Why is the Israel-Palestine Conflict So Hard to Resolve?
“Look, this isn’t rocket science!” We hear the phrase from teachers when they want their students to know when an issue isn’t that complex. But there’s a problem with this phrase: it implies that rocket science represents the ceiling of human intelligence, and in using it we leave our rocket scientist professors without a complex problem of their own to which they can refer. So here’s a phrase that might be helpful: “Look, this isn’t the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!”
Is it really that bad? We ask, hoping our plucky resolve and eternal optimism is bound to produce results. Perhaps. In the meantime, since writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much easier than solving it, I shall briefly explain the historical issues that prevent the Israelis and Palestinians from living together in peace.
The Jewish people, historically, are not strangers to estrangement. Sure, they had their homeland in the time of King David and Solomon, but first they were conquered by the Assyrians, then they were deported by the Babylonians. Finally, in 70 AD, the Roman Empire destroyed their temple.
With the growth of Islam in the 600s and 700s, Muslims controlled the Middle East and the world’s oldest Jewish communities—they built mosques on the Jewish people’s holiest sites. For a brief time, Christian crusaders took Palestine from the Muslims, but, by the latter half of the 1200s, another Muslim power—the Ottoman Empire—assumed control of Palestine.
The Arabs have been in the Middle East for as long as people have been speaking Arabic, and they lived side-by-side with the Jewish people in the Ottoman Empire. However, when World War I ended in 1918, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and these populations saw the possibility of forming their own states.
Jews and Arabs had been dreaming of their own states for some time. The former desired a state as anti-Semitism grew in Europe; they found their salvation in Theodor Herzl, the founder the Zionist movement who wished to establish a Jewish homeland, possibly in Palestine. The latter wanted a state that brought together all the Arabs living in the modern-day states of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Both peoples requested these (overlapping) areas of land from the British during World War I, and the British promised to give both what they wanted. Predictably, the result was confusion and anger.
When Britain took control of Palestine, it attempted to capitalize on its promise, known as the Balfour Declaration, to provide a homeland for the Jewish people. However, Britain quickly ran into problems with the Arabs, who didn’t want their land given to Jewish people. Britain, unsure of how to proceed, and troubled by Jewish-Arab conflicts in the area, eventually relinquished the territory to the United Nations, who decided to divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.
Sadly, this solution only worked in theory, for when the Jewish people, who accepted this two-state solution, declared their independence in 1948, the Arabs in Palestine joined with the Arabs from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq to attack the new state of Israel.
In the end, Israel won , and secured their independence. In victory, however, they drove 700,000 Palestinian Arabs out of their land as refugees. The Arabs would never forgive Israel, and to this day they claim that the refugees and their descendants have a right of return to their former lands in Palestine.
In 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors gathered troops and formed blockades around the new nation, threatening to destroy it altogether. In a surprise twist, Israel preemptively attacked the Arabs, defeating them in less than a week—this was the famous Six Day War. Having conquered the West Bank, Israelis erected settlements in the area and greatly angered the Arabs who lived there. The issue of settlements still plagues Jewish-Arab relations today.
After a few more wars came and went, the Palestinian Arabs living in the conquered West Bank started a series of revolts called intifadas. These violent uprisings made Israeli think ill of the Palestinian Arabs, and complicated the ways in which Israelis appraised their government’s actions in the West Bank. Three intifadas occurred in total: one in 1987, one in 2000, and another in 2015.
Any exasperated reader might wonder, after all this, whether the governments of these nations have made any attempts at peace. For many years, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) renounced any attempt to obtain peace while Israel still existed as a state. However, this antipathy didn’t last forever. The PLO, or Fatah as it is now known, did participate in the Oslo Accords and the Camp David Peace Talks. Unfortunately, almost every peace talk to date has failed. Moreover, Fatah soon found that it wasn’t able to speak for all Palestinians when conservative Muslim Arabs formed a more aggressive party called Hamas. Hamas, which declares itself the true representative of Palestinian Arabs, exhibits some paradoxical behavior. On the one hand, it offers important and helpful social services to its people. On the other, it has employed terror tactics, such as suicide bombers, against the Israeli people.
Considering the friction between the Hamas and Fatah parties and the Israeli government, peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems to exist only in the far future—if at all. The Israeli government refuses to relinquish the West Bank—treating the Arabs living there as second-class citizens—while the Arabs continue to take up arms against the Israelis. From refugee problems to the ownership of holy sites to the problem of settlements, Israeli-Palestinian relations look little better than the way they were in 1948.
Few conflicts are as complicated as the one found in Israel-Palestine. In the midst of such tangled issues, I am tempted to say, like Viola from Twelfth Night, “Time, thou must untangle this, not I / It is too hard a knot for me to untie.” If anything, the least we could do is realize that there is no easy solution—no short cuts, quick fixes, or backdoors—that will make this problem go away. To deal with it, we will need a thorough understanding of the history, a properly aligned moral compass, and much patience and hope. Indeed, we must hope against hope, if peace is to be achieved anytime soon.