Israel-Palestine issue

Historical perspective

  • Britain took control of the area known as Palestine after the ruler of that part of the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, was defeated in WW1.
  • The land was inhabited by a Jewish minority and Arab majority.
  • Tensions between the two peoples grew when the international community gave Britain the task of establishing a “national home” in Palestine for Jewish people.
  • For Jews, it was their ancestral home, but Palestinian Arabs also claimed the land and opposed the move.
  • Between the 1920s and 40s, the number of Jews arriving there grew, with many fleeing from persecution in Europe and seeking a homeland after the Holocaust of WWII.
  • Violence between Jews and Arabs, and against British rule, also grew.
  • In 1947, the UN voted for Palestine to be split into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem becoming an international city.
  • That plan was accepted by Jewish leaders but rejected by the Arab side and never implemented.
  • In 1948, unable to solve the problem, British rulers left and Jewish leaders declared the creation of the state of Israel.
  • Many Palestinians objected and a war followed. Troops from neighboring Arab countries invaded.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes in what they call Al Nakba, or the “Catastrophe”.
  • By the time the fighting ended in a ceasefire the following year, Israel controlled most of the territory.
  • Jordan occupied land which became known as the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza.
  • Jerusalem was divided between Israeli forces in the West and Jordanian forces in the East.
  • Because there was never a peace agreement – each side blamed the other – there were more wars and fighting in the decades which followed.

Declaration of Principles – Oslo Agreement

The Declaration of Principles (DoP), the basis of the Oslo agreement, identified seven issues that would be discussed during the permanent status negotiations, namely, “Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors and other issues of common interests.”

Given the historical baggage, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) did not explicitly refer to occupation and Palestinian statelessness, but the hope was that the resolution of the core issues would mitigate and resolve these more significant problems.

In concrete terms, the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and borders. Each one of them is vital and if resolving them is herculean, their non-resolution will be disastrous.


Though all the issues are critical, Jerusalem is the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the toughest to resolve. It also symbolises the differing timeframes of the contestants. There are multiple Jerusalems, with different historical claims, timeframes, logics, and layers. Until Donald Trump’s surprising decision of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, the international community—including the US—did not recognize even West Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli control since July 1948, as the capital.

The UN partition plan declared Jerusalem to be a corpus separatum, an international city not to be a part of either the Arab or Jewish state in the mandate Palestine. This was never realised as the armies of Jordan and Israel captured East and West Jerusalem, respectively, a division that was formalised through the Armistice Agreement of 3 April 1949. Later that year, Israel formally declared Jerusalem to be its capital and began shifting or establishing all its sovereign institutions such as the presidency, Knesset, Supreme Court, and government offices. While the Defence Ministry continues to stay in the more spacious Tel Aviv, the foreign office was moved to Jerusalem in 1953.

If one were to speak of ‘occupation’, one would get into a complex and longer trajectory of history. The city came under the British in December 1917; under the Muslim armies of Saladin in 1197; under the Crusaders in 1099; and under the Arab-Muslims when the armies of the Second Caliph Omer laid siege and captured it in 637 AD. According to Islamic historiography, Omer offered prayers near the place where al-Aqsa was built in 705. The Qibla, the Islamic direction of prayers, was shifted from Jerusalem to the Ka’aba in Mecca in 624 and Prophet Mohammed’s nocturnal journey took place in 620 AD. The Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, where the al-Aqsa mosque stands is the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

At the same time, it is essential to recognise that the Haram al-Sharif and the al-Aqsa stand on top of pre-Islamic, non-Islamic and un-Islamic religious structures, namely, the ruins of the Second Jewish Temple. The ‘occupation’ of Jerusalem did not begin in 1967, 1948 or even in 1882 but can be traced to the immediate aftermath of the birth of Islam itself.

The contestation over Jerusalem is not only political but is also historical, territorial, theological, archaeological and emotional. These transform Jerusalem into a truly global problem whereby the believers of the Abrahamic faiths—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—can stake a claim in its resolution. In other words, when dealing with Jerusalem, the interlocutors are not just Israelis and Palestinians but also the Jewish diaspora, non-Palestinian Arabs, and Arab and non-Arab Muslims. The Persian Iranians have as much say over the Jerusalem question as the Indonesian Muslims as well as French and American Jews.

All in all, Jerusalem will be a deal breaker for an indefinite period or until all other issues are resolved.

Timeline of critical events

  • 1964: Founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
  • 1967: In the Six-day Arab- Israeli war, Israeli forces seize the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank & East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula & Gaza strip from Egypt.
  • The United Nations grants the PLO observer status in 1975 and recognizes Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
  • Camp David Accords (1978): “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” brokered by U.S. set the stage for peace talks between Israel and its neighbors and a resolution to the “Palestinian problem”. This however remained unfulfilled.
  • 1981: Israel effectively annexes the Golan but this is not recognized by the United States or the international community.
  • 1987: Founding of Hamas, a violent offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood seeking “to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine” through violent jihad.
  • 1987: Tensions in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza reached boiling point resulting in the First Intifada (Palestinian Uprising). It grew into a small war between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army.
  • 1988: Jordan cedes to the PLO all the country’s territorial claims in the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem.
  • 1993: Under the Oslo Accords Israel and the PLO agree to officially recognize each other and renounce the use of violence. The Oslo Accords also established the Palestinian Authority, which received limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
  • 2005: Israel begins a unilateral withdrawal of Jews from settlements in Gaza. However, Israel kept tight control over all border crossings (blockade).
  • 2006: Hamas scores a victory in Palestinian Authority elections. The vote leaves the Palestinian house divided between the Fatah movement, represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which will control the cabinet and parliament. Efforts at cohabitation fail almost immediately.
  • 2007: Palestinian Movement Splits after few months of formation of a joint Fatah-Hamas government. Hamas militants drive Fatah from Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appoints a new government in Ramallah (West Bank), which is quickly recognized by the United States and European Union. Gaza remains under Hamas control.
  • 2012- UN upgrades Palestinian representation to that of “non-member observer state”.
  • 2014- Israel responds to the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank by arresting numerous Hamas members. Militants responded by firing rockets from Gaza. Clashes end in an uneasy Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
  • 2014- Fatah and Hamas form a unity government, though distrust remains between the two factions.

The Territorial Puzzle

  • West Bank: The West Bank is sandwiched between Israel and Jordan. One of its major cities is Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of Palestine. Israel took control of it in the 1967 war and has over the years established settlements there.
  • Gaza: The Gaza Strip located between Israel and Egypt. Israel occupied the strip after 1967, but relinquished control of Gaza City and day-to-day administration in most of the territory during the Oslo peace process. In 2005, Israel unilaterally removed Jewish settlements from the territory, though it continues to control international access to it.
  • Golan Heights: The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Israel effectively annexed the territory in 1981. Recently, the USA has officially recognized Jerusalem and Golan Heights a part of Israel.
  • Palestinian Authority- Created by the 1993 Olso Accords, it is the official governing body of the Palestinian people, led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction. Hobbled by corruption and by political infighting, the PA has failed to become the stable negotiating partner its creators had hoped.
  • Fatah- Founded by the late Yasir Arafat in the 1950s, Fatah is the largest Palestinian political faction. Unlike Hamas, Fatah is a secular movement, has nominally recognized Israel, and has actively participated in the peace process.
  • Hamas- Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian Authority’s legislative elections. It ejected Fatah from Gaza in 2007, splitting the Palestinian movement geographically, as well.

Two-State Solution

  • The “two state solution” is based on a UN resolution of 1947 which proposed two states – one would be a state where Zionist Jews constituted a majority, the other where the Palestinian Arabs would be a majority of the population. The idea was however rejected by the Arabs.
  • For decades, it has been held by the international community as the only realistic deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why is the solution so difficult to achieve?

  • Borders: There is no consensus about precisely where to draw the line – with Israel building settlements and constructing barriers in areas like the West Bank that creates a de facto border. This makes it difficult to establish that land as part of an independent Palestine, breaking it up into non-contiguous pieces.
  • Jerusalem: Both sides claim Jerusalem as their capital and consider it a center of religious worship and cultural heritage making its division difficult.
    • In December 2017, Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital and the step found support from the USA, intensifying the situation in the region.
  • Refugees: Large numbers of Palestinians who fled their homes in what is now Israel, during the preceding wars as well as their descendants believe they deserve the right to return but Israel is against it.
  • Divided Political Leadership on Both sides: The Palestinian leadership is divided – a two-state solution is supported by Palestinian nationalists in West Bank but the leadership in Gaza does not even recognize Israel. Further, while successive Israeli Prime Ministers – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu – have all accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, they have differed in terms of what it should actually comprise.

Global Stand on Israel -Palestine Conflict

  • Nearly 83% of world countries have officially recognized Israel as a sovereign state and maintain diplomatic relations with it.
  • However, at the same time, many countries are sympathetic to Palestine.

What do both parties want?

  • Palestine wants Israeli to halt all expansionary activities and retreat to pre-1967 borders. It wants to establish a sovereign Palestine state in West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
  • Palestine wants Palestine refugees who lost their homes in 1948 be able to come back.
  • Israel wants it to be recognised as a Jewish state. It wants the Palestine refugees to return only to Palestine, not to Israel.

India’s Stand

  • India was one of the few countries to oppose the UN’s partition plan in November 1947, echoing its own experience during independence a few months earlier. In the decades that followed, the Indian political leadership actively supported the Palestinian cause and withheld full diplomatic relations with Israel.
  • India recognised Israel in 1950 but it is also the first non-Arab country to recognise Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian. India is also one of the first countries to recognise the statehood of Palestine in 1988.
  • In the 2014, India favored UNHRC’s resolution to probe Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza. Despite supporting probe, India abstained from voting against Israel in UNHRC IN 2015.
  • As a part of Link West Policy, India has de-hyphenated its relationship with Israel and Palestine in 2018 to treat both the countries mutually independent and exclusive.
  • In June 2019, India voted in favor of a decision introduced by Israel in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) that objected to granting consultative status to a Palestinian non-governmental organization
  • So far India has tried to maintain the image of its historical moral supporter for Palestinian self-determination, and at the same time to engage in the military, economic, and other strategic relations with Israel.

Way Forward

The world at large needs to come together for a peaceful solution but the reluctance of the Israeli government and other involved parties has aggravated the issue more. Thus a balanced approach towards the Israel-Palestine issue would help to maintain favorable relations with Arab countries as well as Israel.

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