Yeah, I know, it’s friggin’ complicated.
Last week we took a deep dive into the current politics embroiling Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia – a small taste test into the complicated horrors of Middle Eastern politics. Last week, President Trump broke with decades of diplomacy and declared that the United States now considers Jerusalem the capital of Israel. That’s huge.
Well, I’ll now and try and explain it in less than a thousand words.
Before we start – I have to warn you I will fail at this task. This is a centuries old conflict that’s bound up in race, religion and intense international politics. This is just the surface. There are some recommended resources at the conclusion, and here’s my attempt at the basics.
What are Israel and Palestine?
Israel is the world’s only Jewish state – a country or nation defined by its religion. Palestinians are Arabs (or Arab-Muslims) who originate from the land that Israel now controls. They’ve fought for many decades over who gets control of what bit of land, the origins of the modern conflict dating back to the early 20th century.
During the second world war, Jews fleeing Europe wanted to establish a homeland in what was then Arab and Muslim majority territory. The United Nations attempted to come up with a plan for the two groups to share the space, but it failed. There’s been conflict ever since, with two wars in particular really shaping how the land is broken up today – one in 1948 and another in 1967.
This is the surface of the conflict, but it’s not the whole story. Not all Palestinians are Muslims. Not all Israelis are Jewish. Some on both sides are Christian. The range of beliefs on the conflict are as numerous as the total population.
What’s the West Bank and why is it important?
The West Bank is the super-contentious bit of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem is slap bang in the centre of it – a holy city for both parties.
At the conclusion of the 1967 conflict, Israel was left with militarised control of the West Bank, but many thousands of Palestinians still live there. Israeli security effectively manages and restricts Palestinian movement through the West Bank, and ever expanding Jewish populations deny Palestinian entry. As you can imagine, the Palestinians aren’t thrilled about what they see as occupation.
Gaza is another particularly important piece to the conflict. It’s under control of Hamas – an Islamic fundamentalist group. In the past, Hamas’ weapons of choice have been suicide bombings. More recently they’ve switched to rockets and mortars. Hamas’ charter seeks to destroy Israel, although revisions in May 2017 stated that they’d be happy with exclusive territories in Gaza or the West Bank, as opposed to the whole state. They still refuse to recognise Israel as a legitimate body of any kind.
How does America fit in?
America and Israel are friendly, and have been for many decades. The reasons for this are debatable, but Israel has generally always had more public support in the United States. American support is no small thing – they give Israel about $3 billion a year in aid, and they’ve got their backs in the United Nations.
America has long taken up the position of mediator between Israel and Palestine. The idea that America is ‘neutral’ in the fight is central to them bringing about peace. Outside of the States, American isn’t particularly seen as neutral, but rather as an ally to Israel – given the $3 billion a year. Still, while America’s financially backed Israel, their policies have been designed to be neutral. Presidents as far back as Clinton have used the Israel aid money as leverage. Overall, Israel is in a more powerful position as the occupier of the land, and so the aid money is seen as the price of admission to get Israel to sit down, talk, and begin thinking about peace.
In America, as you may have noticed, some stuff’s happened recently. The rise of evangelical Christianity as a political force has shaped national politics. In the past, presidential candidates have declared that they will enforce Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and then lost their nerve once in office.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, wasn’t keen on Obama. He was so pissed at Obama’s approach on Iran that he went behind Obama’s back to deliver a speech to the United States Congress with support from Republicans, Obama’s political enemies. The rise of Evangelical Christianity as part of the Republican Party platform has meant a louder and more determined voice for a pro-Israel solution to the conflict.
So what did Trump do?
He’s declared that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, effectively disempowering Palestinians who want a chunk of the land. Previous hopes of a two-state solution in which the land is shared have long seemed unlikely. But this move from Trump gives the Palestinians significant reason to despair. He’s moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and encouraging other international leaders to do the same.
Does this mean the end of the world?
No, although no one’s sure how the dominos will fall. Previous leaders have feared making this move because the unintended consequences of such bold diplomacy could mean violence. Hamas doesn’t mess around, and they’ve just been given another reason to hate America. Other Middle Eastern rogue nations, such as Iran, are also not a fan of this move. So Trump’s just upset the guys who aren’t afraid of suicide bombing and develop nuclear weapons. Palestinians are protesting the move. Some clashes with Israeli forces have been violent. What happens beyond this is unknown.
Is peace still possible?
There are some major issues that need to be addressed. A peace process would need to seek solutions to the West Bank borders and settlements, the rights of Palestinian refugees, the role of Israeli security, and of course Jerusalem.
There are many obstacles to this:
- Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and expand, which the Palestinians see as an attempt to complete erase them from any hope of statehood;
- The Palestinians are themselves divided, and thus unable to negotiate as a united front (and Israel flat out refuses to negotiate with Hamas anyway);
- No one’s sure how to start talks again anyway. The Palestinians feel Israel isn’t serious about peace, and Israel have just received a big tick for their side of the fight.
To restart talks, a third-party like the US would need to convince both sides that peace is worthwhile and to be taken seriously, but Trump’s shown no interest in playing such a role.
What else can I read and look at?
This fantastic guide from Vox is great for any beginner and goes into a lot more depth about the complexities of this conflict. This article from the New York Times is a great starting point for the latest developments – it links to a lot of other articles that look at all sides of the issue. And the video below is a greater starter guide too.
Photo at the top is by Mohammed Salem, and shows Palestinian protestors burning the US and Israeli flag in protest.
We’ll be back with the last news summary of the year on Friday.
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