360° Analysis

Explaining The Intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


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November 23, 2014 14:02 EDT

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is hindered by the attitude, perception and claims to victimhood.

As Gazans are trying to repair what is left of their belongings, with tensions in Jerusalem running high, it seems important to analyze the latest round of violence in its proper context. As a matter of fact, Israel’s launch of Operation Protective Edge against the Gaza Strip on July 8, 2014, in response to the kidnapping and assassination of three Israeli teenagers, was not a particularly surprising reaction from the Israeli government. Neither was the indignation expressed by thousands of citizens across the world against what they considered another Israeli massacre of Palestinians. The rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government justifying its attacks as legitimate self-defense did not sound unfamiliar either.

We might feel like we are watching the same play over and over again, because the recent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is nothing but an umpteenth performance of an historical drama. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War or the two Intifadas, to name only a few, are other examples in the history of an apparently never-ending and self-perpetuating conflict.

But why has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict been so intractable? This is not because “Gaza chose terrorism over building a Palestinian paradise,” nor because “Israel wants to destroy Palestinian existence.” The opposition between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be reduced to a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. It is not merely a nationalist struggle of two peoples competing for the same land either. In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the product of multiple factors intertwined in a complex matrix of international, regional, national, human, historical, material and psychological elements.

Competing Narratives

The Palestinian and Israeli narratives of the conflict sound like a dialogue between the deaf. Palestinian “terrorism” or “self-defense,” depending which side we are listening to, is one of the most salient examples of the gap between the two discourses. For Hamas and many Palestinians, rockets and other forms of attack against the Jewish State is a natural right, aimed at defending themselves against foreign occupation and aggression. Revealingly, Hamas stated in August this year that its rockets targeted only Israeli military installations, not civilians. Conversely, Israeli leaders have been intransigent on the question of “Palestinian terrorism.” Gaza’s demilitarization has been a reoccurring condition in peace negotiations, as exemplified by Israel’s current call for Hamas’ disarmament.


Thus, both Palestinians and Israelis invoke “legitimate” reasons to support their respective claims. Simply put, everyone claims a monopoly on virtue. The fact that Israelis and Palestinians have their own rationality is a first key element in explaining why they have never been able to reach a compromise.

In the same way that many Palestinians legitimize attacks against Israel to defend their people, many Israelis consider it equally justified  to build Jewish communities and expand Israeli settlements. For Israeli leaders, on top of religious and security considerations, the construction of new settlements has been rationalized by an increasing housing shortage in Israel. For Netanyahu, however, the question of settlements in the context of the peace talks is nothing but a “bogus issue.” According to him, the settlements are not the real problem and in any case do not represent an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

On August 31, 2014, just after Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) agreed on a ceasefire, Netanyahu announced a new land appropriation in the West Bank amounting to 400 hectares. To some observers, this is the largest land grab by the Israeli government in 30 years. On October 27, the Israeli government added fuel to the fire by announcing the construction of 1,000 settler units in East Jerusalem. To many Palestinians, the continuation and growth of Israeli occupation on their land is not only illegal, but also one of the greatest obstacles to peace, as it further compromises the prospect of a unified Palestinian state.

While Palestinian “terrorism” and Israeli “colonialism” are the two main topics on which Palestinian and Israeli views are totally opposed, they also disagree on a number of structural issues, such as the question of mutual recognition. While improvements have been made in this direction, as exemplified by the terms of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, there are actors on both sides that still question the other’s right to exist as a political entity. For Hamas,  “Palestine — the whole of Palestine from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River — is the property Palestinian people and our nation, and no usurper has any right to a speck of dust of its territory.” However, this might be a less salient issue now that Hamas indirectly accepted the PLO’s previous agreements, including the recognition of Israel, by signing a unity agreement with Fatah in April 2014.

Likewise, given the religious significance of Jerusalem in Islam and Judaism, Palestinians and Israelis both claim their “natural” right over the city. Jerusalem is indeed the third holiest place in Islam after Medina and Mecca, while the name of the city in Hebrew literally means “the city where the Messiah will appear.” From a historical perspective, the “refugee problem” is another burning issue. During the 1948 War, thousands of Palestinians fled their territory and some were never able to return home. Many Israeli leaders and scholars have denied the responsibility of the Jews in the exodus, arguing that the displacement of Palestinians was a natural consequence of the conflict. In contrast, most Palestinians and various international scholars see it as the result of a premeditated and organized strategy. Today, a majority of Palestinians consider the return of Palestinian refugees a sine qua non for peace.

Thus, both Palestinians and Israelis invoke “legitimate” reasons to support their respective claims. Simply put, everyone claims a monopoly on virtue. The fact that Israelis and Palestinians have their own rationality is a first key element in explaining why they have never been able to reach a compromise.

International and Inter-State Drivers of Conflict

Like many other conflicts in the region, tension between Israelis and Palestinians has been an extension and mirroring of regional and international balances of power. Most Arab states opposed the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which resulted in several Arab-Israeli wars, including in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Whilst some regional actors have since adopted a more conciliatory attitude, notably Egypt and Jordan, others have remained vehemently opposed to Israel, such as Iran, Lebanon and Kuwait. The foreign policies of regional actors toward Israel have been shaped by different factors — natural resources, regional influence, religious considerations — and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often represented a proxy war for the entire region.

At the international level, the Middle East has always been a strategic area for external powers. The region has successively crystallized the struggle for international influence; between France and Great Britain in the early 20th century; between Eastern and Western blocs during the Cold War; and between US and Western neoimperialism since the 1990s. For most Arabs across the region, the oppression of the Palestinian people by the “Zionist State” is an illustration of the Arab world being a playground for powerful Western countries. Given the implication of so many stakeholders, resolving the conflict goes beyond the mere reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.


A recent report showed that a 49% of Israeli textbooks and 84% of their Palestinian equivalents tend to characterize “the other” as negative or very negative.


Another major obstacle to negotiations has resulted from the fact that there is a deep power asymmetry between the two conflicting parties. On one side, Israel is a wealthy and developed country with a modern, well-equipped army and geopolitical influence. On the other side, the Palestinian economy barely exists; there is no regular army and Palestinian representatives do not have much power to influence negotiations. Above all, Israel is recognized as a state, while Palestine is not. This impacts negotiations in a way that is detrimental to Palestinians. Instead of reaching a mutually-arranged consensus, Israel generally imposes its own terms of reference on the Palestinian authorities.

Psychological factors have also played a crucial role in explaining why both Palestinian and Israeli leaders have rejected apparently viable solutions in the past and why it took so long to finally agree on a permanent ceasefire in August. The Relationship between Israelis and Palestinians at both the leadership and citizen level are characterized by a deep sense of mistrust. They both believe that the other side does not really want peace and will never make the sacrifices that are needed to reach an all-encompassing solution. Israeli leaders have repeated for decades that there is no real partner for peace on the Palestinian side and that this is a major impediment to negotiations.

The “enemy” is demonized and essentialized by each side. From an early age, Israeli youths are being told that many Palestinians beyond the fence — though not all — are merely “terrorists” and that Israel’s military service is part of their duty to protect their nation. On the other side, many Palestinians see Jews as their historical oppressors. A recent report showed that a 49% of Israeli textbooks and 84% of their Palestinian equivalents tend to characterize “the other” as negative or very negative.

Of course, there are moderate voices on both sides that call for tolerance and mutual acceptation. But the fact still remains that the demonization of the “other” is embedded in popular imagination and is culturally accepted.

Domestic Issues and the Problem of National Identity

What has prevented Israelis and Palestinians from engaging in a constructive peace process is the fact that their own societies have not been at peace with themselves. Deep economic, social, political, and identity problems have made Israeli and Palestinian societies extremely fragile.

On the Palestinian side, the economic situation has reached such a low point that some specialists talk about a situation of “de-development,” which has impacted labor, employment, trade and incomes. At the political level, despite Fatah and Hamas having formed a unity government in June 2014, tensions between the two have remained inherent to Palestinian political life. Palestinians are increasingly disillusioned with Fatah, not only because the PA has been unable to cope with the disastrous economic and social situation, but also because of its conciliatory attitude toward, and sometimes ambiguous relationship with, Israel.

On the contrary, to many Palestinians Hamas and other armed opposition groups have progressively appeared as the only credible alternative against the Israeli “oppressor.” Despite the current unity government, Palestinians have generally struggled to speak with one single voice. This has impeded peace talks, as Israelis leaders have generally refused to engage in dialogue with Hamas.

Economic and political problems have also impacted personal relationships between Palestinians. According to Sarah Roy, a leading researcher on Gaza, the feeling of a never-ending conflict and the slow degradation of Palestinians’ living conditions has “instilled a profound sense of betrayal, the substitution of collectivism for tribalism, the extension of violence as means of actions and the end of a political or intellectual agenda within the society.”


In a sense, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so intractable not because Palestinians and Israelis share different visions, but rather because their claims are too similar: Both communities claim the right to a state, and both claim a monopoly on victimhood.


On the Israeli side, the unity of the society as a whole is very fragile. This is mainly explained by its social composition and the fact that it is a settler society, created progressively over successive waves of immigration that brought together Jewish communities from very different origins and with sometimes competing cultures. Besides, Arab Israelis also represent 20% of the population. Most of them are Muslims and struggle to find their place within a state that defines its own nation as Jewish. Even among Jews, there are deep dissensions at the ideological level regarding the link they want to establish between religion and politics. On top of that, the last years have witnessed huge social protests across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, increasingly dissatisfied with a rising cost of living and the deterioration of public services, took to the streets to demand social justice.

Instead of being a melting pot, Israeli society is rather a “pressure cooker.” Thus, peace might well be dangerous to Israeli society: The designation of an external enemy — the Palestinians — appears to be the cement that holds its different sections together.

Beyond material and political/social concerns, Israelis and Palestinians both suffer from identity issues. For Palestinians, there are two main problems. Firstly, the absence of a state is not only a matter of material concern; it is first and foremost an existential anxiety, as a nation needs a defined territory. Secondly, the Palestinian identity has been shaped by decades of injustice. Palestinians have been forced out of their homes and dispossessed of their lands; in the Gaza Strip they have been physically cut out from the rest of the world, their houses have been bombed and their children have been starved. Palestinian identity has been built on these foundations and today it is marked by a deep sense of victimhood.

This is also the case for Jews. Jewish history has witnessed many traumatic experiences such as exile, persecution and the Holocaust. These experiences have profoundly impacted Jewish memories and suffering has become an inherent part of their identity. Consequently, the idea of being under constant threat has been internalized into cultural imagination. This is why the question of security is so central the rhetoric of Israeli leaders. According to Esther Benbassa, a scholar specialized in Jewish history: “The Israeli government invokes the memory of the Holocaust to neutralize threats to its interests — ensuring that suffering continues to be a central part of Jewish identity and positioning the State of Israeli as a redemptive force.” The fact that the Israeli government launched a vast military operation that lasted for two months in response to an event for which Hamas was never found guilty is an emblematic example of this.

In a sense, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so intractable not because Palestinians and Israelis share different visions, but rather because their claims are too similar: Both communities claim the right to a state, and both claim a monopoly on victimhood. It is not pure fantasy to expect that one day the drama in which Israelis and Palestinians have been playing for six decades will see a happy ending. Yet there is still a long way to go.

As long as Palestinians and Israelis continue their dialogue of the deaf and show no willingness to compromise, as long as regional and international powers seek to pull the strings from behind the scene without setting aside their own considerations, and as long as each side caricatures its opponent without seeking to adopt a more realistic view, peace will be impossible. As for external spectators, we need to adopt a dispassionate, depolarized and nuanced perspective to encourage the advent of a constructive peace process.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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