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A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Second Edition

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Mark Tessler's highly praised, comprehensive, and balanced history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the earliest times to the present—updated through the first years of the 21st century—provides a constructive framework for understanding recent developments and assessing the prospects for future peace. Drawing upon a wide array of documents and on research by Palestinians, Israelis, and others, Tessler assesses the conflict on both the Israelis' and the Palestinians' terms. New chapters in this expanded edition elucidate the Oslo peace process, including the reasons for its failure, and the political dynamics in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza at a critical time of transition.

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Part I Jews and Arabs before the Conflict: The Congruent Origins of Modern Zionism and Arab Nationalism

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THERE ARE SEVERAL reasons to begin a study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a general survey of Jewish and Arab history. One is to dispel the common misconception that the current struggle in Palestine is an extension of an ancient blood feud, fueled by ethnic or religious antagonisms dating back hundreds of years. This view is not only inaccurate, it is also potentially damaging; it promotes distorted judgments about both Jewish and Arab behavior while at the same time diverting attention from considerations that are central to a proper understanding of the conflict in the Middle East.

Present-day issues must be approached with a recognition that neither the Arab-Israeli dispute in general nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular is based on or driven forward by primordial antagonisms, and that it has in fact been less than a century since Jews and Arabs began to view one another as enemies. A review of Jewish history and Arab history makes this clear, revealing that each unfolded in response to interaction between its own internal dynamics and the wide sweep of world events, and that, in Palestine as well as more broadly, each people occupied but a peripheral place in the evolution of the other until the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, as recently as the eve of World War I, the legacy of Jewish-Arab relations was untarnished to the extent that contemporary Zionists and Arab nationalists deemed it worthwhile to explore the possibilities for an alliance between their two movements, with a view toward making common cause in the face of challenges from Europe.

 

Part II Emergence and History of the Conflict to 1948

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BY THE END of the nineteenth century, Zionists and Arabs had come into contact, and the results included instances of both cooperation and conflict. On the one hand, Jews were visible as they passed in increasing numbers through Beirut and other Arab cities on their way to the Holy Land, and inside Palestine the small but growing Zionist presence could hardly escape the notice of the indigenous Arab population. Indeed, many Jewish settlers took the initiative in establishing relations with Palestinian Arabs, making themselves known not only to the peasants who lived near their new communities but also to local merchants and landowners. On the other hand, on a political level, Zionist and Arab leaders took cognizance of one another, pondered the matter of the relationship between their respective movements, and in some cases established a dialogue. There were early warnings, especially from some Arabs, that Zionism and Arab nationalism were incompatible in Palestine. Moreover, the intensity of Arab complaints about Zionism increased as World War I approached. At the same time, there was also a belief in the potential for cooperation. Contacts were initiated by Arab organizations and Zionist representatives alike. They were based on a recognition that Jews and Arabs had similar aspirations and reflected a hope that the two peoples might therefore fashion an alliance of mutual benefit. There were even instances in which the symmetry of Jewish and Arab history was acknowledged.

 

Part III Routinization of the Conflict, 1948–1967

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THE ARAB-ISRAELI War of 1947–48 resulted in the establishment of an independent Jewish state, one which, moreover, had proved capable of defending itself against the combined military might of the Arabs of Palestine and of neighboring Arab countries. As one Israeli leader later declared with pride, the military victory which secured Israel’s independence resulted from the self-sacrifice and determination of a people fighting for its national existence.1 Further, the new state received diplomatic recognition from an array of foreign powers, including both the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the U.S. and the USSR initially competed with one another for leadership among Israel’s diplomatic benefactors.2 In May 1949, after several months of British-led opposition, the State of Israel became the fifty-ninth member of the United Nations.

May 14, 1948, the date of Israeli independence, saw the attainment by modern political Zionism of its nationalist ambitions and marked a turning point in the history of the Jewish people. David Ben Gurion, the Labor Zionist leader who provided the Yishuv with decisive leadership during its War for Independence, and who subsequently became Israel’s first prime minister, called the achievement of Israeli statehood the “consummation of the Jewish revolution.” Speaking to a group of youth leaders in Haifa in 1944, for example, Ben Gurion reaffirmed the Zionist vision and declared, “The meaning of the Jewish revolution is contained in one word—Independence. Independence for the Jewish people in its homeland!”3 Ben Gurion concluded his 1944 address by declaring, “There is hope that many of us will live to see the consummation of the Jewish revolution.”

 

Part IV The Palestinian Dimension Reemerges: From the June War through Camp David

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THE IMPACT OF the war of June 1967 cannot be overstated. It introduced critical new elements into the Arab-Israeli conflict, including a revival of concern with its central Palestinian dimension. It also had far-reaching consequences for the internal political dynamics of both the Arab world and Israel, and many of these consequences continue to be felt more than a quarter-century after the war.

Since Israel’s victory left it in possession of land that had previously been part of Egypt, Jordan, or Syria, or controlled by Egypt in the case of the Gaza Strip, the most immediate result of the June War was a change in the territorial status quo. Map 7.1 shows the area under Israeli control at the end of the fighting and identifies the five Arab territories occupied by the Jewish state. Two of these territories, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, were captured from Egypt. The Sinai is a vast area by the standards of the region, encompassing roughly 20,000 square miles and being about two and one-half times the size of pre-1967 Israel. On the other hand, principally because of its inhospitable mountainous and desert terrain, the peninsula is sparsely populated. Its population in 1967 was no more than 45,000–50,000, perhaps even less, and roughly one-fifth of this number were nomadic Bedouins living in the barren and forbidding southern part of the territory. The remainder of Sinai’s inhabitants resided either in its principal town, al-Arish, or in smaller towns and villages along the flat and sandy Mediterranean coast.

 

Part V The High Price of Stalemate: Confrontations and Futile Diplomacy in the 1980s

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THE CAMP DAVID accords of 1978 held out the hope of movement toward a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and there was indeed significant progress with respect to the important relationship between Israel and Egypt. A peace treaty was signed in 1979, and plans for the completion of Israel’s phased withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula were proceeding on schedule in 1980 and 1981. There were also expanding contacts between Israelis and Egyptians, at the level of private citizens as well as government officials. In 1980, the first year in which the border between the two countries was open for tourism, 14,000 Israelis visited Cairo and other destinations in Egypt. The number increased to 38,000 in 1981 and to 45,000 in 1982. Israeli businessmen also participated in Cairo’s annual international trade fair in the spring of 1981, and again in spring 1982.

Although there continued to be strains in relations between Israel and Egypt, giving rise to what analysts frequently described as a “cold peace,” the break with the past was nonetheless dramatic. Both states were firmly committed to the principle that disagreements between them should be openly discussed and dealt with by peaceful means. In addition, there were important practical steps on the road to a normalization of bilateral relations. Not only was there an exchange of ambassadors and the establishment of standard connections in the areas of telecommunications and transportation, there were also agreements for cooperation in the fields of agriculture, commerce, tourism, cultural and academic exchange, and scientific research. The projects resulting from these agreements were for the most part modest, and in addition they were sometimes cumbersome or productive of friction. For example, Israel sold only $10 million worth of goods to Egypt in 1980 and only $13.7 million in 1981. Also, reflecting another limitation on the trade between the two countries, Israeli trucks carrying goods bound for Cairo were required in 1980 and 1981 to reload their cargoes onto Egyptian lorries at the al-Arish crossing point. Nevertheless, judged in comparative terms and from the perspective of history, these limitations and difficulties appeared insignificant when contrasted with the radical difference between the situation before and after the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

 

Part VI Efforts to Break the Stalemate: From the Intifada through the Oslo Peace Process

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FUELED BY CONTINUING Israeli settlement activity and the “iron fist” policy of the Israeli military administration, as well as by the failure of diplomatic efforts aimed at moving the parties toward territorial compromise, Palestinian anger gave rise in late 1987 to widespread protest demonstrations. Spontaneous outbursts and efforts at resistance then coalesced into a coordinated uprising embracing virtually all sectors of Palestinian society, a rebellion that some compared to the revolt of 1936–39 and that soon became known as the intifada, literally translated as the “shaking off.” By the early 1990s, the intifada had run its course; but almost four years of sustained unrest had dramatically changed the political outlook both in Israel and among the Palestinians. In Israel, many were taking a new look at the occupied territories and rethinking earlier assessments about the costs and benefits of retaining the West Bank and Gaza. This was sometimes described as the reemergence of the Green Line in Israeli political consciousness. There was also a growing willingness to open talks with the PLO. For Palestinians, the uprising not only pushed their concerns to the forefront of political debate in Israel, and in the regional and international arenas more broadly, it also laid the foundation for a new peace plan put forward by the PLO.

 

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