Israeli-Palestinian conflict: what hope of a solution?
The West Bank and Gaza were invaded by Israel in 1967, and are collectively known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Prior to the Israeli invasion, the West Bank was part of Jordan, whilst Gaza was part of Egypt. Both areas remained under full Israeli control until the mid-1990s, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created.
The PA controls some areas of the OPTs, but other areas remain under Israeli control. Many in the international community, including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, still regard the territories as "occupied" in their entirety because Israel retains control of their borders.
Many Israeli citizens have moved into the OPTs, living in purpose-built Israeli settlements. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits this practice, though Israel argues that it is not applicable in the OPTs.
The "two-state solution"
It is widely accepted that the most likely solution to the conflict is a "two-state solution": in other words, the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. (Egypt never claimed permanent sovereignty over Gaza, seeing its administration as temporary pending the creation of a Palestinian state, whilst Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank in 1988.)
Fatah, one of the two leading factions in Palestinian politics, supports this initiative. Hamas, its rival, takes a more radical line. Under the Hamas vision, the entire area presently covered by the State of Israel would – along with the OPTs – form part of a future Palestinian state. Hamas also has a long history of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
Conflict and negotiation
With a view to achieving a two-state solution, there have in recent years been various sets of talks between the Israeli and Palestinian administrations.
The most recent set of talks, mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, began in August 2013. But they collapsed in April 2014 following the decision by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, to sign a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Israel was opposed to such an agreement and withdrew from the talks in protest.
Following the collapse of the talks, the remainder of 2014 saw Israeli–Palestinian relations continue on a downward spiral. On 7 July, in response to rocket attacks by Hamas, Israel launched a full-blown military operation in Gaza. The hostilities ended on 26 August, when a ceasefire came into effect.
During the conflict, 65 Israeli soldiers plus four Israeli civilians (and one foreign national in Israel) were killed. Casualties amongst Palestinians were far higher. According to UN figures, 2,104 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 civilians.
As part of the ceasefire agreement, Israel agreed to lift some of its restrictions on Gaza that had been imposed for security reasons in 2007, when Hamas seized Gaza by force.
Hamas retained full control of the territory until the signing of its reconciliation agreement with Fatah. Whilst some restrictions have been lifted, many remain in place. For example, ordinary Gazans are not generally allowed to leave the territory.
The ceasefire agreement also provided for indirect talks between Israel, Hamas and the PA, mediated by Egypt. Whilst they are far less ambitious in scope than the direct negotiations that collapsed in April 2014, at present they represent the only available opportunity to achieve meaningful progress.
Implications for the UK
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has a number of implications for the UK. Many are calling on the UK Government to recognise the Palestinian Authority as a "state". Under international law, the criteria for statehood include a defined territory and effective government.
The Palestinian Authority clearly does not meet these criteria at present. It will not do so unless agreement is reached on a two-state solution. But individual countries can nevertheless choose to recognise Palestinian statehood if they wish. Such a move would be an important symbol of support for the Palestinian cause.
Whilst pro-Palestinian activists call on the UK to recognise Palestinian statehood, pro-Israeli activists have raised concerns about the UK's aid programme in the OPTs. The aid programme has two main components: provision of funding to UNRWA (the UN agency that supports poor Palestinians), and the provision of funding to the Palestinian Authority.
It is the latter that is controversial. Some argue that the Palestinian Authority has been too tolerant of Palestinian militant groups and that UK funding should therefore be stopped. Others, however, argue that such funding is justified because a viable Palestinian Authority is a necessary precursor to a two-state solution.
Chart: Aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories
£422 million, aid provided to the Occupied Palestinian Territories by DFID over the five years of its 2011–16 Operational Plan. Spending to 2014/15 can be broken down as follows:
- Conservatives: support a two-state solution and defend the right of Israel to protect its security while condemning illegal settlement building
- Greens: seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict based on a two-state solution
- Labour: committed to a two-state solution and will press for an immediate return to negotiations that would lead to a diplomatic solution
- Liberal Democrats: committed to a peace settlement that includes a two-state solution
- UKIP: committed to a two-state solution