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The Basics Behind the Arab-Israeli Conflict


The Basics Behind the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Feb. 19, 2008, in Jerusalem.

(Photo Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)
It's an issue where, if brought up as dinner conversation, knives generally need to be removed from the table: the Mideast question. The seemingly never-ending struggle for the Holy Land intertwines the hot-button issues of politics, religion, territorial claims, and war in one imperfect storm with a bleak forecast.

The Israelis say that, as they are constantly under militant attack of varying degrees, the very survival of the Jewish state hangs in the balance. The Palestinians claim a right to return to the land that refugees fled in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war or the Six Day War in 1967. Even the means of conflict stoke controversy: Many Palestinians support suicide bombings and other militant attacks that often target civilians, arguing that they're exercising their present military capability and that the attacks are legitimate since civilians have been killed in Israeli strikes. When Israelis respond to attacks with their superior firepower, they are accused of using overkill on the Palestinian population. The Palestinian government is constantly asked to rein in a disparate mass of militants, even though they can't even keep a unity government together. The Israeli government is criticized when they use means such as sanctions and blockades to try to force the Palestinian Authority's hand in stopping attacks on the Jewish state.

So with each failed peace accord, each round of negotiations that encounters numerous sticking points, and internal political strife among the negotiating parties, it seems as if any road map to peace just becomes a roadblock to peace. Coming up with a solution to the Mideast crisis, though, starts with an understanding of the underlying issues and personalities.

Current Status

The Gaza Strip has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority since Israel's 2005 withdrawal, but a power-sharing breakdown between the Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas in 2007 turned the strip into a lawless, Hamas-ruled region where militants have flourished and launch rockets into Israel with daily regularity. The West Bank is partially controlled by Israel and partially controlled by the Palestinian Authority, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ruling out of the government headquarters in Ramallah.

Israel has been constructing a separation barrier between it and the West Bank to deter terrorist attacks that spiked with the 2000 al-Aqsa Intifadah, yet many international onlookers have criticized the barrier. Syria continues to lay claim to the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War along with Gaza, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Even the holy city of Jerusalem is a sticking point in peace talks: most Palestinians want east Jerusalem (the al-Aqsa mosque is in the Old City) but many want no less than all of Jerusalem, where Jewish holy sites such as the Western Wall exist as well.

On the positive front, Israel has had lasting peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. However, on Israel's northern borders the Islamic group Hezbollah operates out of Lebanon and Syria; Hezbollah sparked the 2006 war with Israel when the group launched a cross-border attack on Israeli soldiers and captured two. Longtime rivals Hezbollah and Hamas also appear to be joining forces toward the common goal of battling the Jewish state: Palestinians claimed that the two groups joined forces for the March 2008 shooting rampage at a Jerusalem rabbinical seminary.


In 1920, the League of Nations approved a plan for a Jewish homeland; this became the British Mandate of Palestine. Before this point, Jewish settlers fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe had been arriving in the Holy Land; these immigration numbers surged with the rise of the Nazis and the aftermath of the Holocaust. The United Nations approved a 1947 partition of the area into Jewish and Arab states. Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948.

The day after declaring independence, the Arab-Israeli war began, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, and Lebanon. Jordan was the only Arab country willing to take in a significant number of Palestinians. The 1967 Six Day War was launched in response to Egypt, Syria, and Jordan massing troops along Israel's borders; in the war, Israel captured territory including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and more Palestinians fled. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria attacked on the High Holy Day, resulting in a tougher fight for the Israelis and the eventual downfall of Prime Minister Golda Meir's government.

The Camp David Accords and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1978 and 1979 resulted in Israel's withdrawal from the oil-rich Sinai and the designation of Gaza and the West Bank as Palestinian territories. The Palestine Liberation Organization didn't recognize Israel's right to exist until the 1993 Oslo Accords, which paved the way for the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994. The 2000 Camp David Summit produced little more than impasse, and the Second Intifada (al-Aqsa Intifada) began just over two months later. The 2004 death of Yasser Arafat and subsequent election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president left many hopeful that the "road map" for peace could get back on track, but the 2006 election wins by Hamas and subsequent unity dissolution now means that Abbas is basically negotiating for the West Bank alone.

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