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The complex history of the Israel-Palestine conflict

“It's not just about land, but it's about having the right to self-determination," said Dr. Serpil Atamaz, history professor at Sacramento State.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — The Israel and Palestine conflict is complex. It's rooted in national, political, territorial, cultural and religious factors. Israelis and Palestinians both want the same thing: land.

"One side has a state, the other one does not,” said Dr. Serpil Atamaz, professor in the Department of History and Director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program at California State University, Sacramento. “It's not just about land, but it's about having the right to self-determination. This is not a conflict between Jews and Muslims or Jews or Arabs. It doesn't go back to the biblical times or the Old Testament at all. This is relatively a modern conflict.”

The origins of the Israel and Palestine conflict can be traced back to the late 19th century. The Ottoman Turkish Empire ruled a large portion of the Middle East from 1516 to 1917, including the land along the eastern Mediterranean. The region was religiously diverse, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

"Judaism emerged in the Middle East, Islam emerged in the Middle East, and Christianity emerged in the Middle East, Atamaz said. "They shared the same place for hundreds of years under the Ottoman Empire and there was no war. What changed in the late 19th and early 20th century? We have a Jewish nation. We have British colonialism. That kind of changed the dynamics in the region."

The centuries-old Ottoman Empire fell after the Allied Powers defeated the Central Powers in World War I in 1918. Two years later, the League of Nations was established as an international organization to ensure world peace. In 1922, the League formally approved the decision to have Great Britain act as Palestine's administrator.

"Palestine had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for several centuries,” Atamaz said. “When the Ottoman Empire fell, and when Britain and France won the war, it became a British Mandate. It came under the British rule.”

According to the United Nations, the British Mandate for Palestine was meant to be temporary, only lasting until the League recognized Palestine as a fully independent nation. That point never was reached. 

The U.N. also has noted that the British government had given assurances to Zionist organizations about creating a Jewish state in Palestine. 

"Zionism was an ideology and a movement that aimed to establish a Jewish state in Palestine,” explained Atamaz. “According to the Zionists in Eastern Europe at the time, Jews constituted a nation. They were not just a religious group, but they were an ethnic group and they deserved their own state.”

The rise of religious and racist anti-Semitism led to a resurgence of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, stimulating Jewish immigration to Palestine from Europe. Simultaneously, a wave of Jews immigrated to Palestine from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq and Turkey. That's all according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), a nonprofit established in 1993 with a goal of strengthening ties between the U.S. and Israel. 

Even though Zionism originated in Europe in the late 19th century, some believe its roots are in the historical attachment between Judiasm and the lands that made up Palestine, historically speaking.  According to AICE, some Jews were motivated to immigrate to Palestine by "the centuries-old dream of the Return to Zion and a fear of intolerance."

"In Europe, Jews were being discriminated against, persecuted, and harassed,” Atamaz said. “So, they said, we need to establish our own state to be safe and secure. They chose Palestine to do that. 

"This was the age of nationalism. All these different nations and ethnic groups were demanding their own nation state and Jews did the same. However, there was a big problem because Palestine, where they wanted to create their state, was inhabited by an Arab majority who had been there for more than a thousand years.”

Local Arab leaders and organizations were against the Zionists' goal of Jewish statehood. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs were searching for an opportunity to either create their own state, or join a larger Arab entity.

“The Zionists knew that they needed to increase the number of Jews in the area so that they could have a claim on Palestine,” Atamaz said. “That's where the second development comes in. In 1917, during World War One, Great Britain announced the Balfour Declaration, which is a turning point in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 provided for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The declaration did not provide Palestinian Arabs with political or national rights, prompting Arabs to disapprove of the mandate and, over time, rebel.

"Great Britain supported the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine,” Atamaz explained. “However, another problem was that, just two years ago, Great Britain made another promise to the Arabs living in the region. They said Palestine was going to be a part of an independent Arab state that was going to be established after the war was over. 

"Under the British rule, there was Jewish migration to Palestine. The British rule allowed the Jews to come in, migrate to Palestine, settle in Palestine, and to purchase land in Palestine in spite of all the Arab resistance and opposition to it. There were increasing tensions and hostilities between the Jewish community and the Arab community in the region. A lot of Palestinians lost their homes and lost their jobs because of the Jewish emigration. Britain tried to satisfy both sides, which was really impossible because these two communities had different ideas and visions for this territory.”

British efforts to bring the Zionists and the Arabs together failed, ultimately, leading to the Arab Revolt of 1936. It was the first sustained violent uprising of Palestinian Arabs in more than a century. The British government appointed a commission to investigate a solution among Palestinian Arabs and Jews. In 1937, the Peel Commission recommended Palestine be partitioned into three zones: an Arab state, a Jewish state, and a neutral territory containing the holy places. 

As the riots were ending, the British government issued the White Paper in 1939. It rejected the commission's plan, stating it was "not feasible." According to AICE, the document stated Palestine would be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab one, but an independent state to be established within ten years. 

The White Paper also limited Jewish immigration in Palestine. Even though Palestine was closed off to Jews, they still desperately tried to immigrate to the region to escape Nazi-dominated Europe during World War II.

"In 1947, Britain decided to refer the matter to the United Nations as the violence escalated in the region," Atamaz said. "The United Nations decided to form a Special Committee On Palestine - UNSCOP. This committee went to Palestine, talked to people, made some investigations, and they came up with a plan. This partition plan said that there were going to be two states in Palestine. There was going to be a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. This plan was not accepted by Arabs in Palestine because even though only a third of the population was Jewish and the Jews owned only 10% of the land in Palestine, they were given 55% of the territory. The Palestinians ended up with 45%, even though they were the majority at the time. However, the Jewish community had been preparing for statehood since they migrated to Palestine. They had already formed organizations and institutions that they needed for self-government."

According to the National Army Museum, a leading authority on the British Army and its impact on society past and present,  Britain gave up its mandate in 1948. The British Army departed from Palestine leaving the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the war that followed. The campaign had cost around 750 British military and police lives. On May 14, 1948, Israel was officially declared an independent state.

“When Britain announced that it was withdrawing its troops from the region, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, declared the establishment of Israel as a new state in Palestine, which led to the first Arab-Israeli war because the neighboring Arab countries declared war on Israel to stop it from consolidating itself,” Atamaz said. “It ended with defeat for Arabs. Israel actually was able to even expand its territories.”

Under separate agreements between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria, these bordering nations agreed to formal armistice lines. In Israel, the war is remembered as the "War of Independence." Israel gained some territory formerly granted to Palestinian Arabs under the United Nations resolution in 1947. Egypt and Jordan retained control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively.

"Almost one million Palestinians were either forced to leave the region or had to flee because where they were living all of a sudden became Israel," Atamaz explained. "To this day, Palestinians remember the war as 'Nakba,' 'the Catastrophe,' that led to the displacement of Palestinians. There were three more wars between Israel and different Arab countries. The War of 1967 is the most important one. At the end of this war, Israel gained a big victory. It occupied the remaining Palestinian territories. Whatever was left in the hands of the Palestinians became an occupied territory. This occupation was supposed to be temporary. It was regarded illegal by the United Nations. However, the occupation continues to this day. The West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip are occupied territories, which means they are still under Israeli occupation.”


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