Ottoman empire

The Ottoman empire: 1534-1918

Ottoman rule over the region of Palestine and Syria lasts for almost four centuries from the arrival of the sultan and his army in 1534. The region is ruled for most of that period by a provincial administration in Damascus. From time to time there is unrest, turmoil and violence - but as if in a vacuum. Firm Ottoman control seals the area from outside influence or intrusion apart from a couple of brief periods. For a few months in 1799 Napoleo dominates the area. A longer and more significant interlude is the period from 1831 to 1840, when Mohammed ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, seizes Palestine and Syria from his own master, the sultan.

The military campaign is conducted by Mohammed ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who becomes governor general of the region. He rules rather better than the Ottoman administration, allowing a degree of modernisation. But Britain, Austria and Russia come to the aid of the sultan in 1840, forcing Mohammed ali to withdraw his armies to Egypt.

During the following decades the most significant development is the beginning of the settlement of European Jews in Palestine in the late 19th century. But it is World War I, when Turkey sides with Germany, that changes the region out of recognition, ending the Ottoman centuries and bringing into existence the modern territories of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (the region now including Israel), Jordan and Iraq.

When the Turks enter the war, in 1914, the hereditary emir of Mecca (Husayn ibn Ali) sees a chance of extricating his territory from Ottoman rule. He secretly begins negotiating with the British. By June 1916 he is ready to launch an Arab revolt along the Red Sea coast.

The most effective part of this uprising is conducted by Faisal, one of Husayn's sons, in conjunction with T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer seconded for the purpose. Together they attack the most strategically important feature in the region, the railway which runs south from Damascus, through Amman and Ma'an, to Medina. This is the only route by which the Turks can easily send reinforcements to Arabia.

The policy succeeds and by the summer of 1917 the Arabs have moved far enough north to capture Aqaba. This is achieved on July 6 in a dramatic raid by Lawrence and some Arab chiefs with a few hundred of their tribesmen. Together they kill or capture some 1200 Turks at a cost of only two of their own lives.

The port of Aqaba occupies an important position at the head of the gulf of the same name. It offers relatively easy access up towards the Dead Sea. Faisal's army is now well placed to support a British thrust into Palestine, by operating from the desert region of the Negev to bring pressure on the eastern flank of the Turks.

During the winter of 1916 the British have been laying a railway along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula. This makes possible an attack on Gaza, the gateway into Palestine. But on two separate occasions - in March and April 1917 - the campaign is seriously bungled. As a result a new commander, Edmund Allenby, is brought in. He succeeds in taking Gaza on November 7. He follows this with the capture of Jerusalem a month later, on December 9. So by the end of 1917 the Allies are making good progress, but they are still a long way from the frontier of Turkey itself.

With massive armies confronting each other on the western front, these events in Palestine seem a long way from the centre of the action. And it is on the western front that the final and conclusive stage of the war will be fought.

Empire dismembered: 1920

When Germany seeks an armistice, in early November 1918, the war ends. Delegates to the peace conference gather in Paris two months later. Their task is a complex one – working out the precise terms that will be imposed if a treaty is to be signed with each of the defeated nations. The treaty with the Ottoman empire is the last to be agreed, not being signed until August 1920 at Sèvres.

Its terms are harsh. The empire is to be entirely dismantled, with all the middle-eastern provinces previously under Turkish control now made the responsibility of France and Britain as mandated territories. The division between the two European nations has already been agreed between them, foreseeing this possible outcome if Turkey is defeated. In 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement has been signed. Its details have been negotiated by François Picot for France and Mark Sykes for Britain. Their proposed borders, drawn in a fairly arbitrary fashion, are adopted when the League of Nations in 1920 allots to France the mandate for Syria and Lebanon and to Britain the mandate for Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

Palestine is predictably a problem area because Britain has in 1917, just three years before the treaty of Sèvres, declared its support for the Zionist campaign to include in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people. Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary has done so in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of Britain's Jewish community.

The letter, subsequently known as the Balfour Declaration, states: His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

This becomes both a powerful document in support of the Zionist movement but also, in the longer term, a programme that has not been achieved. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can argue forcefully today that within the region of Palestine their civil and religious rights have been prejudiced.

The encouragement given by the Balfour Declaration is a major factor in the growth of Jewish immigration to Palestine. From the 1880s to the Balfour Declaration the average number of new arrivals has been about 900 per year. Following the Declaration, during the 1920s, that goes up to 12,000 per year. And the terrifying rise in anti-Semitism during the 1930s, not only in Nazi Germany, increases that figure again to 30,000 per year. This brings the Jewish population from 5% of the Palestinian Arabs in 1880 to more than 40% in 1939.

In the treaty agreed at Sèvres it is specifically stated that Palestine is to be an exception to the principle of self-determination that defines League policies elsewhere, with local decisions based on a majority vote within a region. Clearly in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Arabs in Palestine outnumber the Jews, self-determination by the Arabs would prevent the creation of a homeland for the Jews.

Brfitish mandate

British Mandate: 1922-39

The hardest task confronting Britain is to keep the peace between the Jews and the more numerous population of Palestinian Arabs, resenting the arrival of so many foreigners and well aware of the Zionist dream of creating a state of Israel.

During the 1920s the policy of Britain in relation to these two rival communities is unclear and vacillating. At first Jewish immigration is encouraged, in keeping with the Balfour Declaration, but problems arising from Arab opposition soon modify this policy.

From the very start, from the announcement of the British mandate (not formally established until 1922), there are clear indications of the strength of hostility within the Arab community. As early as 1920 there are attacks on Jews, resulting in a few deaths, in four days of rioting during the annual Nebi Musa festival in and around Jerusalem. These attacks, followed by more serious ones in 1921, prompt the formation of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary group of volunteers committed to the defence of Jewish settlements.

They also prompt the first concession to Arab opinion. The British are well aware of the need to avoid giving offence to neighbouring Arab states and to the millions of Muslims in India. In the short term immigration is suspended, followed by a promise that henceforth it will be strictly controlled.

During the rest of the period between the wars there is a gradual increase in inter-communal violence. A particularly extreme outburst occurs in 1929. Beginning with an Arab attack on Jews at the Western Wall of the Temple (also known as the Wailing Wall), fighting rapidly spreads throughout Palestine. Within the next few days 133 Jews are killed and 87 Arabs, many of the latter by British troops trying to restore order.

An Arab general strike in 1936, accompanied by a demand for an immediate end to Jewish immigration, leads to another major outbreak of violence, resulting this time in 80 Jewish and'140 Arab deaths as the British struggle to maintain order.

The British response is to set up a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, to investigate possible solutions to an increasingly dangerous situation. The Peel Report (1937) concludes that reconciliation is impossible and that the only solution is to set up two states, with the Jews occupying a small territory in the north of Palestine and Jerusalem retained as a permanent British mandate. Reluctantly the Jews accept this proposal, on the grounds that a small state is better than none, but it is categorically rejected by the Arabs.

British Mandate: 1939-48

With a greatly increased number of British troops during World War II in this strategically important region, the level of violence between the two communities of Palestine is much reduced. But this soon ceases to be the case after the war.

It is by now evident to both Palestinians and Jews that the departure of the British must soon be imminent and that this will inevitably be followed by armed conflict. This perception emphasizes the need for each side to increase their military strength. The Palestinians have the support of the recently formed Arab League of which all the neighbouring Arab states are members. They make preparations to provide support for the Palestinians when needed.

In May 1947 the British government, interested by now only in a rapid departure, hands over to the United Nations the problem of finding a peaceful way forward. The UN sets up a Committee on Palestine. In August the committee recommends that the region be partitioned into an Arab and a Jewish state, very much along the lines of the British Peel Report of 1937 except that Jerusalem is to be administered under an international rather than British mandate. This solution is adopted by the General Assembly in November. As with the Peel Report, it is welcomed by the Jewish community but strongly opposed by the Arabs. In practice, however, it is entirely disregarded in Palestine, where the violence between Jews and Arabs is dramatically increasing, so much so that the period between November 1947 and May 1948 is often referred to by historians as the Civil War.

Two atrocities stand out in particular as examples of the methods now employed by extremists on both sides. On 9 April 1948 the small Arab village of Deir Yassin stands in the way of a band of Jewish paramilitaries who are moving towards Jerusalem in an attempt to frustrate a Palestinian blockade. Their attack on the village leaves more than 100 people dead, including women and children. A few days later, in an ambush at Hadassah on a road into Jerusalem, an Arab reprisal is carried out on a medical convoy to a hospital on Mount Scopus, killing seventy-seven Jewish doctors and nurses. And there are many lesser acts of terrorism against both communities.

Early in 1948 Britain announces that the mandate will end on May 14. Knowledge of the date only serves to intensify the preparation of both sides for the conflict ahead.


The first Arab-Israeli War: 1948-9

In the afternoon of May 14, the last day of the Mandate, Ben Gurion proclaims the creation of the state of Israel and signs the Declaration of Independence. On that same day Egyptian aircraft bomb Tel Aviv. On May 15, when the last British soldiers leave, Iraqi troops cross the Jordan. That night Syrian troops with thirty armoured vehicles come down from the Golan Heights, while Israeli soldiers march seven miles into Lebanon to blow up a strategic bridge. The first Arab-Israeli War has begun.

Areas of Palestine are clearly identifiable by the relative number of Jews and Arabs in each, forming the basis of the UN plan for partition. It immediately becomes of paramount importance for each side to defend and if possible to enlarge the territory allotted to it by the UN. On the Israeli side this is helped by the increasing panic felt by ordinary Palestinian villagers, many of them opting already for flight to other parts of Palestine or to neighbouring Arab countries. In other parts of the newly declared Israeli state Arabs are forcibly expelled from their villages. By the end of June more than 300,000 are refugees, to be followed soon by many others – thus beginning the problem which more than sixty years later remains a major obstacle to achieving peace in the region.

During the first two days of the war troops from Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Egypt advance on different fronts. They number in all about 15.000 men. But Israel is by now very much better prepared for conflict than could have been expected. Six months previously, at the time of the UN resolution, its army, an enlarged version of Haganah, had numbered 4,500; now it is more than 36,000. The UN desperately tries to negotiate a truce between the sides, to give a breathing space and the opportunity to achieve a political settlement. A four-week truce (known now as the First Truce) begins on June 11.

The ceasefire itself holds for all but the last day of the four weeks, but both sides disregard its terms by taking the opportunity to prepare for its end, in particular by moving fresh troops to the front lines. The Israelis also almost double the size of their army (from about 35,000 to more than 60,00) and contrive a significant increase in their armaments and ammunition.

During the four-week truce the negotiator appointed by the UN, the Swedish Count Bernadotte, proposes a new partition plan which is rejected by both sides, so full-scale fighting resumes on July 8. But after further UN efforts a second truce begins ten days later. This time it holds longer (no time limit has been placed on it at the start) and in September Bernadotte proposes a new partition. Again it is rejected by both sides. But it also provokes a violent response from Lehi, the most extreme of the Israeli paramilitary groups. On the day after the new proposal of partition is published, September 17, they ambush and assassinate Count Bernadotte, fearing that the Knesset might accept his terms (unknown to Lehi, its members have already voted to reject it).

Five days after the assassination, on September 22, the Knesset passes into law an act, the Area of Jurisdiction, which dramatically alters the nature of the conflict. Instead of appearing to defend the area allotted to it in the various partition plans, the state is now officially fighting to extend it. The act declares that the area already captured and any land to be captured in future is annexed as part of Israel.

By the end of the war Israel's territory has been extended to the north and to the south and by the occupation of part of the West Bank. The other region of the West Bank, bordering the Jordan river, is captured during the war by the forces of Transjordan. In the south Egypt has gained control of Gaza.

But Israel's increase of territory has created an extra 600,000 Palestinian refugees, fleeing from their farms and villages. By 1952, just three years after the departure of the British, 1,400,000 people, a quarter of Israel's population, are housed in properties owned by Palestinian Arabs.

The war years have also revealed a factor that will remain a constant in the region. The Arab nations have been shown to be disorganized and weakened by mutual rivalries, while the state of Israel, less than a year old, has discovered a national cohesion, a passionate commitment by all its citizens and a military strength that will stand it in very good stead in future conflicts.

Post-war tensions: 1967-71

Although full-scale war has ended, the years after 1949 are never peaceful. Israel, surrounded by hostile states openly committed to its destruction, is subject to constant raids across the border from all directions and sometimes reacts with extreme cautionary reprisals.

At this stage there is no Palestinian authority to control the region. The effective authority is the Arab League, established in Cairo in 1945 with six members – Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan , Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war, the league sets up the All-Palestine Government, a body largely symbolic since it is based in Cairo, is under the influence of Egypt, has minimal executive powers and can exercise those only in Gaza, the part of Palestine captured by the Egyptians in the war.

In April 1950 Jordan announces its annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a move strongly opposed by other members of the Arab League. The king, Abdullah I, changes the name of the country to Jordan, reflecting its extension to both sides of the river. And to create a cohesive country within its new borders Jordan offers citizenship to Palestinians. An unintended result is that the country is now effectively a safe haven for the fedayeen, militants dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

Two such groups emerge in the mid-1960s. The first of the two, founded in 1964, is the Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine, soon to be known by an acronym, Fatah, deriving from its name in Arabic. Its constitution states that one of its goals is 'the eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence'. .Its leader is Yasser Arafat who becomes – and remains for another forty years – the internationally accepted representative of the Palestinians. His influence is further emphasized when he also becomes, in 1969, the leader of another large group dedicated to the same cause – the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO.

The PLO, first proposed at an Arab summit in Cairo in 1965, is designed to combine the diplomatic and financial strength of Israel's Arab neighbours, sharing the expressed intention of 'liquidating Israel' (a phrase in the founding manifesto).

These two groups, Fatah and PLO, become so powerful and dangerous in Jordan that they represent what is often described as a state within a state. From 1967, when Israel defeats Jordan and takes control of the West Bank, the crisis east of the Jordan intensifies, becoming in effect a war between militant Palestinian groups and the Jordanian army. Finally, in 1971, Jordan prevails and succeeds in expelling all Palestinian militants from the country.

Refugees and settlers: 1967-83

The effects on the entire region of the 1967 war are massive. Israel has been able to occupy a vast swathe of Palestinian territory, consisting of the West Bank up to the Jordan river and east Jerusalem (taken from Jordan). The taking of the West Bank means that more than a million Palestinian refugees, some from the 1948 war and some from this one, are now in territory occupied by Israel – potentially storing up terrible problems in the future.

There is initial hope by many that this situation can be used to secure international guarantees for Israel's security within the 1948 borders. The country is now in control of a vast territory, with a huge indigenous population, that can be used as bargaining power in a negotiation of land for peace. But the chance of this happening soon diminishes owing to Israel's new policy of building Jewish Settlements in many parts of the occupied territory.

This policy is reinforced after 1977 when the Israeli political party Likud heads the government for the first time after nearly 30 unbroken years with Labour in power. The new prime minister is Menachem Begin. In broad terms the difference between the two Israei parties is that Labour has been left-wing and secular, judging the relationship with the Palestinians in practical terms of Israel's security. The party is therefore willing to make compromises where they coincide with that overriding purpose. Likud is more right-wing and dogmatically more religious, in the sense of seeing the Jewish homeland as the entire area described in the Bible three thousand years ago. One of Begin's first acts on coming to power is to make it government policy always to refer to the West Bank as Judaea and Samaria.

Begin's renaming of the West Bank has an immediate practical influence on Israeli policy. If this area is to be part of Israel, it makes strategic sense to build more Settlements in different parts of the territory. The more scattered but well-defended Settlements there are, the harder it will be for a viable Palestine state to be established. This chimes with Likud's categorical rejection of the two-state solution.

The scale and pace of settlement increases, even though President Carter warns Israel that America is strongly opposed, emphasizing that settlement in occupied territories as illegal under international law. In spite of this, Israelis are now being enticed to settle with the offer of financial benefits – cheaper houses, lower mortgage rates, tax advantages. By 1983 there are 20,000 settlers in the Palestinian territories, many of them very close to densely populated Arab areas, and a target is announced of 100,000 by the end of the decade.

Since the 1980s

Successes and setbacks in the peace process: to 2000

The 1980s see one isolated development that is helpful to the peace process, when in 1988 Yasser Arafat declares that the PLO renounces 'terrorism in all its forms'. However in 1987 Hamas (acronym in Arabic for 'Movement for Islamic Resistance') has been founded in the occupied territories to lead armed resistance against Israel. And in the same year an Intifada begins against Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

This First Intifada lasts for several years and brings a high number of casualties, with the Israeli army killing more than 1000 Palestinians. The aggression against the soldiers is most often by boys throwing stones, sometimes by Molotov cocktails, and occasionally towards the end by the use of firearms. The heavy-handed nature of the Israeli response serves to escalate the anger and the level of resistance.

From 1992 the Israeli prime minister is Yitzhak Rabin, the leader of the Labour party. His period in power includes a hopeful movement towards peace. Secret discussions with the PLO about ways forward are held during 1992 and 1993 with Shimon Peres, by now foreign minister, representing Israel. By the autumn of 1993 these meetings yield promising results. On September 9 Rabin sends a letter to Yasser Arafat recognising the PLO and Arafat sends a letter to Rabin renouncing violence and officially recognizing the state of Israel.

The majority of the meetings have been in Oslo and the agreement becomes known as the Oslo Accords. Its main provision is the establishment of an interim Palestinian National Authority that will have a measure of control over the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The intention is for this to lead to Israel gradually yielding more autonomy to the Palestinians. When Rabin announces the agreement, he declares "We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears ... enough!"

The formal signing is in the USA, presided over by President Clinton. It ends with a historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat. The two of them, together with Shimon Peres, are awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. But the Israelis are passionately divided on the wisdom of this step. Like Sadat earlier on the Muslim side, Rabin pays with his life for offering a gesture of friendship. At the end of a rally in Tel Aviv in 1995, in support of the Accords, he is shot by a radical Orthodox Jew.

The Palestinian National Authority is duly formed, in 1994, with Arafat as its president and prime minister. For the first time the Palestinians are represented by an institution soon accepted round the world as their legitimate voice.

The following years, up to the millennium, see continuing efforts to further the peace process. In 1996 Likud returns to power in Israel, with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. He is temperamentally inclined to the right-wing Likud stance of minimum negotiation with the Palestinians, but in 1998 Netanyahu and Arafat – under the guidance and coaxing of President Clinton – sign the Wye River Memorandum (named from the conference centre in the USA where the negotiations have taken place). In it Netanyahu commits Israel to transferring more territories to the control of the Palestinian National Authority, which is duly done.

In 2000 a new prime minister in Israel, Ehud Barak, continues the process. He responds to another peace effort by President Clinton. Negotiations are to take place with Yasser Arafat, this time at the presidential country retreat, Camp David. The aim is to find a lasting plan to end the Palestinian-Israeli problem, by now deeply rooted. Barak offers Arafat a proposal for a new Palestinian state, in a dramatic break from Israeli opposition to a two-nation solution. Arafat rejects the proposed borders as unacceptable.

From this point on, for various reasons, things get steadily worse.

Suicides settlements and the barrier: from 1993

From 1993 a terrifying feature of life within Israel has been suicide attacks by Palestinians, with responsibility claimed mainly by Hamas, but also by two other groups, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Fatah. A peak is reached in 2002, with 47 bombings during the year. The death toll up to 2008 is more than 800. This is a tragic waste of life, both of young Palestinians and of their much more numerous and randomly selected victims. It is a certain way of increasing the hostility of most Israelis to the Palestinian cause.

An equally certain way of hardening attitudes within the Palestinian population is the continuing Israeli policy of building Jewish settlements on their land. Starting soon after 1967, when the entire Palestinian region fell into Israeli hands, the establishment of permanent settlements in the occupied territories has been strongly condemned, by the United Nations and by most of the major countries in the world, as being illegal under international law. Yet the number and size of new settlements has increased dramatically – from 20,000 settlers in 1983 to 300,000 in 2013, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan heights.

The suicide bombers have presented Israel with a major security problem.. The danger of suicides is eventually solved by far more stringent checks at the borders and a closer watch on the streets. Meanwhile the defence of settlements in and near Jerusalem prompts a much more controversial solution. It is the creation of the West Bank barrier. With construction starting in 2000, this 430-mile-long obstacle is intended to keep out intruders. But it is also calculated to enclose nearly 10% of the Palestinian West Bank.

Most of the barrier is a fence with trenches impassable by vehicles, but approximately 40 miles skirting Jerusalem consist of an 8-metre high concrete wall. In 2004 the International Court of Justice decides that "the construction of the wall, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law". Nevertheless in one respect it has served its purpose. Since 2008 there have been virtually no successful suicide attacks within Jerusalem.

The Second Intifada: 2000-05

The years following the millennium bring a new crisis – the beginning of a second intifada. There are several reasons for the new outbreak of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, where frustration has been steadily building. Some maintain that an uprising has been planned for some months by Yasser Arafat. But one very provocative gesture in 2000 by a new leader of Likud, Ariel Sharon, is often quoted as the trigger that ignites a very tense situation.

Sharon plans a visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, treated by custom as being under Muslim control since the enclosure contains two of their most holy buildings, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. Sharon arrives in the area with several hundred Israeli police officers, aiming to make the point that there is no region in the country that is not under Israeli control. The affront leads to Palestinian riots the next day. Demonstrators provoke the police with a barrage of stones. The police respond with rubber-coated metal bullets, killing 4 people and injuring about 200.

The uprising continues for five years, in a series of incidents reaching levels of violence far exceeding that of the first intifada thirteen years previously. It is calculated that the number of dead, military and civilian, is about 3000 Palestinian and 1000 Israelis. There is no precise reason for the gradual easing of the intifada in late 2004 and early 2005, though the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 lessens the intensity of the conflict. He is succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the PLO, and in January 2005 Abbas becomes president of the Palestinian National Authority.

Abbas immediately takes serious steps to prevent Hamas continuing the violence and in particular to stop them attacking Israeli settlements with rockets and mortar fire (usually ineffectual apart from psychologically). Sharon, impressed by this, agrees to meet Abbas at a summit in Sharm-al-Sheikh in February 2005, sitting round a table with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

A deal is done. Both leaders agree to bring violence by their side to an end and Sharon promises the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners. Over the following months Sharon is as good as his word. He has already, in 2004, persuaded the Knesset to back his bold plan to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza and resettle the settlers living there. In August 2005 this is put into effect. The settlers leave, many of them having to be forcibly evicted, after which the troops depart from Gaza.

Recent politics in Palestine

Fata and Hamas: since 2005-07

After 2005 a rift develops between the two major groups representing the interests of Palestinians. Fatah, in its early years justifiably regarded as a terrorist organization, is now a political party. Hamas by contrast remains true to its paramilitary origins and regards sudden attacks on Israeli not as acts of terrorism (the definition of them by most other nations) but as tactics in a war of liberation against an occupying force. Hamas, therefore, cannot be controlled by Fatah or forced to end its policy of aggression.

Since the formation of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994 Fatah has governed the whole of Gaza and the West Bank, within the practical limits imposed by Israel. But in 2006 this changes dramatically. In the election of that year Hamas wins 76 of the 132 seats in the parliament, including an even larger proportion in Palestine's largest city, Gaza, with a population of nearly half a million.

In 2006 and 2007 there are efforts to achieve a national government as a coalition between Fatah and Hamas, but hostilities between them are too great for this to become a practical reality. In June 2007 fighting breaks out between the two sides in what is now known as the Battle of Gaza. Within a week, and after more than 100 deaths, Hamas are the clear winners. They remove all Fatah officials from the Gaza Strip and take control of the city, leaving Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas with power only in the West Bank.

Hamas is extremely popular in Gaza, partly for its hard-line policy in relation to Israel but more so because it provides a much valued welfare service, using much of its large budget (mainly from Muslim countries and organizations sharing its religious fundamentalism) to support schools, orphanages, health clinics, food kitchens and sports clubs.

Politics and peace: since 2005

Along the Gaza border in recent years a mood of confrontation and unease on both sides is a constant factor, on the Israeli side because settlements and towns in the south are regularly the targets of rockets launched by Hamas and by a few smaller terrorist groups, and on the Palestinian side because of the danger of reprisals when Israeli patience is stretched too far.

Every two or three years Israel launches military interventions into Gaza. The longest and most violent is the three-week Operation Cast Lead (more commonly known as the Gaza War) in the winter of 2008-2009. This follows a dramatic increase in the number of rocket attacks during the previous months on Israeli settlements and towns in the south, and it does major damage within Gaza. Because of Israel's vastly greater military power the different level of casualties for the two sides is striking – about 1200 Palestinian deaths and 13 Israeli, four of them from friendly fire.

In all this there is no change, although gestures of peace are regularly made. In 2009 Hamas, for example, breaks with its founding principle of total opposition to the existence of Israel in any form. It offers to recognize the state of Israel on various conditions – that Palestinians have a right of return to Israel, that Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders and that all settlements in the West Bank are removed, enabling a cohesive Palestinian state to exist with East Jerusalem as its capital. Hamas can confidently make such an offer knowing that Israel will reject it.

The life of more than a million Palestinians in the refugee camps (both within and outside Palestine, in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) is a major welfare catastrophe, with by now two or three generations born in the camps and still living there. Their condition is the result of past war and conflict and their relative well-being is the responsibility of the UN agency UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).

By contrast the life of half a million Palestinians in Gaza, severely restricted in their own territory in terms of movement and supplies and with a resultingly low standard of living , is the result of Israeli policies (albeit in response to frequent threats) and is regarded by many around the world as a major stain on Israel's reputation. It is widely agreed internationally that the only solution is two separate states.

However much diplomatic compromises may seem to move the peace process in that direction, there is a profound obstacle. A Palestinian state is not viable if it has to make its way round enclaves belonging to Israel, yet the removal of 300,000 settlers from the West Bank seems a practical impossibility. The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians remains the world's most intractable political problem.

Towards statehood?: since 1988

There is a long-running political campaign by Palestine to be accepted as an internationally recognized independent state. It dates from 1988, when Yasser Arafat announces a Palestinian Declaration of Independence. This in effect finally accepts the UN plan of 1947, recognizing Israel as existing legitimately within the region allocated to the Jews in that document and similarly proclaiming the new state within the related Palestinian borders. The UN in principle accepts this concept and soon nearly 100 nations have recognized Palestine.

In 1998 the PLO is accorded the status of a UN observer with its own seat within the wider chamber of the General Assembly, and in 2012 the General Assembly replaces the PLO with the State of Palestine in the position of a 'non-member observer state'. As yet this is but a name since it does not in fact recognize Palestine as a state (all existing states are automatically full members of the UN). It is a compromise during a larger debate concerning a much more significant demand.

Mahmoud Abbas receives a standing ovation in November 2012 when he addresses the General Assembly and presents Palestine's application to be accepted as a full member of the United Nations. He fails on this occasion but he has announced that he will apply again in an on-going process.
Arrow Arrow
Page 1 of 5
Arrow Arrow