Israel is a narrow strip of land that lies on the south-eastern coast of the Mediterranean, with a total area similar to that of Wales. Israel’s entire length is 263 miles (424 km) and its width ranges from nine to 71 miles (114 km). For a small country it enjoys considerable geographical diversity, with arid desert in the south, and green, hilly, arable land in the north. Seventy per cent of Israel’s population is concentrated on the coastal plain.
Israel is home to 8 million inhabitants. Seventy-five per cent of its citizens are Jews, 21 per cent Arab, while the remaining four per cent are other minorities. Israel’s Jewish population is extremely diverse, having immigrated to the country from all over the world. Among Israel’s Jewish citizens 70.3 per cent are Sabras (Israeli-born), mostly second- or third-generation, whilst the rest are olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel). Of those, 20.5 per cent are from Europe and the Americas, and 9.2 per cent from Asia and Africa, including Arab countries.
Israel is a unicameral parliamentary democracy. The 120-seat parliamentary chamber (Knesset) is elected to four-year terms on a strictly proportional system. The head of the government is the prime minister, who is usually the leader of the largest party. The Knesset elects the largely ceremonial role of president to a seven-year term. A robust Supreme Court acts as an important check on the powers of the government, and frequently judges the legality of legislation and government decisions through a process of judicial review.
Israel has a three-tier court system that plays an important role in maintaining the country’s checks and balances. At the lowest level are magistrates’ courts, above them are district courts, and the highest tier is the Supreme Court in Jerusalem – which serves as the highest court of appeals and the High Court of Justice. In the latter role, the Supreme Court allows both citizens and non-citizens to petition against decisions of state authorities and has the authority to overrule state laws and regulations. Professional judges rather than juries decide court cases. A committee of Knesset members, Supreme Court justices, and Israeli Bar members elect judges.
The Attorney General is the chief legal adviser to the government and the head of the prosecution. The government is bound to abstain from any action that, in the opinion of the Attorney General, is unlawful. Although appointed by the government, the Attorney General functions independently of the political system. In addition, the State Comptroller (who also functions as an Ombudsman), is elected by the Knesset, oversees the activities of the public service and responds to complaints by the public. Public bodies are bound by law to abide by the Comptroller’s recommendations and apply them.
Expenditure on education accounts for approximately 10 per cent of Israel’s GDP, with the majority of schools subsidised by the state. A wide variety of schools caters for the diverse cultural and social needs of Israel’s population, including those with religious and secular outlooks as well as the country’s Arab minorities.
Israel has seven highly regarded universities as well as an Open University based on the British model, and a host of other post-secondary educational institutions. Accorded full academic and administrative freedom, Israel’s institutions of higher education are open to all who meet their academic standards. In 2012, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance report, Israel was the second most educated country in the world. The report found that 78 per cent of the money invested in education is from public funds and 45 per cent of the population has a university or college diploma. Israel has world leading institutes of higher educations, with a recent survey placing four Israeli universities in the world top 100, with only the US, Britain, Japan and France having more.
Health care in Israel is universal and participation in a medical insurance plan is compulsory. Israel has impressive healthcare services comparable to those of other developed countries. The average life expectancy is 79 years for men and 83 years for women. Israel is a world leader in the field of medical research, particularly in stem cell research, with the largest number of articles, patents and research studies per capita of any country.
With a long history of facing acute military threats, Israel invests heavily in its defence. Its army, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), consists mainly of civilian conscripts and reserves. Most men and women are drafted at the age of 18; men for three years and women for two. Men typically serve in reserve units for a few weeks each year until they are into their forties. Israel’s Druze and Circassian minorities are drafted and serve alongside Israeli Jews. Arab Israelis are not drafted but can volunteer, and many Bedouin Israelis do so.
Israel has a technologically advanced market economy, including high-tech, agricultural, and financial sectors. As of 2012, Israel ranked 16th among 187 world nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, which places it in the category of “Very Highly Developed”. Israel exports medical, scientific and other electronic and hi-tech equipment around the world, and is also a major centre for polishing diamonds. Economic reforms in the last few years have paved the way for greater foreign investment, particularly in the hi-tech industry.
Israel joined the OECD and is ranked around 30th in the world for GDP per capita (PPP). Israel has also signed free trade agreements with the European Union, the United States, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Jordan and Egypt. Israel is also a major tourist destination, with 3.5 million foreign tourists visiting in 2012.
Economic liberalisation and growth has brought growing economic inequality, with an over-concentration of wealth among a small number of family-led business groups. This was one of the factors that led to nationwide rallies demanding ‘social justice’ in the summer of 2011, and was a major factor influencing the outcome of the 2013 elections.
What is the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel?
The land of Israel has always been integral to Jewish religious, cultural and national life and remains so to this day. In the Jewish tradition, the land of Israel is central to the covenantal relationship between the Children of Israel and God. The Five Books of Moses, known to Jews as the Torah, tells how the twelve tribes of Israel, the precursors to the Jewish people, entered the land having been freed from slavery in Egypt. The first unified Israelite kingdom was founded under the rule of King Saul, around 1000 BCE. His successor David established Jerusalem as his capital. There, David’s son Solomon built the First Jewish Temple as the centre of Jewish religious life. The First Temple stood until 586 BCE, when it was destroyed by the Babylonians. The Second Temple was consecrated on the same spot in 520 BCE, and stood at the centre of Jewish life and worship until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
The destruction of both the First and Second Temples were catastrophic events in Jewish history, in which thousands of Jews were killed and exiled, and which led to the existence of Jewish communities around the world. But even after the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a continuous presence of Jews in Israel. Throughout the centuries, major Jewish cultural achievements were made by Jews who lived there. These include the compilation of the Jerusalem Talmud, dating to the 4th century, and the establishment of Tzfat as a centre for the development of the Jewish mystical tradition in the 16th century.
Jews around the world made remembering the Temple in Jerusalem and the hope for an eventual return to the land of Israel – also referred to as ‘Zion’ – central to all aspects of their religious worship and liturgy. Jewish prayers are always conducted facing towards Jerusalem. For most Jews through the ages, travelling to Israel was an impossible dream. In their prayers, traditions, poetry and scriptures, Jews from around the world expressed their yearning and longing to return.
What is the significance of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians and Muslims?
As the capital of the first Jewish commonwealth, founded by David, and as the site of both the First and Second Temples, Jerusalem is the principal site of Jewish religious importance. It is a central symbol for the national aspirations of the Jewish people. Jerusalem has always been the focal point of the Jewish dream of an eventual return to their homeland. The city also symbolises the prophetic vision of a future age of justice and peace. The holiest place in Jerusalem for Jews is the Temple Mount (known as Har Habayit in Hebrew, and al Haram al Sharif in Arabic), which is the site of both the First and Second Temples. Nothing remains today of the Temple structure, which was destroyed by the Romans. Today the most sacred place for Jews is the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. This is a remnant of an outer wall that supported the Temple Mount. Jewish tradition holds that this is the closest accessible spot to the ‘Holy of Holies’, which was the holiest part of the Temple. Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority since the mid-1800s.
Jerusalem also has special significance to Christians. According to the Gospels, Jesus preached and performed miracles in the city and in and around the Temple. Jesus’s birthplace, Bethlehem, is also close to the city. In the New Testament, the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus also took place in Jerusalem. As a result, Jerusalem is rich in sites of pilgrimage for Christians. These include the ‘Via Dolorosa’, the path taken by Jesus on the way to his crucifixion; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus’s body is believed to have been placed before his resurrection; and the Chapel of the Ascension, from where he was believed to have ascended to heaven.
Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims dates to the earliest days of Islam. Initially Mohammed had his followers pray in the direction of Jerusalem to associate the faith of Islam with the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity that preceded it. Whilst Mohammed later shifted the focus of the Islamic faith towards Mecca, Islam retained a connection to Jerusalem. The city came under Islamic control in 638 CE, and the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque were built on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. In Islamic tradition, Jerusalem came to be associated with a miraculous night journey made by Mohammed from Mecca that is described in the Qur’an. The al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in the world for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina.
Today Jerusalem is the thriving, modern capital of Israel with a population of over 800,000. The walled Old City of Jerusalem has four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. Members of all faiths have access to their holy sites, and each faith is authorised by the Israeli government to administer and control its own holy places.
What is Zionism?
Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people, calling for sovereign Jewish life in the land of Israel. The origin of the word ‘Zionism’ is the biblical word ‘Zion’, often used as a synonym for Jerusalem and the land of Israel.
Historically, Zionism as a political movement emerged as part of the growth of national movements in the last quarter of the 19th century. Jews aspired to establish an independent and sovereign entity in the land of their ancestors. Zionist leaders, most notably the Hungarian-born Theodor Herzl, hoped that the fulfilment of such aspirations would end centuries of anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and allow for the renewal of Jewish culture, language and traditions.
The persecution of Jews was a constant of European life in the medieval period. Jews were demonised as the killers of Christ, banned from most professions, frequently confined to ghettos, periodically subjected to pogroms and expelled from one country after another. Many Jews hoped the onset of modernity, which led to emancipation for Jews in many countries, would bring about an end to anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe. However, in the modern period anti-Semitism did not disappear. It took on new forms, such as the belief that Jews were racially inferior, or involved in a global conspiracy. Jews in Europe were subject to waves of pogroms and persecution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herzl himself was driven to found the Zionist movement after witnessing anti-Semitism in France. In a famous case in 1894, a Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely convicted of treason. Dreyfus was publicly disgraced at a ceremony in Paris, where crowds of onlookers chanted ‘Death to the Jews’, only later to be acquitted.
Herzl was the first to bring the Jewish need for an independent sovereign state to the world’s attention. He turned the historical Jewish dream of returning to Israel into a modern political movement. He convened the first World Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. As a democratic movement from its inception, the broad umbrella of Zionism included secular and religious Jews, as well as those subscribing to political views from across the spectrum. Threads of the wide range of views within Zionism can still be seen today in the complex party political structure within the State of Israel.
The establishment of Israel in 1948 marked the realisation of Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state in their historical homeland, where Jews would be free from persecution and able to develop their national identity. Zionism retains its relevance today as the Jewish state still seeks to build a national home that is at peace with its neighbours and able to fulfil its potential as a cultural and spiritual beacon for the Jewish people. Most Jews around the world consider themselves supporters of Zionism, in that they support the existence and development of Israel as the state and homeland for the Jewish people.
At various times, certain groups have tried to delegitimise Zionism by falsely smearing it as a racist ideology, or inaccurately characterising it as a colonial movement. One of the premises of Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people –who have a shared language, culture, history and historical homeland – constitute a nation. As such, they have equal rights to other nations, including the right to self-determination. To describe Zionism as a form of racism is to discriminate against Jews by uniquely denying their rights to national self-determination.
Zionists sought to end the status of Jews as a persecuted minority, by re-establishing a Jewish-majority state in Palestine through immigration, settlement and peaceful coexistence with the local Arabs. Most of the Jews who moved to Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel came not as colonisers, but as refugees, fleeing persecution from various parts of Europe. Jews did not seek to subjugate the local population, but hoped that the lives of all the residents of the land would be improved by the influx of Jewish immigration. The early Zionists believed that there was ample room in Palestine to support Jewish immigration, without compromising the interests and rights of the local Arab population. The area was a relatively small and underdeveloped part of the Ottoman Empire, with no independent government or unified political structure. Jews did not enter Palestine by force, but purchased land and built new communities.
Mainstream Zionists have always believed that a non-Jewish minority would live alongside the Jewish people as citizens with full and equal rights. This principle was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel ‘full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.’ Today that vision is expressed in Israel. Non-Jewish residents of the State of Israel have citizenship by right and approximately 20 per cent of the citizens of Israel are Arabs or other minorities. The spouses and children of Israeli citizens, whatever their faith, are also entitled to citizenship.
In order to fulfil its goal of being a homeland and refuge for the Jewish people, Israel grants citizenship to any Jew who wishes to live in Israel. This right is extended to the children and grandchildren of Jews and their spouses, even if they themselves are not Jewish. In some cases, it is also possible to become a citizen of Israel through naturalisation.
When did Jews return to Israel?
Since the late 19th century, Jews have come from all parts of the world to live in Israel. Jews use the Hebrew word aliya’, which means ‘going up’, to refer to the act of moving to Israel. Whilst most Jews in Israel were either massacred or dispersed following the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the 2nd Century, Jews continued to live in the area in smaller numbers. In 1880, the overall population in the area that today makes up Israel, the West Bank and Gaza was approximately 570,000. Arabs made up the majority of the population, with the Jewish population in the area standing at around 10,000. Most Jews lived in Jerusalem, where there was a Jewish majority, with smaller communities in Tzfat, Tiberias, Hebron and Jaffa.
The first significant movements for Jewish settlement in Palestine came in response to an upsurge in anti-Jewish violence in Russia (the pogroms) following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. This so-called ‘First Aliya’ saw the Jewish population of Palestine swell to approximately 25,000 by 1903, with many of the immigrants establishing new agricultural communities.
The Zionist movement gathered momentum among the Jews of Europe in the early 20th Century. A second wave of immigrants, fleeing great poverty and persecution in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia and Romania, arrived in Palestine between 1904 and 1914. In total, around 40,000 immigrants arrived in Palestine, who were young, secular and inspired by socialist ideals. They sought agricultural work, believing that both personal and national redemption could be achieved through physical toil on the land of Israel. The life they chose was beset with great poverty, disease and hardship. Many left in disappointment, but by 1914 the Jewish population had risen to 90,000.
In 1917 Palestine was captured from the Ottomans by Britain, which supported Jewish aspirations to create a national home. Britain was granted a mandate over Palestine by the League of Nations in 1922, the terms of which included support for Jewish immigration. Growing anti-Semitic hostility throughout Europe spurred increasing numbers of Jewish refugees to move to Palestine throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Many Jews were murdered in Ukraine in the aftermath of the First World War. Throughout the 1920s, other European countries enacted anti-Semitic legislation. In 1924, Poland began to impose severe economic restrictions on its three million Jews. But as more and more Jews faced discrimination in Europe, doors were closed elsewhere, including new restrictions on immigration to the United States. In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power in Germany and immediately began enforcing anti-Semitic laws. This created a new and unprecedented wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine. By 1936, the Jewish population of Palestine was approaching 400,000, close to 30 per cent of the total. However in 1939, with war looming, and Britain keen not to alienate the Arab world, Jewish immigration to Palestine was severely restricted by the British.
By 1945, the Nazi Holocaust had exterminated approximately six million Jews in Europe. After the Second World War, well over 100,000 surviving Jews were in displaced persons camps. Tens of thousands of these survivors attempted to bypass the British blockade to enter Palestine. Many of these displaced persons failed to reach Palestine and were forcibly interned by the British in Cypriot detention camps. After the State of Israel was established in 1948, its doors were opened to these refugees. Israel also absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews who left as refugees from countries in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of the War of Independence. In 1949, 45,000 Jews arrived in Israel from Yemen, and in 1951-52, a further 130,000 arrived from Iraq.
Since Israel’s independence the Jewish population has swelled, both through immigration and natural increase. Major waves of immigration have come from Morocco (250,000), North America (200,000) and Ethiopia (76,000), as well as significant contingents from South America and Europe. During the Communist era, Jews in the Soviet Union were prevented from moving to Israel. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, close to one million Jews moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Some 34,000 Jews have moved to Israel from Britain since 1948. By 2013, Israel’s population exceeded 8 million, of whom 6 million were Jewish.
How did the modern State of Israel come into being?
The objective of establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel gained strong international support with the Balfour Declaration, issued by the British government in 1917. The British government’s decision to support the foundation of a national home for the Jewish people was made known in the form of a letter written by then-foreign secretary Lord Balfour to Zionist leader Lord Rothschild. In September 1922, the League of Nations granted Britain a Mandate over Palestine, noting the ‘historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine’ and the ‘grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.’ Under the British Mandate, three-quarters of the territory east of the Jordan River formed the Emirate of Transjordan (later the Kingdom of Jordan), and was closed to Jewish immigration. The remaining territory remained open to Jewish immigration.
As the Second World War drew closer, the British government, fearing the loss of allies in the Arab and Muslim world, moved away from supporting Jewish immigration to Palestine. In 1939, as the threat to the Jews of Europe reached new heights, Britain issued the MacDonald White Paper, in which Jewish immigration was severely restricted.
The Holocaust and its aftermath
Between 1939 and 1945, the German Nazi Party, with its allies throughout Europe, murdered approximately six million of Europe’s 11 million Jews. The Holocaust was a genocide carried out with ruthless efficiency on an industrial scale throughout Europe. Palestinian Arab leaders welcomed the Nazis’ rise to power, believing that in opposition to the British and the Jews, they shared common interests. The most senior Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, cooperated with the Nazis, and in November 1941, met personally with Hitler in an attempt to forge an alliance. Meanwhile, 30,000 Palestinian Jews joined the British army to fight against the Nazis, despite the restrictions of the White Paper preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine.
After the war, many thousands of Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust were in refugee camps in Europe. Having been robbed of all property and rights, most were unable and unwilling to return to their countries of origin. Many who tried to return after the war were subjected to further attacks. Most of the refugees expressed their desire to move to Palestine.
In this climate the Jewish Agency, which represented the Jewish community in Palestine, with American political support, called for 100,000 Jews to be allowed to enter Palestine. The British government refused to agree. This led to illegal Jewish immigration and a direct confrontation between the British government and the Jews of Palestine. Some Jewish extremist groups, the Irgun and Lehi, began to attack British military targets. The British forcefully suppressed all acts of Jewish resistance, at one stage arresting 3,000 people. Over 50,000 Jews who had survived the Holocaust and attempted to enter Palestine were forcibly interned in British camps in Cyprus. In 1946, the leader of the Jews in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, attempted to unite Jewish resistance forces. The agreement broke down after the Irgun undertook its most notorious act, the bombing of the British headquarters at the King David Hotel. The majority of Palestine’s Jews denounced this act.
The UN Partition Plan and the end of the Mandate
In 1947, the British turned the question of the future of Palestine over to the United Nations, which established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to determine its future. The UN recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under international control. The plan would have created a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on the Mediterranean coast, western Galilee and Negev Desert. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of Resolution 181, to approve the UNSCOP plan, by 33 votes to 13. The Jewish Agency, representing the Jews of Palestine, accepted the plan, but the Arab Higher Committee, the Palestinian Arabs’ political representatives, rejected it. As the British Mandate formally ended, on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel in line with the UN resolution.
What was the initial Arab response to Zionism?
The initial response of local Arabs to Jewish immigration to Palestine was mixed, with examples of dialogue and cooperation as well as suspicion and rejection. Following the post-war Paris conference in 1919, Faisal Ibn Hussain, the leader of the Arab delegation to the conference, signed an agreement in London with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, which welcomed the establishment of a Jewish home as a positive development for the whole region. However, hostility towards Jewish immigration, and attacks by armed Arabs on Jewish communities in Palestine, intensified in the early 1920s. Palestinian Arab nationalism arose in parallel to the development of the Zionist movement in Palestine. Whilst some Arabs welcomed the progress that Jewish immigrants brought, others increasingly feared that the Jewish immigrants would come to dominate the local Arab population. The Arab leadership began to campaign for an end both to Jewish immigration and the British Mandate.
In 1920, 1921 and 1929, Arabs rioted and attacked Jewish communities, including the massacre of 60 men, women and children in Hebron in 1929. Arabs were also killed in the violence, mainly by British troops trying to maintain law and order and in Jewish retaliatory attacks.
The influx of Jews fleeing Nazism brought new concerns to the Palestinian Arab leadership. They became increasingly strident in their demands for a halt to both Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews. They called for a general strike in April 1936, sparking the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, during which Arab groups attacked Jewish farms, communities and property all over Palestine. Britain was forced to send 20,000 extra troops to Palestine to maintain law and order.
Responding to the Arab riots, the British established a royal commission in 1937 under the chairmanship of Lord Peel. The commission proposed the creation of a Jewish state on only a small fraction of British Mandate Palestine, with the rest of the territory allocated for a separate Arab state, except for the area around and including Jerusalem that would stay under British control. The mainstream Zionist movement accepted the principle of partition but rejected the specific border proposals. Arab representatives rejected the compromise out of hand, leading to its collapse.
What happened in Israel’s War of Independence?
In 1947 the Arabs of Palestine and the surrounding Arab states rejected a UN proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Palestinian Arabs formed a guerrilla army, swelled by volunteers from surrounding Arab states, and launched attacks on Jewish communities. Whilst there was violence on both sides, the mainstream Jewish defence force, the Haganah, adopted a policy of limited reprisals against individuals responsible for attacks on Jews. The Jewish leadership continually called for peaceful relations between Jews and Arabs.
The conflict escalated into a bloody war of self-determination, with atrocities committed by both sides. Both Jewish and Arab civilians lost their lives and many Arabs fled villages which were involved in the fighting. On 9 April 1948, between 100 and 120 residents of the Arab village of Deir Yassin were killed by forces from the Jewish Irgun and Lehi groups, considered extremist by most Jews in Palestine. As with earlier attacks carried out by the Irgun, the mainstream Jewish leadership under David Ben-Gurion condemned and apologised for the act. One week later, 77 Jewish doctors, nurses and medical staff were killed by Arab gunmen on their way to the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. The differences within the Jewish camp, between the extremist Irgun and the mainstream Jewish leadership, came to a head in June 1948. The Irgun refused to turn a shipment of arms over to the newly formed Israeli army. Ben-Gurion ordered the ship, the Altalena, to be fired on, insisting that no armed militia could continue to exist beyond the authority of the state. Consequently, all Jewish forces were then amalgamated under the single command of the Israel Defence Forces.
As the Mandate ended on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, in accordance with UN Resolution 181, formally declared the establishment of ‘the Jewish State, which shall be known as Israel.’ Despite the on-going conflict, the declaration called on ‘the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the way of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions.’
As the State of Israel’s establishment was declared, the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria invaded the former Mandate territory with additional forces from Saudi Arabia. The Jewish forces fought with very limited resources, before being armed with more substantial weapons, particularly from Czechoslovakia.
The 1948-49 war, known to Jews as the War of Independence, was costly for all sides. Many of the Jewish fighters had survived the Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust only three years earlier. For all Jews, the war was seen as one of national survival. More than 6,000 Jews were killed in the fighting, a full one per cent of the Jewish population of the new State of Israel at the time. The conflict was a disaster for the Arab population of Palestine, who left in large numbers for neighbouring Arab states. At the same time, Israel faced the challenge of absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants. These were not only refugees from the Holocaust, but from Jewish communities fleeing persecution in Arab countries.
When the war came to an end at the beginning of 1949, with Israel signing armistice agreements with each of its Arab neighbours, the borders of Israel exceeded those defined by the UN Partition Plan. What remained in Arab hands were the West Bank, which was annexed by Jordan in 1950, and the Gaza Strip, which was held under Egyptian military rule. Neither Jordan nor Egypt made any attempt to establish an autonomous Palestinian Arab state as mandated by the UN. Jerusalem, which was besieged by Arab forces and witnessed intense fighting during the war, was divided between Israel and Jordan, with the Old City and its holy sites falling under Jordanian control.
What caused the Palestinian refugee problem?
Estimates of the numbers of Palestinian Arab refugees created as a result of the conflict range from 600,000 to 850,000. The refugee crisis came as a result of the war, and there was no deliberate, coordinated Jewish policy to expel Arabs. With war raging, the factors that caused them to flee were complex. Whilst in some cases individual Jewish commanders told Arabs to leave, in the chaos of the moment, many left out of fear spread by rumours and exaggerated reports of Israeli atrocities, fuelled by the incident at Deir Yassin. The lack of a coordinated Jewish policy to expel Arabs is demonstrated by examples whereby local Jews encouraged their Arab neighbours to stay, for example in Haifa. In the midst of the conflict, Israel’s Declaration of Independence offered full citizenship and equal rights to all Arabs living within Israel. After the war, the 150,000 Arabs that remained in Israel were awarded full citizenship. Arab members were elected to Israel’s first parliament in 1949.
In the absence of a peace agreement, those Palestinian Arabs who fled to neighbouring Arab states were not able to return. For Israel, allowing large numbers of hostile Arabs to return in the wake of the war was tantamount to national suicide. They were particularly reluctant to consider the return of refugees without a general Arab recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, something Arabs states refused to accept. Israel held the Arab forces responsible for the refugee problem, since it was they who had rejected the UN Partition Plan in 1947 and consequently started the war.
With no agreement, Palestinian refugees remained in UN-administered refugee camps, principally in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, Egyptian-controlled Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Unlike all other refugee groups around the world, which fall under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN established a unique agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to manage the Palestinian refugee problem. The UNHCR seeks to help refugees by resettling them or facilitating their absorption into their host countries, allowing them to rebuild their lives. However, UNRWA has been used politically by Arab states to inflate the numbers of refugees and maintain their refugee status in order to keep up political pressure on Israel. Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries after 1948. But in most cases, the Arab leaders made no effort to absorb Palestinian refugees or grant them civil rights. As a result, many of the refugees and their descendants still live in poverty, dependent on international aid.
How did Arab states react to the creation of Israel?
Even after Israel was admitted to the United Nations, Arab states refused to recognise or negotiate with Israel and took whatever steps they could to undermine Israel’s existence. The Arab league, an official body of the Arab world established in 1945, organised and maintained an economic boycott on Israel, refusing to do business with Israel or even with companies that operated there.
What happened in the 1967 Six Day War
In the years following Israel’s establishment, pan-Arab nationalism gathered force under the leadership of the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser. One of the main unifying features of Arab nationalism was hostility towards Israel and opposition to its existence. In May 1967, after a period of increased tension, Nasser illegally ordered UN peacekeeping troops to leave the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel, and replaced the UN troops with his own forces. The UN forces were put in place to separate Israeli and Egyptian armies after the Sinai-Suez War of 1956. Nasser also signed a mutual defence pact with Syria to Israel’s north and with Jordan to Israel’s east. At the same time, in contravention of international law, Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran – an international sea-lane leading up to Israel’s southern port town of Eilat – to Israeli shipping. The Arab states, led by Egypt, declared their intention to destroy the State of Israel. Israel, in response, mobilised its forces but delayed action in the hope that international mediation would defuse the conflict. When this failed to materialise, fearing an all-out assault, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt. The Israeli Air Force destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground and the IDF swiftly captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan, which Israel had hoped might stay out of the conflict, began shelling Israel, as did Syria in the north. Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Whilst the war was a military triumph for Israel, it created long-term challenges that Israel still deals with today. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Israel hoped that the Arab states would seek peace, in return for Israeli withdrawal from territory it had captured. Israel accepted the principles of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which proposed this ‘land for peace’ formula. However, in September 1967, at a conference in Khartoum, the Arab League made its famous ‘three noes’ declaration: rejecting peace, recognition and negotiation with Israel. As a result, Israel found itself in control of the Palestinian Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank.
Why are there settlements in the West Bank?
As the situation stabilised after the Six Day War, some Israeli Jews began to establish communities in the territories captured in the war. Some were religiously inspired, believing it to be their duty to settle on land that was promised in the Torah to the Jewish people. Others were motivated by the belief that the territory belonged rightfully to the Jewish nation and was essential for Israel’s security.
Israel’s leaders felt that settlements in certain key strategic locations were vital for Israel’s future security. As Arab states refused to recognise Israel prior to the Six Day War, permanent borders were never fixed. For this reason, Israel’s borders remained the temporary ceasefire lines of 1949. These borders made Israel highly vulnerable to a military attack that could divide the country in two. At its narrowest point, the State of Israel between the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan) and the Mediterranean Sea is just nine miles wide. Before the Six Day War, the Jordanian military held artillery positions overlooking Israel’s densely populated coastal plain. In addition, Jerusalem was isolated and vulnerable to being cut off, as happened during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Most of the settlers in the West Bank went to a small number of large settlement blocs, which are located along the Green Line and around Jerusalem. Some were built on areas from which Jews had been forced out after the Jordanian invasion in 1948.
How has Israel addressed UN Security Council resolutions on Middle East peace?
The UN General Assembly and Security Council have passed several resolutions in various attempts to promote solutions to the conflicts between Israel and its neighbours. In 1947, the General Assembly passed Resolution 181 that approved the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Jewish leadership in Palestine accepted the plan, though the borders for the Jewish state were drawn with no consideration for its security and were virtually indefensible in the long term. The Partition Plan also gave the Arab community of Palestine a state and the opportunity for self-determination. The Arabs rejected this proposal, leading to the 1948 War of Independence.
Following the 1967 Six Day War, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which set out that the conflict in the Middle East must be resolved based on two principles: Israel withdrawing from territories occupied during the war, and the recognition of the rights of all states in the area to live at peace ‘within secure and recognised boundaries’. The resolution deliberately avoided obligating Israel to withdraw from all the territories it had captured, leaving open the question of future borders to be resolved in negotiations. Israel accepted these principles but the Arab League rejected the idea of recognising or negotiating with Israel. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338, which reaffirmed Resolution 242 and called for negotiations based on it.
Israel has repeatedly engaged in efforts to make peace with its neighbours based on the principles of land for peace. Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for peace and recognition in 1979. Israel withdrew from Palestinian population centres in Gaza and the West Bank as part of the Oslo Accords with the PLO signed in 1993. It also made territorial concessions to Jordan as part of the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. In 2000, Israel complied with Security Council resolutions relating to Lebanon by withdrawing all its forces from the south of the country. In 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.
Who leads the Palestinian people?
Since 1974, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been recognised by the Arab League as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO held observer status – with the name ‘Palestine’ – at the United Nations General Assembly until 2012 when it was upgraded to the status of a non-member state. A secular Arab nationalist movement called Fatah has taken the dominant role in the PLO since 1969. Yasser Arafat led Fatah until his death in 2004. As part of the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993, the PLO established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the transitional body that would run Palestinian affairs in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank until a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The PA is supposed to function with an elected president and a parliament, called the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Arafat, the first president of the PA, ran the institution in an autocratic manner, without regular elections or proper accountability and his ruling Fatah party became associated with corruption and mismanagement. Arafat also attracted widespread international criticism for failing to stop terrorism against Israel during the Second Intifada. In 2003, Arafat responded to international demands by appointing a prime minister, although the position had limited authority.
After Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was elected as the president of the PA. In February 2006, elections for the PLC produced an unexpected victory for Hamas – an armed, radical Islamist Palestinian faction. They formed a government with Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister. The international community largely refused to have contact with Hamas because of its refusal to meet the conditions set by the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and UN) to renounce violence, recognise Israel and to accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The West Bank and Gaza Strip became marred by increasingly bloody infighting between Fatah and Hamas. In March 2007, Fatah and Hamas attempted to form a unity government. This collapsed in June 2007, after Hamas carried out a violent coup against its Fatah rivals in the Gaza Strip. PA President Mahmoud Abbas then dismissed the Hamas-led government and appointed an administration under his own leadership in the West Bank. This administration remains in control of the West Bank, whilst Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip. Repeated attempts to broker an agreement between Hamas and Fatah to reunite the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under a single authority and hold new elections have failed.
What is Hamas and why is it not involved in the peace process?
Hamas is a radical Islamist organisation that emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood during the early stages of the First Intifada. Its charter was issued in 1988, setting out the goals and vision of the organisation. It includes a firm and explicit rejection of the very idea of a peace process, which would involve the surrender of ‘Islamic land’ and the recognition of Israel’s right to exist. The central aim of Hamas is to establish an Islamic state in all the territory defined as ‘Palestine’ (from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River) through armed struggle. The Hamas charter is a fiercely antisemitic document, which blames Jews for all kinds of evils, including the First and Second World Wars.
Hamas is also a leading perpetrator of terrorist attacks against Israel. It carried out a chain of suicide bombings attacks against Israel from early 1993 to late 2006, causing the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians. Since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Hamas has continued its campaign of terror, along with other armed groups, by firing thousands of rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns close to the Gaza border.
Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has been proscribed under the UK law since February 2001. The EU and US have designated the organisation in its entirety as a terrorist group. Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken from inside Israel in a cross-border raid in June 2006. Shalit was held for more than five years, until he was released on 18 October 2011, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners.
The Quartet – the EU, US, Russia and the UN – demand that Hamas renounces violence, acknowledges Israel’s right to exist and recognises previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas, however, has refused these demands. These are not arbitrary principles. They are equivalent to the commitments made by the PLO at the beginning of the Oslo Process in the 1990s, and are the logical premise for moving towards a peaceful two-state solution. The Israeli government has repeatedly and explicitly recognised the national rights of the Palestinian people and their right to their own sovereign state. Hamas is expected to equally recognise Israel’s right to exist.
Hamas leaders have occasionally talked of establishing a ‘Hudna’ (temporary ceasefire) with Israel. However, Hamas have never given any sign that they are ready to accommodate the existence of Israel as part of a permanent solution to the conflict.
Rocket fire from Hamas and other armed groups was reduced considerably after Operation Cast Lead, a three week Israeli military operation which began at the end of December 2008. A resurgence of rocket fire in 2012 led to another Israeli military operation, Operation Pillar of Defence, since which rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel has largely subsided. As a result, the most immediate victims of Hamas rule are the people of Gaza themselves. This is both because of the repressive nature of Hamas rule, where many basic freedoms are denied, and because of Hamas’s tight grip on economic and commercial activity. The movement controls a network of tunnels between the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai, which brings through weapons and goods in defiance of Egypt’s attempts to control the border. In addition, since Hamas took sole control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the movement has significantly expanded its security forces to maintain its rule. In 2006, the movement possessed a force of between 5,000 to 6,000 fighters. Today, Hamas maintains a security force in excess of 25,000 fighters. This is in addition to a further 10,000 members of the Qassam Brigades, which is Hamas’s own military branch.
Polls conducted in the Palestinian territories indicate that Hamas lags significantly behind Fatah in terms of electoral support. However Hamas, determined to maintain its grip on the Gaza Strip, has repressed any significant opposition and has shown no serious interest in new elections.
How has Israel sought peace with the Palestinians?
Since the 1990s Israel has sought peace with the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples. The first face-to-face agreements between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were an outgrowth of the multilateral Madrid Conference initiated by the United States in 1991, and were negotiated secretly in Oslo. The first of the Oslo Accords was signed on the White House lawn on 14 September 1993, beginning the Oslo process and establishing the framework of all subsequent talks between the two sides.
The accords set out the terms for a gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and the creation of a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority (PA). The core issues such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, security and borders were deferred to a permanent status accord to be negotiated at a later date. There have since been several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a final status agreement. The latest attempt began on 29 July 2013, after intense diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry. As a prelude to the talks, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian terrorists who had been imprisoned before 1993. The negotiations are scheduled to last up to nine months with the goal of reaching a final status agreement by mid-2014.
The first major attempt took place at Camp David in the summer of 2000, and led to Israel accepting the creation of a Palestinian state in most of Gaza and the West Bank and shared sovereignty in Jerusalem. However, bridging proposals put forward by US president Bill Clinton in December 2000 were rejected by the Palestinian side.
A decade following Oslo, In April 2003, Israel agreed to the principles of the ‘Roadmap’ peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict based on a two state solution. Then in October 2003, then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon initiated an historic plan to withdraw Israel’s settlements and military forces from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank. The Disengagement Plan was an extremely difﬁcult and divisive step within Israel. It was nevertheless implemented in August 2005 and received widespread international support. It reﬂected a strong desire within Israel to move towards a two-state reality, even in the absence of an agreed solution with the Palestinians.
The following year, after the incapacitation of Sharon due to a stroke, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was elected with a plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces and settlers from large portions of the West Bank, should negotiations with the Palestinians fail. However, the rise to power of Hamas in Gaza, as well as a conﬂict between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006, undermined Israeli conﬁdence in withdrawing unilaterally from territory in the West Bank.
After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Hamas government in June 2007, Israel reopened negotiations with the PA. At the end of these negotiations, in September 2008, Olmert proposed to create a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, including parts of East Jerusalem. According to Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas never responded to the proposal.
After a general election in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister of a new Israeli government. Despite representing the right-of-centre Likud party, Netanyahu set aside his previous objections to the creation of a Palestinian state, and declared his acceptance of the idea. However the Palestinians refused to enter into negotiations with Netanyahu, declaring a series of preconditions to talks. In November 2009, Israel announced a 10-month freeze on all new settlement construction in the West Bank, as a confidence building measure. However the Palestinians only entered talks in the final month of the period, and abandoned them again when the settlement freeze was not renewed.
Consistent polling shows that a solid majority of the Israeli public accept the creation of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank as part of a peace deal. However, factors such as the internal division within the Palestinian leadership, the threat of Palestinian radicalism, Palestinian preconditions to direct talks, and Palestinian unilateral initiatives at the UN, have undermined Israeli conﬁdence about whether an agreement can be reached.
Why does Israel believe the two-state solution is the best way to achieve peace?
Every Israeli government since 2000 has publicly committed Israel to the two-state solution as the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This solution, as defined by the Clinton parameters in December 2000, is a solution that results in, ‘the state of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.’ Since 2000 the two-state model has been accepted internationally and endorsed by UN Security Council resolutions.
The principle of the two-state solution is that a Palestinian state will be created within the territory of Gaza and the West Bank, and will exist alongside and at peace with Israel. Repeated polls indicate that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians accept this idea, though it will involve difficult compromises on both sides. For Israel it means giving up control of territory in the West Bank that is of great historic, cultural and strategic importance for the Jewish people. For Palestinians it means accepting that the solution for Palestinian refugees does not lie in returning to Israel but in returning to a new Palestinian state.
However, the alternatives are not acceptable to most Israelis and Palestinians. Most Israelis consider having a democratic state with a Jewish majority to be more important than holding on to the West Bank. Under the status quo, Palestinians that live under Israeli control in the West Bank do not have the rights of citizenship. Many Israelis fear that as the population of Arabs in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank begins to overtake the population of Jews, the democratic legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state will be undermined. Furthermore, the conflict is a costly burden on Israeli society, which most Israelis would like to see confined to history. For this reason they see the creation of a Palestinian state, which will secure the rights of Palestinian Arabs, as being in Israel’s interest, as long as it comes with sufficient security guarantees. The alternative, of a single bi-national state, is not acceptable to most Jews, who want the character of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people to be secured.
What are the main issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
The PLO claims the West Bank and the Gaza Strip within pre-1967 borders for their state. Israel has accepted in principle the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel but is not willing to return to those borders, which it considers military indefensible.
There is a broad consensus in Israel that the larger settlement blocs around Jerusalem, and on key strategic points protecting Israel’s narrow coastal plain, should remain part of Israel. The Clinton Parameters in 2000 accepted this principle and suggested some form of land swap, whereby the new Palestinian state would receive other territory from Israel in return for the settlement blocs. The Palestinians also want territory within Israel to build a transport link that connects Gaza and the West Bank, and this could form part of an exchange deal. In 2008, under the Annapolis process, Israel and the Palestinian Authority conducted negotiations along these lines, though there were gaps between the sides on how much land would be exchanged.
Israel’s recent experience of withdrawing from territory in the hope that it will bring peace has been negative. After Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, and from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel was subsequently attacked from both locations, in particular by rockets. Any deal to bring about Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will have to address Israel’s legitimate security fears. Israel will not be willing to allow the establishment of a military force in the West Bank or Gaza that could threaten Israel, and expects a future Palestinian state to be demilitarised. It will further expect a future Palestinian state to act decisively to prevent attacks on Israel originating from within its territory. Israel will also want to retain a military presence in the Jordan Valley after the creation of a Palestinian state to prevent arms smuggling into the West Bank. The Palestinians are opposed to an Israeli military presence, and have proposed a third party international presence instead.
The Palestinians claim the right of return for the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war to return to Israel. Israel does not believe it is responsible for resettling the refugees, believing their plight to be the responsibility of the Arab states that rejected the 1947 Partition Plan, started the war, and then refused to resettle the refugees created by that war in their own territory. In any case, no Israeli government will accept a solution that would allow millions of Palestinians to settle in Israel. This would effectively spell the end of the Jewish majority and the viability of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. In 2000 the Clinton Parameters proposed that most of the refugees be resettled either in the new Palestinian state, in their country of residence, or in a third country. This is the principle of two-states for two peoples.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have very strong cultural, religious, historical and political attachments to Jerusalem and both claim it to be their capital. Particularly sensitive are the Old City and its religious sites. If Palestinian demands to return to pre-1967 borders were taken literally, it would result in the re-division of Jerusalem and the loss of Israeli sovereignty over the Old City, which is something that most Israelis would not be willing to contemplate. The Clinton Parameters proposed a solution whereby Arab neighbourhoods would come under Palestinian sovereignty and Jewish neighbourhoods would stay under Israeli sovereignty. Previous negotiations have also proposed a special regime for the Old City.
There are a host of other issues that will need to be resolved in order to make the two-state solution a functioning reality. These include water use and management, the passage regime between a future Palestinian state and its neighbours, Israeli-Palestinian economic, trade and legal relations, infrastructure, the fate of Gaza (for as long as it is under Hamas control), and the process of transition to Palestinian statehood. Previous negotiation efforts have produced progress on some of these issues.
Water is a particularly sensitive issue. The region has limited water resources and Israel currently depends on the West Bank for part of its water supply. Any peace deal will have to address both the allocation and management of water from the Jordan River and the underground aquifers in the West Bank. In 2006, Israel began operating the largest desalination plant of its kind in the world on its Mediterranean coast and is building several more to address its water needs. This may make a solution to the question of water easier to address in future negotiations.
How can the issue of settlements be resolved?
Israel has long legacy of accepting territorial compromise as the way to solve its disputes in the region. The Jewish community of British Mandate Palestine accepted the UN Partition Plan in 1947, and Israel accepted the land for peace formula set out in UN Security Council Resolution 242. Israel’s position today is that the future borders should be the subject of negotiation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Most Israelis expect that the most populous settlements, which sit on about 5% of the West Bank, will stay part of Israel.
The Clinton Proposals, which followed the Camp David peace talks of 2000, proposed a deal whereby Israel would keep the larger and most populous settlement blocs which it considers vital for its security, and would transfer other territory from Israeli to Palestinian sovereignty in return. This principle of a land swap was also accepted in the unofficial 2003 Geneva Accords, which were negotiated by Israeli and Palestinian peace campaigners. It was also the basis of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during the Annapolis process over the course of 2008.
This would still likely mean Israel would have to withdraw from some more isolated settlements. Israel set a precedent for evacuating settlements in return for peace when it withdrew from the settlements that were built in the Sinai Peninsula after the Six Day War. This came as part of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in which the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egyptian hands. In the summer of 2005, Israel unilaterally evacuated all of its settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.
What is the status of the West Bank?
According to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the West Bank was supposed to become part of a Palestinian Arab state but in 1948 it was seized by Jordan and subsequently annexed. Israel captured the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem, from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel extended its sovereignty over East Jerusalem but not to the West Bank, which it considers disputed territory, the fate of which should be determined in negotiations. In the absence of a peace agreement, Israelis established settlements in the West Bank, which holds both great historical and religious significance for Jews, as well as strategic importance. Today there are close to 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and approximately 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Oslo process that began in 1993 resulted in the creation of Palestinian self-rule over Palestinian population centres in the West Bank. The West Bank is now divided into three types of administration. Seventeen per cent is designated as Area A, under Palestinian administrative and security control. Twenty-four per cent is Area B, which is under Palestinian civilian administration and Israeli security control. The remainder is Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Ninety-six per cent of Palestinians live under Palestinian Authority administration in areas A and B. There is day-to-day coordination between the Israeli military authorities and the Palestinian Authority on the administration of the West Bank.
Why are there Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank?
Prior to the threat of suicide bombings and other Palestinian terrorist attacks inside Israel, Israelis and Palestinians traveled relatively freely between the West Bank and Israel. Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement came in response to terrorist attacks that occurred initially after the signing of the Oslo Accords, but more significantly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. The restrictions also prevent Israelis from entering Palestinian towns and cities. Restrictions on movement within the West Bank have been reduced considerably since the end of the Second Intifada. Nonetheless, Israeli checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel, and within the West Bank, continue to be part of Israel’s defensive measures against the threat of violent attacks.
Checkpoints, which prevent the movement of people and goods within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel, are a source of great frustration for ordinary Palestinians. They are a barrier to Palestinian economic development. Israel recognises this problem, and the need to provide economic opportunities that draw people away from terrorism. Israel has therefore worked with the Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, to reduce the number of checkpoints and limit their effect on the daily lives of the Palestinian people.
As a result of the improved performance of Palestinian security forces in recent years, and a reduction in Palestinian violence emanating from the West Bank, Israeli restrictions on movement and access have been considerably reduced. A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published in June 2010 noted that as a result of changes in 2008 and 2009, movement between Palestinian population centres was much improved. It stated that ‘large segments of the Palestinian population enjoy better access to services, places of work and markets.’
Nevertheless, Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank continue to plan and execute attacks against Israelis. This creates a difficult balance between the need to promote Palestinian development, and the need to maintain security for Israel.
What is the security barrier and why is it there?
After the failure of negotiations at Camp David in 2000, the Second Intifada broke out and brought with it a wave of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks to Israel. Whilst Israel has experienced terrorism throughout its history, it had never been so intense. In 2002, a fatal suicide bombing was carried out in Israel nearly every two weeks. The attackers invariably came from the West Bank. In response, Israel decided to build a security barrier in order to stop terrorists from entering Israel from the West Bank. This contributed to a dramatic reduction in successful terrorist attacks inside Israel. All but five per cent of the barrier is an electronically monitored fence and the rest is a wall.
The purpose of the security barrier is to prevent attacks on Israeli citizens. Whilst the final border between Israel and the Palestinians has to be resolved in negotiations, the route of the security barrier is determined by the need to save Israeli lives by preventing Palestinian terrorists from reaching Israeli towns and cities. In 2004, the Israeli Supreme Court made a landmark ruling, which concluded the fence was legal, on the strict grounds that its purpose was to protect lives. The court also determined that the route should not cause disproportionate harm to the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. On the basis of this ruling, the route of the fence was changed in many places to minimise the impact on Palestinian life. The revised route closely follows the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line) in many places and includes less than 10 per cent of the West Bank on the Israeli side.
Palestinians living in the West Bank are able to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court against the route of the fence where it causes disruption to their lives, and have successfully done so in some cases. Attempts are made to minimise disruption caused by the fence, for example by building agricultural gates that allow Palestinian farmers to access their land.
What is being done to promote Palestinian economic, security and political development?
The international community works intensely to promote Palestinian economic, security and political development. Since the split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2007, the principal focus of international efforts has been to work with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank. The US has led a mission to train and equip Palestinian security forces, while the EU has developed programmes to support Palestinian civil policing. Israel has cooperated with these programmes by allowing Palestinian cadets to travel to Jordan for training and permitting them to bring equipment and weapons into the West Bank.
The success of these missions has brought far greater security and calm to the Palestinian population in the West Bank. As a result, Israeli forces have progressively withdrawn from Palestinian population centres and removed many roadblocks and checkpoints. In September 2009, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that since April 2008, ‘access relaxation measures have resulted in a significant reduction in travel time between major cities, as well as a reduction in the points of friction between Palestinians and Israeli security forces’.
It is also the policy of the Israeli government to promote Palestinian economic development in the West Bank, in the belief that this will undermine extremism and create a more conducive environment for peace. The reduction in movement restrictions and high levels of donor aid from the US and EU have facilitated considerable economic improvement in the West Bank. Quartet envoy Tony Blair has worked with the parties to help facilitate this process, as well as to promote projects that build up Palestinian institutions.
However, lack of political progress in the peace process, the divisions with Hamas, and a decline in aid from Arab states have led to acute financial problems for the Palestinian Authority. In 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced an ambitious new plan to promote private sector investment in the West Bank and give a new boost to the Palestinian economy.
What is the status of Gaza?
The Gaza Strip is a small territory on the Mediterranean coast that borders Israel and Egypt. It is home to approximately 1.6 million Palestinians, and is under the rule of the radical Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which proposed the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, Gaza was supposed to become part of an Arab state. However, after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, it came under Egyptian military occupation. The territory was captured by Israel from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War. Between 1967 and 2005 approximately 8,000 Israeli civilians established communities in the Gaza Strip. In the summer of 2005, Israel withdrew all of its civilians, dismantled the settlements and removed all of its military forces. In November 2005, Israel signed an Agreement on Movement and Access with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that put the Gaza Strip’s borders with Egypt and Israel under Palestinian control. This was the first time in history that Palestinians had managed their own borders. The agreement also included plans to increase exports from the Gaza Strip and for the development of a seaport and an airport.
After Hamas was elected to power in January 2006, the agreement broke down. The number of rockets being fired at Israeli towns from Gaza by Hamas and other armed groups – a form of attack that began in 2001 – increased considerably. In June 2006, Hamas forces captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid and held him captive in Gaza. In July 2007, a short-lived Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah collapsed, with Hamas ousting Fatah and taking complete control of the Gaza Strip.
Operation Cast Lead
At the end of 2008 Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a three-week military campaign against militants in Gaza to stop the firing of rockets at Israeli towns. This operation brought about a ceasefire that greatly reduced the firing of rockets until they steadily increased again in 2012. A UN inquiry led by Judge Richard Goldstone heavily criticised both Israel and Hamas for their conduct during the operation. Israel maintained that it made considerable efforts to prevent harm to civilians but that this was made difficult by Hamas hiding its military infrastructure within the civilian population. Nonetheless, after its own internal inquiries, Israel did institute further safeguards to try to minimise harm to civilians in military operations. After Israel responded to many of the accusations made against it in the Goldstone Report, Judge Goldstone retracted the accusation that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians.
Restrictions on borders
Because of the threat posed by Hamas to Israel, after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 the Israeli government defined the Gaza Strip as a hostile entity. Israel acted to stop the smuggling of weapons by preventing maritime access. It also restricted the goods that could be imported to the Gaza Strip from Israel. Operating the border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip was made more difficult by terrorist attacks by Hamas on the crossings themselves. Nonetheless, Israel always recognised its humanitarian responsibility in Gaza, and consistently allowed goods to enter Gaza to meet the humanitarian needs of the population. In May 2010 nine Turkish activists were killed in a confrontation with Israeli forces aboard the Mavi Marama, whilst trying to breach the maritime blockade.
Following this incident, facing mounting international pressure, Egypt and Israel lessened the restrictions. Israel announced that all goods were allowed to enter from Israel except for those that could be used to make weapons. Israel works with the UN and other international agencies to facilitate the entry of building materials under close supervision. Exports and the movement of people are also limited, though thousands of medical patients routinely cross into Israel from Gaza for advanced medical treatment each year. The maritime blockade remains in place, having been declared legal by a UN inquiry led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, given the threat that Israel faces.
Whilst the Gaza-Egypt border is theoretically open for people, tensions between the Hamas authorities and the Egyptian military government, and insecurity in the Sinai, mean this is subject to limitations.
The restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip have severely damaged the Gaza economy, increased dependency on aid, and greatly limited the opportunities for the people living there. The long-term solution for Gaza is in the hands of Hamas. It will be difficult for Gaza to function normally so long as Hamas poses a threat to Israel and Egyptian security. If Hamas were to accept the Quartet conditions by renouncing violence, accepting previous agreements in the peace process, and recognising Israel, there would be no further need for restrictions to access and movement in Gaza.
Operation Pillar of Defence
Following several days of intense Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at Israeli towns in November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defence, with a series of targeted airstrikes against senior Hamas military commanders and weapons facilities in the Gaza Strip. The operation triggered unprecedented levels of rocket fire, including rockets landing for the first time in the areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The operation also saw the first widespread use of Israel’s missile defence system Iron Dome, which succeeded in intercepting many rockets heading for civilian targets. After a week of fighting a new ceasefire was reached.
What is the status of Jerusalem?
As the religious, national and cultural focal point of the Jewish people for 3000 years, Jerusalem holds a unique status for Israel. The city has had a Jewish majority since the mid 1800s. Successive Israeli governments have emphasised the city’s political and symbolic centrality for the country. Between 1949 and 1967, Jerusalem was divided between Israel, which held the western parts of the city, and Jordan, which controlled the eastern neighbourhoods, as well as the Old City. During that period, Jews were prevented from accessing the Jewish holy places in and around the Old City and the two parts of the city were divided by a fortified border.
After the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel gained control over East Jerusalem, Israel removed the border and reunified the city. During this process, Israel expanded the municipal boundary of the city, extended its sovereignty over the entire city, and proclaimed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Arab residents in East Jerusalem were offered Israeli citizenship, though most of them did not take it up. The Old City was reopened to worshippers of all faiths. Jews were again permitted to reside in the Old City, having been forced out of the Jewish Quarter by Jordanian forces in 1948. Israel also constructed new neighbourhoods and towns around the city. In building these new areas, Israel aimed to strengthen its hold on the city, and prevent a situation such as happened in 1948, where Jerusalem was temporarily cut off from the rest of Israel and besieged.
Government construction in Jerusalem is not guided by the intention to create a Jewish presence within Arab neighbourhoods. However, independent Jewish right-wing organisations have worked to acquire houses in Arab neighbourhoods like Silwan and Jabel Mukaber. The Israeli government contends that there is no legal basis to prevent Jews from acquiring homes in eastern neighbourhoods of the city.
Jerusalem is also of central importance to the Palestinians and they claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The fate of the city has been part of successive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. In the 2000 Camp David Summit, the 2001 Taba Summit and the 2007-8 Annapolis Process between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, various compromise solutions were discussed. Both Ehud Barak in 2000, and Ehud Olmert in 2008, agreed to Palestinian sovereignty in the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, but could not secure an agreement from the Palestinians.
What are the goals of Palestinian terrorism?
Palestinian terrorist groups often justify their attacks on Israeli civilians as ‘resistance to the occupation’. However, most of the groups carrying out violence are opposed to the peace process and an agreed two-state solution, and are committed to Israel’s destruction. The real goal of these organisations is not to bring about the end of Israel’s presence in the territories. Their agenda is to prevent Israelis from living a normal life, and to prevent the development of a peaceful two-state solution. The clearest indication of this is the fact that the focus of their attacks, whether they are suicide bombings or rocket attacks on cities, is often civilians inside Israel.
The Israeli government supports the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. The Oslo process, initiated in 1993, aimed to reach a final status agreement between the two sides. Extremist groups have consistently acted to undermine this process. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has lost hundreds of lives in Palestinian terrorist attacks, with thousands more maimed and injured in shootings, bombings, suicide attacks and rocket and mortar fire.
The perpetrators of terrorism in the 1990s were opposed to peace with Israel, and their actions helped undermine the peace process, which was increasingly handing over autonomy to the Palestinians. In US-brokered peace talks in 2000, the Israeli government agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state close to the 1967 borders, but Yasser Arafat rejected the proposal. He then gave his support to the Second Intifada, which caused immense damage to the peace process. After Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip unilaterally in 2005, rocket attacks by extremist groups there only intensified.
Palestinian violence perpetrated by extremists runs contrary to the interests of the Palestinian people, as has been recognised by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The threat of violence forces Israel to use defensive measures, such as restrictions on movement in the West Bank and entry into Israel, which inhibit the lives of ordinary Palestinians and their economic development. Without the threat of violence from extremist groups, there would be no need to apply these restrictions.
What threat do rocket attacks pose to Israel?
In recent years, the primary method by which terrorist groups have sought to attack Israeli civilians has been the use of rockets and mortars. Since 2001, terrorist groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad have fired domestically produced ‘Qassam’ rockets at Israeli communities in and close to the Gaza Strip. Since 2001, thousands of Qassams have been fired at civilian population centres in southern Israel, resulting in 64 deaths, several of them children, as well as hundreds of injuries.
The worst hit has been the small town of Sderot, which has a population of 23,000. After Israel withdrew from the whole of the Gaza Strip in 2005, the rate of attacks increased markedly, until the launch of Operation Cast lead at the end of 2008 led to a reduction in rocket fire for a time.
During Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012, Palestinian armed groups demonstrated they had improved their capability, using homemade and Iranian supplied rockets to reach the areas of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the first time. The operation succeeded in dramatically reducing the rocket attacks. However, Hamas has not stopped trying to smuggle more rockets in preparation for a future round of conflict.
Whilst the number of fatalities from rocket attacks is relatively low compared to the numbers killed in suicide bombings, the impact on the day-to-day lives of those living within range of the rockets is immeasurable. Ninety per cent of residents in Sderot have experienced a rocket falling in their street or in an adjacent street. Early warning sirens give residents around 15 seconds to take cover before the rocket strikes. That means being more than 15 seconds from a shelter at any time is potentially life threatening.
Towns in the western Negev region close to the border are some of the poorest in Israel. Few residents can afford to move away, but businesses have been forced to close and manufacturers have relocated. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence system, deployed for the first time in 2011, offers some protection, but does not prevent residents having to take shelter when rockets are fired.
The threat of rockets does not come only from Israel’s south. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the Lebanese terrorist organisation Hezbollah fired close to 4,000 rockets provided by Iran and Syria at northern Israel. One million Israelis were forced into bomb shelters and hundreds of thousands left their homes to be out of range. In the course of one month, 44 Israeli civilians were killed and over 4,000 wounded.
In the case of both the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, stopping the rocket fire has proved a very difficult task for the IDF. Rockets are easily concealed within civilian areas and can be fired by small cells from a simple pipe or the back of an ordinary-looking truck. Those who have been responsible for firing the rockets, be it Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, deliberately target Israeli civilians. They act from within civilian areas with little regard for the danger posed to people on their own side. Coming under this kind of rocket assault, from territories from which Israel has withdrawn, has made Israel extremely wary of future territorial concessions.
How does Israel investigate the conduct of its military?
Israel has declared that it is committed to investigating all credible allegations of misconduct against its armed forces, whether they come from Palestinian sources, the media, or NGOs. Responsibility for IDF investigations falls to the Military Advocate General (MAG), a legal officer with the rank of Major General who heads an independent legal branch within the IDF. The Military Advocate General is appointed directly by the Defence Minister and is outside the IDF command structure. He determines whether a case warrants a full criminal investigation.
The decisions of the Military Advocate General are subject to review by Israel’s civilian Attorney General, who is also an independent figure. A complainant or non-governmental organisation may trigger the review of the Attorney General by simply sending a letter directly to the Attorney General. Both the decisions of the Military Advocate General and the Attorney General are subject to judicial review by Israel’s Supreme Court, which can be petitioned by any interested party including Israelis and Palestinians alike, and NGOs. One hundred and fifty allegations were investigated following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s major military operation to stop rocket attacks from Gaza. These have resulted in disciplinary and criminal proceedings against IDF soldiers and officers in some cases.
Israel also has a strong legacy of independent judicial and state inquiries into the conduct of military and political leaders in times of conflict. In two recent examples, major inquiries were led by former Supreme Court judges into the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010 in which nine Turkish activists were killed.
How does Israel avoid harming innocent people in conflict?
Israel has been drawn into conflicts with irregular forces in urban environments. In recent operations in the Gaza Strip and in southern Lebanon, Israel has acted primarily to prevent the firing of rockets at its town and cities. As with British and American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel faces complex problems in fighting against forces which deliberately hide among the civilian population.
The IDF considers itself bound by international humanitarian law and makes use of all available measures to distinguish combatants from non-combatants and to act with proportionality. Its soldiers are required to act according to its ethical code, known as ‘The Spirit of the IDF’. This code includes the principle of the ‘Purity of Arms’, according to which forces are expected to do all they can to prevent harm to non-combatants.
This task is deliberately made difficult by the tactics of the militant groups Israel is confronting. Both Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon deliberately embed themselves within civilian populations in order to make it harder for Israel to act against them.
During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military operation to stop rocket fire from Gaza at the beginning of 2009, Hamas fighters used the civilian population as cover. They fired rockets at Israel from civilian areas, established bases and weapons stores in mosques, apartment buildings, and hospitals and booby trapped civilian neighbourhoods. Fighters removed their uniforms so it would be impossible for the Israeli forces to distinguish combatants and non-combatants.
Israel used a range of techniques to try and overcome these challenges. These included issuing widespread warnings to civilians with leaflet drops, and telephoning residents of individual buildings to warn them they were going to be targeted. After the operation the Israeli military launched a number of investigations to examine lessons that could be learned to further reduce the harm to civilians. These included better coordination with humanitarian agencies and better control over the use of weapons which caused harm to civilians, such as white phosphorous.
In July 2010 Israel announced that to better ensure its own adherence with its humanitarian responsibilities, a humanitarian officer would be introduced to combat units at battalion level. In 2013 Israel announced it was all but stopping the use of white phosphorous, except for a very limited number of specific situations.
In 2009 an inquiry commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and led by South African Judge Richard Goldstone, claimed that Israel had deliberately struck civilian targets in the Gaza Strip. Israel rejected absolutely the accusation that it deliberately targeted civilians and after reviewing Israeli reports into its own conduct, Judge Goldstone retracted the claim.
Which other armed groups are active in the Palestinian territories?
Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades: The al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades is a coalition of armed Palestinian groups linked to Fatah, the secular Palestinian nationalist movement. Formed in October 2000, the groups have taken responsibility for hundreds of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, in which Israeli civilians have been killed. It is designated as a terrorist group in the United States. After 2007, many of the Brigades’ activists in the West Bank signed amnesty deals with Israel and ceased their engagement in violence. However, the group still regularly claims responsibility for the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ): The PIJ is committed to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel through jihad (holy war). The PIJ considers Israel and pro-Western, secular Arab regimes to be manifestations of Western imperialism in Islamic lands. The PIJ has been responsible for many attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israeli targets, and routinely fires rockets at Israel from Gaza. The group is proscribed in the UK under the Terrorism Act 2000. The PIJ is considerably smaller than Hamas, and draws inspiration from a combination of Iranian Shi’ite Islamist revolutionary ideology and Palestinian nationalism. Its main source of support is Iran.
The Popular Resistance Committees (PRC): The PRC is a terrorist organisation active in the Gaza Strip. The organisation was founded at the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000, by former Fatah and Palestinian security apparatus members. Its ranks also include ex-Hamas terrorists and operatives who belonged to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): The PFLP was founded in 1967 with the stated objective of liberating all of ‘Palestine’ to establish a democratic socialist Palestinian state. The group has a long record of terrorism both inside Israel and internationally, claiming many victims. In 2001 the group was responsible for the assassination of then-Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi. The PFLP remains engaged in rocket attacks and shootings against Israeli targets.
Global jihadist groups: Various armed groups subscribing to global jihadist ideologies have become increasingly active in the Gaza Strip and the neighbouring Sinai Peninsula in recent years. These groups are responsible for attacks both against Israel and Egyptian security and infrastructure targets in the Sinai.
Would a boycott of Israel help the Palestinians?
A boycott would do nothing to contribute to the advancement of a peaceful and just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Far from helping the Palestinians, a boycott would hinder the development of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians on which prospects for future peace and security rely. The goal of peace depends on two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, working together with international support towards the mutual goal of a negotiated two-state solution. An environment of rejection and misdirected pressure targeted at Israel is counterproductive to an internationally-backed peace process premised on the development of mutual understanding and respect for both sides.
An academic and cultural boycott, which has been promoted by various trade unions and other activists, contradicts the principles of scientific ethics and the open spirit of international cooperation between scientists, artists and others. It is particularly counterproductive to target Israel’s academic community, which has a proud record of promoting honest debate, criticism and self-examination within Israeli society. Israel’s universities have a significant Arab student intake and are important forums for interaction and cooperation between Jews and Arabs. Arab citizens of Israel have increasingly risen to high ranks within Israeli academia.
Whereas Israel, an open and democratic state in which Jewish and Arab citizens enjoy equal rights, and which embraces free academic inquiry, has been threatened with a boycott, no other country is subject to such a campaign.
Similarly, an economic boycott cannot help the Palestinian people, whose future prosperity depends on creating an atmosphere of economic and political cooperation. Since Israel’s establishment, the Arab world has tried to use an economic boycott to isolate and weaken Israel economically, and thus make the state non-viable. Whilst Egypt and Jordan have direct trade links with Israel, most Arab states are reluctant to trade directly with Israel. The Roadmap peace plan specifically calls for the normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel, including the return of trade links.
What is the makeup of Israeli society?
Around 75 per cent of Israel’s 8 million citizens are Jews. They originate from a wide range of countries. The earliest waves of modern Jewish immigrants came from Europe, and are known as Ashkenazi Jews. After the creation of the state, they were joined by large number of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, known as Sephardi Jews. The most recent waves of Jewish immigration, in the 1980s and 1990s, have been from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Almost a third of the Jews in Israel were born outside of the state.
Figures released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics showed that 8% of Israel’s Jewish population defines itself as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), 12% as religious, 13% as traditional-religious, 25% as traditional and 42% as secular. ‘Traditional’ indicates participation in Jewish traditions but not observance of the strictures of Halakha (Jewish law). Haredi Jews observe very stringent interpretations of Halakha and live very conservative lifestyles within relatively closed communities.
Arab-Israelis comprise about 20% of the general population. Over 80% are Muslims, and the rest are Christians or Druze. The Druze minority has its own distinct identity. Whilst most Arabs are not conscripted to national service, Druze have a close identification with the state and are conscripted. Bedouin Arabs, who live mainly in the south of the country, also form a distinct group, and generally have closer identification with the state than other Israeli-Arabs. Bedouin are not drafted to national service but some volunteer each year.
Until now, ultra-Orthodox Jews have also been exempt from military conscription, and ultra-Orthodox men have not generally entered the workforce, dedicating their lives instead to religious study. This has become a source of resentment among other sectors of society and an economic burden. In 2013 the newly elected Israeli government proposed new legislation to govern the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into national service.
How are rights and freedoms respected in Israel?
Israel has an extremely diverse society. As in many other states, the challenge of accommodating cultural, ethnic and political differences is an important feature of the country’s domestic political agenda.
The vision of Israel’s founders was of an open and democratic state with a Jewish majority in which non-Jews would enjoy full and equal rights. The principle of equality for all citizens was enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and is protected by Israel’s Supreme Court. There are many successes in this regard. All democratic freedoms familiar to a Western democracy are present in Israel. The country has a vigorous and diverse free press, a very well developed and active civil society and a highly respected judicial system protecting individual rights. This is affirmed by the international freedom and democracy watchdog Freedom House.
In Israel, women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of society. In 2008 the president of the Supreme Court, the foreign minister and the speaker of the parliament were women.
Representatives of Arab and other minorities play a full and active role in the state, including as ministers in the government, justices of the Supreme Court, members of parliament, senior academics, ambassadors, members of the civil service, and in the military. In 2007, Raleb Majadele, a member of the Labour party, became the first Arab to sit as a minister in the Israeli cabinet.
However, as in other societies, minority groups still suffer from inequalities, including discrepancies in the allocation of resources and access to public sector jobs. The Arab-Israeli conflict makes particularly difficult the relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, and between Israeli Arabs and the state. There are ongoing efforts by governmental and non-governmental agencies to overcome inequalities between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society.
Is there separation of religion and politics in Israel?
Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state. Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state generally refers to its status as the national home of the Jewish people; it does not mean a state based on Jewish religious law. In most aspects, Israel is a secular state, and freedom of religion is respected. Most Jews in Israel, whilst retaining a strong attachment to Jewish culture and tradition, are not observant of Halakha (Jewish law), and Halakha is not enforced by the state. The main exception, where religious law has standing before the state, is in relation to personal status issues. There is no civil marriage in Israel, but Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Bahai religious authorities each have jurisdiction over marriages among their members.
Haredi Jews are represented by special interest parties in the Knesset, and often participate as minority partners in governing coalitions. Tensions sometimes arise between secular and religious Jews in Israel, for example, over whether religious law should be enforced in public places in areas where Haredi Jews live. Governmental and legal authorities are periodically called upon to find compromises which meet the interests of different sectors in society.
What is the Jewish right of return?
In every generation throughout its history, the Jewish people have suffered persecution and expulsion, especially from countries across Europe. One of the primary goals of the Zionist movement was to create a state, the only one in the world, which would be a national home for the Jewish people and which would by definition be open to Jewish immigration.
When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, one of its most urgent challenges was to absorb hundreds of thousands of stateless Jewish refugees who had been forced from their homes and lost everything in the Holocaust. Israel passed a law that granted the right of citizenship to any Jew who wished to live in Israel. Whilst the traditional religious definition of a Jew is someone who has a Jewish mother, the right of return takes a broader definition. In Nazi Germany, individuals were persecuted as Jews if they had even one Jewish grandparent. Therefore, the State of Israel defines a Jew for the purposes of the right of return as anyone with one Jewish grandparent. The principle is that anyone who could be persecuted for being Jewish ought to have the right of refuge in the Jewish state.
What relations does Israel have with the Arab world?
Israel, which is about the size of Wales and with a population of eight million, is located among 22 Arab states with a combined population in excess of 300 million, covering a land mass larger that Europe. Egypt and the other North African states are to Israel’s west and southwest, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq are to the east and Syria and Lebanon are to the north.
When Israel was founded, the Arab world refused to recognise it and enforced a strict economic boycott. But since the late 1970s, some Arab states have recognised Israel and built political ties with it. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, concluding a peace treaty in 1979. The PLO recognised Israel in 1993 as part of the Oslo peace process. This paved the way for the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994. With the development of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, more Arab states began to establish ties with Israel. Israel opened trade representation and interest offices in Oman, Qatar, Morocco and Tunisia. The economic boycott was relaxed somewhat during this time. In 1999, the West African state of Mauritania became the third Arab state to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The outbreak of the Second Intifada caused Morocco, Oman and Tunisia to break off their ties, but contacts have been maintained in some areas. In 2002, the Arab League proposed to normalise relations with Israel in the context of the creation of a Palestinian state.
What is the Arab Peace Initiative and how has Israel responded?
The Arab Peace Initiative is a proposal originating with the Saudi government for resolving the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and the broader Arab world. The proposal, first adopted by the Arab League in 2002, presents conditions under which the states of the Arab League would be willing to make peace with Israel and normalise relations. The conditions are that Israel withdraws to 1967 boundaries, allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It also demands ‘a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.’
Although this position represents a considerable advance from the days when the Arab League refused to even contemplate peace with Israel, the proposal was initially treated with caution in Israel. One problem is that when first proposed, the initiative appeared to call on Israel to accept its terms without negotiation. Whilst the agreement may be seen as a basis for negotiation, the original terms were not acceptable to Israel. Israel accepts the principle of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank but believes that the final borders must be negotiated, and cannot be exactly as they were in 1967.
Furthermore, UN General Assembly Resolution 194, dating back to 1949, suggests that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to Israel. For Israel to accept such a proposal today would spell the end of the Jewish majority in Israel and therefore the end of the Jewish state. Israel maintains that since it accepted the UN’s Partition Plan of 1947, and the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states then started the war of 1948, it is the Arab states and not Israel who bear responsibility for the refugees. Israel further maintains that the principle of the two-state solution means that the Palestinian state, and not Israel, will be the national home of the Palestinian people and the destination for Palestinian refugees.
Nonetheless, Israel has been open to discussions with Arab states about the initiative. In 2007, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni welcomed Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers to Israel for talks on the Arab Peace Initiative.
In April 2013, following a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, leaders from several Arab states declared a change to the terms of the initiative. Instead of demanding from Israel a strict return to the 1967 lines, they endorsed the idea of 1967 borders including “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land.” This small but significant refinement was an endorsement of an agreement based on the principle of negotiated land swaps.
What threat does Iran pose to Israel?
Iran, which is a Persian speaking, Shi’ite Muslim country, has been led by a radical and fundamentalist Islamic leadership since 1979. The regime subscribes to a theocratic ideology that is fiercely anti-Western and opposed to the very existence of a Jewish state in the region.
Iran is a country with ten times Israel’s population, nearly 80 times Israel’s size, and 10 per cent of the world’s oil. It aims to be the strongest power in the region and to export its radical ideology throughout the world. Iran’s leaders frequently call for the eradication of the State of Israel and have promoted anti-Semitism including denial of the Holocaust.
Iran’s nuclear programme
The danger posed by Iran to stability in the region threatens to be greatly enhanced by its rapid development of nuclear weapons technology. Iran claims that its nuclear programme is purely for civilian purposes, but in 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors nuclear programmes on behalf of the UN, discovered that Iran had been systematically lying about the true extent of its programme for many years. In 2009 it was revealed that Iran had continued to deceive the world, when a secret uranium enrichment facility at Fordow was exposed by Western intelligence agencies.
Iran has repeatedly refused to explain evidence held by the IAEA that it has been developing nuclear weapons technology. Most Western governments believe that Iran’s true goal is the development of nuclear weapons capability. In November 2011, the IAEA issued a detailed report on the structure of Iran’s secret nuclear weapons research.
The UN Security Council has passed several binding resolutions demanding Iran cease its uranium enrichment programme (which would provide it with the fissile material for a nuclear bomb), and fully disclose the extent of its nuclear programme. Iran has refused to do so. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, have made a series of offers to provide political and economic assistance to Iran if it accedes to international demands. So far these have been repeatedly rejected. The threat that Iran might use a nuclear weapon, or pass on the technology to one of its terrorist clients, would make it much harder to counter Iran’s malign influence in the region.
Destabilising the region
Iran’s ambitions are not only of concern to Israel. Iran opposes internationally-backed efforts to bring stability across the region, by supporting violent anti-Western forces in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. The British government has linked Iran to attacks on its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its sailors were abducted and taken to Iran from international waters in 2007. Iran’s missile programme has developed long-range weapons that can reach many parts of Europe. In 2011 a regime orchestrated mob stormed the British embassy in Tehran, leading to the closing of the embassy and the closing of the Iranian embassy in London.
Iran views terrorism as a legitimate means to further its ideological and strategic aims. Iran opposes any Arab peace agreements or recognition of Israel and assists Islamist terrorist groups and organisations that strive to attack Israel, sabotage the peace process and destabilise the regimes of the more pragmatic Arab countries.
The Iranian regime arms, funds and provides military training to the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organisation Hezbollah, which shares its ideology and acts in coordination with the Iranian government. Iran supplied Hezbollah with the missiles and rockets that hit major cities and towns in the north of Israel in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, killing and injuring hundreds of Israelis. Iran supports Palestinian terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran also has a close strategic relationship with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and has actively supported Assad in his brutal war against Syrian rebels.
What is Israel’s policy towards the Syrian civil war?
Israel has a very limited ability to influence the violent civil war raging in Syria, which has cost over a hundred thousand lives over the course of more than two years. Israel’s policy is to intervene only when its national security interests are directly threatened. Silence from the Israeli government on this issue should, however, not be mistaken for indifference or tacit support of the Assad regime, which is a key ally of both Hezbollah and Iran and until recently hosted Hamas’s external leadership.
Israel has defined clear red lines with regard to its own security. These include the transfer of strategic weaponry to Hezbollah or other jihadist groups; the breaching of Israel’s border on the Golan; and the transfer of advanced Russian made S-300 surface-to-air missiles to the Assad regime. Of primary concern to Israel is the proliferation of Syria’s strategic weapons – including sophisticated ground-to-ground, ground-to-air and ground-to-sea missiles as well as chemical and biological stockpiles. Under the control of jihadists in Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon, these weapons could threaten Israel. Israel has reportedly carried out covert airstrikes on more than one occasion since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, against weapons being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah.
What is the nature of the territorial dispute between Israel and Syria?
When Israel declared its independence in 1948, Syria was one of the countries that attacked the newly established Jewish state. Following the war, Syria used the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon as a base from which to shell Israeli agricultural settlements in northern Israel. Disputes over the water sources in the area were also a cause of tension. In 1967, Syria made a military pact with Egypt and backed Egypt’s calls for the destruction of Israel. During the Six Day War, Israel captured the Golan Heights.
In 1973, Syria and Egypt launched coordinated surprise attacks on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, in what became known as the Yom Kippur War. Israel was pushed back in the war, but following a series of extremely costly battles managed to regain control of the Golan.
Since 1973, the border between Israel and Syria has been relatively quiet, but Syria has supported armed groups in neighbouring Lebanon, which it partly occupied from 1976 to 2005, in their attacks on Israel. In particular, Syria supplies weapons to Hezbollah, and allows weapons supplies from Iran to pass through Syria. Syria has also funded and supported extremist Palestinian terrorist groups in their attacks on Israel. The political head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, was hosted by the Syrian government in Damascus until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Before the civil war broke out in Syria Israel had engaged in periodic negotiations, either directly or indirectly, with Syria to explore the possibility of returning the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria signing a peace treaty with Israel and halting its support for terrorist groups that attack Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made this offer via American intermediaries in 1994. Prime Minister Ehud Barak entered into negotiations on this basis with then-Syrian president Hafez Assad in 2000. But the Syrians eventually backed away from the deal. Under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel also explored the possibility of a deal via indirect talks mediated by Turkey.
However, any prospect of further negotiations between Israel and Syria has been removed for the foreseeable future by the civil war that has engulfed Syria.
What is the nature of the relationship between Israel and Lebanon?
There are no legitimate territorial disputes between Israel and Lebanon, but Lebanon is a very weak and divided state and has been used by various groups as a base from which to attack Israel.
In 1970, the PLO established itself in southern Lebanon and launched terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. In 1982 this triggered the First Lebanon War, in which Israel invaded Lebanon and succeeded in expelling the PLO. It also drew Israel into the complex and bloody internal fighting within Lebanon. During the war, Christian Lebanese forces allied to Israel committed an infamous massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut. A subsequent Israeli inquiry found then-defence minister Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible. Eventually Israel pulled back to a ‘security zone’, 20km inside Lebanon. In 2000 Israel pulled all its forces to the internationally recognised boundary and the UN Security Council concluded that Israel had fully withdrawn from Lebanon in accordance with UN requirements.
After the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, the principal threat to Israel was posed by the radical Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah, which established effective control of the southern part of Lebanon. Hezbollah, closely allied to Iran, has continued to use Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel without justification. After the UN endorsed Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah took the opportunity to increase its arsenal of missiles and other weaponry. Between May 2000 and June 2006, Hezbollah carried out numerous missile attacks and cross-border raids against Israel, including one which resulted in the capture of three Israeli soldiers whose bodies were only returned four years later.
In 2006, it launched a simultaneous rocket attack and cross-border raid, killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two more, triggering the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War (known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War). Over the next month Hezbollah fired approximately 3,800 rockets into northern Israel, deliberately targeting Israeli civilians. They displaced between 300,000 and 500,000 Israelis from their homes and forced many more into bomb shelters.
Whilst Israel attempted to avoid Lebanese civilian casualties in its attempt to halt Hezbollah’s fire, Hezbollah’s tactic of intentionally hiding its forces and infrastructure within densely populated areas made this difficult.
Today, Hezbollah claims that it still has legitimate grounds to fight Israel because Israel retains control of the ‘Sheba Farms’ area, an eight square mile piece of land between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Israel’s position, is that it no longer occupies any part of Lebanon and the area was in fact formerly part of Syria. This is backed by the UN. It should therefore be subject to negotiations between Israel and Syria.
What is Hezbollah and what threat does it pose to Israel?
Hezbollah (Party of God) is a radical Shi’ite Islamist organisation, based in Lebanon since 1982. Ideologically and religiously inspired by the fundamentalist Iranian regime, it receives extensive military support from Iran and Syria. In recent years it has become the dominant force in the Lebanese government.
With Iranian and Syrian support, Hezbollah has developed extensive independent military forces and is the strongest faction in Lebanon. It is also a powerful political force representing Shi’ite Muslims. Since the early 1980s, Hezbollah has carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Israel and Jews around the world, and has killed hundreds of innocent people. In addition, Hezbollah has acquired a large arsenal of missiles which they have fired at Israeli communities.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is known for his venomous rhetoric and has called repeatedly for the destruction of the State of Israel. Israel along with many other states have long called for Hezbollah to be disarmed in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which call for the Lebanese army to be the only military force in the country.
Hezbollah is accused by Bulgarian authorities of carrying out a bombing in Burgas In July 2012 that killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. This murderous act on EU soil finally led the EU to proscribe the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation in 2013. Hezbollah is also involved in global organised crime to finance it activities, including drug smuggling, money laundering and counterfeiting.
What is Israel’s nuclear policy?
Israel established a nuclear research programme in the 1950s. On the question of nuclear weapons, Israel maintains a strict policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying the possession of a nuclear arsenal.
However, it is widely believed by analysts that Israel has a nuclear weapons capability. Israel’s unusual stance is rooted in its unique security concerns. Geographic and demographic asymmetries in the region leave Israel inherently vulnerable to attack. Its small size prevents the possibility of ‘strategic depth’ – the ability to absorb a first strike and then launch a counter-attack. This geostrategic vulnerability is regarded as the key concern that motivated Israel to develop a nuclear deterrent. However, if Israel explicitly acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons, the fear is that this might motivate Arab countries to establish nuclear programmes, triggering an arms race and further proliferating nuclear weapons. Maintaining a policy of ambiguity has been successful in preserving Israel’s strategic deterrence, without resorting to threatening rhetoric.
Israel, though not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has the highest interest in preventing other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons or related materials, especially those countries that support proxy terrorist groups in the region. Israel has stated that it supports the vision of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. Israel’s position is that this goal can be pursued effectively when regional peace is secured and all states in the region come into compliance with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations.
How has Israel responded to the Arab Spring?
Triggered by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vender in December 2010, a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests spread across the Arab world. In Israel people have asked the same profound questions about the Arab Spring that have been asked in the West: will the dramatic political changes ultimately bear the fruits of democracy or give way to non-democratic forces and further radicalisation? The impact of political change in the Arab world, however, is felt much more directly by Israelis. Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, expressed the sentiment of the majority of Israel’s when he said:
“A great revolt has been initiated by young people and women, to gain freedom, bread and hope. Israel is watching with great expectation. … Those reactionary forces, that would hijack their countries back down the path of radicalism, are also the enemies of peace with Israel. That is why we hope our neighbors will choose to join the family of democratic nations.”
Even though the political upheavals across the Middle East have largely been focused inwards, Israel has and will continue to experience reverberations. Whilst the spread of liberal democracy in the Middle East would improve the prospects for peace and stability across the region, Israelis are concerned that anti-democratic forces will take the opportunity to gain power, and give vent to populist anti-Israel sentiment, endangering key regional relationships. The destabilisation of countries surrounding Israel also creates greater freedom and opportunities for terrorist groups to operate on Israel’s borders.
Egypt is the most important test case for transition in the region. Egypt is by far the largest Arab state and shares a 150-mile-long border with Israel. Egypt was also the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979, and since then has been an important supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The Israel-Egypt peace treaty also significantly improved Israel’s security, as it removed the threat of war with the strongest Arab military force. However, since the ousting of long-time president Hosni Mubarak, and the subsequent struggle for power in Cairo between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula has rapidly deteriorated. This sparsely populated and poorly governed region has been used as a base for extremist armed groups to launch terror attacks against Israel.
The Arab spring has also caused debate among Israelis as to whether the regional turmoil calls for an effort to revive the peace process with the Palestinians, or to adopt a wait-and-see approach. Key to this is the consideration of whether the fundamental stability to sustain agreements exists, or whether a lack of moderate Arab backing for the process and seeming American loss of influence make this unlikely.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has continued to press for direct negotiations, but has cautioned against concessions that do not come with clear security guarantees.
What is the value of the relationship between Britain and Israel?
Britain and Israel have deep and historic bonds. Following the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Britain was an important supporter of the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, Britain has established a bilateral relationship with Israel based on shared values, strategic interests, commercial trade, and broad contacts between British and Israeli peoples.
The connection between Britain and Israel is anchored in the shared values of liberty and democracy. Israel has long been recognised by Britain as the only true democracy in the Middle East, and an ally against anti-Western forces in the region. The two countries cooperate on issues of security and intelligence, a relationship that has increased in importance in recent years.
Israel is an important partner for Britain in tackling the threat of global terrorism and countering the threat posed by Iran. British and Israeli forces also face common challenges in the form of asymmetric conflicts and British forces have learnt from Israel’s experience in the challenge of tackling irregular forces in urban environments.
Britain has long enjoyed good trade relations with Israel. Annual bilateral trade between Britain and Israel has grown rapidly in recent years and reached £3.75 billion in 2011. Significant bilateral investment also continues to grow, with over 300 Israeli companies already operating inside Britain.
There are also strong cultural ties between Britain and Israel, including in academia. Over 1,000 Israelis study in the UK and over 8,000 Israelis take British degree courses through distance learning in Israel. In 2009, Israeli biochemist Ada Yonath, based at the world renowned Weizmannn Institute of Science, was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Cambridge based researcher Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, and American Thomas A. Steitz. They were recognised for their research into chemical processes within cells. The Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (BIRAX) was established in 2008 to build stronger academic links between the two countries. In 2013, Foreign Secretary William Hague signed a memorandum of understanding with Israeli Science Minister Yaacov Peri to further strengthen scientific cooperation between the two countries.
In addition to the strategic, economic and cultural links, Britain also continues to play an important role in Middle East peacemaking, supporting a two-state solution and the rights of both Jews and Palestinians to self-determination.
There are also deep links between British and Israeli peoples. A close connection with Israel forms an important part of the identity of many British Jews. Many have family in Israel and visit the country on a regular basis. In 2012, more than 200,000 British tourists visited Israel.