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Sixty Years of Triumph and Disaster

Endless wars and peace processes

Written in 2011

Here’s some recent history, from 1948 onwards. This was the year of the Nakba or Disaster. By 1949, Jordan controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Egypt controlled Gaza and Israel had the remaining 78% of former Mandate Palestine. This division continued through the 1950s as Israel established itself, growing in population and vigour from small, vulnerable beginnings to become a regional power backed by international Jews and propped up with sympathy from Europe and America.

Palestinians and Arabs from neighbouring countries maintained an ongoing resistance against which Israelis fought doggedly, developing a strategy of hitting hard to assert military superiority. This hammer approach characterised Israeli strategy, wreaking enormous damage, and in the last twenty years it has damaged Israel’s moral position too. Despite the efforts of both sides to deliver knockout blows and deter further aggression, the ongoing conflict escalated in scale and violence through the 1950s, with neither side backing down.

Meanwhile, refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring countries lived a life of poverty, hardship and destitution, first in tent cities and then in the dense breeze-block housing replacing them. UNRWA, one of UN’s biggest operations, was founded to provide basic services and humanitarian aid. It’s still operating sixty years later.

The Six Day War

The situation suddenly shifted in the 1967 Six Day War when Israel, anticipating an Arab attack, pre-emptively struck its neighbours. Israelis always claimed that Arab countries wanted to eliminate Israel but the truth was that they never dared – it was a rallying-cry, not a serious threat. However, they did want to protect Palestinians from further incursion.

The world raised its eyebrows as Israel spectacularly wiped out neighbouring countries’ air forces and occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. This defensive lightning attack was a ruse concealing deliberate territorial expansion – even Shimon Peres, now president of Israel, later admitted this.

The West saw Israel as a bulwark of its interests in the oil-rich Middle East during the Cold War, at a time when many Arab countries were forging connections with USSR, and it went along with the outcomes of the Six Day War, buying the idea that Israel’s expansion constituted but a temporary security measure. Yet hawkish elements in Israel had other designs.

The official causes of the Six Day War were various: rivalries over water rights in the upper Jordan valley; the porous and troublesome frontier of Israel with the Jordanian-ruled West Bank, extending into Israel and rendering vulnerable to attack the populous narrow coastal strip linking northern and southern Israel; Syrian shelling of Galilee from the Golan Heights; Israeli fears over the Egyptian insistence that UN peacekeepers leave the Sinai (they had been there since the 1956 Suez Crisis); and the blocking of Israeli sea traffic by Egypt in the Red Sea Straits of Tiran (the right-hand fork at the top of the Red Sea), affecting Israel’s Asia trade from the port of Eilat.

This war initiated the long Israeli occupation of what became known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Israelis, in a triumphalist mood, proceeded to colonise the West Bank and build settlements there. Palestine now had no political status except as a destination for international humanitarian aid. Incredibly, Golda Meir, an Israeli prime minister, even denied that a Palestinian people existed. Some Jews asserted that Palestinians had immigrated into the area after them. Palestinians were on their knees, in utter shock.

The 1970s

Israel’s move was claimed to be temporary and strategic, but Zionist elements sought to perpetuate the occupation, pushing their case in the Israeli political arena and winning. A battle for the soul of Israel, between Jews who simply wanted a secure homeland and Zionists who wanted all of former Mandate Palestine, was won by the Zionists. Returning the West Bank evaporated as a possibility.

Arab nations, shocked and militant, agreed ‘The Three Nos’: no recognition of Israel, no peace and no negotiation. Israel meanwhile accrued new self-confidence, though soon it was in for a surprise: in 1973 Syria and Egypt, Soviet-armed, staged a surprise attack, the Yom Kippur or Ramadan War. Complicated by Cold War geopolitics, it risked conflict proliferation, drawing in the great powers. After initial losses, Israel staved off the attack, but a tide had turned. From this time on US military and economic support for Israel escalated.

Israel now stood at a junction-point and chose to dig in its heels – as is its habit. The country fell victim to its sense of uniqueness and exceptionalism, exempt from international norms or laws. When in doubt, Israeli voters tend to head for the simpler certainties of right-wing politicians, and this it did in the 1970s, ending the former left-leaning period since Israel’s founding. In effect it committed itself to permanent militarisation, to live permanently at odds with its neighbours and to be domestically steered by military, nationalist and right-wing interests. This alliance of interests was from then on to dominate Israel, though the moderate, secular and internationalist part of Israeli society nevertheless did its best to present a more reasonable, compliant face to the world.

International involvement in peace negotiations frequently erred on Israel’s side, and US foreign policy made sure Israel remained shielded. Things went little further than declarations, conferences and peace processes, under the cover of which Israel incrementally strengthened its occupation, building more facts on the ground. Peace negotiations dragged on year after year: Israel customarily refused to budge and the Arabs didn’t always play their diplomatic cards well. Israel avoided a comprehensive peace treaty, negotiating separately with those countries it chose to negotiate with, and not at all with the Palestinians, a squarely defeated, annulled people.

By 1979 Israel signed a treaty with Egypt, returning the Sinai peninsula, taken in 1967, in exchange for passage rights through the Suez Canal and an end to Egyptian attacks. Gaza stayed in Israeli hands: here began Gaza’s long isolation and sidelining by the international community, to become ‘the world’s largest prison’. Arab countries were no longer a united bloc, and the Palestinian resistance, the PLO, was also by now splintering. The Marxist PFLP staged dramatic hijackings and killings in the 1970s, of its own initiative. Much later, in 1994, peace was made with Jordan as part of the Oslo Accords.

In 1970 Jordan had expelled the PLO after the latter’s attempted violent takeover of the country, where 60% of the population was of Palestinian extraction. The PLO fled to Lebanon where it then staged raids into Israel and bombarded it. It upset an already escalating civil conflict in Lebanon and played a bloody role in it between 1975 and 1982. To deal with the PLO, Israel invaded and occupied south Lebanon in 1982, advancing to Beirut and adding to the destruction wrought on Lebanon by the civil war.

Multiple atrocities occurred, including the notorious Israeli-sponsored massacres at Shatila and Sabra, and also outrages committed by Yasser Arafat’s frantic PLO. Eventually defeated, the PLO escaped to exile in Tunisia in 1982. Palestine was now at a low ebb, since the PLO had been its sole source of political leverage and representation. By 1985 Israel withdrew from Beirut, finally leaving Lebanon much later in 2000 after a long occupation. Israel’s Lebanese invasion cost it highly: it lasted 18 years and led to serious repercussions, caused largely by overdone aggression. Israel caused far more damage than it incurred, thereby creating trouble for itself with Lebanon in the long term, pursuing a narrow and violent definition of its own national interest.

One of its main perverse achievements was to provoke the Lebanese public into an adverse reaction to Israel’s invasion, giving birth to Hezbollah in the early 1980s. By sheer determination, discipline and ferocious guerrilla tactics, Hezbollah gradually pushed Israel back, expanding as a combined militia and social reform party – the only body offering protection to Lebanese Shi’as. Much later, by 2006, Hezbollah engaged in war with Israel and, by not losing this war, in effect it won. Shi’a Muslims paid dearly in death and destruction – 1,200 died, mostly civilians, while 160 Israelis died, mostly soldiers – yet Hezbollah checkmated Israel, shattering its armed invincibility and ending Israel’s threat of reinvading Lebanon. Hezbollah remains a latent threat today.

The First Intifada

Other things had been unfolding too. In late 1987 the first Palestinian intifada erupted. Civil disobedience and street violence broke out, egged on particularly by young people. Intifada means ‘shaking off’; it started as a spontaneous outbreak of frustration, though in its midst new ideas and a new Islamist element was emerging, Hamas. Foolishly, the Israelis secretly funded Hamas, seeking to divide the Palestinians and weaken the PLO.

Meanwhile, the PLO, exiled in Tunisia and thus upstaged by events and by Hamas, quickly gave its support to the intifada, while being heavily pressured internationally to talk peace. It was blocked from entering peace talks until it recognised Israel and renounced warfare, which eventually it did by 1993. The PLO had been on its way to negotiating for peace, but the intifada demonstrated that a shift had occurred for Palestinians. A home-grown resistance had emerged, fired up by a younger generation born in the 1960s and 1970s, now disappointed in the old leftists and liberation warriors of the PLO.

But the PLO gained recognition by Israel as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people – perhaps because Israel preferred the devil it knew. Yet the strongest grouping inside Palestine was now Hamas, a popular, lively, moral and social resistance movement.

Yasser Arafat led the PLO, an umbrella group of Palestinian factions in which his own party, Fateh, a nationalist party founded long before in 1959, was dominant. By 1988, after two decades of warfare, Arafat turned from fighter to statesman, making an historic speech at the UN in New York, engaging in negotiation and espousing a two-state solution. This was a big shift, accepting that Israel was a permanent fixture which could not be dislodged. Islamists in Palestine believed Arafat was corrupt, handling the Israelis too softly. Yet regardless of their belief, most Palestinians looked on Arafat as their leader and father. As the Oslo Accords took shape, they gave negotiation a try, and Arafat and his men began moving back home, returning to Gaza in 1994.

The Oslo Accords

The 1990s brought a series of acts of faith by Palestinians, hoping that negotiations would work and the international community would guarantee a fair deal. In the Oslo Accords of 1993-95, Israel and the PLO ended open conflict. Palestinian nationhood was to come to pass in 5-10 years if various agreed conditions were fulfilled. The PLO, returning home, morphed into the Palestinian Authority or PA, in which Fateh was the biggest political party.

Palestine was to control Areas A and B of the Occupied Territories, with the prospect of expanding its control to Area C and further later on. Area A, a series of Palestinian urban islands, was to be fully Palestinian controlled, while Area B, generally surrounding Area A, was Palestinian-controlled but under ultimate Israeli control – Israel could intervene militarily in Area B but not in Area A. Meanwhile, Area C, Palestinian populated, was completely controlled by Israel – and here grew many of Israel’s settlements.

Much rebuilding took place in Palestine, funded particularly by EU countries. But there were two major snags: the PA couldn’t fully control violent Palestinian factions and suicide bombers, and the Israelis wouldn’t ease their repression of Palestinians. They accelerated settlement and infrastructure building, land-appropriations, checkpoints and repression in Palestinian territory. In doing so, they undermined the PA’s capacity to fulfil its own side of the deal, some would say intentionally. Here we see Israel’s dual approach at work, with a peace wing and a nationalist-Zionist wing acting as good cop and bad cop.

Israel’s political direction swerved as a result of the decisive 1995 assassination of its peacemaking prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a young right-wing Israeli. The right didn’t want accommodation with the Palestinians, and the assassination, passed off as the action of one deranged individual, changed everything and killed the peace. No one could step into Rabin’s political shoes and a hardening of public attitude followed.

Then came the 1996 ascendancy of the nationalist PM Binjamin Netanyahu, who had little interest in concessions. Tunnel vision and bunker mentality waxed strong and disappointment with peace processes set in. In 1999 Netanyahu was replaced by the leftist ex-general Ehud Barak, who sought to revive peace negotiations, but the damage was already done.

Around 2000, in the Camp David negotiations chaired by US president Bill Clinton, to everyone’s dismay Yasser Arafat turned down Barak’s ‘generous offer’ to return to the Palestinians 73% of the West Bank, all of the Gaza Strip and some Bedouin-populated bits of the Negev Desert. But this offer did not include East Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ capital and the site of the Muslim holy places. Jerusalem was to be Jewish and non-negotiable. Arafat would not negotiate without East Jerusalem being included, and without the removal of many Israeli settlements in the West Bank, so he walked out. From then on, most Palestinians no longer believed in negotiating. Arafat later died in 2004 following a long, punishing Israeli siege of the Mukata’a (his Ramallah HQ) during the second intifada.

Significant improvements thus failed to develop after Oslo. Yet Palestine had also changed, becoming more stable, more of a functioning entity. The conflict-weary Palestinians sought peace and regularisation but frustration simmered at the lack of progress. Palestinian suicide bombings by renegade factions, including Hamas, hit at the Israeli public to try to make them pressure their leaders to sue for peace, applying the ‘collective punishment’ tactic Israel itself practised. Israel meanwhile refused to relax checkpoints, its military and economic stranglehold and its building of facts on the ground. Palestinians lost heart.

The Second Intifada

Israel’s position reflected a vain hope held by Zionist factions that Palestinians would get up and ‘transfer’ out of the country if life were made difficult enough. Hardly likely for four million people with historic roots in the area and nowhere to go. This tension culminated in Ariel Sharon’s provocative personal incursion in 2000 into Haram al-Sharif, the site of Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City (Jews and Christians call it the Temple Mount). Mastermind of the earlier Lebanon invasion, Sharon sought to be Israel’s strongman, garnering the insistent energy of the growing settler and nationalist movements.

This incursion, together with nervy Palestinian frustration, triggered the second intifada. Starting with street protests, the Israelis retaliated and it progressed to violent confrontation. There followed four years of Israeli troop incursions and sniper attacks, tanks on the streets, house searches and demolitions, curfews, arrests, assassinations and imprisonment of Palestinian leaders. Palestine was in turmoil, undergoing hardship, trauma and insecurity.

The intifada petered out by 2004 after many horrific scenes. Ariel Sharon engaged in a strategy of unilateral action, building the separation wall around Palestinian areas, expanding settlement-building and consolidating Israel’s strategic hold on the Jordan valley, surrounding the West Bank. Sharon imposed a forced calming on Israeli terms, tactically withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 and reducing military incursions as the wall was built, although this was actually a consolidation of the occupation rather than peace-building.

Much remained unresolved for Palestinians but they were exhausted. Their attacks and suicide bombings died down – after all, the Israelis kept winning, gaining American support and international acquiescence. Palestinians had no way to progress, either through resistance or negotiation.

The occupation meant intense control and complication of Palestinians’ lives, giving young Palestinians no sense of future and preventing economic development. Palestinians who could do so left, often to study or get jobs abroad. The wider world diligently applied double standards, sending aid while acquiescing in most of Israel’s actions and generally subscribing to its narrative.

The next peace plan was the Roadmap outlined by US President Bush in 2002, to be jointly overseen by a body called the Quartet, made up of USA, EU, the UN and Russia. Peace plans were now a joke to both Palestinians and Israelis, each for their own reasons. The Roadmap was a diplomatic checklist and timetable of actions which sounded good, but it had no teeth.

This checklist included an end to Palestinian violence (achieved by 2005); Palestinian political reform (mostly done); Israeli withdrawal and a settlement freeze (not done); Palestinian elections (done in 2006 but nullified by Israel and the West); internationally-sponsored peace conferences (hardly done); establishment of an independent Palestine with provisional borders (not done); multilateral engagement on water resources, environment, economics, refugees and arms control (partially done); an international conference to establish a final agreement, borders and clarification of the future of Jerusalem, refugees and settlements (not done); and Arab states’ agreement of peace deals with Israel (partially done but not accepted by Israel).

Nothing much has happened since 2005, except for the Dayton Accords of 2008 and Obama-sponsored negotiations in 2010, neither of which made any difference. Peace processes are seen by Palestinians as a charade, while Israelis regard them as a foreign imposition useful only if they keep the US and EU quiet. Israel’s best option is to leave things unresolved, permitting it leeway for taking unilateral actions. Palestine effected many of its Roadmap agreements but Israel refused to stop settlement expansion, and the international community failed to proceed with the necessary conferences, or with anything really, except for signing cheques to keep Palestinians quiet.

This situation was implicitly supported by the international community’s tendency to avoid interfering in the domestic issues of sovereign nations – at least, when it so chose. This shielded Israel, for which, technically, Palestine was a domestic issue. Except it wasn’t – and this is where law and justice clash.

That’s where things stood by 2010, a long seventeen years after Oslo. Israelis by then suffered a form of victorious hubris, continuing to consolidate their hold on the Palestinian territories. The boldness of Netanyahu’s 2009 government upset even Israel’s chief supporter, USA, while causing other countries to groan. Israel edged toward pariah status in the world’s eyes, confirmed in its confrontation with the Freedom Flotilla off Gaza in early 2010. Some Israelis saw this antipathy to be unjustified anti-Semitism, while others worried that Israel’s soiled reputation would one day catch up with it.

With all avenues to resolution blocked or exhausted, something happened in early 2011 that started a process of contextual change for Palestine: first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then elsewhere in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Jordan, the Arab protests and revolutions broke out. These represented an irreversible historic shift, prompted by declining Western influence and an overdue swing of Arabic public attitudes against bad government, top-heavy elites, corruption and injustice. It was driven particularly by younger people – half of the population – reacting against the now old-fashioned fundamentalists and Arab nationalists who had defined the course of previous decades. These events represent a permanent change, shifting the balance of power in the Middle East.

Palestinians went quiet after 2004, getting on with life and hoping something would eventually emerge. World governments did nothing significant, even though global public opinion was shifting against Israel, except in America. The media and diplomatic worlds muttered airily about peace processes and disproportionate aggression by Israel. Matters remained unresolved for Palestinians and frustration lurked ominously under the surface, concealed beneath an aversion to further conflict and a yearning for a normal life.

The Arab revolutions removed a burdensome onus for initiating change from Palestinians’ shoulders, yet they implicitly brought change by transforming the wider Middle Eastern context in which Palestine and Israel both sit. Frustrated with the semi-benign stranglehold exerted by Fateh in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, Palestinian youngsters, seeking justice and a better life, demonstrated for an end to the Fateh-Hamas divide and a revival of Palestinian unity – without which dealing with Israel was pretty futile.

But it also changed Israel’s position in several ways. No longer able to claim that it was the sole democracy in the Middle East, and with weakened support from the West, Israel couldn’t form a clear response to the changes developing around it. As usual, it didn’t budge an inch. To Israel’s advantage, the moral leadership of Iran evaporated and Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas weakened but new possible threats emerged – of an unravelling of treaties with Egypt and Jordan, of friction with Turkey and an upstaging of Israel by change in the Arab world. All this led to ramped-up settler moves to complete the job of colonisation in the West Bank. World sympathies for Palestinians, jaded disbelief of Israel and international tiredness with the Israel-Palestine issue also constrained Israeli freedom to act, except perhaps furtively.

This tectonic shift represents a parting of the ways and a change of pattern which will unfold in years to come. Palestine’s conflict cannot be resolved without wider international change, but wider change is now happening, sucking the conflict along with it. In Palestine there has been talk of a third intifada, against both the PA and the Israelis, who are to an extent seen to be acting together. Yet international PA political initiatives are also approaching a critical point, in which the PA seeks international recognition as an independent state within the pre-1967 borders, whatever Israel thinks.

Change is gaining momentum, and the Great Unknown yawns wide. Meanwhile Palestinians, wary of bloodshed and disarray yet needing change, carry on with daily life. This is their strength. In one crucial way they have been perpetually successful: they haven’t gone away and, whatever anyone thinks, they aren’t going to.

Copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at

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