A Brief History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
The Palestine question is one of the most divisive international issues of our time, in part because there are no serious conflicts among the major world powers, but mainly due to the cultural significance of the people and land in question. Issues of race, religion, and security take the forefront of a problem that also has economic and cultural dimensions. Since it is difficult to find an observer who does not at least tacitly take sides, discussions of the Palestinian question almost invariably omit facts unfavorable to one side’s point of view, making it nearly impossible to obtain an accurate historical perspective. I hope to give a relatively succinct yet thorough description of the relevant facts and issues of the Palestine question, and dispel some common misperceptions in the process.
1. Medieval Background
The first misperception is that Arabs and Jews have intractable racial and religious differences that generate inevitable conflict, and so have been fighting over Palestine for centuries. This is patently untrue, being contradicted by centuries of historical reality. Arab Muslims have occupied Palestine since the seventh century, and for 1200 years they had no major conflicts with the indigenous Jews. During the century of the Crusader states, when Christian lords commanded Arab Muslim armies to ward off the Turks, the only religious riots were between Jewish sects. Jews were respected by Muslims as dhimmiwho were not to be persecuted, yet were to live separately from Muslims. This suited the Jews well, as their rigid observance of the Torah required a fair degree of isolation from foreigners, even though they could trade and do business with them. Rabbis did not believe the Jews had a mandate to try to expel the Arabs or establish a Jewish state. They accepted their state of “exile” as a divine judgment, to be ended only when the Messiah comes. Jews and Muslims thus lived peaceably and without threatening aggression all the way into the modern era.
2. The Rise of Jewish Nationalism or Zionism
This pre-modern pluralist system served well until the nineteenth century, when liberal ideas of secular nationalism and religious tolerance began to hold sway in Europe and America, and germinated in the Middle East as well, particularly in Egypt and Turkey. No longer was it acceptable to keep ethnic and religious minorities in ghettos. Creating a broader sense of nationalism empowered minorities, yet at the same time it would mean giving up some of their autonomy. In the case of the Jews, the question took on a religious dimension: how could one assimilate in a secular republic while still observing the Hebrew religion, which contains its own public laws?
Secular thinkers of the nineteenth century, both Jewish and non-Jewish, tended to view “the Jewish question” in nationalistic terms. The Jews scattered throughout the world constituted a nation; thus their loyalties were always divided between the Jewish nation and their “host” nation. This dual nationalism could be viewed positively or negatively. Anti-Semites (so named because they opposed the Jews on racial or nationalist grounds, rather than religious grounds) viewed the Jew as a parasite or potential traitor to his host country who ought to be expelled or forced to assimilate. Others were more optimistic about the Jew’s ability to harmonize his twin loyalties, and in this spirit some liberals established Reform synagogues. Still others, accepting the premise that the Jews constituted a nation that ought to be the first loyalty of each member, concluded that the Jews ought to have their own nation. This is Zionism, and it is nothing other than the Jewish version of the nineteenth century nationalism that pervaded all of Europe.
Before the nineteenth century, the words “nation” and “race” were used interchangeably, both meaning people of a common ancestry or birth (natus), or in modern parlance, of common ethnicity. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, modern states began to expand and consolidate feudal territories, imposing common legal norms and, significantly, an official language. The expansion of modern states was really limited to language groups, but at the time the project was conceived as bringing together all people of a given “race” or “nation” under one state, so they could live naturally as one society.
Thus all the French were to be brought under one state after the Revolution. Burgundy and Navarre were annexed; Avignon was seized from the papacy, and the French Low Countries were invaded, all in the hopes of creating a single Gallic state. A similar notion of nationality motivated the unification of Italy and later attempts to unify Germany. “Nationalism” became the idea that each “nation” ought to have its own state, by natural right. As nationalist projects came to fruition, the terms “nation” and “state” became almost interchangeable, as in modern usage. The term “race” alone retained its original ethnological meaning, while “nation” or “nationality” became increasingly conceived as political identifications.
It is in this intellectual climate that nascent Zionism drew its strength. Being a Jew was not just a fact of biology or religion, but a political identification with a yet-to-be-realized Jewish nation-state. It is no small irony that Zionists shared the assumption of Anti-Semites that a Jew was necessarily more loyal to other Jews than to his “host” country. The Zionists, of course, viewed this in a positive light, motivating the creation of a good Jewish society that most, if not all, Jews would naturally want to join. The French had their France, and the English had their England, so why should the Jews not have their Judea? In the wake of anti-Jewish violence in Europe, Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State(1896) widened the appeal of Zionism, at the same time propelling Herzl to the leadership of the First Zionist Congress in Basel the following year. Herzl is often regarded as the founder of Zionism, but there were many influential Zionists before him, and there continued to be Zionist factions who held disparate views.
As a moral and intellectual program, Zionism seemed innocent enough. However, those who took Jewish nationalism seriously enough to propose the question of an actual geographical location for this Jewish state encountered some obvious difficulties. Early Zionist proposals suggested a Jewish state in some remote, sparsely populated location, such as Uganda, Madagascar, the Sinai peninsula, or Argentina’s southern Patagonia region. Aside from being fairly inhospitable locales for those accustomed to a temperate climate, these projects could never go past the planning stage because they never had the cooperation of the nations expected to cede territory. The best hope was for a colonial power such as England or France to give up some of her colonial territory, as in the Uganda and Madagascar plans. It is noteworthy that Palestine was not seriously considered, as the Zionist leadership (as constituted in Jewish international organizations and congresses) was predominantly secular in outlook, so the “Holy Land” held no special calling for them. The majority of Jews, of course, were religious to some extent, so those who were sold on the Zionist ideal would naturally prefer that the Jewish state be in Palestine. As this was part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I, a Palestinian home for the Jewish state was out of the question.
3. World War I and the Balfour Declaration
By 1917, the outcome of World War I was already apparent, so the British, French, Italians, and Russians constructed a web of conflicting secret agreements and false promises dividing the soon-to-be-conquered territories and spoils of war. In particular, it was evident that the decrepit Ottoman Empire would finally be dismantled, so the territory of Palestine would be administered by the victorious Europeans.
In order to solidify support for the war among Jewish elites, the British Foreign Secretary Alfred James Balfour wrote a letter (2 November 1917) to Lord Rothschild assuring him:
His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
This letter became public a week later, and Britain became the first world power to support the project of a Jewish nation-state. Notably, the Balfour Declaration specified that this “national home” would be in Palestine. Religious Jewish organizations in Britain protested the Zionist plans, for fear it would create trouble for Jews in Europe, who might be expelled to Palestine. They were ignored, for Balfour’s assurance was aimed to appease the Zionist elites, not the ordinary Jew. Although the Balfour Declaration appears to express full support for the Zionist program, it includes the caveat that “the civil and religious rights” of the Arabs in Palestine must be respected.
After the war, the Americans learned of the secret agreements made by the British, including a letter dated 24 October 1915 from Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt with Husayn, father of the first modern kings of Jordan and Syria. In exchange for Arab support in the form of a revolt against the Ottomans, Husayn was promised Arab autonomy over the Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula, excluding Aden and territories that were not entirely Arab. These exceptions were:
The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.
Basically, only regions with substantial Christian minorities or majorities were excluded. Palestine was not one of these exceptions. Like the Balfour Declaration, the Husayn-McMahon correspondence was a promise by the government, but not a legally binding agreement. The assurances made to Arabs and Jews were among many contradictory promises that Britain and her allies dealt in order to shore up support for the war. The Americans did not recognize any of these agreements and argued for an application of the then novel legal principle of self-determination of sovereignty.
The definitive mandate system approved by the League of Nations made Palestine a British mandate, effective in 1923. This partially modified the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) between Britain and France, which had required Palestine (then including present-day Jordan) to be an international mandate run by England, France, and Russia. Under the new system, Palestine (now excluding modern Jordan) would be an exclusively British mandate, freeing Britain to fulfill the promise of the Balfour Declaration. The British mandate, approved by the League of Nations, promised to “secure establishment of a Jewish national home.” The United States Senate also supported this endeavor. A Jewish national home did not yet mean the desire for a politically independent state, even to some Zionists. The goal of political autonomy had to be preceded by establishing a viable Jewish community in Palestine.
4. Jewish Immigration into Palestine
As recently as 1880, there were fewer than 25,000 Jews living in Palestine. Most of these lived in Jerusalem, where they constituted half the population. Even this modest amount was largely the product of immigration after 1840, consisting of Jews who made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for religious reasons, often remaining there until death. Baron Rothschild financed Zionist settlers, who numbered only 10,000 by 1891. Socialist Zionists oversaw the immigration of 40,000 Russian Jews into Palestine after the failed revolution of 1905. Unlike previous settlers, these socialists only relied on Jewish labor, encouraged the widespread use of Hebrew, and formed a self-defense organization. From these socialist Zionists would emerge the future leaders of the Israeli state, including David Ben-Gurion.
In this early period of immigration, there was local resistance to Jewish purchase of land and the eviction of Arab tenants, but to no avail, as these transactions were sanctioned by the Ottoman government, since the land reform of 1867 allowed foreigners to own land in exchange for taxes.
By 1914, the population of Palestine was about 650,000. 80,000-85,000 (12%) were Jews, most of whom immigrated after 1900. Only 12,000 lived on the land, and their combined holdings was an area much smaller than the present Gaza Strip, though their productivity was proportionally much higher. Even after the first two waves of immigration, the overwhelming majority remained Palestinian Arabs, numbering 555,000-585,000, while another 25,000-40,000 were Arabs (and other nationalities) who immigrated after 1840. This demographic picture had changed little by 1922, when the census counted 84,000 Jews, 11% of the total population.
It is only during the British mandate period that a substantial Jewish population began to be established in Palestine. Legal immigration increased the Palestinian Jewish population to 175,000 (17%) in 1931, while Muslims numbered 760,000 (73.5%). In 1945, an Anglo-American survey estimated the Muslim population at 1,077,000 (58%), while Jews numbered 608,000 (33%). Thus during the mandate period, the Jewish population increased by more than 500,000, tripling their percentage of the overall population. During the same period (1922-1945), the Muslim population also increased by 500,000. There were 45,000 legal Arab immigrants into Palestine during this period, plus an estimated 50,000-100,000 illegal Arab immigrants. Meanwhile, net immigration of Jews into Palestine was 216,000 for the period 1930-1939, and total Jewish immigration between 1919 and 1948 was 483,000.
Although the Jewish population rapidly increased, as did Jewish land holdings, the Arab population continued to grow even in areas with high Jewish populations. In fact the rate of increase in Arab population was greater in the regions with higher Jewish populations. This is undoubtedly because the urban areas populated by Jews were more affluent and afforded more employment opportunities, which also attracted Arabs from outside Palestine. This urbanization process does not abolish the reality of the evictions of Arab tenant farmers, who historically were “tied to the land” and owned the trees that were their livelihood. Foreign landowners did not respect these feudal traditions, and instead imposed an absolutist right to property over any supposed obligation to keep the peasants with the land. Arabs were displaced in the countryside, yet in the cities they grew in number alongside the Jews. Most of the Arab migrations were within Palestine; as we have seen above, less than a quarter of Arab population growth during the mandate period was due to foreign immigration.
5. Precursors to the State of Israel
The British mandate required the active involvement of Jewish organizations in establishing the new Jewish homeland. In 1929, a Jewish Agency was established for this purpose, and it was headed by the president of the World Zionist Organization, which dominated the Agency. The Jewish Agency established a welfare system and educational services, including Zionist control of Hebrew schools, and organized land purchases and urban development projects. Much of this organization was led by David Ben-Gurion, who imposed a socialist imprint on all of his projects, including an organized labor movement and a political party, the Labor Zionists. In 1920, he formed the Histadrut, a general union of Jewish laborers that provided social services and security, and training for immigrants. The Jewish economy became increasingly autonomous, and this was certainly by design, as Zionists had no intention of creating a joint society with the Arabs. As Ben-Gurion said in 1918: “We as a nation want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.” The Zionists were quite conscious that there would be Arab resistance, as was natural, but this did not deter them from continuing the modern colonization of Palestine, as they saw the establishment of a Jewish homeland as a natural right and moral imperative. It was primarily left to the British, as guarantors of this Jewish homeland, to deal with Arab unrest as Jews continued to immigrate and purchase land. Indeed the British saw that Arabs were underrepresented in the mandate government, and no Arab was appointed head of a government department. Nonetheless, Zionist ideologues perceived many British functionaries as “pro-Arab” simply by virtue of being critical of Zionist policies, a rhetorical tactic pursued to this day. While both Arabs and Jews in the mandate government leaked information, Jewish espionage was much more thorough and organized, and they were able to smuggle stockpiles of weapons from the mandate government.
6. Riots and Conflicts during the Mandate Period
Land ownership was a critical point of contention between Arabs and Jews. With the advantage of immense foreign wealth brought in by Jewish organizations, Jews were able to purchase large tracts of land from absentee Arab owners. By 1948, they would own 20% of Palestine. The mandate’s Land Transfer Ordinance of 1920 prevented non-resident Arabs from purchasing land in Palestine, leaving the impoverished Palestinian Arabs at a serious competitive disadvantage. The ordinance did stipulate that after a land transfer, tenant farmers must be left with enough land for their sustenance. Jewish buyers evaded this requirement by asking Arab landowners to evict their peasants prior to sale.
Jewish land acquisition was mostly politically motivated; since only a small fraction of Jews farmed, there was little practical need for large land holdings. Arabs, on the other hand, apart from the insult to national pride of seeing Palestinian lands in the hands of foreigners, needed land for their sustenance as 90% of them were farmers. Under Ottoman rule, the Palestinian Arabs lived in an agrarian feudal society. The basis of their economy was now being threatened by politically motivated land acquisitions that evicted tenant farmers and often left nothing in their place. Some Jewish farmers did use Arab labor, but only for hire at low wages, not as tenants who were guaranteed housing and fields for their own sustenance. The peasant life was by no means idyllic, however, and as drought and economic depression made farming less profitable, Arab peasants voluntarily sold their lands to seek employment in the cities.
Most Jewish land was held by private capitalists, while about 4% was owned by the Jewish National Fund, established by the fifth Zionist Congress in 1901. Lands owned by the Jewish National Fund could never be sold, as they were to form the basis of a future Jewish state, and only Jews were permitted to work the land. Other Jewish landholders had no scruples about hiring Arabs, though they usually shared the Zionist rationale for land ownership, as evidenced by the relative lack of farming. Land was purchased in order to establish Jewish ownership of Palestine, not for any practical economic end.
The political ambitions of the Zionists were well known to the Arabs, and this naturally exacerbated tensions so that even a minor incident might spark a full riot. Emboldened Jews, for their part, expected their ascendant role to be respected by the British, and would violently protest any efforts to stifle the Zionist endeavor. These attitudes were powerfully expressed in the 1928-1929 Wailing Wall riots.
The Wailing Wall is not, as is commonly stated, a part of Herod’s Temple, but a western perimeter wall that partially surrounded the temple complex. The temple itself and all other buildings in the complex were completely destroyed by the Romans. Since the temple itself is no longer available for worship, the closest the Jews can come to venerating God’s house on earth is to approach this wall on Yom Kippur. The Temple Mount itself is occupied by the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and it is regarded by Muslims as a holy site, so non-believers are forbidden to enter.
Jews had long been permitted to pray at the Wailing Wall from outside the Temple Mount. In the 1920s, Jews made several attempts to purchase the wall, and some rightists openly advocated reclaiming the holy site, even rebuilding the temple. This development was paralleled among Arabs by a lower tolerance for Jewish worship at the wall, as it was now seen as an infringement of Arab ownership of the holy site. In 1928, Arabs complained of a Jewish prayer screen near the wall that blocked the street. British police removed the screen, resulting in brief mob violence and Jewish accusations of religious persecution. The following year, Arab rumors that Jews intended to seize the al-Aqsa mosque sparked violence by militant Muslims against Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron, killing 133. British police intervened belatedly, killing several dozen Arabs. While only a tiny minority of Arabs and Jews resorted to violence, nearly all saw the conflict over the Temple Mount as a political or nationalist issue rather than a purely religious one. Jews and Muslims had worshipped in and around the temple area for centuries, but only when the issue of land ownership came into play did violence flare.
The most significant uprising of the early mandate period was the “Arab Revolt” of 1936. An increasingly landless, proletarian Arab population turned to new political groups that preached defiance of the mandate government and the establishment of an Arab state. In 1935, a Jewish arms smuggling operation was exposed, prompting calls for a legislative council to address Arab concerns. The British parliament capitulated to Zionist objections to even this concession, igniting open revolt among Arab Palestinians.
In April 1936, Arabs united in a general strike against Jewish goods and services, and many committed acts of violence against Jewish settlers until November, when British forces quelled the revolt. In July 1937, the Peel Commission published a partition plan which would assign the fertile coast and Galilee to the Jews, leaving the West Bank and the Negev desert to the Arabs. Jerusalem and its environs would remain under a British mandate. This provoked a more furious Arab response, and the revolt continued with greater ferocity from 1937 to 1939, this time attacking British targets as well as Jews. The situation grew more chaotic as Arab peasants attacked landowning Arabs, and infighting developed among Arab leaders over whether to accept a partition of Palestine. The British retaliated ruthlessly, dynamiting houses of those suspected of harboring rebels (setting an ugly precedent for the Israelis), and hanging over 100 Arabs. In 1938, 1700 Arabs and 300 Jews were killed. The rebellion was crushed by early 1939, and the Arab population was left weak and leaderless.
As a result of the turmoil, a British commission of inquiry headed by Lord Robert Peel in 1937 recommended that Palestine be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states, with the ethnically heterogeneous zone from Jaffa to Jerusalem remaining under the British mandate and international control. The Jewish state would include Galilee and the Mediterranean coast, while the Arab state would include the present-day “West Bank” (historical Judea and Samaria) as well as the Negev desert to the south. The Peel Commission’s recommendations were accepted by Parliament, though both Arabs and Jews found grounds for objection.
7. The Ascent of the Zionists
For their part, Zionists made no secret of their expansionist desires, dreaming of a Jewish state covering all of Palestine and free of Arabs. Ben-Gurion sought to include Trans-Jordan in the Jewish state, expelling the Arabs there, while religious extremists hoped to rebuild the Temple. While these extreme views were the opinions of a minority, Jewish organizations were led by some of the more ambitious Zionists, whose influence was disproportionate to their number. In particular, the socialists, or Labor Zionists, though few in number, headed the best organized social and economic institutions, and were able to push their ideas through the British government.
One of the more striking examples of Zionist leverage was the suppression of the Passfield White Paper of 1930, which blamed Arab displacement on Jewish land purchases and the Zionist practice of hiring only Jewish labor. In view of the Balfour Declaration's requirement of “ensuring the rights and positions of other sections of the population,” Lord Passfield asked the Zionists to renounce some of their separatist policies. The response of world Jewry was to threaten Great Britain with a U.S. embargo. Prime Minister MacDonald capitulated completely, issuing a letter dictated by Chaim Weizmann, the former head of the World Zionist Organization, that rejected the Passfield White Paper.
This leverage, coupled with the influx of Jews from Poland and Germany that more than doubled the Jewish Palestinian population, enabled Zionists to continue to make bold claims that ignored the requirements of the Balfour Declaration. They allowed that the Arabs had a right to independence, but not in Palestine. The Jews, on the other hand, had an absolute right to an Israeli state that was not to be circumscribed by the rights of others. These were not new ideas, but an appeal to a pure nationalist Zionism that predated the Balfour Declaration and regarded the British mandate as both a vehicle and an obstacle to the realization of the state of Israel.
8. World War II
As the threat of war loomed over Europe, the British became increasingly anxious to secure the good will of the Arab peoples, whose lands were strategically necessary in a potential conflict with Germany. In May 1939, they issued a White Paper declaring that “the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish state against the will of the Arab population of the country.” This was a direct blow to the Zionists, who explicitly sought a Jewish state with or without Arab consent. The White Paper instead envisioned a single Palestinian state which contained a “Jewish National Home,” with restricted immigration to 15,000 a year for five years, after which Arab consent was required. Jews already constituted over 30% of the Palestinian population at 467,000, 300,000 of whom had immigrated in the 1930s. The Jewish population had nearly tripled over the last decade, increasing by 180%, but this mass immigration was to be arrested immediately.
The idea that further immigration would require Arab consent would have been unacceptable to the Zionists in any scenario, but this came at an especially bad time, since the oppression of the Jews in central and eastern Europe made desirable an even greater increase in immigration to Palestine as a safe haven. The Zionists, despite their furious opposition to the 1939 White Paper, had little choice but to support Britain against the far greater evil of Nazi Germany.
When the Second World War began in Europe, it provided the occasion for the organization of an armed Jewish fighting force. The already existing Zionist defense force, the Hagana, helped train Jewish soldiers to fight alongside the British. Weizmann strenuously advocated for an all-Jewish brigade, a request that was begrudgingly conceded in 1944. Meanwhile, the Hagana accumulated stockpiles of weapons for use in a future war of independence against the Arabs and the British, if necessary. British officials, knowing the Zionists were preparing for an armed rebellion against British rule, raided several arms smuggling operations. Jewish leaders openly opposed these raids, showing their revolutionary intentions.
The Zionists also sought to undermine British policy through political means, as Weizmann lobbied through Jewish organizations in the United States. Americans were highly receptive to the more aggressive ambitions of the Zionists, and in 1944 both political parties agreed to support the creation of a “Jewish Commonwealth” after the war, effectively repudiating the 1939 White Paper. Despite this political success, Ben Gurion resisted any attempt to Americanize the Zionist movement, preferring instead to focus on direct military action to claim all of Palestine west of the Jordan, rather than negotiating a partition.
Complicating the situation, Jewish terrorist groups took matters into their own hands, succeeding only in alienating the British from the cause of a Jewish state. In the 1930s, the militant group Irgun had resorted to nakedly terrorist attacks against Arabs, and in 1939 began to fight the British in response to the White Paper. In 1940, they suspended anti-British activities in order to support the war effort, but some of them, led by former Hagana member Avraham Stern, insisted on continuing terrorist acts against the British. This splinter group of the Irgun was the notorious Stern Gang, which gave rise to the modern usage of the term “terrorism.” Stern was killed by British police in 1942, but some of his followers, including future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, escaped from prison, and formed the LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), which sought to assassinate British personnel. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin (another future prime minister), resumed anti-British terrorist activities in 1943 as the German threat to Egypt subsided, but by a strange ethic, Begin directed that only the civilian government be targeted, in order to show continued support of the British military effort. Both Irgun and LEHI sought the establishment of a Jewish state over all of Palestine and Transjordan.
Jewish terrorism backfired in the short term, as the successful assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo by LEHI served only to turn Winston Churchill away from the Zionist cause. Having been a friend of the assassinated deputy minister of the state, Churchill was determined that terrorism would not be rewarded, and he ended any discussion of the partition of Palestine or the establishment of a Jewish state for the remainder of his term. Before the House of Commons, he described Zionist militants in uncompromisingly harsh terms, saying, “if our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins' pistols and our labors for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently in the past.” Zionist terrorist activities against the British ceased for the remainder of the war.
Palestinian Arab leadership had been in disarray since the Arab revolt of 1936-39. The nominal political and religious leader of the Arabs was Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini (1893-1974), who was appointed by the British as “Grand Mufti” (a novel title) in 1922. Al-Husseini was a poor choice for leadership, as he had been a provocateur of the 1920 attack against Jews at the Western Wall, and helped incite the riots of 1929. With the outbreak of World War II, al-Husseini disgraced himself further, appealing to the Axis powers to resolve the “Jewish question” in Palestine with the same brutal tactics employed in Europe. He spent most of the war in Germany, leaving the field open for other political leaders.
Al-Husseini’s Palestinian Arab party was singularly uncompromising in its position, opposing not only a Jewish state, but even a “National Home” within a united Palestine, as envisioned by the 1939 White Paper. Instead, there could only be an Arab government over all of Palestine. In al-Husseini’s absence, thede facto head of the party was Emile al-Ghuri, a Greek Orthodox, proving that Arab nationalism was not a purely Islamic concern. The Istiqal party was more moderate, endorsing the White Paper and approved of the creation of a Jewish National Home, though not a state.
In 1944, the Arab heads of state met in Alexandria, Egypt, calling for the establishment of a league of Arab states. They addressed the Palestine question in particular:
The Committee also declares that it is second to none in regretting the woes inflicted upon the Jews of Europe by European dictatorial states. But the question of these Jews should not be confused with Zionism, for there can be no greater injustice or aggression than solving the problem of the Jews of Europe by another injustice, that is, by inflicting injustice on the Palestine Arabs of various religions and denominations.
The Arab leaders strongly distanced themselves from the pro-Nazi stance of al-Husseini’s party, a racist position that was popular in Palestine, Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, invoking the principle that injustice is not corrected by injustice, they opposed unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine against the will of the Arab population, which is precisely what the Zionists sought, invoking the Holocaust as justification.
9. The 1947 UN Partition of Palestine
The Labour Party surprisingly defeated Churchill in 1944, making Clement Attlee Prime Minister of Great Britain. The Labour platform had endorsed a Jewish state and even the expulsion of Arabs across the Jordan, but geopolitical necessity soon induced the government to abandon the pursuit of a Jewish state, in order to win favor with the Egyptians. The British even refused to admit Jewish refugees to Palestine, causing the Zionists to turn to the United States for political support. Although the Americans were unwilling to amend their immigration laws to admit Jewish refugees into the U.S., President Truman did ask Attlee to permit 100,000 Jewish refugees to be admitted to Palestine. This request was denied, and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin expressed a position similar to that of Arab leaders, namely that the Jewish refugee problem was not to be mixed with the Palestine question.
Britain’s refusal to remove immigration restrictions or acknowledge the right to a Jewish state in even a part of Palestine naturally led to widespread Zionist outrage. In late 1945, David Ben-Gurion resorted to military measures, stockpiling arms supplied by wealthy foreign Jews, and using the Hagana to support the activities of the terrorist groups Irgun and LEHI. These groups assassinated British officers, soldiers, and police, bombed railways and took hostages. The British responded by raiding the Jewish Agency headquarters and arresting some of the Hagana leadership. This led to the infamous counter-response by Menachem Begin’s Irgun, which blew up the King David Hotel, killing ninety-one people on 22 July 1946.
As the mandate of Palestine was to be turned over to the United Nations, the British sought to achieve compromise by proposing an increase of Jewish immigration by 96,000 over two years, yet retaining a unified Palestinian state. Both sides were dissatisfied, as Ben-Gurion insisted on unlimited immigration while the Arabs wished to halt it altogether. The British turned over the matter to the United Nations in February 1947.
On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem and its environs remaining under international control. Jewish Americans had been active in the U.S. and throughout the world in lobbying for the approval of this resolution, threatening boycotts and pressuring the U.S. government to exercise its influence over the votes of others. The result was quite favorable to the Jews in relation to the actual facts on the ground.
Shortly before the partition, Palestinian Jews numbered 608,000, or 32% of the total population of Palestine. Despite all of their massive land purchases over the past several decades, they owned only 20% of cultivable land and a mere 6% of the total area of Palestine, nearly all of which was along the coast or in Galilee. The UN partition plan, quite sensibly, assigned these areas to the future Jewish state, but more perplexingly, also gave to the Jews a huge swath of southern territory, including virtually the entire Negev, though Jewish landholdings in this area were miniscule. This had the effect of making the Palestinian state non-contiguous, separating the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. The Jewish state was also noncontiguous at two points, making the UN partition plan impracticable from the start.
10. The Expulsion of Arabs and the Founding of the State of Israel
The indefensible borders proposed by the partition plan would require an international presence to enforce the resolution. The Americans, however, were unwilling to have an international force deployed in Palestine, for fear that it would project Soviet influence in the region. The U.S. military was too weak to send its own forces, having demobilized down to prewar levels. Thus the British were left on their own to deal with an escalating cycle of terrorism.
Tragically, both the Jews and Arabs were led by their most extreme factions, those of Ben-Gurion and al-Husseini, neither of which recognized the right of the other nationality to exist in Palestine. Arab attacks on Jewish settlements were countered by the Hagana. The Jewish terrorist groups now directed their attacks against civilian Arab targets, indiscriminately killing women and children, and the Arabs responded in kind. Irgun and LEHI escalated their terrorist activity with a massacre of 250 people at Dayr Yasin on 9 April 1948. The bodies of men, women and children were thrown down wells, provoking terror throughout the Arab communities. As the Irgun drove out the Arab government of Haifa on 22 April and threatened further massacres, 300,000 Arabs fled within weeks.
In the wake of Arab flight, Jewish settlers overtook abandoned neighborhoods, in some cases leveling villages and replacing them with Jewish settlements. The Hagana repeatedly denied the requests of displaced Arabs to return to their homes weeks later, in contrast with later Israeli propaganda that the Arabs freely abandoned the land. Having consolidated control of all the territory assigned to the Jewish state by the UN partition except the Negev (where Jewish settlement was much too sparse), the establishment of the Israeli state was announced by David Ben-Gurion on 14 May 1948. A day later, the U.S. recognized Israel informally, while the Soviet Union was the first to formally recognize the fledgling state.
11. First Arab-Israeli War (1948)
Immediately after Ben-Gurion’s declaration of an Israeli state, five Arab nations mobilized small armies to attack Israel. Contrary to popular legend, the Israelis were not outnumbered by a great margin, for the Zionists had over 20,000 armed fighters, while the combined armies of the five nations numbered 29,000: 11,000 from Egypt, 7,000 from Iraq, 5,000 from Jordan, 4,000 from Syria, and 2,000 from Lebanon. The attack on Israel was motivated by the mass expulsion of Arabs and the Israeli acquisition of territory belonging to the Arab partition, including western Galilee and the area surrounding Jerusalem. The UN was able to obtain a ceasefire from all parties on 11 June.
During the truce, the Israelis acquired weapons from Czechoslovakia, so when the Arabs resumed the war in July, they were routed by the better equipped and better organized Israeli forces. By the end of the year, the Israelis were able to secure their existing gains and invade the Negev all the way down to the Red Sea. The UN mediator, Count Bernadotte Folke, wanted the Israelis to relinquish the Negev and internationalize Jerusalem, but he was assassinated by Yitzhak Shamir's LEHI terrorists in September 1948. A truce was finally negotiated by the UN in 1949, with an armistice line recognizing all of Israel’s territorial gains, for the purpose of ending hostilities, not as an acknowledgement of their legitimacy. The Arabs reserved the right to recover conquered territory through diplomatic measures.
As a result of the war and ethnic expulsions of 1948, the de facto partition of Palestine was quite different from what the UN had resolved in 1947. The UN plan would have had a Jewish state covering 56% of Palestine (excluding Jerusalem) with a population of 498,000 Jews and 325,000 Arabs, and an Arab State covering over 43% of Palestine, with 807,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews. Jerusalem, with a population of 100,000 Jews and 105,000 Arabs, would have been under international control. Instead, the Jewish state conquered 78% of Palestine, with a population of 600,000 Jews and 133,000 Arabs. A total of 727,000 Arabs were expelled from Israel, of which 470,000 entered refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the remainder were repatriated to other Arab countries. If Israeli propaganda is to be believed, these 470,000 Arabs left their homes freely, preferring refugee camps to their native villages. Meanwhile, the Israelis redrew the map, abolishing Arab place names in favor of Hebrew names, in an attempt to extinguish the remnants of Palestinian Arab culture.
Although Ben-Gurion publicly distanced himself from the terror tactics used by Irgun and LEHI, the leaders of these groups were permitted to take seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 1949.
12. The Refugee Question
On 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, guaranteeing the Arab refugees’ right of return:
Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for the loss or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments and authorities responsible...
The resolution addresses Israeli security concerns by stipulating that only those Arabs willing to “live at peace with their neighbors” may return to their homes. However, even those who do not return must be compensated “under principles of international law or in equity,” that is, as a matter of right or entitlement. Israel has consistently flouted Resolution 194, though acceptance of the resolution was made a condition of its admission to the United Nations and international recognition as a state. The Israeli stance has been to maintain the absurd contradiction of forcibly preventing Arab refugees from repatriating, while claiming they are refugees by free choice.
On 11 May 1949, UN Resolution 273 was passed, recognizing the state of Israel and admitting it as a United Nations member, but with the understanding that Israel would implement the directives of the 1947 partition and Resolution 194 guaranteeing the right of return. Israel’s wholesale repudiation of these directives has led many Arab states to call for Israel’s expulsion from the United Nations, since it violated the conditions of admission and negotiated in bad faith. Ben-Gurion and his supporters considered themselves answerable to no one so they felt perfectly justified in disregarding international resolutions as they saw fit. This stance, called “Ben-Gurionism” was an outgrowth of the ancient prejudice that Jews have no obligations to the Gentiles, and Ben-Gurion himself did not shrink from casting the question in such stark terms.
Ironically, Arab reaction to Israeli outrages actually contributed to the growth of the Israeli state, as over 300,000 Jews who were now persecuted in Arab countries immigrated to Israel, causing the Jewish population to swell above one million. The Israelis not only benefited from the additional population, but invoked these Jewish refugees as justification for denying the Arabs a right of return, instead proposing an exchange of populations.
13. Second Arab-Israeli War (1956)
The Israeli regime of Ben-Gurion established an aggressive security policy that entailed provocative offensive action in order to intimidate Arabs into accepting the Israeli state. Internally, this meant responding to Arab violence with a disproportionate response. In 1953, an Israeli woman and two children were killed by Arab terrorists, so Colonel Ariel Sharon was sent to the Arab village of Qibya in order to dynamite their houses as a punitive measure. Although the villagers were warned to flee, not all did so, and fifty people were killed. This policy of disproportionate collective punishment would become a hallmark of Israeli security doctrine, and the occasion of most of Israel’s war crimes.
Ben-Gurionists also favored aggressive posturing against Israel’s neighbors, provoking skirmishes on the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. Ben-Gurion’s chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, candidly admitted that this policy was a deliberate attempt “to maintain a high level of tension among our population and in the army. Without these actions we would have ceased to be a combative people and without the discipline of a combative people we are lost.” A starker contrast with UN Resolution 273’s declaration that Israel is a “peace-loving state” is scarcely imaginable.
Ben-Gurion retired from government in 1953, and the more dovish Moshe Sharett became prime minister. The defense minister, Pinhas Lavon, was a Ben-Gurionist hawk, who secretly created an Israeli spy ring in Egypt to sabotage the British military withdrawal from that country. Saboteurs would plant bombs at the British and American embassies and other buildings, killing Americans and Englishmen, while blaming the attacks on Islamic terrorists. Fortunately, the conspirators were captured before the plan could be carried out. At the time, the Israeli government denied involvement, though Lavon was forced to resign in disgrace. Israeli complicity in the terrorist plot was admitted in 1960.
In the wake of the Lavon scandal, Ben-Gurion returned as the Israeli leader and defense minister, and in February 1955 he attacked the Egyptians in Gaza, killing forty soldiers. This provocative action, supposedly in retaliation for Egypt's execution of Jews falsely accused of terrorism (when in fact the plot was real), was actually a continuation of the Ben-Gurionist policy of intimidation. These offensive tactics created a new enemy for Israel in Gamal abd al-Nasser, the new ruler of Egypt who had hitherto been preoccupied with domestic concerns. Nasser now turned to Soviets to purchase modern armaments with which to confront Israel. He formed a defense pact with Syria in October, prompting Israel to attack Syria in December, killing fifty-six. The raids on Gaza and Syria were condemned by UN Resolutions 106 and 111 respectively. Syria became more closely allied with Egypt as a result of the attack, and increased its purchases of Soviet arms.
Israel’s opportunity to invade Egypt arose in 1956, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, prompting the British to consider aggressive action in order to secure their strategic interests. Israel had already been plotting an invasion with the French, who supplied fighter jets and other armaments. Britain, France and Israel conspired in October to invade the Sinai peninsula, which Ben-Gurion believed should belong to Israel, and then to publicly call for a ceasefire, with forces withdrawn to opposite sides of the canal, effectively allowing Israel to occupy the peninsula. If Nasser objected, he could be portrayed as rejecting peace, and the attack could continue.
This amoral scheme was implemented on 29 October, when Israeli forces invaded the Sinai peninsula. Two days later, the English and French demanded that Nasser withdraw behind the Suez. Nasser naturally refused to relinquish the Sinai, so the allies were given their desired pretext for further aggression. The British bombed Egyptian air fields, and the Egyptians were forced to withdraw from the Sinai. On 5 November, British and French forces attacked the canal, abandoning their public pretense of neutrality. The clumsy conspiracy resulted in the blockage of transit through the canal for months.
The Eisenhower administration pressured British prime minister Anthony Eden to abandon then invasion, and the U.S. voted with the majority of the UN to condemn all three nations for their aggression. The Suez affair discredited Eden’s government, and the prime minister resigned on 9 January 1957. His 1977 obituary in the London Times famously remarked that “he was the last prime minister to believe Britain was a great power and the first to confront a crisis which proved she was not.” Israel was forced to withdraw from Egyptian territory, but with the condition that the Gaza Strip and the straits of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba (important to Israeli commerce) be monitored by international forces rather than Egypt.
14. The Six-Day War (1967)
The Suez crisis was not the only factor causing Israel’s enemies to multiply. In 1964, Israel began to divert water from the Sea of Galilee to a canal that would irrigate the Negev, thereby diminishing the water supply of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Syria responded with its own plan to divert the Jordan to Syria, but Israeli bombers destroyed construction equipment in 1966.
Meanwhile, the newly-formed Fatah terrorist organization, whose leaders included Yasser Arafat, conducted dozens of attacks against Israeli targets, leading to the Israeli response of demolishing entire villages in the West Bank, which was controlled by Jordan. Despite the Jordanian government’s efforts to disrupt Fatah, Israel held Jordan responsible for the attacks, in an attempt to justify its brutal reprisals.
Despite these new threats, Israeli domestic politics moved away from the overt militarism of Ben-Gurion. When the Lavon affair was investigated anew in 1960, Ben-Gurion attempted to protect Moshe Dayan, his chief of staff, and Shimon Peres, his defense minister, from being implicated in the botched sabotage conspiracy. Resentful that all blame was being pinned on him, Lavon accused Dayan and Peres of complicity in the conspiracy. The Israeli cabinet, led by finance minister Levi Eshkol, exonerated Lavon in Ben-Gurion's absence. In this he was joined by Golda Meir, a Ben-Gurion favorite appointed as foreign minister in 1956. Eshkol, Meir, and Lavon all shared a deep distrust of excessive military control of Israeli politics, as represented by Dayan and Peres.
Partially in reaction to this shift in his own cabinet, Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister in 1963, to be replaced by Eshkol. In 1965, Eshkol and Meir formed a coalition with the Ahdut Ha’Avodah (Unity of Labor) party, against Ben-Gurion’s wishes. Ben-Gurion left the Mapai (Labor) party that had dominated Israeli politics since the founding, and formed his own Rafi (workers’) party with Dayan and Peres. Mapai still won the 1965 elections, even without some of Israel’s most prominent figures. The war heroes of 1948 and 1956 were in the Rafi party, making Mapai now seem “soft” by comparison. The militarist camp would exploit this perception in 1967.
The second-largest political party in Israel by 1955 was the Herut party led by Menachem Begin, former leader of the Irgun terrorist group that attacked British civilian targets in the 1940s, including the King David Hotel. Begin, now posturing as a legitimate politician, still called for the Jewish conquest of all of Palestine and Jordan. Although Ben-Gurion refused to acknowledge Begin as a legitimate statesman, Eshkol actually worked to rehabilitate Irgun’s image, an astonishing position for one supposedly soft on security. There really was no dovish party in Israel; there were only degrees of militarism, and differences of opinion on how independent the civilian government should be from military influence.
Begin’s ultranationalist, anti-socialist Herut party was not able to mount a substantial opposition to Mapai until 1965, when it merged with the Liberal Party to form the Gahal bloc, nearly doubling its electoral representation. The unified “Alignment” of the Labor (Mapai) and Unity of Labor parties won 45 seats in the 1965 elections, while Gahal won 26, the then-moderate National Religious Party won 11, and Ben-Gurion’s Rafi party won 10.
Superpower involvement in the Middle East contributed greatly to preparing the conditions for another Middle East conflict. In 1960, the Americans discovered Israel’s secret Dimona nuclear reactor. President John Kennedy took a tough non-proliferation stance, demanding full inspections of Israeli nuclear capability. Aid to Israel was mostly non-military under Kennedy, with the exception of a few antiaircraft missiles. Kennedy also increased economic aid to both Israel and Egypt. This evenhanded policy was discarded by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, who was naively pro-Israeli, fully accepting the myth of an embattled frontier people defending themselves from marauders. Under Johnson, aid to Israel increased dramatically, and included formidable offensive military capability, including 250 tanks and 48 attack aircraft in 1965-66, the first time the U.S. provided offensive weaponry to Israel. Whereas Kennedy had made limited arms deals conditional upon nuclear inspections, Johnson turned a blind eye to the Israeli nuclear program. Meanwhile, U.S. aid to Egypt declined and finally ended in early 1967. The U.S. did provide military aid to the Arab kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as a defense against the Soviet client states of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Israel’s espionage agency Mossad exploited the Johnson administration’s obsession with communism by giving exaggerated reports of the Soviet threat in the Middle East.
In reality, Soviet policy in the Middle East was relatively moderate. While providing military and economic aid to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the Soviets actually allowed these countries to suppress their domestic Communist parties. Khrushchev’s policy was not a principled attempt to spread Marxism, but a pragmatic effort to reduce U.S. influence in the region. Ironically both superpowers meddled in the region not with the prospect of concrete gain (for neither was dependent on oil imports at the time), but to prevent the aggrandizement of the other. Were there not so many lives lost as a result of this meddling, the situation would be comic.
Pursuant to their policy of deterrence, the Soviets counteracted U.S. support of Israel, exploiting the Arab possession that Israel was in collusion with the U.S. in order to win influence in the Middle East. The USSR vetoed a condemnation of Syrian guerrilla attacks by the UN Security Council, and delivered massive quantities of armaments to Egypt, Syria and Iraq. These weapons, unlike Israeli warplanes, were of limited offensive capability, due in part to the inability of the Arab countries to incorporate sophisticated weaponry into their relatively poorly trained armies. The Soviet, American, and Israeli governments were all fully aware of Israel’s clear military superiority, but this did not prevent Nasser and other Arab leaders from becoming overconfident.
In 1967, the Arab terrorist organization Fatah increased its attacks on Israel, attempting to provoke an international crisis. Border clashes with Syria continued, and the Syrian president Nureddin al-Atassi openly called for a war of liberation of Palestine, provoking a stern warning of retaliation by Eshkol. Al-Atassi was only a figurehead president; the real ruler of Syria was General Salah Jadid, who encouraged Fatah to raid Israel from the Syrian border, though most Fatah attacks continued to be based in Jordan. The USSR, now ruled by Brezhnev, did not have direct involvement with Fatah, and the Soviet premier even condemned the militant Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
The PLO had been formed in 1964 by the Arab League, in an attempt by Nasser to claim ownership of the Palestine issue. The PLO’s “national charter” advocated armed struggle against Israel in order to return all of Palestine to Arab control, with Jews existing only as a Palestinian minority. This position, rightly perceived by Israelis as a denial of Israel’s right to exist. In keeping with Nasser's pan-Arabism, the charter did not try to invent a new “Palestinian” nationality, but declared that “Palestine is an Arab homeland,” and “Palestinians are those Arab citizens who were living normally in Palestine up to 1947,” as well as “Jews of Palestinian origin” who “are willing to live peacefully and loyally in Palestine.” The PLO’s charter was the obverse of the extreme Zionist position held by Begin’s Herut party.
The terrorist activities of the PLO and Fatah were usually conducted through the Jordanian border, against the will of King Hussein of Jordan, who saw the groups as threats to his regime. The Israelis were aware of this distinction, as they secretly negotiated for peace with Hussein while taking counter-terrorist measures in the West Bank. The most notable of these reprisals occurred in November 1966, when Israel responded to the death of three soldiers in a mine explosion by invading the West Bank town of Es Samu, which was populated by 4,000 Palestinian refugees. Using tanks and paratroopers, the Israelis blew up at least fifty houses and several public buildings, including the town’s only clinic. A Jordanian platoon engaged the Israelis, suffering at least fifty fatalities.
Israel’s actions were condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 228, which warned, “if they are repeated, the Security Council will have to consider further and more effective steps as envisaged in the Charter to ensure against the repetition of such acts.” Even the Johnson administration was outraged by Israeli actions, for not only had Israel made clear its territorial ambitions, but the attack also undermined the credibility of Hussein’s regime, which the U.S. had supported at great expense as a bulwark against Arab radicalism. When war came in 1967, King Hussein would be under tremendous pressure to join the conflict if he wished to preserve his government, as his kingdom, including the occupied West Bank, had a 60% Palestinian Arab population.
The first skirmishes that directly led to the Six Day War occurred on 7 April 1967, when a typical border skirmish on the Golan Heights was escalated by Syria’s deployment of six warplanes, which were shot down by Israel. The Israeli fighters defiantly continued to fly over Damascus. Enraged by this aggressive taunt, the Syrians conferred with the Egyptians and suspected that the CIA was plotting with Israel to topple their regimes. Border clashes continued until, on 12 May, Israel threatened massive retaliation, including the overthrow the Syrian regime. This threat appeared to confirm Arab suspicions of a U.S.-Israeli plot, and the impression was reinforced by the Soviet Union's false intelligence that “large forces” had been mobilized by Israel on the Syrian border. On the basis of Israel’s verbal threats and supposed military deployment, Nasser sent troops into the Sinai peninsula on 14 May.
As a result of the 1956 conflict, the Sinai peninsula had been occupied by the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to serve as a buffer, while recognizing Egyptian sovereignty. On 16 May, Nasser asked UNEF to withdraw, as UN General Secretary U Thant recognized was his right, and on 18 May, Nasser formally requested the full withdrawal of UNEF from the entire peninsula. UNEF offered to serve as a buffer on the Egyptian-Israeli border, but Israel declined. Controversially, Nasser re-occupied the straits of Tiran on 21 May, and more aggressively, blocked transit through the straits the following day, sealing off the Gulf of Aqaba. This crippling of Israeli commerce had been a cause of the 1956 war, so the overconfident Nasser was foolish to believe that Israel would not attack this time. Making matters worse, on 25 May the Egyptian war minister deceived Nasser by claiming that the Soviets supported his aggression, when in fact they were urging restraint.
On 27 May, the Israeli cabinet voted not to go to war, acceding to President Johnson’s urging to allow him two weeks to get the Egyptians to re-open the straits. Meanwhile, on 30 May, Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt, placing the Jordanian army under Egyptian command, in clear anticipation of a coordinated war from at least two fronts. Egypt’s allies, Jordan and Syria, were enemies of each other, making the triple alliance unwieldy from its inception.
Fearing that a Johnson peace mission would avert war, the Israeli military asserted itself, demanding that Eshkol appoint ministers from the right-wing parties. On 1 June, the prime minister conceded, appointing Moshe Dayan as minister of defense and Menachem Begin as minister without portfolio, all but guaranteeing that there would be war.
On 2 June, Nasser agreed to send his vice president to Washington in order to negotiate the re-opening of the straits of Tiran. In order to deny Nasser a diplomatic victory, the Israeli cabinet resolved to strike while the pretext for war, the blockade of the straits, still existed. As in 1956, the blockade was merely an opportune excuse to pursue a war of aggression that Israeli generals had long desired. Now, with ultranationalist expansionists in the cabinet, war was a foregone conclusion. Still, the Israelis sought confirmation that the U.S. would condone such a war, and agents in the CIA and Department of Defense indicated to Mossad that they would be glad to see the Arabs’ Soviet armaments destroyed, as that could damage Soviet influence throughout the world.
On 4 June, Eshkol’s cabinet approved Moshe Dayan’s plan to attack Egypt the following morning. Within hours, most of the Egyptian air force in the Sinai was destroyed on the ground by Israeli fighters. On the same morning, Jordanian forces took posts in the Arab sector of Jerusalem, and commenced shelling of West Jerusalem, which had been claimed by Israel since the 1949 armistice. Israel responded by invading East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The UN Security Council immediately called for a ceasefire, but the Arab states unwisely refused, which suited Israeli plans perfectly. The Israelis had been lobbying the U.S. to postpone any cease-fire until after Israel was able to “finish the job,” a ploy they would use repeatedly in the future, in order to create facts on the ground in lieu of diplomacy. The game was to occupy as much territory as possible before the Arab states accepted a ceasefire.
On 7 June, Israel conquered Old Jerusalem and the West Bank all the way to the Jordan River, until Jordan declared acceptance of a ceasefire. The Straits of Tiran were occupied by Israel the same day. On 8 June, Egypt accepted a ceasefire, but Israel's ambitions had not yet been satisfied, as Dayan planned to occupy the entire Sinai peninsula and attack Syria.
A major international incident occurred when the Israelis attacked the American surveillance ship USS Liberty. On the morning of 8 June, the ship had been spotted by an Israeli reconnaissance aircraft, and reported to naval headquarters. After looking up the hull markings in a Janes manual, naval officers identified the craft as the Liberty, and since it was an intelligence ship, forwarded the report to naval intelligence. Meanwhile, at least eight further reconnaissance flights were sent to the Liberty’s position. At 2:00 in the afternoon, Israeli fighters bombarded the Liberty with rockets, cannon fire, and napalm, knocking out the communications antenna, command bridge, and machine guns, killing eight crewmen. Shortly afterward, three Israeli torpedo boats fired five torpedos and thousands of machine gun rounds into theLiberty, killing another 26 crewmen. The torpedo boats even fired on life rafts. A total of 34 were killed and 173 wounded out of a crew of 294.
The Israelis immediately claimed the incident was a tragic accident, though theLiberty was clearly marked in Roman letters (not Arabic), flew a large American flag, and signaled “U.S. ship” to the torpedo boats. Moreover, contrary to Israeli reports, it was moving at only 5 knots before the attack and did not at all resemble the silhouette of an Egyptian supply ship. Nonetheless, Johnson accepted the Israeli version of events, and the incident was declared an accident by the official U.S. naval report without any congressional inquiry. Even on the assumption of an accident, there would almost certainly have been gross negligence and disregard for human life on the part of the attackers who failed to identify their target or those who relayed orders or reports, but an Israeli judge implausibly dismissed all such claims as lacking sufficient merit for a trial, so no one was ever so much as reprimanded for the incident. Israel eventually paid $13 million in reparations. Still, the official U.S. response to this incident is in stunning contrast to its usual severity (compare the Maine or Gulf of Tonkin incidents). The USA’s “special relationship” with Israel had been forged, even if it was not always reciprocated.
Shortly after midnight on 9 June, the Syrians accepted a cease-fire, though they had not done much fighting. Israel had not accomplished its objectives, however, so the army in the Sinai continued all the way to the Suez Canal. Dayan ordered an assault on Syria, which Eshkol approved after the fact and encouraged to proceed deeper into the Golan Heights. Having fully secured the headwaters of the Jordan on 10 June, Israel ended its opportunistic war of conquest.
15. UN Resolution 242
Israel’s territorial gains in the Six-Day War changed the parameters of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Previously, Nasser and other Arab leaders called for a return to conditions before the 1948 war, meaning either the 1947 UN partition or a unified Palestine under majority Arab rule. Now, their diplomatic efforts were directed toward a restoration of the 1949 armistice line, or the “pre-1967 border,” as it now came to be known. The Israelis, for their part, were buoyed by what seemed to be a providential victory, and were loath to relinquish their new territories, especially the West Bank, which was the Biblical Judea and Samaria. Although the Israeli government told the U.S. they would relinquish the Golan and the Sinai in exchange for demilitarization, this position was soon retracted in favor of permanent occupation of the Golan.
The Arab heads of state met in Khartoum, Sudan after the war and resolved to work diplomatically toward Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, without recognizing Israel or directly negotiating with Israel. This policy of non-recognition enabled Israelis to extend a fictitious olive branch, by inviting Arabs to direct negotiations while refusing third-party negotiations. In this way, the Israelis could disingenuously claim that they were waiting by the phone but the Arabs would not call.
On 22 November 1967, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security,” and called for:
- Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict
- Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.
The resolution also affirmed the necessity of “achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem,” and “guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones.”
This seemingly unequivocal call for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace and recognition of its right to exist actually had some deliberate points of ambiguity. The Israelis wanted to retain at least some of the newly occupied territories in a final settlement; in fact, they already declared that East Jerusalem was non-negotiable. Thus the resolution’s clause on Israeli withdrawal was amended from “the territories” to simply “territories,” allowing for the possibility that a final settlement might result in slightly different borders than the 1949 armistice. The Israelis would later exploit this loophole in order to claim permanent rights to most or even all of the West Bank. The original draft required both Israeli withdrawal and Arab recognition of Israel “without delay,” but the final draft set no timetable or sequence of reciprocating acts.
Resolution 242 would be the basis of all future international efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue, but its terms would be routinely hedged or even flouted by both sides. The Arabs, for their part, refused to recognize Israel, while the Israelis flouted the principle of the inadmissibility of territorial conquest by claiming large tracts of land far beyond what “secure borders” could credibly require. The real motivation for this territorial ambition was nationalistic, religious and economic. The West Bank was the ancient land of Israel, while the Golan secured the Jordan’s headwaters and the Sinai provided oil fields and an outlet to the Red Sea. The status quo after 1967 favored Israel, leaving little incentive to negotiate in good faith with the Arab nations.
16. The Radicalization of the PLO
Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization found a safe haven in Jordan, from where they launched attacks against Israeli military targets. In early 1968, the Israelis invaded Jordan, but received heavy casualties from the Palestinian resistance. Fatah’s enhanced prestige proved fateful, as the PLO decided to allow the guerrilla groups to be represented in its leadership. As Fatah was the most popular of these groups, Arafat became head of the PLO in February 1969.
The newly radicalized PLO had its charter revised in 1968, now declaring that “Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine,” and “Commando action constitutes the nucleus of the Palestinian popular liberation war.” The new charter also rejected “all solutions which are substitutes for the total liberation of Palestine” and “all proposals aiming at the liquidation of the Palestinian problem, or its internationalization.” The 1968 charter retained the uncompromising positions of the 1964 version, repudiating the 1947 UN partition, the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate. Both the 1968 charter and the original characterize Zionism as “racist,” “aggressive,” “expansionist,” and “fascist,” and regard Judaism as a religion, not a nationality. Having no national identity of their own, the Jews “are citizens of the states to which they belong.”
The PLO’s position was unequivocal. All of Palestine would yield to Arab rule by armed force. As Zionism was thoroughly repudiated, Judaism was not a nationality. Only those Jews of descent predating the Balfour Declaration were Palestinians; the others were citizens of the country from which they came. It is only understandable why the Nixon administration did not attempt to negotiate a peace agreement with the PLO as representatives of the Palestinian people. Although Fatah enjoyed popularity among Palestinians living in Jordan and Syria, Arabs in the West Bank generally did not share the PLO’s radical position, and most would have been content with a settlement that allowed them to own their land and return to their homes.
Arafat’s Fatah party was challenged within the PLO by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which had close ties with the Syrian regime. Within a year of its formation, the groups Jibril and Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) splintered from the PFLP. These groups had strong Marxist leanings, and usually advocated the overthrow of Arab monarchs such as Hussein of Jordan. They became internationally notorious in 1968 when Jibril and the PFLP hijacked Israeli planes. The Israelis responded by destroying thirteen Arab civilian airliners in Beirut, holding the Lebanese responsible for the attacks. This blatant war crime outraged the Lebanese, who went into civil war over the Palestinian issue as well as inter-confessional rivalries. Until then, Lebanon had normal relations with Israel, but Zionist aggression now created a fourth border enemy for the Jewish state. The embattled Maronite Catholic government unsuccessfully attempted to suppress PLO activities in Lebanon, and finally recognized PLO autonomy over refugee camps in Lebanon and paths to the Israeli border.
17. Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition
Nasser immediately began rebuilding the Egyptian military to pre-war levels, and sought to provoke international intervention with limited strikes on Israeli targets in the Sinai. Israel responded by building fortifications along the Suez and occupying the west bank of the canal. Nasser had reluctantly accepted Resolution 242, agreeing to recognize the Israeli state de facto in exchange for full withdrawal from the peninsula. Israel refused Egyptian overtures for third-party negotiations, wishing to retain some of the Sinai for itself. Now the Egyptians escalated the shelling, only to have their air defense systems wiped out by the Israelis by July 1969.
The Nixon administration proposed a settlement that would require mutual recognition of sovereignty and Israeli withdrawal from nearly all of the Sinai. The Israeli government, now headed by Golda Meir after Eshkol’s death, rejected the proposal, and escalated bombing raids against Egypt, resulting in many civilian casualties. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Yitzhak Rabin, claimed he had American approval for the destruction of the Egyptian military.
In 1970, the Soviets re-armed Nasser, and even provided their own combat pilots. Israel now agreed to a U.S.-brokered ceasefire that acknowledged Resolution 242 as the basis for further negotiations, only after they were persuaded that this would not require full withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.
18. The PLO in Jordan
The Kingdom of Jordan had claimed the West Bank as its own territory since the 1948 war, so King Hussein was wary of the Palestinian nationalists, many of whom advocated an independent Palestinian state. After the 1967 war, many of these militants retreated to Jordan proper, the “East Bank,” where they ruled as local warlords and launched raids against the Israelis. Israel retaliated by destroying civilian targets in Jordan.
In June 1970, the PFLP fought Jordanian forces and took Western hostages, forcing Hussein to make changes in his cabinet in appeasement of PFLP demands. Hussein’s willingness to recognize Israel in exchange for withdrawal was unacceptable to the militant Palestinian groups, who wished to claim all of Palestine for an Arab state. The PFLP and PDFLP openly called for Hussein’s overthrow. In September, the PFLP hijacked four airliners, and Hussein once again acceded to their demands. After the hostages were released, Hussein embarked on a war against the Palestinians on 16 September.
Over 3000 were killed and 11,000 in the Jordanian civil war, which lasted less than ten days. Most casualties were noncombatant Palestinians in refugee camps. Syria intervened early in the conflict with a tank strike against Jordan. The U.S. had deployed its Mediterranean fleet as an empty bluff, being unprepared for entering the conflict. Israel offered air support in case the Jordanian air force failed, but this proved unnecessary. The Jordanians won a clear military victory. Despite this success, King Hussein was pressured by other Arab leaders to give formal recognition of the PLO as the leaders of the Palestinian people.
Conflict between Jordan and the Palestinian groups erupted again in July 1971, resulting in the expulsion of their leadership to Lebanon. Groups within the PFLP and Fatah sponsored terrorist attacks against Israelis, while the Israelis employed equally ruthless “commando” tactics. “Commandos,” as they are known in Britain and Israel, or “special forces,” as they are called in the U.S., are soldiers trained for assassination and sabotage, often employing tactics identical to those of terrorists. Israeli commandos would kill PLO leaders in their homes, sometimes using car bombs and letter bombs. The most notorious case of Arab terrorism in this period was the kidnapping of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A failed German rescue attempt resulted in the killing of all the hostages. The perpetrators were a Fatah group called Black September, after the Jordanian civil war.
19. Fourth Arab-Israeli War (1973)
Nasser died in 1970, to be succeeded by Anwar al-Sadat as president of Egypt. In 1971, Sadat accepted a UN peace proposal for full Israeli withdrawal, demilitarization of the Sinai, Egyptian recognition of Israel, and Israeli use of the Suez Canal. The Israelis rejected the peace plan, since several cabinet members wished to retain Sharm al-Shaykh at the straits of Tiran, and a roadway connecting it to Israel.
U.S. Israeli relations strengthened as Henry Kissinger took over the Nixon administration's Middle East policy in 1971. Kissinger viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict pragmatically in a Cold War context. Determined that the U.S. should dominate the region, he opposed State Department attempts to broker an Egyptian-Israeli peace until Egypt would end its Soviet patronage. Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to supply Israel with warplanes, in an attempt to win Jewish votes in the 1972 election.
Sadat ordered all Soviet military advisers to leave Egypt in July 1972. Despite Egypt's rejection of Soviet support, Kissinger made no serious efforts to revive the Egyptian-Israeli peace process even after Nixon was re-elected, being content with the status quo. Sadat turned to the Soviets again in February 1973, receiving antiaircraft weaponry and offensive military hardware.
Meanwhile, Israeli sentiment was leaning more strongly to the permanent retention of the occupied territories, especially the West Bank. Naturally, the ultranationalist Gahal party wanted to keep the entire West Bank, which was the ancient land of Israel. This desire also was manifested in the dominant Labor Party, formed by a postwar merger of Mapai and Rafi. The Labor-dominated Knesset formally endorsed “the historic right of the Jewish people over the Land of Israel.” The merging of Rafi into the Labor coalition meant that militant Ben-Gurionists such as Moshe Dayan once again held cabinet posts. Dayan, as minister of defense, was the chief administrator of the occupied territories. He used the military to appropriate Arab lands as “abandoned,” with the intent of selling the land to Jewish settlers.
Ahead of the November 1973 elections, Dayan pressured the Labor Party to adopt to its platform a plan to sell much of the occupied territory to Israeli settlers, including a swath of land encircling Arab Jerusalem, and to permanently retain the southern portion of the Sinai peninsula, including its lucrative oil fields and the strategic port of Sharm al-Sheikh. Israel’s gradual repudiation of its commitments under Resolution 242 was a significant factor in Egypt’s decision to resume war with Israel.
Israeli intelligence had been aware for months of Egyptian and Syrian military plans and mobilization of forces, yet Meir declined to act on this information, even when warned by King Hussein on 25 September, either out of an unwillingness to take the threat seriously, or a refusal to make Israel seem the provocateur. When Arab forces did strike on 6 October, the high holy day of Yom Kippur that year, Israeli forces were completely unprepared.
The Syrians attacked the Golan Heights with 1400 tanks and 1000 artillery pieces, where the Israelis had only 177 tanks and 50 artillery pieces. The Syrian advances over the Golan were short-lived, as Israel recovered its lost territory the following day, and by the war's end would occupy more land than after 1967.
The Egyptians meanwhile crossed the Suez, routing Israeli defenses. Israeli forces led by General Ariel Sharon countered with a crossing to the west bank of the Suez, destroying Egyptian tanks. Both nations now occupied territory on both sides of the canal. Egypt rejected a U.S.-brokered ceasefire on 12 October, hoping to gain more territory, but ended up losing more ground to Israel. Nixon did not press for an early ceasefire, because Ambassador Rabin informed him that Israel was at a momentary disadvantage.
When the Soviet Union began to airlift military supplies to the Arabs, Nixon responded with a massive airlift of $1 billion in military hardware to Israel. On 20 October, Kissinger was sent to Moscow to negotiate a ceasefire proposal, and gain another 48 hours for Israel to solidify its advances. Egypt and Syria immediately accepted the ceasefire agreement when it was offered on 22 October. UN Security Council Resolution 338 called on all parties to cease fire and remain at their current positions within 12 hours, and to immediately begin “implementation of Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) in all of its parts.” Israel, nevertheless, continued on the offensive.
Egypt, fearing total defeat, appealed to the U.S. and USSR to send joint forces to impose a ceasefire. The U.S. balked at the idea, but Brezhnev told Nixon on the night of 24 October that he would intervene unilaterally if the U.S. would not send forces. Nixon responded by raising the alert level of all U.S. armed forces throughout the world to DEFCON III, including nuclear forces, just before midnight. A few hours later, the U.S. received unconfirmed reports that the Soviets had deployed forces in Egypt, and Nixon was determined to match this with U.S. forces. Fortunately, the report turned out to be false. The DEFCON III alert was leaked to the press on the morning of 25 October, and many military personnel had already interpreted the order as a “nuclear alert.” Although the Nixon cabinet never discussed a nuclear option, the frightening escalation caused widespread public consternation. The Arab-Israeli conflict, it seemed, might bring the world to the brink of nuclear war, either through deliberate escalation or misunderstanding of the other superpower’s intentions.
Washington warned Sadat on 25 October that the U.S. would pull out of peace talks if Egypt accepted Soviet peacekeepers. Sadat immediately changed his request to a UN peacekeeping force, and on that day the UN Security Council passed Resolution 340, reiterating the demand for a cease-fire and a return to the positions occupied on 22 October. It also established a UN peacekeeping force that excluded the Soviets and Americans, and other permanent members of the Council (Britain, France, China). Hostilities ceased and 900 peacekeepers were deployed, but Israel did not retreat to its 22 October positions.
Nixon was under intense pressure to get Israel to accept Resolution 340, due to the oil crisis created by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In response to Nixon’s massive airlift of arms to Israel, the predominantly Arab OPEC had declared an oil embargo against the U.S. on 17 October, and raised prices 70% to Western Europe. This immediately sent economic shock waves throughout the world, as the restricted supply drove up prices even further. The U.S. had grown dependent on foreign oil for 35% of its consumption in recent years, due to a rapid rise in consumption rates, and its petroleum reserves had nearly vanished. Europe and Japan were even more dependent on Middle East oil, so even Britain and France demanded that Israel be compelled to accept the ceasefire agreement.
Nixon and Kissinger explained these facts to Golda Meir on 1 November, declaring that there was no choice but to accept the 22 October ceasefire. Meir had argued that continued Egyptian hostilities after 22 October gave Israel the right to retaliate, and wished to occupy lands acquired until hostilities ceased on 25 October. She did not recognize the authority of the UN, which she called a “high court of injustice,” but ultimately would be forced to yield before political realities. On 11 November, Kissinger was able to get Israel and Egypt to sign an ambiguously crafted “Six-Point Agreement,” which stated:
Both sides agree that discussions between them will begin immediately to settle the question of the return to the October 22 positions in the framework of agreement on the disengagement and separation of forces under the auspices of the UN.
The Egyptians interpreted the agreement as calling for Israeli compliance with Resolution 340, while the Israelis considered a return to the 22 October positions to be a subject for negotiation, not a requirement.
Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” between Egypt and Israel resulted in a series of force separation agreements, beginning with the Sinai Separation of Forces Agreement (Sinai I) of 18 January 1974. Exploiting the fact that both nations still had forces on opposite sides of the canal, Kissinger was able to get Israel to agree to withdraw its forces to the east of the Suez Canal in exchange for Egyptian withdrawal to the west, leaving a demilitarized zone around the canal. This zone was occupied the UN Emergency Force created by Resolution 340.
On the Syrian front, there were still exchanges of artillery fire, until Kissinger negotiated a disengagement agreement signed on 31 May 1974. Israel agreed to withdraw from the territory it gained in the 1973 war, and even from some of its 1967 gains, and to allow Syrian civilians to return to this area. The new border was to be demilitarized, occupied only by a UN observer force, and surrounded by zones of limited militarization. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad privately agreed to prevent Palestinian attacks on Israel through the Syrian border.
Israel’s government suffered political turmoil as a result of public outrage at the lack of military readiness and Meir’s apparent willingness to surrender some territory. Although the Labor Party remained in power, it had lost five seats in the 1973 elections (delayed to 31 December), now commanding a plurality of only 39.6%. It was challenged by a new right-wing coalition called Likud, which was formed by Ariel Sharon by aligning several of the smaller right-wing parties with Begin’s Gahal coalition. Likud won 30.2% of the vote, earning 39 seats on the Knesset, compared with 51 for Labor. Meir and Dayan resigned in April 1974, to be replaced by Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister and the militant Ben-Gurionist Shimon Peres as defense minister. In 1975, Rabin signed the Sinai Interim Agreement (Sinai II), withdrawing Israeli forces a further 12 to 26 miles from the Suez.
20. Israeli Occupation of the West Bank
The fortunes of the Arabs in the West Bank became increasingly tied to Israel after the 1967 and 1973 wars. From 1948 to 1967, the territory had been claimed by King Hussein of Jordan, who opposed Palestinian independence. Under Israeli occupation, the overall economy of the West Bank shared in Israel’s economic boom between 1967 and 1973. This prosperity was limited by several important constraints that undermined Palestinian autonomy.
Although per capita revenue increased dramatically in the West Bank, much of this income came from Arabs working in Israel, a phenomenon that has continued to date. West Bank Arab laborers were required to leave Israel each night. They paid Israeli income taxes and received social security, but not medical benefits. Most Arab labor was unskilled.
West Bank farmers were permitted to export their crops to Jordan, but they also had to compete with Israeli agriculture on uneven terms. Certain West Bank crops were banned or limited in Israel in order not to compete with Israeli agriculture, and tariffs were imposed on West Bank imports. Conversely, the state-subsidized Israeli farmers could export to the West Bank without tariffs and easily undersell local farmers. West Bank Arabs were forbidden to import goods from other countries, guaranteeing an Israeli monopoly. These unfair trade practices, combined with the loss of labor to Israel, led to a decline in West Bank agriculture and dependence on Israeli goods.
Arab fortunes took a turn for the worse when the Likud party took power in 1977, with the ultranationalist and former terrorist Menachem Begin installed as prime minister. Begin advocated retaining the West Bank permanently, and took steps to promote the growth of Israeli settlements. The practice of settling near Arab communities in order to encircle or drive out the Arabs had already been started by the Labor party, but Likud escalated this policy substantially. With Ariel Sharon as minister of agriculture, Arab lands were expropriated with minimal legal pretext, and Jewish settlements grew rapidly, with heavily subsidized utilities and public works.
21. UN Recognition of the PLO
Israel’s attempts to systematically destroy any basis for Palestinian autonomy met with widespread international sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian question was again brought before the UN, not in terms of a peace settlement between existing nations, but as a demand for the Palestinian right of national self-determination. This recognition of Palestinian nationhood favored the legitimization of the PLO’s status and some of its goals, if not its methods.
On 14 October 1974, the General Assembly passed Resolution 3210 (by a vote of 105 in favor, 4 opposed, and 20 abstaining), which recognized the Palestinian people as “the principal party to the question of Palestine,” and acknowledged the PLO as the “representative of the Palestinian people.” This resolution refuted both Jordanian and Israeli claims to the West Bank and their attempts to deny Palestinians an independent political voice. Israel decried Resolution 3210 as illegal and contrary to the UN Charter, since the PLO’s national charter called for the destruction of Israel through armed force.
Diplomatic recognition of the PLO did not entail approval of its rejectionist goals and terrorist tactics, but simply acknowledged that there was no other organization that could speak on behalf of the Palestinian people. This distinction was clarified somewhat by Resolution 3236, passed on 22 November (89 in favor, 8 opposed, 37 abstaining), which affirmed the Palestinians’ right to reclaim their inalienable rights “by all means in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” thereby excluding terrorism. The inalienable rights of the Palestinians include their “right to self-determination without external interference,” their “right to national independence and sovereignty,” and their right “to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted.” In light of the legitimization of the Palestinian national cause, the PLO was granted UN observer status by Resolution 3237, passed on the same day (95 in favor, 17 opposed, and 19 abstentions).
The U.S. was among the minority that opposed recognition of the PLO, due to its policy of demanding that the PLO first recognize Israel's right to exist. American distrust of the PLO was seemingly vindicated by PFLP and PDFLP terrorist actions in which hostages were killed in early 1974. President Gerald Ford promoted Israeli negotiations with Arab nations instead of the PLO, resulting in the Sinai II agreement of 1975, but Middle East diplomacy was effectively suspended during the election year of 1976.
22. The Camp David Accords
Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister in 1977 seemingly dimmed the prospects of peace in the Middle East, as he uncompromisingly demanded annexation of the entire West Bank and the Golan, and declared he would never negotiate with the “Nazi” PLO even if they did recognize Israel. He aggressively expanded Israeli settlements into Arab territories, displacing Arabs on the slightest pretext.
In the U.S., President Jimmy Carter advocated a Palestinian “homeland,” without calling for sovereign statehood. His attempts to bring the PLO into negotiation with Israel were thwarted by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which caused many PLO leaders to reject any U.S.-brokered agreement, and again by Israeli refusal to be bound by Resolution 242, as expressed in the Joint U.S.-USSR statement of 1 October 1977.
Carter focused instead on a bilateral peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. This was no small task, due to Begin's attempts to establish de factoIsraeli dominion over oil fields, air bases, and settlements in the Sinai. Ultimately, Begin was willing to sacrifice the Sinai in exchange for what he considered guaranteed dominion of the West Bank. The agreement on the parameters of West Bank autonomy negotiated at Camp David in September 1978 omitted any reference to Resolution 242. The accord mentioned “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” but Begin interpreted these as merely personal rights, not a right to collective self-determination. Carter’s attempt to halt the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank was foiled by Begin’s denial of this verbal agreement, accepting only a three-month moratorium on construction instead. Thus the process of Israeli annexation of the West Bank continued unabated, while the other Camp David accord established peace with Egypt in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, completed in stages by 1982. Despite this partial success, the Camp David accords were rejected by most of the Arab world, since it seemed that Sadat had sold the cause of Palestinian autonomy in exchange for the territory of Sinai. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League for accepting these peace terms with Israel in 1979.
23. Expansion of Israeli West Bank Settlements
Begin and Sharon antagonized the Palestinians through their policy of systematically confiscating Arab land in the West Bank and transferring it to Jewish settlers. At first, this was done by claiming private land for military purposes or allowing Jewish settlers to unilaterally seize land. When this practice was criticized, Sharon turned to public lands in the West Bank to be used for Jewish settlement. In 1980, he began to claim vast tracts of Arab land as state-owned, giving only three weeks for the owners to prove their claim before a military tribunal. Through these extra-legal measures, Israel confiscated over 500,000 acres, or about 35% of the West Bank. Additionally, another 100,000 acres of private land was purchased from Arabs by the Jewish National Fund, so a total of 40% of the West Bank was claimed by Israel.
After his re-election in June 1981, Begin decided to resolve the question of Palestinian autonomy on his own, since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October, and the new president Hosni Mubarak would not make concessions on Palestine until the Sinai withdrawal was complete. In November, Begin established a civilian administration over the West Bank, which was still answerable to the Israeli military. Palestinian autonomy would be expressed through leagues of village officials who accepted Israeli policy. This attempted vassalage provoked widespread Palestinian protest, resulting in brutal repression. On 16 December, the UN General Assembly condemned Israel in Resolution 36/147C for failing to acknowledge the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, and condemned the following Israeli policies:
- (a) Annexation of parts of the occupied territories, including Jerusalem;
- (b) Establishment of new Israeli settlements and expansion of the existing settlements on private and public Arab lands, and transfer of an alien population thereto;
- (c) Evacuation, deportation, expulsion, displacement and transfer of Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories and denial of their right to return;
- (d) Confiscation and expropriation of private and public Arab property in the occupied territories and all other transactions for the acquisition of land involving the Israeli authorities, institutions or nationals on the one hand and the inhabitants or institutions of the occupied territories on the other;
- (e) Excavations and transformations of the landscape and the historical, cultural and religious sites, especially in Jerusalem;
- (f) Destruction and demolition of Arab houses;
- (g) Mass arrests, administrative detention and ill-treatment of the Arab population;
- (h) Ill-treatment and torture of persons under detention;
- (i) Pillaging of archaeological and cultural property;
- (j) Interference with religious freedoms and practices as well as family rights and customs;
- (k) Interference with the system of education and with the social and economic development of the population in the occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories;
- (l) Interference with the freedom of movement of individuals within the occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories;
- (m) Illegal exploitation of the natural wealth, resources and population of the occupied territories;
The resolution passed 111-2, with only the U.S. and Israel opposing. The newly elected Reagan administration immediately adopted a policy of one-sided support of Israel, opposing the entire world in its condemnation of the blatant human rights violations of Begin’s government. A partial list includes:
- 13 November - Resolution 36/27: Condemns Israel for bombing Iraqi nuclear reactor; 109-2 (US, Israel opposed)
- 4 December - Resolution 36/73: Condemns Israeli policy regarding Palestinian living conditions; 109-2 (US, Israel opposed)
- 9 December - Resolution 36/87B: Establish nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East 107-2; (US, Israel opposed)
- 9 December - Resolution 36/98: Demand Israel renounce nuclear weapons 101-2 (US, Israel opposed)
- 10 December - Resolution 36/120E: Nullifies Israeli claim to East Jerusalem, and deplores Israeli attempts to change physical character and demographics of city; 139-2 (US, Israel opposed)
- 16 December - Resolution 36/146A: Demands that Israel desist from displacing and resettling Palestinians in Gaza, and destroying their shelters; 141-2 (US, Israel opposed)
- 16 December - Resolution 36/146B: Reaffirms inalienable right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967; 121-3 (US, Israel, Canada opposed)
- 16 December - Resolution 36/146C: Revenues from confiscated private lands would be claimed for their rightful Arab owners; 117-2 (US, Israel opposed)
- 16 December - Resolution 36/147F: Condemns Israeli policy of repression against Palestinian educational institutions, including closing universities, firing on unarmed students and subjecting student admission, faculty appointments and curricula to Israeli military control; 114-2 (US, Israel)
- 16 December - Resolution 36/150: Opposes Israeli decision to build canal from Mediterranean to Dead Sea; 139-2 (US, Israel opposed)
This unequivocal support of Israel was to some extent a continuation of Carter’s policy of not recognizing Palestinian claims until the PLO recognized Israel. To Arab eyes, the US position appeared to be an endorsement of Israel’s most egregious human rights violations, serving to demolish the Americans’ credibility as mediators.
24. The PLO in Lebanon
Banished from Jordan after the Jordanian civil war of 1971, the PLO leadership established itself in Lebanon, where there was already a substantial Palestinian population, mainly concentrated in refugee camps in the south. Tensions between Palestinians and Lebanese surfaced as Lebanon bore the brunt of Israeli reprisals against PLO attacks. The situation was complicated by Syrian support of the more radical PLO groups and Israeli support of Maronite Catholic paramilitary groups. Sometimes the Maronites received Saudi or even Syrian support, as was the case toward the end of the Lebanese civil war of 1976, when Syria permitted Maronite militias to commit mass killings of Palestinian refugees.
Israel actually preferred the anarchic situation in southern Lebanon, as it allowed the opportunity for attacks on Palestinians. When Syria, Lebanon, and the PLO reached an agreement in 1977 to have Palestinians withdraw from the Israeli border and be replaced by Lebanese troops, Begin objected to the plan. Instead, he supported the Lebanese militia headed by the Greek Catholic Major Saad Haddad, who would take over Muslim villages, creating a buffer zone for Israel.
In order to stifle Egyptian and American attempts to resolve the Palestine issue without recognizing independent Palestinian sovereignty, the PLO escalated its terrorist activities in 1978. On 11 March, Fatah operatives hijacked an Israeli bus, eventually killing most of the passengers, including women and children, after a shootout with police outside Tel Aviv. A total of 35 victims were killed and 100 injured.
The horrible crime certainly merited a strong response, but Begin seized the opportunity to stage a disproportionately massive invasion of Lebanon that had been planned for months. Four days after the bus massacre, 20,000 Israeli troops were sent over the border, shelling Lebanese Muslim villages, and forcing the evacuation of over 100,000 Lebanese, giving Israel and Haddad free rein over the Palestinians. The UN and the U.S. called for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, and in June Begin complied, as a UN force moved into the region. Begin had failed to oust the PLO from its bases in southern Lebanon.
PLO attacks on Israel continued intermittently through 1981, as did Israeli attacks on the PLO with artillery fire, air strikes and commando raids, often resulting in Lebanese civilian deaths. These measures proved ineffective at containing the growth of the Palestinian fighting force, which now numbered in the thousands and was increasingly well armed. Israel could no longer guarantee the security of its northernmost residents, so Begin would seek to destroy the PLO definitively through another invasion of Lebanon.
In April 1981, the Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel sought to control the strategic Lebanese city of Zahle between Beirut and Damascus. The Syrians, who supported Gemayel’s Muslim opponents, sent in troops and helicopters, provoking the intervention of Israeli warplanes in support of Gemayel. Syria responded by deploying missiles near Zahle, which would impede Israeli raids against Palestinians in southern Lebanon. The Reagan administration brought veteran diplomat Philip Habib out of retirement to successfully negotiate a halt to the escalation in May.
In July, Israeli forces attacked the PLO in south Lebanon, resulting in an exchange of rocket fire. Israel escalated the conflict further with an air strike against the PLO leadership in West Beirut, killing 200 and injuring 600, mostly civilians, only about thirty of these affiliated with the PLO. The PLO responded with large scale rocket attacks on northern Israel, killing six civilians and wounding fifty-nine. Habib negotiated a ceasefire on 24 July.
After the ceasefire, the PLO continued to launch attacks from Jordan into the West Bank. Israel claimed that this was a violation of the ceasefire, but the PLO held that this applied only to the Lebanese front. The PLO in Lebanon was heavily armed with rockets and even had tanks, while the PLO in Jordan hardly resembled an army. The heavy armaments came from Syria, where President Hafez al-Assad played a delicate game of supporting the Palestinians indirectly, yet also using Shi'ite Muslim militia groups to hold the PLO in check and to promote his own ambition to have a Syrian-friendly government installed in Lebanon. Although the PLO’s heavy weaponry in Lebanon remained silent, Begin would not tolerate Palestinian guerilla activities in the West Bank, and sought to destroy the PLO on all fronts.
Later in the year, after the Begin government was re-elected, Ariel Sharon, who was now defense minister, devised a plan for a full invasion of Lebanon. The objective was to destroy the PLO leadership and military capability, and to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon, allowing Bashir Gemayel to be installed as president. Sharon met several times with Gemayel in preparation for the joint offensive. In February 1982, Begin and Sharon sent their military intelligence chief to Washington in order to determine the American stance on their planned invasion. Secretary of State Alexander Haig indicated there could be no such action unless there was a major provocation from the PLO.
Begin sought his cabinet's approval for a limited invasion of southern Lebanon, while Sharon secretly planned a much larger campaign all the way to Beirut. In order to publicly validate the invasion, Israel would launch air strikes against the PLO in retaliation to any violent incident, in the hopes of provoking a large enough PLO response to justify war. To this end, an Israeli air strike followed the assassination of an Israeli diplomat and the death of an Israeli officer from a land mine in April 1982, but the PLO did not respond. On 9 May, Israel launched another strike after explosives were discovered on a bus, but the PLO responded only with a limited rocket attack, not enough to plausibly justify a full invasion. In late May, Sharon showed Haig the plans for an attack all the way to Beirut, and Haig reiterated that a major provocation would be necessary before taking action.
The desired pretext for war finally came on 3 June 1982, when a rogue Fatah group led by Abu Nidal attempted to assassinate the Israeli prime minister to Britain. The PLO was clearly not responsible, since Abu Nidal had a history of assassinating PLO and Fatah representatives. Nevertheless, Begin ordered bombing raids of PLO targets, provoking a PLO response of massive artillery attacks on Israel, finally giving Begin the justification he needed to invade. Sharon obtained the approval of the Israeli cabinet for an invasion of southern Lebanon.
The invasion of Lebanon began on 6 June, and Sharon soon ordered the army to engage the Syrians, provoking an escalation to justify his original plan of marching on Beirut. By 15 June, Israeli forces were just outside the Lebanese capital. Unwilling to risk urban combat, Sharon ordered a massive bombardment of the Palestinian sector of West Beirut. The bombing campaign destroyed the Lebanese civilian rail and air systems, and killed over 6,000 civilians, wounding 30,000. Haig approved of the bombing, as it comported with the U.S. objective of forcing the PLO to leave Lebanon. Others in the Reagan administration disapproved of the callous disregard for innocent life, and Haig was forced to resign on 25 June.
Once more, Philip Habib was sent to negotiate the peace, and he again succeeded on 12 August, despite Sharon’s deliberate violation of the cease-fire a day earlier in the hopes of provoking a final conflict in West Beirut. A UN peacekeeping force was dispatched to monitor the Palestinian camps, and the PLO forces in Beirut left Lebanon by 1 September.
As the last PLO fighters left Lebanon, President Reagan proposed a new Middle East peace plan, calling for a halt to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and denying Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories. He unambiguously affirmed, against Begin, that “the withdrawal position of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza,” yet he also denied that the “legitimate rights” of Palestinians included the right to a Palestinian state. Reagan envisioned a settlement of the Palestinian question without involving the PLO, granting the Palestinians full autonomy, but under Jordanian sovereignty.
While Reagan had learned to distance himself from Begin’s position, Sharon was planning a final atrocity in Lebanon. On 12 September, he agreed with Bashir Gemayel, who had been elected president of Lebanon on 23 August, to send Gemayel’s Phalangist militia into Palestinian refugee camps outside of Beirut, and exterminate any resistance. When president-elect Gemayel was assassinated on 14 September, it was deemed desirable to implement the plan immediately. Sharon violated the U.S.-brokered truce and sent troops into West Beirut on 16 September. The Israelis escorted 200 Phalangists to the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps, where the militia men slaughtered 800-1500 civilians of various nationalities. The pretext of the mission was to eradicate 2000 PLO fighters that had not withdrawn from Lebanon, but this story was belied by the small number of men sent into the camps. An Israeli commission later found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre, having been told in advance what the Phalangists would do to the refugees.
25. Israeli and U.S. Withdrawal from Lebanon
In the wake of the Shatila and Sabra massacre, the U.S. sent troops to join the multinational peacekeeping force in order to protect the Palestinians in Lebanon. The Reagan administration attempted to negotiate the Palestinian question with King Hussein of Jordan, and proposed a sale of arms to Jordan while halting any increase in aid to Israel. The U.S. Congress, apparently unmoved by the recent atrocities in Lebanon, rejected Reagan’s proposal and increased aid to Israel, while denying arms sales to Jordan. Jewish votes and Jewish lobbyists have consistently been of greater importance to U.S. congressmen and senators than the brutality of the Israeli regime. The Senate in particular has been slavishly beholden to Israeli interests, with over 80% of senators expressing unconditional support of Israel. These political considerations make it difficult for even a well-meaning president to conduct even-handed Middle East diplomacy.
Reagan’s overtures to Hussein were undermined not only by U.S. congressional politics, but by rival Arab interests. Hussein did not dare exclude the PLO from negotiations, for fear of isolating himself from the Arab world, so he consulted with Arafat. Arafat, in turn, was constrained by rivals within the PLO who opposed indirect negotiations through Hussein. These tensions caused Hussein to break off talks in early 1983 and refuse to negotiate directly with Israel.
On the Lebanese front, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon on the condition of Syrian withdrawal. The Lebanese-Israeli treaty, signed on 17 May 1983, would have prohibited central and northern Lebanese forces from entering southern Lebanon, which would be patrolled by Saad Haddad. Haddad’s militia was to be incorporated into a southern Lebanese army, effectively allowing Israel to control the south by proxy through Haddad.
U.S. troops in Lebanon were frequently attacked by Shi'ite Muslim militias, sometimes with Syrian backing. The security situation worsened when Yitzhak Shamir, who replaced Begin as prime minister after the latter's resignation in August 1983, withdrew Israeli troops from the vicinity of Beirut on 3 September. This exposed U.S. soldiers to attacks from militiamen of the Druze religion, an eclectic faith professed by many Lebanese Arabs. On 5 September, two U.S. marines were killed in the crossfire between Druze and Maronite forces. The Reagan administration ordered a heavy naval bombardment against the Druze militias, resulting in many civilian deaths. As a result of this ill-conceived measure, the Muslim and Druze militias no longer regarded the U.S. marines as neutral observers.
On 23 October, a Muslim guerilla detonated a 12,000-pound bomb under a building housing U.S. marines, killing 241 American personnel. The Shi’ite guerrillas sponsoring the attack were supported the Iranians, and would eventually become known as Hezbollah. The U.S. continued the fight with heavy air raids against Syrian positions in eastern Lebanon, losing two carrier planes to Syrian missiles, and earning the enmity of many Lebanese due to substantial civilian casualties. On 5 February 1984, Reagan accused U.S. critics of the strikes of attempting “to cut and run,” yet two days later, he announced that all U.S. marines would be “redeployed” off-shore, and the last marines retreated from Lebanon on 26 February. A final shelling of Druze and Shi’ite targets inflicted more civilian casualties, but could not hide the fact that the Americans had been defeated, and the U.S. navy withdrew from the area.
The Shi’ite militias turned some of their attention to southern Lebanon, where the Israelis raided villages in order to crush Palestinian resistance. The Lebanese resented these assaults, as well as Israel's blockade of trade with the rest of the country, forcing southern Lebanon to become dependent on Israeli goods. The Israelis finally withdrew to a position fifteen kilometers north of the Israeli border by June 1985.
Arafat and other PLO leaders had fled to Tunis by the end of 1983, but some PLO operatives remained in Lebanon, where they were attacked by the largest Shi’ite militia, Amal, which inflicted heavy civilian casualties in the Palestinian camps. A more militant Shi’ite group, Hezbollah, attacked Israeli troops in Lebanon until their withdrawal in 1985.
26. The Isolation of the PLO
Yasser Arafat, now exiled to Tunis, sought to regain relevance by negotiating with Hussein of Jordan to accept a Palestinian “state” that would be under Jordanian sovereignty. The Reagan administration refused to deal with the PLO directly, and opposed Palestinian “self-determination,” understanding that term to imply statehood. Favoring a Jordanian occupation of most of the West Bank, Reagan's position was unacceptable to Israelis and Palestinians alike, guaranteeing a stalemate.
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher opposed Reagan's policy, which was concerned more with U.S. domination of the peace process than actually solving the Palestinian question. She invited Fatah members to meet with her, undermining the American refusal to negotiate with the PLO. Militant PLO members who opposed the peace process attempted to sabotage the upcoming meeting by killing three Israelis in Cyprus on 25 September. Predictably, the Israelis, now governed by a joint Labor-Likud coalition, blamed Arafat and retaliated with excessive force, bombing PLO headquarters in Tunis and killing about fifty people, including Tunisians, on 1 October. The UN Security Council voted 14 to 0 to condemn Israel’s “act of armed aggression.” The U.S., alienated even from Britain, was the lone abstention, and refrained from vetoing the resolution only for fear that it would incite a rebellion against the pro-Western Tunisian government.
As always, Israeli militance proved short-sighted, and only begot more violence, as revenge for the Tunis bombings took the form of the infamous hijacking of the Achille Lauro on 8 October. Although Arafat asked the hijackers to surrender, the incident reinforced the perception that he was incapable of containing terrorism in his own organization. Israel and the PLO terrorists did succeed in derailing the peace process, as Arafat reneged on his offer to recognize Israel, and the meeting with the British was cancelled.
In February 1986, King Hussein abandoned his policy of negotiating with the PLO, and agreed to deal directly with Israel. Under the Labor-Likud power sharing agreement, Labor prime minister Shimon Peres would turn power over to Likud mid-term in October, and the Likud had no intention of relinquishing any territory. Some limited Palestinian self-governance was allowed, as Arab mayors were appointed in three West Bank towns. This groundwork would force Likud to continue with the peace process, and exclude the PLO from negotiations.
27. The Intifada of 1987
From 1985 onward, Arab discontent in the occupied territories escalated as the Israeli government continued its policy of seizing Arab land and turning it over to Jewish settlers. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin defended this policy through “iron fist” tactics that stoked more resentment, expressed in stone throwing incidents by Palestinian youths. Israel retaliated with raids and detentions without trial, and even resorted to demolishing the homes of suspected rioters. Detainees were routinely beaten and sometimes tortured.
The spark for a major uprising would be ignited in the Gaza Strip, where the demographics were younger and more Islamic than the West Bank. The militant Muslim Brotherhood, which had assassinated Sadat, thrived in Gaza, as did numerous offshoot groups. These groups generally advocated violent opposition to Israel in order to establish a Palestinian state. As PLO influence declined, due to the relocation of its leadership to Tunis, these Islamic groups gained greater local prestige. On 8 December, an Israeli truck crashed into two Gazan refugee vans, killing four Palestinians. Immediately, rumors were stoked by militant Muslims that this had been an act of deliberate revenge for the stabbing of an Israeli by a Gazan Arab the previous day.
The popular response to this alleged crime was disproportionately large, as Arabs seized on this incident to express their frustration with Israeli policies of bulldozing, beating, and raiding. This spontaneous uprising came to be known as the intifada, or “shaking off” the chains of oppression to which they had been shackled by the Likud regime. The rebellion would ultimately draw the world's attention to the plight of the Palestinians, expose the brutality of the Israeli regime, and force a re-opening of the peace process.
As mass demonstrations spread throughout Gaza and the West Bank, the PLO in Tunis looked for a way to harness this energy toward their objectives. In January 1988, the PLO called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons, and the trial of Israeli soldiers for crimes. Israel, for its part, continued its harsh tactics, including the deportation of Palestinians outside the territories, as if to deny the very notion of Palestinian nationality. Golda Meir had famously said, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” in order to justify Israeli domination of Palestine. Consistent with this attitude, the current government regarded any Arab who would not submit to the Israeli yoke a “terrorist,” notwithstanding that the demonstrators did not use knives or guns.
The racist attitude expressed by the Israeli leadership was that Palestinians could only understand force, so it was acceptable to fire upon demonstrators or beat prisoners to “teach them a lesson,” as Yitzhak Rabin put it. Rabin claimed “beatings never killed anybody,” and authorized soldiers to perform mass beatings, which precipitated large scale riots. This brutality was merely an escalation of long-standing Israeli practice of treating Jews and Arabs differently, severely beating and even torturing the latter. This double standard, coupled with the numerous economic and social inequities discussed earlier, constitutes what Jimmy Carter has recently called a state of “apartheid.” Carter was excoriated by the Israelis and their sympathizers for this choice of term, as if a harsh word were a greater crime than beating children aged under five, bulldozing houses, and attempting to starve a population. The last remark is not hyperbole, but an actual tactic used repeatedly by Israel, as Israel cut off food supplies to Arab villages, and soldiers destroyed family gardens and orchards to prevent Arabs from becoming self-sufficient.
The brutal tactics used by the Israelis to suppress the intifada were so extreme, that not only did they receive the expected condemnation of the UN (SC Resolution 607), but there was also strong domestic opposition to these policies, in some cases leading to the trial of Israeli soldiers. Assassinations of Palestinian leaders and the imprisonment of peace advocates proved to be misdirected, as the intifada received most of its momentum from below. Arab solidarity strengthened in the face of indiscriminate persecution, leading to boycotts of Israeli goods and refusal to pay Israeli taxes.
Israel responded by confiscating property in payment of taxes, using snipers to kill stone throwers, and destroying Palestinian food supplies. Through 1989, 626 Palestinians and 43 Israelis were killed, while over 37,000 Arabs were wounded, and over 35,000 had been arrested. Far from relenting, Ariel Sharon even called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan, which would complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. By 1989, Arab violence escalated in some instances to the use of knives and grenades. The later stages of the intifada also witnessed the rise of militant Islamic groups such as Hamas, predominantly concentrated in the Gaza Strip.
The PLO refrained from ordering terrorist or guerrilla attacks during the intifada, and in 1988 began to issue statements calling for a Palestinian state to coexist with Israel. In December, the U.S. recognized the PLO as having renounced terrorism and having accepted Resolution 242. Recognition of the PLO was supported by several American Jewish groups, but opposed by both Likud and Labor in Israel. Washington attempted to allay Israeli distrust by incorporating the Palestinians into a Jordanian-led delegation for peace talks. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused even these talks, revealing his intention to keep the entire West Bank and to deny Palestinian national rights even after the PLO renounced terrorism. This proved that Likud objections to terrorism were merely a convenient excuse to retain the conquered territories. Foreign minister Shimon Peres of Labor, on the other hand, welcomed the American proposal for peace talks, but he was demoted after Likud strengthened its majority coalition as a result of the November 1988 elections.
Shamir sought to dissuade calls for peace talks by allowing limited Palestinian autonomy over “affairs of daily life,” while leaving Israel in charge of security. It was clear that this autonomy did not signify independence from Israel, nor any sort of national sovereignty, as Shamir declared, “We shall not give the Arabs one inch of our land, even if we have to negotiate for ten years. We won't give them a thing.” The occupied territories were considered by Likud to be Israeli land in their entirety. Some of the more extreme members of the party, such as Ariel Sharon, objected even to the plan for limited autonomy.
Local Palestinian leaders rejected Shamir’s plan, as it rejected Palestinian statehood, retaining Israeli sovereignty over all the territories, and imposed no restrictions on the expansion of Jewish settlements. The newly inaugurated Bush administration gave Shamir a year to find Palestinians who would be willing to discuss his proposals, and Shamir used this bought time to suppress the intifada throughout 1989.
The Bush administration considered the status of all the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, to be negotiable, and opposed any attempt to expand Israeli settlements in any of these territories. In March 1990, Shamir brazenly rejected these positions, and even boasted that he would settle as many Soviet Jews in East Jerusalem as possible. Labor withdrew from the governing coalition, and Likud was free to expand settlements, especially near East Jerusalem. When Jewish settlers occupied a Greek Orthodox hospice across from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday, 11 April, Arab protests ensued, as it became clear that Likud had funded the operation, as part of Ariel Sharon's strategy to remove all Christian and Muslim Arabs from East Jerusalem.
Israel resumed its policy of killing unarmed demonstrators, and did the same when Arabs protested the killing of seven Gazans by an Israeli on 20 May. Arafat would address the UN Security Council in May regarding Israeli reprisals, which killed seventeen and wounded over 600, as well as other harsh conditions in the territories.
At this critical moment in the conflict, the Bush administration displayed ambivalence. Having been amenable to including Palestinians from East Jerusalem in a Jordanian-led peace delegation, the administration now faced some domestic opposition, as the U.S. Senate passed a resolution on 22 March, in defiance of global consensus and international law, that a unified Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. This capitulation to Jewish American sensibilities strengthened Arab perceptions that the U.S. was one-sidedly backing Israel again, and Bush did not help matters by denying Arafat a visa to speak at the UN. Arafat instead addressed the UN at Geneva on 25 May, calling for an investigation of conditions in the occupied territories. While the UN deliberated, an Arab summit in Baghdad on 28-30 May condemned U.S. support of Israel. In a separate statement on 30 May, the Arab League declared it would desist from criticizing the U.S. by name only when it “abandons its policy of total bias toward Israel.”
On 30 May, the Israelis intercepted an attack from Abu al-Abbas, the Achille Lauro hijacker who now lived in Baghdad. Although Abbas’ opposition to Arafat and the peace process was widely known, the U.S. used the attack as an excuse to veto the Security Council resolution on 31 May that called for an investigation of the condition of Palestinians in the territories. All other nations supported the resolution, including, as Bush admitted, his “strongest allies” in Europe and “most reasonable and moderate” Arab states. This isolated support of Israel in the wake of serious human rights abuses exposed the U.S. to criticism from its Arab allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and discredited the Americans as serious peace negotiators. U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East appeared to be driven by domestic ethnic politics rather than principles of international law and human rights.
Bush’s political weakness bought time for Shamir, and by 28 June 1990, the Israeli prime minister was sufficiently confident in his program to expand the settlements, so he withdrew his 1989 offer of limited Palestinian autonomy. The collapse of the peace process strengthened existing trends toward increased Arab militance in the territories, as more Palestinians supported Hamas and the PFLP, while Arafat continued to lose relevance.
28. The Persian Gulf War (1991)
Arafat undermined his own credibility in the eyes of many Arabs, including some Palestinians, by supporting Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Although most Arab nations agreed with Saddam that Kuwait had been underpricing its oil, they condemned the invasion, as well as the looting and killing that ensued. Many Palestinians living in Kuwait were victims of the pillaging, exposing the falsity of Saddam's pro-Palestinian rhetoric, and making Arafat seem to have betrayed some of his own people. Arafat saw Saddam as a convenient ally, heading a powerful nation with enough leverage to pressure the U.S. to resume peace negotiations. Many Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Jordan supported Saddam, if only because he strongly opposed Israel and the U.S.
The Bush administration viewed Saddam’s attempt to become a regional power broker with apprehension, since his pan-Arab nationalist program focused on regional economic development which would drive up the price of oil. By 1990, the U.S. imported 50% of its petroleum, and the current economic recession left little tolerance for a surge in energy costs. The invasion of Kuwait gave the U.S. an opportunity to cripple Iraq’s military and economic infrastructure, derailing Saddam’s regional ambitions. Direct U.S. military deployment would have been politically unfeasible had not Saddam violated the sovereignty of another nation. To guarantee domestic support, the Bush administration emphasized the dangers of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons, as well as Iraq’s nuclear potential, to inflate Iraq into a plausible existential threat to the American superpower.
Although most Arabs opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, many Arab leaders criticized the aggressive U.S. response, which stood in stark contrast to its decades of tolerance of Israeli transgressions, and even its own illegal invasion of Panama in 1989. King Hussein of Jordan was especially critical, since his country was victimized by sanctions on Iraqi oil. Jordan received hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Kuwait, adding more pressure to accede to Palestinian demands. Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, called for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank into Jordan, without any reprimand from the U.S. Jordan, on the other hand, saw its aid from the U.S. reduced sharply as a result of Hussein’s criticisms. This was part of a general U.S. policy of using economic coercion to obtain support for its policy in the UN.
The actual military conflict was brief, as the U.S.-dominated coalition launched a month of punishing airstrikes against Iraqi military and industrial targets in January 1991, destroying civilian infrastructure in the process. Hussein attempted to rally pan-Arab support by launching missiles at Tel Aviv, but the U.S. was able to persuade the Israelis to refrain from any military response. The air campaign was followed by a brief ground assault on Kuwait while the Iraqi army was already in full retreat. The Americans seized the opportunity to destroy Iraqi military hardware, with heavy aerial bombardments that caused more destruction in Kuwait than the Iraqi invasion.
The Gulf War accomplished the American objective of neutralizing Hussein as a regional power without escalating the Arab-Israeli crisis. Nevertheless, this success came at the expense of further alienating the U.S. from much of the Arab world, which could now add to its list of grievances the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the humanitarian crisis resulting from the embargo against Iraq. The U.S. lost its credibility as a peace mediator, so the Palestinians would have to turn to Europe in order to revitalize the peace process.
29. The Oslo Accords (1993)
While American attempts at bilateral diplomacy via the Madrid conference of 1991 went nowhere, the Norwegians secretly opened diplomatic channels between Israel and the PLO. Labor won the 1992 Israeli elections, making Yitzhak Rabin prime minister. On 19 August 1993, Rabin and Arafat agreed to a Declaration of Principles, an expression of the boldest plan yet for a permanent settlement to the Palestinian question.
The Declaration of Principles was a program for Palestinian self-rule over parts of the occupied territories, as part of a gradual transition accompanied by Israeli withdrawal. Self-rule included authority over education, health, social welfare, taxation and tourism, but fell short of actual sovereignty, which Israel did not renounce. More significantly, Palestinians were allowed to build their own police force from existing PLO forces, an extraordinary concession by Israel. The move to self-rule would take place over a five-year transition period, similar to what had been envisioned by the Camp David accords, except that now full recognition was given to the PLO rather than Jordan as a negotiating partner.
Although the U.S. was not involved in the Oslo negotiations, newly elected President Bill Clinton received the spotlight as the agreement implementing the Oslo accords was signed in Washington on 13 September 1993. This occasioned the first of many “historic handshakes” between Arafat and the Israeli prime minister, a photo opportunity Arafat relished, as it legitimized him as the founding leader of the Palestinian people.
The Oslo accords were to be implemented in stages. First Gaza and Jericho would be handed over to Palestinian rule, with Israeli withdrawal to occur by April 1994. A Palestinian Council would be elected by July 1994, at which point Israeli forces would withdraw from Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and four other West Bank cities. The Palestinians would have full civil control over Arab-populated areas, covering almost half of the West Bank, and full military control over Gaza and the eight largest Arab population centers besides Jerusalem. The rest of the West Bank, consisting of Israeli settlements, sparsely inhabited regions, and water sources, would remain under exclusive Israeli civil and military administration. The Israeli military would be jointly responsible with the Palestinians for security outside the specified Arab populations centers. The status of Jerusalem was not covered by the accords.
Despite the accord’s notable accomplishments, namely the mutual official recognition between Israel and the PLO of each other’s right to exist, and the first concrete implementation of a path toward Palestinian self-rule, the Oslo agreement deferred the major issues to a permanent settlement. The most notable omissions were the status of Jerusalem and the right of the return of refugees from the 1948 war. The agreement also stopped short of guaranteeing a right of return for the 200,000 Palestinians who fled the West Bank during the 1967 war. Most importantly, though seldom mentioned, the accord did not involve Israel relinquishing a square inch of land to the Palestinians, but only conceded the right to rule over persons in specified parts of the West Bank, a distinction lost on many Westerners, but common to Middle East notions of sovereignty dating to the Ottoman period. The type of Palestinian autonomy promoted by Oslo was similar to that which Hussein had advocated, only now Palestinian self-rule was under the umbrella of Israeli sovereignty rather than Jordanian sovereignty. Any discussion of sovereignty would also be deferred to a permanent settlement, for which negotiations were to begin no later than December 1995. The negotiated permanent agreement would take effect no later than December 1998.
30. Transition to Palestinian Authority
The actual implementation of the Oslo accords has had a checkered history. At first, all boded well as an agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area was signed by Israel and the PLO in Cairo on 4 May 1994. This agreement defined a Palestinian Authority with legislative and executive powers in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, with defined territorial and personal jurisdictions. The Palestinian Authority would have no authority over foreign relations or diplomatic functions, these being reserved to the PLO, yet only in limited contexts. The Palestinians could have a police force, but no army, and it was illegal to import military weapons into the territories. Both sides agreed to desist from incendiary propaganda against the other.
An annex to the agreement established economic relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority could directly tax the people in its territories, though Israel could tax Palestinians who worked in Israel. Israel agreed to give 75% of the income tax collected from Palestinians to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority for its part, was restricted in the customs rates and sales taxes it could impose, and was required to accept the Israeli shekel as one of its currencies.
The Cairo agreement rewrote diplomatic history in its preamble, claiming to be within the framework of the U.S.-USSR Madrid conference of 1991, and referring to the signing of the agreement in Washington, without mentioning Oslo. In this way, the U.S. sought to reassert control over mediating the peace process, an endeavor that would eventually have ruinous consequences when the time came for a permanent agreement.
Since the Gaza-Jericho agreement was not signed until May 1994, Palestinian self-rule did not take effect until that date, so the deadline for initiating final negotiations was extended to May 1996, with a permanent settlement to be implemented by May 1999.
The most significant diplomatic triumph for the Clinton administration was the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, in which King Hussein recognized the Jordan river as the international boundary with Israel, effectively relinquishing his claim of sovereignty over the West Bank in exchange for peace with Israel and the guarantee that the Palestinian question would not be resolved by deporting Arabs to Jordan, ending his fears of being overthrown by Palestinian militants. With a similar renunciation of sovereignty over Gaza by Egypt, other Arab nations could be excluded from the remainder of the peace process, leaving Arafat with no powerful allies.
Many Palestinians were dissatisfied with Oslo, resenting the unequal and subordinate role the Palestinian Authority had with respect to Israel, the lack of recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, and the general attitude that Palestinian self-rule was an Israeli concession rather than a human right. The right of return of refugees, a central issue for countless Palestinians, was not addressed at all by the accords. More radical groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP, refused to recognize Israel and still sought Arab rule over all of Palestine. These groups, together with their Likud counterparts on the Israeli side, had incentive to sabotage the peace process through violence, though there was surprisingly little terrorism in the early nineties.
The most significant violent act came unexpectedly from a Jewish religious militant who assassinated Rabin on 4 November 1995, shortly after the signing of an Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, also known as Oslo II, which established a Palestinian Council and a schedule for Israeli withdrawal in accordance with Oslo I. The death of Rabin had fateful consequences, as the hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud was elected prime minister in May 1996, in the first direct popular election of an Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu’s upset victory over Shimon Peres was aided by Palestinian militants who conducted suicide bombings in March, killing dozens of Israelis. Netanyahu invoked the dangers of terrorism as justification for harsh dealings with the Palestinian Authority, holding Arafat responsible for these attacks. He immediately took provocative actions such as digging a tunnel under the Temple Mount, resulting in deadly riots, and claimed he would never exchange land for peace. Implementation of the Oslo accords was halted, and the permanent status negotiations scheduled for May 1996 never materialized.
Although Netanyahu opposed land for peace, he was willing to negotiate with Arafat and Clinton in 1998, resulting in the Wye River Accord, which provided a timetable for Israeli withdrawal in accordance with Oslo II, conditioned by security guarantees against terrorism, arms smuggling, and incitements to violence. Arafat reaffirmed at Wye his letter to Clinton claiming that his recognition of Israel at Oslo formally nullified anything in the Palestinian National Charter that denied Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu never implemented the withdrawal, as he claimed that the Palestinians had not met their security commitments.
31. Barak-Arafat Negotiations (2000)
Netanyahu was defeated in 1999 by Ehud Barak of Labor. Barak withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000, and froze construction of new Jewish settlements in the West bank, even dismantling unauthorized settlements, though he honored the previous government’s commitment to expand existing settlements. Most importantly, he revived serious peace negotiations with Arafat, mediated by President Clinton at Camp David. U.S. involvement may have been a hindrance in this case, as Clinton, soon to leave office, was anxious to come to a permanent settlement that would cement his presidential legacy.
Although there are contradictory accounts of what was proposed at Camp David in July 2000, it seems clear that Barak’s offer far exceeded those of any of his predecessors, while still falling short of several key Palestinian demands. The proposed final settlement would guarantee a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 92% of the West Bank, with some important caveats. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized, and subdivided by a razor-thin wedge of Israeli territory from Jerusalem to the Jordan. The Palestinians later claimed that this effectively subdivided Palestine into cantons, with Israelis controlling movement between territories, a charge Barak and Clinton have consistently denied. In any event, Israel was to retain 8% of the West Bank where Jewish settlements had long existed, and compensate the Palestinians with land from Israel proper equivalent to 1% of the West Bank. Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war could return to the West Bank, but there would be no right of return to Israel for refugees of the 1948 war, UN Resolution 194 notwithstanding. Most remarkably, Barak reversed decades of Israeli policy by conceding a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, with Palestinian sovereignty over some neighborhoods and “functional autonomy” over others, including “custodianship” of the Temple Mount.
As impressive as these proposals were, Arafat could hardly be blamed for finding them inadequate, as they rejected the right of return which had been endorsed by nearly every nation in the world save the U.S. and Israel, provided only limited sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, and, by insisting on demilitarization and potential cantonization, denied the Palestinian state the status of a sovereign entity fully equal to Israel. Arafat, to his discredit, did not produce a counterproposal, but simply refused the offer, perhaps expecting Barak and Clinton to revise their proposal. The proposal was not revised, reinforcing Palestinian perceptions that this was a “take it or leave it” offer. It did not help matters that Clinton worked out the proposal first with Barak only, and then asked the Palestinians to accept it. This asymmetric mediation was consistent with a long legacy of American bias toward Israel.
Clinton’s insistence on a final settlement before he left office, rather than another interim agreement, may have squandered the opportunity for further progress in the Oslo process. Clinton himself has revealed his preoccupation with his legacy, telling Arafat that his presidency was a failure because of his intransigence. Barak was also anxious for a final agreement, since he feared the Oslo process would involve continual Israeli concessions without imposing any limits on Palestinian demands for a final settlement. Barak has repeatedly expressed his conviction that Arafat was using the peace process as a stepping stone toward total victory over Israel. For this reason, he did want to make any concessions unless these were accepted as a final settlement by the Palestinians.
Arafat, for his part, expressed concern that Israel had not met its interim agreements, as some Israeli settlements were still expanding, the withdrawals had not proceed in accordance with the Wye Accord, and political prisoners had not been released. Arafat saw the fulfillment of the interim Oslo commitments as a necessary precondition for a final settlement. Barak and Clinton had strong political motivations to press for a final agreement, and could publicly vilify Arafat as an enemy of peace if he rejected it. Clinton assured Arafat that the U.S. would not blame the Palestinians if the summit failed, and promised action on Israeli withdrawal commitments under Oslo. Like many Clintonian promises, these were completely forgotten.
As for Barak’s offers, these were conveyed verbally by Clinton as U.S. proposals in order not to commit the Israelis to any of these concessions on the record. From the Palestinian perspective, Oslo already represented a major concession, acknowledging the practical reality that Israel would retain 78% of Palestine, up to the 1949 armistice line. Arab sovereignty over the West Bank was a matter of right, not Israeli concession. To describe Barak’s offer as “generous” would be to deny that Israel had wrongfully seized land from the Arabs in the first place.
The Palestinians did agree to a land swap so Israel could maintain sovereignty over some settlements, and even allowed that some of the 1948 refugees could receive compensation in lieu of return to their homes. They also were prepared to concede Israeli sovereignty over Jewish areas of East Jerusalem. Still, they never constructed anything resembling a coherent counterproposal, and Clinton more than once expressed his frustration with apparent Palestinian intransigence.
Palestinian mistrust and fear that they were reducing their internationally recognized inalienable rights to bargaining chips, combined with Barak’s unwillingness to commit to interim measures without a final agreement, all but guaranteed that no agreement would come out of Camp David. In December 2000, Clinton made a last-ditch effort to strike an agreement, this time offering the Palestinians about 95% of the West Bank and the equivalent of another 1-3% from Israel proper, and all the Arab sectors East Jerusalem. After much deliberation, Arafat would reject this proposal as well, preferring to remain under the framework of UN resolutions and the Oslo accords rather than the “concessions” of Israel and the U.S.
32. The Second Intifada
On 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount with hundreds of riot police. The following day, riots broke out throughout East Jerusalem, and Palestinians threw stones at Jews at the Wailing Wall. Similar riots erupted throughout the West Bank, in protest of Ariel Sharon's provocative visit. Although the Israelis have tried to argue that this second intifada was planned by the PLO, citing earlier violent incidents that month, it strains credulity to link those isolated attacks with the widespread mass demonstrations throughout the territories. The immediate cause of the intifada was undisputedly Sharon's visit, though the failure of the peace process certainly provided the background for popular frustration. Since the Israelis blamed the Palestinians for deliberately sabotaging the Camp David talks, it seemed obvious to them that the ensuing intifada was planned.
In the first few days of the intifada, dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers and police. The cycle of violence was rekindled, but unlike the first intifada, the Palestinians would exercise little restraint, resorting to terrorist and guerrilla tactics.
The chief beneficiary of the new security crisis was the provocateur Ariel Sharon, who was elected prime minister of Israel in February 2001. Sharon escalated the conflict by launching air raids against Gaza in May. Hamas and Islamic Jihad responded with terrorist attacks that summer. Israel assassinated the leader of the PFLP in August, and the PFLP responded by killing the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, an overt racist who headed the National Union Party and called for the deportation of all Arabs, whom he regarded as “vermin” or “lice.” Zeevi’s racist views received little mention in the U.S., where his assassination was depicted as unmotivated murder, reinforcing the existing American climate of ignorance regarding the conflict. Palestinian terrorist attacks continued into the following year, killing dozens and wounding hundreds of civilians.
In response to a Hamas bombing of an Israeli hotel that killed 28 people, Sharon launched a military assault on the West Bank on 29 March, using the opportunity to attack the headquarters of Arafat, whom he blamed for the terrorism, although the PLO obviously had no control over Hamas. The increase in suicide bombings prompted Sharon to build a security fence, and continue targeted assassinations of the spiritual and military leaders of the Islamic militant groups, often killing bystanders in the process. Sharon resumed his old war crimes of indiscriminate reprisal killings, bulldozing houses, and uprooting orchards, while Hamas proved equally ruthless in its suicide attacks.
Arafat’s degree of responsibility for Palestinian terrorism has been much disputed, but it seems clear that he countenanced violent resistance to Israel, if not the suicide bombings favored by Islamic militants. Arafat’s Fatah organization smuggled arms into Palestine, and the Palestinian leader clashed with Mahmoud Abbas over security issues, the latter wishing to unequivocally denounce violence.
Frustrated with Arafat’s apparent lack of commitment to the peace process, the Bush administration refused to offer a new peace proposal until the Palestinian Authority appointed an independent prime minister. Abbas was named prime minister in March 2003, sparing the U.S. the necessity of negotiating with Arafat.
33. Roadmap for Peace
On 30 April 2003, the “Quartet” of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, presented a “Roadmap for Peace” to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to revitalized the peace process. This proposal called for an immediate end to terrorism and violence by both sides, accompanied by unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace. Israel for its part, would withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied since September 2000, as security was established, would freeze all settlement activity, and unequivocally commit to a two-state solution to the Palestine question with an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.
Another important aspect of the first phase of the proposal was the building of Palestinian political institutions, including the drafting of a constitution and free elections. Arafat’s government had been criticized as autocratic, corrupt, and incapable of providing public services. The Western powers wanted the Palestinians to produce a more transparent form of government in order to guarantee that financial investment in the Palestinian Authority would not be wasted. It was imperative that Sharon should desist from attacking Palestine, thereby undermining its attempts to build a stable, functional government.
The second phase of the roadmap was the creation of “an independent Palestinian state” with “provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.” After Palestinian elections, an international conference would be convened in order to support the Palestinian economy and resolve issues regarding water rights, arms control, and the refugee issue.
Finally, by 2005, a permanent status agreement would be negotiated, resolving borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements. Peace settlements with Lebanon and Syria would also be negotiated at this time.
The Quartet’s roadmap was a welcome return to the Oslo process, after Clinton’s abortive attempt to impose a final settlement and the ensuing intifada. While the major issues were once again postponed to the future, the roadmap stressed the imperative of an immediate cessation of all violence and immediate recognition by both parties of a two-state solution, with each state fully independent and sovereign.
Implementation of the roadmap was short-lived. Sharon stunned many of his right-wing supporters by acknowledging that the “occupation” could not “continue endlessly,” and on 2 June, Israel released 100 Palestinian prisoners. Leaders of Arab nations reciprocated by agreeing to halt funding to Palestinian terrorist and guerrilla organizations. On 8 June, Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers in Gaza, leading to a retaliatory air strike that killed two Palestinians. On 11 June, a suicide bomber killed 17 Israeli civilians, leading to more retaliatory helicopter attacks. Abbas proved his merit by obtaining commitments from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the DFLP (formerly PDFLP) to a three-month ceasefire on 29 June. Fatah committed to a six-month halt to hostilities. Israel withdrew from northern Gaza and Bethlehem by 2 July, while the U.S. offered financial assistance to rebuild destroyed Palestinian Authority infrastructure.
From this point onward, the process stagnated. Israel did not freeze settlement expansion, and terrorist groups resumed their attacks. Abbas resigned in October 2003, frustrated not only by a lack of Israeli and American cooperation, but also by Arafat’s refusal to let him use Palestinian security forces to crack down on militants. Sharon would not withdraw from the remainder of the Palestinian territories he had invaded in 2000, citing the necessity of counter-terrorism measures.
34. Unilateral Disengagement
In 2004, Ariel Sharon changed the terms of the conflict by announcing a plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle all Israeli settlements in Gaza, and four in the West Bank. This was a strong reversal for the former apostle of the settlements, motivated by a realization of demographic realities. Sharon considered withdrawing the Jewish population behind a security fence that would define a de facto border. In this way, Sharon would unilaterally resolve the Palestinian territorial question, and launch strikes into the West Bank as needed. President Bush endorsed Sharon’s withdrawal plan in February, after a U.S. diplomatic convoy was attacked in Gaza, and rebuked the Palestinian Authority for failing to halt terrorism.
Bush’s correspondence with Sharon reveals the shared conviction that there was no Palestinian partner for peace as long as Arafat still held power, preventing any substantive institutional reforms. Bush’s distrust of Arafat became moot when the Palestinian leader died in November 2004. He was replaced as president by Mahmoud Abbas, who called for a ceasefire in his inauguration speech on 15 January 2005. Backing up his words with actions, he ordered Palestinian Authority police to prevent militants from firing rockets at Israelis, and got militant leaders to agree to a ceasefire, all within his first month in office. Israel reciprocated by freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and withdrawing from West Bank cities. A formal truce was declared by Abbas and Sharon on 8 February.
Hamas immediately violated the ceasefire, prompting Abbas to crack down on its terrorist wing. President Bush rewarded this commitment with the first direct U.S. aid to Palestine, in the amount of $50 million (contrasted with $3 billion annual aid to Israel). Abbas demanded that Israel should also show good faith by taking strong preventive and punitive measures against killings of civilians by Israeli soldiers.
In August 2005, Sharon finally implemented his unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, including the eviction of settlers and destruction of the settlements. The withdrawal was marred by the destruction of homes and air strikes intended to prove that Israel was not retreating.
35. The Ascent of Islamic Militants
The peace initiatives of Sharon and Abbas, however imperfect, were widely praised by the international community. Domestically, however, both leaders faced strong opposition to their policies. Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and dismantling of settlements was a clear abandonment of Likud’s longstanding platform of retaining the occupied territories under Israeli sovereignty. Sharon imitated Ben-Gurion by leaving the party he founded, in this case Likud, and starting his own party, Kadima (“Forward”). Sharon was able to retain a governing majority, but was felled by a stroke in January 2006 that rendered him comatose. His successor, Ehud Olmert, was able to preserve Kadima’s majority and continue Sharon’s policy.
Abbas faced even worse political opposition, as the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was followed by the stunning electoral victory of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas’ popularity owes not only to its apparent success at forcing Israeli military withdrawal, but also for its ability to provide social services. Its role is in some ways analogous to that of the Histadrut during the British mandate period. Although Hamas’ political wing and military wing were organizationally separate, the U.S. considered the entire movement to be a terrorist organization, and refused to recognize the government. Abbas demanded that Hamas renounce its demand for the destruction of Israel and accept a two-state solution defined by the 1949 armistice line.
After threatening a national referendum on the issue, Abbas finally obtained an agreement with Hamas (and Fatah, its coalition partner for the sake of international legitimacy) in June. Hamas agreed to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza, implicitly accepting the existence of Israel, but not offering any explicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist. The party also agreed to concentrate its attacks on Israelis in the occupied territories rather than in Israel proper, but would not renounce the use of violence.
Hamas could eventually prove a greater liability to Israel politically than militarily, as it insists on the refugees’ right of return and the withdrawal of Israel from all of the occupied territories. They reserve recourse to violence in the territories since these are Palestinian by right, not by Israeli concession. Hamas will not allow any of the fundamental Palestinian issues, several of which have been enshrined as rights by international resolutions, to be glossed over or treated as bargaining chips. Bush’s attempt to treat Hamas as irrelevant only strengthens their prestige, as Bush is widely despised in the Arab world.
Hamas operatives covertly launched missiles from Gaza into southern Israel, provoking an Israeli response through air strikes. The resulting civilian casualties gave Hamas a pretext for openly abandoning its ceasefire on 10 June 2006. This triggered a prolonged conflict between Israel and Hamas, consisting mostly of small-scale attacks and raids.
Victimized by terrorism from the south, Israel had an opportune moment to enact its long-standing plan to cripple Lebanon. Much had changed since the Lebanese civil war, and the nation was ruled not by Maronite generals, but by Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group that had fought to expel the Americans and Israelis in the 1980s. After its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the Israeli army still occupied the disputed Shebaa Farms region. Repeating its 1980s strategy against the PLO, Israel exchanged artillery attacks with the Lebanese in early 2006, launching provocative raids in the hopes that Hezbollah would do something that would justify a large-scale attack.
On 12 July, the desired pretext for war was delivered when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, demanding a prisoner exchange. Israel responded with a massive military offensive, bombarding Lebanon as far north as Beirut, killing about 1000 civilians, and indiscriminately destroying large residential areas, factories, and schools, as well as deliberately crippling the nation’s infrastructure of roads, airports, and power stations. The Israeli army chief of staff candidly admitted his intent to “turn back the clock in Lebanon by twenty years.” These blatant war crimes were denounced everywhere except the U.S., further undermining the Americans’ credibility as serious peace brokers in the Middle East.
On 15 July, the U.S. was the sole member of the UN Security Council to reject a ceasefire proposal, in order to allow Israel time to wipe out Hezbollah. Most of the 1000 civilian casualties occurred after that date. On 25 July, four UN peacekeepers were killed by Israeli shelling despite repeated UN communications that day calling for Israel to desist bombardment of that post. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the attack “apparently deliberate targeting.” On 11 August, the Security Council finally passed a ceasefire resolution, which took effect on 14 August. There were several violations of the ceasefire in the following weeks, mostly Israeli commando raids and air strikes. Israel imposed a naval and aerial blockade of Lebanon through early September.
After the war, Hezbollah supporters claimed victory, as Israel had failed in its objective to cripple their fighting capability. Olmert faced strong domestic criticism for Israel's poor showing, but survived politically. Much of southern Lebanon remained uninhabitable due to Israeli use of cluster bombs in residential areas, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were displaced from their homes.
36. Summary of Events
The Arab-Israeli conflict extends back about a century, not 1400 years or millennia, as is often erroneously asserted. The conflict did not originate between Arabs and those Jews who were indigenous to the region throughout the Ottoman period, but arose when Jews of European descent (Ashkenazis) began to acquire vast tracts of land at Palestine, often through legitimate purchases, but sometimes through dubious methods as well.
Tensions were exacerbated by the conflicting British promises of a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish national home in Palestine proclaimed by the Balfour declaration. Jewish immigration escalated during the mandate period, which witnessed the first significant incidents of Arab-Jewish violence. The Arabs viewed the European Jews as squatters or invaders, and generally wished to expel them from Palestine altogether. The Jews were motivated by the nationalist ideology of Zionism, which held that the Jewish ethnic group had the inalienable right to a national state.
Acts of Jewish terrorism against the British in the 1940s helped motivate the British withdrawal from Palestine, accompanied by a UN resolution partitioning the region into Arab, Jewish, and international zones. The Jews led by Ben-Gurion took matters into own hands, using force and intimidation to ethnically cleanse parts of Palestine of Arabs, acquiring a much greater portion of Palestine than reflected by their settlements to date, and more than even the UN had granted them. The 1948 war created hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, who demanded the right to return to their homes, even as many of their villages were demolished and replaced by Israeli settlements.
The 1949 armistice line was accepted as a basis for ending international violence, but the neighboring Arab states continued to argue that the Israeli acquisitions by war were illegitimate. Unfortunately, most Arabs also opposed even the UN partition, or any partition, and wanted all of Palestine to be under majority Arab rule. This uncompromising position allowed Israel to dig in its heels and refuse to consider any right of return for refugees or any land concessions.
The Six-Day War of 1967 resulted in Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula, the last eventually being returned to Egypt through the Camp David accords. UN Resolution 242 immediately condemned attempts by Israel to make these land conquests permanent, though Israel already declared newly acquired East Jerusalem to be a non-negotiable part of Israel. From this point onward, Israel would boldly flout international law regarding the illegitimacy of acquiring territory by conquest, the right of refugees to return peacefully to their homes or receive compensation, and the right to national self-determination. Rather than recognizing these inalienable human rights, Israel saw these issues as bargaining points in exchange for security.
Israeli contempt for international law and human rights increased from 1977 onward, when the Likud government accelerated the creation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and brazenly seized over 30% of the Arabs’ land without payment. Israel consistently refused to recognize the Palestinians as a nationality of equal legitimacy to themselves, and imposed a colonial style of rule where economic laws and police tactics were applied differently to Jews and Arabs. The fact that the government supported settlements were all Jewish, and not Israeli Arab, exposes the blatantly racist agenda of the government.
The Israeli regime went too far even in the eyes of many Israelis and Americans in its brutal suppression of the Palestinian intifada of 1987, an unarmed popular uprising that resulted in the destruction of homes, indiscriminate arrests without trials, and racially motivated beatings, torture, and killings by Israeli soldiers.
These atrocities raised calls to restart the peace process, thereby enhancing the status of Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which had long resorted to terrorist and guerrilla tactics in its opposition to Israel, and called for the abolition of the Israeli state. Now, for the first time, the PLO was explicitly willing to consider a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 established a five-year transition period of Palestinian autonomy over parts of the occupied territories, deferring the most contentious issues to a final settlement. Its most notable accomplishment was getting Israel and the PLO to formally recognize each other directly as negotiating partners. Jordan and Egypt were excluded from the Palestinian peace process through separate treaties with Israel.
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and his replacement by Benjamin Netanyahu led to renewed conflict, due to the latter’s provocative policies, including expansion of the Jewish settlements. Israel lagged behind its withdrawal commitments, while Arafat seemed at times to have a laissez faireattitude toward Palestinian terrorism.
A glimmer of hope surfaced with the Barak-Arafat negotiations at Camp David in 2000, but Clinton pressed for too much too soon, when the interim commitments of the Oslo Accords still had not been met. Nonetheless, the Palestinians hurt their cause by failing to offer counterproposals.
Ariel Sharon, who was certainly no advocate of the Camp David proposal, provoked a second intifada, the deeper causes of which were the failures to see continued progress in the Oslo Accords. Israeli withdrawals had ceased, while settlements expanded and the Palestinians still had no real sovereignty. Sharon was swept to power by the violent dynamic he stimulated, and proceeded to reverse Oslo, destroying Palestinian infrastructure through repeated incursions.
Arafat’s unwillingness to rein in militants and the ineffectiveness of his government caused him to lose the trust of President Bush, who refused to negotiate with him. When Mahmoud Abbas was named prime minister, Bush was able to present the “roadmap” that for the first time guaranteed full sovereignty to a Palestinian state.
The roadmap process was paralyzed by Sharon’s refusal to freeze settlement construction and Arafat’s reluctance to crack down on militants. After Arafat’s death, Abbas took significant measures to restrain violence. Meanwhile, Sharon implemented a unilateral disengagement policy, abandoning Likud opposition to a two-state solution.
In 2006, conflict flared again as Hamas won Palestinian elections and started a cycle of violent exchanges with Israel. New prime minister Ehud Olmert launched a massive attack on Lebanon, which fell short of its military objectives and alienated Israel diplomatically.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is first and foremost a land dispute. Jewish settlers, with the help of foreign capital and the assent of the Ottoman government, were able to acquire land and evict Arab tenants. There were only 80,000 Jews in Palestine in 1914; hundreds of thousands more came during the British mandate period, in fulfillment of the promise of the Balfour Declaration. During this period, land acquisition accelerated, but even so, Jews held only 6% of Palestine by 1946. Relative to these holdings, the UN partition was exceedingly generous in granting half of Palestine including the Negev to the Jews. Still, the Zionists conquered western Galilee and central Palestine, including part of Jerusalem during the 1948 war. Even if it were true that the Arabs were the sole provocateurs of the conflict, a right of conquest cannot thereby be derived.
Israel’s recognition by the international community under UN Resolution 273 was contingent upon Israel’s acceptance of the 1947 partition and the right of return of refugees of the 1948 war. Israel has consistently rejected both of these conditions in practice throughout its history, while insisting on its absolute right to existence. Every nation in the world except the U.S. and Israel has formally recognized the territorial rights of Palestinians and their right of return.
Unfortunately, the Palestinians have historically adopted an extreme position, rejecting the UN partition and the Balfour Declaration. The Palestinian National Charter has openly declared that Jewish nationhood is to be utterly denied by violent action, and Palestine is to be single state with majority Arab rule.
Israel, for its part, has had no regard for Palestinian rights, treating all of Palestine as if it belonged to Jews by right, and allowing only that some of it may be “conceded” to Arabs in exchange for peace. This stance is a denial of the historical reality that most of Palestine was acquired by the Jews through coercive means, and Arab violence is largely a response to the Jewish conquest and occupation.
The further conquests of the 1967 war and changing facts on the ground has compelled many Palestinians to accept the 1949 border as an acceptable compromise. These facts were changed by a deliberate Israeli policy of creating ethnically Jewish settlements in order to acquire more territory. The fact that these settlements are ethnically Jewish and not Israeli Arab betrays the racist logic of the Israeli regime. Zionism is a relic of nineteenth-century racial nationalism, where national identity is defined by race. Arabs and Jews are treated unequally in Israel, and even more so in the occupied territories. The brutal human rights violations in the occupied territories by Israeli soldiers are targeted against Arabs, not Jews, following the racist logic of collective punishment. That this inequity of treatment constitutes de facto racial apartheid is evident to all but the Americans and Israelis. Considering that the U.S. was the only nation to refuse to condemn the South African regime in the 1980s, this is hardly surprising.
The militant rabbi Meir Kahane observed that the concept of a secular Zionist democracy is founded on an internal contradiction. A state cannot be truly democratic yet constitutionally require that the majority of the population be of a certain ethnicity. Kahane’s solution was ethnic cleansing; recognizing that secular Israelis had adopted that practice in Israel proper, he wished to expand it to the territories. Calls for the expulsion of Arabs often came from Likud politicians, though they did not cite overtly religious justifications. The position of the religious parties (since they radicalized through American Jewish influence in the 1970s) that Judea and Samaria belonged to Israel by divine right was at least more tenable than Likud’s secular claims without basis in international law.
Arafat publicly accepted Israel’s right to exist, but it is not clear whether he saw the two-state solution as a final settlement, or a mere stepping stone to a unified Palestine under Arab rule. Hamas certainly preferred the latter, and did what it could to sabotage the peace process, while Netanyahu, Sharon, and Barak refused to freeze the expansion of settlements, and blamed Arafat for terrorism while they crippled the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure, fulfilling their own prophecy that it was incapable of governing.
Sharon’s unilateral disengagement was an admission of the practical impossibility of establishing a Jewish majority in all of Palestine. For similar demographic reasons, Israel refuses to admit a right of return for the 1948 refugees, since Jews would no longer be an ethnic majority in Israel.
With the “roadmap” for peace, both sides are firmly committed to a two-state solution. It is in both parties’ interests to arrive at a just solution, or violence will continue even after a final settlement. A just solution ought to include:
- A return to the 1949 armistice line, in accordance with UN Resolution 242. Any deviation from this line must be compensated by Israel with territory that is acceptable to the Palestinians.
- Right of return for all 1967 refugees, and equivalent compensation for lands seized from 1948 refugees and for their resettlement in Palestine.
- Dismantling of all post-1977 settlements, or the submission of Jewish residents there to Palestinian sovereignty.
- Internationalization or partition of Jerusalem, with Arab sectors contiguous with Palestine.
Israel has long obstructed progress on these issues, claiming the need for security, when in fact its occupation of the territories has guaranteed a perpetual security crisis. Palestine ought to be fully independent of Israel as a matter of right, and as long as the refugee and territorial issues are unresolved, Israel can have no peace. Nixon and the elder Bush were the only U.S. presidents who appreciated the magnitude of Israeli intransigence, yet they also realized that the Arabs did themselves no favors by demanding all of Palestine.
Zionism was a complete failure at resolving the Jewish question; in fact, it revived the ancient stereotype that the Jews are incapable of living among other nations and submitting to the laws of gentiles. More striking is the racist character of those Zionists who espouse the expulsion of Palestinians or regard them as subhuman. It would seem that their only quarrel with the Nazis is that they persecuted Jews rather than Arabs.
Arabs, for their part, continue to demonize the Jews in all their media, thoroughly failing to keep their commitment not to incite violence or hatred toward Israel. The facts of the territorial and refugee disputes are so clearly on the side of the Arabs that they might have easily received satisfaction long ago had they adopted a less militant culture. On the other hand, militarism has arisen every time it appeared there was a danger of “selling out” the Palestinian cause.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the one-sided diplomacy of the United States. Valuing its own global strategy and domestic politics more than the regional concerns of the Middle East, the U.S. has been practically a “rogue state” in its unilateral support of Israel. This is not problematic to many Americans, who imagine the UN to consist of effete socialists and weak-kneed pacifists who are possibly closet anti-Semites. It is easier for them to believe that every other nation in the world is weak or corrupt on this issue than that the U.S. is acting on the basis of ethnic and national bias, rather than the principles of the laws of nations.
Uncritical U.S. support of Israel makes less strategic sense in a post-Cold War world, where bias toward Israel only undermines broader goals in the Middle East. The Arab world has noted the hypocrisy of ostracizing Arafat over terrorism while dealing with terrorists like Begin and Shamir, or war criminals like Sharon. It is similarly inconsistent to object to Iraqi violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty while countenancing decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon. The same may be said of American tolerance of Israel’s illegal nuclear weapons program while objecting to Iraqi and Iranian programs, or of the security restrictions against Arab nationals in the U.S. while Israel has repeatedly been caught spying on the U.S., sometimes through operatives in the American pro-Israel lobby. Eighty percent of U.S. senators endorse the platform of these lobbyists, making it politically difficult for any president to broker a just peace.
Most ruinously, the U.S. has generally endorsed the idea that Palestinians are to be denied sovereignty until they demonstrate good behavior, belying a bigoted assumption that Israelis are somehow more responsible than the Arabs under their oversight, when in fact Israel has behaved deplorably toward all its neighbors since its founding, and by its own standard, would be unworthy of sovereignty since it constantly jeopardizes the security of its neighbors (most recently with the bombing of Beirut). Unequivocal American support of Israel is fed by a volatile mix of ignorance, militarism and racism. At most, I hope to remedy the first of these conditions.