By Maddie James
You’ve probably heard a lot in recent weeks about fighting in Israel and Palestine. Israeli students being murdered and missiles aimed into their borders; UN shelters in Palestine shelled and families forced to flee their homes.
And if you’ve been feeling a bit of déjà vu, it’s for good reason – this fighting is merely the latest manifestation of a long and complicated conflict that has its roots in ancient times. Here’s what you need to know.
Thousands of years ago, ancient Jewish people lived in the area that is today known as Israel, but they were forced to abandon their homelands by the Romans.
In Europe, where the majority of the Jewish people settled, anti-Semitism was rife, and as persecution of the Jews became more prolific in the late 19th and early 20th century, hundreds of thousands travelled from their homes and resettled in the land their ancestors had once occupied – which was by that stage, British-controlled Palestine.
Like the Jewish population in the area, Palestine, a predominantly Arab and Muslim nation, dated their claims to the land back thousands of years. They too had extremely important religious sites in the area.
But native Palestinians were not pleased with the influx of Jewish settlers, and the United Nations, in an attempt to end the conflict between these two groups, intervened in 1947 by formally creating Israel, granting the Jewish population the national, independent homeland they desired.
Palestinian land was divided, and although the Jewish settlers made up only one-third of the population in the area, they were given 55 per cent of the contested land. Suffice it to say, Palestine wasn’t pleased with the arrangement.
Tensions didn’t end there. A year afrer, Israel was created, the nation went to war with neighbouring Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israeli forces prevailed, and at the end of the conflict, Israel possessed 77 per cent of the contested land, and over 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their homes, creating a refugee crisis. Today, there are over seven million descendants of the refugees displaced in the 1948 war, seeking a right to return to the land they believe their families were forced to abandon.
In 1967, a war between Israel and Palestine left Israel in control of several key areas, home to large Palestinian populations:
– The West Bank, home to nearly three million Palestinians, as well as many Jewish settlers and several Jewish holy sites, which Palestine considers illegal occupation of their land;
– East Jerusalem, which was previously occupied by Jordan, and was condemned by the UN Security Council as an illegal annexation; and
– Gaza, a densely populated strip of land, mostly surrounded by Israel but overwhelmingly populated by Palestinians. The Gaza Strip was occupied by Israeli troops until 2005, and it continues to be subject to an Israeli blockade preventing goods like food, medicine and electricity from being moved into the area. This territory is currently under the control of Hamas, a militant resistance group that formed in response to Israel’s presence in the area and won political power in a 2006 election overseen by the US. Part of Hamas’s charter states the destruction of Israel as one of their key purposes.
So while Israeli forces and Hamas militants have been firing rockets at each other intermittently for years, in July 2014, the nations found themselves on the brink of war once more. On June 10 of this year, three Israeli students disappeared while studying in the West Bank. Israeli forces entered the Palestinian territory, accusing Hamas of abducting the young men, who were found dead 20 days after they went missing, apparently executed.
Since, in addition to several murders and attacks by militants, several schools declared as shelters by the United Nations were hit by missiles, and according to the UN, Israeli forces are responsible. On July 17, Israeli forces invaded Gaza, planning to destroy the tunnels Hamas had built to transport supplies like food and medicine around the Israeli blockade. Reports suggest that one in four Gazans fled their homes before Israel withdrew its troops on August 5.
For years, other nations have attempted to mediate peace talks between the countries, but to no avail. Two major options for solving the conflict have been debated. A “two-state” solution would involve establishing Palestine as an independent nation, with control of Gaza and the majority of the West Bank. The “one-state” solution would see all the land in dispute become either a large Israeli nation, or a large Palestinian one. The Australian government currently supports a two-state solution.
There have also been suggestions like financial compensation for Palestine, or limited resettlement in Israel, but leaders have never been able to agree on how to implement such a solution. Additionally, both sides have been unwilling to compromise on certain factors – Palestinian negotiators are insistent that the Israeli blockade preventing food, medicine and electricity from being delivered into Gaza must end, while Israeli forces are unwilling to discuss peace talks with a militant group that refuses to acknowledge their right to a homeland. Despite ongoing peace talks, it is uncertain whether a permanent ceasefire is likely to be reached.