100 years and counting: the contested past and uncertain future of the Palestine-Israel conflict: Caabu briefing with Ian Black

On 6 March 2018, Caabu hosted a briefing titled ‘100 years and counting: the contested past and uncertain future of the Palestine-Israel conflictwith Ian Black, an award-winning journalist and author of ‘Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017’, published in November 2017 to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the Jubilee of the 1967 Six Day War. The event was chaired by Julie Elliott MP.

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Black began the talk by outlining some historical context. According to Black, the roots of the conflict do not lie in ancient history but in 1882 with the birth of the Zionist movement, which sought for the first time to turn the Jewish religion into a modern nation state. 1917 was another significant year, signalling the end of the Ottoman period and the start of British mandatory rule and the promise of a ‘Jewish national home’, and the 1930s brought further waves of Jewish immigrants fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe.

In 1939, a British White Paper was proposed which offered for the first time to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine. However, the Palestinian leadership, under the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin Al Husseini, rejected it, demanding immediate independence. In 1947, Britain decided to terminate its mandate and place the question of Palestine in the hands of the UN. However, the consequent UN 1947 Partition Plan, which provided for separate 'Arab' and 'Jewish' states, was also rejected by the Arab League, who demanded a unitary state in which the Jews would enjoy specific minority rights.

This failed partition was followed by the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war, viewed simultaneously as the war of independence by Israelis and as the Nakba (disaster) by Palestinians, with 750,000 Palestinians driven from their homes. According to Black, each of the narratives are authentic, but rarely recognised by the other side. As British High Commissioner of Palestine Sir Alan Cunningham famously said in May 1948: “the Jews and Arabs simply ignored the existence of the other”. Indeed the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem never met with the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion. This lack of recognition is also reflected in culture, for instance with famous Arabic and Hebrew songs about Jerusalem paying no attention to the other side.

The new state of Israel in 1948 felt militarily secure and dreamed of seizing further Arab land, lamenting its failure to capture the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1948 war. The opportunity finally presented itself in the 1967 Six Day War, leading to the open-ended military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians continue to suffer from today over 50 years on. As such, Black argued that the use of the term ‘apartheid’ has become applicable in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), resembling Apartheid South Africa as Israel has gained natural resources, spatial growth and nationalist fulfilment at the expense of the Palestinians.

The First Intifada (1987-1993) marked a notable success for the Palestinian struggle and led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. Although these were instrumental at the time, Black outlined that they were also marked by an asymmetrical power dynamic. For instance, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised the state of Israel, the Israelis did not likewise recognise an independent Palestinian state. Yet if the First Intifada brought some hope, the Second Intifada (2000-2005) brought much trauma, and led to Israeli society shedding much of its support for the peace process, as seen by the rise of the right-wing Likud party.

Present day

Black argued that the basic facts of the conflict are less disputed than they have been previously. For example the facts surrounding 1948 Deir Yassin massacre are now largely acknowledged by Israelis. Zochrot, an Israeli NGO, has been instrumental in raising awareness of the Nakba to the Jewish public.

However there continues to be a stalemate in the peace process. In 2014 the then US Secretary of State John Kerry gave up arguing that there would be a real prospect of a positive outcome for a just and viable two-state solution. Indeed the reality on the ground is marked by Israel's ongoing construction of settlements in the OPTs and violent attacks and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, dimming prospects for a viable two-state solution.

While such developments on the ground have led to an invertible ‘one-state reality’, according to Black there is not a strategy in place for a one-state solution, given that it is unable to realise the legitimate national, historic and democratic aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. While post-Oslo the Palestinian struggle has transformed somewhat from one of national liberation to civil and political rights, such rights are unlikely to be fully provided by an Israeli state. 

Does this mean the end of the Palestinian national cause? While the popularity of the Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas has been steadily plummeting, Black argued that there was never anything particularly liberating about the PLO ever since it was subsumed into the Palestinian Authority (PA) following the 1993 Oslo Accords. In fact, since then, the PA, with its quasi-government sitting in Ramallah, has acted more like a sub-contracted 'state within a state' whose mandate is to work on security co-ordination with the Israeli security apparatus.

Looking forward

As such, among Palestinians there has recently been greater calls for the Palestinian Authority to end this security cooperation with Israel. Towards the end of 2015 there were waves of ‘resistance attacks’ in the OPTs, reflecting a deep discontent with the status quo. However, these attacks did not translate into a fully-fledged resistance movement.

What can the international community do to shake up the status quo? According to Black, while the conventional framework for an independent Palestinian state is there, a tougher approach is required. More efforts must be made to balance the conflict’s asymmetrical power dynamics, for instance by conditioning relations with Israel on its abidance to international law and its cession to Palestinian human rights demands. In this vein, the banning of Israeli settlements products should be encouraged as an effort to exert pressure on the Israeli authorities and hold them accountable for its settlement policies against the Palestinians. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is completely correct to call for the boycott of Israeli settlements (although it could benefit from defining its goals more clearly).

Despite Trump's recent announcement declaring Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the international community does not accept that Israel has de jure sovereignty over the areas it took following 1967. However, so far, no one has been willing or able enough to change this reality.

Many thanks to Ian Black for giving this insightful talk, Julie Elliott MP for chairing it and everyone who attended and took part.