Will the historically shattered “holyland” ever have peace?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 02 Feb , 2024

Israelis and Palestinians share a history marked by expulsions, killings, and divisions. Now, more than ever, it is crucial for both sides to actively seek ways to foster peace and create a sphere of co-prosperity.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a brazen attack on Israel claiming 1200 lives. Hamas using the cover provided by a barrage of rockets also, took hundreds of civilians as hostages. Israel in response launched a full-scale invasion of the Gaza strip along with aerial bombardment leading to the death of more than 25000 Palestinian citizens including infants. Along with this more than 62000 have been injured and most Gazans been displaced as a direct result of bombardment and invasion.

Palestine: Home to both sides

Throughout centuries, Jews encountered persecution in the historical regions of Israel and Anatolia. The Assyrians and then Romans expelled Jews from ancient Israel. Even the Romans branded Jews as “evil beasts,” and accused them of aiding and abetting the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in May 614 CE. These expulsions led to the formation of a Jewish diaspora globally. Wherever Jews went the discrimination persisted, particularly in Europe, while India stood out as a notable exception. Indians, upholding their ancient value system, provided Jews with the freedom to live and profess their religion without any involvement from the locals.

While in Europe, a deep-seated animosity towards Jews also prevailed until the pre-modern era. Jews were often scapegoated for various societal, economic, and political anomalies. Adolf Hitler skillfully exploited this inherent hatred to justify what Soviet historian Vasily Grossman referred to as “Shoah by bullet and Shoah by gas.” The Holocaust witnessed the merciless brutalextermination of six million Jewish lives, with millions more being displaced. In the aftermath, many sought refuge in the British mandate of Palestine.

However, the Jewish migration to Palestine wasn’t only due to the genocide incubated in Europe. The Jewish migrants were already flocking to Palestine by the mid-19th century. This migration was encouraged by figures like Theodor Herzl. Herzl, who is considered the father of modern political Zionism, advocated for Palestine as the rightful homeland for Jews. He came to this conclusion after witnessing the degraded condition of Jews across Europe. Consequently, a substantial number of Jews relocated to Palestine during this period. They actively purchased land and played a pivotal role in establishing new cities, including the notable example of Tel Aviv in 1909. Interestingly, these new migrants were not mixing up with the local Arab population rather they were living in separate neighbourhoods.

The British also endorsed Jewish migration, initially through the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and later with the Peel Commission in 1936. The Peel Commission recommended the partitioning of the Palestine mandate, which was initially accepted by the British government. However, the British rejected the commission’s report in 1938. Nevertheless, in 1947, the British partitioned Palestine, a plan approved by the UNGA in 1948, as Resolution 181, without involving Arab Palestinians in the discussion. This decision led to around 700,000 Palestinians becoming refugees in their land. In Arabic, this tragic episode is referred to as “Nakba,” signifying a catastrophic event.

The UN’s partition plan for Palestine in 1947 allocated 55% of the land to Israel, 44% to Palestine, and designated 1% under UN administration. With the clearance of Resolution 181 in the UN, Jewish militias started attacking Palestinian villages. The situation escalated to full-blown war leading to the entry of Arab armies. The Arabs – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen – lost the war but they took control of the Palestinian territories. The Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. These occupations continued till Israel occupied them in the 1967’s, six-day war.

Hence, Palestine was meant to be divided into three parts with both Israel and Palestine having their own state. The partition of Palestine meant both Israelis and Palestinians would live in peace. However, after more than seven decades do Palestinians have a state? Does the UN or international community take any action over Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank? Is even a two-state solution under consideration? Does the blatant violation of human rights have any impact on the Israeli state? The answer to all these questions is a big No!

How did the Arab states respond

The Arab states have always been unwilling to accommodate Israel. Due to this inhibition in Arab countries, their relations with Israel remained tense. Israel also fought multiple wars during the early years of its independence. The war of 1967 and then in 1973, gave Israel a huge military and strategic advantage with respect to Arab states. In these wars, Israel captured and defended key geographical configurations such as the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank from Egypt and Jordan respectively. These occupations were an affront to international law and violated several conventions including the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians in times of war. Unfortunately, Israel never faced any accountability for these violations. 

A progressive faction within the Arab world recognized the necessity of shifting their approach to diplomatic engagement. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a prominent figure in this movement, displayed courage by diplomatically recognising Israel in 1979. Regrettably, Sadat’s decision ultimately cost him his life, as he was assassinated in 1981.

The 1980s marked the remarkable ascent of Yasser Arafat, widely regarded as the foremost leader championing the Palestinian cause. Arafat in his early years had fought against Israel and even refused to acknowledge Israel’s existence. However, with time he understood that Israel is a reality that can’t be outdone. Hence, he started to engage diplomatically. Around the same time in 1987, the Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territory started the First Intifada or “tremor”. The Intifada led to a renewed push towards a two-state solution as dictated by the UN.

The diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin culminated in the historic Oslo Accords. These accords paved the way for the administration of Palestinian territories by Palestinians, establishing the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). These accords also outlined Israel’s commitment to vacate occupied Arab territories, yet implementation fell short. Despite gaining full control over Palestinian airspace and borders, along with Gazan waters, Israel occupied 99% of Area C in the West Bank. It allowed only 1% of the sector to be allocated to Palestinians for settlements. Subsequent peace talks addressing the two-state solution and Palestinian rights reached an impasse. Frustrated, Palestinians launched the second Intifada in 2000, only to meet with a harsh Israeli response resulting in the tragic deaths of over 3000 Palestinian civilians.

Who filled the void after Arafat

Arafat passed away in 2004, and he was succeeded by Mohammed Abbas, who continues to lead the PNA. Meanwhile, in 2006, the political landscape in Gaza underwent a shift. Frustration, humiliation, and the aftermath of the second Intifada left Gazans feeling devastated. Their morale was low, and they perceived the PNA as a corrupt organization in need of replacement. At this moment, Hamas or the Islamic Resistance movement claimed leadership in the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas originated during the first Intifada in 1987 and opposed the non-violent approaches of the Arafat-led Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The group has consistently favoured violence over peaceful conflict resolution and has even refused to acknowledge the state of Israel. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Assembly Elections and took control from Fateh in 2007. Since then, Hamas has continued to enjoy a majority in Gaza. Hamas has also fought several wars with Israel, each time sustaining heavy casualties on its side. Hence, the two separate Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank are governed by two different groups, who adhere to completely different ideologies.

Hamas also enjoys support from external powers such as Qatar and Iran. It is estimated that Hamas has a budget of a little over $300 million, which is funded by a network of cryptocurrencies, cash, and charities. The maze of tunnels in the Gaza strip whichis used to smuggle this money and weaponsinto Gaza. Thus Hamas, ideologically, has completely changed the direction of the Palestinian movement from peaceful resolution to violent resistance.

Where do Arabs stand today

In 2020, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco entered into the Abraham Accords, thus normalising their relations with Israel. A step, which is expected, to foster peace and stability in the region. However, Palestinians perceived this as a betrayal of their aspirations. As the rights of Palestinians were not adequately addressed in the agreement. Additionally, the accord sparked clandestine interactions between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as asserted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his UN address. PM Netanyahu proclaimed that a “historic peace with Saudi Arabia” is on the cards.

Similarly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia alongside Israel, signed the Indian-MiddleEast-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). This corridor intends to connect India with Europe via the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. This was signed at the New Delhi G-20 summit. This growing collaboration between Arab states and Israel has given rise to a narrative suggesting a diminished focus on the Palestinian cause. However, the attack of October 7, 2023, has brought the Palestinian issue back on the table. Now, the Arab states are trying to find ways to halt the existing round of hostilities. In this endeavour, they have also courted Emperor Xi of China.

Indeed, there is also a discernible alignment among the Arab countries, demonstrated by the improving ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Riyadh’s acceptance of the Assad regime of Syria. The future will reveal the extent to which this engagement contributes to regional stability. However, it appears evident that the influence of the US is likely to diminish with the increasing involvement of China and Russia. 

Way forward

The ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas appear likely to persist, with Israel’s commitment to occupy Gaza. This invasion has already displaced most of the 2.2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the toll on life and property is expected to escalate due to continuous aerial bombardment.

Israel officially articulates its objective in the Gaza invasion as the destruction of Hamas’ tunnel network. However, defence experts, such as Maj. Gen. BS Dhanoa, veteran Armour officer of the Indian Army, suggests that achieving this goal will be extremely challenging due to the complexities associated with urban warfare. Gaza’s high population density and blurring of the difference between civilian and potential hostile elements increase the chances of heavy casualties to the Israeli troops. Hence, the chances of a successful Israeli campaign in Gaza are slim, and emphasising peaceful negotiations between both sides becomes even more crucial. The recent disclosure related to nine Staff members of UN Refugee Welfare Affairs for Palestine refugees involved in the October 7, 2023, the attack has put this agency in the dock.

Countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and China, along with numerous NGOs and civil society groups, have already called for an end to hostilities. The persistent bombing with heavy bombs, reminiscent of the World War era, has deepened the concerns about blatant human rights violations. Hence, the international community must unite to safeguard the rights of the Palestinian population. A coalition of the international community shall facilitate a meaningful dialogue between Israel and the PNA in the West Bank. The results of such a peace process must be verified on the ground to ensure transparency and validity. This peace process will help both Israelis and Palestinians as “Peace is inevitable.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Prashant Sharma

holds a bachelor’s degree in physical science and a postgraduate degree in defense studies. He was previously employed as an intern with the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. Sharma hasalsoqualified the UGC NET Examination.

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