Hardly any conflict is more difficult to understand than the one between Israelis and Palestinians. It began over 100 years ago with two national movements claiming the same piece of land.
In 1952, Albert Einstein received the offer to become President of the State of Israel. The most famous Jew of modern times immediately said no. The physicist, who fled the Nazis to the USA, was a staunch supporter of the Israeli state, but at the same time he remained convinced that Israelis and Palestinians could only be happy together:
“It won’t work without understanding and cooperation with the Arabs.” But, he feared, he wouldn’t be able to do that either.
Back to the beginnings
The Middle East conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is considered one of the longest and most complicated disputes in the world. To understand it, you have to go back to before the First World War, to the time when the Zionist movement was founded, explains Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann. For the Zionists, the Jews were not just a religious community, but a nation.
This thinking was very much in vogue at the time, the height of nationalism. But it was also a reaction to centuries of persecution and pogroms. The Zionists’ longed-for place was Palestine, home of the biblical people of Israel until their expulsion by the Romans in 70 AD.
Even after that, Jews always lived in the region, but the majority of the population was Arab. While more and more Jews emigrated to Palestine from the end of the 19th century, Arab and later Palestinian nationalism emerged at the same time.
Expert: “Modern Conflict”
“It is only against the background of these two nationalist movements that one can even speak of a conflict,” emphasizes political scientist and author Jan Busse from the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich.
“The two groups previously lived together peacefully for centuries in the Ottoman Empire, a multi-ethnic empire. It would be fatal to claim that this is a millennia-old conflict. It is a modern conflict taking place between two groups, each establishing an independent state and unfortunately in the same territory.”
Palestine becomes British
After the First World War, Palestine fell to Great Britain. As early as 1917, the government in London had committed to creating a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine. During the war, however, the British had also made promises to the Arabs to encourage them to revolt against the Ottoman Empire – an ally of the Germans.
The British have now initially focused on accommodating both national movements in one state under their leadership, explains Peter Lintl, Middle East expert at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. When that turned out to be unrealistic due to increasing violence, London opted for a two-state solution.
The murder of six million European Jews by the Nazis reinforced the belief, particularly in Western democracies, that Jews had a right to a safe space – their own state. In 1947, the UN General Assembly decided that Palestine should be divided into Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs. The Jews then founded the State of Israel in 1948. The Arab side rejected the partition plan.
This decision is still held against the Palestinians today. Busse points out: “The UN partition plan awarded a Jewish state 56 percent of the mandated territory, even though the Jewish population only made up 30 percent of the total population. Therefore, from an Arab perspective, it actually appears unbalanced.”
Escape to the Gaza Strip
The day after Israel was founded, its neighbors Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria declared war on the young state – but they lost. Israel conquered three-quarters of former British Palestine. The Arabs only held the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
More than half of the Arab population from the areas conquered by Israel, around 700,000 people, then fled to these same areas and other Arab states. Some of them were also expelled there, as recent archival research by Israeli historians has shown.
Israel conquers territory
The declared goal of the neighbors Egypt, Syria and Jordan remained the destruction of Israel. But in the Six-Day War of 1967, the small republic achieved another spectacular victory and now also conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and all of Jerusalem.
This meant that the areas in which the majority of Palestinian refugees lived came under Israeli control. From now on, Israeli settlers settled in the territories that remained to the Palestinians. Palestinian groups tried to pressure Israel with terrorist attacks such as the 1972 Munich Olympic bombing.
The first peace talks are sabotaged
A peaceful solution only became possible the moment the Arab-Palestinian side recognized Israel’s right to exist. When such a changed attitude began to take hold in parts of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the late 1980s, the USA brokered peace talks.
It was like a miracle when Israeli Prime Minister Izchak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Peace Treaty in 1993 and shook hands in front of the White House in Washington. Moshe Zimmermann (79) remembers: “I can personally say that this spirit of optimism was noticeable at the time on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.”
But why didn’t a two-state solution come about? What is certain is that there were and are determined opponents of the peace process on both sides. “Hamas, but also other Palestinian groups, sabotaged the peace process through suicide attacks on the Israeli civilian population,” says Busse.
“On the Israeli side, the number of settlers in the West Bank almost doubled between 1993 and 2000 – of course that wasn’t a confidence-building measure either.” A serious setback was the murder of Rabin by a Jewish fanatic in 1995.
Busse also sees the fact that central controversial issues – the status of Jerusalem, the settlements, the refugees and especially the territorial question – were left out as a design flaw in the Oslo peace process. They were supposed to be solved in the following five years – but that didn’t work. “There should have been more intensive international intervention with clear guidelines,” says Busse.
Meanwhile, trust in the other side has collapsed. “Approval for a two-state solution is currently only a third at most on both sides,” says political scientist Lintl.
“At the same time, the maximum positions are receiving more and more support on both sides. On the Palestinian side it is now often said “From the river to the sea”, which means something like “All land for the Palestinians”. And on the Israeli side it is the case that “The first sentence of the current government’s coalition agreement is that only Israel has a legitimate right to the West Bank. This means that there will no longer be any national rights for the Palestinians.”
Busse therefore advocates not fixating on the two-state solution, but also discussing alternative models. “Perhaps a binational state with equal rights for everyone. Or a confederation model. Of course, that also seems unrealistic at the moment. But I think it would make sense to introduce it more strongly into the debate.”
Einstein had already harbored the hope that the young Israeli state would take completely new political paths: “You cannot solve a problem with the same thought structures that contributed to its creation,” he said. But that was just the rational scientist speaking.
I have been working in the news industry for over 6 years, first as a reporter and now as an editor. I have covered politics extensively, and my work has appeared in major newspapers and online news outlets around the world. In addition to my writing, I also contribute regularly to 24 Hours World.