In late March 2002 a suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel in the town of Netanya in Israel, killing himself and twenty others. More than 130 people were injured in the blast. The bomber was discovered to have been a member of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, a group of radical Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the existence of Israel in any form. Although suicide bombings are not uncommon in Israel, the Netanya hotel bombing was significant for two reasons: One, it occurred during the sacred Jewish holiday of Passover, and so appeared to be a direct assault not only on Jewish civilians but also on the very fabric of Jewish culture; and two, the bombing came just days after the unveiling of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan drafted by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which sought to end the long-standing Middle East conflict. This pattern of terrorist attacks abruptly putting an end to peace talks has long characterized the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Another entrenched pattern central to the conflict is military reprisals following terrorist attacks.
Indeed, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon responded to the Netanya bombing by saying that “Israel will act to crush the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, in all its parts and components.” Shortly thereafter, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched Operation Defensive Shield, which attacked suspected terrorist targets in occupied Palestinian territories and isolated Palestinian Authority president Yasir Arafat at his compound in Ramallah. The Passover massacre, as the Netanya hotel bombing came to be known, seemed designed to thwart any efforts at ending the decadesold Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had gained renewed significance on the world stage in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
After the September 11 attacks, the United States embarked on a war against terrorism, pressuring its allies to aid in the effort. Israel responded by renewing its commitment to retaliate against Palestinian terrorist attacks. As Prime Minister Sharon noted in the days following the September 11 tragedy, soldiers in the war on terrorism “must fight against all terrorist organizations, including those belonging to Arafat” as well as “Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hizbullah,” all Islamic fundamentalist organizations that have carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. This imperative to halt terrorism at all costs has significantly escalated the conflict in the form of Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian “terrorists.” Predictably, these Israeli reprisals have been followed by new Palestinian terrorist attacks, which in turn provoke an ever-increasing military response from Israel.
Terrorism, defined by the U.S. State Department as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets,” has always been a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even before Israel officially became a sovereign nation in 1947. Pogroms, or race riots in which Jews were massacred, were common in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s. The most vicious of these attacks occurred in 1929 in the town of Hebron, the oldest Jewish community in the world. Arab rioters killed nearly 10 percent of the town’s Jewish population, and the remaining inhabitants were forced to flee. Israel did not regain Hebron until after the Six-Day War against Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in 1967. To counter the threat of continued violence, Jews formed several paramilitary groups, which could be classified as terrorist groups since they attacked civilian targets to achieve political ends.
Although the Israeli government dismantled or absorbed its paramilitary units after the creation of the state of Israel, the number of Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups has increased during the decades of conflict. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are but two examples of militant groups that consistently carry out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Many analysts have also labeled the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) a terrorist group.
Popular uprisings among the Palestinian people have been aided by these terrorist groups. In December 1987, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza rose up in a popular civil revolt or intifada. By early 1988, it was clear that the PLO was helping to coordinate many of the intifada’s actions, including the creation of large mobs, the stoning of Israeli cars, and attacks against Israeli civilians. A second, much more violent and deadly intifada began in September 2000. Terrorists started to use suicide bombing with increased frequency in order to advance their goal of liberating Palestine. In this hostile climate, Israel and Palestine have faced the daunting task of seeking a peaceful solution to their conflict.
Several peace initiatives have been proposed throughout the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and all of them have met with varying degrees of success and failure. U.S. president Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978 and 1979. This agreement stabilized the Middle East slightly and provided a framework for establishing Palestinian autonomy. Although Israel followed through on its promised concessions to Egypt, the Palestinians would not allow Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to negotiate on their behalf, and the Palestinian provisions of the accords were not implemented. Following the failure of Camp David, violence between the Israelis and Palestinians continued.
Over a decade later, in 1993, secret talks were held between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in Oslo, Norway. Although both Palestinians and Israelis made several concessions for peace, the talks collapsed when a Jewish extremist, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on a group of Muslim worshippers in Hebron at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a major Muslim shrine. In 2000 peace talks again collapsed when Yasir Arafat walked away from negotiations at Camp David and Taba, Egypt, because he felt that the concessions offered by the Israelis and the Americans did not go far enough in achieving Palestinian goals of sovereignty and self-determination.
All of these peace plans have crumbled in part because of the cycle of terrorist attacks followed by increasingly severe reprisals. Terrorist attacks like the Passover massacre and military reprisals like the assault on the Jenin refugee camp would be the norm well into 2003, ensuring that any peace proposal was almost guaranteed to fail. The situation has understandably inspired many U.S. presidents and other world leaders to embark on efforts to resolve the conflict. President George W. Bush said in a policy speech on June 24, 2002, that “it is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation. And the current situation offers no prospect that life will improve.” He added, “If all parties will break with the past and set out on a new path, we can overcome the darkness with the light of hope.”
Despite the efforts of the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other nations, all attempts so far to bring about an end to the conflict have failed. The 2003 U.S.-backed “road map to peace,” which contained as a prerequisite for peace the immediate cessation of terrorist attacks against Israel, is just the latest example of a failed peace plan. It stalled when the former Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and his successor, Ahmed Queri, were unable to halt the terrorist activities of Islamic militant groups. Indeed, with dreary regularity, violence between the parties generates new peace plans, and violence inevitably derails them.
Although the events of September 11 prompted renewed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major step in fighting the global war on terror, conditions in the region have effectively thwarted any real steps toward peace. The articles in At Issue: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict provide opinions on the various causes of and possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of a post–September 11 world.