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The Israel-Palestine Conflict, Explained

Historical Background

The latest fight between Israel and Hamas following the October 7th terrorist attack is the most recent in the long line of conflicts between the two states that has gathered the attention of the international community. The roots of the conflict in Palestine can be traced back to the decision made by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour in 1917. At that time, Balfour endorsed the idea of establishing a national home for Jews in Palestine.

Following the end of World War I, the League of Nations placed Palestine, among other former Ottoman territories, under British administration. While all these territories eventually gained full independence, Palestine remained an exception.

From 1922 to 1947, there was a significant influx of Jewish immigrants, often referred to as the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ primarily coming from Eastern Europe. The numbers swelled in the 1930s due to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and this led to communal strife between the Jews and the Arabs, the early settlers of Palestine. In 1947, the issue was handed over to the newly formed United Nations (UN) due to the persistent conflict and Britain withdrew its administrative and military forces from the region.

The Jerusalem question

After looking at alternatives, the UN proposed terminating the British Mandate and partitioning Palestine into two independent States, one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem internationalised (Resolution 181 (II) of 1947).

The United Nations plan, which allocated 45% of the region for Arab control and 55% for a Jewish state, faced strong opposition from most Arab countries. This division resulted in continuous wars, creating instability in the region.

The disagreement centred on the nature of the state and the demarcation of the boundaries. Those who voted against the plan did so because they were against the establishment of a Jewish state viewed by some as a move by Britain towards imperializing the Middle East.

Clashes between Israelis and Palestinians over key territories in Jerusalem have been ongoing because of the religious and ethical importance it holds for both territories. In 1980, Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital, but most of the international global powers did not recognize this step.

In May 2017, the Palestinian group Hamas presented a document that proposed the formation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. However, the group refused to recognize Israel as a state, and the Israeli government immediately rejected the idea.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of their state. Israel says Jerusalem should remain its ‘indivisible and eternal’ capital. But the question that follows from the separate demands for autonomy of these two states is whether the conflict is rooted in religious assertion or other factors.

Palestinian Liberation Organisation

As per the British plan, Jordan would control the West Bank and Jerusalem's holy sites, and Egypt would control the Gaza Strip. The Woodhead Commission, under Sir John Woodhead, was set up to examine the practicality of partition. In November 1938 it recommended that the number of Arabs in the proposed Jewish state would be almost equal to the number of Jews—and put forward different proposals drastically reducing the area of the Jewish state and limiting the authority of the proposed states. This was unacceptable to both Arabs and Jews. Seeking to find a solution acceptable to both parties, the British announced the impracticability of partition and called for a roundtable conference in London. No agreement was reached and in May 1939 the British government issued a white paper, which essentially yielded to Arab demands and stated that the Jewish national home should be established within an independent Palestinian state. It unfortunately fell short of solving the Palestinian peace and autonomy crisis which led to the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964.

PLO was founded with the motto of liberating Palestine from Israeli and Jewish authority and setting emphasis on the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. The United Nations granted the PLO observer status in 1975 and recognized Palestinians’ right to self-determination. On September 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Negotiator Mahmoud Abbas signed a set of principles on interim self-government mechanisms, commonly referred to as the ‘Oslo Accord’ at the White House. The agreements resulted in limited self-governance for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In 2020, the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were mediated by the USA and was the first Arab-Israeli peace deal in 26 years. It prompted the two-state solution agreement which would create a state for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel. Israel had also said that the Palestinian state must be demilitarized so as not to threaten Israel. However, the two-state solution was not accepted.

The Emergence of Hamas

In 1987 when the first Palestinian uprising (intifada) took place, it culminated in 1993 with the signing of the first Oslo Accords, which provided a settlement for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In the 1990s, the Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority (PA), leading Israel to surrender certain parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In response, a non-state organisation Hamas grew in fame as a defender of Palestinian authority against Israeli occupation and territorial urgency. Hamas increased suicide bombings and attacks during several operations as a counter to Israel’s newly dominated areas.

Gradually, in 2007, Hamas won legislative elections in Palestine, stirring greater political tensions. Several major conflicts occurred between Israel and Hamas, including Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014), leading to violence and numerous casualties.

The latest upswing began on Saturday, October 7, 2023, with Hamas launching an unprecedented attack on Israel, firing thousands of rockets and entering its border with armed militants. Israel has responded with brutal airstrikes on Gaza and has now prepared its military for a possible invasion.

Way Forward

At least 4008 children have been killed in the ongoing war in Gaza and the Ministry of Health said the death toll has risen to at least 10,022 Palestinians, with many victims still trapped beneath the rubble and siege that is disrupting access to basic amenities such as food and water.

India had earlier abstained from voting on the UNGA resolution on Israel for indiscriminate killings bordering on genocide as the resolution did not mention the Hamas terrorist attack provoking the fight. India called for peaceful negotiation and alleviation of conflict as the India representative expressed “India is deeply concerned at the deteriorating security situation and astounding loss of civilian lives in the ongoing conflict.”

Peace mechanisms, international mediation and healthy promises from neighbours and powers of Britain and the US are the need of the hour. Immediate resolution of the conflict sends an important message for the future of global politics and ensures that such scale of violence and fighting should never be the last resort in situations of dissent. Israel needs to refocus their attacks on the terrorist organisation it is fighting against rather than innocent and helpless civilians in Palestine. It is high time for Palestine to also appoint a leader who is willing to envisage and aim for peaceful negotiations for the safety, security and prosperity of the people in the long run.

India on Nov 11 voted in favour of the UN resolution that emphasised Israel's settlement activities in "the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan". The draft resolution was titled "Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the Occupied Syrian Golan.”

Questions to Ponder Upon

1. In what ways is the current Israel-Hamas conflict going to shape India’s diplomatic stance in the Middle East?

2. Is there a way out in the form of an International aid and relief mechanism for the current situation that’s a humanitarian emergency in Palestine? What would be the future of innocent civilians forced to choose between life and death? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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