Middle East Research and Information Project, Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (Revised and Updated Edition, February 2014).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you comprehensively revise and update this primer for 2014?
Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar (JB and LH): The last time we updated the primer was 2001. A lot has happened in Israel/Palestine since then, although we are not any closer to a resolution of the conflict.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
JB and LH: It is a basic introduction to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
J: How does this primer connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
JB and LH: We have both done research on and written about aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is more comprehensive than anything either of us has done before, but far briefer than a textbook.
J: Who do you hope will read this primer, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JB and LH: The primer is targeted to a popular audience: high school teachers and students or others with no previous knowledge of the subject. It is already the most widely read thing that the Middle East Research and Information Project has published, and we would guess more people have read it than anything else we have written.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JB: I have just committed to writing a short book comparing the role of the workers` movements in Tunisia and Egypt in the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath. I still have on the back burner some work on joint Palestinian-Israeli struggle against the occupation. I originally intended that it would be a book. I`m not sure now. Some of the material was published as “Mixing, Separation, and Violence in Urban Spaces and the Rural Frontier in Palestine” in Arab Studies Journal in 2013. I am close to finished with another piece of it on "high-risk activism."
LH: I am working on a book about torture and the law on the context of the US "war on terror," with a particular focus on anti-torture lawyering. This book project builds on research I have been conducting since 2005, including visits to Guantanamo to report on the military commissions, as well as research on efforts to pursue accountability for torture both in the United States and courts overseas.
J: How might this primer contribute to those wishing to understand Operation Protective Edge and current events in Gaza?
JB and LH: The extent of the civilian casualties is horrific, and each one is a catastrophe for the families of the victims. But all of Gaza—well beyond those killed and wounded by Israeli forces in Operation Protective Edge—is on the edge of a disaster. This highlights the broader meaning of the operation. Gaza has been under various states of closure since 1991, and under a fairly tight, if not total, siege since Hamas took control there in 2007 (thwarting a US-inspired Fatah coup). The context of the operation is the continuing occupation and denial of Palestinian human and national rights with the full collaboration of the United States. We hope the primer helps people understand that.
J: Why should scholars write material like this for a popular audience?
JB and LH: We consider it as being socially responsible. But many university professors don`t think of writing for broader audiences as part of what they should do. Actually, it is not that different than teaching undergraduates. We spend (or should spend) a lot of energy reformulating ideas that are shared among specialists in a given subject to make them interesting and accessible to students. This kind of writing rarely helps with achieving tenure (where that is still an option). So people tend not to do it when they are younger. But both of us, largely through our work at Middle East Report, began doing this sort of thing before we finished our PhD theses. So it comes more naturally.
Excerpts from Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer
The conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Zionist (now Israeli) Jews is a modern phenomenon, dating to the end of the nineteenth century. Although the two groups have different religions (Palestinians include Muslims, Christians and Druze), religious differences are not the cause of the strife. The conflict began as a struggle over land. From the end of World War I until 1948, the area that both groups claimed was known internationally as Palestine. That same name was also used to designate a less well-defined “Holy Land” by the three monotheistic religions. Following the war of 1948–1949, this land was divided into three parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip.
It is a small area—approximately 10,000 square miles, or about the size of the state of Maryland. The competing claims to the territory are not reconcilable if one group exercises exclusive political control over all of it. Jewish claims to this land are based on the biblical promise to Abraham and his descendants, on the fact that the land was the historical site of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judea, and on Jews’ need for a haven from European anti-Semitism. Palestinian Arab claims to the land are based on their continuous residence in the country for hundreds of years and the fact that they represented the demographic majority until 1948. They reject the notion that a biblical-era kingdom constitutes the basis for a valid modern claim. If Arabs engage the biblical argument at all, they maintain that since Abraham’s son Ishmael is the forefather of the Arabs, then God’s promise of the land to the children of Abraham includes Arabs as well. They do not believe that they should forfeit their land to compensate Jews for Europe’s crimes against Jews.
Israel’s “Withdrawal” from the Gaza Strip
In 2005 the Likud Party split over disagreements about the future of Gaza and the West Bank. Sharon led a group out of the Likud, which joined with defectors from the Labor Party to form the Kadima (Forward) Party as a vehicle to conduct Israel’s military redeployment out of the Gaza Strip. All Jewish settlements in Gaza were evacuated, and the Strip was sealed by a wall adhering closely to the Green Line. The only entry and exit for Palestinians was through several checkpoints totally controlled by Israel.
Despite official Israeli claims that this unilateral disengagement transformed Gaza into “no longer occupied territory,” neither those changes nor anything that has transpired since has ended the occupation. Israel’s occupation of Gaza continues to the present day because Israel continues to exercise “effective control” over this area; because the conflict that produced the occupation has not ended; and because an occupying state cannot unilaterally (and without international/diplomatic agreement) transform the international status of occupied territory except, perhaps, if that unilateral action terminates all manner of effective control. In addition, Israel continues to control the Palestinian Population Registry, which has the power and authority to define who is a “Palestinian” and who is a resident of Gaza.
Another manifestation of Israel’s continuing occupation of Gaza is its periodic incursions to arrest residents and transport them into Israel. In the wake of Israel’s unilateral disengagement, the Knesset enacted a new law to allow for the prosecution of Gazans in Israeli civil courts and their imprisonment inside Israel.
The 2006 Palestinian Elections and the Rise of Hamas
In January 2005, following the death of Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority with the backing of his Fatah party. In the January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas won a majority of 77 out of 122 seats. Its victory over second-place Fatah in the popular vote was a much narrower 44.45 to 41.43 percent.
When announcing the road map, the Quartet had stipulated three conditions for participation in internationally sponsored negotiations. First, the parties had to recognize the State of Israel. Second, they had to accept all previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. And third, they had to renounce the use of violence for political ends. After the elections, Hamas said it was willing to extend a ceasefire with Israel. Its participation in the PA elections could be considered de facto acceptance of the Oslo accords, since those agreements had created the PA. And a senior Hamas figure said the party “did not oppose” the 2002 Arab League peace plan’s offer to recognize the State of Israel. He did insist that such recognition come only when Israel recognized “the rights of the Palestinian people.” The Quartet, together with Israel, has judged these positions as belligerent rather than as steps toward the Palestinian “moderation” they demand.
In response to the Hamas victory, the Quartet cut off its financial support for the Palestinian Authority. Israel began to withhold the tax revenue it collects on behalf of the PA. Because that revenue makes up over half the PA’s budget, these measures further weakened the already embattled Palestinian economy. More than 150,000 Palestinians in the West Bank are on the PA’s payroll and thousands of retirees also depend on PA pensions. Since 2006, the PA has frequently been unable to pay salaries on time or in full.
Ignoring the legitimacy of Hamas’ victory in indisputably free elections, the United States provided $84 million in military aid to improve the fighting ability of the Presidential Guard loyal to Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinian security forces in the West Bank were retrained under a program led by US Marine Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. Israel also permitted the Presidential Guard to enhance its arsenal.
In June 2007, with backing from the United States, Fatah moved to carry out a coup to oust Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Hamas preempted the move and after a pitched battle established its sole control over the territory. Governance of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been divided between Fatah and Hamas since then.
In the aftermath of the failed coup, Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Palestinian Authority cabinet and appointed Salam Fayyad, a US-trained economist with experience in the International Monetary Fund, as prime minister. Fayyad undertook to transform the Palestinian economy along neoliberal lines, hoping that this “good governance” along with more aggressive pursuit of Hamas and Islamic Jihad by the “Dayton Brigades,” as they were known, would convince the West that the Palestinians deserved a state. Fayyad resigned in frustration in April 2013.
Israel’s Siege of the Gaza Strip
On September 19, 2007, Israel declared that Gaza had become a “hostile territory.” With support from Egypt under President Husni Mubarak, Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s 2008–2009 and 2012 assaults on the Gaza Strip enhanced Hamas’ stature and popularity among Palestinians and internationally. In May 2010 the moderate Islamist party ruling Turkey expressed its sympathy for Hamas by permitting the Mavi Marmara, sponsored by the Islamist Humanitarian Relief Foundation, to join a flotilla to relieve the besieged population of the Gaza Strip. Israel attacked the Mavi Marmara, killing eight unarmed Turkish citizens and one unarmed US citizen of Turkish origin. (A tenth victim fell into a coma and died in May 2014.) This incident led to the freeze of the previously warm relations between Turkey and Israel.
Palestinian Statehood and the UN
Mahmoud Abbas, in his capacity as chairman of the PLO, has twice petitioned the UN to accept Palestine as a member state. In September 2011 he approached the Security Council and asked for full membership for Palestine. The petition did not receive the nine required votes. In any case, the United States would have vetoed the petition, preventing it from being passed on to the General Assembly for a vote. On November 29, 2012, the sixty-fifth anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine, Abbas asked the General Assembly to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state, the same status enjoyed by the Vatican (and Switzerland before it joined the UN). This request was overwhelmingly approved with 138 votes in favor and 9 against, with 41 abstentions. The no votes came from Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.
The vote had no effect on the ground. Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It did, however, open the possibility that Palestine could approach the International Criminal Court to pursue Israeli officials for crimes committed in the course of the occupation.
International opinion is nearly unanimous that a two-state solution, including a sovereign Palestinian state, is the best if not only way forward in the century-old conflict over historical Palestine. Yet there is no visible movement toward achieving this outcome.
One reason is the seismic rightward shift in Israeli Jewish opinion, which since the outbreak of the second intifada holds that no peace is possible with the Palestinians. Rather than “conflict resolution,” many feel, Israel should pursue a policy of “conflict management.” Partly to cater to such opinion, and partly to please the powerful settler lobby, recent Israeli governments have been unwilling to negotiate in good faith. Settlements grow apace.
A second reason is the split between Abbas and Hamas in the Palestinian body politic. Their dispute over strategy—negotiations versus resistance—divides ordinary Palestinians as well. Meanwhile, Palestinian citizens of Israel and refugees in neighboring Arab countries are adamant that a comprehensive peace must include them. There are increasingly pressing questions about the viability of the two-state vision and even the utility of international law for delivering a minimally just “solution” to the question of Palestine.
Still a third reason is the lack of political will in Washington, where the Obama administration (for the time being, at least) retains stewardship of the “peace process.” In the spring of 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry began traveling frequently to the Middle East in an effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at a two-state solution. He succeeded in doing so, and at the time of writing maintains a brave face in public about the possibility of success. There is no indication, however, that a peace agreement is on the horizon. In January 2014 President Obama himself told the New Yorker that he estimated the chances of a successful conclusion to negotiations to be “less than 50–50.” In our judgment, the odds are much lower.
[Excerpted from Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, by the Middle East Research and Information Project, by permission of the authors. Copyright © Middle East Research and Information Project. The full version of the primer is available here; it can also be downloaded as a PDF.]