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HomeworldExplained | A history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Explained | A history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Early morning on Saturday, October 7, young Israelis attending an all-night rave near Kibbutz Re’im, adjacent to the Gaza border in Southern Israel, woke up to the sound of explosions caused by rocket fire, drowned out only by air raid sirens blaring in warning. But it was too late.

Hamas militants had already crossed into Israel, breaching the country’s heavily fortified border with Gaza. Firing indiscriminately into the crowd, they claimed the lives of at least 260, making the attack the deadliest massacre in Israeli history. And as of writing, they are believed to have taken at least 150 people, mostly civilians, hostage.

The attack prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare, “Citizens of Israel, we are at war. Not an operation, not a round (of fighting), but at war.” Israel has since fired thousands of rockets into Gaza, many of them striking the civilian population.

But what is the conflict about? Who are the Hamas? What about Gaza? Why don’t the Palestinians have a state of their own? And how did we reach here?

This explainer will take you through the key moments that have shaped the decades-long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, starting with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present day, focusing on contesting nationalisms and territorial claims, the multiple Middle East wars, the key regional actors involved, attempts at peace, Israeli occupation of territories and Palestinian resistance, and above all, the human suffering that has remained a constant through it all.

1947-1948 | UN partition plan, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and the first Arab-Israeli War

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Zionist movement, fueled by anti-Semitic persecution, encouraged European Jews to move to Palestine, aiming to establish a Jewish nation in the land they viewed as their historic territory. After World War II, especially following the horrors of the Holocaust, European Jews migrated en masse to Palestine.

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Jews, largely Holocaust survivors, on their way from France to Mandatory Palestine, aboard the SS Exodus.

Credit:UK Government

In 1947, the UN approved the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and proposed that Jerusalem, the birthplace of three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), be placed under a “Special International Regime”.

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Map of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine {UNGA Resolution 181 (II)}, adopted November 29,1947.

Credit:United Nations Special Committee on Palestine’s Report to the General Assembly, 1947

The origins of the present-day conflict can be traced to the culminating moment of that en masse migration – the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the very day the British Mandate for Palestine was due to end.

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David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall.

Credit: Israel’s Government Press Office

Following Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Arab countries joined the Palestinians in their offensive against the Jews, leading to the first Arab-Israeli War.

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Israeli troops in Lod, 10 July, 1948, during the first Arab-Israeli War.

Credit:National Library of Israel

That war ended the following year with Israel emerging as the victor – leading to the entirety of the territory being partitioned into three regions: the State of Israel (which, after the war, occupied 60 per cent of the area of what was proposed to be a Palestinian state per the UN plan), the West Bank along the Jordan River (controlled by Jordan), and the Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt).

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The aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli War. Israel ended up occupying more territory than originally allotted to it per the UN plan, Jordan took control of the West Bank, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip.

Credit:World History Commons

Palestinians, over 7,50,000 of whom were displaced, refer to the event as ‘Nakba’ (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic). Following the war, when Israel refused to acknowledge the Palestinian right of return, the Nakba emerged as a pivotal and defining moment in Palestinian history. This mass dispossession, the enduring statelessness of many Palestinians, and the creation of a population of permanent refugees played a significant role in strengthening their national identity and further fuelled their aspiration for self-determination.

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Civil evacuation in Gaza, 1949.

Credit: UNRWA Archives

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Rationed food being distributed toPalestinians in a refugee camp in East Jordan, undated.

Credit: UNRWA Archives

1949-1978 | Suez Crisis, Six-Day War, Munich Massacre and Yom Kippur War

These years witnessed a series of clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbours, starting with the 1956 Suez Crisis, a conflict involving Israel, Egypt, the UK and France, over Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

Palestinians were affected indirectly as their cause for national self-determination became entangled with broader conflicts in the Middle East, making the realisation of a two-state solution even more complicated and difficult, a truism that only became more and more obvious with time.

In 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, leading to a quick victory and occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (from Jordan), the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt), and the Golan Heights (from Syria). This war, known as the Six-Day War, marked a turning point in the conflict since Israel gained territory four times its original size and over a million Palestinians came under Israeli rule in the occupied regions.

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Map of territory held by Israel after its victory in the Six Day War in 1967.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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An Israeli armoured unit of Centurion tanks mounted with 105 mm guns stands in the Negev desert during the Six-Day War, May 20, 1967.

Credit: Israel’s Government Press Office

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Palestinian refugees flee across the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River, 1967. The bridge connects the West Bank with Jordan.

Credit: UNRWA Archives

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Palestinian refugee girl at the Allenby Bridge, June 1967.

Credit: UNRWA Archives

Five years later, in 1972, Palestinian terrorists from the group Black September abducted and eventually killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, who were representing their country at the Munich Summer Olympics. International support for the Palestinian cause took a hit following the massacre and prompted some Palestinian factions to reassess their tactics and move towards more diplomatic avenues in their quest for statehood.

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Members of Israeli sports organisations form a Guard of Honor in front of command cars bearing the bodies of victims of the Munich massacre during memorial services at Lod Airport.

Credit: Israel’s Government Press Office

Then, in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel, leading to a 19-day war that eventually ended with Israeli victory. This war, known as the Yom Kippur War (fighting started on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism), caused humiliation in the Arab world, weakened Arab unity (and, by implication, united Arab backing for the Palestinian cause), and eventually led to the Camp David Accords of 1978.

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Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.

Credit:Israeli Defence Forces Spokesperson’s Unit

1978 – 1987 | Camp David Accords and the First Lebanon War

The US-brokered Camp David Accords (1978) led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the first of its kind between Israel and an Arab nation. Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for Cairo’s formal recognition of, and normalisation of relations with, Tel Aviv. While the Accords included a framework for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and the West Bank, its implementation remained elusive.

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Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (L), US President Jimmy Carter (C) and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, at thesigning of the Camp David Accords, September 17, 1978.

Credit:https://www.cia.gov/

Fast forward four years later, Israel invaded Lebanon to eliminate Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) strongholds. This conflict (the First Lebanon War) dispersed PLO fighters and leaders across the region, and weakened the Palestinian resistance movement.

1987-2005 | First Intifada, Oslo Accords and Second Intifada

December of 1987 saw the eruption of the First Intifada (Arabic for ‘shaking off’/’getting rid of’), a Palestinian uprising characterised by mass protests, stone-throwing demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It lasted until 1993 and led to renewed international awareness of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and the eventual start of the Oslo peace process.

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Palestinian women demonstrating against Israeli soldiers in Jabalia, Gaza, during theFirst Intifada, undated.

Credit:Robert Croma

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An Israeli soldier points a rifle at a Palestinian woman holding a rock during a demonstration in Gaza, February 29, 1988.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The historic Oslo Accords, signed by then-Israeli PM Itzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, initiated a peace process aimed at fulfilling the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”. It established the Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, providing Palestinians with a degree of political autonomy.

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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L), US President Bill Clinton (C), and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat atthe White House, during the signing of the historic Oslo Accords, 1993.

Credit: The White House/gpo.gov

However, there were political divisions among the Palestinians, with some considering the Accords a betrayal of their cause, particularly those who believed only armed resistance would free their lands from Israeli occupation. Eventually, it became obvious that the accords would not lead to a lasting peace.

In 2000, the Second Intifada erupted in response to far-right Israeli Opposition leader Ariel Sharon making a provocative visit to the contested holy compound of the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif, the third-holiest site in Islam. Sharon would later become Israel’s Prime Minister.

The Intifada was marked by suicide bombings, armed confrontations, and increased Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For a protracted five years, the cycle of violence, destruction, and loss of life carried on, casting a shadow on the potential for any peace talks.

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Palestinian rioters confront Israeli security forces, at Ayosh Junction, near Ramallah, in the West Bank, October 2000.

Credit:Israeli Defence Forces Spokesperson’s Unit

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Gunshots fired during the Second Intifada shatter the signboard of a UNWRA school in Al-Am’ary Refugee Camp, West Bank, undated.

Credit: Flickr/Michael Rose

2005 onwards | Israel withdraws from Gaza, Hamas comes to power, Gaza wars and Abraham Accords

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, dismantling settlements and ending its military presence in the enclave densely populated by two million Palestinians. While intended to improve Israel’s global standing in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians, it also marked a complex turning point in the conflict as it raised questions about the feasibility of unilateral actions in resolving the broader territorial and political disputes between the two sides.

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IDF forces exit the Gaza Strip as part of ‘Operation Last Dawn’, the final stage of the Gaza Disengagement, summer of 2005.

Credit:Israel Defense Forces

In democratic elections in 2006, the militant group Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, defeating the secular Fatah party and was set to administer all the occupied territories – Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, already designated a terrorist group, much of the international community refused to recognize Hamas rule. A civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah, with the former gaining control of Gaza and the latter administering the West Bank. Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt imposed a joint blockade on Gaza, restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of the strip, leading to severe economic and humanitarian challenges for the population. Human rights organisations have compared the conditions in the enclave to that of an “open-air prison”.

In the following years, the multiple Gaza wars (2008, 2012, 2014, 2021) between Israel and Hamas resulted in significant casualties and highlighted the challenges of achieving a lasting ceasefire.

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Palestinians search through the rubble of their destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip, 2014.

Credit: UN Photo

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A young Palestinian boy walks through the remains of a house targeted by an Israeli air strike near a beach refugee camp west of Gaza City, 2014.

Credit: UN Photo

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, deployed in 2011, has played a crucial role in protecting Israeli cities from rocket attacks coming from the enclave in these wars. The system was developed with, and depends in part upon, assistance from the United States.

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The Iron Dome system intercepts Gaza rockets aimed at central Israel, as part of Israel’sOperation Protective Edge, 2014.

Credit:Israel Defense Forces

In 2017, the United States, under the Trump administration, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv, becoming the first country to do so. This move dented Palestinian aspirations for a future state, the capital of which is supposed to be East Jerusalem. As a reminder, while Israel occupied the western half of Jerusalem in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, East Jerusalem was annexed at the end of the 1967 war. Much of the international community still regards the holy city as occupied territory. Israel’s settler communities on occupied lands also remain a deeply divisive issue.

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The United States Consulate in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of its Embassy in the same building, May 2018.

Credit: US Embassy in Jerusalem

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Then US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo tours the US Embassy in Jerusalem with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, March 21, 2019.

Credit: USState Department

In 2020, Tel Aviv normalised relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco by inking the Abraham Accords, marking significant diplomatic breakthroughs. The US is pushing for normalisation of relations between Israel and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia as well. Palestinians have widely condemned Arab countries recognising Israel as a “stab in the back” for their cause.

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(L to R) Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani,Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords,on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020.

Credit:White House Photo

The latest flashpoint in this conflict occurred in May of 2021, when Hamas and Israel launched and counter-launched a barrage of rockets, each striking civilian populations, ending only after 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

That was until Hamas militants crossed the border on October 7, and brought on, to quote an Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson, “the worst day in Israeli history”.

(Published 12 October 2023, 03:53 IST)

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