How did we get here?: A brief background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat at the White House signing the Oslo I Accord in 1993. Source: Wikimedia Commons

by Charlotte King and Aliraza Manji

The current relationship between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine are preceded by decades of conflict and negotiations. Gair Rhydd attempts to break down the history of today’s complex Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration arguably provided the first building blocks for the creation of Israel and was a controversial pledge made by the British Government on November 2nd, 1917 to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The statement was proposed by then-Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour during WWI and expressed the Cabinet’s “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” but pledged to do nothing which “may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

Palestine was formerly a part of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1914, following the British Government’s declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire, the British War Cabinet immediately turned their attention to the future of Palestine and efforts to enlist the Jews’ support in the war ultimately led to the Balfour Declaration in 1917.


Following the end of WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Mandate for Palestine was created which outlined British administration of Palestine and ‘Transjordan’, the area constituting present-day Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and led to the endorsement of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. However, in 1921 the British passed administration of Mandatory Palestine, the territory constituting present-day Israel and the State of Palestine, to the Hashemite Arab dynasty and the region gained recognition as an autonomous state in 1923; this resulted in the elimination of Jewish national aspirations from this area and Palestinian nationalism and Arab self-determination in the region grew in reaction to Zionism.

Jewish immigration to Palestine continued to rise however, in response to increasing anti-Semitism in Europe in the run-up to WWII, which angered the Arab population in Palestine and resulted in rising hostility. To this end, during the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, a relationship formed between the Palestinian Nationalists and Axis Powers; the Rome-Berlin-Toyko Axis. By 1941, Amin al-Husseini, a senior Palestinian Nationalist, held a meeting with Benito Mussolini what ensued was Hitler’s promise to “eliminate the existing Jewish Foundations in Palestine”.

Jewish immigration into Palestine was extremely high in the years preceding the Second World War. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Partition Plan

Following Hitler’s defeat and the end of WWII in 1945, the UN created a UN Special Committee on Palestine to “report on the question of Palestine”, and in September 1947, the Partition Plan was announced. The proposed recommendations suggested that Mandatory Palestine be split into “an independent Arab State, an independent Jewish State, and the City of Jerusalem” with Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be under the control of the UN. However, the Jewish and Arab populations were both unhappy with the Partition Plan; the Jews were unhappy that they would lose Jerusalem, which then had a majority Jewish population, and the Arab population argued that the plan violated the rights of the majority of those in Palestine who were not Jewish at the time.

The Partition Plan was slightly amended and voted upon in November 1947 wherein 33 states voted in favour of the resolution and 12 opposed; the Jewish population living in Palestine voted for the plan but the Arab population in Palestine voted against it, and the Arab countries proposed the International Court of Justice investigate the competence of the General Assembly for wishing to partition a country “against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants”.

Violence ensued 1947-1948

Violence between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine rose almost immediately. The acceptance of the Partition Plan prompted attacks by some members of the Palestinian Arab population against Jewish communities living in Palestine, and moreover, the Polish and Swedish consulates were attacked too as both governments voted in favour of partition.

The British had begun to evacuate from Palestine already, and as their evacuation progressed, the violence became more extreme. Bombs were detonated in public areas, Arab gunmen attacked Jewish vehicles, and murders were carried out. On April 9th, 1948, the Zionist paramilitary groups took part in the Deir Yassin massacre, attacking a Palestinian Arab village of around 600 people.

The 1947-1949 War

Then, on May 14th, 1948 when the last British forces withdrew from Palestine, Ben Gurion declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel”. On the same day, the Palestinian Arab population officially announced their rejection of the Partition Plan and the Arab-Israeli waged from 1948-1949. On May 15th and 16th, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq invaded Israel, shortly followed by troops from Lebanon.

The Arab League stated that some of its reasons for intervention were to prevent disturbances in Palestine “spreading into their territories” and because there was no “legally constituted authority” to administer law and order in the country.

Israel won the war in 1949 and established a proposed Jewish State and Palestinian Arab State in line with the proposals in the Partition Plan, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip being under Egyptian and Transjordanian occupation. Additionally, Jordan annexed East Jerusalem whilst Israel administered West Jerusalem.

Later, this war became known to the Israeli people as the War of Independence or the War of Liberation. However, the Arab Palestinian peoples called this war Al-Nakba, also known as ‘the catastrophe’.

Six-Day War

Following the establishment of Israel, violence was near-constant from 1950-1967 with Egypt aiding Palestinian attacks from the Gaza Strip. In 1967, this violence culminated with Israel launching a preemptive strike against Egypt to halt its air force and following this came the Six-Day War. At the end of the war, Israel had captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the religiously significant West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the strategically significant Golan Heights from Syria. Soon thereafter, Israel declared its sovereignty over the entirety of Jerusalem and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem were given permanent resident status in Israel.

Following the end of the Six-Day War, Arab leaders announced that there would be no recognition of Israel, no peace, and no negotiations with the state, whilst the UN Security Council announced there was a need to achieve “a just settlement” for a large number of Palestinian refugees.

In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was established whose goal was to liberate Palestine through “armed struggle” and sought the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of Mandatory Palestine prior to the 1948-1949 War.

Yom Kippur War

Fast forward to 1973 and the Yom Kippur War occurred wherein Syrian and Egyptian armies launched an attack on Israel on October 6th, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Egyptian and Syrian forces entered Israel via the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

Following three weeks of fighting, Syria and Egypt were pushed back and Israel recaptured the land. In light of the war, the Israeli government began to negotiate heightened security on its borders. Whilst both Egypt and Syria agreed to disengage their forces, the Arab world imposed an oil embargo on states trading with Israel.

With Lebanon to the left and Syria to the right, the northern border of Israel continues to remain on high security alert as its uneasy relations with the Arab world persist. Credit: Charlotte King

Yasser Arafat 1974 UN Speech

A year later in 1974, Yasser Arafat, elected chairman of the PLO, addressed the UN General Assembly on the ‘Question of Palestine’, stating the PLO’s goal remains to “build a new world” free of “colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism and racism” including Zionism. Arafat also stated that there are many nations, including Palestine, whose people are victims of oppression and violence and it is “imperative” that the international community supports these populations and their right to self-determination.

Regarding the hostility between Israel and Palestine, the leader of the PLO stated that the highest tension remains in that part of the world, however, believed a time of “glorious change” was coming. Arafat then addressed the US directly, pleading for their support and their endorsement of the Palestinian cause.

Following on, the leader stated that Zionism had been used against the Palestinian people and the influx of European Jews was emblematic of “settler colonialism intimately allied to racial discrimination”, however, the PLO respects the Jewish faith and distinguishes Judaism from Zionism which “encourages the Jew to emigrate out of his homeland and grants him an artificially created nationality”. In a closing statement, Arafat pleaded upon the UN General Assembly to enable the Palestinian people to establish sovereignty over the region of Mandatory Palestine, reflecting continual opposition amongst not only the Arab Palestinian population but amongst Palestinian leaders too to the creation of Israel.

The Oslo Peace Process

In 1993, a secret set of negotiations began in Oslo, Norway, between the Israeli government and the PLO, and in September of that year, Arafat contacted then-Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to declare the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Soon thereafter, the Oslo Peace Process began which lasted throughout the 1990s until 2000.

The Oslo Peace Process saw both sides working towards a two-state solution and also saw the creation of the Palestinian Authority to administer Palestinian communities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In return for the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which had economic and governmental authority over the assigned regions and a police force amongst other institutions, the Authority was required to accept Israel’s right to exist.

However, in 1996, there was increasing doubt within the Israeli government surrounding the potential of the peace process to work. This led to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud Party who was opposed to many premises of the Oslo Peace Process, for example, he was opposed to the premise of the Oslo Accords which called on the Peace Process to be carried out in stages, arguing it would encourage extremists; ultimately, Netanyahu took a more hard-line stance when negotiating with the Palestinian Authority and the spirit of Oslo slowly faded.

The death of Arafat, Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the election of Hamas

In 2004, Arafat, then-President of the Palestinian Authority, passed away and the Palestinian presidential election in January 2005 saw the PLO chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, being elected President. The following month, the PLO and the Israeli government announced a ceasefire, and by September of that year, Israel vacated the Gaza Strip.

A legislative election was then held in Palestine in 2006 which saw victory for Hamas; US President George Bush called this a “rejection of the ‘status quo’”. Soon thereafter, Hamas rejected recognition of Israel, rejected the former government’s commitment to non-violence and rejected all previous agreements made between Israel and Palestine, arguing they would “endanger the well-being of Palestinians”. This saw the US, Russia, the UN and the EU imposing a blockade and economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip.

Abbas came under pressure from the international community to organise new elections to remove Hamas from power, but due to fears that Hamas would be elected again in a free and fair election combined with a reluctance to undermine “Palestinian legitimacy and the will of the Palestinian people”, elections were not held and by 2007, fighting occurred between Hamas and Fatah. Ultimately, this culminated in Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip indefinitely.

At the top of Mt. Bental in the Golan Heights is this message; this pole was placed as part of the Peace Pole Project. Credit: Charlotte King

Where are we now?

Today, tensions persist between Israel and the State of Palestine. Amongst Israel’s political parties there is an array of views over what the Israeli government should do next. The current Prime-Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party was re-elected in April 2019 elections with an increased seat share; a confirmation of support from the Israeli electorate for Netanyahu’s hard-line approach to Israel’s relationship with Palestine, this includes actions from certain Israeli Civil Administration forces reportedly cutting off water and sustenance to 2,600 residents in the Bardala Village of the occupied West Bank, which lies in Area C which is under military occupation.

In the State of Palestine, the situation in the Gaza Strip remains hostile. Violence persists between de facto power Hamas and Israel, with Hamas firing home-made weapons into Israel on a regular basis, with 600 rockets being fired into Israel in 2019 alone, and protests occurring on the Gaza border every Friday known as the “Great March of Return”. In the West Bank, the current Palestinian Authority also appears to be taking a hard-line on relations with Israel while aiming to seek multilateral support for the recognition of a State of Palestine from European countries and an end to the occupation.

Hopes of negotiating a two-state system appear to be waning rapidly as continued hostilities from Hamas, and the Israeli government with the announcements of new settlements suggest that there is no obvious next step in improving relations and the search for a solution goes amiss.

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Israeli Stats

Why Did Gair Rhydd Visit Israel and Palestine?

• To hear from people on the ground about the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

•To encourage greater understanding of the complexities of the conflict to help us facilitate discussion about the situation upon returning home outside of the traditional media narrative.

•To prompt us to begin considering how discussions can move forward in the hopes of one day finding a solution to the conflict.

•To show us first-hand how fragile Israeli-Palestinian relations are to broaden our understanding of the struggles faced by all who are intimately affected by the conflict.

Palestine Stats


This trip was facilitated by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). They have been around since 1919, addressing the concerns of 8,500 Jewish Students in Universities. They aim to lead campaigns fighting prejudice, creating inclusive environments, and educating people on divisive issues. To find out more about the work UJS do, head over to their website.