The Israeli-Palestinian conflict holds a place in the global imagination as one of the most recognizable and persistent conflicts of modern times. The initiation of the fighting can be seen as a clash between two contemporary nationalist movements: Arab-nationalism and Jewish-nationalism, also known as Zionism. Both of these movements seek the establishment of, respectively, an Arab and a Jewish State in the disputed area. Although the fighting recognized as the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is generally said to have begun in 1964, the disagreements have their roots in much deeper historical grievances.

The claim to a Jewish state in the region historically known as Palestine has its roots in the formalization of the Zionist movement. Zionism originated in the late 19th Century with the publishing of Theodor Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), in which he outlined the need for the founding of a Jewish state. Zionists – those who agreed with Herzl’s main ideas – believed that the Jewish people should return to their homeland in Palestine, and so along with the founding of Zionism came massive Jewish immigration into Palestine, beginning in 1882. Most of the immigrants were displaced Jewish Europeans seeking to escape persecution, especially during and after the Holocaust. At the time of the state’s founding in 1948, the Jewish population of Israel was 650,000. In just over three years, the Jewish population had doubled, following the immigration of 688,000 more people. To date, more than four million Jewish people have immigrated to modern day Israel (that’s almost half of the current population of Israel).

Because the Zionist movement coincided with the Arab-nationalist movement, many Palestinians and even some other Arab states viewed the mass immigration of Jewish people into Palestine as an attack on their sovereignty. Many Palestinian Arabs had lived in the area for centuries, and with the founding of Israel they were pushed into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, up until 1921, there had been no official claim of Palestinian national sovereignty; Palestine was simply a region that had historically been controlled by eighteen different empires. In the 1930’s, some Palestinians resisted mass Jewish immigration in the form of riots that left many Jewish immigrants dead. The founding of the state of Israel and the future conflicts over the region displaced many native Palestinians, sending millions of refugees to surrounding Arab countries.

The ensuing conflict of the next 60 years led to the State of Israel occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Liberation Organization claiming sovereignty over the same territories. As of 2013, 134 member states of the UN have recognized the State of Palestine, but Israel has refused to relinquish control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 2007 saw the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the militant group Hamas and the start of the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of constant clashes between the Israeli government and Hamas. Most recently, the conflict has been characterized by Israel’s reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Defense Force has encountered much resistance from Hamas, and their occupation has been largely condemned internationally for what many see as a lack of regard for Palestinian civilian life. Hamas, on the other hand, has been accused of using these same civilians as human shields and seems to be seeing a decline in international recognition as the legitimate representative of Palestinian interests.

Historical claim to land is often a key decider in modern designations of sovereignty. However, both Palestinian and Israeli people have strong historical roots in the land. Seventy percent of Israeli Jews and just over eighty percent of Palestinian Muslim Arabs can claim ancient Palestinian ancestry. In the centuries before World War One, Jewish people and Palestinian Muslims lived together under the control of various other empires. So why do these forces now so hotly contest control of the region?

The persecution of Jews across Europe gave proponents of Zionism the motivation they needed to instigate massive Jewish migration into Palestine. However, justifying sovereignty on the basis of something necessarily exclusionary, like religion, will inevitably exclude other’s sovereignty. Perhaps the past peace in the region was based on a shared subjugation. It was easier for the peoples of Palestine to live together when sovereignty was safely out of their grasp and they were simply under the control of another group. Now, with two (or three) religious groups in the area each claiming independent control over the region, contested claims to sovereignty dominate its politics. In search of reconciliation, the current internationally touted solution is a proposed “two-state solution,” in which the State of Palestine would retain control of some of the region, and Israel would retain the rest.

Despite all the disagreement and the continuing conflict, in 2013 a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis supported the two-state solution. Yet, in spite of this sort of public agreement, conflict prevails in the region. Decades of fighting have created an intense distrust between the two peoples; Israel refuses to relinquish control over the Palestinian territories as long as Hamas continues to launch attacks against Israeli citizens, and Hamas refuses to disarm itself at the risk of the Israeli government continuing to persecute Palestinian people. Hamas launches attacks against Israeli civilians, designating it as a terrorist organization, however, the supposed undervaluing of Palestinian life compared to Israeli life shown in Israel’s tactics used against Hamas might also justify Palestinian outrage against the State of Israel. Perhaps some recognition of the sovereignty of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel would go a long way to mending old wounds: admitting past wrongs, on both sides, might help to build trust between these two nations.

This article was written by Cameron Ballard. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

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