The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Is It Time To Move On?

The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Is It Time To Move On?
During the dying days of the Trump Administration the US was able to cajole Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE to recognise Israel and sought to camouflage the questionable provenance of its arm-twisting by calling it the Abraham Accords. This was accompanied by Israel’s quasi-recognition by Saudi Arabia who appeared, however, to be hedging its bets by withholding formal recognition and the establishment of full diplomatic relations. Israel, for its part, was told to proceed with the annexation of much of the occupied West Bank thus effectively ending the charade of the two-state solution. The Biden Administration has thus far, at any rate, adopted a policy of ambiguity, neither endorsing nor repudiating the steps taken by the Trump Administration under its self-styled Peace Plan. It has said nothing, for instance, about the rights or wrongs of shifting the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

However, it has reversed or cancelled other measures, such as closing down the Palestine Authority office in Washington DC and has resumed funding for UN operations in Palestine. In the UK the media, who are generally pro-Israel, initially felt that, on the face of it, a new era might have dawned in the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with some kind of end in sight. But, in reality nothing has changed except that the idea of a united struggle by the Arab countries and people for the restoration of Palestinian rights appears to have been abandoned. Indeed, the tacit conclusion to be drawn is that it is time now for everyone, especially the Palestinians, to ‘move on’.

The logic of moving on is that even a forced, unilateral peace without any recognition of any Palestinian rights will somehow convince the Palestinians to finally give up their struggle and might even provide the conditions for addressing the dire economic and social problems prevailing in Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Israeli-vacated but Israeli-controlled Gaza. On those rather questionable assumptions, a truncated and essentially unviable Palestinian state can then be left to the generosity of Israel. In fact, that supposed generosity, should it come to pass, would have to be wholly underwritten by those very countries that have abandoned the Palestinian people and recognized Israel now to give the whole idea even a semblance of credibility.

But moving on is advice that is happily given by those who are far away from this conflict and for whom its emotional and practical repercussions have little resonance. And moving on in reality will mean that more than 5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza should reconcile themselves to living under Israeli occupation into the indefinite future. It also means that the international consensus, as embodied in UN Security Council resolutions, and even conceded by Israel itself in the 1993 Oslo Peace Process, for a two-state solution stands annulled, replaced now with only vague promises of some kind of Palestinian entity emerging if the Palestinians behave themselves in the years ahead.  And even these promises are disappearing into thin air as we witness the return of the unreconstructed Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister in whose government are not just diehard anti-Palestinian ‘fringe’ groups but terrorists deemed as such by Israel itself.

Anyone even slightly familiar with the conditions under which the Palestinians live in the occupied territories will regard such an outcome not only as a gross betrayal of their rights but one that will surely come back to haunt those who imagine that by blatantly giving Israeli military occupation and domination carte blanche, plus a false veneer of respectability in the process, will have the effect of ending the conflict by inflicting further humiliation on the Palestinians. However, history has a habit of surprising us all and, given the unpredictability of global geopolitics, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one where we may be approaching not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. What twists and turns lie ahead, as US military power wanes and it finds itself preoccupied with East Asia and as the Gulf oil states are relegated to the global economy’s second division once oil loses its lustre, only time will tell. For those who may not know the origins and history of this long-standing conflict the following paragraphs are written by way of information and elucidation to refresh minds and memories.

History of the conflict     

The seeds of the Israel-Palestine conflict were sown in the distant mists of time. According to the Jewish narrative, the conflict has its genesis in the deep emotional attachment of people of the Jewish faith to the land of Palestine, an attachment that, incidentally, never manifested itself before the formation of the Zionist movement. The Jews had been inhabitants of this very land some two thousand years ago when they had then named it Israel and Judea. They had been driven out by the Romans in 70 AD who had earlier renamed the same tract of land, Palestine.

Following their expulsion, a slow process of westward migration into Europe by small bands of Jews began and this continued for centuries, with the minority Jewish communities generally tolerated by the gradually Christianising people of Europe. But, as Christians grew in number, the Jewish communities living in their midst began to be viewed by their hosts with varying degrees of hostility and suspicion. This tended to break into violent repression every now and then. However, such is the fate that has befallen many other minority communities both in Europe and elsewhere of whatever hue and Jews were by no means unique in this regard and certainly were not treated worse than, say, the Africans transported as slaves to the Americas and the Caribbean.

The renaissance and the Enlightenment in Europe did bring some welcome respite for the Jews. The two phenomena set in motion the gradual secularization of Europe and brought new opportunities but also challenges for the Jews. Following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the gradual decline of the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries meant that a purely religious identity was no longer de rigueur in Europe. It had been replaced by an identity based on citizenship of the individual states of Europe in which Jews, like the Christians, became Frenchmen, Austrians, Germans, Russians and Poles. Simultaneously, the process of cultural assimilation within the nations of Europe also gathered pace. Inter-marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics and between Jews and non-Jews began to happen with greater frequency. By the same token, hostility and wars between Catholics and non-Catholics gave way to political rivalry and hostility between nations and states in Europe.

The industrial revolution in the second half of the 18th century then enabled some European powers, primarily Portugal, Britain, France and the Netherlands, to build powerful armies and navies and these facilitated the conquest of distant peoples. Such conquests resulted in the formation of far-flung outposts consisting of both settler and non-settler colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America from which the European economies and societies, including Jews, benefited enormously. Names such as the Rothschilds, Sasoons and Kadouries are but a few of the many who grasped the opportunities that Europe and European colonialism provided to Jews and non-Jews alike. Indeed, the Jewish Marquis of Reading was the Viceroy of India from 1921 to 1926, Leon Blum was Prime Minister of France in 1936/37 and again in 1946/47 while Viscount Samuel was appointed High Commissioner for Palestine by the UK government and served in that capacity from 1920 to 1925.

In the 19th century, rising prosperity in Europe and its dominance of the global economy enabled the more enterprising Jews to become financiers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, musicians, politicians and even revolutionaries, indeed, to gradually become prominent members of European society. Paradoxically, however, by coming into the limelight, European Jews invited not only new attention to themselves and to their culture but, perhaps, as a result, more discrimination and even violent forms of repression – such as pogroms in Russia. In the second half of the 19th century a steady flow of Jewish emigration occurred, now primarily to the United States. More strikingly, the idea of a ‘home’ or a separate country for the Jewish people now entered their consciousness.

In 1896 an Austrian journalist, Theodor Herzl (1896), founded the Zionist movement. Herzl proposed that somewhere in the world, perhaps even Argentina, a purely Jewish state called Israel should be created, to give Jews a sense of security and to give a more concrete form to their national identity. However, its ideal location, he argued, should be Palestine. Palestine had been without any Jews for two millennia, save for a few tiny Jewish communities that had lived there ever since. This remarkably bold demand by the Zionists achieved immediate resonance with Jews both in Europe and the US. Palestine, however, was far away from Europe. Hence, a new narrative would have to be created to justify why the Jews needed to return to it.

As antiquarians know, following the expulsion of the Jews in 70 AD, Palestine had experienced its own historical and political evolution over nearly two millennia, entirely unconnected with what the Jews were doing or experiencing in Europe. After the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire in circa 750 AD Palestine come under Islamic suzerainty. Attempts by an amalgam of European powers to capture Palestine, or the Holy Land, during the Crusades ended in failure. By the 18th century it had become a province of the Ottoman Empire. In 1890 a small, almost completely Arabized, Jewish population of 24,000 out of around 500,000 lived in Palestine in relative peace and harmony with its Arab neighbours and with its Ottoman rulers (Ben White 2014).  Whether or not the Zionists or their non-Jewish European supporters realised, the reality was that if Palestine was going to be the home for the Jews it would ipso facto involve its colonisation. Therein lay the real difficulty of the entire Zionist project and the beginnings of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Two different people, European Jews, on the one side, and Middle Eastern Arabs, on the other, would have to share the same land. If the latter were not going to agree to this extraordinary land grab then they would be made to ‘agree’. In other words, Palestine would have to be made Jewish, one way or another. For doing so, a myth would be fabricated of a ‘people with no land’ wishing to resettle in a ‘land with no people’. Many people still peddle and believe this brazen piece of fiction.

It should be remembered that in the early part of the 20th century colonialism did not possess the unfavourable aura that it came to have, say, after World War II. It was very much the prevailing global norm in which European powers conquered and controlled vast tracts of land and vast numbers of people round the globe. Such was deemed to be their anodyne nature that the terms ‘colony’ and ‘colonization’ were casually used even by the pioneers of Zionism. Herzl himself wrote that in Palestine “we should form a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism” (Herzl 1896).

As stated earlier, over the course of several centuries, the inhabitants of Palestine had become Arab and predominantly Muslim, though with a significant Christian component. Neither the Zionists themselves, nor any of the European states associating themselves with Zionism, saw this as anything other than a minor detail or at worst a slight irritant. As a potentially subject people, the feelings, needs or desires of the Palestinians could be safely ignored. A related complication in this was that while Jewish migration to Palestine had been restricted by the Ottomans to a trickle, following the end of World War I in which the Ottoman Caliphate and Turkey were on the losing side, Palestinian interests had been compromised by the anti-Ottoman stance and rhetoric of the leaders of Arab nationalism. They had regarded Ottoman rule as an imposition and they had sought to bolster their case for independence with British help. But, unknown to them, an entirely new and far more dangerous threat awaited them as Ottoman rule ended as Britain had other plans for the region, namely the establishment there of Israel.

Roughly a hundred years ago, after World War I, under the aegis of the newly formed League of Nations, the former Ottoman possessions came under British and French control. But control was not to be in the form of colonial overlordship; it was in the form of a highly conditional, legally binding, trusteeship mandate given to it by the League. Under the mandate Britain had to prepare these territories for self-rule for which Britain would need to engage with the leaders of the local population. Adjacent to Palestine, stretching from the eastern bank of the River Jordan was the territory known as the Emirate of Transjordan with a largely Palestinian population. This had been partially carved out from Syria and was under the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali and British officials were in talks with him about the future. This was later to become Jordan. In 1946, the area between the River Jordan and Israel’s eastern boundary, nowadays known as the West Bank, was also made part of Jordan by Britain. Palestine at that time had no recognized leader comparable, say, to the Hashemite dynasty in Transjordan.

With the exception of Jerusalem, it had been administered directly by Ottoman officials prior to 1914. Civil Palestinian leaders had little more than a nominal presence and were ignored by the British. Britain as a global economic and military power, did not see any need to carry out its responsibilities towards the local population of Palestine regarding their future except in the most perfunctory way. Even before the end of World War I Britain had struck a pro-Zionist stance and this bias saw its practical embodiment in the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917. In this Declaration, Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, promised the Zionists that they would be given a separate home in Palestine after the War. The Declaration contained no more than a passing reference to the population of Palestine and how it might view such a development. But, for British and European Jews the Declaration was a godsend. Indeed, without it, the very idea of Israel would have struggled even to establish a nominal physical presence in Palestine.

The Declaration presented all Jews with an invaluable opportunity to organise significant new Jewish migration into Palestine and thereby create new facts on the ground. It is worth stressing here that the Declaration had not only illegally, i.e. under the terms of the Mandate, promised a Jewish state on the territory of Palestine to the Zionists which was itself ultra vires, but then proceeded to facilitate its establishment by allowing virtually unchecked migration of Jews from Europe. One illegal act had been compounded by another, to undermine Palestinian rights and interests. Thus, the Jewish population which had numbered 60,000 out of a total population of Palestine of 700,000 in 1919 had grown to 430,000 out of a total of 1,500,000 by 1939 (Rodinson 1982). With this dramatic growth of the Jewish population, the demands of the Jews could no longer be brushed aside in any future discussions of the fate of Palestine, whether bilaterally between Britain and Palestine or now in the UN.

By the end of World War II, the Palestinians had become painfully aware of what was going on. The Turks were gone but their new British masters had other plans in mind. There were thus frequent clashes between them and the British. The British, in fact, also came under attack from the Jews who imagined them to be backtracking on their commitment for a Jewish state and Jewish terrorist organizations like the Irgun and Stern gangs, carried out some spectacular atrocities, including the killing of hundreds of British servicemen in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Exhausted by World War II, but still favourably disposed towards Jewish demands, the British announced that they would withdraw from Palestine and handed it over to the UN in November 1947. The UN Secretary General, Mr Trygve Lee of Norway, instead of passing the problem over to the UN Trusteeship Council for consideration, as he should have done, preferred to advance a formal proposal by a small group of European countries for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state with Jerusalem to be designated an international city under the control of neither side. This hastily organized plan inevitably triggered significant clashes between the heavily armed Jewish groups, calling themselves the army of Israel, who amazingly had at their disposal tanks and artillery, and the ill-equipped, ill-trained, badly-led armies of the surrounding Arab states. It ended, predictably, in defeat for the latter. In the fighting, Israel’s unilateral capture of additional Palestinian territory, including the western half of Jerusalem, was then prematurely legitimised by a vote in the General Assembly in November 1948. Meanwhile, some 0.7 million Palestinians fled or were driven out of the territory captured on behalf of Israel.

In retrospect, especially keeping in view the interests of the Palestinians, the UN vote was hopelessly ill-conceived and premature: it peremptorily allowed Israel to be recognized as a state for the Jews but made no attempt to give similar legitimacy to an equivalent Palestinian entity, as the UN partition plan had envisaged. A suggestion for a cease fire and a commission of enquiry to propose a solution was rejected. Count Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat sent by the UN to mediate between the two sides, was murdered by one of the Jewish gangs on the orders of Yitzhak Shamir, later to become Prime Minister of Israel. The UN at that time had only 56 members representing only a third of the global population, with much of Asia and Africa still under European colonial rule. Even so, the vote was 33 for, 13 against, and 10 abstentions, hardly a ringing endorsement for Israel by the international community. Eloquent speeches, not least by the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, in which many speakers warned presciently that by establishing Israel in this manner in Palestine the world had doomed itself to generations of conflict had little effect. Neither the US nor Europe took any notice of these warnings.

Today, some 73 years after its birth and despite its huge military superiority over Palestine and its neighbours and despite enjoying the unqualified support of the US and Europe, it is an uncomfortable truth that Israel has never really enjoyed a settled existence in Palestine. A succession of wars, in 1956 in which Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt, in 1967 when Israel ‘preemptively’ attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria and in 1973 when Egypt succeeded in wresting the Sinai region, lost in the 1967 war, from Israeli occupation, and, above all, Israel’s ‘secret’ development of nuclear weapons, have merely resulted in an uneasy stalemate that lasts to this day. Today, Israel plus the West Bank, are more than double in size compared to what the first 1947 UN partition plan had given it. In addition, it not only rules over 5 million Palestinians but has annexed the whole of Jerusalem and has built permanent settlements in the land called the West Bank, the area of Palestine that lies between the original boundary of Israel and the Jordan River. These settlements which now house 600,000 people have been built on land appropriated through military conquest and are therefore illegal under international law. But, additionally, by depriving the surrounding Palestinian villages of any ability to farm their tiny parcels of land and reducing water supplies to a trickle for agriculture in these villages, the settlements have created an apartheid society in the West Bank (Guardian 2021). The Palestinian economy today stands effectively garroted and the population is able to survive partly through the help that is provided by the UN and partly from the money that the Palestinian diaspora is able to send to its brethren in the occupied territories.

Now, far from participating in any serious negotiation with the Palestinians, encouraged by the Trump Administration, Israel announced its intention to annex much of the occupied West Bank. It must be said that there is no equivalent case in history of a colonial power treating its subject people with such cavalier disregard for their rights. It is as if Cecil Rhodes had expelled all those who lived in the territory that was called Rhodesia and reserved it exclusively for white settlers. Any prospect of a two state solution has been effectively killed off by Israel itself. But, even so, Israel remains beset by nagging uncertainty about its long-term future and outward emigration from it over the last two decades can hardly be glossed over. Above all else, its behaviour as an occupying force in the West Bank and Gaza, has not endeared it to the Palestinians. No colonial power in, say, the 19th century ever behaved with such total disdain towards its subjects, needlessly piling one humiliation after another upon them. Nonetheless, Israel’s sense of insecurity remains so profound that it supporters have successfully equated any criticism of its government or actions with anti-semitism, especially in Europe.

Seeking a just and durable end to the conflict

Taking the broad sweep of history into account there is little doubt that the creation of Israel in Palestine has not only been a massive miscarriage of justice for the Palestinians but a colossal blunder in its own right. Transplantation of a foreign population in Palestine was only made possible at a particular historical juncture when Western powers effectively ran the world and by the fact that the world could turn a blind eye to the fate of the Palestinians. Britain had accepted the Zionists’ demand that the Jewish state they had dreamed of - incidentally quite late in the 19th century - should be in Palestine, notwithstanding the fact that Zionist ideas were not even mainstream amongst the Jewish communities of the US and Europe at the time. In fact, the great majority of European and American Jews were fully assimilated in their respective societies and had little interest in moving to Palestine. Indeed, before the Balfour Declaration, even carving out a Jewish state in the British colony of Uganda had been expressed as an option for those Jews who did not wish to carry on living in Europe.

The British government had conceded the audacious demand of the Jews for a state in Palestine that was clearly driven by domestic political considerations.  After World War II, as horrendous Nazi atrocities came to light, the groundswell of sympathy for the Jews in both Europe and America became irresistible. In Western eyes, if the Jews wanted their home to be Palestine then so be it. Those living there would have no choice in the matter, indeed, they would not even be consulted. It was for this reason that any ‘partition’ plan that was going to be devised by the UN where Western views ruled the roost was ever going to be fair or acceptable to both parties. The Palestinians felt rightly that the Jewish problem had been always been a European problem but it was they who were being made to solve it for them.

To be entirely fair, even at the time of the Balfour Declaration, the British new that they might have a difficult problem on their hands in making Palestine a Jewish state. Could an independent Palestine be a secular state with Jews and Palestinians living side by side? In this case the Jews would be in a minority and likely to suffer from the same insecurities that they had endured in Europe. If a Jewish state was going to be created it would have to allow some Palestinian communities to live in it. In this case, the Palestinians would become a minority in their own land. Moreover, if the new state was going to be for the Jews how could it possibly give equal rights to its non-Jewish citizens or residents? In the event, and despite these misgivings, Israel as a Jewish entity came into being. Israel simply assumed that, in time, the Arab states and the Palestinians would accept Israel as a fait accompli and eventually find some kind of accommodation with it, whether it was friendly towards them or not.

But today, after more than 70 years, and notwithstanding its massive military strength which it has never been reluctant to use in pursuit of its aims, Israel’s future remains uncertain. The facts are that Israel essentially consists of a foreign people, with Ashkenazi, i.e. European Jews outnumbering Sephardic, i.e. oriental Jews. It is a colonial outpost not just in name but in its culture, values, preferences and international alliances. Not even its most vocal supporters would claim that it is part of the Middle East except in its geographical location. It is entirely European in its history and it comes with Europe’s baggage of racism and colonialism, not with the emotional ebb and flow of the Arab world’s own economic and social problems. The conditions of life, not just of the Palestinian population living under occupation but of the Palestinians who are technically Israeli citizens, and who might also hold Israeli passports, are clearly those of a subject people. Countless reports by the UN and others have so testified. Moreover, many Jews define current Israel as ersatz Israel, i.e. an inferior or poor quality substitute. According to them the Jewish homeland promised to them in the Old Testament goes beyond the River Jordan and extends into present-day Iraq. Israel has also, contrary to international law, annexed the Golan Heights in Syria. These were never part of Palestine. Israel thus has behaved in as expansionist a manner as any small country can and is wholly unembarrassed by any international condemnation that its actions might invite. In Western eyes, however, it continues to enjoy the status of an aggrieved party vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

We are now in 2023 and it would be impossible to turn back the clock to 1947, let alone 1917. Yet a solution needs to be found, given the facts of Israel’s creation and its history, so that the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians, who were so callously displaced by them, including through systematic intimidation both before and after 1948, can find some way of co-existing together in the land that they both occupy. From the vantage point of 2021 it might be fantastical to suggest that it might even be in Israel’s long term interest to work towards such a solution. In a fast-changing world in which the global economic and military centres of gravity have shifted rapidly to East Asia it would be very short-sighted to assume that Israel’s military superiority will last forever. It is time that, if not Israel, the outside world must look into the long-term future of Palestine and outline a viable and just framework for the two people to be able to live together.

In this difficult exercise the international community should keep two fundamental principles in focus as it tries to nudge the two adversaries towards compromise, unthinkable as it may seem for now. One, both Jews and Palestinians should find a way of living as equals initially, say, in a secular confederation with a power-sharing arrangement. Such a proposal was aired in 1947 at the UN but was given short shrift by Israel and its backers. It has a latter-day parallel in the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland in which neither side can exercise unilateral authority over the other. Like Austria in 1955, the country should, by law, declare itself to be neutral, thus obviating the need to maintain an over-large military. The much poorer Palestinians in this confederation will clearly need outside help with their development but this should not be an impossible impediment to overcome.

Two, hatreds and resentments built up over the last 75 years or more will need to be mitigated as they cannot be wished away or ended with hand-shakes. South Africa provides the best guidance in this regard. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Palestine, set up with the help of the UN Human Rights Council, properly funded and staffed, will need to be established so that the population of Israel, both Jewish and Palestinian, can have its grievances heard and expiated. A special dispensation will need to be devised for Palestinian refugees now scattered across four or five neighbouring countries. Even the white population of South Africa accepts that setting up the TRC by the post-apartheid government prevented large-scale blood-letting in the post-apartheid era. Indeed, the patience with which the black population living in South Africa’s urban townships has accepted the slow pace of progress in improving its lives should be an object lesson to those looking to end long-standing conflicts in other parts of the world. South Africa’s TRC deserves much of the credit for this.[1]

Those who imagine that by making life easier for Israel, letting bygones be bygones and giving it the recognition that it craves will encourage it to behave better in the future are naïve, if not utterly deluded. The advice of moving on is thus wholly inappropriate and flies against the lessons of Israel’s history. Since 1967, far from accepting the Palestinians as partners in the occupied territories, Israel has not only crushed Palestinian resistance to occupation and laid down impossibly difficult conditions for any kind of Palestinian statehood but has gone out of its way to destroy their cultural and social institutions. Hence, by recognizing Israel they are rewarding it for its extraordinarily callous behaviour in the occupied territories since 1967 and encouraging it to believe that it does not need to change in any manner or form to obtain acceptance in the region. Those who have not recognized Israel should not become a party to such empty, one-sided gestures. Finally, it is important also to stress, in all honesty, that the people of Palestine will eventually be rewarded, as in Southern Africa – in both South Africa and Zimbabwe - with their own states not because they ceased to struggle but by struggling on. Israel’s power and influence are not peermanent. They, too, will end one day and the Palestinians should then achieve a home of their own, as they should have done in 1948. The arc of history and time is on their side.


The author who is based in London is a former UN official. He is the author of two books Rentier Capitalism: Disorganised Development and Social Injustice in Pakistan and Ruling or Serving Society: The Case for Reforming Financial Services, both published by Palgrave Macmillan, London