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Historical & Political Context

Historical & Political Context

Palestine has experienced a tumultuous history, especially in the past 100 years. The British Mandate of Palestine began in 1917, following the seizure of the region from the Ottoman Empire by British forces during WWI. During the British Mandate, the Palestinian economy developed significantly and Palestine was characterised by its vibrant civil society.

Throughout this period, Britain partly facilitated the influx of approximately half a million European Jewish immigrants into Palestine. Many of these immigrants were fleeing persecution in Europe; they arrived in hope of forming a Zionist-Jewish state in Palestine. This Zionist objective ran directly contrary to the Palestinian people’s hope for self-determination, resulting in increasing discord between the Jewish-immigrant and Palestinian-Arab communities. The escalation of violence between the two communities and Zionist attacks on British posts led to the complete withdrawal of Britain from Palestine by 1948. In 1947, the UN Partition Resolution 181 recommended that British Mandate Palestine be divided into independent Arab and Jewish states and that the holy city of Jerusalem be placed under an international regime. However, the subsequent unilateral declaration of the State of Israel by the Zionist movement in 1948 sparked a full-scale war between Zionist and joint Arab forces.

This war resulted in more than 800,000 Palestinians becoming refugees, who were expelled from their homes and fled primarily to the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Palestinians refer to this event as the “Nakba” (the catastrophe). The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1950 to aid these Palestinian refugees through direct relief and public works programmes. The number of UNRWA registered Palestinian refugees was estimated to have reached 5 million people by 2015. The right of these refugees to return to their ancestral homes remains one of the most highly disputed final status issues in peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine today.

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Between the end of the 1948 war and the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, the areas of historic Palestine that were not seized by Israel were placed under Jordanian and Egyptian jurisdiction. When hostilities ceased in 1948, Jordan was in complete control of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and they officially annexed the region in 1950. All Palestinians of the West Bank were granted Jordanian citizenship, however, most of them continued living in Palestinian refugee camps. Egypt de facto administered Gaza between 1948 and 1959 through the largely symbolic All-Palestine Government. From 1959 through to 1967, Egypt officially imposed a military rule over Gaza, pending a resolution to the “Question of Palestine”.

In 1967, amidst rising tensions between Israel and its neighbouring countries, Israel initiated the Six-Day War by launching an extensive air attack on Egyptian air bases. As Jordan and Syria entered into the fighting, the war proceeded along three main fronts; the Egyptian front (including Gaza), the Syrian front and the Jordanian/West Bank front. Once a ceasefire was signed and the war came to an end, Israel had made advances along all three fronts; occupying the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights.

The failure of the joint Arab forces in the Six-Day War led to a refocussing of the means by which Palestinians hoped to achieve liberation—from conventional warfare with the help of neighbouring Arab countries, to guerrilla warfare. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was established in 1964 as an umbrella organisation to represent all of the Palestinian people. The initial aim of the PLO was to liberate the entire land of historic Palestine through armed struggle, in order to create one secular and democratic state. This was based on the assertions that Palestine is an indivisible territorial unit, that purely religious claims to land cannot constitute statehood, and that the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination in their homeland. Although the PLO did conduct guerrilla activity prior to the Six-Day War, this activity became the primary form of struggle against the Israeli occupation from 1967 through to 1982.

The armed struggle adopted by the PLO was based out of Jordan until growing tensions with the Jordanian authorities forced them to relocate to Lebanon in 1971. Throughout this period, the objective of the PLO gradually shifted away from forming a single democratic state through the liberation of historic Palestine in its entirety. The immediate objectives of the PLO became the preservation of the Palestinian identity, the preservation of the international presence of Palestine, and the establishment of a Palestinian national authority in part of Palestine. These objectives required a more nuanced approach to liberation, involving international diplomacy and political bargaining. By providing political representation and institutionalising the Palestinian cause, the PLO brought about the establishment of a rudimentary Palestinian “state-in-exile”. However, in 1982, intense military pressure from Israel and certain Lebanese factions forced much of the PLO further abroad, primarily to Tunisia.

Through the 1980s, the focus of political thinking shifted from liberating Palestine from the outside, to liberating the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) from the inside—the centre of gravity for the Palestinian national movement shifted to inside the OPT. This resulted from a variety of interrelated processes; including the dislocation of the Palestinian political structure in exile and the accumulating injurious impacts of Israeli military administration on Palestinians living in OPT. This period also saw a significant shift in the means used by Palestinians to achieve their national goals. Although certain factions continued the armed struggle, the PLO generally moved towards peaceful means of resistance. This involved socio-political mobilisation and voluntary work such as the formation of ad hoc medical, agricultural, and other relief services to help the Palestinian population overcome the adverse effects of the Israeli occupation. The acceptance of the fact that the OPT faced long-term occupation led to a focus on resistance and steadfastness through development.

The grassroots mobilisation of the Palestinian people became distinctly manifest in the First Intifada—the popular uprising that erupted in the OPT in December 1987. The start of the First Intifada was largely spontaneous. It was an expression of the growing frustration of the Palestinian people living under the ever-tightening iron grip of the Israeli occupation. Nonetheless, it was the existence of an organised framework for demonstration that sustained the uprising—Palestinians had evolved new means of resistance and self-assertion. This marked a turning point in the evolution of the Palestinian national movement and reflected another major transition in strategy towards resistance.

The First Intifada set the stage for moving towards the implementation of Palestinian statehood. Palestinians began to create facts on the ground and demonstrably modify the balance of power in the OPT. This gave the PLO the confidence to declare the establishment of an independent Palestinian state at the Palestinian National Council in November 1988. The Declaration of Independence set out the Palestinian national program more clearly than ever before. Among other things, it declared the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people and proclaimed East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine. The declaration was accompanied by a call for attaining peace through multilateral negotiations on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338—calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from OPT and accepting the two-state solution.

Almost immediately after the declaration, the State of Palestine was recognised internationally by 94 nation states (which now stands at 138 states). Growing international acceptance of fundamental Palestinian rights to self-determination gave the PLO the confidence to make the compromises necessary to attain peace. In order to commence official peace talks with the United States (US), the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat acknowledged the right of Israel to live in peace and security, affirmed UN Security Council Resolution 242, and condemned violence against civilian targets.

In the wake of this progress along the diplomatic front, the Palestinian development sector prospered with the vision of protecting Palestinian human rights against the occupation. Nongovernmental Organisations (NGOs) stepped up to provide services for the Palestinian people that were unable to be provided by the not yet fully-formed government institutions. By the mid-1990s, Palestinian NGOs provided as much as 60% of primary health care services, almost 50% of hospital care, 100% of disability care, almost 100% of agricultural training and research, and around 30% of educational services. They provided reliable responses to social needs that helped Palestine to transition from aid-dependence to sustainable development.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process officially began in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo I Accord. This accord followed secret negotiations in Oslo, where the PLO recognised the State of Israel and Israel recognised the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and a partner in peace negotiations. The negotiations were based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and aimed at fulfilling the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. The Declaration of Principles set out a legal and political framework for peace negotiations between the two parties. Among other things, it called for the withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. It also provided for the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority. The PA assumed control over education, health, social welfare, tourism, and taxation in areas that were relinquished by Israel.

The PA greatly advanced the state-building process, developing full-fledged government ministries and an extensive security apparatus. International aid investments were channelled into productive sectors such as agriculture and higher education. The PA built up government institutions, established proficient policy-making capabilities, and quickly became the largest employer within the territory that was under its direct control.

The peace process continued with the signing of the Oslo II Accord in 1995. This agreement divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. Area A was set to entail full Palestinian civil and security control; Area B, full Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control; and Area C, full Israeli civil and security control. This effectively fragmented the West Bank into enclaves and banned Palestinians from some 60% of the territory. All areas were agreed to be handed over for full Palestinian control upon final status negotiations that were set to be concluded no later than 1999.

The key final status issues are borders, Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, sovereignty over water sources, the problem of illegal Israeli settlements, and the measures for maintaining interstate security. In the face of increased illegal Israeli settlement building and severe distrust between the two parties, these issues proved too divisive to negotiate a compromise. The final status issues were not resolved by the 1999 Oslo Accords deadline, nor during subsequent negotiations facilitated by the US at Camp David in 2000. These issues remain highly contentious today, as the relative positions of Israel and Palestine have continued to be too distant to produce a viable compromise.

In light of this failure, the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000. It was sparked by a highly provocative visit by soon-to-be Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It began with popular protests and demonstrations by the Palestinian people against the ongoing Israeli occupation, however, intense violence swiftly ensued. Shortly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, at the 2001 Taba Summit, Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak came closer to reaching a final settlement than ever before (or since). However, they ultimately failed to come to an agreement and the Second Intifada raged on. In 2002, Israel launched a major military operation in the West Bank, destroying the PA’s entire administrative infrastructure and militarily reoccupying the West Bank (including Areas A and B). Soon after, the Israeli government began construction of the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank. This wall illegally annexed large portions of the West Bank and divided Palestinians from their land and from one another. 

Such developments led the US to push for renewed attempts at brokering peace, resulting in the Roadmap for Peace, presented in 2003. It was a three-phased plan involving the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas occupied since 2000, the rebuilding of the PA, and final status negotiations to be concluded by 2005. The plan never made it past the first phase. Although the newly appointed Prime Minister of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas accepted the peace deal, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted it only after declaring 14 reservations, including a refusal to freeze illegal settlement building in the West Bank. Such reservations rendered the Roadmap unrecognisable and were tantamount to dismissing the plan for peace.

In November 2004, hopes for a comprehensive peace plan were dealt another blow with the death of Yasser Arafat, the monumental Palestinian leader. However, in early 2005, hope was restored with the democratic election of Mr Mahmoud Abbas as the second President of Palestine. President Abbas made significant attempts to renew the Roadmap for Peace in 2005 and 2007/8, but to no avail. Then, in December 2008, Israel initiated a major assault on Gaza, and the peace process collapsed.

This assault came in the wake of serious issues within Palestinian domestic politics. The two major political parties—Fatah and Hamas—failed to reach agreements concerning the sharing of government power after the Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative elections. The tension between the two parties escalated until Hamas forcibly took control of Gaza. The result was a Fatah-ruled PA governing the West Bank and Hamas governing Gaza. Despite extensive attempts at reconciliation, including the Unity Government of 2014, fundamental disagreements between the two parties are still yet to be resolved.

Further direct negotiations between Palestine and Israel were conducted under US auspices in 2010-11 and 2013-14. However, these negotiations collapsed in all too familiar fashion. US Special Envoy Martin Indyk, who oversaw the latter negotiations, assigned the blame for the collapse mainly to Israel. Subsequently, in 2014, President Abbas presented a new proposal for the peace process to the US. Abbas’ proposal called for a freeze on Israeli settlement building and direct negotiations with Israel, followed by Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, leaving East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital.  Abbas stated that if the proposal were to be rejected by Israel, he would push for charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza.

Throughout the peace process, the Palestinian people have continued to suffer immensely and have gained relatively little in terms of self-determination. The basic human rights of Palestinians are still systematically violated—this includes collective punishment, displacement, destruction of property, unlawful arrests, and detention without due process. Over a quarter of the Palestinian population live in poverty, with almost half of Gazans suffering from food insecurity. The unemployment rate is 23.7%, with an alarming rate of 75% for young women. The percentage of Palestinians with access to improved water has dropped from 62.8% in 2013 to 58.4% in 2015. Almost all (97%) of drinking water in Gaza does not meet World Health Organisation (WHO) water quality standards, and the daily household allocation of water for domestic purposes is well under the minimum recommended by WHO. These are all direct impacts of the ongoing Israeli occupation.

Given this continued suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the occupation, the escalation of illegal Israeli settlement building, and the overall failure of direct negotiations to achieve Palestinian self-determination, the Palestinian government have turned towards a strategy of “internationalisation”. This strategy involves Palestine seeking full diplomatic relations with other states, attaining membership in international institutions, and making claims against Israel through the International Criminal Court (ICC), International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the UN. In 2012, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of upgrading Palestine’s status to a non-member observer state. This enabled President Abbas to sign twenty international conventions at the end of 2014, including the ICC’s Rome statute. The ICC is currently investigating the charges against Israel of war crimes during the 2014 Gaza conflict.

This strategy of internationalisation is complemented by the Palestinian government’s strategies of institution-building and state-building. Institution-building includes developing the capacity of public institutions to deliver equitable, high-quality public services for Palestinians. The state-building process involves increasing the efficiency of Palestinian internal security, achieving fiscal stability, building a knowledge-based national economy, and reinvigorating the private sector. These strategies will help to enact a democratic political apparatus, alleviate poverty and unemployment, and promote the human rights of Palestinians. 

One major obstacle that must be overcome in order to effectively implement state-building is the current disunity between Gaza and the West Bank. To achieve national unity, the Palestinian government aims to create an environment conducive to reconciliation by encouraging dialogue on the grounds of pluralism, coexistence, and peaceful conflict resolution. This will allow for democratic elections to be held to form a national consensus government. Such elections will be held on 8 October, 2016.

The Palestinian government hopes that their strategies will bring about a just solution to the occupation that is in line with their positions on the fundamental final status issues. The Palestinian government’s position on Jerusalem is flexible, so long as the solution complies with international law and Palestine’s sovereignty over its capital (East Jerusalem) is restored. Concerning Palestinian refugees, Israel must accept the stipulations made in the Arab Peace Initiative to bring about a just and acceptable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194, which includes the right of return and/or compensation for Palestinian refugees. Borders between Israel and Palestine must be based on the 1967 lines, with the potential for equitable and mutually agreed land swaps. A territorial link must be established between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that allows for permanent and unrestricted movement of people and goods. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal according to international law and must be dismantled. Palestinians must regain sovereignty and control over their water resources. Mutual security arrangements must be agreed upon, on the condition that they do not undermine Palestinian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The strategy of the Palestinian government goes hand-in-hand with the nonviolent resistance of civilians. The Palestinian people continue to demonstrate their steadfastness in resisting the Israeli occupation through peaceful means. They have drawn on lessons from leaders of past nonviolent resistance movements such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King—engaging in peaceful protests and demonstrations, seeking to expose the injustice of their situation to Israelis and foreign citizens alike. This is an invaluable part of the political process, and the Palestinian people will continue to speak truth to power and stand firm in the face of oppression to bring about a just solution to the conflict.


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