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Frequently Asked Questions

I am Jewish and I want

Israel to stop killing Palestinians

What are the modern origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

During World War I, Britain made three different promises regarding historic Palestine. Arab leaders were assured that the land would become independent; in the Balfour declaration, Britain indicated its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine; and secretly Britain arranged with its allies to divide up Ottoman territory, with Palestine becoming part of the British empire. Historians have engaged in detailed exegesis of the relevant texts and maps, but the fundamental point is that Britain had no moral right to assign Palestine to anyone: by right Palestine belonged to its inhabitants.

In the late years of the 19th century, anti-Semitism became especially virulent in Russia and re-emerged in France. Some Jews concluded that only in a Jewish state would Jews be safe and thus founded Zionism. Most Jews at the time rejected Zionism, preferring instead to address the problem of anti-Semitism through revolutionary or reformist politics or assimilation. And for many orthodox Jews, especially the small Jewish community in Palestine, a Jewish state could only be established by God, not by humans. At first Zionists were willing to consider other sites for their Jewish state, but they eventually focused on Palestine for its biblical connections. The problem, however, was that although a Zionist slogan called Palestine "a land without people for a people without land," the land was not at all empty.

Following World War I, Britain arranged for the League of Nations to make Palestine a British "mandate," which is to say a colony to be administered by Britain and prepared for independence. To help justify its rule over Arab land, Britain arranged that one of its duties as the mandatory power would be to promote a Jewish national home.

Who were the indigenous people of Palestine?

Pro-Israel propaganda has argued that most Palestinians actually entered Palestine after 1917, drawn to the economic dynamism of the growing Jewish community, and thus have no rights to Palestine. This argument has been elaborated in Joan Peters' widely promoted book, From Time Immemorial. However, the book has been shown to be fraudulent and its claim false. The indigenous population was mostly Muslim, with a Christian and a smaller Jewish minority. As Zionists arrived from Europe, the Muslims and Christians began to adopt a distinctly Palestinian national identity.

How did the Zionists acquire land in Palestine?

Some was acquired illegally and some was purchased from Arab landlords with funds provided by wealthy Jews in Europe. Even the legal purchases, however, were often morally questionable as they sometimes involved buying land from absentee landlords and then throwing the poor Arab peasants off the land. Land thus purchased became part of the Jewish National Fund which specified that the land could never be sold or leased to Arabs. Even with these purchases, Jews owned only about 6% of the land by 1947.

Didn't Israel achieve larger borders in 1948 as a result of a defensive war of independence?

Arab armies crossed the border on May 15, 1948, after Israel declared its independence. But this declaration came three and a half months before the date specified in the partition resolution. The U.S. had proposed a three month truce on the condition that Israel postpone its declaration of independence. The Arab states accepted and Israel rejected, in part because it had worked out a secret deal with Jordan's King Abdullah, whereby his Arab Legion would invade the Palestinian territory assigned to the Palestinian state and not interfere with the Jewish state. (Since Jordan was closely allied to Britain, the scheme also provided a way for London to maintain its position in the region.) The other Arab states invaded as much to thwart Abdullah's designs as to defeat Israel.

Most of the fighting that ensued took place on territory that was to be part of the Palestinian state or the internationalized Jerusalem. Thus, Israel was primarily fighting not for its survival, but to expand its borders at the expense of the Palestinians. For most of the war, the Israelis actually held both a quantitative and qualitative military edge, even apart from the fact that the Arab armies were uncoordinated and operating at cross purposes.

When the armistice agreements were signed in 1949, the Palestinian state had disappeared, its territory taken over by Israel and Jordan, with Egypt in control of the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem, which was to have been internationalized, was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control. Israel now held 78% of Palestine. Some 700,000 Palestinians had become refugees.

Why did Palestinians become refugees in 1948?

There is no longer any serious doubt that many Palestinians were forcibly expelled. The exact numbers driven out versus those who panicked or simply sought safety is still contested, but what permits us to say that all were victims of ethnic cleansing is that Israeli officials refused to allow any of them to return. (In Kosovo, any ethnic Albanian refugee, whether he or she was forced out at gunpoint, panicked, or even left to make it easier for NATO to bomb, was entitled to return.) In Israel, Arab villages were bulldozed over, citrus groves, lands, and property seized, and their owners and inhabitants prohibited from returning. Indeed, not only was the property of "absentee" Palestinians expropriated, but any Palestinians who moved from one place within Israel to another during the war were declared "present absentees" and their property expropriated as well.

Of the 860,000 Arabs who had lived in areas of Palestine that became Israel, only 133,000 remained. Some 470,000 moved into refugee camps on the West Bank (controlled by Jordan) or the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt). The rest dispersed to Lebanon, Syria, and other countries.

How were the Occupied Territories occupied?

In June 1967, Israel launched a war in which it seized all of Palestine (the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt), along with the Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. Large numbers of Palestinians, some living in cities, towns, and villages, and some in refugee camps, came under Israeli control. (In 2001, half the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories lived in refugee camps. The Israeli conquest also sent a new wave of refugees from Palestine to surrounding countries.)

Israel's supporters argue that although Israel fired the first shots in this war, it was a justified preventive war, given that Arab armies were mobilizing on Israel's borders, with murderous rhetoric. The rhetoric was indeed blood-curdling, and many people around the world worried for Israel's safety. But those who understood the military situation -- in Tel Aviv and the Pentagon -- knew quite well that even if the Arabs struck first, Israel would prevail in any war. Nasser was looking for a way out and agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations. Israel attacked when it did in part because it rejected negotiations and the prospect of any face-saving compromise for Nasser. Menachem Begin, who was an enthusiastic supporter of this (and other) Israeli wars was quite clear about the necessity of launching an attack: In June 1967, he said, Israel "had a choice." Egyptian Army concentrations did not prove that Nasser was about to attack. "We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."

However, even if it were the case that the 1967 war was wholly defensive on Israel's part, this cannot justify the continued rule over Palestinians. A people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government of a neighboring state goes to war. Sure, punish Egypt and Jordan -- don't give them back Gaza and the West Bank (which they had no right to in the first place, having joined with Israel in carving up the stillborn Palestinian state envisioned in the UN's 1947 partition plan). But there is no basis for punishing the Palestinian population by forcing them to submit to foreign military occupation.

Israel immediately incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into Israel proper, announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal capital. It then began to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions which prohibit a conquering power from settling its population on occupied territory. These settlements, placed in strategic locations throughout the West Bank and Gaza were intended to "create facts" on the ground to make the occupation irreversible.

How did the international community respond to the Israeli occupation?

In November 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 242. The resolution emphasized "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict." It also called for all countries in the region to end their state of war and to respect the right of each country "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."

Israel argued that because resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal from "territories," rather than "the territories," occupied in the recent conflict, it meant that Israel could keep some of them as a way to attain "secure" borders. The official French and Russian texts of the resolution include the definite article, but in any event U.S. officials told Arab delegates that it expected "virtually complete withdrawal" by Israel, and this was the view as well of Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.

Palestinians objected to the resolution because it referred to them only in calling for "a just settlement to the refugee problem" rather than acknowledging their right to self- determination. By the mid-1970s, however, the international consensus -- rejected by Israel and the United States -- was expanded to include support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps with insignificant border adjustments.

How did the United States respond to the Israeli occupation?

Prior to the 1967 war, France, not the United States, was Israel's chief weapons supplier. But now U.S. officials determined that Israel would be an extremely valuable ally to have in the Middle East and Washington became Israel's principal military and diplomatic backer.

Why, given the U.S. concern for Middle Eastern oil, was Washington supporting Israel? This assumes that the main conflict was Israel vs. the Arabs, rather than Israel and conservative, pro-Western Arab regimes vs. radical Arab nationalism. Egypt and Syria had been champions of the latter, armed by the Soviet Union, and threatening U.S. interests in the region. (On the eve of the 1967, for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were militarily backing opposite sides in a civil war in Yemen. Israel had plotted with Jordan against Palestinian nationalism in 1948, and in 1970 Israel was prepared to take Jordan's side in a war against Palestinians and Syria.)

Diplomatically, the U.S. soon backed off the generally accepted interpretation of resolution 242, deciding that given Israel's military dominance no negotiations were necessary except on Israel's terms. So when Secretary of State Rogers put forward a reasonable peace plan, President Nixon privately sent word to Israel that the U.S. wouldn't press the proposal. When Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, proposed a peace plan that included cutting his ties with Moscow, Washington decided he hadn't groveled enough and ignored it. But after Egypt and Syria unsuccessfully went to war with Israel for the limited aim of regaining their lost territory, and Arab oil states called a limited oil embargo, Washington rethought its position. This led in 1979 to the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Agreement under which Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace and diplomatic relations. Egypt then joined Israel as a pillar of U.S. policy in the region and the two became the leading recipients of U.S. aid in the world.

What progress was made toward justice for Palestinians during the first two decades of the occupation?

The Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, but it was controlled by the Arab states until 1969, when Yasser Arafat became its leader. The PLO had many factions, advocating different tactics (some carried out hijackings) and different politics. At first the PLO took the position that Israel had no right to exist and that only Palestinians were entitled to national rights in Palestine. This was the mirror image of the official Israeli view -- of both the right-wing Likud party and the Labor party -- that there could be no recognition of the PLO under any circumstances, even if it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel, let alone acceptance of a Palestinian state on any part of the Occupied Territories.

By 1976, however, the PLO view had come to accept the international consensus favoring a two-state solution. In January 1976 a resolution backed by the PLO, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the Soviet Union was introduced in the Security Council incorporating this consensus. Washington vetoed the resolution.

The 1979 Camp David agreement established peace along the Egyptian-Israeli border, but it worsened the situation for Palestinians. With its southern border neutralized, Israel had a freer hand to invade Lebanon in 1982 (where the PLO was based) and to tighten its grip on the Occupied Territories.

What happened at Camp David?

Permanent status talks between Israel and the Palestinians as called for by the Oslo agreement finally took place in July 2000 at Camp David, in the United States, with U.S. mediators. The standard view is that Barak made an exceedingly generous offer to Arafat, but Arafat rejected it, choosing violence instead.

A U.S. participant in the talks, Robert Malley, has challenged this view. Barak offered -- but never in writing and never in detail; in fact, says, Malley, "strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer" -- to give the Palestinians Israeli land equivalent to 1% of the West Bank (unspecified, but to be chosen by Israel) in return for 9% of the West Bank which housed settlements, highways, and military bases effectively dividing the West Bank into separate regions. Thus, there would have been no meaningfully independent Palestinian state, but a series of Bantustans, while all the best land and water aquifers would be in Israeli hands. Israel would also "temporarily" hold an additional 10 percent of West Bank land. (Given that Barak had not carried out the previous withdrawals to which Israel had committed, Palestinian skepticism regarding "temporary" Israeli occupation is not surprising.) It's a myth, Malley wrote, that "Israel's offer met most if not all of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations" and a myth as well that the "Palestinians made no concession of their own." Some Israeli analysts made a similar assessment. For example, influential commentator Ze'ev Schiff wrote that, to Palestinians, "the prospect of being able to establish a viable state was fading right before their eyes. They were confronted with an intolerable set of options: to agree to the spreading occupation ... or to set up wretched Bantustans, or to launch an uprising."

What caused the second Intifada?

On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon, then a member of Parliament, accompanied by a thousand-strong security force, paid a provocative visit approved by Barak to the site of the Al Aqsa mosque. The next day Barak sent another large force of police and soldiers to the area and, when the anticipated rock throwing by some Palestinians occurred, the heavily-augmented police responded with lethal fire, killing four and wounding hundreds. Thus began the second Intifada.

The underlying cause was the tremendous anger and frustration among the population of the Occupied Territories, who saw things getting worse, not better, under Oslo, whose hopes had been shattered, and whose patience after 33 years of occupation had reached the boiling point.

What has U.S. policy been?

U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support has made possible the Israeli repression of the previous year and a half.

Much of the weaponry Israel has been using in its attacks on Palestinians either was made in the United States (F-16s, attack helicopters, rockets, grenade launchers, Caterpillar bulldozers, airburst shells, M-40 ground launchers) or made in Israel with U.S. Department of Defense research and development funding (the Merkava tank).

On March 26, 2001, the Security Council considered a resolution to establish an international presence in the Occupied Territories as a way to prevent human rights violations. The United States vetoed the resolution. Because Israel did not want the U.S. to get involved diplomatically, Washington did not name a special envoy to the region, General Zinni, until November 2001, more than a year after the Intifada began. Bush met four times with Sharon during the Intifada, never with Arafat. In February 2002, Vice President Cheney declared that Israel could "hang" Arafat.

What caused the current crisis?

As the Arab League was meeting to endorse a Saudi peace proposal -- recognition of Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders -- a Hamas suicide bomber struck. Sharon, no doubt fearing a groundswell of support for the Arab League position, responded with massive force, breaking into Arafat's compound, confining him to several rooms. Then there were major invasions of all the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. There are many Palestinian casualties, though because Israel has kept reporters out, their extent is not known.

In the early days of Sharon's offensive, Bush pointedly refused to criticize the Israeli action, reserving all his condemnation for Arafat, who, surrounded in a few rooms, was said to not be doing enough to stop terrorism. As demonstrations in the Arab world, especially in pro-U.S. Jordan and Egypt, threatened to destabilize the entire region, Bush finally called on Israel to withdraw from the cities. Sharon, recognizing that the U.S. "demand" was uncoupled from any threat of consequences, kept up his onslaught.

Is there a way out?

A solution along the lines of the international consensus -- Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a truly independent and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem -- remains feasible. It needs only the backing of the United States and Israel.

Don't the Arabs already have 22 states? Why do they need another one?

Not all Arabs are the same. That other Arabs may already have their right of self- determination does not take away from Palestinians' basic rights. The fact that many Palestinians live in Jordan and have considerable influence and rights there, doesn't mean that the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation or who were expelled from their homes and are now in refugee camps aren't entitled to their rights -- any more than the fact that there are a lot of Jews in the U.S., where they have considerable influence and rights, means that Israeli Jews should be packed off across the Atlantic.

How can terrorists be given a state?

If people whose independence movements use terrorism are not entitled to a state, then many current-day states would be illegitimate, not the least of them being Israel, whose independence struggle involved frequent terrorism against civilians.

Won't an independent Palestinian state threaten Israeli security?

Conquerors frequently justify their conquests by claiming security needs. This was the argument Israel gave for years why it couldn't return the Sinai to Egypt or pull out of Lebanon. Both of these were done, however, and Israel's security was enhanced rather than harmed. True, the Oslo Accords, which turned over disconnected swatches of territory to Palestinian administration, may not have improved Israeli security. But as Shimon Peres, one of the architects of the Oslo agreement and Sharon's current Foreign Minister acknowledged, Oslo was flawed from the start. "Today we discover that autonomy puts the Palestinians in a worse situation." The second Intifada could have been avoided, Peres said, if the Palestinians had had a state from the outset. "We cannot keep three and a half million Palestinians under siege without income, oppressed, poor, densely populated, near starvation." Israel is the region's only nuclear power. Beyond that, it is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Surely it cannot need to occupy neighboring territory in order to achieve security. Nothing would better guarantee the Israeli people peace and security than pulling out of the Occupied Territories.

Isn't the Palestinian demand for the right of return just a ploy to destroy Israel?

Allowing people who have been expelled from their homes the right to return is hardly an extreme demand. Obviously this can't mean throwing out people who have been living in these homes for many years now, and would need to be carefully worked out. Both Palestinian officials and the Arab League have indicated that in their view the right of return should be implemented in a way that would not create a demographic problem for Israel. Of course, one could reasonably argue that an officially Jewish state is problematic on basic democratic grounds. (Why should a Jew born in Brooklyn have a right to "return" to Israel while a Palestinian born in Haifa does not?) In any event, however, neither the Arab League nor Arafat have raised this objection.

Don't Palestinians just view their own state as the first step in eliminating Israel entirely?

Hamas and a few other, smaller Palestinian groups object not just to the occupation but to the very existence of Israel. But the Hamas et al. position is a distinctly minority sentiment among Palestinians, who are a largely secular community that has endorsed a two-state settlement. To be sure, Hamas has been growing in strength as a result of the inability of the Palestinian Authority to deliver a better life for Palestinians. If there were a truly independent Palestinian state, one can assume that Hamas would find far fewer volunteers for its suicide squads. It must be acknowledged, though, that the longer the mutual terror continues, the harder it will be to achieve long term peace.

Is a two-state solution just?

There is a broad international consensus on a two-state solution, along the lines of the Saudi peace proposal. Such a solution is by no means ideal. Palestine is a small territory to be divided into two states; it forms a natural economic unit. An Israeli state that discriminates in favor of Jews and a Palestinian state that will probably be equally discriminatory will depart substantially from a just outcome. What's needed is a single secular state that allows substantial autonomy to both national communities, something along the lines of the bi-national state proposed before 1948. This outcome, however, does not seem imminent. A two-state solution may be the temporary measure that will provide a modicum of justice and allow Jews and Palestinians to move peacefully forward to a more just future.

Source: Excerpts from Background to the Israel-Palestine Crisis by Stephen R. Shalom