Among the most persistently volatile regions in the world today, and for decades past, has been the portion of the Middle East formerly known as Palestine. The conflict began roughly in 1948, when the state of Israel was officially recognized by most of the world; though there were certainly some violent episodes that pre-dated Israel’s formal recognition. Involved in the ensuing conflict, which is ongoing, are two central parties: (1) Israelis—Jewish people that moved from all over the world (but primarily from Europe, in the wake of Hitler’s atrocities against not only Jews, but also homosexuals and so-called ‘gypsies’) to a segment of historical Palestine that had been carved out by the British. And (2) Palestinians—an Arab people, many of whom were living in the segment of historical Palestine that the British allocated for the Jews; and some of which emigrated there after 1948 from neighboring Arab countries such as Syrian and Jordan. The issues involved in the conflict are many, but three of the most important are: (A) Whether Israel has any legitimate right to be in historical Palestine; (B) Whether Israel should be forced to withdraw from their many occupations—most of which are illegal under international law—of Palestinian territories, such as the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; and (C) What to do about Palestinian acts of terror against Israel; along with what to do about the nearly one million Palestinians that were displaced, and in some cases, forcibly removed from their former home. The actual conflict takes the form of consistent and protracted violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
It should be acknowledged straightaway that how to describe this conflict, prominently including how and why Palestinians were removed from their former homes, is a hotly contested issue even among expert historians. Many would object to the way the problems are set out above. I can say only that I will state the nature of the conflict as I see it—supported by references to the work of historians, of course—and try to avoid saying anything that anyone will find offensive. Unfortunately there is little that one can say about the Israeli / Palestinian conflict that will not offend someone. Traditional, more pro-Israel accounts of the conflict are provided by Morris and Dershowitz; at the other extreme are the depictions offered by Chomsky and Finkelstein.

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There are two central reasons for the conflict, one corresponding to each of the participant’s perspectives on it. The first is that Israelis view themselves has having a legitimate right (some even think they have a divine right) to much or all of historical Palestine. Apart from the view that some hold that Israel was always a Jewish homeland—even before it was recognized as a state by the international community—there is the fact that many Jews viewed Israel as something that they deserved after the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Furthermore, since at least 1948 Israel has been attacked by Palestinians and other Arab states. They view the considerable violence that they have been involved in over the last three-quarters of a century or so as justified by their need to protect themselves and their land. With a measure of hyperbole, some Israelis view their frequent acts of war as necessary to protect and safeguard the very existence of Israel.

The other perspective is that of the Palestinians. They believe that they have been forcibly removed from their home in historical Palestine, through decrees that they never agreed to. Roughly 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by Israeli aggression, and it is a near certainty that they will never be allowed back to their homes; since Israel has occupied, and built hundreds of settlements on, the relevant portion of land. What Israel calls ‘acts of terror’ on the part of Palestinian individuals and groups, Palestinians tend to view as their only form of self-defense against Israeli aggression. Attitudes of Palestinians range from extreme—in the form of the view that Israel should be destroyed; to the moderate—in the form of the view that Palestinians should be allowed to take back at least a portion of their former homes; to the eminently reasonable—in the form of the view that Israel should at least refrain from taking more Palestinian lands and building additional walls dividing Palestinians from Israelis, as well as from each other.

It is important to understand how ethnicity figures into this debate and conflict, as well as how political and economic power are involved. Israelis and Palestinians undoubtedly have very different cultures and ethnicities. And there is definitely an imbalance of political and economic power between the two peoples. Three of the most important differences will be highlighted here.

First, while the Palestinians—including their diaspora—have little political or economic organization, few economic resources, and certainly nothing that could be considered a proper military, Israelis enjoy all of these things. Israel is given between $30- and $40 billion every year by the United States. It is also supplied with the very latest military technologies by the U.S. Israel has a functioning democracy and (at the very least) a rapidly developing, successful economy. What all of this adds up to is a tremendous imbalance of power. Israel can, and usually does, whatever it wants to; while the Palestinians must struggle even to survive. Many writers, including former Unites States’ President Jimmy Carter, have described the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians as closely mirroring that between whites and blacks in Apartheid South Africa.

Second, Israel regards itself as having an historical and even a divine right to the land of historical Palestine. Palestinians tend to disagree, of course, but there is little they can do about it. For their part, some conservative Israelis and traditional historians deny even the apparent fact that the Palestinians had a right to the land they inhabited prior to 1948, and the Six-Day War of 1967. Israelis of this stripe sometimes doubt whether there really were many Palestinians in that portion of historical Palestine carved out for Jews by the British. And they sometimes make an argument directly related to ethnicity—some have held that Palestinians had no true connection to the land, insofar as they even inhabited it. They are viewed as a transitory people, who can be happy anywhere, and who made no real use of the land, for example through the cultivation of agriculture. Palestinians of course tend to disagree with this.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Palestinians view Israelis as colonial occupiers of land not rightfully theirs. From this point of view, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is not different in substance from the colonization, for example, of the United States by European peoples a few hundred years ago—and this ‘colonization’ is widely regarded today as having amounted to something like a true genocide, and to involving ethnic cleansing. Obviously Israelis do not see themselves in this way. Instead of colonizers, they tend to view themselves as doing what is necessary to protect their existence, and the land that is theirs by legal and divine right.

Some of the most important elements of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have been reviewed here, as well as the ways in which ethnic differences and power imbalances figure into the conflict. Much remains controversial, and the subject is ripe for a slightly more dispassionate, objective historical account in the future, as compared to the polemics that are often written and published about it today.

  • Chomsky, Noam. Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. South End Press, 1999.
  • Dershowitz, Alan. The case for Israel. John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
  • Finkelstein, Norman G. Image and reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Verso, 2003.
  • Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998. Vintage, 2011.