Question & Answer
Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis

Translation to Arabic | Translation to most European Languages

by Stephen R. Shalom
Z Magazine, May 2002

What are the modern origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

During World War I, Britain made three different promises regarding
historic Palestine. Arab leaders were assured that the land would become
independent; in the Balfour declaration, Britain indicating its support for
a Jewish national home in Palestine; and secretly Britain arranged with its
allies to divide up Ottoman territory, with Palestine becoming part of the
British empire. Historians have engaged in detailed exegesis of the
relevant texts and maps, but the fundamental point is that Britain had no
moral right to assign Palestine to anyone: by right Palestine belonged to
its inhabitants.

In the late years of the 19th century, anti-Semitism became especially
virulent in Russia and re-emerged in France. Some Jews concluded that only
in a Jewish state would Jews be safe and thus founded Zionism. Most Jews at
the time rejected Zionism, preferring instead to address the problem of
anti-Semitism through revolutionary or reformist politics or assimilation.
And for many orthodox Jews, especially the small Jewish community in
Palestine, a Jewish state could only be established by God, not by humans.
At first Zionists were willing to consider other sites for their Jewish
state, but they eventually focused on Palestine for its biblical
connections. The problem, however, was that although a Zionist slogan
called Palestine "a land without people for a people without land," the
land was not at all empty.

Following World War I, Britain arranged for the League of Nations to make
Palestine a British "mandate," which is to say a colony to be administered
by Britain and prepared for independence. To help justify its rule over
Arab land, Britain arranged that one of its duties as the mandatory power
would be to promote a Jewish national home.

Who were the Jews who came to Palestine?

The early Zionist settlers were idealistic, often socialist, individuals,
fleeing oppression. In this respect they were like the early American
colonists. But also like the American colonists, many Zionists had racist
attitudes toward the indigenous people and little regard for their well-being.1

Some Zionists thought in terms of Arab-Jewish cooperation and a bi-national
state, but many were determined to set up an exclusively Jewish state
(though to avoid antagonizing the Palestinians, they decided to use the
term Jewish "national home" rather than "state" until they were able to
bring enough Jews to Palestine).

Jewish immigration to Palestine was relatively limited until the
1930s,.when Hitler came to power. The U.S. and Europe closed their doors to
immigration by desperate jews, making Palestine one of the few options.

Who were the indigenous people of Palestine?

Pro-Israel propaganda has argued that most Palestinians actually entered
Palestine after 1917, drawn to the economic dynamism of the growing Jewish
community, and thus have no rights to Palestine. This argument has been
elaborated in Joan Peters' widely promoted book, From Time Immemorial.
However, the book has been shown to be fraudulent and its claim false.2 The
indigenous population was mostly Muslim, with a Christian and a smaller
Jewish minority. As Zionists arrived from Europe, the Muslims and
Christians began to adopt a distinctly Palestinian national identity.

How did the Zionists acquire land in Palestine?

Some was acquired illegally and some was purchased from Arab landlords with
funds provided by wealthy Jews in Europe. Even the legal purchases,
however, were often morally questionable as they sometimes involved buying
land from absentee landlords and then throwing the poor Arab peasants off
the land. Land thus purchased became part of the Jewish National Fund which
specified that the land could never be sold or leased to Arabs. Even with
these purchases, Jews owned only about 6% of the land by 1947.

Was Palestinian opposition to Zionism a result of anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism in the Arab world was generally far less severe than in
Europe. Before the beginning of Zionist immigration, relations among the
different religious groups in Palestine were relatively harmonious. There
was Palestinian anti-Semitism, but no people will look favorably on another
who enter one's territory with the intention of setting up their own
sovereign state. The expulsion of peasants from their land and the frequent
Zionist refusal to employ Arabs exacerbated relations.

What was the impact of World War II on the Palestine question?

As World War II approached, Britain shrewdly calculated that they could
afford to alienate Jews -- who weren't going to switch to Hitler's side --
but not Arabs, so they greatly restricted Jewish immigration into
Palestine. But, of course, this was precisely when the need for sanctuary
for Europe's Jews was at its height. Many Jews smuggled their way into
Palestine as the United States and other nations kept their borders closed
to frantic refugees.

At the end of the war, as the enormity of the Holocaust became evident, for
the first time Zionism became a majority sentiment among world Jewry. Many
U.S. Christians also supported Zionism as a way to absolve their guilt for
what had happened, without having to allow Jews into the United States.
U.S. Zionists, who during the war had subordinated rescue efforts to their
goal of establishing a Jewish state,3 argued that the Holocaust proved more
than ever the need for a Jewish state: Had Israel existed in 1939, millions
of Jews might have been saved. Actually, Palestine just narrowly avoided
being overrun by the Nazis, so Jews would have been far safer in the United
States than in a Jewish Palestine.

During the war many Jews in Palestine had joined the British army. By war's
end, the Jewish community in Palestine was well armed, well-organized, and
determined to fight. The Palestinians were poorly armed, with feudal
leaders. The Mufti of Jerusalem had been exiled by the British for
supporting an Arab revolt in 1936-39 and had made his way to Berlin during
the war where he aided Nazi propaganda. From the Zionist point of view, it
was considered a plus to have the extremist Mufti as the Palestinians'
leader; as David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in
Palestine and Israel's first prime minister, advised in 1938, "rely on the

What were the various positions in 1947?

Both the Palestinians and the Zionists wanted the British out so they could
establish an independent state. The Zionists, particularly a right-wing
faction led by Menachim Begin, launched a terror campaign against Britain.
London, impoverished by the war, announced that it was washing its hands of
the problem and turning it over to the United Nations (though Britain had
various covert plans for remaining in the region).

The Zionists declared that having gone through one of the great
catastrophes of modern history, the Jewish people were entitled to a state
of their own, one into which they could gather Jewish refugees, still
languishing in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The Zionist bottom
line was a sovereign state with full control over immigration. The
Palestinians argued that the calamity that befell European Jews was hardly
their fault. If Jews were entitled to a state, why not carve it out of
Germany? As it was, Palestine had more Jewish refugees than any other place
on Earth. Why should they bear the full burden of atoning for Europe's
sins? They were willing to give full civil rights (though not national
rights) to the Jewish minority in an independent Palestine, but they were
not willing to give this minority the right to control immigration, and
bring in more of their co-religionists until they were a majority to take
over the whole of Palestine.

A small left-wing minority among the Zionists called for a binational state
in Palestine, where both peoples might live together, each with their
national rights respected. This view had little support among Jews or

What did the UN do and why?

In November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into
two independent states, a Jewish state and an Arab state, joined by an
economic union, with Jerusalem internationalized.

In 1947 the UN had many fewer members than it does today. Most Third World
nations were still colonies and thus not members. Nevertheless, the
partition resolution passed only because the Soviet Union and its allies
voted in favor and because many small states were subject to improper
pressure. For example, members of the U.S. Congress told the Philippines
that it would not get U.S. economic aid unless it voted for partition.
Moscow favored partition as a way to reduce British influence in the
region; Israel was viewed as potentially less pro-Western than the dominant
feudal monarchies.

Didn't Palestinians have a chance for a state of their own in 1947, but
they rejected it by going to war with Israel?

In 1947 Jews were only one third of the population of Palestine and owned
only 6% of the land. Yet the partition plan granted the Jewish state 55% of
the total land area. The Arab state was to have an overwhelmingly Arab
population, while the Jewish state would have almost as many Arabs as Jews.
If it was unjust to force Jews to be a 1/3 minority in an Arab state, it
was no more just to force Arabs to be an almost 50% minority in a Jewish state.

The Palestinians rejected partition. The Zionists accepted it, but in
private Zionist leaders had more expansive goals. In 1938, during earlier
partition proposals, Ben Gurion stated, "when we become a strong power
after the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and spread
throughout all of Palestine."5

The Mufti called Palestinians to war against partition, but in fact very
few Palestinians responded. The "decisive majority" of Palestinians,
confided Ben Gurion, "do not want to fight us." The majority "accept the
partition as a fait accompli," reported a Zionist Arab affairs expert. The
1936-39 Arab revolt against the British had mass popular support, but the
1947-48 fighting between the Mufti's followers and the Zionist military
forces had no such popular backing.6

But even if Palestinians were fully united in going to war against the
partition plan, this can provide no moral justification for denying them
their basic right of self- determination for more than half a century. This
right is not a function of this or that agreement, but a basic right to
which every person is entitled. (Israelis don't lose their right to
self-determination because their government violated countless UN
cease-fire resolutions.)

Didn't Israel achieve larger borders in 1948 as a result of a defensive war
of independence?

Arab armies crossed the border on May 15, 1948, after Israel declared its
independence. But this declaration came three and a half months before the
date specified in the partition resolution. The U.S. had proposed a three
month truce on the condition that Israel postpone its declaration of
independence. The Arab states accepted and Israel rejected, in part because
it had worked out a secret deal with Jordan's King Abdullah, whereby his
Arab Legion would invade the Palestinian territory assigned to the
Palestinian state and not interfere with the Jewish state. (Since Jordan
was closely allied to Britain, the scheme also provided a way for London to
maintain its position in the region.) The other Arab states invaded as much
to thwart Abdullah's designs as to defeat Israel.7

Most of the fighting that ensued took place on territory that was to be
part of the Palestinian state or the internationalized Jerusalem. Thus,
Israel was primarily fighting not for its survival, but to expand its
borders at the expense of the Palestinians. For most of the war, the
Israelis actually held both a quantitative and qualitative military edge,
even apart from the fact that the Arab armies were uncoordinated and
operating at cross purposes.8

When the armistice agreements were signed in 1949, the Palestinian state
had disappeared, its territory taken over by Israel and Jordan, with Egypt
in control of the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem, which was to have been
internationalized, was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control.
Israel now held 78% of Palestine. Some 700,000 Palestinians had become

Why did Palestinians become refugees in 1948?

The Israeli government claim is that Palestinians chose to leave Palestine
voluntarily, instructed to do so via radio broadcasts from Arab leaders who
wanted to clear a path for their armies. But radio broadcasts from the area
were monitored by the British and American governments and no evidence of
general orders to flee has ever been found. On the contrary, there are
numerous instances of Arab leaders telling Palestinians to stay put, to
keep their claim to the territory.9 People flee during wartime for a
variety of reasons and that was certainly the case here. Some left because
war zones are dangerous environments. Some because of Zionist atrocities --
most dramatically at Deir Yassin where in April 1948 254 defenseless
civilians were slaughtered. Some left in panic, aided by Zionist
psychological warfare which warned that Deir Yassin's fate awaited others.
And some were driven out at gunpoint, with killings to speed them on their
way, as in the towns of Ramle and Lydda.10

There is no longer any serious doubt that many Palestinians were forcibly
expelled. The exact numbers driven out versus those who panicked or simply
sought safety is still contested, but what permits us to say that all were
victims of ethnic cleansing is that Israeli officials refused to allow any
of them to return. (In Kosovo, any ethnic Albanian refugee, whether he or
she was forced out at gunpoint, panicked, or even left to make it easier
for NATO to bomb, was entitled to return.) In Israel, Arab villages were
bulldozed over, citrus groves, lands, and property seized, and their owners
and inhabitants prohibited from returning. Indeed, not only was the
property of "absentee" Palestinians expropriated, but any Palestinians who
moved from one place within Israel to another during the war were declared
"present absentees" and their property expropriated as well.

Of the 860,000 Arabs who had lived in areas of Palestine that became
Israel, only 133,000 remained. Some 470,000 moved into refugee camps on the
West Bank (controlled by Jordan) or the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt).
The rest dispersed to Lebanon, Syria, and other countries.

Why did Israel expel the Palestinians?

In part to remove a potential fifth column. In part to obtain their
property. In part to make room for more Jewish immigrants. But mostly
because the notion of a Jewish state with a large non-Jewish minority was
extremely awkward for Israeli leaders. Indeed, because Israel took over
some territory intended for the Palestinian state, there had actually been
an Arab majority living within the borders of Israel. Nor was the idea of
expelling Palestinians something that just emerged in the 1948 war. In
1937, Ben Gurion had written to his son, "We will expel the Arabs and take
their places ... with the force at our disposal."11

How did the international community react to the problem of the Palestinian

In December 1948, the General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which
declared that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace
with their neighbors should be permitted to do so" and that "compensation
should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." This same
resolution was overwhelmingly adopted year after year. Israel repeatedly
refused to carry out the terms of the resolution.

Did the Arab countries take steps to resettle the Palestinian refugees?

Only in Jordan were Palestinians eligible for citizenship. In Lebanon, the
government feared that allowing Palestinians to become citizens would
disturb the country's delicate Christian-Muslim balance; in Egypt, the
shortage of arable land led the government to confine the Palestinians to
the Gaza Strip. It must be noted, however, that the Palestinians were
reluctant to leave the camps if that would mean acquiescing in the loss of
homes and property or giving up their right to return.

It is sometimes implied that the lack of assistance to Palestinians from
Arab nations justifies Israel's refusal to acknowledge and address the
claims of the refugees. But if you harm someone, you are responsible for
redressing that harm, regardless of whether the victim's relatives are

Hasn't there been a population exchange, with Jews from Arab lands coming
to Israel and replacing the Palestinians?

This argument makes individual Palestinians responsible for the wrong-doing
of Arab governments. Jews left Arab countries under various circumstances:
some were forced out, some came voluntarily, some were recruited by Zionist
officials. In Iraq, Jews feared that they might be harmed, a fear possibly
helped along by some covert bombs placed by Zionist agents.12 But whatever
the case, there are no moral grounds for punishing Palestinians (or denying
them their due) because of how Jews were treated in the Arab world. If
Italy were to abuse American citizens, this would not justify the United
States harming or expelling Italian-Americans.

How were the Palestinians who remained within Israel treated?

Most Arabs lived in the border areas of Israel and, until 1966, these areas
were all declared military security zones, which essentially meant that
Palestinians were living under martial law conditions for nearly 20 years.
After 1966, Arab citizens of Israel continued to be the victims of harsh
discrimination: most of the country's land is owned by the Jewish National
Fund which prohibits its sale or lease to non-Jews; schools for
Palestinians in Israel are, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "separate
and unequal"; and government spending has been funneled so as to keep Arab
villages underdeveloped. Thousands of Israeli Arabs live in villages
declared "unrecognized" and hence ineligible for electricity or any other
government services.13

Following 1948, didn't the Arab states continually try to destroy Israel?

After Israel's victory in the 1948-49 war, there were several opportunities
for peace. There was blame on all sides, but Israeli intransigence was
surely a prime factor. In 1951, a UN peace plan was accepted by Egypt,
Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but rejected by Israel. When Nasser came to
power in Egypt, he made overtures to Israel that were rebuffed. When Nasser
negotiated an end to British control of the Suez Canal zone, Israeli
intelligence covertly arranged a bombing campaign of western targets in
Egypt as a way to discourage British withdrawal. The plot was foiled, Egypt
executed some of the plotters, and Israel responded with a major military
attack on Gaza.14 In 1956, Israel joined with Britain and France in
invading Egypt, drawing condemnation from the United States and the UN.

How were the Occupied Territories occupied?

In June 1967, Israel launched a war in which it seized all of Palestine
(the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from
Egypt), along with the Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Large numbers of Palestinians, some living in cities, towns, and villages,
and some in refugee camps, came under Israeli control. (In 2001, half the
Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories lived in refugee
camps.15 The Israeli conquest also sent a new wave of refugees from
Palestine to surrounding countries.)

Israel's supporters argue that although Israel fired the first shots in
this war, it was a justified preventive war, given that Arab armies were
mobilizing on Israel's borders, with murderous rhetoric. The rhetoric was
indeed blood-curdling, and many people around the world worried for
Israel's safety. But those who understood the military situation -- in Tel
Aviv and the Pentagon -- knew quite well that even if the Arabs struck
first, Israel would prevail in any war. Nasser was looking for a way out
and agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations.
Israel attacked when it did in part because it rejected negotiations and
the prospect of any face-saving compromise for Nasser. Menachem Begin, who
was an enthusiastic supporter of this (and other) Israeli wars was quite
clear about the necessity of launching an attack: In June 1967, he said,
Israel "had a choice." Egyptian Army concentrations did not prove that
Nasser was about to attack. "We must be honest with ourselves. We decided
to attack him."16

However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly defensive on
Israel's part, this cannot justify the continued rule over Palestinians. A
people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government
of a neighboring state goes to war. Sure, punish Egypt and Jordan -- don't
give them back Gaza and the West Bank (which they had no right to in the
first place, having joined with Israel in carving up the stillborn
Palestinian state envisioned in the UN's 1947 partition plan). But there is
no basis for punishing the Palestinian population by forcing them to submit
to foreign military occupation.

Israel immediately incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into Israel proper,
announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal capital. It then began
to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories in violation of the
Geneva Conventions which prohibit a conquering power from settling its
population on occupied territory. These settlements, placed in strategic
locations throughout the West Bank and Gaza were intended to "create facts"
on the ground to make the occupation irreversible.

How did the international community respond to the Israeli occupation?

In November 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution
242. The resolution emphasized "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of
territory by war" and called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces
from territory occupied in the recent conflict." It also called for all
countries in the region to end their state of war and to respect the right
of each country "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."

Israel argued that because resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal
from "territories," rather than "the territories," occupied in the recent
conflict, it meant that Israel could keep some of them as a way to attain
"secure" borders. The official French and Russian texts of the resolution
include the definite article, but in any event U.S. officials told Arab
delegates that it expected "virtually complete withdrawal" by Israel, and
this was the view as well of Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.17

Palestinians objected to the resolution because it referred to them only in
calling for "a just settlement to the refugee problem" rather than
acknowledging their right to self- determination. By the mid-1970s,
however, the international consensus -- rejected by Israel and the United
States -- was expanded to include support for a Palestinian state in the
West Bank and Gaza, perhaps with insignificant border adjustments.

How did the United States respond to the Israeli occupation?

Prior to the 1967 war, France, not the United States, was Israel's chief
weapons supplier. But now U.S. officials determined that Israel would be an
extremely valuable ally to have in the Middle East and Washington became
Israel's principal military and diplomatic backer.

Why, given the U.S. concern for Middle Eastern oil, was Washington
supporting Israel? This assumes that the main conflict was Israel vs. the
Arabs, rather than Israel and conservative, pro-Western Arab regimes vs.
radical Arab nationalism. Egypt and Syria had been champions of the latter,
armed by the Soviet Union, and threatening U.S. interests in the region.
(On the eve of the 1967, for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were
militarily backing opposite sides in a civil war in Yemen. Israel had
plotted with Jordan against Palestinian nationalism in 1948, and in 1970
Israel was prepared to take Jordan's side in a war against Palestinians and

Diplomatically, the U.S. soon backed off the generally accepted
interpretation of resolution 242, deciding that given Israel's military
dominance no negotiations were necessary except on Israel's terms. So when
Secretary of State Rogers put forward a reasonable peace plan, President
Nixon privately sent word to Israel that the U.S. wouldn't press the
proposal.18 When Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, proposed a peace plan
that included cutting his ties with Moscow, Washington decided he hadn't
groveled enough and ignored it. But after Egypt and Syria unsuccessfully
went to war with Israel for the limited aim of regaining their lost
territory, and Arab oil states called a limited oil embargo, Washington
rethought its position. This led in 1979 to the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David
Agreement under which Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in return for
peace and diplomatic relations. Egypt then joined Israel as a pillar of
U.S. policy in the region and the two became the leading recipients of U.S.
aid in the world.

What progress was made toward justice for Palestinians during the first two
decades of the occupation?

The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, but it was
controlled by the Arab states until 1969, when Yasser Arafat became its
leader. The PLO had many factions, advocating different tactics (some
carried out hijackings) and different politics. At first the PLO took the
position that Israel had no right to exist and that only Palestinians were
entitled to national rights in Palestine. This was the mirror image of the
official Israeli view -- of both the right-wing Likud party and the Labor
party -- that there could be no recognition of the PLO under any
circumstances, even if it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel, let
alone acceptance of a Palestinian state on any part of the Occupied

By 1976, however, the PLO view had come to accept the international
consensus favoring a two-state solution. In January 1976 a resolution
backed by the PLO, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the Soviet Union was
introduced in the Security Council incorporating this consensus. Washington
vetoed the resolution.19

The 1979 Camp David agreement established peace along the Egyptian-Israeli
border, but it worsened the situation for Palestinians. With its southern
border neutralized, Israel had a freer hand to invade Lebanon in 1982
(where the PLO was based) and to tighten its grip on the Occupied Territories.

What was the first Intifada?

Anger and frustration were growing in the Occupied Territories, fueled by
iron-fisted Israeli repression, daily humiliations, and the establishment
of sharply increasing numbers of Israeli settlements. In December 1987,
Palestinians in Gaza launched an uprising, the Intifada, that quickly
spread to the West Bank as well. The Intifada was locally organized, and
enjoyed mass support among the Palestinian population. Guns and knives were
banned and the main political demand was for an independent Palestinian
state coexisting with Israel.20

Israel responded with great brutality, with hundreds of Palestinians
killed. The Labor Party Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, urged Israeli
soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian demonstrators. PLO leader Khalil
al-Wazir, who from Tunis had advised the rejection of arms, was
assassinated (with the approval of Rabin); Israel was especially eager to
repress Palestinian leaders who advocated a Palestinian state that would
coexist with Israel.21 By 1989, the initial discipline of the uprising had
faded, as a considerable number of individual acts of violence by
Palestinians took place. Hamas, an organization initially promoted by the
Israelis as a counterweight to the PLO,22 also gained strength; it called
for armed attacks to achieve an Islamic state in all of Palestine.

What were the Oslo Accords?

Arafat had severely weakened his credibility by his flirtation with Saddam
Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. (The Iraqi leader had
opportunistically tried to link his withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli
withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.) Israel saw Arafat's weakness as
an opportunity. Better to deal with Arafat while he was weak, before Hamas
gained too much influence. Let Arafat police the unruly Palestinians, while
Israel would maintain its settlements and control over resources.

The Oslo agreement consisted of "Letters of Mutual Recognition" and a
Declaration of Principles. In Arafat's letter he recognized Israel's right
to exist, accepted various UN resolutions, renounced terrorism and armed
struggle. Israeli Prime Minister Rabin in his letter agreed to recognize
the PLO as the representative of the Palestine people and commence
negotiations with it, but there was no Israeli recognition of the
Palestinian right to a state.

The Declaration of Principles was signed on the White House lawn on
September 13, 1993. In it, Israel agreed to redeploy its troops from the
Gaza Strip and from the West Bank city of Jericho. These would be given
self-governing status, except for the Israeli settlements in Gaza. A
Palestinian Authority (PA) would be established, with a police force that
would maintain internal order in areas from which Israeli forces withdrew.
Left for future resolution in "permanent status" talks were all the
critical and vexatious issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and
borders. These talks were to commence by year three of the agreement.

In September 1995 an interim agreement -- commonly called Oslo II -- was
signed. This divided the Occupied Territories into three zones, Area A,
Area B, and Area C. (No mention was made of a fourth area: Israeli-occupied
East Jerusalem.) In area A, the PA was given civil and security control but
not sovereignty; in area B the PA would have civil control and the Israelis
security control; and area C was wholly under Israeli control (these
included the settlements, the network of connecting roads, and most of the
valuable land and water resources of the West Bank). In March 2000, 17% of
the West Bank was designated area A -- where the vast majority of
Palestinians lived -- 24% area B, and 59% area C. In the Gaza Strip, with a
population of over a million Palestinians, 6,500 Israeli settlers lived in
the 20% of the territory that made up area C. Palestinians thus were given
limited autonomy -- not sovereignty -- over areas of dense population in
the Gaza Strip and small, non-contiguous portions of the West Bank (there
were 227 separate and disconnected enclaves),23 which meant that the PA was
responsible chiefly for maintaining order over poor and angry Palestinians.

How did Israel respond to the Oslo Accords?

Whatever hopes Oslo may have inspired among the Palestinian population,
most Israeli officials had an extremely restricted vision of where it would
lead. In a speech in October 1995, Rabin declared that there would not be a
return to the pre-1967 borders, Jerusalem would remain united and under
exclusive Israeli sovereignty, and most of the settlements would remain
under Israeli sovereignty. Rabin said he wanted the "entity" that
Palestinians would get to be "less than a state."24 Under Rabin,
settlements were expanded and he began a massive program of road-building,
meant to link the settlements and carve up the West Bank. (These by-pass
roads, built on confiscated Palestinian land and U.S.- funded, were for
Israelis only.)

In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli and he was
succeeded as prime minister by Shimon Peres. But Peres, noted his adviser
Yossi Beilin, had an even more limited view than Rabin, wanting any future
Palestinian state to be located only in Gaza.25 Yossi Sarid, head of the
moderate left Israeli party Meretz, said that Peres's plan for the West
Bank was "little different" from that of Ariel Sharon.26 Settlements and
by-pass roads expanded further.

In May 1996, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu who was openly opposed to the Oslo
accords was elected prime minister. Netanyahu reneged on most of the
already agreed on Israeli troop withdrawals from occupied territory,
continued building settlements and roads, stepped up the policy of sealing
off the Palestinian enclaves, and refused to begin the final status talks
required by Oslo.27

In 1999, Labor's Ehud Barak won election as prime minister. Barak had been
a hardliner, but he had also confessed that if he had been born a
Palestinian he probably would have joined a terrorist organization28 -- so
his intentions were unclear. His policies, however, in his first year in
office were more of the same: settlements grew at a more rapid pace than
under Netanyahu, agreed-upon troops withdrawals were not carried out, and
land confiscations and economic closures continued. His proposed 2001
government budget increased the subsidies supporting settlements in the
Occupied Territories.29

What was the impact of the Oslo accords?

The number of Israeli settlers since Oslo (1993) grew from 110,000 to
195,000 in the West Bank and Gaza; in annexed East Jerusalem, the Jewish
population rose from 22,000 to 170,000.30 Thirty new settlements were
established and more than 18,000 new housing units for settlers were
constructed.31 From 1994-2000, Israeli authorities confiscated 35,000 acres
of Arab land for roads and settlements.32 Poverty increased, so that in
mid-2000, more than one out of five Palestinians had consumption levels
below $2.10 a day.33 According to CIA figures, at the end of 2000,
unemployment stood at 40%.34 Israeli closure policies meant that
Palestinians had less freedom of movement -- from Gaza to the West Bank, to
East Jerusalem, or from one Palestinian enclave to another -- than they had
before Oslo.35

What was U.S. policy during this period?

The United States has been the major international backer of Israel for
more than three decades. Since 1976 Israel has been the leading annual
recipient of U.S. foreign aid and is the largest cumulative recipient since
World War II. And this doesn't include all sorts of special financial and
military benefits, such as the use of U.S. military assistance for research
and development in the United States. Israel's economy is not
self-sufficient, and relies on foreign assistance and borrowing. During the
Oslo years, Washington gave Israel more than $3 billion per year in aid,
and $4 billion in FY 2000, the highest of any year except 1979. Of this
aid, grant military aid was $1.8 billion a year since Oslo, and more than
$3 billion in FY 2000, two thirds higher than ever before.36

Diplomatically, the U.S. retreated from various positions it had held for
years. Since 1949, the U.S. had voted with the overwhelming majority of the
General Assembly in calling for the right of return of Palestinian
refugees. In 1994, the Clinton administration declared that because the
refugee question was something to be resolved in the permanent status
talks, the U.S. would no longer support the resolution. Likewise, although
the U.S. had previously agreed with the rest of the world (and common
sense) in considering East Jerusalem occupied territory, it now declared
that Jerusalem's status too was to be decided in the permanent status
talks. On three occasions in 1995 and 1997, the Security Council considered
draft resolutions critical of Israeli expropriations and settlements in
East Jerusalem; Washington vetoed all three.37

What happened at Camp David?

Permanent status talks between Israel and the Palestinians as called for by
the Oslo agreement finally took place in July 2000 at Camp David, in the
United States, with U.S. mediators. The standard view is that Barak made an
exceedingly generous offer to Arafat, but Arafat rejected it, choosing
violence instead.

A U.S. participant in the talks, Robert Malley, has challenged this view.38
Barak offered -- but never in writing and never in detail; in fact, says,
Malley, "strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer" -- to give
the Palestinians Israeli land equivalent to 1% of the West Bank
(unspecified, but to be chosen by Israel) in return for 9% of the West Bank
which housed settlements, highways, and military bases effectively dividing
the West Bank into separate regions. Thus, there would have been no
meaningfully independent Palestinian state, but a series of Bantustans,
while all the best land and water aquifers would be in Israeli hands.
Israel would also "temporarily" hold an additional 10 percent of West Bank
land. (Given that Barak had not carried out the previous withdrawals to
which Israel had committed, Palestinian skepticism regarding "temporary"
Israeli occupation is not surprising.) It's a myth, Malley wrote,39 that
"Israel's offer met most if not all of the Palestinians' legitimate
aspirations" and a myth as well that the "Palestinians made no concession
of their own." Some Israeli analysts made a similar assessment. For
example, influential commentator Ze'ev Schiff wrote that, to Palestinians,
"the prospect of being able to establish a viable state was fading right
before their eyes. They were confronted with an intolerable set of options:
to agree to the spreading occupation ... or to set up wretched Bantustans,
or to launch an uprising."40

What caused the second Intifada?

On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon, then a member of Parliament,
accompanied by a thousand-strong security force, paid a provocative visit
approved by Barak to the site of the Al Aqsa mosque. The next day Barak
sent another large force of police and soldiers to the area and, when the
anticipated rock throwing by some Palestinians occurred, the
heavily-augmented police responded with lethal fire, killing four and
wounding hundreds. Thus began the second Intifada.

The underlying cause was the tremendous anger and frustration among the
population of the Occupied Territories, who saw things getting worse, not
better, under Oslo, whose hopes had been shattered, and whose patience
after 33 years of occupation had reached the boiling point.

Who is Ariel Sharon?

Sharon was the commander of an Israeli force that massacred some seventy
civilians in the Jordanian village of Qibya in 1953. He was Defense
Minister in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, causing the deaths of 17,000
civilians. In September 1982, Lebanese forces allied to Israel slaughtered
hundreds of Palestinian non- combatants in the Sabra and Shitila refugee
camps, a crime for which an Israeli commission found Sharon to bear
indirect responsibility. As Housing Minister in various Israeli
governments, Sharon vigorously promoted the settlements in the Occupied
Territories. In January 2001, he took office as Prime Minister.

How did Israel respond to this second Intifada?

Israeli security forces responded to Palestinian demonstrations with lethal
force even though, as a UN investigation reported, at these demonstrations
the Israeli Defense Forces, "endured not a single serious casualty."41 Some
Palestinians proceeded to arm themselves, and the killing escalated, with
deaths on both sides, though the victims were disproportionately
Palestinians. In November 2001, there was a week-long lull in the fighting.
Sharon then ordered the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud,
which, as everyone predicted, led to a rash of terror bombings, which in
turn Sharon used as justification for further assaults on the PA.42 By
March 2002, Amnesty International reported that more than 1000 Palestinians
had been killed. "Israeli security services have killed Palestinians,
including more than 200 children, unlawfully, by shelling and bombing
residential areas, random or targeted shooting, especially near checkpoints
and borders, by extrajudicial executions and during demonstrations."43

Palestinian suicide bombings have targeted civilians. Amnesty International
commented: "These actions are shocking. Yet they can never justify the
human rights violations and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions which,
over the past 18 months, have been committed daily, hourly, even every
minute, by the Israeli authorities against Palestinians. Israeli forces
have consistently carried out killings when no lives were in danger."
Medical personnel have been attacked and ambulances, including those of the
Red Cross, "have been consistently shot at."44 Wounded people have been
denied medical treatment. Israel has carried out targeted assassinations
(sometimes the targets were probably connected to terrorism, sometimes
not,45 but all of these extrajudicial executions have been condemned by
human rights groups).

The Israeli government criticized Arafat for not cracking down harder on
terrorists and then responded by attacking his security forces, who might
have allowed him to crack down, and restricting him to his compound in

Israeli opinion became sharply polarized. At the same time that hundreds of
military reservists have declared their refusal to serve in the West Bank
and Gaza (, polls show 46% of Israelis favor
forcibly expelling all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories.46

What has U.S. policy been?

U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support has made possible the
Israeli repression of the previous year and a half.

Much of the weaponry Israel has been using in its attacks on Palestinians
either was made in the United States (F-16s, attack helicopters, rockets,
grenade launchers, Caterpillar bulldozers, airburst shells, M-40 ground
launchers) or made in Israel with U.S. Department of Defense research and
development funding (the Merkava tank).

On March 26, 2001, the Security Council considered a resolution to
establish an international presence in the Occupied Territories as a way to
prevent human rights violations. The United States vetoed the resolution.
Because Israel did not want the U.S. to get involved diplomatically,
Washington did not name a special envoy to the region, General Zinni, until
November 2001, more than a year after the Intifada began. Bush met four
times with Sharon during the Intifada, never with Arafat. In February 2002,
Vice President Cheney declared that Israel could "hang" Arafat.47

What caused the current crisis?

As the Arab League was meeting to endorse a Saudi peace proposal --
recognition of Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967
borders -- a Hamas suicide bomber struck. Sharon, no doubt fearing a
groundswell of support for the Arab League position, responded with massive
force, breaking into Arafat's compound, confining him to several rooms.
Then there were major invasions of all the Palestinian cities in the West
Bank. There are many Palestinian casualties, though because Israel has kept
reporters out, their extent is not known.

In the early days of Sharon's offensive, Bush pointedly refused to
criticize the Israeli action, reserving all his condemnation for Arafat,
who, surrounded in a few rooms, was said to not be doing enough to stop
terrorism. As demonstrations in the Arab world, especially in pro-U.S.
Jordan and Egypt, threatened to destabilize the entire region, Bush finally
called on Israel to withdraw from the cities. Sharon, recognizing that the
U.S. "demand" was uncoupled from any threat of consequences, kept up his

Is there a way out?

A solution along the lines of the international consensus -- Israeli
withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a truly
independent and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its
capital in East Jerusalem -- remains feasible. It needs only the backing of
the United States and Israel.

Don't the Arabs already have 22 states? Why do they need another one?

Not all Arabs are the same. That other Arabs may already have their right
of self- determination does not take away from Palestinians' basic rights.
The fact that many Palestinians live in Jordan and have considerable
influence and rights there, doesn't mean that the millions of Palestinians
living under Israeli occupation or who were expelled from their homes and
are now in refugee camps aren't entitled to their rights -- any more than
the fact that there are a lot of Jews in the U.S., where they have
considerable influence and rights, means that Israeli Jews should be packed
off across the Atlantic.

How can terrorists be given a state?

If people whose independence movements use terrorism are not entitled to a
state, then many current-day states would be illegitimate, not the least of
them being Israel, whose independence struggle involved frequent terrorism
against civilians.

Won't an independent Palestinian state threaten Israeli security?

Conquerors frequently justify their conquests by claiming security needs.
This was the argument Israel gave for years why it couldn't return the
Sinai to Egypt or pull out of Lebanon. Both of these were done, however,
and Israel's security was enhanced rather than harmed. True, the Oslo
Accords, which turned over disconnected swatches of territory to
Palestinian administration, may not have improved Israeli security. But as
Shimon Peres, one of the architects of the Oslo agreement and Sharon's
current Foreign Minister acknowledged, Oslo was flawed from the start.
"Today we discover that autonomy puts the Palestinians in a worse
situation." The second Intifada could have been avoided, Peres said, if the
Palestinians had had a state from the outset. "We cannot keep three and a
half million Palestinians under siege without income, oppressed, poor,
densely populated, near starvation."48 Israel is the region's only nuclear
power. Beyond that, it is the strongest military power in the Middle East.
Surely it cannot need to occupy neighboring territory in order to achieve
security. Nothing would better guarantee the Israeli people peace and
security than pulling out of the Occupied Territories.

Isn't the Palestinian demand for the right of return just a ploy to destroy

Allowing people who have been expelled from their homes the right to return
is hardly an extreme demand. Obviously this can't mean throwing out people
who have been living in these homes for many years now, and would need to
be carefully worked out. Both Palestinian officials and the Arab League
have indicated that in their view the right of return should be implemented
in a way that would not create a demographic problem for Israel.49 Of
course, one could reasonably argue that an officially Jewish state is
problematic on basic democratic grounds. (Why should a Jew born in Brooklyn
have a right to "return" to Israel while a Palestinian born in Haifa does
not?) In any event, however, neither the Arab League nor Arafat have raised
this objection.50

Don't Palestinians just view their own state as the first step in
eliminating Israel entirely?

Hamas and a few other, smaller Palestinian groups object not just to the
occupation but to the very existence of Israel. But the Hamas et al.
position is a distinctly minority sentiment among Palestinians, who are a
largely secular community that has endorsed a two-state settlement. To be
sure, Hamas has been growing in strength as a result of the inability of
the Palestinian Authority to deliver a better life for Palestinians. If
there were a truly independent Palestinian state, one can assume that Hamas
would find far fewer volunteers for its suicide squads. It must be
acknowledged, though, that the longer the mutual terror continues, the
harder it will be to achieve long term peace.

Is a two-state solution just?

There is a broad international consensus on a two-state solution, along the
lines of the Saudi peace proposal. Such a solution is by no means ideal.
Palestine is a small territory to be divided into two states; it forms a
natural economic unit. An Israeli state that discriminates in favor of Jews
and a Palestinian state that will probably be equally discriminatory will
depart substantially from a just outcome. What's needed is a single secular
state that allows substantial autonomy to both national communities,
something along the lines of the bi-national state proposed before 1948.
This outcome, however, does not seem imminent. A two-state solution may be
the temporary measure that will provide a modicum of justice and allow Jews
and Palestinians to move peacefully forward to a more just future.


Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University
and is the author of Imperial Alibis (South End Press).


1) As Zionist writer Ahad Ha'am put it, his fellow Jews "treat the Arabs
with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them
without cause, and even boast of these deeds." Quoted in Jews For Justice
in The Middle East, The Origin of the Palestine- Israeli conflict, 3rd ed.,
P.O. Box 14561, Berkeley, CA, 94712, available at return

2) Norman G. Finkelstein, "A Land Without a People: Joan Peters's
'Wilderness' Myth," in Image and Reality of the Israel Palestine Conflict,
New York: Verso, 1995, pp. 21-50. return

3) See the sources cited by Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United
States, Israel and the Palestinians, updated edition, Cambridge: South End
Press, 1999, p. 169n10. return

4) Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York:
Pantheon, 1987, pp. 66-67. return

5) Quoted in Jerome Slater, "What Went Wrong? The Collapse of the
Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process," Political Science Quarterly, vol. 116,
no. 2, 2001, p. 174. return

6) Flapan, pp. 55, 73-77. return

7) Flapan, pp. 153-86. return

8) Flapan, pp. 187-199. return

9) Christopher Hitchens, "Broadcasts," in Blaming the Victims: Spurious
Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, ed. Edward W. Said and
Christopher Hitchens, New York: Verso, 1988, pp. 73-83. return

10) Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987; Norman G. Finkelstein, "'Born
of War, Not By Design," in Finkelstein, Image and Reality..., pp. 51-87. return

11) Slater, pp. 173-74. return

12) See Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 308-11; and sources in
Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War, New York: Pantheon, 1982, p. 462n33.

13) Ian Lustick, Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel's Contorl of a National
Minority, University of Texas, 1980; Human Rights Watch, Second Class:
Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel's Schools, Sept.
2001, On Israeli-Arab
"unrecognized" villages, where some 100,000 people are forced to live
without basic government services, including electricity and water, see return

14) Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 4th ed.,
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001, pp. 237-38. return

15) John Dugard, Kamal Hossain, and Richard Falk, "Question of The
Violation of Human Rights in The Occupied Arab Territories, Including
Palestine," Report of the human rights inquiry commission established
pursuant to Commission resolution S-5/1 of 19 October 2000,
E/CN.4/2001/121, 16 March 2001, para 29. return

16) Quoted in Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, p. 100. return

17) Smith, pp. 306, 334n10. return

18) Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979, p.
376. return

19) Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, chap 3, esp. p. 67. return

20) Smith, pp. 418-21. return

21) Smith, pp. 422-24. return

22) Richard Sale, "Israel gave major aid to Hamas," UPI, Feb. 24, 2001. return

23) Geoffrey Aronson, "Recapitulating the Redeployments: The Israel-PLO
'Interim Agreements'," Information Brief No. 32, Center for Policy
Analysis, 27 April 2000. return

24) Slater, p. 177, citing speech to Knesset of 5 October 1995, printed in
Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories 5 (November 1995).

25) Slater, p. 178n9, quoting Ha'aretz, 7 March 1997. return

26) Slater, p. 178n9, quoting Report of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences, Israeli-Palestinian Security,1995. return

27) Slater, p. 179. return

28) Smith, p. 490. return

29) Slater, pp. 180-81. return

30) Edward Said, "Palestinians under Siege," in The New Intifada: Resisting
Israel's Apartheid, ed. Roane Carey, New York: Verso, 2001, p. 29; Allegra
Pacheco, "Flouting Convention: The Oslo Agreements," in Carey, p. 189. return

31) Sara Roy, "Decline and Disfigurement: The Palestinian Economy After
Oslo," in Carey, p. 95; Pacheco, p. 187. return

32) Roy, p. 95. return

33) Roy, p. 101. return

34) CIA World Factbook 2001. return

35) Roy, pp. 98-100. return

36) Clyde R. Mark, Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance, Updated March 15, 2002,
CRS Issue Brief for Congress, Congressional Research Service, The Library
of Congress, Order Code IB85066. Available at
http:/// return

37) See the list of vetoed Security Council resolutions on Palestine at return

38) Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,"
New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001. See also Deborah Sontag, "Quest
for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed," New York Times, 26 July 2001, p.
A1; and the critique of the Barak offer on the website of the "Peace Bloc,"
Gush Shalom, return

39) New York Times, July 8, 2001. return

40) Slater, 184, citing Ha'aretz, 24 November 2000. return

41) Dugard et al., para. 22. return

42) Suzanne Goldenberg, "Middle East: Israeli strikes dim hopes for peace
mission: Sharon accused of trying to sabotage visit," Guardian, Nov. 26,
2001, p. 6. return

43) Amnesty International, 58th UN Commission on Human Rights (2002),
Background Briefing, IOR 41/004/2002, March 11, 2002. return

44) AI statement before Commission on Human Rights, March 26, 2002, MDE
15/027/2002. return

45) Dugard et al., paras. 56, 62, 64. return

46) Ha'aretz, March 12, 2002. On the reservists, see return

47) Clyde Mark, Palestinians and Middle East Peace: Issues for the United
States, Updated March 19, 2002, Congressional Research Service, The Library
of Congress, Order Code IB92052. return

48) Jason Keyser, "Peres Says Mideast Peace Process Flawed >From Outset,"
Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2002. return

49) See Arafat, New York Times, Feb. 3, 2002, and Dugard et al., para. 31
for further discussion. return

50) For discussion of the right of return, see Palestinian Refugees: The
Right of Return, ed. Naseer Aruri, London: Pluto, 2001. return

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