autonomy for the Palestinians. After some communication difficulties, but the continued mediation of President Carter, a peace treaty was signed by Egypt and Israel in Washington, D.C., on 26 March 1979 that provided for mutual recognition and normalization of relations.

Relations remained strained by differing interpretations of the Camp David Accords and the treaty terms and by continued hostilities between other Arab states and Israel. Attempts to involve local Palestinian representatives in negotiations for autonomy led nowhere. In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to uproot an entrenched PLO, force Lebanon into a peace agreement, and remove Syria's troops from the country. Only one of these objectives was realized: PLO headquarters and its infrastructure were uprooted (and relocated to other Arab states). After several months of Israeli occupation, Lebanese militia attacks forced Israel to withdraw to a narrow southern border stripan Israeli "security zone"that Israel continued to occupy until 2001.

Intifada and Negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s

Twenty years of Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank caused increasing unrest among the Palestinian inhabitants, which led to a major uprising, or intifada, in December 1987. Unlike previous occasions, demonstrations did not die down but escalated into a full-scale civil resistance. Palestinian demands to end the occupation galvanized the PLO to revise its political program, and in November 1988, it proclaimed an independent Palestinian state and for the first time accepted UN Resolution 242, recognized Israel, and renounced terrorism.

International attention on the intifada and the Palestine problem and the Persian Gulf crisis that led to war in 1990 and 1991 also led to the Middle East Peace Conference convened in Madrid, Spain, in October 1991 by the United States and the Soviet Union. The conference initiated a series of bilateral, direct negotiations between Israel and the Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian-Palestinian delegations, with multilateral discussions on Middle Eastern refugees, security, environment, economic development, and water. After secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway, in September 1993 Israel and the PLO signed an agreement providing for mutual recognition as well as Palestinian self-government to begin in Gaza and the town of Jericho in the West Bank during a five-year transition period.

Progress in negotiations between Israel and the PLO led to improvement of relations between Israel and Jordan, culminating in a peace treaty between them in October 1994. However, direct negotiations with Syria collapsed over differences on the border along the Lake Tiberias shore. The Oslo negotiation with the PLO was followed by agreements providing for redeployment of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza and establishing Palestinian self-government, but each side charged the other with violating the agreements, and violent clashes arose. An attempt by the United States to resolve the conflict at a tripartite summit at Camp David in July 2000 failed, leading to further violence. A clash at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000 was followed by Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and retaliations that caused thousands of Israeli and Palestinian casualties and reoccupation of Palestinian territory. Dispute continued over Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Jewish settlement there, the refugee "right of return," the future of Jerusalem, borders, and security.

see also arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1967); camp david accords (1978); carter, jimmy; gaza strip; golan heights; gulf crisis (19901991); holocaust; hussein ibn talal; intifada (19871991); islam; israel: overview; jerusalem; jordan river; league of arab states; nasser, gamal abdel; palestine; palestine arab revolt (19361939); palestine liberation organization (plo); peel commission report (1937); sadat, anwar al-; sinai peninsula; suez canal; tiran, strait of; united nations and the middle east; united nations conciliation commission for palestine (unccp); united nations emergency force; united nations truce supervision organization (untso); west bank; yishuv; zionism.


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Laqueur, Walter, and Rubin, Barry, eds. The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 6th revised edition. New York and London, Penguin Books, 2001.

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Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the ZionistArab Conflict, 18811999. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Shapira, Anita. Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 18811948. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World since 1948.

New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Don Peretz