Opinion | Israel-Palestine: Where is the conflict heading?

Written By: Achal Malhotra
New Delhi Published: May 18, 2021, 04:09 PM(IST)

Smoke and flames rise after war planes belonging to the Israeli army carried out airstrikes over Gaza City on August 18, 2020. A rocket was fired on late August 18 from Gaza towards Israel Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Regrettably, the UN, which has a poor track record in resolving global conflicts, looks toothless once again in bringing the situation under control

Israel and  Palestine are once again entangled in a series of bloody clashes as part of the on-going decades-long conflict. The conflict has entered into second week, resulted in significant loss of life and property and more importantly, there are no signs of either side willing to retract.

Brief Background to the Conflict 

Even though the origins of the conflict can be traced deep into the history of the region, its modern phase can be said to have begun in in early 20th century. Palestine was one of the Provinces of Turkish Ottoman  Empire till it came under British control in 1922 as a fall out of World war 1, and remained so till 1948. 

During this period the migration of Jews to the region increased palpably and resultantly tensions between the Arab Muslims and Jews also grew considerably. As the end of Britain’s Palestine Mandate drew closer, Britain referred the Palestine Issue to UN in April, 1947. 

The UN came forward with a plan (UN Resolution 181 of 29th November 1947) to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish States with the city of Jerusalem as a Corpus separatum i.e. separate entity to be governed by a special international regime under UN. The Plan was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs.

The Jews of Palestine went ahead and created an independent sovereign State in May 1948.  What followed was a series of Arab-Israel wars and repeated armed clashes which keep erupting from time to time, including the current conflict which began in early May this year and has escalated since then and threatens to assume serious proportions.

Core Elements of the Conflict 

What is at the core of the conflict? Essentially, the conflict has three important dimensions: ethno-religious, right to self-determination and independent homeland, and related to that are the territorial claims. The Arab Muslim Palestinians and Israeli Jews are the two parties to this ethno-religious conflict.  

The Jews have succeeded in establishing an independent sovereign State i.e. Israel, and in securing the full membership of the United Nations and recognition from a large number countries except from some Arab League and OIC Member States. 

In contrast, the Palestinians have so far managed to secure the status of a Non-Member  UN Observer State. The city of Jerusalem-sacred to Muslims, Jews as well as Christians for their own valid reasons - is at the core of the territorial dimension of this conflict.

It also houses the Indian Hospice which is a historic place associated with a great Indian Sufi saint Baba Farid.  

The city including East Jerusalem (occupied by  Israel in 1967 war and later annexed in 1980) is under de-facto control of Israel who considers “whole and united” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a claim not recognised by the entire international community.  

On the other hand, the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent State of Palestine to be established in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 Arab-Israel war. 

Israel’s de facto control of Jerusalem on the ground has enabled it to invest vast resources and efforts into changing the physical and demographic characteristics of the City. The Palestinians also stake claim to whole of West Bank where the Palestine Authority is in administrative control of about half the territory.

Conflict Resolution 

The Quartet, comprised of the USA, Russian Federation, European Union and United Nations, and established in 2002 to facilitate peace process negotiations developed a “Performance Based Road Map to a Permanent Two States Solution” and has met numerous times in pursuance of its objectives but has prima-facie, failed to deliver, presumably due to irreconcilable positions adopted by the parties to the conflict. 

Meanwhile, Israel has gradually normalised its relations with some of the key Arab countries including Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, UAE, and is said to be moving in this direction with Saudi Arabia as well. The Palestinians have reacted by describing these developments as betrayal of the Palestinian cause by these Arab countries.  

The rapprochement between Israel and Arab States may not augur well for the Palestinians who may not find some of them on their side in hours of desperate need if they are required to choose between Israel and Palestine.  

The situation is further complicated by the lack of unity amongst Palestinians who went through a civil war in 2006-2007 and are now divided into two broad groups: the militant Hamas in control of Gaza and relatively moderate Fateh-led Palestine Authority in control of parts of the West Bank. 

Current Scenario

At present the energies of the international community are focussed on finding ways and means to de-escalate the confrontation leading to cessation of hostilities. Several countries in their individual capacities have made appeals to achieve these objectives. Regrettably, the UN, which has a poor track record in resolving global conflicts, looks toothless once again in bringing the situation under control. 

The UN Security Council held a public virtual meeting on 16th May preceded by two closed-door meetings earlier in the previous week but has failed to issue any official statement on the outcome of its deliberations. 

Reports at hand suggest that the USA, a staunch ally of Israel, was instrumental in blocking resolutions/joint statement which would have condemned Israel’s military response to rocket attacks by Hamas, besides calling for an immediate cease-fire.

India’s Position

India has been consistent in its support for the “just cause” of Palestinians. For several years, even after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, India was looking at its relations with Palestine through the prism of its relations with Israel and vice versa. 

By undertaking a standalone first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel in 2017, PM Modi signalled de-hyphenation of India’s policy towards Palestine and Israel but nevertheless has not wavered in its principled position on Israel-Palestine conflict despite rapidly growing relations with Israel.

In its statement at the UNSC meeting, India has therefore reiterated its “strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-State solution”.

Interestingly, while India has condemned the “indiscriminate rocket firings from Gaza targeting the civilian population in Israel” it has described the Israeli airstrikes as “retaliatory” without any condemnation.  

India has thus in a way endorsed Israeli action though it stopped short of openly endorsing Israel’s right to self-defence as done by the USA in its initial statements. The condemnation of the rocket attacks by Hamas can possibly also be seen as India’s rejection of Hamas’ modus-operandi for attaining its political objectives through violent means.

What's in store? 

It is matter of academic debate as to who between Israel and Palestine should be held responsible for triggering the current conflict. Expectedly, each one of the two is blaming the other. The Israelis are describing the rocket fires by Hamas as premeditated and their own action as retaliatory in self-defence, whereas Hamas is justifying it as its response to Israeli aggression. 

Fortunately, the chances of a full-scale Arab-Israel war with participation by select Arab countries alongside Palestine looks remote. 

Yet, as rightly pointed by India and many other countries, the need of the hour is to de-escalate so as to arrest any further slide towards the brink. 

We can expect to see a flurry of diplomatic activity including by Quartet and some individual countries with the immediate objective of cessation of hostilities. Final and lasting resolution of the conflict, meeting the aspirations of the parties to the conflict, however, is nowhere on the horizon. 

At this point in time, an agreement to ceasefire would be a great achievement. The pertinent question is how soon can we expect a ceasefire? It is somewhat intriguing in this context that the key player USA is not showing any sense of urgency. Is this by design? Is the idea behind it is to allow sufficient time to Israel to weaken Hamas as much as possible before a truce is reached? It is noteworthy that Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization, inter-alia, by Israel, USA and the EU, and Israel has let it be known that it is targeting Hamas leaders and its infrastructure.

Hopefully, the wise sense will prevail soon and it will be possible to prevent further loss of precious human lives and damage to property.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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