Historical Context of Israel-Palestine Conflict

Contrary to the myth that “Jews and Muslims have been at each other’s throats for thousands of years,” the Middle East’s Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace for centuries until well into the 20th century.  While it is often portrayed as a religious conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually a political conflict. The origins of the conflict can be traced back to legacies of European anti-Semitism and foreign interference in the Middle East, which culminated in the dispossession of Palestinians by Israelis in 1948.


World War I (1914-1918) —a conflict between, on one hand, France and Britain, and on the other, Germany and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire—had momentous consequences for the Middle East, especially for the Palestinians. The Ottoman Empire had long controlled the Middle East since taking Syria, Palestine and Egypt in 1516. The region’s ancient Jewish communities had by and large flourished under Ottoman rule, although not without periodic tensions with their rulers. Meanwhile, European powers had also laid their own claims to the region, and often interfered in Ottoman affairs.[1]

During World War 1, Britain feared an Ottoman victory might cost them access to land and sea routes to Asia, complicating its trade with India, then British-ruled, and the rest of the resource-rich Orient. Britain was also worried that Jewish Eastern Europeans would begin to view Germany as a liberating force compared to anti-Semitic Czarist Russia - France and Britain’s ally. In order to win support of both the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East and Europe, Britain made two potentially conflicting promises. It promised the Arab Sharif of Mecca that if victorious, it would support creation of an Arab state in most of the Arab Middle East. However, at the same time, Britain was drawing up the Balfour Declaration (1917). In the Balfour Declaration, Britain promised to support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, with the condition that the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish populations in Palestine would be protected. Ultimately, Britain broke its promise to the Arab Sharif of Mecca, and proceeded to implement the Balfour Declaration as Jewish European immigration to Palestine increased.

The Balfour Declaration’s terms were incorporated into a July 1922 agreement by the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations) to give Britain a mandate to administer “Palestine”—the former Ottoman Empire districts of Nablus, Acre, the southern portion of the Beirut Vilayet (division), and the Mutasarrifate (sub-division) of Jerusalem.

Map1-EN.pngThe situation in 1946- Map 1

Prior to 1880, the Jewish community of Palestine numbered about 25,000 – about 4 percent of the total population. From the late 1880s to the early 1900s, European anti-Semitism pushed millions of Jewish Europeans to emigrate. About 3 percent of the trans-oceanic Jewish emigrants went to Palestine, boosting Palestine’s Jewish population to about 80,000—a tenth of Palestine’s total population—by the beginning of World War I.

Following Ottoman losses in World War 1, Britain took control of modern day Palestine-Israel under what was known as the “Palestine Mandate.”  Britain maintained administrative control of the territory until after World War II.

Starting in the 1920s, emigration to Palestine had increased sharply as a result of two factors.  First, Nazism emerged in Germany in the 1920s, with a  Nazi victory in Germany in 1932 leading to persecution of Jews in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  This, combined with immigration restrictions elsewhere, resulted in European Jews fleeing  to Palestine.[2] Between 1932 and 1939, Palestine absorbed 247,000 Jewish refugees - 46 percent of Jewish emigration from Europe. During World War II (1939-45), 5.5 million European Jews (85 percent of European Jewry) were killed, primarily in Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany from 1942 to 1945. Jewish people continued to flee Europe as best they could after 1939, and Palestine was comparatively accessible.

Following the war, many Jewish Europeans wanted to start new lives far from the scene of their genocide.  Although most went elsewhere, thousands headed to Palestine.  By 1946, about 6 percent of the land in Palestine was Jewish-owned, much of that land purchased from foreign absentee owners.  By 1947, about a third of the population of Palestine was Jewish.

Meanwhile, Arab Palestinians were suffocating under British colonial rule and increasingly alarmed by the rapid influx of such large numbers of Jewish Europeans, especially given the express intent of many Jewish organizations of establishing an independent Jewish state in Palestine.  This tension led to the establishment of both Arab and Jewish militias in Palestine, which led to sporadic violence under British rule. While the violence was often directed at the British, violence between Palestinian Arabs and Jews was also common as each sought to strengthen its hold on portions of the territory. 

Map2-EN.pngThe UN Partition Plan for Palestine- Map 2

After World War II, growing protests by Arab Palestinians and increased attacks by armed Jewish and Palestinian militia forced Britain to ask the UN to resolve the situation. Guilty over their failure to avert the Holocaust, and with hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees still languishing in Displaced Persons’ camps throughout Europe, the Western powers considered creation of a Jewish homeland urgent. 

In November 1947, the UN General Assembly approved the Partition Plan for Palestine.[3] The Plan allocated 53 percent of the land for the creation of a Jewish-majority state, and 47 percent for a Palestinian-majority state. Jerusalem was to be governed via a Special International Regime, distinct from both the “Jewish” and “Arab” states.

At the time, Arab Palestinians considered this division of land unfair, given that Jews were only 33 percent of Palestine’s population and most of them were newcomers, whereas Palestine’s Arabs had lived there for centuries.  Jews welcomed the plan, as it formalized their vision for an independent homeland. The plan was supported by Western countries – including Canada – at the UN, but opposed by the Arab countries, as well as most African and Asian countries.  Egypt, Jordan and Iraq even threatened to take up arms in opposition to the UN Partition Plan. 

Map3-EN.pngThe situation from 1949 to 1967- Map 3

Violence increased steadily in the months leading up to the end of the British Mandate, resulting in all-out civil war by the time the British Mandate formally ended on May 14, 1948.  Jewish leaders formally founded the state of Israel just hours after the end of the British Mandate.

Fighting intensified in March and April of 1948, and dragged on in various parts of the territory until well into 1949.  By the time the fighting subsided, Israeli military forces had gained control of 78 percent of the land – much of which was intended for a Palestinian-majority state. In what was left for the Palestinians, Egypt administered the Gaza Strip, and Jordan administered the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem. Although a Jewish-majority state was created (and admitted to the UN in May 1949), the promised Arab Palestinian state was not established.

During the war, 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were driven out by the Jewish militias, and hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed.[4] Palestinian refugees who had fled or been expelled during the war were denied the right to return to their communities of origin in what had become the state of Israel.  For the most part, these refugees have been forced to live in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt since that time.  Their numbers have swelled to over 5 million today.

Map4-EN.pngFurther Palestinian land loss due to the illegal “settlement enterprise” – Map 4

In 1967, Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza and launched pre-emptive attacks on Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, after Egypt had blockaded an Israeli port and Arab states had made menacing moves. In just a few days, Israel managed to occupy the Syrian Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and the West Bank - including Jerusalem. Israel immediately announced that it was annexing East Jerusalem, which was and remains Arab-majority and the site of many of Islam’s and Christianity’s holiest places.[5] The UN has repeatedly passed resolutions confirming the illegality of this annexation.

Since 1967, Israel has maintained a military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, despite numerous UN resolutions calling on Israel to end it.  As well, successive Israeli governments of every political stripe have encouraged the “settlement” of Palestinian land, a move universally regarded as illegal under international law. [6]  With its “settlement” strategy, Israel confiscates Palestinian land in the occupied Palestinian territories for Jewish-only settlers. In the process, Palestinians are displaced from their lands and stripped of their livelihoods.  The transfer by an occupying power of its civilian population to the area militarily occupied violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. To date, Israel has transferred about 600,000 settlers to East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Israel has also constructed a network of roads for the use of Jewish-only settlers, established wide “no-go” zones around the “settlements” that are under the administrative jurisdiction of the “settlers” and declared large swaths of the West Bank to be “military zones” or “security zones.” Moreover, Israel has built a massive 700-kmwall that cuts deep into Palestinian territory, de facto annexing large blocks of Palestinian territory to the “Israeli” side of the Wall. Israel’s actions have resulted in over 40 percent of the Palestinian territories being now off limits to the vast majority of Palestinians, and under the control of Israel. Palestinians now have relatively free access to only the green areas in the map to the right—12 percent of “British Mandate Palestine”.

[1] In 1861, the French established Lebanon as an autonomous district within Syria, under Christian leadership, in 1861. British forces occupied Egypt in 1882, and remained there until 1955.

[2] The Nazi program, adopted in 1920, called for a united “Greater Germany” that would deny citizenship to Jews or those of Jewish descent. The scapegoating of the Jewish population by the Nazis escalated rapidly, and found its ultimate expression in the genocide perpetrated from 1942 to 1945.

[3] When the vote took place, thirty-three of the UN’s 56 member states voted in favour of the Partition Plan and 13 states voted against; 10 states abstained and one was absent. With very few exceptions, Western Europe, North America and Latin America voted in favour, while Middle Eastern countries voted as a bloc against the Plan. 

[4] Palestinians refer to this as the Nakba—the catastrophe.

[5] The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.

[6] Fourth Geneva Convention, Art. 49, p. 6.