The roots of conflict

The terrible history: how two tribes have fought to the death for land and dignity
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The Israelis and Palestinians remain locked in one of history's longest lasting struggles. Bernard Wasserstein explains the complex chain of events that have led to today's blood feud

Zionism and Palestinian nationalism have mimicked each other down the decades. Each regards itself as a victim and draws from that self-image a solipsistic self-righteousness that is used to justify ruthless means. Each has resorted to terrorism and offences against human rights. At the heart of each is an obsessive national vision, born of nearly a century of struggle, and focused on land, security, and dignity. Each is now near the end of its tether.

The first shots in the longest-running conflict of modern times were fired in 1920 in anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem, then under British rule. Arab nationalists protested against the policy, first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, of support for a Jewish National Home. In 1921 more serious disturbances broke out at Jaffa. But the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, refused to be deflected from the pro-Zionist line.

Mass immigration of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and anti-Semitic Poland aroused renewed Arab opposition in the 1930s. Between 1936 and 1939 a full-scale revolt erupted. The British resorted to ruthless repression. By 1939 most Palestinian nationalist leaders had been hanged, imprisoned or exiled. Facing world war, Britain then decided to appease the Arab Middle East. Jewish immigration was severely limited and Palestine was ruled out of bounds to Jews desperately seeking refuge from Hitler's Europe.

Towards the end of the Second World War, a new revolt broke out in Palestine. This time the rebels were Jews, not Arabs. At one point 100,000 British troops were engaged, but an impoverished, war-weary Britain could not maintain such a commitment. She threw in the towel and announced that the mandate would be handed back to the United Nations.

In November 1947 the UN General Assembly called for partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab. Jerusalem was to belong to neither but would be internationalised. The Arabs rejected partition; the Zionists accepted it. In the chaotic last stages of British rule, civil war turned into regional war as the surrounding Arab states mobilised their armies.

When the last British High Commissioner withdrew on 14 May 1948, the Zionists, led by David Ben Gurion, proclaimed the State of Israel. He led the country to victory over the Arab armies. The Palestinians, divided and disorganised, failed to establish their state, and 700,000 fled their homes, many expelled by the Israeli army. They and their descendants ended up in camps in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria, dreaming of return. Israel expanded beyond the boundaries allotted to her by the UN, while Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. The area now known as the West Bank was absorbed into what became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israel and Jordan divided Jerusalem.

Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of survivors of Hitler's camps and Jewish refugees from Arab lands. But she failed to secure acceptance by her neighbours who prepared for a "second round". Border skirmishes punctuated the early 1950s and Mr Ben Gurion and his gung-ho army chief, Moshe Dayan, decided on a pre-emptive strike. In October 1956, following a secret agreement with Britain and France, Israel invaded Egypt. While her allies were humiliated, Israel scored a smashing victory and occupied the Sinai peninsula and Gaza. But under strong US pressure Mr Ben Gurion decided to withdraw.

Over the next decade Israel consolidated her institutions but Arab hostility did not abate. In 1967, after President Nasser blockaded Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, Israel launched a lightning strike on Egypt. Within six days, Israel trounced Jordan and Syria as well. Israel now occupied Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. But these fruits of victory, with their large Arab populations, soon turned into a curse. UN Security Council resolution 242, in November 1967, called for Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognised boundaries but no negotiations ensued.

In October 1973, Israel was caught unawares by a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. Israel retreated in Sinai and the Golan Heights. But helped by an American arms airlift, Israel turned back the Arab armies and an Israeli force under Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt proper. At the end of October the US brokered a truce. An energetic series of diplomatic shuttles by the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, eventually yielded disengagement agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Syria.

A major diplomatic turning point came in November 1977 when President Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem and proclaimed readiness for peace. After difficult talks at Camp David in 1978 a peace treaty was signed in 1979.

By the spring of 1982 Israel had withdrawn from nearly the whole of Sinai. But negotiations over Palestinian autonomy collapsed over Israeli refusal to end Jewish settlement building or remove her army from the West Bank and Gaza.

In June 1982, Ariel Sharon, now Israeli Defence Minister, initiated a massive Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He hoped, in alliance with Christian Lebanese forces, to destroy Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation which was masterminding anti-Israeli terrorist operations from its headquarters in Beirut. Mr Arafat was compelled to leave for Tunis but the Israelis were drawn into the murderous thickets of Lebanese politics. After a massacre of Palestinians by Israel's Christian Lebanese allies, Mr Sharon fell from power. Israel eventually withdrew to a buffer zone in southern Lebanon.

In 1987 the conflict returned to Palestine itself. A rebellion, known as the intifada, broke out in the occupied territories. It continued for seven years in spite of increasingly ferocious Israeli efforts to crush it.

A door towards peacemaking opened in 1992 with the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Israeli Prime Minister. The Palestinians, weakened by the fall of their superpower patron, the Soviet Union, turned to diplomacy. In September 1993 Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. Israel assented to a Palestinian Authority that would rule the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians renounced violence. Israel forces left Arab-populated towns and Yasser Arafat was elected to head the Palestinian Authority.

Over the next few years negotiations for a permanent settlement spluttered along and Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. But extremists dealt the peace process a series of death blows. In 1995 a Jewish fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. Terrorist bus bombings by Palestinians destroyed the government of Mr Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, and paved the way for the hard-line Binyamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Palestinian impatience grew as Israel expanded the settlements.

In 1999 Ehud Barak was elected narrowly as head of a Labour-dominated coalition government. Negotiations quickened as President Clinton took a direct hand. At Camp David in the summer of 2000 he failed to persuade Mr Arafat to accept a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza. Talks collapsed over Jerusalem and the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees.

On 28 September 2000 Ariel Sharon made his fateful visit to the Temple Mount. This provocative gesture furnished the pretext that Palestinian militants had craved. A second intifada broke out, much more violent than the first. Palestinian terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, elicited devastating Israeli reprisals. In February 2001 Mr Barak, discredited by his diplomatic failure, suffered electoral eclipse. His nemesis, Ariel Sharon, opted for a military solution. His response to terrorism was to ratchet up the level of reprisals. By January 2002 more than a thousand people had been killed in the second intifada, 800 of them Palestinians.

This March, terrorism reached its apogee when 127 Israelis were killed by snipers and suicide bombers. For Israeli public opinion, demoralised and desperate, the Passover massacre in Netanya on 27 March was the final straw. On Good Friday Ariel Sharon launched his campaign to eliminate "the infrastructure of terror", sending Israeli tanks back into the major towns of the West Bank.

History offers scant encouragement to Colin Powell in his venture into the quagmire this week. But if the prospects for peacemaking seem tenuous, the probable consequences of continued warfare are grim. Against this background, the last superpower may at last be ready to use real muscle to call a halt to the conflict between the sons of Abraham.

Bernard Wasserstein is professor of modern history at the University of Glasgow and the author of 'Divided Jerusalem' (Profile Books, paperback £9.99)