The Middle East conflict—a brief background

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  • by Anup Shah
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  1. 1800s to World War II
  2. Post World War II to 2000
  3. 2000 to Present

1800s to World War II

Map of IsraelMap of West BankMap of Gaza Strip

Towards the end of the 1800s questions arose as to how the Jewish people could overcome increasing persecution and anti-Semitism in Europe. The biblical Promised Land led to a political movement, Zionism, to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, in the Middle East.

From 1920 to 1947, the British Empire had a mandate over Palestine. At that time, Palestine included all of Israel and today’s Occupied Territories, of Gaza, West Bank, etc. The increasing number of Jewish people immigrating to the Holy Land increased tensions in the region.

European geopolitics in the earlier half of the 20th century in the wider Middle East region contributed to a lot of instability overall. The British Empire, especially, played a major role in the region.

During World War I, in 1916, it convinced Arab leaders to revolt against the Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany). In return, the British government would support the establishment of an independent Arab state in the region, including Palestine.

Yet, in contradiction to this, and to also get support of Jewish people, in 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, then British Foreign Minister, issued a declaration (the Balfour Declaration). This announced the British Empire’s support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

As a further complication, there was a deal between Imperial Britain and France to carve up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and divide control of the region. The spoils of war were to be shared. As with the 1885 Berlin Conference where Africa was carved up amongst the various European empires, parts of the Middle East were also to be carved up, which would require artificial borders, support of monarchies, dictators and other leaders that could be regarded as puppets or at least could be influenced by these external powers.

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Post World War II to 2000

After World War II, the newly formed United Nations (which then had less developing countries as members) recommended the partition of Palestine into two states and the internationalization of Jerusalem. The minority Jewish people received the majority of the land.

US support for the Israel state was driven by internal politics as the CATO Institute notes (quoted at length):

In November 1947 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recommend partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The two states were to be joined in an economic union, and Jerusalem would be administered by the United Nations. The Arabs would get 43 percent of the land, the Jews 57 percent. The proposed apportionment should be assessed in light of the following facts: The Jewish portion was better land; by the end of 1947 the percentage of Palestine purchased by Jews was less than 7 percent; Jewish land purchases accounted for only 10 percent of the proposed Jewish state; and Jews made up less than one-third of the population of Palestine. Moreover, the Jewish state was to include 497,000 Arabs, who would constitute just under 50 percent of the new state's population.

The United States not only accepted the UN plan, it aggressively promoted it among the other members of the United Nations. [US President, Harry] Truman had been personally moved by the tragedy of the Jews and by the condition of the refugees. That response and his earlier studies of the Bible made him open to the argument that emigration to Palestine was the proper remedy for the surviving Jews of Europe. Yet he acknowledged later, in his memoirs, that he was fully aware of the Arabs’ hostility to Jewish settlement in Palestine. He, like his predecessor, had promised he would take no action without fully consulting the Arabs, and he reneged.

Truman’s decision to support establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was made against the advice of most of the State Department and other foreign policy experts, who were concerned about U.S. relations with the Arabs and possible Soviet penetration of the region. Secretary James Forrestal of the Defense Department and Loy Henderson, at that time the State Department’s chief of Near Eastern affairs, pressed those points most vigorously. Henderson warned that partition would not only create anti-Americanism but would also require U.S. troops to enforce it, and he stated his belief that partition violated both U.S. and UN principles of self-determination.

But Truman was concerned about the domestic political implications as well as the foreign policy implications of the partition issue. As he himself put it during a meeting with U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East, according to William A. Eddy, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, I’m sorry gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents. Later, in a 1953 article in the American Zionist, Emmanuel Neumann, president of the Zionist Organization of America, conceded that Truman would not have worked so hard for the creation of Israel but for the prospect of wholesale defections from the Democratic Party. Truman’s decision to support the Zionist cause was also influenced by Samuel I. Rosenman, David K. Niles, and Clark Clifford, all members of his staff, and Eddie Jacobson, his close friend and former business partner. Truman later wrote:

The White House, too, was subjected to a constant barrage. I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders—actuated by political motives and engaging in political threats—disturbed and annoyed me.

Pressure on Truman also came from non-Jewish fundamentalists and politicians.

In some cases, support for Jewish admission to and statehood in Palestine may have had another domestic political angle. That support sidestepped the sensitive issue of U.S. immigration quotas, which had kept European Jews out of the United States since the 1920s and had left them at the mercy of the Nazis. In other words, support for Zionism may have been a convenient way for people who did not want Jews to come to the United States to avoid appearing anti-Semitic. American classical liberals and others, including the American Council for Judaism, opposed the quotas, and it is probable that many of the refugees, given the option, would have preferred to come to the United States.

By mid-November 1947 the Truman administration was firmly in the Zionist camp. When the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations agreed that the partition resolution should be changed to shift the Negev from the Jewish to the Palestinian state, Truman sided with the Jewish Agency, the main Zionist organization, against them. The United States also voted against a UN resolution calling on member states to accept Jewish refugees who could not be repatriated.

Senior Editor Sheldon L. Richman, Ancient History: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War Il and the Folly Of Intervention, Cato Policy Analysis No. 159, CATO Institute, August 16, 1991

(Also see this background for more information on how the UN Security Council initially rejected the General Assembly partition plan and why the UN Security Council initially favored UN trusteeship over partition.)

The State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14 1948, but the Arab states rejected the partition of Palestine and the existence of Israel. The armies of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt attacked but were defeated by the Israeli army.

While the Jewish people were successful in creating their homeland, there was no Palestine and no internationalization of Jerusalem, either. In 1948 for example, Palestinians were driven out of the new Israel into refugee camps in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and other regions. At least 750,000 people are said to have been driven out (or ethnically cleansed, as some have described it). It should be noted that many Jews were also expelled from surrounding Arab countries. Zionist organizations and even some Arab nations also encouraged many Jews to immigrate to Israel. As with Palestinians, expelled Jews often had their land and/or bank accounts and other property seized.

In 1956, Britain, France and Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula after Egypt nationalized the Suez canal because these waning empires feared further loss of power, this time of a major economic trading route entry point for the West to the rest of the Middle East. While Egypt was defeated, international (US, really) pressure forced their withdrawal.

In 1967, Israel simultaneously attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a pre-emptive strike against the Arab troops along its borders. Israel captured key pieces of land, such as the strategic Golan Heights to the north on the border with Syria, to the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza strip from Egypt. In fact, Israel more than doubled its size in the six days that this war took place. Since then, negotiations have been around returning land to pre-1967 states, as required by international law and UN resolutions.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur to attempt to regain their lost land, but failed.

In 1978, the Camp David accords was signed between Israel, Egypt and the US, and Israel returned Sinai back to Egypt in return for peace between them. To many in the Arab world, Egypt had sold out to US pressure. To the US and Israel, this was a great achievement; Egypt was obviously not to be underestimated in its capabilities, so the best thing would be to ensure it is an ally, not an adversary.

In 1978, due to rising Hezbollah attacks from South Lebanon, where many Palestinian refugees still were, Israel attacked and invaded Lebanon. In 1982, Israel went as far up Lebanon as Beirut, as bloody exchanges followed between Israeli attempts to bomb Yasser Arafat’s PLO locations, and Hezbollah retaliations. In 1985, Israel declared a strip of South Lebanon to be a Security Zone (never recognized by the UN, and hence Israel was always occupying this other nation.) Many civilians were killed on both sides. Israeli forces were accused of massacres on many occasions. After 22 years, Israel withdrew in May 2000. One of the leading Israeli military personnel was the future Israel Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

In the late 1980s came the Palestinian uprising—the Intifada. While there was much of a non-violence movement initially, the mainstream media concentrated on the violence. Young Palestinians confronted Israeli troops with nothing more than sling shots and stones. Thousands were killed by the Israeli military. Many suicide activists killed Israeli soldiers and caused other damage. Many innocent civilians were killed on both sides.

1993 saw the Oslo Peace Accord, whereby Israel recognized the PLO and gave them limited autonomy in return for peace and an end to Palestinian claims on Israeli territory. This has been largely criticized as a one-sided accord, that benefits only Israel, not the Palestinian people. It resulted in Israeli control of land, water, roads and other resources.

In 1994, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, ending twenty seven years of occupation. A Palestinian police force replaced them.

In 1995, then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had been involved in the latest peace processes, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

In April 1996, Israeli forces bombed Lebanon for 17 days, with Hezbollah retaliating by firing upon populated areas of Northern Israel. Israel also shelled a UN shelter killing about 100 out of 800 civilians sheltering there. The UN claimed it was intentional.

October 1998 saw the Wye River Memorandum outlining some Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank but Israel suspended it in January 1999 due to internal disagreements on its implementation.

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2000 to Present

Further attempts through to the beginning of 2000 were made at continuing the Wye River accord, but kept breaking down due to Palestinian protests of continued new Israeli settlements.

The Camp David summit in 2000 also failed to come up with solutions on Jerusalem.

In late 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Mount Temple sparks of the current round of protests and violence.

Towards the end of September, 2000, former Israeli military general, and now Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by 1000 soldiers, visited a holy Muslim site, called the Temple Mount by the Israelis, and Haram al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) by the Muslims and proclaimed it as eternal Israeli territory. Sharon has long been accused of massacres in his military days was seen as generally being against the peace process at that time. This proclamation infuriated Palestinians, and led to a series of protests and violence and another major uprising, or intifada.

The Palestinian National Authority, which Arafat headed with a police force armed by the Israelis was itself criticized for not serving the full interests of the Palestinian people. The police force’s harsh crack down on some Palestinians (in an attempt to address internal differences and extremism) drew criticisms from the likes of Amnesty International and others.

In all this time then, the Palestinian people have been without any nation, and have had limited rights, while suffering from poverty. Israel continued to increase and expand their settlements into occupied territories, giving up less and less land compared to what was promised. Many Palestinians (that are not Israeli Arabs since 1948) living in Israel do not have the right to vote, or have limited rights, while paying full taxes. For over 3 decades, the Palestinian people have been living under a military occupation.

The frustration and injustice of the treatment of Palestinians has angered many citizens in the Arab world against US/Israeli policies. Palestinian frustration has spilled into extremism in some cases as well. Many militant groups from Palestine and other areas of the Middle East have therefore sprung up in recent years as well as past decades, performing acts of what the West and Israel describe as terrorism and what the groups themselves justify as freedom fighting (though achieving freedom through terrorist actions could arguably still be called terrorist organizations, despite claimed motives). Suicide bombings, and past acts of terrorism have terrorized Israeli civilians, making peace harder and harder to imagine, yet it has been easy to influence and recruit the young, impressionable and angry into extremist causes. As violence continues, it seems that it will remain easy to find recruits to violent causes.

In 2002, Israel started construction of a large defensive security fence in the West Bank supposedly to stop terrorists from making their way in to Israeli cities and settlements. While it mostly seems to have worked, those large fences have drawn international criticism for going quite far into Palestinian land not Israeli land. Israel also continued controversial settlement programs in disputed areas.

Bush and Israel’s displeasure with Arafat is reflected in public. In June, US President George Bush stated in a speech, I call upon the Palestinian people to elect new leaders and for Israel, I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state. This was widely criticized for amounting to an open call for regime change.

In 2003, Israel stepped up its campaign against Hamas, the chief organization behind the suicide attacks of recent years.

Arafat himself and his ruling fatah party are also being seen increasingly as corrupt and ineffective by Palestinians themselves.

In the same year, the US (who, together with Israel refused to negotiate directly with the President, Yasser Arafat), backed Arafat’s selection for Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and they all pushed for a road map peace plan towards a two-state solution. While Palestinian militants announced a ceasefire, Israel continued to assassinate militant leaders.

Relative calm only lasted a few weeks, after more targetted assassination and suicide bombings. Abbas resigned soon after, seemingly frustrated by the internal politics. Ahmed Qurei replaced him, seen as more friendly to Arafat.

In 2004, Sharon announceda withdrawal of troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip, but a commitment to the largest settlements in the West Bank.

Suicide bombings and Israeli air strikes continued and Israel achieved the assassination of Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and a senior leader shortly after, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi.

On the West Bank, the security fence construction continued, despite continuing protests. Israel’s high court demanded route changes. The International Criminal Court said the barrier was illegal, but Israel is not bound to it, so ignored it.

Turmoil within Palestine increased as Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and others turned on each other, amid disputes on how to reform the security forces.

In November Arafat died of a mysterious blood disorder and Abbas became chairman of the PLO. Despite growing criticism of his leadership in recent years, the outpouring of sorrow and people coming to mourn his death is enormous.

At the beginning of 2005, Abbas was elected as Palestinian Authority president. He managed to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a temporary ceasefire. Sharon, meanwhile survived attempts to recall him as his withdrawal from Gaza was not popular amongst Israel’s right wing. By September, withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was complete, despite passionate resistence and protest from settlers.

Towards the end of 2005, Israel’s Prime Minister, Sharon, resigned from the right wing Likud party, forming a more centrist Kadima party, that quickly gained popularity. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who recently lost leadership of the left wing Labour Party also joined Kadima, lending credence to the view that Sharon was distancing himself from the right wing ideology of a greater Israel, and more in favor of negotiated peace with the Palestinians (the Labour Party has long called for a two-party solution, but has been critical of the Jewish settlements in occupied territories).

Throught the recent years, anger and frustration has mounted as the larger, but poorer Palestinian population also find themselves with the less prestine land. This has been further fuelled by Israeli bull-dozing of many homes and attempts to kill extremist leaders which often end in death or capture of innocent civilians (including women and children). In addition, while Israel demanded that the ineffective Palestinian National Authority do something to crack down on suicide bombers and other terrorist elements within its territories, it continued bombing official buildings and compounds (making any attempts to crack down on such elements futile). This also increased the power, authority, and influence of more extreme groups such as Hamas that did not like the idea of peace with Israel—it wanted the destruction of the Jewish homeland.

The start of 2006 that saw the more extreme Hamas organization gain power. (This is what some describe as a paradox of democracy; what if a people decide to elect a non-democratic party into power?) Hamas has been listed by many countries as a terrorist organization, though others see it as an independence movement. However, its means are certainly terrorist in nature, often employing suicide attacks on Israeli civilians.

Probably less well known than its militant tendencies has been the other reasons for its popularity. The US-based Council on Foreign Relation notes that

In addition to its military wing, the so-called Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70-million annual budget to an extensive social services network. It funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities, writes the Israeli scholar Reuven Paz. The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services; Hamas’ efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA’s recent elections.

Hamas, Council on Foreign Relations, June 14, 2006

Ehud Olmert became Israel’s new Prime Minister in April 2006, after serious illness befelled Sharon, and the Israeli Cabinet declared him incapacitated.

U.S. involvement in the Middle East has also been seen as a critical issue. The U.S. and West’s interests in the wider region has generally been due to oil. Israel and Palestinian territories do not have oil themselves, but are surrounded by states that do. Strong military and financial support of Israel lends well to having a powerful ally in the region. (For that reason as well, other Arab dictators and corrupt rulers have also been supported and even helped into power. Saddam Hussain was one of them. Dictators that can be bought provide a useful check against possible popular uprising in the region and therefore, for the US, help ensure their security—that is, their national interests are safeguarded and local puppets profit, while the people of the region end up suffering and losing out. (See the rest of the Middle East section on this site for more details on this aspect.)

While the UN Security Council has attempted to pass numerous resolutions critical of Israel the United States has vetoed almost all of them. Nevertheless, there have been some resolutions demanding that Israel return land that was captured in the 1967 war etc (such as UN Resolution 242). The 1948 UN Resolution 181 allowed for both Jews and Arabs to live in Israel, which goes counter to claims of some groups that Israel should not exist. Often the international community is critical of Israeli inaction, but the US veto prevents anything coming of it. Instead, Israeli land expansion and settlements have continued. The US has also provided Israel with enormous military aid, to the extent that in the Middle East, Israel has the most advanced and superior military. Their high tech/military industries are also very advanced. Israel also has nuclear weapons capabilities.

A series of targetted assassinations by Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah, and resulting violent retaliations escalated in mid-2006 with the capture of Israeli soldiers. That led to an escalation of conflict, with air strikes by Israel against Lebanon and Hezbollah, destroying much of the main infrastructure. Hezbollah retaliated with many rockets being fired into cities and towns in Israel. Both sides witnessed massive internal displacement of people and terror. Both Hezbollah and Israel have targetted civilians, and most deaths have been amongst Lebanese civilians.

For ordinary Palestinians, self-rule has been a humiliating disaster. Seven years after Oslo, they are still living under occupation. The basic means of a decent human existence, which acknowledges their distinctive culture, history and suffering, is denied to them. When not completely withheld, their basic rights and entitlements are represented as concessions generously granted by their overlords. Meanwhile their leaders, frightened of losing their elite privileges and affluent lifestyles, collude with Israel in their betrayal.

Scott Burchill, This peace offer is an insult to Palestinians, The Australian (daily newspaper of Australia), October 12, 2000

An additional source of frustration for the Palestinian people is that the land that is being settled by Israelis are usually prime land, and hence the various peace negotiations usually leave Palestine with the less usable land. Israel also thereby controls water sources. The non-contiguous land (Gaza and West Bank) and the Israeli control over Palestinian movement also means disconnection. This allows the possibility of providing cheap labor to Israel, so it is in their economic interest to pursue this type of division.

The mainstream western media has traditionally capitalized on negative imagery and propaganda against Islam and the Arab world as a sort of way to also justify continued presence and involvement there.

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More Information

Because there is a lot of information out there on the history of this region (and entire volumes worth), it would be futile of me to try and list them all. As well as the mainstream media sources providing time lines etc of the region, here are just a few other places you can start off with on the web:

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
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Document revision history

Added summary of 2002 onwards, as much of this remains untouched since November, 2001.