Yesterday Egypt announced that Israel and Hamas had agreed on a long-term ceasefire to end the weeks of conflict that have left over 2000 people dead. While there have been short lived ceasefires before, this one is open ended and seems more likely to last. Apart from both sides ceasing rockets and air strikes, the agreement also means that aid and construction materials will be allowed through the blockade into Gaza. The two parties will meet again in a month to try to work out trickier points such as the disarmament of Hamas. However, this is just an end to this particular war. Without a permanent peace to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas and the IDF will be at each other’s throats again. So why is that peace so hard to achieve? The following are some of the biggest issues blocking the path of peace.
A word of warning: I began writing this intending to end on a slight positive note. Unfortunately, by time I was finished I had none. As a result, this is one extremely pessimistic post, so avoid it if you’re already having a bad day.
Who owns the holy city?
Control of Jerusalem has been fought over for millennia, and that’s not about to change. The city is the most holy place in Judaism, contains the Christian shrines from the last days of Christ, and is the third holiest city in Islam. These three religions have spilled blood in the city since even before the Crusades, and cool logic doesn’t enter into the argument.
Originally designated by the UN as an international zone, after the Arab-Israeli war of ’48 Israel ended up with West Jerusalem and Jordan with the East – the part containing the holiest sites. However after the 1967 war Israel annexed East Jerusalem, in an occupation seen as illegal by all other countries. Since then Israel has put in law that a united Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the country, and surrounded the city with settlements and even a wall. As the Palestinians claim only East Jerusalem as their capital, Israel will have to give ground on this for peace.
The ‘right of return’
Leading up to and during the 1948 War over 700 000 Palestinian Arabs either fled their homes or were forced to leave by the Israelis. Since then those refugees have spread throughout the Middle East (causing immense political turmoil in Jordan and Lebanon), and their descendants still sometimes live in camps today. Many of them still have their certificates of land ownership and even their front door keys, and long to return to what is still seen as home.
The Palestinians claim that all these refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their land in Israel. Seeing as they number 5 million people in 2012 (two thirds of Israel’s current population), and their land was given to Israelis over 60 years ago, this is basically impossible. There is no precedent for it in history or international law, and no Israeli government could ever accept it. As unjust as their exodus was, there is almost no chance the ‘right of return’ can ever be part of a realistic peace deal.
The West Bank settlements
In every discussion about the West Bank, it is important to remember that any Israeli presence there is illegal under international law. In the War of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and began construction of Israeli settlements there. These settlements enrage Palestinians, and are often the target of violence. The settlers also cause plenty of violence themselves, and their very presence means the IDF is needed to protect them. The Israeli desire to stay in parts of the West Bank will remain a huge obstacle.
Hamas’s raison d’être
While the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is officially secular, Hamas in Gaza is an Islamist organisation that sees all of Israel and Palestine as Islamic territory. In their official Charter they state that Israel must be dissolved. While some leaders of Hamas have stepped away from this in recent years, it is still a real aim for many of their leaders and members. This charter also remains a reason (and a pretext) for Israel to disregard Hamas as a representative of the Palestinians. To play any positive part in peace talks, Hamas needs to adopt a more reasonable stance on the state of Israel.
The next generation
Often with this sort of conflict hope is put on the next generation to overcome their differences and learn to live together. Tragically, this seems unlikely in Israel and Palestine. A child starting high school this month in Gaza has survived four wars, one of them lasting five years. The same goes of course for Israeli children of that age. Education on both sides also only feeds into the same narratives Israelis and Palestinians tell themselves, with textbooks being distorted and facts carefully selected. The chance that the next generation they will see their counterparts on the other as ‘just like them’ is unfortunately minimal.
This all makes a very depressing picture (I certainly feel that way after writing it). Both sides say they want peace – it’s just that they can’t agree on what that peace is. It’s not too hard to imagine what a possible agreement would look like: a fully independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, a shared Jerusalem, and no real right of return for refugees. However, getting to that point seems to me to be almost impossible. While the misery of Gaza may be eased for the moment, a long term peace is still a distant future.
I do realise my last four posts have been about the Middle East, and I’m planning to widen my focus next time. It’s just such an interesting place! If you want to keep updated on a wider range of stories, follow @YW_Explained on Twitter.