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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a Broader Context

Politicians and the mass media have given much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the quest for peace. However, to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of the context of the Middle East is fraught with error. Israelis and Palestinians may be seen by some as the only parties. The frequent Hamas (an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawana al-Islamiya – Islamic Resistance Movement) rocket attacks on southern Israel and the subsequent Israeli incursion into Gaza give credence to this belief. Nevertheless, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was eclipsed by the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006. In the thirty years after the Second World War, there were five inter-state Arab-Israeli wars: the War of 1948, the War of 1956, the War of 1967, the War of Attrition of 1968-1970, and the War of 1973. Were it not so, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not have retained its ardor and volatility for so many years. Any peace negations or a possible settlement will remain condemned to failure without the volition on the part of the Arab states to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

State Institutions and the Convergence of Domestic and Foreign Policy

With the consequent hardening of their identity, the political legitimacy and means to act of Arab states have developed and taken hold in varying degrees in their respective countries. The Arab states remain aware of their precarious nature and how any regime’s survival has remained captive to maintaining a bellicose posture vis-à-vis Israel. Only Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania, but three of the Arab League’s twenty-two members, have established diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet, they remain fragile. The Palestinian Authority is in communication and close contact with Israel in peace negotiations, and practical matters of mutual security and population flow. The Palestinian Authority’s scope of action is limited not only by a domestic Palestinian constituency – it has no control over Gaza — but more important, by a much larger Arab public, many elements of which find the acceptance of Israel’s existence an anathema. Succumbing to pressures both external and internal due to the conflict in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, the Mauritanian government asked Israel to close its embassy in Nouakchott.

The rejection of the idea of a Jewish state in what is now the State of Israel preceded the state’s existence. Some observers and advocates view relations between the local non-Jewish population and the rising Jewish population beginning with the First Aliya (initial period of Zionist immigration) in 1881 through lens of a colonial regime.

This means of analysis is erroneous on two accounts. An imperialist venture requires that it be the project of an empire or a would-be empire. The Zionist project was neither. Until modern times, the last expression of local rule on the basis of expression of political identity bound to the land was Jewish: the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-5. Since then, the region had been under foreign rule, the longest of which was that of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 to 1918. The rise of a movement for local Arab rule as a sovereign state began and developed in opposition to the subsequent British rule of British Mandate Palestine.

This movement gained its greatest cogency and support as resistance before and after 1948 to any form of Jewish rule in the territory, and coalesced as Palestinian nationalism. The acceptance of a Jewish state would have meant the acceptance of an independent sovereign Jewish polity where Jews were to have none. Whereas the Ottoman Empire ruled from Istanbul, it remained an Islamic empire, which countenanced Muslim rule as the only form of legitimate rule in the region. Organized local opposition to the Ottoman Empire, although a recent phenomenon, remained in the context of the movement of the Arab Awakening.

Immediately after Israel’s declaration of independence in May of 1948, contingents of the armies of all the existing independent Arab states, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, joined local Arab forces to attack the State of Israel. In the next fifteen years after 1948, violent political upheavals would take place in all the seven aforementioned states save Saudi Arabia. In all seven and in subsequently independent Arab states, opposition to Israel would remain the touchstone for both domestic and Arab unity. Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, the Sudan, and Tunisia would contribute materiel or troops, or both in later wars with Israel.

Palestinian Struggle as a Matter of Domestic Politics

Soon after the 1948 war, Egypt and Jordan seized control of what was left of the United Nations partitioned land for the Arab state in Palestine, and in 1951, Jordan formally annexed the land that it had captured. Consequently, Egypt and Jordan, by conquest, and the remaining Arab states, by consent, aborted the founding of the Arab Palestinian state in order to make the destruction of Israel the sine qua non for the creation of a Palestinian state. It has been estimated that as many as 700,000 or more Arab refugees left Israel and the surrounding territories in the wake of the 1948 war. A subsequent wave of Palestinian refugees arrived in Jordan after the 1967 war.

On one level, as refugees living at the expense of international organizations, in particular, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the immigrants and their descendants were and have been maintained at little cost to the countries of refuge. On a political and social level, the surrounding countries were spared the challenges of integrating a group that would compete for scant resources, opportunities, and recognition. A non-integrated Palestinian population became a pool of non-citizens combatants with which to wage war against Israel at a lower political premium and with varying levels of intensity. This resource became more important as the war of 1967 showed the futility of trying to destroy Israel through traditional warfare conducted by state armies in high-intensity battlefield conflict.

Nevertheless, as was demonstrated in Lebanon and pre-1971 Jordan, Palestinian fighters to be used against Israel may threaten the existence of the local regime. As a consequence, both countries have faced civil war and the armed intervention of Israel and other Arab states.

Lebanon’s challenges have not been limited to Palestinian anti-Israeli combatants. For some time, Hezbollah, a heavily armed Shiite militia, has eclipsed the Armed Forces of Lebanon. Hezbollah makes war on Israel to court domestic and international legitimacy as an effective combatant against Israel. It has received Irani and Syrian support, and domestic support, portraying itself as the Arab and Muslim defender against Jewish aggression. Hezbollah has reached far beyond the immediate theater of conflict in attacks on both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, in Bulgaria in 2012, and in Argentina in 1994.

De Facto Population Exchange of Arabs and Jews

The Arab-Jewish nature of the conflict is represented by the flow of Jewish refugees from Arab states to Israel, and to other countries, such as Canada, France, and the United States. With the rise of national and republican movements in the new Arab states and with some Jewish participation in the body politic, Jews still were considered outside the embrace of the political community that sought to create nation-states superseded by the interstate consciousness of Arab nationalism. Whereas life may have been insecurely tenable at the very best, Jewish communities became more imperiled by the rise of the Yishuv (the pre-statehood Jewish settlement) and the founding of the State of Israel. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, from Morocco to Iraq, and from Syria to Yemen, centuries-old Jewish communities were uprooted, and 800,000 or more Jewish refugees fled the Arab states.

A de facto population exchange has occurred between Israel and the Arab states. Whereas a de jure Greek and Turkish population exchange occurred by mandate of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, in the instant case, a population exchange occurred through harassment, repression, and war. Israel has accepted Jewish refugees by its raison d’être; historically, the Arab states have not accepted Arab refugees as citizens to deny Israel’s right to exist. Any appreciable settlement of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who number 4.4 million in UNRWA camps alone, in Israel would mean the destruction of the State of Israel.

State Building in the Quest for Peace

The Palestinian Authority lacks a monopoly of force whilst there are competing militias in the territory it claims under its domain. In November of 2012, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Damascus Lakhdar Brahimi spoke of the impending Somalization of the Syrian Arab Republic, which since has happened. With over 150,000 dead, Syria is a country with competing foreign and indigenous armed bands and momentary alliances, as well as organized antagonistic forces from neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. The internal Lebanese and Syrian conflicts have become intertwined with the Iraqi internal conflicts. The Iraqi-Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) fights across several borders; the Sunni militia Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa Al-Sham (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, often mistranslated as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has held territory in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The national armed forces of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria are but one of the many armed bands in their respective territories.

The demarcations of the 1949 Rhodes Armistice, which were never mutually accepted as state borders, cannot provide the only guidelines to end conflict. Whereas Egyptian-Israeli and Israeli-Jordanian borders have been demarcated by peace treaties, the finalized borders of Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and Syria remain outstanding. The final demarcation of borders is dependent on the claims between two Arab states, as evidenced by the Lebanese-Syrian dispute over the Shebaa Farms. The insistence of other Arab states that the 1949 cease-fire lines may constitute permanent borders cannot but arouse Israeli concern; the Arab states never had recognized them as the boundaries of any Arab state.

It may be argued that all armed hostilities directed at Israel have not been intended for its destruction, as evidenced by Egypt’s objectives in October 1973. President Anwar Sadat charged his armed forces with the mission to cross the Suez Canal and establish an armed and defensible position on the eastern side, so that through negotiation he might reacquire the Egyptian territory lost to Israel in 1967. Sadat’s aims would have been unrealizable, had Egypt not received the assent of Syria to attack in the Golan for the purpose of destroying Israel. Algerian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, Libyan, Moroccan, Sudanese, and Tunisian contributions to the war were to forestall further Jewish acquisitions of Arab territory once the Israeli counter-attack on both fronts had begun to repel Egyptian and Syrian forces even beyond 1967 cease-fire lines.

Sadat made peace with Israel through a treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations. Although he regained lost Arab territory, the Arab League expelled Egypt, and in 1981, a group of Sadat’s own countrymen assassinated him to undo the established Egyptian-Israel peace. This series of events exposes the Israeli fear in peace-making ventures between Israel and the Arab states.

Islamic Element in Arab Nationalism and State Institutions

The pressure of Arab nationalism in the search for legitimacy bears heavily on the affairs of state at the domestic and international level, so too does the pressure of Islam. The republican ideal from the French Revolution — every citizen stands before the state as an individual with equal rights and duties, not as a member of a corporate entity – never took hold. Notwithstanding the development of the new republics based seemingly on western ideologies, the Jews in the Arab states remained not full members of the body politic. Were it not so might invite accusations of treason to the social norms, the maintenance of which could be seen as part of the social contract between the governments and the people. It is this point that Al-Qaeda and its allies make to assert their leadership in Arab states. This same social contract is the source of foreign policy. In the context of the Arab states, the rule of a Jewish state in a territory that until relatively recently had been under Muslim rule and is surrounded by states that pay heed to Muslim norms is viewed as antithetical to the maintenance of communal norms.

Al-Qaeda does not speak for the states of the Arab world; it challenges the legitimacy of almost all of the Arab regimes. The Al-Qaeda network in Iraq eschewed using the name of the state calling itself Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Organization of the Jihad’s Base [Al-Qaeda] in Mesopotamia). This group has now morphed into the aforementioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the latter toponym comprising Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Nevertheless, its arguments on a Muslim basis have been within Arab nationalist ideology considering the destruction of Israel an Arab national imperative. Hamas predicates its goal of the destruction of Israel on Islamic imperatives. In its charter, Hamas sees itself a wing of the Muslim Brotherhoods in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood Movement as a universal organization. Iran has harnessed and fomented this sentiment of a Muslim imperative through its direct support of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria, as well as its support to the first two groups by way of Syria. Hamas, Hezbollah, and indirectly Syria have acted against Israel as a means to engage Israel in a protracted war of attrition to court domestic and foreign support and expose Israel to international reproach.

This summer, Hamas’ decision to reignite a high level of combat through tunnel infiltration to kill Israeli Jews and take hostages, and heavy rocket attacks against Israelis, was not in response to action by Israel. Hamas’ network of tunnels, an outstanding piece of engineering and workmanship, was a product of years of labor and great capital investment. Hamas’ offensive was dictated by the perceived exigencies from the Arab and countries with a Muslim majority. The waxing intensification of conflict in the Arab states from the eastern Mediterranean littoral to the western border of Iran had eclipsed Hamas’ struggle with Israel, so much so that it had been relegated to secondary if not tertiary treatment in the international press. As has been stated by David Brook’s column of 29 July, 2014, in The New York Times, Hamas was suffering economic pressure due to Egypt’s having blocked 95% of Hamas’ tunnels to Egypt causing an estimated loss of 40% of its tax revenue and 20% of Gaza’s gross domestic product.

Provoking a war with Israel became a means to pressure Egypt to reverse its policy. Likewise, Hamas saw the war as a way to regain Irani support, which waned after it had removed its political headquarters from Damascus and sided against the Assad regime, an ally of Tehran. For Hamas, the launching of rockets, 92 rockets in the first six days of July, thirty more than in the entire month of June, and its infiltration campaign by tunnels were a sure plan to provoke an Israeli air response. By ten days later, Hamas had launched a total 1,446 rockets and made certain an Israeli land offensive, which began the following day. With the immediate end of hostilities, at the cost of over 1800 deaths in Gaza, and massive destruction of property and the destruction of it known 32 cross-border tunnels, Hamas has reaped two of its most sought objectives: a harvest of anti-Israeli propaganda, and experience and improvement it its ability wage war on Israel.


It has been said that Arab fears in negotiating with Israel are that what Israel deems temporary and a stage of negotiation will be permanent. Israel’s erection of the well-publicized concrete walls, which comprise currently but five percent of an Israeli-West Bank Barrier to stop suicide bombings, were erected specifically to stop sniper-fire. Some parties accused Israel of having erected a permanent border. Nevertheless, in August of 2009, Israel began to dismantle sections of the concrete barrier in Jerusalem as sniper-fire no longer remained a threat.

Israeli fears are that what Arab states deem settled or permanent will be but temporary. Any Arab government will remain captive to the existing strength of Arab resolve to destroy the Jewish state. The Hamas victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections of the Palestinian Authority, its armed takeover of Gaza, and campaigns of missile fire at Israel give credence to this perception. In what might appear to have been a conciliatory gesture, in opinion-editorial piece in the 1 November, 2006 issue of The New York Times, senior adviser to the Hamas government Ahmed Yousef called for a hudna with Israel. Although the word hudna may be translated as the word “truce,” a hudna in the instant case would be a truce to attain a respite to regroup and to rearm for future combat to vanquish Israel. Hamas never has raised the issue of a peace treaty.

The Palestinian Authority is subject to the pressures and exigencies of all Arab states and highly vocal non-Arab Islamic polities, such as Iran. Isabel Kershner in a News Analysis article on 9 October, 2010, in The New York Times, spoke to the problem in “Arab League Offers Reprieve on Middle East Peace Talks.” Although the talks were to be between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’ ability to negotiate remains subject to approval by the Arab League.

Negations will not achieve lasting peace unless they are predicated on the understanding that they are not only to establish peace between the State of Israel and the Arab states, but the Arab world and the Jewish State of Israel: an Arab-Jewish peace, not solely that between state entities, in particular between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the 11 May, 2009 issue of The Jerusalem Report, Amiel Ungar described the problem succinctly. The conflict is not about territory, but legitimacy: the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist.