Seventy years of tension between Israel and Palestine: Moving from commemoration to a just solution

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

NOTE: This article is a personal opinion by the author. It is not written in the name of Pax Christi International.

In this year, we mark 70 years since (1) the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR);[2] since (2) the establishment of Israel; and (3) then the tragic events that Palestinians call the “Nakba” – all of which occurred in 1948.

The State of Israel is unique in being the only country in the world with a Jewish majority. Some 75% of its 8.7 million people are Jewish; the rest are mostly Palestinian Arabs – predominantly Sunni Muslim but also Christians and Druze – whose presence pre-date the 1948 creation of Israel.

Dates deep in the memory of the two peoples

On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion[3] proclaimed the independent State of Israel, a joyous fact that is celebrated every year. For the Palestinians, however, the catastrophe, the Nakba, began. It meant for them the expulsion of their people, in which 440 Palestinian villages were destroyed and more than 700,000 Palestinians had to flee. To this day, many Palestinian refugees still have the keys to the houses from which they have been expelled. They too commemorate this day every year, with flags and keys, in the hope that they can ever return. The commemoration takes place one day later: on 15 May. On 15 May 2018 it is 70 years ago that the Palestinians were expelled from their homes.

The idea of a Jewish homeland, prompted by anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe, was first popularised by the Budapest-born Theodor Herzl,[4] elected as president of the First Zionist[5] Congress in 1897 in Basel. In 1904, he declared “Greet Palestine for me. I gave my heart’s blood for my people.”

After the First World War, Great Britain took control of Palestine. This control was formalized in 1923, when the League of Nations issued a mandate for the British to rule in the southern part of what has been Ottoman Syria.[6] The British Mandate for Palestine created two temporary protectorates, both set to expire on 14 May 1948. One protectorate was in Palestine, an attempt to fulfil the promise of the U.K. foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour in 1917 to support the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”[7] A second protectorate was in Transjordan, and was governed semi autonomously.

A period of growing unrest followed. Jews continued to settle in Palestine even as Palestinian Arabs demanded an independent state. The situation erupted in sporadic violence, with Arabs rioting against Jewish settlers and Zionists resisting – sometimes violently – the efforts of the British government to limit Jewish immigration. Once the horrors of the Shoah – the Holocaust[8] became known, Britain’s policy of resisting immigration of Jewish refugees into Palestine met with wide-scale revolt. Dissident Zionist forces carried out attacks on British forces and officials.

Partition plan for Palestine

Britain turned the problem over the newly created United Nations that developed a plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under Nations Nations control.[9] The UN General Assembly, at that time 57 countries, voted resolution 181 of 28 November 1947 in which the partition of Palestine speaks about an independent Jewish state (55% of the land) and an independent Arab state (44%), with Jerusalem (1%) under an international trusteeship. That resolution states also that Jerusalem should be the double capital for Israel (West) and of an Arab / Palestinian state (East) and it will be the Eternal City for the three monotheistic religions, with free access for all believers to the religious places in the Old City.

The Arab League denounced the plan also in the name of Palestinian Arabs. On the day the mandate was set to expire – 14 May 1948 – David Ben-Gurion, the executive head of the World Zionist Organisation and president of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, unilaterally declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” [10]

On 15 May 1948, the neighbouring Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq) attacked the Israeli. It took a year before a cease-fire could be established. Jordan annexed the West Bank, including East-Jerusalem. Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. During the lull, Israel sought and won admission to the United Nations. Significant numbers of states refused to acknowledge its right to exist. Today, more than 30 United Nations member states refuse to recognise the State of Israel.

Some 700.000 Palestinians either fled or were driven out to become refugees in the surrounding countries. 35% of the number of refugees in 1948 have been Christian. The Arab-Israeli war resulted also in the departure for Israel of some 700.000 Jews over a period of three years from Arab countries, such as Iraq; where their families have been resident for centuries.

Both peoples exist!

Israel and its legitimate security needs are recognised beginning with the state’s emergence of 1948, in UN guarantees for its existence, in the right to protect its people under international law, and in guarantees for the territorial integrity of all nations in the area including Israel. Palestinians have the right of self-determination; their duly elected governmental authorities must be recognised. Palestine should be recognised as an independent state. About 163 states have recognised Palestine as an independent state.[11]

70 years of Palestinian refugees

A serious remaining problem, also 70 years old, is the situation of the Palestinian refugees[12] – 3 or 4 generations long! Their condition represents the most protracted refugee situation in the world; things seem to be getting tougher by the day. Prospects for a fair and lasting solution to their plight appear as remote as ever.

They all live in about 60 camps (in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon). Many refugees left the region and live since then in the USA, Europe, Central and South America, Australia and Canada. Many of them, also in the diaspora, keep calling for a “right of return”. The refugee problem is one big break between Israel and Palestine. Every peace proposal is stranded on this separation of thoughts. Apparently insurmountable. A permanent solution for these people is urgently needed.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA)[13]  began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees.[14] It would only function temporarily. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services. The majority of Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory and from Syria rely on UNRWA to provide aid that is literally lifesaving, including food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

Inside Syria, UNRWA[15] is reaching over 400,000 Palestine refugees with cash assistance, one of the largest such programmes in an active conflict setting anywhere in the world. Despite the immense security challenges, UNRWA is providing education to over 47,000 Palestine refugees, supplementing regular classes with psychosocial support and safety-awareness training. For those unable to reach the classrooms, UNRWA has developed distance-learning materials.

UNRWA is facing calls for its dismantlement as well as the USA administration’s decision to contribute much less of the planned contribution. The impact of UNRWA not being able to provide its services to an already vulnerable and marginalised population would be catastrophic for the refugees, and for the stability of their host countries and the region as a whole. The UN General Assembly keeps supporting the UNRWA and continues to call for financial support. The refugees’ living conditions need to be improved!

Lessons learned

The British Mandate in Palestine ended in May 1948, before the territory could be peacefully divided, leading to a unilateral declaration of independence by Israel and unresolved conflict in the region. One of the lessons that can be drawn from this history is that the British mandate did not have a clear plan to govern the area. Palestine ended up in a large legal and political gap, a territory in which the chain of sovereignty had been broken. The newly established United Nations had no control over the events. Another lesson is the fact that what was conveniently overlooked at the time was the near-impossibility of reconciling a national home for the Jewish people (which Zionists saw as their future state) with the rights of the existing Arab population of what was then called Palestine.

The conclusion is that one of the characteristics of Israel is of being in a state of actual or threatened war ever since the proclamation of the country by David Ben-Gurion. It became since then a burning sense of injustice for Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular (the Palestinians refer to the 1948 creation of Israel as “al-nakba” – the catastrophe).[16]

Conclusion

Today, the peace process seems all but dead. A new peace process has to be put on the tracks. The United Nations and possibly silent diplomacy by a number of third countries must take initiative.

A just solution begins with the recognition of both Israel and Palestine as two independent states and Jerusalem as their capital city and as the Holy City for the three monotheistic religions. That includes of course the end of the more than 50 years of occupation and the beginning of a real peace process respecting all the basic rights of the two peoples, including security.

Peace in Israel and Palestine is inseparable from international peace. The conflict affects stability and security in the Middle East and in other regions.

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