July 22, 2009
Today's tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians and their Arab neighbours date back to the early 20th century when Jews began migrating in significant numbers to Palestine, then under Turkish rule.
The ensuing struggle for land and self-determination by both peoples led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, a series of Israeli-Arab wars, two lengthy Palestinian uprisings and waves of Palestinian refugees.
Although modern Zionism - the idea of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine - began in the late 19th century, the land of Israel has been central to Jewish consciousness since Jewish exile in biblical times. Small Jewish communities in Palestine have lived peacefully side by side with both Muslim and Christian Arabs for centuries.
But centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews during World War Two, led to growing pressure for a Jewish homeland. In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a plan to partition Palestine, then under British mandate, into Arab and Jewish states. In May 1948, Jews living in Palestine declared the establishment of the state of Israel.
Five countries invaded immediately, and in the ensuing conflict some 750,000 Palestinians fled the fighting or were forced to leave their homes. A similar number of Jews migrated to Israel from their homes in Arab states amid fears of a backlash against them.
Many Jews saw the creation of Israel as the embodiment of their long-held aspiration for a land of their own, but for Palestinians the events of 1948 became known as "Al Nakbar" - the catastrophe.
A second wave of Palestinians was displaced during the 1967 war that pitted Israel against Jordan, Egypt and Syria. In the six days of fighting, Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. An estimated 500,000 Palestinians fled, according to the United Nations - mostly to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) began operations in 1950, initially as a temporary response to the humanitarian crisis created by the new refugees. Today, the agency is the main body meeting the needs of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria with basic services such as education, healthcare and social services.
The tents that made up the first refugee camps gradually gave way to the concrete buildings that make up today's camps as it became clear that no solution to their plight was in sight.
Since then, Palestinian refugee camps have grown upwards rather than out, with residents building new storeys to accommodate the new generations being born. Conditions are often overcrowded, with poor sanitation. There are high levels of unemployment, and increasing levels of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The status of the refugees is a key issue in peace talks, with many Palestinians claiming the "right of return" - the right to go back to their homes in what is now Israel. Some still hold keys to the family homes they lost in 1948.
Israel fears that agreeing to this concession would spell disaster for the future Jewish state, largely because higher Palestinian birth rates mean Palestinian numbers would soon outstrip the Jewish population. Its own "law of return" allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to settle in Israel and take up citizenship. Under the citizenship rules, many Palestinians who marry Israelis are denied Israeli residency.
The two parts of the Palestinian territories are, in fact, two areas about 45 km (30 miles) apart. The West Bank is between Jerusalem - long claimed as a capital by both Palestinians and Israelis - and Jordan to the east, while Gaza is a tiny strip along Israel's western Mediterranean coast.
INTIFADA AND SECURITY
In the wake of the 1967 war, successive Israeli governments began building Jewish settlements on the newly occupied land. Generally built on high ground, many settlements overlook Palestinian towns and villages, and there are tensions between the two communities. U.N. Security Council resolutions and the International Court of Justice have both declared the settlements illegal under international law.
But this ruling has been rejected by Israel, and its policy of settlement expansion continues.
In 1987, a Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, broke out in protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians vented their anger by throwing rocks at soldiers and tanks near their camps and homes; there were also roadside shootings at Israeli vehicles and assaults on settlers.
The Israeli military retaliated harshly with measures against the Palestinian population as a whole. They used a system of checkpoints to control the movement of people and goods around the West Bank and curfews were imposed at times of high security. Many Palestinians were also detained by the Israeli authorities.
Although groups of prisoners are periodically released as part of peace negotiations, large numbers remain in custody.
In 1993, following the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel agreed to establish limited Palestinian self-rule in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat, was set up to run the new autonomous areas.
However in the years that followed, with little progress towards a final peace settlement, disillusionment set in.
A second Intifada broke out in 2000, following a visit by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
Amid growing concerns about the number of suicide bombings against Israelis by Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, the Israeli army re-occupied cities in the West Bank. It tightened up security measures around the Palestinian Territories, preventing thousands of Palestinians from going to work and trade in Israel.
In 2003, Israel made a unilateral decision to dismantle all Jewish settlements in Gaza and some settlements in the West Bank. In 2005, around 8,000 settlers were forcibly evicted from Gaza by the Israeli army, along with another 500 from the West Bank, and moved into alternative accommodation provided by the Israeli government.
Many of the settlers, some of whom believe Israel has a biblical claim on Gaza and the West Bank, felt betrayed.
The Gaza Strip came under Palestinian control. The area, 40 km long and 10 km wide, is home to around 1.5 million Palestinians and is one of the most densely populated places on earth.
In June 2007, a power struggle between Fatah and more militant Hamas spilled over into out-and-out fighting between armed factions on the streets of Gaza in which around 100 people died. Hamas declared control over Gaza, leading President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-led unity government and set up an emergency, Fatah-based government in the West Bank.
Israel tightened border restrictions at its Gaza borders after the Hamas takeover. The border crossing into Egypt at Rafah is theoretically run by the Palestinians under EU monitoring. However, the border has been largely closed since Hamas took control of Gaza.
Economic life has suffered and relief organisations have found it difficult to get aid to the Palestinian population.
GAZA OFFENSIVE 2008
At the end of 2008 Israel launched its biggest offensive in Gaza in four decades. It said its aim was to stop militants firing rockets into the Jewish state.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 1,417 people including 926 civilians were killed during Israel's Dec. 27-Jan. 18 offensive. Israel lost 10 soldiers and three civilians in the fighting. It has estimated 1,166 Palestinians were killed, 295 of them civilians.
The air raids damaged hospitals, water supply systems, mosques and government buildings as well as private homes. Israel accused Hamas of sheltering among the civilian population and using sites such as mosques and schools as military posts.
The fighting triggered protests around the world, and there were calls for a ceasefire from the United Nations, United States, European Union, Arab League, Russia and other countries.
Israeli government officials said Israel set several goals for the offensive, including weakening Hamas by killing its fighters and destroying its rocket arsenal. It also bombed a network of tunnels to Gaza from neighbouring Egypt, which had allowed Palestinians to smuggle in weapons.
Hamas is believed to command at least 25,000 trained fighters. It unilaterally called off a six-month truce in December 2008 and stepped up rocket attacks, citing Israeli raids and the continuing blockade of the enclave.
WEST BANK BARRIER
In the West Bank, Israel continues to build a controversial "security barrier" it began in 2002, a 709 km construction which is part-wall, part-fence separating Israeli settlements from Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
The Palestinians, pointing to the barrier's frequent divergence from the 1949 Green Line and its siting on parts of the West Bank, call the construction a land grab.
In Jayyous, a West Bank farming village near Qalqilya, residents say they have lost over three-quarters of their agricultural land to the Israeli side and are subject to a system of permits and checkpoints before they can access their olive groves and orchards. Palestinian communities and aid agencies also say the restrictions on movement created by the barrier prevent people going to work, attending school and accessing health services.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued an "advisory opinion" - a judgement with no legal force - declaring the barrier illegal. But Israel rejects the ruling, saying the barrier is key to its self-defence.
A 2009 report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) gives a summary of the humanitarian impact of the barrier.
The violence of the Intifada prompted Israel to punish suspected militants for attacks by demolishing their family homes. The Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem says Israel demolished 664 homes as punishment for suspected militant activities until the practice was officially ended in February 2005. It was resumed in January 2009.
The Israeli authorities have long pursued a policy of demolition for homeowners who they say lack the necessary building permits. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) says thousands of Palestinian houses have been demolished since 1967, leaving many families homeless.
The majority of house demolitions are carried out during military operations, says ICAHD.
THE HUMANITARIAN PICTURE
Restrictions on the movement of people and goods around the Palestinian Territories, created by the system of checkpoints, closures and curfews, affect every aspect of daily life for Palestinians.
Socioeconomic conditions are worst in Gaza, which is subject to more severe closures than the West Bank.
An international economic boycott of the Hamas-led government following its election win in January 2006 has exacerbated the situation. Western donor nations, including the European Union, withheld direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, although money was still channelled to the region through individuals or other organisations.
From March 2006, an estimated 140,000 Palestinian civil servants - the breadwinners for around a million people - went without their full wages for almost a year and a half. The situation was resolved when the Israeli authorities transferred tax revenues - which they had previously blocked - to the Palestinian Authority.
In June 2007, the EU resumed direct aid to the Palestinian Authority following the establishment of an emergency government by Abbas' Fatah party in the West Bank.
An estimated 57 percent of Palestinians live in poverty, OCHA said in January 2008. The figure is higher in Gaza where 79 percent of people live in poverty compared with 49 percent in the West Bank. OCHA also said two-thirds of Palestinians were not connected to a sewage system.
More and more people aren't getting enough food, with many relying on food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) and flour, oil and rice from UNRWA. Chronic malnutrition and dietary-related diseases are on the rise, especially among children.
Basic healthcare is provided by the Palestinian Authority, UNRWA and other aid agencies, but health services are limited and fragmentary. Despite the use of mobile health clinics to reach cut-off villages in the West Bank, difficulties in getting through checkpoints mean many people don't get the treatment they need, especially in hospitals. Delays have led to some women giving birth at checkpoints, and relief agencies report growing concerns about pregnant women's access to services.
There is also growing evidence of the effects of the conflict on mental health. Behavioural problems, particularly among adolescents, are on the rise.
Restrictions on movement prevent teachers and pupils getting to school, affecting education across the Palestinian Territories. According to the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, tens of thousands of children have their education regularly disrupted.
In Gaza, regular fuel shortages also bring public services to a grinding halt. In 2008, Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had cut its programmes in Gaza by half, because so few staff and patients could reach its medical clinics.
The fuel crisis is partly caused by the Israeli blockade, but also by Palestinian armed attacks on the only border crossing where Israel permits fuel delivery.
A coalition of British aid agencies published a report in March 2008 saying the blockade had created the worst humanitarian crisis in 40 years, and that sanitation and health systems were on the point of collapse.
Donors have pledged billions of dollars in aid since 2007, in a public show of support for Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas. The pledges include $4.5 billion in March 2009, and $7.4 billion in December 2007
But so far only a fraction of the money has been paid. In September 2008 nearly $300 million of new aid money was pledged.
Foreign businesses are being encouraged to invest in the Palestinian Territories, although the blockade makes both Gaza and the West Bank difficult environments to operate in.
As Gaza has become a more risky place to work, several aid workers have been kidnapped by militant groups, although few have been held very long and there have been no abductions of late.
There have been many attempts to resolve the conflict since the 1967 war.
Negotiations brokered in secret by the Norwegians in the early 1990s looked promising initially. The Oslo Peace Accords, sealed with an iconic handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993, were hailed by many as the start of a peace process that would lead to a permanent end to the conflict.
Both sides made key concessions. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation recognised Israel's "right to exist in peace and security", while Israel promised that its troops would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in stages. A self-governing Palestinian Authority would be set up for a transitional five-year period, with a view to arriving at a final settlement.
But optimism faded as Palestinians continued to live under restrictions imposed by the Israeli military occupation, while Israelis despaired at attacks by militant Palestinians.
The most recent peace plan, the roadmap, was drawn up in 2003 by what is known as the Quartet - the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations. It put aside contentious issues such as the refugees' right to return, the status of Jerusalem, or the position of the borders of an eventual Palestinian state and set out a two-year timetable by which agreement on a final settlement might be reached.
During the first phase of the process, the Palestinians would commit to a crackdown on militants, while Israel would cease settlement building and act with military restraint.
But soon after the roadmap was agreed, violence on both sides brought an end to the incipient peace process. Israel's decision in 2003 to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank was a unilateral decision and not the result of formal negotiations. In the meantime, suicide bombings against Israeli citizens have continued, while life for ordinary Palestinians has deteriorated.
The construction of settlements and the "security barrier" led some experts to question the viability of the two-state solution. They argued that Israeli infrastructure in the Palestinian Territories is so well-established as to rule out a genuinely independent Palestine. However, it is not clear how the alternative - a one-state solution - would work, as the area's demographics mean that co-existence would inevitably involve a Jewish minority - an unacceptable prospect for most Israelis.
Although the roadmap was not formally abandoned, the peace process was effectively put on hold.
But global awareness of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to events in Iraq, Lebanon and the "war on terror", along with concern about the emergence of two rival administrations within the Palestinian Territories, revived Western leaders' interest in diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.
In November 2007, their efforts bore fruit when, at a conference hosted by the United States in Annapolis, Maryland, Israeli and Palestinian leaders relaunched the first formal peace talks in seven years. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Abbas promised to try to reach agreement about the terms of a future Palestinian state. They failed.
In 2009, Israel's new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to negotiate with the Palestinians and accepted the prospect of a Palestinian state for the first time. He insisted on the "natural growth" of West Bank settlements to meet the needs of expanding populations, despite pressure from the U.S. administration to curb their expansion.
Meanwhile, the Quartet held a meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in June 2009.
Hamas - an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement - emerged during the 1980s Palestinian uprising and led a suicide bombing campaign over the next decade as part of its stated aim of destroying Israel. The Gaza-based group built popular support through a social welfare programme providing healthcare, education and social services to the Palestinian population.
Hamas gained increasing popularity among Palestinians due to a perception that, in contrast to its rival party Fatah, it is free of corruption. It won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, taking 76 out of 132 seats, and became the lead player in a Palestinian national unity government. Hamas is considered a "terrorist" organisation by the European Union and the United States, and its electoral win triggered an international aid boycott from western donor governments.
In June 2007, growing rivalry between Hamas and Fatah supporters in Gaza led to street fighting which killed around 100 people. Hamas won the power struggle, effectively taking over the government of Gaza. As a result, the Palestinian president and leading Fatah politician Mahmoud Abbas sacked the Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and set up a separate administration in the West Bank.
Fatah, founded in 1965 by the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Yasser Arafat, is the mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement. It has run the Palestinian Authority since 1994, when it took control of the Palestinian areas following the Oslo accords.
Fatah, whose strongest support base lies in the West Bank, recognises Israel's right to exist and is formally committed to peace talks with Israel. But growing disenchantment with the leadership among ordinary Palestinians led to the party losing Palestinian elections to Hamas in January 2006 and becoming part of a coalition government. Since June 2007, its authority has been confined to the West Bank.
Emerging in Gaza in the 1970s, Islamic Jihad is a militant movement whose exact affiliations are unclear. Based in Syria, its funding is believed to come from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. The group operates mainly in the West Bank and Gaza, and has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombings against Israelis, along with attacks in Lebanon. Like Hamas, its goal is the destruction of Israel.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades
Formed by disaffected young men after the second uprising erupted in 2000, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is often considered to be the armed, militant wing of Fatah. It has carried out many attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. However, it is not officially recognised by the party and it is a moot point how much control Fatah leaders have over its activities.
The Israeli authorities have often targeted the organisation's leadership, capturing and imprisoning Fatah's West Bank leader Marwan Barghouti - allegedly also the head of Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - in 2002. Over recent years, many of the group's members have received amnesty from Israel in return for laying down their weapons.
Popular Resistance Committees
The Gaza-based PRC is a break-away militant group that emerged out of the second Intifada in 2000. It has been involved in numerous attacks on Israelis, often in joint operations with other groups.
Abu Rish Brigades
The Abu Rish Brigades is a splinter faction linked to Fatah, named after a Fatah militant commander killed by Israel. Based in southern Gaza, it has claimed responsibility for bomb and rocket attacks against Israelis. In 2004, it kidnapped four French aid workers.
The Army of Islam
This little-known, Gaza-based faction made headlines when it kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in March 2007. The group follows al Qaeda-style principles. Other Palestinian militants such as Hamas deny any links.
The Army of Islam released Johnston after negotiations with Hamas.