in category Middle East

What is the historical background to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

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The region of Palestine was under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Khilafah for centuries before the Caliphate’s partitioning by the Anglo-French imperialists after the First World War.

This was followed by the formal adoption of a League of Nations mandate for the British administration of Palestine in 1922 which incorporated the principles of the controversial Balfour Declaration a few years earlier, according to which the British government declared its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, despite having no moral, legal or political right to do so.

The two and a half decades since the mandate was enforced saw an influx of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to the Palestinian territories which provoked mass resistance to the illegal settlements and British installations. Vocal Arab demands for independence culminated in a national revolt led predominantly by the Arab peasantry against the Anglo-Zionist settler project in the 1930s.

Having recognised the volatility of the situation which was very much of their own making, Britain's Peel Commission recommended for the region to be partitioned and proposed dividing what was left of Palestine into separate Jewish & Arab states. Not only did the commission assign to the Jewish state an area that was considerably greater in size than the existing Jewish landholdings, it also made a recommendation for population transfers, which only antagonised the sides against each other, fuelling tensions and inciting the Arab revolt whose leaders were murdered, incarcerated and eventually deported by the British to neighbouring countries.

The rejection of the Peel Commission’s proposed partition plan by the Zionist Congress in 1937 on the basis that it apportioned an insignificant amount of land to Jewish settlers was an ominous indication of the future of Israeli diplomacy. In fact, the first Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion made no secret of his penchant for defying the wishes of the indigenous ‘Gentile’ inhabitants of the land. At the heart of his operational strategy for the new Israeli epoch was the formal renunciation of static borders and a declaration that any acceptance of a partition would be conditioned on the compulsory population transfer of Palestinians.

Acknowledging what was proving to be a very knotty compromise, the British issued a white paper in 1939. Besides questioning the feasibility of partition, the paper proposed immigration quotas for Jews arriving in Palestine in an attempt to quell unrest, restrictions on settlement and land sales and constitutional measures that would lead to a single state under Arab majority rule. The paper- much to the chagrin of European Jewry who were seeking sanctuary in the holy land amidst Nazi persecution- was dismissed by David Ben-Gurion, the racist founder of the State of Israel and represented the end of the Anglo-Zionist entente.

After successive waves of unauthorised Jewish immigration to Palestine following the Holocaust, Britain no longer possessed the political will to maintain control of its colonial possessions that were agitating for independence and referred the dispute over Palestine to the United Nations. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly proposed a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, much to the structural exclusion of the Palestinians, allocating more than half the territory to the minority Jewish settlers who at the time represented barely a third of the population.

Despite this concession, the Zionists were not satiated, redoubling efforts to seize more land and captured Haifa and Jaffa. The British mandate for Palestine finally collapsed under the pressure of international diplomacy in post-war Europe and the Jewish People's Council gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948 and approved a proclamation declaring the establishment of the State of Israel, which was granted international recognition.

Israel had established its sovereignty over thousands of square miles of formerly mandated Palestine west of the Jordan River and the Palestinians ceased to exist as a cohesive social and political entity. After successive periods of communal violence, close to 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes and fled the region, in a traumatic exodus known as the Nakba.


Following the 1967 war, the remaining Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula were all occupied by the illegitimate Zionist entity.

In the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Israeli police and courts continue to act with impunity despite having no legal authority and jurisdiction over them according to international law, which classifies their presence as a military occupation.

In summary, the ruthless policies of land confiscation, illegal settlements, rampant discrimination and dispossession of Palestinians predate the founding of the Zionist state of Israel 73 years ago.

These actions have amounted to not only acts of aggression against the Palestinians. These are acts of contempt and hostility against the entire international system of law and order, making a mockery of the framework for governing the conduct of nations and totally undermining global norms of justice.

As much as this obliges certain standards of conduct under international law, the oppression of the Palestinian people continues unabated and Israel has not shown even the slightest willingness to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, the preamble of which explicitly prohibits the continuation of Israeli control over territory that was acquired by force.

Seeing as the resolution invited parties to achieve a “just settlement of the refugee problem” without specifying the occupied territores, this wording simply encouraged Israel to sustain its occupation of the illegally annexed teritories without entertaining the Palestinian people’s right to statehood.

The Cold War

The Cold War also provides a useful lens through which to understand the macro geopolitics of Israel’s growing international power and status.

In the early years of the Cold War, Israel felt a policy of non-alignment with the Western and Soviet Powers would keep it in the good graces of both blocks.

Although America became the first nation to extend de facto recognition of the State of Israel on May 14, 1949, it was initially cautious in its embrace of Israel and sought alliances with Arab states in the Middle East as part of a long-term policy to protect US oil interests in the region, counter Soviet expansionism and prevent an Arab pivot to the USSR.

When Britain along with France and Israel invaded Egypt to recover control of the Suez Canal in 1956, US President Eisenhower put pressure on the International Monetary Fund to deny Britain any financial assistance and demanded the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the region to demonstrate his pro-Arab tendencies.

Given the region’s huge petroleum resources and natural defensive barriers, a memorandum issued by the US National Security Council declared the Middle East to be an essential location for strategic military bases in any world conflict against communism.

However, following Arab alignment and arms cooperation with the Soviet block, the US establishment gradually shifted its attitude towards Israel, seeking closer ties with the newly formed state to maintain a strategic balance of Western and Soviet power in the Middle East.

Israel developed its reputation as America’s most established ally in the Middle East amidst US foreign policy which focused on combating Soviet Influence and containing the spread of communism. Preserving this strong relationship revolved around specific Cold War strategies that dominated American foreign policy for the greater part of the 20th Century as successive US Presidents supported both the proposition and preservation of a Jewish national home in the Middle East.

Once the US had secured Israel’s commitment to anticommunism, relations between the two nations were strengthened, charting the beginning of US arms sales and financial aid to the Zionist state of Israel.

Failed diplomacy

Another major contributing factor to Israel’s regional hegemony is a faltering peace process which has largely obstructed any amicable resolution to the conflict.

The political impasse has been compounded by the mendacity of Arab governments who have been ambivalent in regards to securing any viable peace for the Palestinians.

Since the mass exodus of Palestinians in 1948 where over 700,00 were forcibly evicted from their land, Pan-Arab antagonism towards the Zionist project lasted until the Yom-Kippur War in 1973. Although Arab statesmen posed as impartial brokers of peace in the years that followed, a series of diplomatic efforts which were apparently geared towards a fair resolution to the ongoing conflict has instead pacified the official stance of an entire generation of Arab nationalist leaders towards Israel.

In recent decades, the Arab status quo have repeatedly capitulated to the Zionist agenda by pressuring the Palestinian leadership into accepting dubious peace initiatives which on many occasions have resembled a diktat, ultimately denying Palestinians the right to self-determination.

Camp David Accords

Although The Camp David Accords in 1978 were hailed as a landmark agreement that produced the framework for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, it pretty much emboldened the Israeli military to invade Lebanon in 1982, which would not have been possible had the Egyptian army been stationed on their southern flank. With the danger posed by the Egyptian army neutralised and no longer deemed an existential threat to Israel’s survial and an Arab coalition against Israel now fragmented, the agreement enabled the Israeli government to reallocate resources from defense to the civilian economy, laying the foundation for the past few decades of Israeli prosperity much to the expense of the Palestinian population.

Most notably, Palestinians were not party to the agreement and Sadat raised no serious objection to the exclusion of any discussion on the future status of Jerusalem. In hindsight, it is not possible to assess the failure of diplomatic efforts to sustain peace between Israel and Palestine without challenging the conventional wisdom about the Camp David Accords, as Egypt effectively negotiated peace with Israel without securing guarantees for Palestinian autonomy and subordinated the plight of the Palestinians to Egypt’s national interests.

Furthermore, the details required to secure a lasting peace were not present during the Madrid Conference in 1991, where Palestine was represented only through a joint delegation with Jordan.

Oslo Accords

Finally, it was thought a major diplomatic breakthrough was achieved through The Oslo Accords in 1993. However, any collective euphoria generated by the iconic images of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin enthusiastically shaking hands on the White House lawn was short lived and did little to mask the grossly unfavourable terms for the Palestinians, who were now beholden to an international agreement that pushed for Israeli prerogatives.

On the surface, the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) implied that a historic reconciliation was on the horizon. But the permanent status issues such as the status of Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land and the right of return of 1948 refugees were deferred for negotiations towards the end of the five-year transition period. There was not even a remote reference to an independent Palestinian state at the end of the transition period and the agreement eventually prompted critics to draw comparisons with the post-war Versailles settlement.

While the Second Intifada is often cited as the reason for the breakdown of the Oslo Accords, the criminal failure of Arab governments in proscribing settlement expansion over the years was exploited with impunity by the Likud-led governments who took every opportunity with stalled negotiations to subvert any mild concessions granted to the Palestinians.

Though it is undoubtedly true that few politicians have made a greater charade of the peace process than Benjamin Netanyahu, this does not exonerate Arab governments who have treacherously facilitated the cause of illegal settlement enterprise by insisting on a policy of soft diplomacy with Israel.

When the Saudi-brokered Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 offered Israel security guarantees from all Arab states in exchange for Israel withdrawing from Syrian and Lebanese territories, ending its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state, it was rejected by Ariel Sharon on the basis that one of the conditions stipulated the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

This demonstrated that nothing would satisfy Israel besides the total dispossession of Palestinians which could only be achieved by a considerable alteration in the region’s demographics. Moreover, succeeding Israeli governments never officially responded to the proposal which was a clear indication to the international community that hardline settlers and the messianic zealots who make up a significant portion of the Knesset are unwilling to compromise on the agenda to establish an expansionist Jewish state.

The history of failed negotiations and a lack of any meaningful engagement with peace talks offers a cautionary tale of how Palestinian statehood has been systematically denied while the blueprint for Greater Israel remains dangerously intact.

So what explains this Arab betrayal of the Palestinian cause?

Arab-Israeli alliance

Today, Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead the Arab rapprochement drive with Israel and we must interpret attempts at normalising relations against the backdrop of the deepening political quagmire in the Middle East.

In recent years, Obama’s Presidency added a significant impetus to what has now developed into an unprecedented Arab-Israeli alliance. His realignment of US policy in support of the popular uprisings during the Arab Spring caused consternation in the GCC bloc. As the Obama administration supported calls for Hosni Mubarak’s departure and advocated for a forceful regime change in Libya, Gulf monarchies feared that such endorsements would bode danger at home by triggering a wave of political unrest in their own kingdoms. It was simply not possible for Obama to maintain this position without undercutting US strategic interests with Arab allies.

Furthermore, Obama’s determination to achieve nuclear diplomacy with Iran infuriated both the GCC and Israel, neither of which would settle for anything short of crippling sanctions and a full denuclearisation of their common foe. Ultimately, compelling economic, energy and security interests dictated America’s decision to be very selective in its calls for democratization in the Arab world.

Following Trump’s accession to the Presidency and his insistence on scaling back America’s global military footprint, the strategic calculus of the authoritarian Arab regimes was now heavily leaning towards Israel. Although Trump’s promise to reduce foreign deployments and shrug off the burden of defending America’s allies has yet to fully materialise under Biden, Arab rulers are concerned that any American retrenchment from the Middle East would leave open a security vacuum that would expose the authoritarian orders across the Arabian Peninsula to a plethora of national security threats.

America’s diminishing appetite for further military engagement in the region has the serious potential to deprive Gulf monarchies of a collective security framework, so the overtures to Israel are motivated by the need to desperately salvage US commitment to Arab security. This is precisely why countries like KSA and UAE recently welcomed an economic summit in Bahrain where Kushner unveiled a series of economic incentives to revitalise the West Bank and Gaza economy. As expected, both countries including Bahrain and the Egyptian foreign ministry heaped praise on the deal of the century, claiming that the policy was geared towards alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people.

In light of Israel’s most recent acts of aggression against Palestinians, the cordial relations between Israel and Gulf monarchies have exposed any Arab pretence of championing Palestinian statehood. Besides the pragmatic advantages to be gained by maintaining economic and technological ties with Israel, there also lies a recognition that as the region's most formidable military and only nuclear power, the preservation of Gulf Kingdoms and stability in the Persian Gulf depends to a large extent on the GCC reaffirming ties with the Israeli establishment. This is the overriding factor dictating Arab foreign policy with Israel. Ultimately, the only way the GCC can maintain an indispensable buffer against Iran’s axis of resistance is by sacrificing Palestine at the altar of US-Zionist interests.

One state or two state solution?

The social justice activism on Palestine does not offer Muslims a viable solution to the conflict as its proponents are unable to conceive of a coherent framework for peaceful co-existence outside of the language of international relations.

Despite almost three decades of diplomacy by the international community, neither a single binational state with different variations or proposals for a two state solution which envisages a democratic Israeli state living in peace and security alongside an independent and sovereign Palestinian state has ever united the warring factions to achieve a sustainable peace.

So long as the Zionist power structure remains intact, a one-state solution will never erode the bitter history and reconcile the different cultural and religious characteristics of the people. Time and again, the Zionists have resisted any olive branch for rapprochement so the highly improbable scenario of a merging of identities in a melting pot of co-existence and equality under one state is unviable with the current power structure in place, which will only inflame tensions and entrench conflicting narratives.

Furthermore, the very UNSC Resolution 242 which enabled Israel to justify the seizure of Palestinian land ultimately formed the basis for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations including the need for a two state solution along the internationally recognised 1967 borders. This is nothing but a thinly veiled sham which legitimises the Zionist occupation, feigning compassion and solidarity for Palestinians.

A two-state proposal overlooks the deeply fragmented Palestinian territory caused by Israel’s unrelenting settlement construction policy which has resulted in more than half a million illegal settlers in the West Bank. This renders any future Palestinian state an administrative impossibility and one that will be deprived of physical contiguity, operating with close to no real sovereignty, security and economic autonomy. Two separate and discrete national identities is not possible in such a situation. While proximity breeds children, it also breeds contempt.

Neither the one state or two state solution is committed to shifting the priorities of the prevailing Zionist status quo. Both options are implausible as they have insufficiently defined common ground between the conflicting parties and failed miserably at reaching a consensus on final-status issues such as the settlement of refugees and the status of Jerusalem. In the end, Palestinians suffer in silence under a dysfunctional system.

Instead of acting as a catalyst for progress, these half-baked proposals endorsed by the international community have resulted in a continued stalemate and has done little except complicate the crisis, forcing unstable realities disproportionately on the Palestinian side and offering no sustainable solution to the protracted conflict.

The solutions constantly mooted by politicians and peacemaking organisations breed nothing except pessimism as they are often based on Israel's predefined parameters which seek to de-historicize the conflict and establish a volatile Palestinian state with varying degrees of authority, therefore detrimental to the long term interests of the Palestinians.

Islamic issue

The aforementioned history is known to many of us but how Muslims frame the discourse and categorise the struggle from this point onward is not a pointless exercise in semantics. Rather, it is crucial for any sustainable solution to the protracted conflict.

First of all, Muslims accept that Islam is the ultimate reference point for managing their temporal affairs on this earth. It is not an individualistic belief system limited to a set of rituals and nor is it a mere ‘religion’ divorced from politics as per the traditional secular understanding of the term. Rather, it is a unique deen (comprehensive way of life) which provides divine guidance for the totality of human affairs.

Everything from the way we conduct trade and commerce to our adjudication of civic disputes and interactions with the wider society must be referred to the primary sources of Islamic law to ensure that we are acting in a manner which is in conformity with our faith and not in contradiction to it.

With this in mind, Islamic law has issued an unambiguous ruling in the event that any territory once under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the sharia is occupied by an aggressor. Simply, such an area is classified as Muslim land until the day of judgement and it is traditionally the duty of the head of an Islamic State (Khalifah) to mobilise an army for its liberation. In the absence of a Khilafah, this obligation falls on the shoulders of every single Muslim who is obliged to strive in the path of Allah according to their capability to liberate the territory from military occupation and reinstate the divine law and order as a fundamental matter of worship.

This prescription is unanimously agreed upon by the four schools of thought and is the normative position in orthodox Sunni jurisprudence and scholarship.

Not only does Palestine fall under the category of occupied land according to this Islamic legalistic definition, it is also the site of Masjid Al-Aqsa-the third holiest sanctuary in Islam- which Muslims are obliged to preserve, honour and protect at any cost.

Therefore, Palestine must be liberated by mujahideen with the sufficient capability and resources to reverse the occupation, in order to restore the sovereignty of Allah in the land and to preserve the sanctity of Masjid Al-Aqsa, which under no circumstances can be treated as a secular cultural treasure of equal importance to those of Abrahamic heritage.

The only workable alternative to the present stalemate is for Muslims to endorse the solution which stems from Islam, which demands a military strategy to end the illegal occupation by force. This can be achieved through the unification of the region so that all faiths can live together under the overarching security and protection of Islamic rule as per the history of the region.

Contrary to the fears and common misconceptions of some western observers, Islam has a robust tradition of rule of law and religious and political freedom. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is enshrined in the Prophetic model, namely the ‘Sahifat al-Madina’, commonly referred to as the ‘Constitution of Medina’ where various autonomous tribes of different faiths were incorporated in a single confederation with common rights and responsibilities.

Just as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions managed to successfully overcome inter-tribal rivalries and bring peace, prosperity and freedom between Muslims, Christians and Jews under an Islamic State, an Islamic law and order will function as a guarantor of minority rights and justice, as it had done for centuries before the Anglo-Zionist occupation of Palestine.

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