The Long Road to Peace: Israeli-Palestinian Relations, 1973–

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The Long Road to Peace: Israeli-Palestinian Relations, 1973–

By the early 1970s relations between Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinian population living in refugee camps or in the Occupied Territories (land taken over by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967) were at a low point. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria were preparing to attack Israel in 1967 but were surprised when Israel attacked first, destroying the forces of these Arab countries and taking large amounts of Arab land. A joint Egyptian-Syrian effort to regain territory in 1973 led to another Arab loss and a further decline in Arab-Israeli relations. In addition to being defeated in battle, these Arab nations faced deep internal conflicts and mutual disagreement over how to manage their relations with Israel and how to deal with foreign powers that were continually influencing culture and politics in the Middle East.

Despite its military victories, Israel still did not feel secure in its existence. Created in 1948 to provide a homeland for Jews from around the world, Israel was deeply divided over its efforts to create a democracy while at the same time building a powerful military capable of fending off its enemies. After 1967, when Israel captured territories that were home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Israel became an occupying military power in hostile lands. The Palestinian refugees living in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in large refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, felt increasingly abandoned by the Arab nations that had once promised to protect them. Represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinians finally decided that they must create their own relations with Israel.

Out of this seeming impasse there emerged over the next thirty years a slow, difficult, and often violent movement toward resolution of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Several Arab nations made a grudging peace with Israel, though they also continued to support Palestinian issues. As a nation, Israel engaged in debate over issues concerning religion, security, and its commitment to democracy and human rights. Israeli politics became deeply divided over how to deal with Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries, but a strong desire for peace influenced almost all political movements during this time period. The Palestinians emerged in the years after 1970 as a people with a national identity but without much land on which to build a nation. Yet Palestinian politics were also deeply divided, with violent factions and corrupt leadership that often slowed progress toward a united Palestinian people. In the 1980s countries outside of the Middle East began to support the Palestinians' quest for an independent Palestinian state and for a long-lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. This influenced Israelis and Palestinians to begin negotiations for peace in the early 1990s. This chapter explores the developing politics of the region from the early 1970s to the events of early 2005, when the election of a new Palestinian prime minister and the proposed removal of Israeli settlements in some of the Occupied Territories brought new hope for peace.

An emerging Palestinian consciousness

The majority of Palestinians who had fled their homes during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 lived as refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Before the Six-Day War of 1967, Palestinians had looked to these and other Arab nations, such as Iraq, for leadership in promoting their demands, including that the Palestinian land on which Israel was created be returned to them. Arab nations supported the Palestinian cause and went to war with Israel several times over this and other issues. But as the years passed, Israel consistently proved to be militarily capable of defending the territory it had taken. In 1967 Israel expanded its holdings dramatically, capturing the Gaza Strip and West Bank, home to large Palestinian populations, as well as Syria's Golan Heights and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Increasingly, Palestinians began to suggest that they must fight for themselves and promote their own cause. In the years after the 1967 war, the PLO began to serve as the main representative for Palestinian rights and policies toward Israel.

Peace with Arab Neighbors

The resolution of the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel, Syria, and Egypt largely put an end to the armed warfare between Israel and neighboring Arab nations. But an end to warfare was not the same as peace between the countries. Many Arab nations resisted the idea of negotiating with Israel. They believed that to do so would amount to a recognition of Israel's right to exist and a denial of the rights of their fellow Arabs, the Palestinians, who had been evicted from their land after Israel's declaration of independence. By the late 1970s, however, both Egypt and Israel had found enough common ground to establish a relationship based on peace, rather than war.

Peace talks began shortly after the end of war in 1973, but by 1977 there had been little progress. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918–1981) then took a dramatic step: he traveled by plane to the city of Jerusalem, which was under Israeli control, and issued a speech expressing his desire for peace with Israel. Sadat was the first Arab leader to set foot on Israeli soil. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (1913–1992; last name pronounced BAY-gen) responded that he too desired peace. In the talks that followed, U.S. president Jimmy Carter (1924–) met with the two sides at the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, and forged an agreement called the Camp David Accords. The three leaders shook hands and signed the agreement on September 17, 1978. These two events—the speeches and the historic handshake—stirred the world to believe that peace might be possible between Israelis and Arabs.

Israel, however, gained far more than Egypt from the peace agreement. Sadat was widely denounced by other Arab leaders, and the Arab nations of the Middle East were never again unified as they had been before the 1970s. Egypt did benefit, however, by regaining possession of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel and earning the respect of countries outside of the Middle East for its step toward peace in the region. Israel viewed the agreements as a clear triumph: it had gained the recognition of the leading Arab country in the region, which broke the united Arab resistance to Israel's existence, and it kept possession of most of the Occupied Territories it had seized during the Six-Day War.

The PLO was established in 1964 by the Arab League, a loose affiliation of Arab governments that promoted political and economic cooperation between Arab countries in the Middle East. The Arab League appointed a Palestinian, Ahmad Shuqayri (1908–1980), to lead the group. Shuqayri was acceptable to leaders of some Arab nations, for he criticized attacks by Palestinians on Israel from within Arab countries, which brought repercussions for those countries. By 1968 his policies were deemed too moderate for many Palestinian refugees who were unhappy about being unable to return to their homes in Palestine, and he was removed from power.

Leaders such as Yasser Arafat (1929–2004) of the group Fatah (also known as the Palestine National Liberation Movement) and George Habash (1926–) of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) battled for control over the PLO after Shuqayri's removal. Though these groups differed on other matters, both believed in launching constant attacks against Israel in order to retake Palestinian land and return refugees to their homes. In 1969 Arafat and Fatah gained full control of the PLO, and Arafat was named chairman of the organization, a role he held until his death in 2004.

Black September

Under its new leadership the PLO brought together a wide range of groups, most of whom were willing to use extreme measures to regain land from Israel. After 1967 the PLO was based primarily in Jordan, and it launched attacks on Israel from within Jordanian borders. As it became more active in its actions against Israel, the PLO caused increased concern among leaders of the region, such as Jordan's King Hussein (1935–1999). PLO leaders ignored most of Jordan's laws and rejected Hussein's request that they not launch attacks on Israel from Jordan.

In September 1970 the PFLP hijacked four airliners full of passengers and diverted them to Jordanian airstrips. While many in Jordan supported the right of the Palestinians to fight for their land, most did not like the idea of Jordan being connected with acts of terrorism, such as the hijacking of planes. King Hussein used this event to gain public support for driving the PLO from Jordan. Over the next several weeks the Jordanian army attacked Palestinian refugee camps, killing civilians and PLO leaders alike. Between September 15 and September 25, three thousand Palestinians were killed and the leadership of the PLO was forced out of the country, eventually relocating in Lebanon and Syria. This event came to be known in Palestinian circles as Black September.

Jordan's expulsion of the PLO brought greater stability to its relations with Israel, but it also drove some Palestinians to more extreme ways of drawing attention to their cause. More Palestinians turned to acts of violence to try to force Israel to return Palestinian land and to restore the rights of the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. In September 1972, for example, eight armed members of a Palestinian group calling itself Black September (a group of former PLO members who created an independent organization named after the events in which the PLO was removed from Jordan) stormed the apartments of members of the Israeli Olympic team competing at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, and took the Israelis hostage. The group demanded the release of several hundred Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Israeli officials refused to negotiate with Black September, fearing that to give in to the group's demands would only encourage additional violent acts. A botched rescue attempt by German police led to the deaths of all eleven Israeli hostages and five of the eight Black September members. Israel retaliated by bombing PLO headquarters in Syria and Lebanon, and by authorizing its secret service, the Mossad, to assassinate key Palestinian political figures.

Another violent figure who arose after the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1970 is Abu Nidal (1937–2002?). He is considered to be a terrorist by Israel and many Western nations (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States). His attacks on Israel became so violent and disruptive that he brought more contempt than sympathy to the Palestinians and their cause. By 1974 he was expelled from the PLO, and thereafter he and his operatives attacked both Israel and the PLO. Abu Nidal is thought to have masterminded the murder or wounding of over 900 people in twenty countries from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Shifting tides in Israeli politics

For the first twenty-five years of their history, Israelis enjoyed an unusual level of agreement on some key political issues: they agreed that Israel had the right to exist in its current borders; they agreed that all Israeli citizens had the right to vote; and most embraced the idea that they were a tolerant nation that valued basic human and civil rights. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, however, each of these areas of agreement was subjected to extreme pressure, creating deep divides in Israeli politics and forcing the nation to recognize that Israelis could also be cruel oppressors.

The Six-Day War of 1967 ended with Israel in possession of large amounts of new territory, including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the entire Sinai Peninsula. While Israel had hoped to expand its borders slightly to improve its security, capturing this much territory was an unexpected event. Moderates believed that Israel should use the territory it had seized to help push for peace with its Arab neighbors. They envisioned an exchange of land for peace. However, for conservatives within Israel, many of whom were in the military, the capture of these territories was the fulfillment of an idea held by some deeply religious Jews who hoped that one day Israel would dominate lands on both sides of the Jordan River. From this point on, the question of what Israel should do with these territories—annex (make a permanent part), occupy with military troops, or exchange—became a disruptive issue in Israel.

The Israeli government originally decided to govern the Occupied Territories with military troops. From the very beginning of the occupation, Palestinians living in the territories were unable to travel freely, were harassed and beaten by soldiers, and were not allowed to cross the border into Jordan. At first, Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories had little contact with the outside world and lacked political organization. As the occupation stretched into the 1970s and early 1980s, however, PLO representatives increasingly entered the Occupied Territories and began to organize Palestinians living there. They also drew media attention to the military occupation and the way Palestinians were being treated in the Occupied Territories. Israeli civilians and the rest of the world began to recognize the desperate conditions facing these people without a state.

The rise of settlements

In 1977 Israeli politics shifted dramatically when the Labor Party, a more liberal political party that had dominated Israel since its creation, was voted out of power. At this time the conservative Likud (Le-KOOD) Party allied with the ultraconservative Herut Party to form a government. They chose Menachem Begin as their prime minister, a controversial choice considering that Begin had been a part of the Irgun, a military group that used violence in the 1940s to promote the creation of an independent Jewish nation.

Begin called for the annexation of the Occupied Territories, but he did not yet have the political capital to annex the territories directly. Annexation was further complicated by the international communities, which wanted Israel to return the land it had taken in the Six-Day War in order to preserve the unstable peace in the region. Begin realized that without the full support of the Israeli government, he could not make the Occupied Territories a true part of Israel, but he also knew that there were other long-term solutions to his desire for annexation of the land. Begin began promoting one of the most controversial programs in Israeli history: the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories in order to establish a large stable community of Jews in the territories (see sidebar on page 134). Begin hoped that over time, with enough Jewish settlements, he could make a stronger case for annexing the territories if it was in the best interest of the Jewish settlers living there. The Jewish population of the settlements increased dramatically under Begin, rising from about 3,200 in 1977 to about 28,400 by 1983. Jews living in the Occupied Territories carried all the rights of Israeli citizens, but they lived in a land where their Arab neighbors had very few rights. Israelis were forced to consider the contradiction of allowing rights to some and depriving others of those same rights. Many in the international community also wondered how Israel could promote itself as a tolerant democracy, yet deny basic citizenship rights to Palestinians under its control. The issue of the Occupied Territories and the people living within them would become the central dilemma of Israeli politics throughout the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

The settlement movement changed the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians dramatically. Jewish settlers moved onto lands that had once belonged to Palestinians, and they created self-sustaining communities where jobs and access to services were limited to Jews. According to William Cleveland, author of A History of the Modern Middle East, the Begin government and successive Likud governments urged conservative religious groups to build settlements in strategic areas: "The settlement policy was thus used as an instrument to divide Arab society into isolated segments and to prevent the emergence of a collective Palestinian identity."

Resenting the presence of Jewish settlers on their land, Palestinians attacked Jewish settlers, bringing retaliation from Israeli soldiers. Additionally, Jewish settlers were allowed by the Israeli government to take aggressive actions against Palestinians; in numerous cases, settlers shot at or bombed Palestinians. The Israeli military increased its presence to protect the Jewish settlers and created harsh and oppressive conditions for Palestinians. Because Palestinians did not have the same rights as citizens, the military could detain Palestinians for months without making specific charges, and it often deported them from the territories. Israel also built roads to connect the Jewish settlements to Israel, but did not let Palestinians use those roads.

The Settlement Movement

In their simplest terms, Jewish settlements within the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are small communities created by Jews, many of which are formed by religious groups hoping to keep a strong Jewish presence in the territories. The Jewish settlers believe that they are building their communities on land that belonged to their ancestors thousands of years ago. Many settlements began with trailer homes or other temporary shelters, but quickly became more permanent, with homes, apartments, and businesses. In the end, they became towns and villages similar to those found in other parts of the Middle East. The majority of the Jewish settlements were built between 1977 and the mid-1980s. Though precise figures vary, it is estimated that by 2005 there were somewhere between 200 and 250 settlements in the Occupied Territories, with the vast majority of them in the West Bank. The Jewish population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose from 5,023 in 1970 to about 243,000 in 2004, according to statistics cited at the Jewish Virtual Library Web site.

Palestinians were upset by the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, perceiving them as yet another way in which Jews had conspired to take Arab lands and drive off their inhabitants. As peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Palestinians since 1993, progressed in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the question of what to do with the settlements remained one of the most difficult issues facing negotiators. In 2005, however, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon (1928–) sent a sign of his seriousness as a peacekeeper when he ordered that several Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories be evacuated and the land returned to the Palestinians, over the protests of settlers and the conservative religious movement that supported them. While plans are still being made to return this land to the Palestinians, many hope that this is another step toward a permanent peace as well as an independent Palestinian nation in the Occupied Territories.

For Palestinians, the restrictions on travel, the harassment, and the beatings increased with every new Jewish settlement in the territories. The settlement movement, which many Palestinians looked at as a type of terrorism, created widespread resentment and hatred of Israel by Palestinians within the Occupied Territories. This view of the settlements allowed groups such as Fatah and the PLO to attract followers in the Occupied Territories and to convince them that they must respond to Israeli violence with violence of their own.

War in Lebanon

In the 1970s the PLO leadership relocated to southern Lebanon after being evicted from Jordan. Lebanon was home to some 300,000 Palestinian refugees, most of whom lived in camps in the south of the country, along the border with Israel. Lebanon seemed at first to be the perfect place for the PLO, for the Lebanese government granted the PLO almost complete control over governance in the refugee camps as long as the PLO sought consent from the government for its raids into Israel. The PLO and other Palestinian groups, however, rarely followed this rule and attacked Israel when it suited them, blasting artillery shells across the border into Israel and sending armed bands to attack military targets and civilians.

The Israeli military responded to these attacks by striking back against PLO targets in southern Lebanon and by sending assassins to kill Palestinian leaders in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, well north of the Lebanese-Israeli border. By the mid-1970s the nearly constant battles along the Lebanese-Israeli border had become extremely disruptive to politics in Lebanon, a country that was already dealing with religious and cultural problems, and the country broke out into a civil war. The PLO supported the Lebanese government, hoping that its continued reign would ensure the PLO a safe place to continue its actions against Israel.

Though the civil war fighting in Lebanon slowed after 1976, instability in that country continued to allow the PLO to use southern Lebanon as a base for its attacks on Israel. In 1978, responding to a Fatah attack on an Israeli tourist bus that left thirty-seven dead, Israel sent more than twenty thousand troops into southern Lebanon in an attempt to destroy the PLO there. The operation, dubbed Operation Litani, was hardly a success: Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops killed several thousand Palestinians, but most were civilians, and the PLO leadership remained intact. The attack also increased Arab support for the PLO, and the organization proved even more successful at winning support from within the Occupied Territories. Menachem Begin knew that the attack in Lebanon had been a political mistake, but he also knew that many Israelis supported the destruction of the PLO and groups like it, even if they did not support the annexation of the Occupied Territories, which Begin was hoping to achieve after the destruction of the PLO.

In 1982 Begin's government decided to try again to destroy the PLO and secure its border areas with Lebanon. It also hoped to help Bashir Gemayel (1947–1982), a prominent Lebanese politician who favored Israel, win control of the Lebanese government, which remained unstable from constant fighting within Lebanon. Forces overseen by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon advanced quickly across the southern third of Lebanon, well beyond the area needed to ensure Israel's security. They defeated the PLO militias and Syrian forces they faced and attempted to take over Lebanon's capital city of Beirut. For ten weeks, the Israelis subjected the Palestinian portions of West Beirut to bombings launched by land, air, and sea. The bombings took the lives of many civilians and ended only when France and the United States intervened. By September, three months after the invasion began, Israel withdrew the majority of its troops into a zone in the south of Lebanon.

The war, however, was not yet over. When Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, Israel sent its armies back into West Beirut. While the area was under IDF control, Lebanese Phalangists (a Lebanese militia group) massacred approximately one thousand Palestinian men, women, and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The camps were situated on land under the control of the Israeli military, and while it is uncertain how much the Israeli military contributed to the massacre, it is clear that they did little to stop it. An Israeli investigation later found Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings.

When news of this massacre reached Israeli civilians, all public support for the war in Lebanon disappeared. By 1983 Begin was forced to pull out the majority of the Israeli troops from Lebanon, though a security force remained in the southern half of the country until 2000. Israel's war in Lebanon had been a disaster: it had failed to destroy the PLO; Lebanon remained politically unstable and eventually fell under the strong influence of Syria (one of Israel's enemies); and Israel was criticized by foreign powers for its cruelty and excessive violence. In Israel, popular outrage at the military and public relations disaster forced Menachem Begin from office and created years of instability in Israeli politics.

The war in Lebanon also had an effect on Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. They saw the power the PLO possessed, as well as the international outrage against Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon. It was not long before a new type of conflict began between Israel and the Palestinians.

Popular uprisings among Palestinians: the First Intifada

By the mid-1980s two decades of continual small conflicts, protests, attacks, and retaliations had left the leadership of both Israel and the Palestinians locked in a dispute that had no clear solution. Both sides were deeply troubled: the PLO leadership was evicted from Lebanon during the war there in 1982 and was forced to move its headquarters to Tunisia, hundreds of miles away from the Palestinian people; in Israel, divided support for the major parties forced the Labor and Likud parties to form a National Unity government that was unable to agree on political issues.

In this difficult political atmosphere, the Israelis and Palestinians used a mix of truth and propaganda (ideas spread by a government to influence public opinion) to convince their people of the evils of their enemy. Israelis were told that Arabs wanted to destroy them and that giving up one inch of land was the first step toward the destruction of Israel. Palestinians were told that Israel had stolen their land from them, and that it was their right to get that land back; they were told that if they only fought long and hard enough, Palestine would again be theirs. Due to these conflicting opinions, the Occupied Territories, where Jews and Palestinians lived side by side, were areas of extreme tension. In the late 1980s this tension gave birth to a Palestinian uprising known as the First Intifada.

The fall of 1987 saw an increase in violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Among other incidents during this period, Israeli soldiers killed seven suspected Palestinian militants (armed fighters for a cause) in Gaza, and Palestinian militants had murdered several Israeli civilians. A traffic accident in Gaza in early December resulted in an Israeli vehicle killing four Palestinians. Rumors flew, and the tensions that had gripped relations between Palestinians and Israelis since 1948 reached the breaking point. On December 9, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of Gaza in what Charles Smith, in his book Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, called "a spontaneous eruption of hatred and frustration." Within days, similar protests erupted in the West Bank, with protestors throwing rocks or using slingshots to hurl debris at Israeli soldiers. The protestors, mostly young Palestinians unhappy with the difficulties of life under Israeli military occupation, called their movement the Intifada, an Arabic term meaning "a shaking off" or, more simply, "uprising." Later uprisings would lead to this event being referred to as the First Intifada.

The PLO saw the First Intifada as an opportunity, and it began organizing what had until then been spontaneous protests. Under the banner of the Unified National Leadership (UNL), the PLO published a fourteen-point description of the goals of the First Intifada. It called on Israel to stop stealing Arab land and building settlements in the Occupied Territories and to lift the restrictions and taxes that made life so difficult for Palestinians. Its most controversial goal, however, was the demand that Israel recognize the existence of an independent Palestinian state.

Over the next several years local leaders and distant PLO officials worked together to use the First Intifada to draw the world's attention to their cause. Early in the First Intifada, Palestinian protestors made the choice not to use military weapons against the Israelis; instead, they faced off against their enemy with sticks, stones, and improvised weapons such as the Molotov cocktail, a bottle filled with gasoline with a rag stuffed in the neck as a fuse. The televised images of the First Intifada highlighted the drama of impoverished Palestinians fighting against well-armed IDF troops, helping to shift world public opinion to the Palestinian side. Alongside the protests, Palestinian leaders—especially PLO chairman Yasser Arafat—began to call repeatedly for the creation of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. By the early 1990s Israeli officials, pressured by their own people, by world leaders, and by Palestinians protesting in the streets, began to consider this once-radical idea.

Negotiations begin

The First Intifada lingered on in protests, worker strikes, and tax resistance into the early 1990s, but the pressure produced by the uprising began to reshape conditions between Israel and the Palestinians as early as 1988. Facing intense pressure from the United States, Yasser Arafat in 1988 took a significant step toward resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: he stated that the PLO recognized the right of Israel to exist, and that the PLO renounced terrorism as a means of reaching a solution to the conflict. The PLO did not immediately act on these announcements, but they represented a significant change in the PLO's policy and tactics.

In return for these changes Arafat wanted Israel to recognize the right of Palestinians to establish an independent state in the Occupied Territories. Israel, however, refused. Instead Israel, urged or even forced by the United States, promised to engage in direct negotiations with the Palestinians, represented by Arafat and others, for a peaceful solution to the conflict. These negotiations, it was agreed, should take place within the framework established by the United Nations Security Council in Resolutions 242 and 338. These resolutions, issued in 1967 and 1973, respectively, recognized the right of people "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." They called for the removal of Israeli troops from the Occupied Territories and a resolution of the "refugee problem," and implored both sides to work for a "just and lasting peace."

The Intifada and Islamic Conservatism

Up until the First Intifada, or uprising, in 1987 against Israel's military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, conservative Islamic religious opinion played a small role in Palestinian politics. Since 1948 religious and secular (nonreligious) Palestinians had been united in their desire to reclaim their homeland. All that changed in the late 1980s. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had evolved over the years into a secular political organization that wanted to engage in relations with other nations rather than go it alone on its own terms as it had done since its inception. In 1988 Yasser Arafat spoke before the United Nations. He recognized Israel's right to exist and renounced the use of violence and terrorism. Arafat's speech helped to gain the PLO credibility in the international community and to improve its bargaining position with Israel. Feeling betrayed by the PLO's moderation, Islamic conservative groups—most notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad—used violence to pursue their own mission: the destruction of Israel.

Hamas was created in 1987 as an outgrowth of an Egyptian group called the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (1937?–2004), wanted Palestinians to have an alternative to the secular leadership of Yasser Arafat. The Hamas charter, which circulated in the Middle East in 1988, announced that it wanted to establish an Islamic state in the former Palestine and would not recognize any Israeli claim to territory. Since its founding, Hamas has killed and injured hundreds of Israelis, and the group became known for luring young Palestinian men into becoming suicide bombers with promises of a glorious afterlife. Most world governments consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization, though it continues to have many followers in the Middle East.

Islamic Jihad is the other main Palestinian Islamic conservative group that emerged during the years of the First Intifada. Smaller, more poorly organized, and with less support from the Palestinian population, the Syrian-backed Islamic Jihad has conducted several successful raids over the years and is known for using teenagers and women to carry its suicide bombs. Its goals are virtually the same as those of Hamas.

In the years after the First Intifada, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other conservative Islamic organizations used violence to attempt to disrupt the peace process, and attacks have continued into the twenty-first century. While the majority of Palestinians desire to live in peace with Israel, these groups continue to adhere to the idea that they can destroy Israel and reclaim Palestine for Muslims.

Beginning in October 1991 and continuing into 1993, representatives of Israel and the PLO as well as from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, began to meet for discussions in Madrid, Spain. Many hoped that these discussions would bring about a lasting peace, but one issue continued to separate the two sides: the Palestinians wanted their own state in the Occupied Territories, while Israel wanted autonomy, or self-rule, in territories that would remain under Israeli control and thus could continue to be occupied by the Israeli military. Though little progress was made between Israel and the PLO, Israel and Jordan discussed many of their problems, which led to a peace agreement between these former enemies in 1994.

Unknown to most of the world, secret high-level negotiations between the PLO and Israel had taken place in Oslo, Norway, in early 1993 and produced a stunning development. The agreements that emerged from the meeting in Oslo created an entirely new approach to the conflict. First, the agreements provided for mutual recognition: Israel recognized that the PLO was the representative of the Palestinian people, and the PLO formally agreed to Arafat's 1988 promise to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism. Second, a document known as the Declaration of Principles on Palestinian Self-Rule outlined a gradual process by which Israeli troops would withdraw from the Occupied Territories and Palestinians would be granted self-rule under an elected body called the Palestinian Council. (Israeli troops, however, would be stationed outside Palestinian population centers and would be allowed to maintain security for Jewish settlements in the region.)

On September 13, 1993, in what was seen as a momentous moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) shook hands to seal the agreement. This event took place on the lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., and was orchestrated by U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–). For their part in this historic agreement, Rabin, Arafat, and Israel's foreign minister Shimon Peres (1923–) shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

After Oslo

The Oslo Accords, as these historic agreements came to be called, brought great hope that the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was finally coming to a peaceful resolution. That hope was premature, however, because important parts of both populations proved unwilling to make the compromises and concessions that would allow for the emergence of a stable peace with an independent (or at least autonomous) Palestinian state. Within Israel, those who had built settlements in the Occupied Territories, along with conservatives who believed in the idea that Israel should continue to grow in terms of territory, were deeply disturbed at the idea that they would have to give up most of the Occupied Territories. Religious fanatics, who bristled at the idea of giving up one inch of ground that they considered holy and historically theirs, attacked Palestinians to try to disrupt progress toward peace. In 1994, for example, an Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Palestinians praying at a mosque near the city of Hebron in the West Bank, killing twenty-nine.

Dissent within the Palestinian population also blocked the progress of the Oslo settlements. Yasser Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip in 1994, determined to lead the Palestinians toward autonomy, but he found a people deeply divided in their loyalties. Older and wealthier Palestinians supported Arafat, who used his power to provide them with privileges and to take control of the new Palestinian government, the Palestinian Authority. But more conservative Islamic organizations directly criticized Arafat, and younger Palestinians accused him of heading a corrupt organization that was out of touch with the needs of the people. Groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad continued to conduct violent actions against Israeli targets, undermining Arafat's promises to put a stop to Palestinian violence against Israelis. Though Arafat controlled the Palestinian Authority, he proved unable to control the divided Palestinian people.

Setbacks and a second Intifada

Almost before it had started, the progress toward peace and Palestinian autonomy was disrupted by a series of events in 1996. Palestinians from the group Hamas used suicide bombers—usually Palestinian men, who strapped explosives to their bodies and detonated them in a target zone—to blow up buses, restaurants, night clubs, and other public sites in Israeli cities. In 1996 alone, bus bombs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv killed dozens and injured hundreds. In response, Israeli citizens elected as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1949–), a conservative who promised to use any means necessary to combat these challenges to Israeli security.

Netanyahu immediately initiated the construction of new Jewish settlements and the deployment of IDF troops in the Occupied Territories, thus shattering the commitments of the Oslo Accords. From there, conditions only grew worse. Palestinians continued their attacks as Israelis struck back with military attacks and new construction. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority tried without success to police their own people.

By 2000 conditions in the Occupied Territories were nearly as desperate as they were in the late 1980s, despite the existence of an elected Palestinian Authority. A series of events then occurred that created a new Intifada. On September 27, 2000, an Israeli soldier was killed, and an Israeli police officer was gunned down the next day by a Palestinian Authority policeman. On September 28, 2000, conservative Israeli politician Ariel Sharon led a group of armed Jews to the Temple Mount (a religious site significant to both Jews and Muslims; the Al Aqsa mosque is on the site), which he claimed as Israeli territory for eternity. Whether it was in response to these events or to the failure of U.S.-sponsored negotiations at the Camp David presidential retreat, Palestinian activists burst forth in another popular uprising, called the Al Aqsa Intifada, or the Second Intifada.

The Al Aqsa Intifada was similar to the First Intifada in that thousands of protestors poured into the streets of the Occupied Territories. This time, however, the violence was much more organized and was led by Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as by Arafat's original group, Fatah. These groups were well armed and used rocket attacks and suicide bombers to strike at Israeli targets beginning in late 2000. IDF forces responded by using tanks, helicopters, and warplanes to strike at Palestinian targets.

Though Arafat claimed not to be in direct control of the uprising, he was kept hostage in his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah by Israeli forces who surrounded his walled compound. Israeli citizens responded to Palestinian violence and threats to their security by electing former general Ariel Sharon to the position as prime minister. Sharon, who had led the group of Jews to the Temple Mount in September 2000, was a conservative leader known for his unbending dedication to Israeli security and his battlefield success against Palestinian groups.

New beginnings?

During the Al Aqsa Intifada, a series of events occurred that brought new hope to the quickly escalating situation. Sharon's election was greeted with great fear in the international community. Many observers and diplomats worried that the old adversaries, Sharon and Arafat, would not be able to stop the Al Aqsa Intifada, let alone bring about peace. Deciding that they would help lead the region to peace, the world's leading nations and organizations—the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—joined to provide a plan they called "A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" (which quickly gained the short name of "Roadmap to Peace"). The Roadmap proposed international support for ending violence in the Occupied Territories, removing Israeli troops, and moving toward Palestinian statehood. Though widely supported by Western nations, the plan was virtually ignored in Israel.

Sharon had built his conservative reputation by waging war against Arabs—he had fought against Arabs in every major Israeli war and publicly stated his refusal to back down to any Arab or Palestinian aggression. Yet it was this concern for security, according to Sharon, that made him uniquely suited to bring about peace. Sharon ordered his troops to strike back against Palestinian attacks in 2002 and 2003. At the same time, he announced that in early 2004 Israel would begin to withdraw all settlements from the Gaza Strip and several from the West Bank. This was part of his disengagement plan in which unilateral Israeli action (action by Israel alone) would bring about peace and, he hoped, force the downfall of Arafat, whom he viewed as an obstacle to peace.

Sharon did not get his chance to see to Arafat's downfall. On November 11, 2004, Arafat died in a Paris, France, hospital, where he had been evacuated for medical treatment. Though many Palestinians mourned the death of their longtime leader and spokesman, others saw Arafat's death as an opportunity for a change in the Palestinian community. The elections to choose a new leader were passionately contested, though longtime Fatah member and Arafat associate Mahmoud Abbas (1935–) soon emerged as the favorite. Abbas ran on a moderate platform that promised to bring about Palestinian autonomy, reform the Palestinian Authority, and bring under control Palestinian groups that used violence against Israel.

Abbas was elected as the new leader of the Palestinian Authority on January 9, 2005, receiving more than 62 percent of the vote. His election was greeted with joy not only in the Occupied Territories, but also in Israel and around the world, where Abbas was widely perceived as a practical leader who might lead his people to peace.

As of early 2005 Abbas and Sharon had made their first steps toward improving relations. On February 8, 2005, the two leaders met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to declare a truce, effectively ending the Al Aqsa Intifada. Despite sporadic attacks by militants since that time, both Palestinian Authority and IDF forces have restored peace, and Abbas seemed to be making progress with Palestinian militant groups. For his part, Sharon continued to promote his plans of withdrawing settlers from the Occupied Territories, despite protests from religious conservatives in his country.

The peace that was building between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the first years of the twenty-first century remains unstable, and a permanent solution to the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in a region that both know as the Holy Land has yet to be reached. A majority of both Israeli and Palestinian politicians recognize that a possible solution lies in two autonomous states living in harmony with a lasting peace agreement. Yet minority factions in Israel and in the Palestinian Occupied Territories continue to work to derail the peace process, using violence and political pressure to make their positions known. The question remains whether a majority of people who desire peace, and their leaders, can contain and eventually end the violent and disruptive actions that have brought so much death and destruction to the region.

For More Information


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The Long Road to Peace: Israeli-Palestinian Relations, 1973–

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