The Israeli-Palestinian conflict explained: this preceded the Gaza war

Timeline: five humanities scholars explain the history and background of the current Israel-Hamas war

Zicht op de Olijfberg in Oost-Jeruzalem. Foto: Adam Kring, via Unsplash
The Mount of Olives in the contested East Jerusalem.

The war Israel declared to Hamas in October 2023 is preceded by a period of more than one hundred years of unrest and confrontation. This is known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The current war between Israel and Hamas cannot be understood without this historical context. This is why we have asked five scholars to explain the history and background of the Gaza war step by step, while drawing on their expertise.

Early Encounters (c. 1880-1917)

1897: The First Zionist Congress in Basel

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was the founder of the Zionist movement. On 3 September 1897, he wrote in his diary: “If I had to summarise the Congress in Basel in one word (…) it would be: in Basel, I have founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this aloud today, I would be met with universal mockery. But maybe in five years from now, but certainly fifty, everyone will see it.”

Read more about the First Zionist Congress in Basel

Herzl wrote his prophetic words after the first Zionist Congress, which took place 29-31 August 1897 in the Swiss city Basel. This conference marked the formal beginning of the Zionist Organisation and was also the context in which an agreement was reached on a mutual political foundation programme. The essence of this programme was the creation of a Heimstätte (a ‘home’; German was the official language of the Congress) for the Jewish people in historic Palestine, by means of Jewish agricultural settlements and the encouraging of a Jewish national awareness.

Jewish home in Palestine

So here, Palestine was already explicitly mentioned as the location of a national home for Jews – after all, many Jewish holy sites can be found there. However, the political status of the desired home was still expressed quite mildly in this early phase, mainly to not offend the Ottoman Sultan, who ruled Palestine at the time. There is also no certainty whether or not Herzl himself saw Palestine as the only location for his project. He died as early as 1904 and could therefore not guide the further political course of his organisation.

In hindsight, 1897 marked an important moment in the politicisation of Jewish national thought. At the same time, this importance should not be exaggerated. Until after the Holocaust, the Zionist Organisation remained a minority group within the Jewish political landscape and should be understood within this wider framework.

- Laura Almagor

V.l.n.r. Hoessein bin Ali, Mark Sykes, François Picot en Arthur Balfour. Foto's: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
From left: Hussein bin Ali, Mark Sykes, François Picot, and Arthur Balfour.

1915-1917: Three conflicting British agreements

During the First World War (1914-1918), in the Middle East, Great Britain and France faced the Ottoman Empire, which sided Germany and Austria-Hungary. In order to defeat the Ottomans, as well as advancing their own interests in the region, the British reached three conflicting agreements with three separate parties at almost the same time. These three agreements would have strong influences on the future of the Middle East and Palestine.

Read more about the three conflicting British agreements

The British made the first agreement with the Emir of Mecca, Sharif Hussein bin Ali (1853-1931) in 1915. In exchange for his military support, he would receive an Arabic Kingdom spanning, although the British were deliberately vague about this, approximately Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. One year later, they entered into the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the French: anticipating an Ottoman defeat, they decided to divide the Middle East between themselves in advance. And in 1917, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), promised the Jewish people a ‘national home’ in the by then British-occupied Palestine. You can read more about this Balfour Declaration below.

Palestinians felt deceived

Both the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration were at odds with the promises to Hussein bin Ali. Arabs inside and outside Palestine felt deceived. They had risen up against the Ottomans on the side of the British, but felt they gained far too little in return. Continuing distrust against the European colonial powers was the result and in 1936 this would lead to the Arabic Revolt in Palestine. This explosion of violence was directed against the British ruler in Palestine on the one hand and against the increasing Jewish migration to the Promised Land on the other.

- Peter Malcontent

The British Mandate (c. 1917-1939)

1917: The Balfour Declaration

On 2 November 1917, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), declared that the United Kingdom would promote a ‘National Jewish Home’ in Palestine after the First World War. Noble ideals were not that important in this matter – political self-interests all the more.

Read more about the Balfour Declaration

For the British, it was a major priority to ensure that Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) would continue the war against Germany after the Communist Revolution of 1917. With the announcement of a Jewish home in Palestine, Balfour hoped influential communist Jews would be able to convince Lenin to do so. Balfour also hoped this would encourage Jewish lobby groups in Washington to urge the American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) to send more American troops to the battlefields of Flanders and North France, and do so faster. However, Balfour grossly overestimated Jewish influence on political decision-making processes.

On top of that, the promise of a Jewish home in Palestine provided Great Britain with a legitimate reason to take over this strategically positioned area from the Ottoman Empire after the war. The British realised a valid excuse would be required to convince the Americans of a new expansion of the British Colonial Empire.

Dismay among Zionist Jews and Palestinians

After the First World War, the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, allocated Palestine as a mandate managed by the British, who then governed it as a colony. That would not be easy. Zionist Jews were disappointed because the promised Jewish homeland was not allowed to become an independent state. And there was agitation among native Arab inhabitants that would eventually lead to the Palestinian Revolt.

- Peter Malcontent

De Britse politie drijft een protesterende menigte uiteen in Jaffa (1936). Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
British police disperse a protesting crowd in Jaffa (1936).

1929-1939: The Palestinian Revolt and the Peel Commission

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Zionist emigration to Palestine continued while opposition against it continued to grow among the local population. This regularly led to violence, like in 1929, when riots erupted over rights to the West Wall in Jerusalem. Arabs attacked mostly non-Zionist Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron, after which Zionists targeted Arabs in various places. In this, and in the British attempt to regain control of the situation, roughly 250 Jews and Arabs died.

Read more about the Palestinian Revolt and the Peel Commission

Resistance against Zionist emigration

One important person within the Arab resistance against Zionist emigration was ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam (1882-1935), a Syrian preacher and combatant. Al-Qassam was killed in a fire fight with the British in 1935. His followers killed two Jews in the year after that, who were avenged the next day when Jews killed two Arabs. This was the reason for the big Arab Revolt which lasted from 1936 to 1939 and was characterised by violence, strikes, and boycotts. During this revolt, roughly 5000 Arabs were killed, mostly as the result of British attempts to gain control of the situation.

Peel Commission: “A Jewish and a Palestinian state”

In order to investigate the causes of the revolt, the Peel Commission was founded in 1936, which made its report in 1937. One part of it was a partition plan for the mandate of Palestine into a Jewish state in the north and north-west, a British strip from Haifa in the west to Jerusalem in the middle, and an Arab state in the rest of the area. Both the Zionists and the Arabs responded negatively to the proposal, but did decide to keep negotiating with the British. Because of the local scepsis – and also because the Arab Revolt continued after 1937, the plan was rejected by London following initial acceptance by the British government.

- Joas Wagemakers

From the Shoah to the Nakba (c. 1939-1949)

1939-1948: The Shoah and Jewish immigration to Palestine

The Holocaust, or Shoah, was the structural and systematic murder of approximately six million European Jews led by Nazi Germany during the Second World War (1939-1945). After the war, the world witnessed one of the biggest refugee crises ever: an estimated ten million Europeans were displaced.

Read more about the Shoah and Jewish immigration to Palestine

Many of them returned to their home countries, but a significant number of refugees had no home to return to. Among them were many European Jews, with few or no surviving relatives, who could not or did not want to return to the places where their non-Jewish neighbours had preferred to see them gone until recently. They were housed in camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy, sometimes forced to stay there for years.

Ironically, these camps were of big importance to the Zionist PR campaign. Images were circulating the world and David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), the future first Israeli Prime Minister, visited the camps to convince the Jews there that their future was in Palestine. This was controversial because the British, who still held the mandate, had strictly limited immigration to Palestine. Via the underground Brichah (‘Escape’), Jews moved to Palestine anyway.

More international support for Jewish state

In 1947, the British Coast Guard violently sent the ship Exodus, on which many Holocaust survivors tried to reach Palestine, back to the sea. This Exodus Affair led to worldwide horror, and additional goodwill for the Zionists.

Besides Jews, non-Jewish politicians, who often did not see the Zionist project as viable before, also became convinced that support to the Zionists was morally justified. A large number of the Jewish refugees would eventually come to Palestine (and to the State of Israel after May 1948), although an also significant number of them emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, Latin America, and other parts of the world.

- Laura Almagor

Foundation sovereign Jewish state of Israel

The immense catastrophe of the Shoah for European Jewry during World War II had a decisive influence on the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. By October 1944, the Jewish Agency for Israel, established at the 16th Zionist Congress in Zürich in 1929, had indicated to the British government that its political aim was to transform Palestine into a Jewish Commonwealth at the end of the war. The Jewish Agency’s leadership, including figures such as David Ben-Gurion, sought to capitalise on the post-war geopolitical landscape to achieve their national objectives.

The Jewish Agency envisioned a sovereign Jewish state that, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, would serve as a safe haven for Jews worldwide. In October 1945, British policymakers concurred to establish an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (AACI). Much to the consternation of Arab and Palestinian representatives, the AACI explicitly and purposefully intertwined, rather than separated, the issues concerning Holocaust survivors and the future of Palestine. The Report specifically advocated, both on humanitarian and political grounds, the immediate admission of 100,000 Jewish survivors into Palestine and envisioned a unitary state in Palestine based on the principles of non-domination and binationalism.

- Fabio Cristiano

Het Verdelingsplan van de Verenigde Naties (1947). Bron: Nul00000, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The United Nations Partition Plan (1947). Source: Zero00000, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1947: The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine

Tired after the Second World War and close to bankruptcy, the United Kingdom no longer felt capable of maintaining order in Palestine. Particularly now that tensions were running higher and higher. Jewish Zionists, on the one hand, rose up against British rule because Great Brittain wanted to restrict the immigration of Holocaust survivors. Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, felt the British were allowing too many migrants to settle. In 1947, the British asked the newly founded United Nations (UN) to speak out on the future of Palestine. The Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) provided a contested proposal.

Read more about the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine

UNSCOP advised to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, a plan supported by a majority of the General Assembly.

A Jewish and a Palestinian state

However, it remained unclear how this two-state solution was to be brought about. The Jewish Zionists could live well with the UNSCOP proposal, but that was not the case for the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab countries. This was because the partition plan allocated more than half of Palestine to the Zionists, while the Palestinian Arabic population was twice their size.

The UN Security Council was not willing to impose the partition plan by force. A civil war and a regional war after the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948, were the result.

- Peter Malcontent

1948: Israel’s declaration of independence and war of independence

On 15 May 1948 at midnight, the mandate granted by the League of Nations to Great Britain in 1920 expired. A day before that, the Jewish Agency of the Zionist World Organisation had declared an independent Israel. David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was the first to sign the declaration and became Israel’s first Prime Minister. But up until the last moment, various Zionist parties were still negotiating on various aspects of the new to-be formed state.

Read more about Israel’s declaration and war of independence

For the name of the country, among other things, various options were discussed. ‘Palestine’ was intentionally not chosen because this was assumed to be the name for the future Palestinian state. Another point of dispute was the role of religion in the fundamental formation of the new state. Communists wanted nothing of the sort, but religious parties wanted explicit references to God. As leader, Ben-Gurion achieved an ambivalent compromise, which even today made the state neither religious nor secular in nature.

- Laura Almagor

Een man kijkt uit over een Palestijns vluchtelingenkamp in Damascus, Syrië (1948). Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
A man looks out over a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria (1948).

1947-1949: The Palestinian Nakba and the First Arab-Israeli War

Almost immediately after the Israeli declaration of independence, surrounding Arab countries invaded Israel. In this First Arab-Israeli War (1948), the armies from neighbouring Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as local Palestinian militias invaded the newly declared state, seeking to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state and to prevent the further displacements of Palestinian Arabs. The war had immense humanitarian consequences, which resonate to this day.

Read more about the Palestinian Nakba and the First Arab-Israeli War

Refugees

By conservative estimates, over 750,000 Palestinians were evicted to the neighbouring countries, where they were moved into refugee camps. The harsher and harsher Israeli laws and regulations made it impossible for many of them to ever return. This often-violent expulsion, coupled with land expropriations and persecution, is called the Nakba (‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophe’) in the Palestinian context. On top of that, the Arab population that remained had now become the Palestinian minority with, as would later turn out, a second-class status in Israel.

Many Jewish communities in countries with Arab majorities were also persecuted and evicted, which led to their resettlement in Israel, resulting in even more pressure of a growing population in the region.

United Nations Resolution 194

Intending to come to a solution for the war, the General Assembly of the United Nations accepted Resolution 194 in 1948. One of its most important articles stated that Palestinian refugees are allowed to return home. Those who would choose not to return were to receive compensation. Israel disagreed and rejected the resolution.

The First Arab-Israeli War ended with a series of armistices (cease-fires, not peace treaties). Israeli forces had managed to repel the Arab invasion and to even expand their territory beyond the boundaries proposed by the UN Partition Plan of 1947, setting the stage for conflicts to come.

- Simeon Paravantes, Laura Almagor en Peter Malcontent

The regionalisation of the conflict (c. 1956-1973)

1956: The Suez Crisis (the Second Arab-Israeli War)

The 1956 Suez Crisis (or Second Arab-Israeli War) was fought among Israel, Egypt, the United Kingdom, and France. The conflict had its roots in a complex web of regional tensions and geopolitical interests, and its consequences were as unforeseen as far-reaching.

Read more about the Suez Crisis (the Second Arab-Israeli War)

In 1952, after the First Arab-Israeli War, General Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) seized power and named himself president of Egypt. He immediately set about a modernisation campaign. When the United States refused to finance the Aswan Dam, partially due to Nasser’s relations with communist China and the Soviets, he decided to nationalise the Suez Canal in July 1956. Since the nineteenth century, this vital waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea was financed and controlled by the British and French.

Israeli-British-French collusion

Great Brittain and France were angered by Nasser’s nationalisation, and the Second Arab-Israeli War began after a secret agreement was signed between them and Israel. Israel would invade Egypt, and then, under the pre-text of being peacekeepers, the British and French would deploy their troops to stop the fighting and retake control of the Suez Canal to ‘protect’ it.

The Israeli-British-French collusion took the international community by surprise and drew condemnation from both the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States, fearing escalation and the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East, pressured Britain and France to withdraw their forces. Despite securing a military victory, the British and French withdrew in humiliation, while Israel too was forced to withdraw.

Nasser turned the military defeat into a political victory and saw his popularity surge throughout the Middle East. The war had far-reaching consequences as it accelerated the process of decolonisation in Africa and the Middle East, emboldened the Soviet Union to invade Hungary, and set the stage for future conflicts between Israel and its neighbours.

- Simeon Paravantes

Tijdens hun top in 1964 initieerde de Arabische Liga een organisatie die de belangen van de Palestijnen nog vertegenwoordigen. Dit werd de Palestijnse Bevrijdingsorganisatie. Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
At their 1964 summit, the Arab League initiated an organisation to represent the interests of the Palestinians. This became the Palestine Liberation Organization.

1964: The establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

In an attempt to join forces, the Arab League founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. The PLO received a National Council (the parliament), an Executive Council (the government), a National Charter, an army (with units enlisted with various Arab armies), and a Chairman, the Palestinian diplomat Ahmad al-Shuqayri (1908-1980). As such, it was really a Palestinian state in exile.

Read more about the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)

Palestinian nationalism

During the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Palestinian refugee issue came about. These refugees mostly ended up in refugee camps, where a clear and strong national Palestinian identity developed. Various militant groups were founded there as well in the 1950s, of which the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) is the most well-known. These organisations carried out attacks on Israel with support from Arab countries, but did function as autonomous entities. At the same time, fewer and fewer Palestinians believed the Arab states would be able to recover their lost land for them.

PLO gains a more Palestinian character

In this context, the Arab countries founded the PLO in 1964. But the militant groups which had formed in the refugee camps stayed away from the PLO, as they believed it was Arab in nature and not Palestinian. This changed when the Arab countries lost the 1967 war against Israel. Al-Shuqayri was succeeded as Chairman by the Palestinian activist and lawyer Yahya Hammuda (1909-2006) and a year later, the organisation refined the National Charter and the document received a more Palestinian character.

With the elections for the fifth Palestinian National Council, the militant groups gained the majority of the seats and elected Fatah leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) Chairman in 1969. From that point onwards, the PLO became a real Palestinian umbrella organisation for various groups and has remained so ever since.

- Joas Wagemakers

1967: The Six-Day War (the Third Arab-Israeli War)

Prior to the Six-Day War (or Third Arab-Israeli War), tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbours had been escalating for years. The buildup of military forces and provocations along Israel’s borders, particularly with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, proved the immediate trigger for this war – a war that would radically alter the face of the Middle East within just six days.

Read more about the Six-Day War (the Third Arab-Israeli War)

As a result of the buildup, on 5 June 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, targeting their air forces and military infrastructure to neutralise the threat posed by the Arab armies. Israeli forces swiftly achieved air superiority and made significant territorial gains, using innovative military tactics now known as ‘combined arms operations’. Employing high levels of coordination between ground, air, and artillery units, the Israeli Defense Force also captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Israel wins the war

On 10 June, the Six-Day War resulted in a victory for Israel, securing its existence and significantly expanding its territory. However, these gains came at a cost, with profound implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Arab-Israeli relations.

Israel again exceeded its 1948 borders, leading to another mass exodus of Palestinian refugees and further exacerbating tensions between Israel and the Arab world. Israel emerged as a power in the Middle East, while its occupation of seized territories remained a significant obstacle to peace in the region.

Ceasefires were agreed upon with all sides on 10 October 1967, but peace would not last for long. The Egyptian military would learn from this third straight defeat and changed how it trained and promoted officers. This change had profound consequences for the next decade.

- Simeon Paravantes

De gebieden die Israël tijdens de Zesdaagse Oorlog heeft bezet (groen). Bron: Zvikorn, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
De gebieden die Israël tijdens de Zesdaagse Oorlog heeft bezet (groen). Bron: Zvikorn, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

1967: The UN Resolution 242 on the retreat of Israel from occupied territories

The international community responded determinedly to the Six-Day War and the new extensive Palestinian refugee flows. On 22 November 1967, the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242. In this resolution, the UN stated that it was ‘inadmissible’ to acquire territories through war and the council ordered Israel to immediately retreat from the territories it had occupied during the Six-Day War. According to the council, this would be of vital importance in order to achieve a long-term state of peace. The 1967 war put the Palestinian question back on the international political agenda, but Israel refused to accept this UN Security Council Resolution 242.

Read more about the UN Resolution 242 on the retreat of Israel from occupied territories

Military occupation Gaza and West Bank

Gaza and the West Bank, areas that had belonged to Jordan and Egypt respectively before the 1967 war, had traditionally been home to many Palestinians. Particularly as a result of the Nakba, that number had grown even further. This made a complete annexation of Gaza and the West Bank after the war not an option for Israel. All inhabitants would then have to be granted Israeli citizenship, which would undermine the identity of the Jewish state of Israel.

Israel decided on a long-term military occupation that enabled it to restrict the political and civil rights of Palestinians. In a period in which international human rights were becoming increasingly important, this was not well received by the United States and Europe. It led these key allies of Israel to slightly increase their support for Palestinian rights to self-determination.

- Peter Malcontent

1973: The Yom Kippur War (the Fourth Arab-Israeli War)

Tensions in the region were high due to unresolved issues from the previous conflicts. In 1973, this gave rise to the Yom Kippur War (or October War, Ramadan War, or Fourth Arab-Israeli War). Egypt and Syria sought to regain lost territories and challenge Israeli military superiority. And this time, Israeli forces were unprepared for a conflict.

Read more about the Yom Kippur War (the Fourth Arab-Israeli War)

The war began on 6 October 1973, which was the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur and a day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. In the early days of the war, Egyptian and Syrian forces achieved significant territorial gains, with Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal and Syrian forces advancing into the Golan Heights.

Israel retains control of captured territories

Despite initial setbacks, Israel quickly mobilised its forces and launched a counteroffensive. Israeli troops crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt and pushed Syrian forces back in the Golan Heights. After three weeks of intense fighting, a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations came into effect on 25 October 1973. The war ended with high casualties on all sides and with Israel retaining control of the territories it had captured in previous conflicts.

The Yom Kippur War provoked significant international involvement, with the United States and the Soviet Union both playing diplomatic roles to try to end the conflict. The United States also provided military aid to Israel, while the Soviet Union supported the Arab states militarily. The war led to significant changes in regional politics, perhaps the most significant of which was a change in Egyptian policy. President Anwar Sadat (1918-1981), sacrificing Egypt’s place as the leading Arab power in the Middle East, decided to re-orient Egyptian policy in favour of closer relations with the United States, and eventually, to peace with Israel.

- Simeon Paravantes

Manachem Begin (Israël), Jimmy Carter (Verenigde Staten) en Anwar Sadat (Egypte) tijdens Camp David I (1978). Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
Manachem Begin (Israël), Jimmy Carter (Verenigde Staten) en Anwar Sadat (Egypte) tijdens Camp David I (1978).

Palestinian nationalism and the First Intifada (c. 1978-1987)

1978-1979: The Camp David Accords (Camp David I)

The Yom Kippur War, with its initial setbacks and high losses for Israel, was followed by an intensification of international diplomatic efforts. Under the leadership of its Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), the United States emerged as the primary mediator in this phase, thus decisively marginalising the Soviet Union from playing a role in the Middle East Peace Process.

Read more about the Camp David Accords (Camp David I)

The diplomatic efforts materialised into the agreements known as the Camp David Accords, specifically comprising two documents: ‘A Framework for Peace in the Middle East’ and ‘A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel’. Only the second ‘framework’ produced a formal peace treaty in an iconic signing ceremony on the White House lawn on 26 March 1979.

Palestinians absent

The signing was accompanied by protests from Palestinian supporters outside the premises. The Palestinians, at the time represented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), had been excluded from the negotiations leading to Camp David I. Many Arab leaders condemned Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s (1918-1981) pursuit of a ‘separate peace’ at Camp David I, which marked the disconnection of the Palestinian issue from the broader Arab-Israeli relations.

- Fabio Cristiano

1982 (en 2006): The Lebanon War(s)

The 1982 Lebanon War (the First Lebanon War) was a conflict between Israel and various Palestinian militant groups as well as Lebanese factions. Israel aimed to drive Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) forces out of southern Lebanon, as the PLO used this area as a base for attacks against Israel.

Read more about the Lebanon War(s)

The trigger of this conflict was the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov (1929-2003), the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, by a Palestinian militant organisation. Israel responded by launching a military campaign into Lebanon, quickly advancing deep into Lebanese territory.

Israeli military presence in Lebanon

The war had significant consequences, including the siege of Beirut, which resulted in heavy civilian casualties and extensive damage to infrastructure. While Israel achieved its initial objective of expelling PLO forces from southern Lebanon, the war ultimately resulted in a prolonged Israeli military presence in Lebanon (1982-1985) and a further destabilisation of the region. It also contributed to the emergence of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group, which would become a significant power in Lebanese politics and, until this day, an adversary of Israel.

Second Lebanon War

The conflict erupted again in 2006, in the Second Lebanon war. This collision was triggered by a cross-border raid by Hezbollah, in which the group captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others. Israel responded with a large-scale military operation aimed at weakening Hezbollah and preventing further attacks. The conflict quickly escalated into a full-scale war.

Hezbollah retaliated by launching rockets into northern Israel, targeting civilian areas. The conflict resulted in significant loss of life on both sides, with hundreds of Lebanese civilians and militants killed, as well as dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians. The war lasted for 34 days before a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations Security Council came into effect on 14 August 2006.

- Simeon Paravantes

Palestijnen protesteren tijdens de Eerste Intifada. Bron: Abarrategi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Palestinians protest during the First Intifada. Source: Abarrategi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

1987-1993: The First Intifada and the founding of Hamas

In the 1980s, attention for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decreased in both Israel and the Arab world, as well as in the international community. In 1987, this ended abruptly when an Israeli driver killed four Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It escalated and the Palestinians started an uprising which would last for years: the First Intifada.

Read more about the First Intifada and the founding of Hamas

Israel and occupied Palestinian territories

The underlying reason for the uprising was the Israeli occupation, which had started in 1967 and expressed itself in the construction of settlements and the oppression of the Palestinian population.

Just like the Israeli government, the leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) were surprised by the uprising. They had been in political and diplomatic isolation in Tunis since the First Lebanon War. There in the capital of Tunisia, they were far away from the Israeli-occupied territories.

PLO and Hamas

While Palestinians resisted the Israeli military in mostly non-military ways and set up their own leadership and governance cultures in the occupied territories, the PLO tried to get a grip on the uprising by advantaging like-minded people to guide its progress. But Israel got the Intifada more and more under control, which led to only partial successes. On top of that, the PLO had to deal with a new competitor organisation during this period, as in 1987, Hamas was founded.

The Peace Process, or its failure (c. 1991-2000)

1991: The Peace Conference of Madrid

The seeds planted through the Camp David Accords of 1978 eventually bore fruits at the Madrid Conference in 1991, where other Arab states and the Palestinian representatives joined the peace process. A historic gathering commenced on 30 October 1991, at Madrid’s Royal Palace, marking a departure from longstanding taboos.

Read more about the Peace Conference of Madrid

Palestinian presence

US Secretary of State James Baker (1930-) now retraced the diplomatic path forged by Henry Kissinger (1923-2023) in the 1970s. To facilitate Palestinian participation, special arrangements had to be devised. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (1915-2012) had refused to meet with any representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), while Palestinians insisted securing tacit approval from PLO headquarters in Tunis before participating. One of the arrangements was officially incorporating Palestinians into the Jordanian delegation.

No breakthrough Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Despite several days of discussions, the delegates left Madrid without significant breakthroughs, except for two symbolic milestone: the coming together after long-standing taboos of direct interaction between Palestinians and Israelis, and the establishing of protocols for subsequent talks elsewhere. It was not until 1993, with an unconventional initiative by senior PLO and Israeli leaders in Oslo, that a substantive breakthrough occurred.

- Fabio Cristiano

Yitzhak Rabin (Israël) en Yasser Arafat (PLO) schudden handen voor het Witte Huis (1993). Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
Yitzhak Rabin (Israel) and Yasser Arafat (PLO) shake hands in front of the White House (1993).

1993-1995: The (failed) Oslo Accords

On 13 September 1993, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin (1922-1995) and the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organzation (PLO) Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) signed the so-called Oslo Accords. These accords were the result of secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital Oslo and were based on the principle of ‘land in exchange for peace’.

Read more about the (failed) Oslo Accords

Recognising Israel and Palestinian autonomy

The Oslo Accords were based on the principle of ‘land in exchange for peace’. Arafat recognised the State of Israel and Rabin promised Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank. In 1995, they agreed that the PLO would be given provisional administration of Gaza and certain parts of the West Bank. The other seventy per cent of the West Bank remained in Israeli hands for the time being.

Two-state solution?

So, although the international community did have high hopes, a two-state solution – an independent Palestinian state next to Israel – was not yet in sight. A number of controversial issues would first have to resolved for that, such as the problem of the expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, the future status of Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees’ right to return.

Declining popularity PLO

Many Palestinians had little faith in the negotiation process, but Arafat had no choice. In 1990, he had lost goodwill with the Americans as well as many Arabic countries by supporting the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) in his invasion of Kuwait. Arafat’s popularity was also on the decline among the Palestinian population. The Intifada had not just been a protest against the Israeli occupation but also against his PLO, which allegedly fully lost its connection to its support base since the exile in Tunis.

So, when Rabin seemed willing to negotiate with Arafat because he had learned from the Intifada that the Palestinian resistance could not be solved with violence, Arafat jumped at the chance. Doing nothing was not an option and if he were to succeed, he would go down in history as the founder of an independent Palestinian state, no matter how small it in practice would be.

- Peter Malcontent

1995: The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) was murdered on 4 November 1995 after a speech at a peace conference in Tel Aviv. The Israeli assassin was immediately arrested, but Israel lost one of the most iconic personalities in its young history.

Read more about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

Under Rabin’s leadership, the Israeli military achieved a glorious victory on neighbouring Arab countries during the Six-Day War of 1967. After the First Intifada broke out in 1987, he became responsible for settling the Palestinian uprising as Minister of Defence. As this did not succeed with violence alone, he came to the conclusion that peace negotiations were necessary for the national security of Israel. With this message, Rabin’s Labour Party succeeded in winning the elections of 1992. One year later, he matched his 1967 success by reaching the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians after a dispute that spanned decades.

Ultra-orthodox and extremist-nationalist criticism

Ultra-orthodox Jews and extremist-nationalist West-Bank settlers, however, believed it was unimaginable that these peace accords gave Palestinians self-governance not only in Gaza, but on the West Bank too. In Biblical times, the West Bank was an important part of the old Israel in the form of the provinces of Judea and Samaria.

This was why they saw Rabin as a traitor to the Jewish nation state of Israel. The Likud Party of Rabin’s most important political competitor, Benjamin Netanyahu (1949-), fully embraced this sentiment: according to them, Rabin’s government represented no Jewish tradition or value at all. In turn, Rabin called Netanyahu a liar – he felt he had taken full control of the peace negotiations. The construction of settlements could continue and if it were up to him, Palestinians would eventually gain autonomy in only 30 percent of the occupied territories.

But in the by then poisoned political atmosphere, the 25-year-old Thora student Yigal Amir was convinced he was doing the Jewish nation state a favour when he ended Rabin’s life.

- Peter Malcontent

Ehud Barak (Israël), Bill Clinton (Verenigde Staten) en Yasser Arafat (PLO) tijdens Camp David II (2000). Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
Ehud Barak (Israel), Bill Clinton (United States), and Yasser Arafat (PLO) during Camp David II (2000).

2000: The summit meeting at Camp David (Camp David II)

Despite a noticeable deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic relations, the 25 years following the Oslo Accords saw the emergence of several diplomatic attempts aimed at reviving the process from post-1995 impasses. The 2000 Camp David summit, however, ushered in a period of tense disillusionment.

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In 1996, the election of Benjamin Netanyahu (1949-) reflected Israeli disillusionment with the direction taken by the Labour Party, especially regarding the peace process in the early 1990s. The Labour Party still regained power in June 1999 under the leadership of Ehud Barak (1942-). Barak had promised to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, uphold Rabin’s vision by finalising the peace agreement with Syria, and negotiate remaining permanent status issues with the Palestinians.

New negotiations Israelis and Palestinians

The following Camp David summit in July 2000, akin to Camp David I, was characterised by high tension. The task facing Barak and Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) was almost more daunting than the one of 22 years earlier: bridging gaps between the principal parties on unresolved final status issues, including refugees and their right of return, Jerusalem, territory, borders, settlements, and security.

Camp David II spanned 15 days, but fell short of replicating the historic success achieved in 1978. The summit concluded with a tepid trilateral statement marked by good intentions, yet the failure of efforts was unmistakable. Barak and Arafat had to return from the United States without having made tangible progress.

- Fabio Cristiano

The Second Intifada and its aftermath (c. 2000-2005)

2000-2005: The Second Intifada

Near the end of the 1990s, it became more and more clear that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which had started with the Oslo Accords, had not resulted in a two-state solution. Not only had Israel’s territorial concessions remained limited, the number of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories had increased too. The disillusion and frustration among Palestinians ensured there would be a new eruption sooner or later.

Read more about the Second Intifada and its aftermath

That eruption happened on 28 September 2000, when the Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon (1928-2014) visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, an area considered sacred by Jews as well as Muslims, with a big police escort.

Palestinian attacks and Israeli invasions

Unlike the First Intifada of 1987-1993, this uprising was violent in nature from the start. Palestinian opposition groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad had committed many attacks against Israel during the peace process, which they now resorted to again. This was why, instead of throwing rocks and organising collective actions, as happened widely during the First Intifada by large sections of the population, militant groups now decided on the nature of the uprising. Israel responded by assassinating prominent leaders of Palestinian organisations, which led to more bad blood. Therefore, the Second Intifada was characterised by many Palestinian attacks and Israeli invasions.

But there were still also various attempts to come to a ceasefire too, such as in 2003, which coincided with a new peace initiative: the Road Map. However, these achieved nothing. The Al-Aqsa Intifada did not end until 2005, after hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians had been killed, when various Palestinian militant groups announced a period of calm in March that year, partially in response to the call from the Palestinian population.

- Fabio Cristiano

Ariël, een van de Israëlische nederzettingen op de Westelijke Jordaanoever. Bron: Salonmor, via Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ariel, one of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Source: Salonmor, via Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

2002-: The West Bank Barrier and the expansion of Israeli settlements

Addressing the Second Intifada and claiming renewed security concerns, Israel began the construction of a separation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: the West Bank Barrier or Israeli Wall. Similarly, the numbers of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continued to rise.

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West Bank Barrier

With a height of approx. 9 meters and a length of approx. 700 kilometres upon completion, the wall extends far beyond the Israeli territory as defined by the 1949 armistice boundaries (the ‘Green Line’), thus illegally annexing Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. By physically disconnecting Palestinians from Jerusalem, the separation wall also visually epitomises the closure of the peace process.

Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory

Favourable legislation led to the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Anno 2024, in occupied Palestinian territory over 150 settlements can be found, and approx. 100 outposts (settlements not officially authorised by the Israeli government). With more than 450,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and 220,000 residing in East Jerusalem, the prospects of a two-state solution appear today more unlikely than ever.

- Fabio Cristiano

2005: The retreat of Israel from the Gaza Strip

In the aftermath of the Second Intifada, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, forcibly relocating over 8,000 illegal settlers amidst fervent opposition. Internationally, many perceived this move as a first step towards broader Israeli disengagement and the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank, thus providing the peace process with new momentum. But they were mistaken.

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Israel (partially) leaves Gaza

The United Nations and several human rights organisations continued to regard Israel as the occupying power of the Gaza Strip and, therefore, bound by the obligations of an occupying power under international customary law and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949). In this perspective, through the disengagement plan in 2005, Israel attempted to relieve itself of the legal responsibilities as an occupying power while still maintaining effective military control over Gaza and its residents.

The Israeli withdrawal was also widely (mis)interpreted by numerous Palestinians as a triumph for armed resistance during the Second Intifada, contributing to Hamas’s resounding victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections held in late January 2006.

- Fabio Cristiano

Na de verkiezingsoverwinning van Hamas in 2007 sloot Israël de grens met de Gazastrook af. Het verlaten en betreden van Gaza is sindsdien heel moeilijk. Foto: Rob Pierson, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
After Hamas’s election victory in 2007, Israel closed the border with the Gaza Strip, with dire humanitarian consequences. Photo: Rob Pierson, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The Gaza Wars (c. 2006-)

2006-2007: The electoral victory of Hamas and the Israeli blockade

In 2006, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA or PA) held parliamentary elections. Hamas, known outside the region for its suicide bombings on Israeli civilians, won an absolute majority of seats. Internationally, this came as a shock to many. Locally, the Palestinians were less perplexed.

Read more about the electoral victory of Hamas and the Israeli blockade

Palestinians also knew Hamas from its charity, social provisions, and medical care. Besides this, the organisation held a clever election campaign which not only showed that Hamas was a competent group, but in which they also denounced the corrupt policy of the PNA. In that light, Hamas’ electoral victory was less of a surprise.

International community halts cooperation

But to Israel, the United States, and the European Union, the electoral victory of Hamas was a reason to stop working with the PNA, which would now be led by Hamas, until the organisation would recognise Israel and denounce violence. As Hamas – invoking the still continuing Israeli occupation – refused to do so, the international community tried to find a peace partner in the old Palestinian leadership which had lost the election. To Hamas, this was an undemocratic slap in the face.

Hamas gains control in Gaza, Palestinian National Authority in West Bank

When the incumbent Palestinian leaders did not accept Hamas either, there was an armed conflict which resulted in Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip and the old PNA leadership retaining its power in the West Bank. This situation is still in effect today.

- Joas Wagemakers

2008-2014: The Gaza Wars

The Gaza Wars (2008-2014) refer to a series of three military confrontations between Israel and Palestinian militant groups based in the Gaza Strip, mainly Hamas.

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2008 Gaza War

The wars began on 27 December 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in response to increased rocket attacks by Hamas and other militant groups from Gaza into Israeli territory. Israeli forces conducted a large-scale military operation, including airstrikes and a ground invasion, targeting Hamas infrastructure and militants.

The conflict of three weeks resulted in significant casualties among both Palestinian civilians and militants, as well as damage to infrastructure in Gaza. It ended with a ceasefire brokered by Egypt on 18 January 2009. Israel claimed to have achieved its objectives of reducing rocket fire from Gaza, while Hamas declared a moral victory for resisting the Israeli military.

2012 Gaza War

However, the conflict erupted again in November 2012, when Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in response to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants from Gaza. The Israeli military conducted airstrikes targeting Hamas infrastructure and leaders, including the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari (1960-2012).

The conflict lasted for eight days and resulted in casualties on both sides, including civilian deaths and significant damage to infrastructure in Gaza. A second ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United States was reached on 21 November 2012, temporarily ending the hostilities.

2014 Gaza War

The final war of this period began in July 2014, following an escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, triggered by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and subsequent retaliatory killing of a Palestinian teenager. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a large-scale military operation aimed at halting rocket fire from Gaza and destroying Hamas tunnels used for infiltration into Israeli territory.

After 50 days, the conflict ended with a third ceasefire brokered by Egypt on 26 August 2014. It had involved intensive airstrikes by Israel, ground incursions into Gaza, and rocket attacks by Palestinian militants targeting Israeli cities. The war resulted in high casualties, with over 2,100 Palestinians killed (mostly civilians) and significant damage to infrastructure in Gaza. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.

- Simeon Paravantes

2023-: A new Gaza War

On Saturday 7 October 2023, the Palestinian movement Hamas launched a large-scale and extremely violent attack on Israel, which resulted in more than 250 hostages and 1,100 dead. Israel responded fiercely with unrelenting bombardments and a destructive invasion, costing the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. A solution to the conflict that has been ongoing for years does not seem to be anywhere in sight.

Read more about this new Gaza War

International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice

Internationally, this new Gaza war has shaken sentiments considerably. In May 2024, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued arrest warrants for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1949-), Israel’s Minister of Defence, and several senior Hamas figures over alleged crimes against humanity during and after 7 October 2023. The other Court in The Hague – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – had already ordered Israel to take all measures to prevent any acts contrary to the 1948 Genocide Convention.

- Peter Malcontent and Fabio Cristiano

Also read: ‘Israel is at war with Hamas: what happened and what will happen next?’