by Gareth Axenderrie
Sat on a bus travelling from West to East in Jerusalem, you can’t be forgiven for not recognising the gravity of the border you’re crossing.
Political graffiti adorns the concrete wall of division. A portrait of former Palestinian resistance fighter Yasser Arafat is neighboured by a swastika and the words “death to Israel” with a Star of David crossed through.
Meanwhile, a young Palestinian child, no older than seven, is removing his shoes under the instruction of an Israeli border guard, rifle in hand.
As you’re waved through the checkpoint, the well-kept streets and neighbourhoods of Israeli Jerusalem are left behind and replaced by litter, the remains of fires which burnt in protest and black water tanks on rooftops of houses without running water.
Like most border crossings, you’ve just left a country, but the difference here is that you haven’t really entered another. This is just one of the complexities of Israel and Palestine, and here’s what you need to know.
Competing nationalisms and a major power imbalance
Israel has been a state in the modern sense since its declaration in 1948. As well as war with many of its Arab neighbours, with such nation building has come democracy, infrastructure, high rates of education and international diplomatic ties. In the seventy years that have passed since then, Palestine itself has never truly consolidated itself as a nation in the way Israel has, despite now being formally recognised by 137 countries, including China, Russia, Sweden and its Arab neighbours.
The reasons for this are plentiful, contested and complex, but widely revolve around competing Palestinian and Israeli nationalisms. Both sets of people lay historical claim to the lands in which they now contest. History shows that this region has been called home by many different ethnic and religious groups. From the Jews to the Arabs, to Christians, Druze and Bedouins; many have called this area – not much bigger than Belgium – home, and continue to do so.
In competition of nationalistic claims come winners and losers, however, and history shows us that much of the land Palestinians have laid claim to has been lost to what is now Israel.
Towns that were once had Arab majorities, such as Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast, have seen mass exoduses of its populations as Jewish immigration has pushed them out. After an initial exodus of over 700,000 in 1948, some 5,149,000 Palestinian refugees now reside in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as in neighbouring Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, with just under 100,000 living in Europe, North America and the Gulf states.
With Palestinians having no official country to call home, a major power imbalance has manifested over decades, leaving the two far from equal. Israel’s GDP per capita stood at $41,614 to the State of Palestine’s $3,199 in 2018, while their respective unemployment rates saw Israel sitting at a very competitive 4.2% while 29.1% of Palestinians found themselves out of work. These numbers have a measurable impact on the two respective societies, with education expenditure in Israel twelve times higher, and Israelis living an average of nine years longer than their Palestinian neighbours.
In terms of infrastructure, the Palestinian territories have no airstrips or airports, meaning travel outside of Palestine has to occur via Jordan or Israel. For those living in Gaza, restrictions on travel are even harsher. Even within the West Bank itself, it is commonplace for a Palestinian to face multiple security checks when travelling from one area to another, for the Israeli Defence Force operate in much of the West Bank. For Israelis, problems of movement inside and outside of Israel’s borders pale in comparison.
As mentioned earlier, there are many reasons and arguments for why such an imbalance has manifested itself over the last seventy years. Political will is one, and recent developments in Israeli politics display how policymaking has the potential to further this imbalance in the region.
Nation-state law: An Israeli apartheid?
Last year the Israeli parliament passed its controversial new “nation-state law”. The law, which recognises Israel as the nation of the Jewish people, comes with permutations that have caused it to be widely condemned both within Israel and outside.
In stating that “the right to exercise national self-determination [in Israel is] unique to the Jewish people”, many believe the law favours Israel’s Jewish citizens above around a quarter of its population who are comprised of different ethnic and religious groups. The law also establishes Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language, downgrading Arabic – spoken by over 20 per cent of the population – to ‘special status’.
Prime Minister Netanyahu celebrated the law – which also calls a “united Jerusalem” the nation’s capital and consolidates Jewish settlement as a national value – as “a defining moment in the history of the state”. However, the law has been heavily criticised by the country’s Arab population, Palestinians, liberals and those on the left, and many in the international community. Ayman Odeh, who leads a coalition of Arab parties, described the law as one of “Jewish supremacy” that demotes Arabs to the legal status of “second-class citizens”.
The law has also been branded “Apartheid”, referencing how Jewish nationals are given legal priority throughout both Israel and in settlements in the West Bank over other religious groups.
Palestine Divided: Gaza and the West Bank
The State of Palestine – home to just over 4,800,000 people – isn’t one contiguous mass of land. Rather, it is two separate areas: The West Bank to the east of Israel and west of the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip in the south-west, bordering Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
When we talk of the Palestinian government, we talk of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), based in Palestine’s administrative capital, Ramallah. The PA, is currently controlled by Fatah, formed out of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, and it recognises Israel as a state as well as having diplomatic ties internationally.
Meanwhile, Gaza is governed by Hamas, an organisation defined by many countries – including Jordan and Egypt – as a terrorist organisation. Hamas has controlled Gaza since it seized government institutions from the PA in 2007. Since then the Gaza Strip has been subject to blockades by both Israel and Egypt. It is estimated that the area has suffered a loss of 50% in GDP since 2007, with much of its 1,800,000-population living with a lack of access to clean water and fuel.
Gaza has been subject to multiple military interventions by the Israeli authorities, most recently since last March following the organization of the ‘Great March of Return’ by Gazans which called for a return across the border into Israel. Since then, the UN Human Rights Council has estimated that at least 183 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli armed forces, with over 9,000 severely injured. In the same period, over 1,800 rockets have been fired into Israel by Hamas’ military wing, with up to 11 recorded military and civilian casualties.
The PA and Hamas have little in the way of political partnership, with the former taking a position of non-violent diplomacy, and the latter continuing to operate an aggressive military wing. Democratic presidential and parliamentary elections have not occurred in either territory since 2005 and 2006 respectfully.
Powerful allies and the ‘Trump card’
While the Palestinian cause has support throughout the Arab world and further afield, in terms of major political support and partnerships, Israel holds the ‘Trump card’. In December 2017, US President Donald Trump announced US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ordering the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv. The move, heralded by Prime Minister Netanyahu, consolidated the close diplomatic support between the two countries but was also met with widespread condemnation from Palestinians who also recognise Jerusalem as their capital.
The US’s plans for a peace agreement in the region – revolving around an ‘economic workshop’ that President Trump has declared his “deal of the century” – have also been widely discredited by both the PA and Hamas.
Dr Amal Jadou, the PA’s Minister for European Affairs, criticised the plans that would see a $50 billion economic support plan, calling them “an attempt to change the equation from a political one to an economic one”. Palestinians fear that any deal brokered by the US will heavily favour Israel and ignore many of the serious concerns and interests that Palestine has.
Settlements: Illegal or a right?
An Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Source: Ronan Shenhav
Beyond the land borders between Israel and Palestine, the West Bank contains 121 officially recognised Israeli settlements, which are home to over 700,000 Israeli citizens. Despite actually living in Palestinian territory, Israelis here can vote in Israeli elections, travel freely with Israeli passports, are hooked up to Israeli water, fuel and electricity, and protected by the Israeli Defence Force.
Many of the citizens of these settlements believe that they have a historic right to live in these areas, either through their own family history or through historic Jewish religious claims to the lands that now make up the Palestinian State. Meanwhile, Palestinians claim that these settlements are illegally located in their sovereign territory, a claim supported by the United Nations which deems the settlements illegal as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The PA regards the issue of settlements a major sticking point in any peace negotiations, and while land swaps and other mechanisms have been discussed previously, Israel and Palestine are far from finding common ground on a solution to an issue which polarises opinion.
A state in limbo: Corruption, discourse and a lack of government
As a multi-party democracy, the Israeli parliament (Knesset) has always relied on coalition building to form governments. Following charges of corruption against Netanyahu, and disputes between parties within the country’s former government, an election took place in April. With Netanyahu’s Likud party and his main opposition – Blue and White – tied with around a quarter of the vote each, neither were able to form a government. Unlike following previous elections, the conservative right-wing Likud were unable to form partnerships with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties due to their proposed policy of mandatory national service for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. To prevent Blue and White leader Benny Gantz being appointed Prime Minister-designate, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself before a government could be formed.
The result of this inability to form a government has left Israel in a state of limbo. Netanyahu remains as interim Prime Minister, but there is no functioning government. Another legislative election has been pencilled in for September, but most recent polling doesn’t appear to illustrate a huge shift since April.
April’s election saw 11 parties gain seats from across the political spectrum. The range of parties – from far-left to far-right, ultra-Zionist to Arab – illustrate the discourse in Israel on all issues from socio-economic to a potential peace process. While compromise and consensus remain words on a different page to Israeli politics, the only thing that continues to rear its head is the status-quo.