Idiot’s Guide to Israel/Palestine (Part 1)

It’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to wrap your head around the conflict between Israel and Palestine that’s been in the news recently – even more so when you know conflict, in some form, has been happening between the two countries for years. Though their fractured history deserved in-depth attention, as a starting point, here’s a brief overview of what’s happening between Israel and Palestine now, and a history of the violence that came before.


1. Who are Israel and Palestine?

Ezra Klein notes in his excellent summary of the current conflict that this preliminary question seems basic, but it’s integral to understanding what’s happening. Israel is straightforward – it’s a country in the Middle East, next to Egypt. It’s home to almost eight million people, three quarters of whom are Jewish.

Palestine is a little trickier. Geographically, it’s two separate territories – the West Bank, near Jordan, and Gaza, near Egypt. Whether it’s a separate, independent state, or territories under Israeli occupation is disputed – it’s currently recognised by the UN as a ‘non-member observer state’, which was called “de facto recongnition” of its statehood, but not all of the UN member states acknowledge this.

In any case, the borders between the two countries are disputed, and very simply, the fighting that’s been happening recently is because of disagreements about those borders.

2. What does Israel want? What does Palestine want?

Essentially, each country wants to be recognised as a free, independent state – and each wants Jerusalem as its capital.

Both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arab Muslims have claims to the holy city, which date back thousands of years, and both states want to make it their capital. The struggle between those claims have caused conflict for years.

Israel declared Jerusalem its capital in 1949. At the time of proclamation, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan, and only West Jerusalem was declared the capital, but in 1980, Israel passed as Basic Law the fact that Jerusalem was its “complete and united” capital. The international community didn’t recognise this, with the United Nations Security Council declaring the Basic Law null and void as a violation of international law, and passed a resolution to that effect. Today, Israel recognises Jerusalem as its capital, but the UN doesn’t.

The Palestinian National Authority, the body that governs the West Bank, views East Jerusalem as territory occupied by Israel, and considers Jerusalem the capital of Palestine. The PLO would be happy to agree that East Jerusalem is Palestine’s capital and West Jerusalem Israel’s capital, but unfortunately Israel is less willing, and in any case the holy city is difficult to split, on account of holy sites being situated on the same damn mountain.

3. History

Israel and Palestine haven’t always been divided in the way they are now, and it’s important to understand their history in order to fully comprehend the violence that’s happening now.

Historically, Jerusalem was in a British-controlled Palestinian state, inhabited predominantly by Muslims. In the 1800s, a minority group of extremist Jews known as Zionists decided to create a Jewish homeland, and they emigrated to Palestine. Early migration caused no issues, but as it increased, with Jews escaping persecution in Europe and the Middle East, the indigenous Muslim population reacted with violence. Hitler’s rise to power saw more Jews moving into Palestine, causing the conflict to grow, until the UN intervened in 1947 with a plan to divide the area into two separate countries – Israel and Palestine – with 55% of Palestine becoming the Jewish state.


The Jews were happy with this but the Palestinians weren’t, and they declared war on Israel, joined by the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. The civil war resulted in an Israeli victory, which saw the Jewish state take possession of 77% of former Palestineeverything except the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem (which was at the time controlled by Jordan), and the Gaza Strip (which was controlled by Egypt). Israel had a state, but Palestine didn’t, and 700 000 Palestinians became refugees. Their descendants, which now number about 7 million, are also considered refugees.

In 1967, more violence occurred with the Six Day War. Israel successfully seized Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, and put both territories under military occupation. Israel left Gaza in 2005 but maintains a full blockade of the territory which, in real terms, means the supply of basic things like fuel, food and medical supplies is restricted. The West Bank is still occupied by Israel.

4. What’s going on in Gaza? What’s going on in the West Bank?

Gaza is governed by an Islamic militant group called Hamas (or maybe hummus), which won power over the territory in a 2006 US-backed election. Hamas isn’t the only militant group in Palestine, but it’s big and active, and governs Gaza independently of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian National Authority, which controls the West Bank under Israeli occupation.

The situation in the West Bank is crucial for understanding the recent conflict between the two states.

5. Israeli settlements

Israel justifies its occupation of the West Bank by saying it’s necessary to prevent attacks by the Palestinians, but that doesn’t explain the presence of the 500 000 Israeli settlers who have moved into the territory. Ezra Klein says that they’re there either for the cheap land, or to push a religious ideology, and that their presence is worrying for any peace settlement that may be reached between the two states, as it blurs the borders of the land Israel could acquire in any such settlement.

6. Got it – Gaza and the West Bank. But how did this new lot of fighting start?

The violence didn’t just end with Israeli occupation – Israel and Palestine have been engaged in varying levels of conflict ever since 1967. The most recent conflict was sparked by the June 10 murder of three Israeli students – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel, who disappeared in the West Bank. Israel conducted a massive manhunt, alleging they’d been abducted by Hamas. The boys were found dead on June 30, and Israel responded with a limited bombing campaign in 34 areas in Gaza. Palestinian militant groups (notably, not Hamas) responded by firing rockets into Israel.

On July 2, a Palestinian called Muhammed Abu Khdeir was found dead by Israeli authorities near Jerusalem. They arrested six Israelis for the murder, saying it was an act of retaliation by Jewish extremists for the murders of the three Israeli boys. On July 5, a video emerged showing Muhammed’s cousin, Tariq, being brutally beaten while detained by Israeli police after a Palestinian demonstration in East Jerusalem. Palestinians responded by rioting in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and in some Israeli Arab towns.

On July 8, Hamas launched a wave of 40 rockets, and in response, Israel bombed Gaza again. The bombing from both sides continued – stopped temporarily by a brief Egyptian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire on July 15 – and escalated on July 17, when Israel launched a ground offensive.

The conflict has been devastating on both sides. An estimated 1 200 people have died – around 70% of them civilians – and many more have been injured. There seems to be no end in sight to the violence.


written by Sophie Raynor