In part I of this series, we learnt about the waves of migration of Jews from Europe to Palestine and the eventual formation of the state of Israel. The infant nation emerged victorious from a civil war between Jews and Arabs, as well as the 1948 war with Arab states. However, its problems were far from over.
How Israel survived
As a new nation, Israel faced economic difficulties, insecure borders, political and social upheaval. It had the enormous task of settling Jewish immigrants, primarily from Arab countries, as well as a significant number of Holocaust survivors.
The scholars call the Israeli society in the initial years a ‘mobilised society' - a society where collective good took precedence over the individual aspirations.
Israel adopted a parliamentary form of government based on liberal democratic principles; however, provisions like military rule over the Arab population in rural areas (abolished in 1966) continued. The constant security threat gave rise to a culture of patriotic militarism.
The Arab states were collectively defeated in the 1948 war and signed an armistice agreement with Israel. For the latter, armistice, if not permanent peace, was desirable as it had to focus on other problems of a new state - especially the Jewish immigrant influx. Israel was hoping that the ceasefire boundaries would turn into permanent borders.
However, the Arab states continued the hostilities. They blocked the waterways, cutting Israel’s access to the outside world. Infiltration camps came up at the borders, from where Palestinian refugees or terrorists (or both) tried to enter Israel. There were not only many shooting incidents at the border but also deadly clashes that resulted in mass casualties. Some of the Israeli defence operations left dozens of Arab civilians across the border dead.
Tensions increased in the 1950s with the nationalisation of the Suez canal, the arms deal between the Soviet Union and Egypt, the continued terrorist infiltration, etc.
Egypt blocked Israeli ships in the Suez canal. In turn, Israel (in alliance with Britain and France) attacked it. Within three days of fighting, Israel captured the Gaza strip and most of the Sinai desert. Under international pressure, it returned Sinai to Egypt. However, United Nations (UN) forces were positioned in Sinai and Gaza Strip afterwards, which prevented any further infiltration to Israel from these areas. Also, the Straits of Tiran were reopened for Israeli ships.
Overall, Israel had demonstrated its power both to itself and to the world. At the same time, massacres that blemish Israel’s record also occurred, like that in Kfar Qasim, in which close to 50 civilians, unaware of the curfew imposed earlier that day, were killed by the Israeli border police.
The Israeli court found that the command to kill civilians was “blatantly illegal” and ruled that soldiers must disobey manifestly illegal orders.
The cost of the war and mass immigration of impoverished Jews (mainly from the Middle East after Israel’s formation) - Israel was on the verge of economic collapse.
The Israeli government reached a reparation agreement with West Germany, whereby the latter paid money to the state of Israel and the Holocaust survivors. This move raised controversy in Israel. The right-wing criticised the labour government for selling out and denigrating the memory of slain Jews by making money off of them.
This, along with US annual aids and bonds purchased by American Jews helped Israel.
Israeli government followed a state-led development model. Agriculture was defined as a national priority, agricultural settlements were taken up, and irrigation projects were launched (the national water carrier brought water from the Sea of Galilee to the south). Next, the state of Israel focused on industrial and urban development.
Between the late 60s and 70s, Israel fought two more wars.
The 1967 war (known as Six-Day War) resulted in a stunning victory of Israel even as it fought a two-front war against Egypt and Jordan. Within six days, it captured Gaza strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt, Golan Heights from Syria, and West Bank from Jordan. Access to East Jerusalem and historical Jewish sites sent waves of euphoria amongst the Israelis.
The UN resolution that followed took account of the Israeli security situation and made peace with Israel a condition for latter's withdrawal from the territories that were taken in that war - the land for peace formula.
Interestingly, the resolution doesn’t mention Palestinians by name and only talks about peace between Israel and other Arab states.
The 1967 war changed Israel’s perspective in many ways. The freshly occupied territories provided a sense of security. Golan Heights secured water sources to the country, and the top of the Hermon Mountain provided a new strategic asset. The vast area of Sinai created a buffer zone while the West Bank provided a defensive buffer between Israel and the Arab states east of the Jordan river like Jordan and Iraq.
But the war also brought challenges, the most significant one being the demographic one. Over two million Palestinians - majority of them refugees - in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - were now under Israeli control.
For both cultural (Jewish holy sites) and security reasons, Israelis were averse to ceding the occupied territory. The Israeli government approved the policy of encouraging settlements for defense purpose in selected new territories. The people in these territories continue to be under Israeli occupation with limited freedom.
Currently, around 75 per cent of the Israeli population are Jews of all backgrounds, while close to 21 per cent are Arab of any religion other than Jewish.
The war also spurred industrial activity in Israel. The cheap labour from the occupied territories boosted the growth of firms and businesses. Support had poured in from the Jews around the world for the war effort, and in the ongoing Cold War, as USSR aligned itself with Nasser in Egypt etc., USA became Israel's closest ally and supporter.
In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur day - one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Israelis were surprised because they had been living under the assumption that the Arab nations wouldn’t attack them, given their military inferiority.
In the initial days, Arabs were successful, however, Israel soon reversed the trend. By the time the US and USSR intervened, Israeli armed forces were only 60 miles away from running over Cairo and 25 miles away from Damascus. The 1973 war made both Egypt and Syria aware of their limitations and hence, open for a compromise. Both signed agreements for the separation of forces at the border with Israel.
In 1975, Egypt signed a non-belligerence agreement with Israel, under which the latter returned the territories in Sinai. In 1979, at Camp David, a final treaty was signed, creating full peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt. The agreement dramatically altered the regional balance of power in Israel's favour. Since then, Israel hasn’t had to fight any wars with Arab states.
However, the 1973 war shook Israel. It made clear how dependent Israel was on the United States for weapons and financial aid; how oil was an effective instrument for political pressure - many countries yielded to the oil boycott and cut their diplomatic relations with Israel.
This diplomatic pressure forced Israel to withdraw from all territories it occupied at the end of the 1973 war. While agreements were signed with Egypt and Syria, border clashes and terror attacks continued. The economy was badly affected. For the first time since its formation, a right-wing party came to power in Israel.
Various non-government organisations sprang up. The Settlement Movement known as Gush Emunim advocated settling Jews in the occupied territories, making them a permanent part of Israel. The opposite Peace Now movement advocated withdrawal from the occupied territories. The Settlement Movement received significant backing after the 1977 victory of the right-wing Likud Party.
Despite not being recognised by the international community, which views the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as a violation of international law, the Settlement project has achieved impressive support within the Israeli society.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and successfully purged the military presence of PLO (accused of carrying out terror attacks in Israel) from there. PLO was weakened severely. In 1987, the Palestinians living in West Bank and Gaza spontaneously arose in an intifada, an uprising in which Hamas emerged as the leading Islamist organisation amongst the Palestinians.
This put the authority of PLO under a challenge. Meanwhile, Jordan also distanced itself from the Palestinians by walking away from the West Bank, and USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, leaving the USA - Israel’s closest ally - as the only superpower.
In these circumstances, PLO, fighting to prove itself relevant, started negotiating directly with Israel.
Israel, which found itself at the end of international criticism as well as suffered a drain on financial and political resources from the intifada, was also willing to reach a solution. The result was the Oslo Accords of 1993, followed by a peace deal with Jordan, which wanted to secure itself against the influx of Palestinians.
The accords provided for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza and the takeover by the Palestinian Authority in stages. The Accords didn’t mention a Palestinian state directly but contained the steps to one. Important issues like that of a designated border, the fate of Israeli settlement in these areas, Jerusalem etc., were left for later.
However, the Accords were a failure. Palestinian critics saw them as a capitulation to Israel because they prioritised recovering the whole of Palestine over statehood; the Jewish critics were averse to returning the territory because of religious and secular reasons, citing that PLO was not a reliable partner.
The Israeli settlements kept expanding, and suicide bombings kept happening. In three years, around 300 Israelis were killed in terror attacks. Both sides failed to reign in their extremists. In 1995, the Israeli PM who signed the Accords was assassinated by an extremist right-wing Jewish student.
One last serious effort to conclude an agreement with the PLO and finalise all elements of the Oslo Accords by Israel was made at Camp David in 2000 after the intervention of US President Bill Clinton.
Israel offered to withdraw from about 80 per cent of the West Bank. However, in the eyes of Palestinians, Israel itself was 78 per cent of what had historically been Palestine. For them, the West Bank and Gaza were just 22 per cent of Palestine, and they did not want to concede on that.
Both sides also reached an impasse over holy sites in Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian refugees’ right to return. Israel wanted to maintain its right as a sovereign nation to control who could enter its territory and said that unbridled immigration of Arab refugees would end its character as a Jewish state.
The failure of Camp David was followed by the second intifada, which was extremely violent. Within a few years, 1,000 Israeli lives were lost in suicide bombings.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally decided to withdraw from the Gaza strip, including the dismantling of every single Israeli settlement in that area. While this decreased the number of Palestinians under Israeli control by over a million, it didn’t significantly improve Israel’s security situation. Within a year of leaving, Hamas came to power in Gaza and has been attacking Israel.
Israel has imposed a series of border controls over Gaza. Gaza faces border closures from both Israel and Egypt, as well as the Israeli sea and air blockade. The living conditions are reportedly terrible in the third most densely populated polity. However, Hamas has brought in arms and ammunitions through the smuggling tunnels in Sinai and an open seaport.
Israel, in response to attacks of Hamas or Hezbollah, has responded ferociously with magnified force as a form of deterrence. In 2006, when Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol and killed two abducted Israeli soldiers, Israel responded with an all-out war that lasted for 34 days. The result was that Hezbollah has not attacked Israel again as Iran is unwilling to bear high costs over a minor conflict.
In dealing with terror groups, Israel faces the challenge of humanitarian entrapment - the terror groups fight Israel from densely populated civilian areas.
The peace process has practically been dead since the early 2000s.
In the next and last part of this series, we shall look at the reasons why things happened the way they happened, why the Israel-Palestine problem continues to evade a solution; and what the future holds.
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