A short history of the Arab-Israeli conflict
Explaining the complex crisis in maps
Oct 18th 2023
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How have Israel’s borders changed over time? And why did Palestinian autonomous territories end up scattered in two separate regions? The shifting lines on the map help to explain more than a century of conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. Our explanation begins in 1916 (see map 1).
During the first world war Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and François Georges-Picot, a French one, were appointed by their governments to secretly divvy up the lands of the Ottoman empire. The Arab provinces were to be split up among European powers. Palestine was envisioned as international territory given its significance in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, stating its support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. By then Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine had already begun, and the Zionist movement, founded by Theodor Herzl, had declared its aim to create a Jewish homeland at its first congress in Basel in 1897.
The San Remo Conference of 1920 finalised the partition of the Ottoman empire. Britain was given a mandate to rule parts of the international territory envisioned under Sykes-Picot. This was split again the following year into Palestine and Transjordan, an Arab kingdom under Hashemite rule. The mandate was approved by the League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations, in 1922. Importantly, it included support for the Balfour Declaration. Arabs living there turned increasingly to violence against their occupiers and growing numbers of Jewish migrants, including German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. In 1936 the Arabs revolted. The British crushed the uprising, but tried to win over the Arabs by restricting Jewish ambitions in the region. Jewish militant groups began launching their own revolt which spread after the second world war. Eventually the British gave up and handed the problem over to the UN.
After the Holocaust, pressure grew for the international recognition of a Jewish state. In 1947 the UN proposed the partition of Palestine into three parts: an Arab state, a Jewish state and Jerusalem, which was intended to be a corpus separatum, or a separate, internationally run entity. Violence only worsened. As Britain completed its withdrawal in 1948 Jewish leaders declared the establishment of the state of Israel. Neighbouring Arab countries promptly invaded.
Israel survived the Arab invasion. In the Armistice of 1949 a demarcation line (known as the “Green Line”) served as the de facto borders between Israel and Arab states, though the Arab governments refused to recognise Israel. More than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were pushed out of their homes. They called this the nakba, the catastrophe. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank came under the control of Egypt and Transjordan (later Jordan), respectively. Jerusalem was divided.
In 1967, during the six-day war between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula. It annexed East Jerusalem, along with a slice of the West Bank, and moved to build Jewish settlements in the occupied lands.
In October 1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched an attack in Sinai and the Golan Heights. Under American auspices, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David accords in 1978 and a peace treaty the following year. Israel agreed to give back all of Sinai, and to grant Palestinians autonomy. Outraged Arab countries kicked Egypt out of the Arab league, and there was no progress on Palestinian autonomy.
In 1987 Palestinians rose up, in what became known as the first intifada, a sustained movement of strikes and stone-throwing protests. In 1993 Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed the first Oslo accord, which set out a five-year period of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under a new entity, the Palestinian Authority (PA). The interim arrangements created a messy patchwork in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: in Area A the PA was given full civil and security control; in Area B it had civil-affairs and some law-and-order powers, but Israel retained ultimate security control; and in Area C Israel kept full control. The accord left the final status of Jerusalem and settlements to be sorted out later. During the second intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005 and involved the use of guns and suicide bombs by Palestinians, Israel built a security barrier in the West Bank and eventually withdrew its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank it pulled out of four settlements.
Today almost 3m Palestinians live in the West Bank, as well as more than 450,000 Israelis living in settlements (excluding East Jerusalem), a figure that has grown roughly fourfold since the Oslo accords were signed. Some settlers have now lived in the West Bank for two generations. Jerusalem is ringed with settlements. Palestinians in Gaza fare considerably worse than those elsewhere. The region has been controlled by Hamas, a militant group, since 2007. After it came to power, Egypt and Israel tightened a stifling blockade on the territory. Hamas militants and Israel have now been at war five times. The latest fighting has been the deadliest yet.■
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