Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis
by Stephen R. Shalom
Z magazine, May 2002
What are the modern origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
During World War I, Britain made three different promises
regarding historic Palestine. Arab leaders were assured that the
land would become independent; in the Balfour declaration, Britain
indicated its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine;
and secretly Britain arranged with its allies to divide up Ottoman
territory, with Palestine becoming part of the British empire.
Historians have engaged in detailed exegesis of the relevant texts
and maps, but the fundamental point is that Britain had no moral
right to assign Palestine to anyone. By right Palestine belonged
to its inhabitants.
In the late l9th century, anti-Semitism became especially
virulent in Russia and re-emerged in France. Some Jews concluded
that Jews would only be safe in a Jewish state and thus founded
Zionism. Most Jews at the time rejected Zionism, preferring instead
to address the problem of anti-Semitism through revolutionary
or reformist politics or assimilation. For many orthodox Jews,
especially the small Jewish community in Palestine, a Jewish state
could only be established by God, not by humans. At first Zionists
were willing to consider other sites for their Jewish state, but
they eventually focused on Palestine for its biblical connections.
The problem, however, was that although a Zionist slogan called
Palestine "a land without people for a people without land,"
the land was not empty.
Following World War I, Britain arranged for the League of
Nations to make Palestine a British "mandate," that
is, a colony to be administered by Britain and prepared for independence.
To help justify its rule over Arab land, Britain arranged that
one of its duties as the mandatory power would be to promote a
Jewish national home.
Who were the Jews who came to Palestine?
The early Zionist settlers were idealistic, often socialist,
individuals, fleeing oppression. In this respect they were like
the early American colonists. But also like the American colonists,
many Zionists had racist attitudes toward the indigenous people
and little regard for their well-being.
Some Zionists thought in terms of Arab-Jewish cooperation
and a bi-national state, but many were determined to set up an
exclusively Jewish state (though to avoid antagonizing the Palestinians,
they decided to use the term Jewish "national home"
rather than "state" until they were able to bring enough
Jews to Palestine).
Jewish immigration to Palestine was relatively limited until
the 1930s, when Hitler came to power. The U.S. and Europe closed
their doors to immigration by desperate Jews, making Palestine
one of the few options.
Who were the indigenous people of Palestine?
Pro-lsrael propaganda has argued that most Palestinians entered
Palestine after 1917, drawn to the economic dynamism of the growing
Jewish community, and thus have no rights to Palestine. This argument
has been elaborated in Joan Peters's widely promoted book, From
Time lmmemorial. However, the book has been shown to be fraudulent
and its claim false. The indigenous population was mostly Muslim,
with a Christian and a smaller Jewish minority. As Zionists arrived
from Europe, the Muslims and Christians began to adopt a distinctly
Palestinian national identity.
How did Zionists acquire land in Palestine?
Some was acquired illegally and some was purchased from Arab
landlords with funds provided by wealthy Jews in Europe. The legal
purchases were often morally questionable as they sometimes involved
buying land from absentee landlords and then throwing poor Arab
peasants off the land. Land thus purchased became part of the
Jewish National Fund, which specified that the land could never
be sold or leased to Arabs. Even with these purchases, Jews owned
only about 6 percent of the land by 1947.
Was Palestinian opposition to Zionism a result of anti-Semitism?
Anti-Semitism in the Arab world was generally far less severe
than in Europe. Before the beginning of Zionist immigration, relations
among the different religious groups in Palestine were relatively
harmonious. There was Palestinian anti-Semitism, but no people
will look favorably on another who enter one's territory with
the intention of setting up their own sovereign state. The expulsion
of peasants from their land and the frequent Zionist refusal to
employ Arabs exacerbated relations.
What was the impact of World War Il?
As war approached, Britain shrewdly calculated that they
could afford to alienate Jews-who weren't going to switch to Hitler's
side-but not Arabs, so they restricted Jewish immigration into
Palestine. This was precisely when the need for sanctuary for
Europe's Jews was at its height. Many Jews smuggled their way
into Palestine as the Western nations kept their borders closed
to frantic refugees.
At war's end, as the enormity of the Holocaust became evident,
for the first time Zionism became a majority sentiment among world
Jewry. Many U.S. Christians supported Zionism as a way to absolve
their guilt for what had happened, without having to allow Jews
into the United States. U.S. Zionists, who during the war had
subordinated rescue efforts to their goal of establishing a Jewish
state, argued that the Holocaust confirmed the need for a Jewish
state: Had Israel existed in 1939, millions of Jews might have
been saved. Actually, Palestine narrowly avoided being overrun
by the Nazis, so Jews would have been far safer in the United
States than in a Jewish Palestine.
During the war many Jews in Palestine joined the British army.
By war's end, the Jewish community in Palestine was well armed,
well-organized, and determined to fight. The Palestinians were
poorly armed, with feudal leaders. The Mufti of Jerusalem had
been exiled by the British for supporting an Arab revolt in 1936-39
and had made his way to Berlin during the war where he aided Nazi
propaganda. From the Zionist point of view, it was considered
a plus to have the extremist Mufti as the Palestinians' leader.
As David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community in Palestine
and Israel's first prime minister, advised in 1938, "rely
on the Mufti."
What were the various positions in 1947?
Both the Palestinians and the Zionists wanted the British
out so they could establish an independent state. The Zionists,
particularly a right-wing faction led by Menachem Begin, launched
a terror campaign against Britain. London, impoverished by the
war, announced that it was washing its hands of the problem and
turning it over to the UN (though Britain had various covert plans
for remaining in the region).
The Zionists declared that, having gone through one of the
great catastrophes of modern history, the Jewish people were entitled
to a state of their own, one into which they could gather Jewish
refugees, still languishing in the displaced persons camps of
Europe. The Zionist bottom line was a sovereign state with full
control over immigration. The Palestinians argued that the calamity
that befell European Jews was hardly their fault. If Jews were
entitled to a state, why not carve it out of Germany? As it was,
Palestine had more Jewish refugees than any other place in the
world. Why should they bear the full burden of atoning for Europe's
sins'? They were willing to give full civil rights (though not
national rights) to the Jewish minority in an independent Palestine,
but they were not willing to give this minority the right to control
immigration and bring in more of their co-religionists until they
were a majority to take over the whole of Palestine.
A small left-wing minority among the Zionists called for a
binational state in Palestine, where both peoples might live together,
each with their national rights respected. This view had little
support among Jews or Palestinians.
What did the UN do and why?
In November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition
Palestine into two independent states, a Jewish state and an Arab
state, joined by an economic union, with Jerusalem internationalized.
In 1947 the UN had many fewer members than it does today.
Most Third World nations were still colonies and thus not members.
Nevertheless, the partition resolution passed because the Soviet
Union and its allies voted in favor and because many small states
were subject to improper pressure. For example, members of the
U.S. Congress told the Philippines that it would not get U.S.
economic aid unless it voted for partition. Moscow favored partition
as a way to reduce British influence in the region; Israel was
viewed as potentially less pro-Western than the dominant feudal
Didn't Palestinians have a chance for a state of their own
in 1947, but they rejected it by going to war with Israel?
In 1947 Jews were only one-third of the population of Palestine
and owned only 6 percent of the land. Yet the partition plan granted
the Jewish state 55 percent of the total land area. The Arab state
was to have an overwhelmingly Arab population, while the Jewish
state would have almost as many Arabs as Jews. If it was unjust
to force Jews to be a one-third minority in an Arab state, it
was no more just to force Arabs to be an almost 50 percent minority
in a Jewish state.
The Palestinians rejected partition. The Zionists accepted
it, but in private Zionist leaders had more expansive goals. In
1938, during earlier partition proposals, Ben Gurion stated, "when
we become a strong power after the establishment of the state,
we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine."
The Mufti called Palestinians to war against partition, but
very few Palestinians responded. The "decisive majority"
of Palestinians, confided Ben Gurion, "do not want to fight
us." The majority "accept the partition as a fait accompli,"
reported a Zionist Arab affairs expert. The 1936-39 Arab revolt
against the British had mass popular support, but the 1947-48
fighting between the Mufti's followers and Zionist military forces
But even if Palestinians were fully united in going to war
against the partition plan, this can provide no moral justification
for denying them their basic right of self-determination for over
50 years. This right is not a function of this or that agreement,
but a basic right to which every person is entitled. (Israelis
don't lose their right to self-determination because their government
violated countless UN cease-fire resolutions.)
Didn't Israel achieve larger borders in 1948 as a result of
a defensive war of independence?
Arab armies crossed the border on May 15, 1948, after Israel
declared its independence. But this declaration came three and
a half months before the date specified in the partition resolution.
The U.S. had proposed a three-month truce on the condition that
Israel postpone its declaration of independence. The Arab states
accepted and Israel rejected, in part because it had worked out
a secret deal with Jordan's King Abdullah, whereby his Arab Legion
would invade the Palestinian territory assigned to the Palestinian
state and not interfere with the Jewish state. (Since Jordan was
closely allied to Britain, the scheme also provided a way for
London to maintain its position in the region.) The other Arab
states invaded as much to thwart Abdullah's designs as to defeat
Most of the fighting took place on territory that was to be
part of the Palestinian state or the internationalized Jerusalem.
Thus, Israel was primarily fighting not for its survival, but
to expand its borders at the expense of the Palestinians. For
most of the war, the Israelis actually held both a quantitative
and qualitative military edge, apart from the fact that the Arab
armies were uncoordinated and operating at cross purposes.
When the armistice agreements were signed in 1949, the Palestinian
state had disappeared, its territory taken over by Israel and
Jordan, with Egypt in control of the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem, which
was to have been internationalized, was divided between Israeli
and Jordanian control. Israel now held 78 percent of Palestine.
Some 700,000 Palestinians had become refugees.
Why did Palestinians become refugees in 1948?
The Israeli government claims that Palestinians chose to
leave Palestine voluntarily, instructed to do so via radio broadcasts
from Arab leaders who wanted to clear a path for their armies.
But radio broadcasts from the area were monitored by the British
and American governments and no evidence of general orders to
flee has ever been found. On the contrary, there are numerous
instances of Arab leaders telling Palestinians to stay put, to
keep their claim to the territory. People flee during wartime
for a variety of reasons and that was certainly the case here.
Some left because war zones are dangerous environments. Some because
of Zionist atrocities-most dramatically at Deir Yassin where,
in April 1948, 254 defenseless civilians were slaughtered. Some
left in panic, aided by Zionist psychological warfare, which warned
that Deir Yassin's fate awaited others. Some were driven out at
gunpoint, with killings to speed them on their way, as in the
towns of Ramle and Lydda. In short, the Palestinians were subjected
to ethnic cleansing similar to that seen in the Balkan wars of
There is no longer any serious doubt that many Palestinians
were forcibly expelled. The exact numbers driven out versus those
who panicked or sought safety is still contested, but what permits
us to say that all were victims of ethnic cleansing is that Israeli
officials refused to allow any of them to return. (In Kosovo,
any ethnic Albanian refugee, whether he or she was forced out
at gunpoint, panicked, or even left to make it easier for NATO
to bomb, was entitled to return.) In Israel, Arab villages were
bulldozed, citrus groves, lands, and property seized, and their
owners and inhabitants prohibited from returning. Not only was
the property of "absentee" Palestinians expropriated,
but any Palestinians who moved from one place within Israel to
another during the war were declared "present absentees"
and their property expropriated as well.
Of the 860,000 Arabs who had lived in areas of Palestine that
became Israel, only 133,000 remained. Some 470,000 moved into
refugee camps on the West Bank (controlled by Jordan) or the Gaza
Strip (administered by Egypt). The rest dispersed to Lebanon,
Syria, and other countries.
Why did Israel expel the Palestinians?
In part to remove a potential fifth column. In part to obtain
their property. In part to make room for more Jewish immigrants.
But mostly because the notion of a Jewish state with a large non-Jewish
minority was extremely awkward for Israeli leaders. Because Israel
took over some territory intended for the Palestinian state, there
had actually been an Arab majority living within the borders of
Israel. Nor was the idea of expelling Palestinians something that
just emerged in the 1948 war. In 1937, Ben Gurion had written
to his son, "We will expel the Arabs and take their places...with
the force at our disposal."
How did the international community react?
In December 1948, the General Assembly passed Resolution
194, which declared that "refugees wishing to return to their
homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted
to do so" and that "compensation should be paid for
the property of those choosing not to return." This same
resolution was overwhelmingly adopted year after year. Israel
repeatedly refused to carry out the terms of the resolution.
Did the Arab countries take steps to resettle the Palestinian
Only in Jordan were Palestinians eligible for citizenship.
In Lebanon, the government feared that allowing
Palestinians to become citizens would disturb the country's
delicate Christian-Muslim balance; in Egypt, the shortage of arable
land led the government to confine the Palestinians to the Gaza
Strip. It must be noted, however, that the Palestinians were reluctant
to leave the camps if that would mean acquiescing in the loss
of homes and property or giving up their right to return.
It is sometimes implied that the lack of assistance to Palestinians
from Arab nations justifies Israel's refusal to acknowledge and
address the claims of the refugees. But if you harm someone, you
are responsible for redressing that harm, regardless of whether
the victim's relatives are supportive.
Hasn't there been a population exchange, with Jews from Arab
lands coming to Israel and replacing the Palestinians?
This argument makes individual Palestinians responsible for
the wrong-doing of Arab governments. Jews left Arab countries
under various circumstances: some were forced out, some came voluntarily,
some were recruited by Zionist officials. In Iraq, Jews feared
that they might be harmed, a fear possibly helped along by some
covert bombs placed by Zionist agents. But whatever the case,
there are no moral grounds for punishing Palestinians (or denying
them their due) because of how Jews were treated in the Arab world.
If Italy were to abuse American citizens, this would not justify
the United States harming or expelling Italian-Americans.
How were the Palestinians who remained within Israel treated?
Most Arabs lived in the border areas of Israel and, until
1966, these areas were all declared military security zones, which
essentially meant that Palestinians were living under martial
law conditions for nearly 20 years. After 1966, Arab citizens
of Israel continued to be the victims of harsh discrimination:
most of the country's land is owned by the Jewish National Fund
which prohibits its sale or lease to non-Jews; schools for Palestinians
in Israel are, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "separate
and unequal"; and government spending has been funneled so
as to keep Arab villages underdeveloped. Thousands of Israeli
Arabs live in villages declared "unrecognized" and hence
ineligible for electricity or any other government services.
Following 1948, didn't the Arab states continually try to
After Israel's victory in the 1948-49 war, there were several
opportunities for peace. There was blame on all sides, but Israeli
intransigence was surely a prime factor. In 1951, a UN peace plan
was accepted by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, but rejected
When Nasser came to power in Egypt, he made overtures to Israel
that were rebuffed. When Nasser negotiated an end to British control
of the Suez Canal zone, Israeli intelligence covertly arranged
a bombing campaign of western targets in Egypt as a way to discourage
British withdrawal. The plot was foiled, Egypt executed some of
the plotters, and Israel responded with a major military attack
on Gaza. In 1956, Israel joined with Britain and France in invading
Egypt, drawing condemnation from the United States and the UN.
How were the Occupied Territories occupied?
In June 1967, Israel launched a war in which it seized all
of Palestine (the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan
and the Gaza Strip from Egypt), along with the Sinai from Egypt
and the Golan Heights from Syria. Large numbers of Palestinians,
some living in cities, towns, and villages, and some in refugee
camps, came under Israeli control. (In 2001, half the Palestinian
population of the Occupied Territories lived in refugee camps.
The Israeli conquest also sent a new wave of refugees from Palestine
to surrounding countries.)
Israel's supporters argue that although Israel fired the first
shots in this war, it was a justified preventive war, given that
Arab armies were mobilizing on Israel's borders with murderous
rhetoric. The rhetoric was indeed blood-curdling and many people
around the world worried for Israel's safety. But those who understood
the military situation-in Tel Aviv and the Pentagon-knew that
even if the Arabs struck first, Israel would prevail in any war.
Nasser was looking for a way out and agreed to send his vice-president
to Washington for negotiations. Israel attacked when it did in
part because it rejected negotiations and the prospect of any
face-saving compromise for Nasser. Menachem Begin, an enthusiastic
supporter of this (and other) Israeli wars, was quite clear about
the necessity of launching an attack. In June 1967, he said, Israel
"had a choice." Egyptian Army concentrations did not
prove that Nasser was about to attack. "We must be honest
with ourselves. We decided to attack him."
However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly
defensive on Israel's part, this cannot justify the continued
rule over Palestinians. Sure, punish Egypt and Jordan-don't give
them back Gaza and the West Bank (which they had no right to in
the first place, having joined with Israel in carving up the stillborn
Palestinian state envisioned in the UN's 1947 partition plan).
But there is no basis for punishing the Palestinian population
by forcing them to submit to foreign military occupation.
Israel immediately incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into
Israel proper, announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal
capital. It then began to establish settlements in the Occupied
Territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit
a conquering power from settling its population on occupied territory.
These settlements, placed in strategic locations throughout the
West Bank and Gaza, were intended to "create facts"
on the ground to make the occupation irreversible.
How did the international community respond to the Israeli
In November 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously passed
resolution 242. The resolution emphasized "the inadmissibility
of the acquisition of territory by war" and called for the
"withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territory occupied
in the recent conflict." It also called for all countries
in the region to end their state of war and to respect the right
of each country "to live in peace within secure and recognized
Israel argued that because resolution 242 called for Israeli
withdrawal from "territories," rather than "the
territories," occupied in the recent conflict, it meant that
Israel could keep some of them as a way to attain "secure"
borders. The official French and Russian texts of the resolution
include the definite article, but in any event U.S. officials
told Arab delegates that it expected "virtually complete
withdrawal" by Israel, and this was the view as well of Britain,
France, and the USSR.
Palestinians objected to the resolution because it referred
to them only in calling for "a just settlement to the refugee
problem" rather than acknowledging their right to self-determination.
By the mid-1970s, however, the international consensus-rejected
by Israel and the United States-was expanded to include support
for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps with
insignificant border adjustments.
How did the United States respond to the Israeli occupation?
Prior to the 1967 war, France, not the United States, was
Israel's chief weapons supplier. But now U.S. officials determined
that Israel would be an extremely valuable ally in the Middle
East and Washington became Israel's principal military and diplomatic
Why, given the U.S. concern for Mideast oil, was Washington
supporting Israel? This assumes that the main conflict was Israel
vs. the Arabs, rather than Israel and conservative, pro-Western
Arab regimes vs. radical Arab nationalism.
Egypt and Syria had been champions of the latter, armed by
the USSR, and threatening U.S. interests in the region. (On the
eve of the 1967 war, for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were
militarily backing opposite sides in a civil war in Yemen. Israel
had plotted with Jordan against Palestinians in 1948, and in 1970
Israel was prepared to take Jordan's side in a war against Palestinians
Diplomatically, the U.S. soon backed off the generally accepted
interpretation of resolution 242, deciding that given Israel's
military dominance no negotiations were necessary except on Israel's
terms. When Secretary of State Rogers put forward a reasonable
peace plan, President Nixon privately sent word to Israel that
the U.S. wouldn't press the proposal. When Anwar Sadat, Nasser's
successor, proposed a peace plan that included cutting his ties
with Moscow, Washington decided he hadn't groveled enough and
ignored it. But after Egypt and Syria unsuccessfully went to war
with Israel for the limited aim of regaining their lost territory,
and Arab oil states called a limited oil embargo, Washington rethought
its position. This led in 1979 to the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David
Agreement under which Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in return
for peace and diplomatic relations. Egypt then joined Israel as
a pillar of U.S. policy in the region and the two became the leading
recipients of U.S. aid in the world.
What progress was made toward justice for Palestinians during
the first two decades of the occupation?
The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964,
but it was controlled by the Arab states until 1969, when Yasser
Arafat became its leader. The PLO had many factions, advocating
different tactics (some carried out hijackings) and different
politics. At first the PLO took the position that Israel had no
right to exist and that only Palestinians were entitled to national
rights in Palestine. This was the mirror image of the official
Israeli view-of both the right-wing Likud party and the Labor
party-that there could be no recognition of the PLO under any
circumstances, even if it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel,
let alone of a Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine.
By 1976, however, the PLO view had come to accept the international
consensus favoring a two-state solution. In January 1976 a resolution
backed by the PLO, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the Soviet Union
was introduced in the Security Council incorporating this consensus.
Washington vetoed the resolution.
The 1979 Camp David agreement established peace along the
Egyptian-Israeli border, but it worsened the situation for Palestinians.
With its southern border neutralized, Israel had a freer hand
to invade Lebanon in 1982 (where the PLO was based) and to tighten
its grip on the Occupied Territories.
What was the first Intifada?
Anger and frustration were growing in the Occupied Territories,
fueled by Israeli repression, daily humiliations, and the establishment
of sharply increasing numbers of Israeli settlements. In December
1987, Palestinians in Gaza launched an uprising, the Intifada,
that quickly spread to the West Bank as well. The Intifada was
locally organized and enjoyed mass support among the Palestinian
population. Guns and knives were banned and the main political
demand was for an independent Palestinian state coexisting with
Israel responded with great brutality, killing hundreds of
Palestinians. Labor Party Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, urged
Israeli soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian demonstrators.
PLO leader Khalil al-Wazir, who from Tunis had advised the rejection
of arms, was assassinated (with Rabin's approval); Israel was
especially eager to repress Palestinian leaders who advocated
a Palestinian state that would coexist with Israel. By 1989, the
initial discipline of the uprising had faded, as a growing number
of individual acts of violence by Palestinians took place. Hamas,
an organization initially promoted by the Israelis as a counterweight
to the PLO, also gained strength; it called for armed attacks
to achieve an Islamic state in all of Palestine.
What were the Oslo Accords?
Arafat had severely weakened his credibility by his flirtation
with Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. (The
Iraqi leader had opportunistically tried to link his withdrawal
from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.)
Israel saw Arafat's weakness as an opportunity. Better to deal
with Arafat while he was weak, before Hamas gained too much influence.
Let Arafat police the unruly Palestinians, while Israel would
maintain its settlements and control over resources.
The Oslo agreement consisted of Letters of Mutual Recognition
and a Declaration of Principles. In Arafat's letter he recognized
Israel's right to exist, accepted various UN resolutions, renounced
terrorism and armed struggle. Israeli Prime Minister Rabin in
his letter agreed to recognize the PLO as the representative of
the Palestine people and commence negotiations with it, but there
was no Israeli recognition of the Palestinian right to a state.
The Declaration of Principles was signed on the White House
lawn on September 13, 1993. In it, Israel agreed to redeploy its
troops from the Gaza Strip and from the West Bank city of Jericho.
These would be given self-governing status, except for the Israeli
settlements in Gaza. A Palestinian Authority (PA) would be established,
with a police force that would maintain internal order in areas
from which Israeli forces withdrew. Left for future resolution
in "permanent status" talks were all the critical and
vexatious issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and borders.
These talks were to commence by year three of the agreement.
In September 1995 an interim agreement-commonly called Oslo
II-was signed. This divided the Occupied Territories into three
zones, Area A, Area B, and Area C. (No mention was made of a fourth
area: Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.) In area A, the PA was
given civil and security control but not sovereignty; in area
B the PA would have civil control and the Israelis security control;
and area C was wholly under Israeli control (these included the
settlements, the network of connecting roads, and most of the
valuable land and water resources of the West Bank). In March
2000, 17 percent of the West Bank was designated area A-where
the vast majority of Palestinians lived-24 percent area B, and
59 percent area C. In the Gaza Strip, with a population of over
a million Palestinians, 6,500 Israeli settlers lived in the 20
percent of the territory that made up area C. Palestinians thus
were given limited autonomy-not sovereignty-over areas of dense
population in the Gaza Strip and small, non-contiguous portions
of the West Bank (there were 227 separate and disconnected enclaves),
which meant that the PA was responsible chiefly for maintaining
order over poor and angry Palestinians.
How did Israel respond to the Oslo Accords?
Whatever hopes Oslo may have inspired among the Palestinian
population, most Israeli officials had an extremely restricted
vision of where it would lead. In a speech in October 1995, Rabin
declared that there would not be a return to the pre-1967 borders,
Jerusalem would remain united and under exclusive Israeli sovereignty,
and most of the settlements would remain under Israeli sovereignty.
Rabin said he wanted the "entity" that Palestinians
would get to be "less than a state." Under Rabin, settlements
were expanded and he began a massive program of road-building
meant to link the settlements and carve up the West Bank. (These
by-pass roads, built on confiscated Palestinian land and U.S.-funded,
were for Israelis only.)
In 1995 Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli and
he was succeeded as prime minister by Shimon Peres. But Peres,
noted his adviser Yossi Beilin, had an even more limited view
than Rabin, wanting any future Palestinian state to be located
only in Gaza. Yossi Sarid, head of the moderate left Israeli party
Meretz, said that Peres's plan for the West Bank was "little
different" from that of Ariel Sharon. Settlements and by-pass
roads expanded further.
In May 1996, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu who was openly opposed
to the Oslo accords was elected prime minister. Netanyahu reneged
on most of the already agreed-on Israeli troop withdrawals from
occupied territory, continued building settlements and roads,
stepped up the policy of sealing off the Palestinian enclaves,
and refused to begin the final status talks required by Oslo.
In 1999, Labor's Ehud Barak won election as prime minister.
Barak had been a hardliner, but he had also confessed that if
he had been born a Palestinian he probably would have joined a
terrorist organization-so his intentions were unclear. His policies,
however, in his first year in office were more of the same: settlements
grew at a more rapid pace than under Netanyahu, agreed-on troops
withdrawals were not carried out, and land confiscations and economic
closures continued. His proposed 2001 government budget increased
the subsidies supporting settlements in the Occupied Territories.
What was the impact of the Oslo accords?
The number of Israeli settlers since Oslo (1993) grew from
110,000 to 195,000 in the West Bank and Gaza; in annexed East
Jerusalem, the Jewish population rose from 22,000 to 170,000 -
30 new settlements were established and more than 18,000 new housing
units for settlers were constructed. From 1994-2000, Israeli authorities
confiscated 35,000 acres of Arab land for roads and settlements.
Poverty increased, so that in mid-2000, more than one out of five
Palestinians had consumption levels below $2.10 a day. According
to CIA figures, at the end of 2000, unemployment stood at 40 percent.
Israeli closure policies meant that Palestinians had less freedom
of movement-from Gaza to the West Bank, to East Jerusalem, or
from one Palestinian enclave to another-than they had before Oslo.
What was U.S. policy during this period?
The United States has been the major international backer
of Israel for more than three decades. Since 1976 Israel has been
the leading annual recipient of U.S. foreign aid and is the largest
cumulative recipient since World War II. This doesn't include
all sorts of special financial and military benefits, such as
the use of U.S. military assistance for research and development
in the United States. Israel's economy is not self-sufficient
and relies on foreign assistance and borrowing. During the Oslo
years, Washington gave Israel more than $3 billion per year in
aid and $4 billion in FY 2000, the highest of any year except
1979. Of this aid, grant military aid was $1.8 billion a year
since Oslo, and more than $3 billion in FY 2000, two-thirds higher
than ever before.
Diplomatically, the U.S. retreated from various positions
it had held for years. Since 1949, the U.S. had voted with the
overwhelming majority of the General Assembly in calling for the
right of return of Palestinian refugees. In 1994, the Clinton
administration declared that because the refugee question was
something to be resolved in the permanent status talks, the U.S.
would no longer support the resolution. Likewise, although the
U.S. had previously agreed with the rest of the world (and common
sense) in considering East Jerusalem occupied territory, it now
declared that Jerusalem's status too was to be decided in the
permanent status talks. On three occasions in 1995 and 1997, the
Security Council considered draft resolutions critical of Israeli
expropriations and settlements in East Jerusalem; Washington vetoed
What happened at Camp David?
Permanent status talks between Israel and the Palestinians
as called for by the Oslo agreement finally took place in July
2000 at Camp David, in the United States, with U.S. mediators.
The standard view is that Barak made an exceedingly generous offer
to Arafat, but Arafat rejected it, choosing violence instead.
A U.S. participant in the talks, Robert Malley, has challenged
this view. Barak offered-but never in writing and never in detail;
in fact, says, Malley, "strictly speaking, there never was
an Israeli offer"-to give the Palestinians Israeli land equivalent
to 1 percent of the West Bank (unspecified, but to be chosen by
Israel) in return for 9 percent of the West Bank, which housed
settlements, highways, and military bases effectively dividing
the West Bank into separate regions. Thus, there would have been
no meaningful independent Palestinian state, but a series of Bantustans,
while all the best land and water aquifers would be in Israeli
hands. Israel would also "temporarily" hold an additional
10 percent of West Bank land. (Given that Barak had not carried
out the previous withdrawals to which Israel had committed, Palestinian
skepticism regarding "temporary" Israeli occupation
is not surprising.) It's a myth, Malley wrote, that "Israel's
offer met most if not all of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations"
and a myth as well that the "Palestinians made no concession
of their own." Some Israeli analysts made a similar assessment.
For example, influential commentator Ze'ev Schiff wrote that,
to Palestinians, "the prospect of being able to establish
a viable state was fading right before their eyes. They were confronted
with an intolerable set of options: to agree to the spreading
occupation...or to set up wretched Bantustans or to launch an
What caused the second Intifada?
On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon, then a member of Parliament,
accompanied by a thousand-strong security force, paid a provocative
visit approved by Barak to the Al Aqsa mosque site. The next day
Barak sent another large force of police and soldiers to the area
and, when the anticipated rock throwing by some Palestinians occurred,
the police responded with lethal fire, killing four and wounding
hundreds. Thus began the second Intifada.
The underlying cause was the tremendous frustration among
the population of the Occupied Territories, who saw things getting
worse under Oslo, whose hopes had been shattered, and whose patience
after 33 years of occupation had reached the boiling point.
Who is Ariel Sharon?
Sharon was the commander of an Israeli force that massacred
some 70 civilians in the Jordanian village of Qibya in 1953. He
was Defense Minister in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, causing
the deaths of 17,000 civilians. In September 1982, Lebanese forces
allied to Israel slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian non-combatants
in the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps, a crime for which an Israeli
commission found Sharon to bear indirect responsibility. As Housing
Minister in various Israeli governments, Sharon vigorously promoted
settlements in the Occupied Territories. In January 2001, he took
office as prime minister.
How did Israel respond to this second Intifada?
Israeli security forces responded to Palestinian demonstrations
with lethal force even though, as a UN investigation reported,
at these demonstrations Israeli Defense Forces, "endured
not a single serious casualty." Some Palestinians proceeded
to arm themselves, and the killing escalated, with deaths on both
sides, though the victims were disproportionately Palestinians.
In November 2001, there was a week-long lull in the fighting.
Sharon then ordered the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud
Abu Hanoud, which, as predicted, led to a rash of terror bombings,
which Sharon used to justify further assaults on the PA. By March
2002, Amnesty International reported that more than 1,000 Palestinians
had been killed. "Israeli security services have killed Palestinians,
including more than 200 children, unlawfully, by shelling and
bombing residential areas, random or targeted shooting, especially
near checkpoints and borders, by extrajudicial executions and
Palestinian suicide bombings have targeted civilians. Amnesty
International commented: "These actions are shocking. Yet
they can never justify the human rights violations and grave breaches
of the Geneva Conventions which, over the past 18 months, have
been committed daily, hourly, even every minute, by the Israeli
authorities against Palestinians. Israeli forces have consistently
carried out killings when no lives were in danger." Medical
personnel have been attacked and ambulances, including those of
the Red Cross, "have been consistently shot at." Wounded
people have been denied medical treatment. Israel has carried
out targeted assassinations (sometimes the targets were probably
connected to terrorism, sometimes not, but all of these extrajudicial
executions have been condemned by human rights groups).
The Israeli government criticized Arafat for not cracking
down harder on terrorists and then responded by attacking his
security forces, who might have allowed him to crack down, and
restricting him to his compound in Ramallah.
Israeli opinion became sharply polarized. At the same time
that hundreds of military reservists declared their refusal to
serve in the West Bank and Gaza, polls show 46 percent of Israelis
favor forcibly expelling all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories.
What has U.S. policy been?
U. S. military, economic, and diplomatic support has made
possible the Israeli repression of the previous year and a half.
Much of the weaponry Israel has been using in its attacks on Palestinians
was made in the United States (F-16s, attack helicopters, rockets,
grenade launchers, Caterpillar bulldozers, airburst shells, M-40
ground launchers) or made in Israel with U.S. Department of Defense
research and development funding (the Merkava tank).
On March 26, 2001, the Security Council considered a resolution
to establish an international presence in the Occupied Territories
as a way to prevent human rights violations. The United States
vetoed the resolution. Because Israel did not want the U.S. to
get involved diplomatically, Washington did not name a special
envoy to the region, General Zinni, until November 2001, more
than a year after the Intifada began. Bush met four times with
Sharon during the Intifada, never with Arafat. In February 2002,
Vice President Cheney declared that Israel could "hang"
What caused the current crisis?
As the Arab League was meeting to endorse a Saudi peace proposal-recognition
of Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders-a
Hamas suicide bomber struck. Sharon, no doubt fearing a groundswell
of support for the Arab League position, responded with massive
force, breaking into Arafat's compound, confining him to several
rooms. Then there were major invasions of all the Palestinian
cities in the West Bank. There were many Palestinian casualties,
though because Israel has kept reporters out, their extent is
In the early days of Sharon's offensive, Bush pointedly refused
to criticize the Israeli action, reserving his condemnation for
Arafat, who, surrounded in a few rooms, was said to not be doing
enough to stop terrorism. As demonstrations in the Arab world,
especially in pro-U.S. Jordan and Egypt, threatened to destabilize
the entire region, Bush finally called on Israel to withdraw from
the cities. Sharon, recognizing that the U.S. "demand"
was not backed up by any threat of consequences, kept up his onslaught.
Is there a way out?
A solution along the lines of the international consensus-Israeli
withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, the establishment
of an independent and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank
and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem-remains feasible.
It needs only the backing of the United States and Israel.
The Arabs already have 22 states. Why do they need another
Not all Arabs are the same. That other Arabs may already
have their right of self-determination does not take away from
Palestinians' basic rights. The fact that many Palestinians live
in Jordan and have considerable influence and rights there doesn't
mean that the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation,
or who were expelled from their homes and are in refugee camps,
aren't entitled to their rights-any more than the fact that there
are a lot of Jews in the U.S., where they have considerable influence
and rights, means that Israeli Jews should be packed off across
How can terrorists be given a state?
If people whose independence movements use terrorism are
not entitled to a state, then many current-day states would be
illegitimate, not the least of them being Israel, whose independence
struggle involved frequent terrorism against civilians.
Won't an independent Palestinian state threaten Israeli security?
Conquerors frequently justify their conquests by claiming
security needs. This was the reason Israel gave for years as to
why it couldn't return the Sinai to Egypt or pull out of Lebanon.
Both of these were done, however, and Israel's security was enhanced
rather than harmed. True, the Oslo Accords, which turned over
disconnected swatches of territory to Palestinian administration,
may not have improved Israeli security. But as Shimon Peres, one
of the architects of the Oslo agreement and Sharon's current foreign
minister acknowledged, Oslo was flawed from the start. "Today
we discover that autonomy puts the Palestinians in a worse situation."
The second Intifada could have been avoided, Peres said, if the
Palestinians had had a state from the outset. "We cannot
keep three and a half million Palestinians under siege without
income, oppressed, poor, densely populated, near starvation."
Israel is the region's only nuclear power. It is also the
strongest military power in the Middle East. Surely it cannot
need to occupy neighboring territory in order to achieve security.
Nothing would better guarantee the Israeli people peace and security
than pulling out of the Occupied Territories.
Isn't the Palestinian demand for the right of return just
a ploy to destroy Israel?
Allowing people who have been expelled from their homes the
right to return is hardly an extreme demand. Obviously this can't
mean throwing out people who have been living in these homes for
many years and would need to be carefully worked out. Both Palestinian
officials and the Arab League have indicated that in their view
the right of return should be implemented so as not to create
a demographic problem for Israel. Of course, one could reasonably
argue that an official Jewish state is problematic on basic democratic
grounds. (Why should a Jew born in Brooklyn have the right to
"return" to Israel while a Palestinian born in Haifa
does not?) In any event, neither the Arab League nor Arafat have
raised this objection.
Don't Palestinians view their own state as the first step
in eliminating Israel entirely?
Hamas and a few other, smaller political groups in Palestine
object not just to the occupation but to the very existence of
Israel. But the Hamas, et al., position is a distinctly minority
sentiment among Palestinians, who are a largely secular community
that has endorsed a two-state settlement. To be sure, Hamas has
been growing in strength as a result of the inability of the Palestinian
Authority to deliver a better life for Palestinians. If there
were an independent Palestinian state, one can assume that Hamas
would find far fewer volunteers for its suicide squads. It must
be acknowledged, though, that the longer the mutual terror continues,
the harder it will be to achieve long-term peace.
Is a two-state solution just?
There is broad international consensus on a two-state solution
along the lines of the Saudi peace proposal. Such a solution is
by no means ideal. Palestine is a small territory to be divided
into two states; it forms a natural economic unit. An Israeli
state that discriminates in favor of Jews and a Palestinian state
that will probably be equally discriminatory will depart substantially
from a just outcome. What's needed is a single secular state that
allows substantial autonomy to both national communities, something
along the lines of the bi-national state proposed before 1948.
This outcome, however, does not seem imminent. A two-state solution
may be the temporary measure that will provide a modicum of justice
and allow Jews and Palestinians to move peacefully forward to
a more just future.
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson
University and is the author of Imperial Alibis (South End Press).
A fully documented version of this article will be posted at www.zmag.org.