By Matija Šerić
The question how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a key geopolitical issue ever since 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel, which was an event that triggered numerous consequential conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians.
The decision of the United Nations in 1947 to divide the former British colonial possession of Palestine into Arab (Palestinian) and Israeli (Jewish) states thoroughly shook the course of history in the Middle East and beyond. The Holy Land with its capital, Jerusalem, is the place where the three largest world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were born. Instead of becoming a place of peace, tolerance and coexistence of different religions in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Holy Land turned into a scene of bloody skirmishes, which we are witnessing even these days in the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts that threaten a large-scale war.
Due to a combination of specific circumstances, the country where the Bible was written for the last seven decades is a key crisis point and a place that many observers cite as a potential source of a new world war. Not a year has passed since 1948 until today, during which there were no wounded or dead in minor or major conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. Four major Israeli-Arab wars were fought in 1948-1949, 1956, 1967 and 1973, and the First and Second Lebanon Wars in 1982 and 2006. In almost all of these wars, the Israelis won, and the Arabs suffered defeat. More than 100 thousand people lost their lives. Given that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been active for more than 70 years, different experts have offered different solutions that would finally reconcile the two nations. That is why it is not necessary to invent new political solutions today, the only question is if the two sides have will to consider them.
UN plan for the partition of the Holy Land (1947)
According to United Nations resolution 181 (II) in 1947, the territory of the Holy Land was divided into Jewish and Arab states and Jerusalem under international administration. The UN plan assigned the Jewish state the fertile eastern Galilee, the Coastal Plain, stretching from Haifa to Rehovot and much of the Negev desert, including the southern city of Umm Rashrash (modern Eilat).
The UN plan assigned the Arab state the central and western part of the Galilee with the city of Acre, the hilly region of Samaria and Judea, the enclave at Jaffa and the southern coast extending north from Isdud (now Ashdod) and encompassing what is now the Gaza Strip, with part the desert along the Egyptian border. Bethlehem was included in the international enclave of Jerusalem that was supposed to be administered by the UN.
The plan also called for an economic union between the two states and for the protection of religious and minority rights. 62% of the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine was allocated to the Jewish state despite the fact that the Palestinian Arab population was twice as numerous as the Jewish one, so many accused the plan of being pro-Zionist. The UN partition plan was accepted by the Jewish Agency for Palestine and most Zionist groups who saw it as a springboard for further territorial expansion.
The Arab High Committee, the Arab League and other Arab leaders rejected the plan because they considered it politically unjust but also religiously unacceptable because they considered the entire territory of Palestine to be a Muslim country where an infidel Jewish state must not be established. Although the UN plan did not come to life in reality (was replaced by wars and bloody conflicts), it has international legal significance and is cited as the starting point for all negotiations on the arrangement of the Holy Land. Meanwhile, since the Israelis were winning the wars and the Palestinians were losing, the situation changed in favor of Israel and to the detriment of Palestine.
The current situation in the West Bank was agreed upon by the Oslo II agreements in September 1995. These agreements divided the West Bank into three zones: A, B and C. In Zone A, the Palestinian Authority has civilian authority and security forces. In Zone B, the Palestinian Self-Government has civil authority, while the security area is jointly managed by the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. Zone C is the zone where Israel has military and security administration. Zone A initially had only 3% of the territory of the West Bank, but over time it expanded to the current 18%. The Israeli army and police are not allowed to enter that area, nor are Israeli citizens, and it includes the cities of Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and 80 percent of Hebron. There are no Israeli settlements there.
Zone B covers about 22% of the West Bank – 440 Palestinian villages and surrounding areas. There are no Israeli settlements there either. Zone C comprises about 61% of the West Bank and is administered by the Israeli authorities of Judea and Samaria. About 300,000 Palestinians and 400,000 Israeli settlers live there. The Israeli authorities committed under the Oslo II Agreement that Area C would be “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction” (with the possibility of a land exchange under the final agreement), but no such transfer took place. The area is rich in natural resources. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for medical and educational services for Palestinians in Area C, however, everything else is controlled by the Israeli authorities.
The status of Jerusalem is described as “one of the most intractable issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. East Jerusalem includes the Old City of Jerusalem, which contains many sites of greatest religious importance to the three main Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Temple Mount is important for Jews because the first and second Jerusalem temples were located there. The Western Wall (Wailing Wall) stands as a remnant of the Second Temple. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina, and according to Islamic belief, it was on the Temple Mount that Muhammad ascended to heaven.
From the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques are located on top of the Temple Hill. For Christians, Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was crucified. Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is located there, which contains the two holiest places in Christianity: the place of the crucifixion and the empty tomb of Jesus. Majority Arab East Jerusalem was captured by the Israeli army in the 1967 Six-Day War and has been under full Israeli control ever since and does not fall under Zone A, B or C.
The Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law in 1980, which defined the entire city Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians and many in the international community consider East Jerusalem to be the future capital of the State of Palestine. The current population of East Jerusalem is about 580 thousand, of which 61% are Arabs and 39% are Jews. East Jerusalem accounts for about 60% of Jerusalem’s population. Since 1967, the Israeli authorities have allowed free access to all believers and have agreed to give Muslims and Christians administration of their sacred sites. However, Israel restricts access to mosques when the authorities deem public security to be compromised.
The Gaza Strip is a Palestinian territory located on the Mediterranean Sea, completely cut off from the West Bank by Israeli territory. Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority managed civilian affairs, while Israel retained military control. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and since then the Palestinian Authority has fully administered the territory, which is 41 km long and 6 to 12 km wide. About two million Palestinians live on 365 square kilometers, which is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
When the radical Islamist organization Hamas won a majority in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the opposing moderate Palestinian party, Fatah, refused to join the proposed coalition. Although a short-lived agreement on a government of national unity was reached with the mediation of Saudi Arabia, it failed and since 2007 Hamas has been ruling the Gaza Strip independently. Gaza is chronically suffering from shortages of water, food, electricity, access to telecommunications services and medicine whose delivery depends on Israeli cooperation. Israel controls air and sea access to the Gaza Strip as well as six of the seven border crossings. Because of all this, many still consider the territory under indirect Israeli control.
The two-state model
The two-state model is the most popular model for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was proposed by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947 with the mentioned resolution 181 (II). Based on that UN resolution, the State of Israel was established the following year in May. Any two-state model implies an Israeli (Jewish) and a Palestinian state. In 1974, a UN resolution gave additional support to the two-state solution, as did numerous other resolutions.
Most recently, a UN resolution adopted in November 2013 with 165 votes in favor, 6 against and 6 abstentions (Israel and the US voted against) also supported the two-state solution. The majority of the international community supports this idea, which at first glance seems to be the most logical solution, as many Jews and Palestinians will say. However, the two-state solution is not easy to implement in practice. Precisely because “the devil is in the details”. The main stumbling block is the demarcation line, which is followed by the issue of Jerusalem and its priceless religious significance for Jews and Muslims. Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the position of Palestinian refugees also appear as pressing issues.
At the heart of the conflict between the two nations is demarcation. Where Israel ends and Palestine begins is a question worth not a million but a billion dollars. Because whoever determines this precisely and both sides accept it deserves much more than the Nobel Peace Prize. When analysts discuss the achievement of a peace settlement, they often emphasize the return to the borders before 1967 as a winning solution. It’s so called Green line – the armistice line that was drawn at the end of the First Israeli-Arab War in 1949.
Thus, for example, in 2011, Barack Obama stated that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 demarcation line with mutually agreed exchanges of territory”. Although Obama received the Peace Prize in 2009, his support for the two-state model did not lead to peace in the Holy Land. When you see the complexity of such a model, it is not surprising. The same is true of Obama’s foreign policy, which often encouraged rather than resolved conflicts. The two-state solution results in the division of Jerusalem into the western Israeli and eastern Palestinian parts. That concept is strongly opposed by many on the Israeli right. A particularly difficult question, even for those Israelis willing to compromise, is what would happen to the Old City, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. In addition to Jewish holy sites, some key Israeli institutions, including the Hebrew University, are located in East Jerusalem, as well as Jewish neighborhoods.
The issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank
If we accept the opinion of Obama and other foreign policy experts that the borders of 1967 are an inviolable, hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in the created Jewish settlements in the West Bank would end up in a Palestinian state. The question is whether these Jews will become citizens of Palestine or, possibly forcibly, be forced to return to the territory of Israel?
A small number of Palestinians and Israelis want to implement the first option, even though some Jewish settlements are modern cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants. The largest settlements have the status of cities: Modi’in Illit (81,000 inhabitants), Beitar Illit (63,000 inhabitants), Ma’ale Adumim (37,000 inhabitants) and Ariel (19,000 inhabitants). In Ariel there is a large university of the same name with about 15,000 students, which cooperates with universities from all over the world. Although the international community considers them illegal, dissolving Jewish towns within a Palestinian state would be practically unthinkable.
If they can’t already be part of Palestine, someone would suggest that these cities be annexed by Israel and that’s a done deal. However, such an option also seems impossible, because then the Palestinian state would not have a continuous territory, but would be formed from unconnected discontinuous enclaves. In that case, Palestinians would have to leave their country every time they wanted to travel between their cities (the current situation). Such a solution is far from ideal. In order to overcome the problems of Jewish settlements and the discontinuity of the Palestinian territory, some experts propose an exchange of territory, whereby Israel would give up some other part of Israel as compensation for the annexation of the parts of the West Bank that it would keep.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949 which Israel won. Today, they and their descendants number in the millions, many of whom live statelessly in refugee camps across the Middle East. However, many Palestinians are citizens of Jordan, the USA and other countries. Palestinians are calling for a “right of return” that would allow them and their descendants to return forever to the homes and villages they once fled.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted Resolution 194, which stated that Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their homes should be allowed to do so. However, after the Six-Day War in 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which only calls for a “just solution” to the refugee issue. It is not surprising that Israel is not a supporter of the “right of return” – millions of Muslim refugees would flood Israel and thus diminish its unequivocal Jewish character. Israel and its partners have also criticized the UN and Arab countries for not integrating these refugees to keep pressure on Israel. At the same time, many Israelis shrewdly note that they received 600,000 Jews from Arab countries after 1948, many of whom were forced to abandon their property and flee to Israel, and whose descendants now number in the millions.
Security fears of Israelis and Palestinians
Israel as a state was established as a refuge for the Jewish people who were oppressed for centuries, survived the Holocaust and then the invasion of the armies of the Arab states. That is why military service is mandatory, rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon take place regularly, as well as terrorist attacks by radical Islamists. Cessation of the entire West Bank to the Palestinians would make Israel only a few kilometers wide at its narrowest point and deny it a security presence along the Jordan River. By withdrawing from those areas of the West Bank, Israel would lose “strategic depth” in the event of a new Arab invasion. Israel fears terrorist attacks the most and therefore insists on keeping the security belt in the West Bank.
Israeli anti-terrorist operations in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority have helped to drastically reduce terrorist threats. Nevertheless, Hamas militants regularly fire rockets at Israel and dig tunnels from Gaza into Israeli population centers, as demonstrated by the events of these days. Many Israelis fear that if their troops were withdrawn from the West Bank, rockets would be fired at Israel from those areas and there would no longer be a safe location in the country.
Of course, the Palestinians also have their own security concerns. Israeli security forces conduct security operations in the West Bank that occasionally result in Palestinian casualties. When Israel returns rocket fire, as it did, for example, in 2021 and this year, many Palestinian civilians become collateral victims. There is also a real fear among Palestinians that they could be arrested and held in military custody indefinitely under the current circumstances.
In polls, support for the two-state solution differs depending on the way the question is phrased. Some Israeli journalists suggest that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept a Jewish state under any conditions. According to one poll, “fewer than 2 in 10 Arabs, both Palestinians and others, believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish-majority nation.” Another poll, cited by the US State Department, shows that 78% of Palestinians and 74% of Israelis believe that a peace agreement that leads to both countries living next to each other as good neighbors is “important or desirable”.
In 2021, most Palestinians were against the two-state model. That year, a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 39% of Palestinians accept the two-state model, while 59% reject it. Support is even lower among young people. A poll conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) before the conflict broke out in 2014 showed that 60% of Palestinians believe that the goal of their national movement should be to return all of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the sea. In that poll, only 27% of respondents supported the idea of two states.
In 2020, 40% of respondents in Gaza and 26% in the West Bank believed that a negotiated two-state solution should resolve the dispute. The two-state model enjoyed majority support in Israeli polls, although it has declined over time. According to a 2019 Haaretz poll, about one-third of Israelis supported a two-state solution, 19% a one-state solution, 9% a confederation, and the rest said “don’t know” or “other”.