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8.4: Israel and Its Neighbors

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize how the region of Palestine has evolved into the current Jewish State of Israel. Identify and locate the territories that have been annexed to Israel over the years.
    2. Understand the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the Jewish State of Israel. Outline the complications of the one-state and two-state solutions to this division.
    3. Describe the differences between the governments of Jordan and Syria.
    4. Outline the political arrangements of the government leadership positions in Lebanon.

    The State of Israel

    At the center of the Middle East, on the shores of the Mediterranean in the Levant (the area bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea), lies the country of Israel. Israel is bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria and Jordan to the east, and Egypt to the south. Covering an area of only 8,522 square miles, Israel is smaller than the US state of Massachusetts and only one-fifth the size of the state of Kentucky. The coastal region, which has a moderate type C climate, receives more rainfall than the dry interior and the Negev Desert in the south, both of which have arid type B climates. The Sea of Galilee, also called Lake Kinneret or the Sea of Tiberias, is a major fresh water supply. The Jordan River flows from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below sea level, so it has no outlet. Over time, salts and minerals have built up, creating an environment that does not support fish or aquatic life. South of the Negev Desert is the Gulf of Aqaba, which provides access to the Red Sea for both Israel and Jordan. Israel does not have substantial oil resources but has a potential for natural gas in offshore locations along the Mediterranean Sea.

    Though most of the population in the Middle East is Islamic, there are exceptions, such as in Israel, which has a Jewish majority. Israel was established in 1948. Before that time, the country was called Palestine. The region went through a series of tumultuous transitions before it became the nation of Israel. Before 1948, most people in Palestine were called Palestinians and consisted primarily of Arab Muslims, Samaritans, Bedouins, and Jews. Most Jewish people were dispersed throughout the world, with the majority in Europe and the United States.

    The Division of Palestine

    Palestine was a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire before the end of World War I. Britain defeated Turkish forces in 1917 and occupied Palestine for the remainder of the war. The British government was granted control of Palestine by the mandate of the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 at the end of World War I. Britain supported the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which favored a Jewish homeland. The British Mandate included Palestine and Transjordan, the area east of the Jordan River, which includes the current country of Jordan.

    Between 1922 and 1947, during British control, most of the population of Palestine was ethnically Arab and followed Islam. In 1922, Jews made up less than 20 percent of the population. The Jewish settlements were mainly along the west coast and in the north. Jewish people from other countries—including primarily Jews escaping German oppression in the 1930s—migrated to the Israeli settlements. Palestine was turned over to the control of the newly created United Nations (UN) in 1945 at the end of World War II.

    The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was created by the UN in 1947. To address the Palestine region, UNSCOP recommended that Palestine be divided into an Arab state, a Jewish state, and an international territory that included Jerusalem. Palestine was divided by the UN. About 44 percent of the territory was allocated to the Palestinians, who consisted of about 67 percent of the population, which was mainly Arab. Approximately 56 percent of the territory was allocated to the minority Jewish population, who only consisted of about 33 percent of the population. The country of Jordan was created out of the region east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The city of Jerusalem was to remain under the administrative control of the UN as an international city. The Jewish State of Israel was officially recognized in 1948. The Palestinians, who were a majority of Israel’s total population at the time and who owned about 90 percent of the land, denounced the agreement as unacceptable (Knowledgerush). One of the consequences of the territorial partition was that thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forced off the land that was allocated to the Jewish state. These Palestinians became refugees in the Palestinian portion or in neighboring countries.

    Palestine’s Arab neighbors—Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt—sided with the Arab Palestinians and declared war on Israel. The war did not end favorably for the Arabs. With support and aid from Britain and the United States, the Jewish State of Israel defeated the attacking Arab armies and took control of a larger portion of the land, including some of the land designated by the UN as a portion of the Arab half.

    Figure 8.23 Satellite Image of Palestine (left); 1948 UN Division of Palestine into Half Jewish State and Half Arab State (center); Political Map of Israel in 2011(right)


    Wikimedia Commons public domain; Wikimedia Commons – public domain; CIA World Factbook – public domain.

    After the Arabs lost the first war against the Jewish State of Israel, the Palestinians’ problems increased. By 1950 over 750,000 Palestinians living in the Jewish-controlled regions of Israel were forced out of their homes and into refugee camps. According to the UN in 2010, about one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.4 million, live in fifty-eight recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Jordan has the highest number of Palestinian refugees: almost two million, with more than 330,000 living in refugee camps (United Nations Relief “Palestine Refugees”; United Nations Relief “Statistics”). Jordan has allowed most of its Palestinian refugees to receive Jordanian citizenship.

    By 1967, the Arab armies had regrouped and were willing to attack Israel again. The 1967 war was short lived, lasting only about a week. The Arab armies were devastated once again, and Israel gained even more territory. Israel took the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. The entire city of Jerusalem came under Israeli control. The 1967 war solidified the control of the region of Palestine under the Israeli government and placed Israel at greater odds with its Arab neighbors. Syria wanted Israel to return the Golan Heights, which has a strategic military advantage in overlooking northern Israel, and Egypt wanted Israel to return control of the Sinai Peninsula.

    Egypt and Syria attacked Israel again on October 6, 1973, which was Yom Kippur, the most solemn holiday in the Jewish religion. The Israeli army counterattacked, driving the Syrians out and the Egyptian army and back across the Suez Canal. After a few weeks of conflict, a peace treaty was agreed upon. In 1977, Israeli president Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat were invited to Camp David, Maryland, by US president Jimmy Carter. Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accord, an agreement not to go to war again. Egypt agreed to officially recognize the State of Israel and to not invade Israel again. Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt; the peninsula was returned in 1982. Each participant in the accord won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Figure 8.24 The Western Wall in Jerusalem


    A remnant of the Jewish temple built by Herod the Great and destroyed in 70 CE, the Western Wall is the most holy place for the Jewish people. The Dome of the Rock mosque in the background is the third-holiest site for Muslims.

    Photo by R. Berglee – CC BY-NC-SA.

    In 1980, Israel passed the Jerusalem Law, which stated that greater Jerusalem was Israeli territory and that Jerusalem was the eternal capital of the State of Israel. The UN rejected Israel’s claim on greater Jerusalem, and few if any countries have accepted it. Israel moved its capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to solidify its claim on the city even though most of the world’s embassies remain in Tel Aviv. The move of the capital was designed to create a forward capital, the purpose of which is usually either to protect a nation’s territory or to spur the development of the country. In this case, it was to protect valuable territory.

    Palestinians were left with only the regions of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which is controlled by the Israeli government and is subject to Israel’s national jurisdiction. As of 2010, about 1.5 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and 2.5 million live in the West Bank. A number of cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been turned over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for self-governing. The PA was established between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government to administer internal security and civil matters. The PLO and the PA are two separate entities. The PLO is the internationally recognized governing body of the Palestinian people. It is legitimately recognized by the UN to represent the area known as Palestine in political matters. There are two main political parties within the PLO: Hamas and Fatah. The Hamas party is the strongest in the region of the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah party is more prominent in the West Bank.

    The Palestinians, Israel, and Possible Solutions

    The future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been the focus of talks and negotiation for decades. There are various ways to approach this issue; a one-state solution and a two-state solution have been proposed. The one-state solution proposes the creation of a fully democratic state of Israel and the integration of all the people within its borders into one country. Integration of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into the Jewish State of Israel is part of this plan; in other words, “Take the walls down and create one state” (Masri, M., 2011). Many Palestinians support the one-state solution, but most of the Jewish population does not. Family size is much larger in the Palestinian side, so it would be only a matter of time before the Jewish population would be a minority population and would not have full political control with a democratic government. To have the Jewish State of Israel, the Jewish population needs to keep its status as the majority.

    In a two-state solution, Palestinians would have their own nation-state, which would include the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The rest of former Palestine would be included in the Jewish State of Israel. The two-nation concept (Israel and a Palestinian state) has been proposed and supported by a number of foreign governments, including the United States. Implementation of a two-state solution is, of course, not without its own inherent problems. At the present time, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are subjects under the Jewish State of Israel without full political or economic autonomy. The two-state solution would buy more time for the Jewish population with smaller families to retain power as a majority political voting bloc.

    Parties to the negotiations have acknowledged that the most likely solution is to create a Palestinian state bordering Israel. However, it is not clear how to make this happen. Palestine is now divided between the Jewish State of Israel (with 7.3 million people) on one side and the Palestinians (with 4.0 million people) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the other side. About 75 percent of Israel’s population of 7.3 million people are Jewish, and about 25 percent are Arab. Travel between Israel and the Palestinian areas is heavily restricted and tightly controlled. A high concrete and barbed wire barrier separates the two sides for much of the border. The West Bank provides fresh water used on the Israeli side for agriculture and industrial processes. The industries also employ Palestinians and support them economically.

    Jewish people from various parts of the world continue to migrate to Israel, and the Israeli government continues to build housing settlements to accommodate them. Since the West Bank region is under the Israeli national jurisdiction, many of the new housing settlements have been built in the West Bank. The Palestinians who live there strongly oppose the settlements. In 1977, only about five thousand Jews lived in the West Bank settlements. As of 2010 there were more than two hundred thousand. The Palestinians argue that if they were to have their own nation-state, then the Jewish settlements would be in their country and would have to be either resettled or absorbed. Israel responds by indicating that the two-state solution is indefensible because the Jewish settlements in the West Bank cannot be protected if the West Bank is separated from Israel.

    The issues in Israel are generally complicated. After a series of wars and considerable negotiations, the central problems remain: Jews and Palestinians both want the same land, both groups want Jerusalem to be their capital city, and neither group can find a compromise. Support for the Jewish State of Israel has primarily come from the United States and from Jewish groups external to Israel. There are more Jews in the United States than there are in Israel, and the US Jewish lobby is powerful. Israel has been the top recipient of US foreign aid for most of the years since 1948. Through charitable donations, US groups provide Israel additional billions of dollars annually. Foreign aid has given the Jewish population in Israel a standard of living that is higher than the standard of living of many European countries.

    In the past decade, most of the PLO’s operating budget has come from external sources. Arab neighbors provide millions of dollars annually. Though Iran is not Arab, they have provided aid to the Palestinian cause in support of fellow Muslims against the Jewish State of Israel. The PLO has received the bulk of its funding from the European Union. Russia has also provided millions of dollars in aid. The United States provides millions in direct or indirect aid to the Palestinians annually.

    The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, and it is located in a desert. There are few jobs and no real methods of gaining wealth. Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank need to rely on outside support to survive. These are small areas with lots of people. The West Bank is only about thirty miles wide by seventy-five miles long, yet more than 2.5 million people call it home. The Gaza Strip is a desert region about six miles wide by twenty-three miles long and is home to more than 1.5 million people. In 2010, family size in the West Bank was about 3.2, and in the Gaza Strip, it was about 5.0. Unemployment rates averaged about 40 percent in the Gaza Strip and over 20 percent in the West Bank (Central Intelligence Agency). Underemployment is also a major issue in that there may be few employment opportunities for professionals with specialized skills or a university degree in a specific field of interest.

    Figure 8.25 A Street in the West Bank City of Nablus


    Cell phones are ubiquitous in Nablus.

    Photo by R. Berglee – CC BY-NC-SA.

    In 2006, both Israel and the PLO held democratic elections for their leaders. In 2006, a candidate from the Hamas party won the election for the leadership of the PLO, which concerned many of the PLO’s external financial supporters. The Israeli government characterizes Hamas as a terrorist organization that supports the destruction of the State of Israel. Hamas has advocated for suicide bombers to blow themselves up on populated Jewish streets. The Jewish State of Israel has been fighting a low-level war against Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas since 1948. In 2008, the leaders of the Fatah party, which are more prominent in the West Bank region, took matters to the PLO Central Council, which chose Mahmoud Abbas as president of the State of Palestine.

    Figure 8.26 Security Wall between Israel and the West Bank


    Photo by R. Berglee – CC BY-NC-SA.

    The problems between Israel and Palestinians are far from settled. The region has plenty of interconnected concerns. The biggest supporter of Israel, the United States, invaded Iraq in 2003, an invasion that raised the concern level of Islamic groups in the Middle East, including the Islamic leaders that control the government of Iran. Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iran has worked at developing nuclear weapons. US involvement in the region has heightened tensions between Iran and Israel. Oil revenues are driving the economies of most of the Arab countries that support the Palestinians. Oil is an important export of the region, with the United States as a major market. The difficulties between Israel and the Palestinians continue to fuel the conflict between Islamic fundamentalists and Islamic reformers. Some Islamic groups have accepted Israel’s status as a country and others have not. The Israel-Palestinian problem drives the geopolitics of the Middle East. The US war in Iraq has complicated the situation but has not superseded it. The situation in Palestine is predicted to continue long after the problems in Iraq have stabilized.

    Figure 8.27 West Bank Settlements and Palestinian-Controlled Areas


    Updated from map courtesy of CIA World Factbook – public domain.