A Palestinian woman argues with an Israeli border policeman in the West Bank.

History: Sheikh Jarrah and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A tiny neighbourhood in East Jerusalem has become the latest emblem in the ongoing struggle for Palestinian independence. It is one defining moment in the sea of many in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a timeline of violence and struggle for Palestinians.

Sheikh Jarrah, home predominantly to the Palestinian Muslim community, is now one of many neighbourhoods throughout Jerusalem and Israeli-occupied territories that are forcing the evictions of Palestinian families in favour of Israeli settlers. The expulsion, dislodgement and outright banishment of families from traditional homes, and illegally giving them to Israeli Jews under false pretences, sparked rage and frustration in the community.

The event occurs during the last week of the holy month of Ramadan. The blockage of roads leading to mosques and violent disruptions of prayers further escalated tensions and fostered civil unrest. Israeli police and Palestinian protestors continuously clash; militants and state governments draw airstrikes; violent confrontations and casualties plague the cities. These factors make this the most crucial conflict taking place in the Middle-East present time.

However, Israeli’s rigorous campaign to drive the Palestinians out of East Jerusalem is nothing new. In fact, it has been a protracted, brutal crusade going on for decades. To understand the situation in its entirety can be complicated. But through this timeline in the clashing worlds of Israel and Palestine, with specific chronological events leading up to modern times, perhaps it is key to grasping the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The British Mandate for Palestine and Resolution 181

A scanned, black-and-white document of the Balfour Declaration (Nov. 9, 1917).
Image source: The Times

Like all developing nations during the 18th-19th century, foreign powers had meddled in their state of affairs. They had played the strings of other countries in order to deliver the result that was in their interest. A perfect embodiment of this would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its early stages.

The Balfour Declaration

November 2, 1917: Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, issues a statement. He represents British support for Palestine to be “a national home for Jewish people.” Also known as the Balfour Declaration.

Zionists around the world embraced the declaration. However, it was predominantly an effort from the British government to rally Jewish opinion, especially in the United States. The Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, the Russian Empire) wanted them as an ally during World War I.

July 24, 1922: The decision is formally approved by the League of Nations, also part of a post-war settlement following the fall of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain takes over the territory with the Mandate for Palestine, incorporating elements of the Balfour Declaration:

“Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally on Nov. 2, 1917, by [Britain] and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil & religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities […] or the rights & political status by Jews in any other country.”

Resolution 181 and the Arab Revolt

November 29, 1947: A UN General Assembly is appointed to vote on a resolution to partition Palestine, dubbed “Resolution 181.” Its purpose is to establish two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. Jerusalem would be a separate entity and governed by a special international administration. Also known as the Partition Plan.

The United Nations resolution sparked conflict between Jewish and Arab communities within Palestine. Palestinian Arabs saw it favourable to Jews (an emerging “Jewish state”) and a threat to their own distinct religious identity. 

May 14, 1948: Britain fully withdraws its forces from the territory. The state of Israel is proclaimed and is established as a Jewish homeland with support from the US and the UK. This came after the failure to sign a deal with the Arabs to carve out a separate state from Palestine and their open rejection to the UN Partition Plan.

In the wake of the announcement, surrounding Arab nations (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia) declared war on Israel. This launched the First Arab-Israeli War, with both Jewish and Arab forces committing acts of belligerence.

Nakba—Arabic for “catastrophe”—was the term for the events of 1948. It denotes the massive displacement of Palestinians after Israel’s declaration of independence, subsequently starting the Palestinian refugee crisis.

April 3, 1949: Israel and the Arab states agree to an armistice.

As victor, Israel gained about 50% more territory than originally allotted by the UN Partition Plan, taking it away from the Palestinian Arabs. This would not be the young nation’s last acquisition and marks the commencement of gradual growth in controlling large territories.

The Suez Crisis, Israeli Victory in the 1967 War

The late 50s and 60s continued to unravel in antagonism, hostility and bloodshed. The fight was principally between Israel and its Arab neighbours, as military action became the primal response as opposed to diplomatic efforts, which was epitomised by the Second and Third Arab-Israeli Wars.

The Second Arab-Israeli War

July 26, 1956: Colonel Gamal Abdel Nassar’s Egypt announces the nationalisation of the Anglo-French jointly-operated Suez Canal. It was a valuable waterway that controlled two-thirds of the oil used by Europe.

October 29, 1956: Israeli armed forces push into Egypt, prompting the Second Arab-Israeli War. Egypt emerges as the victor and Israeli (along with its allies, Britain and France, who joined the fight later) withdraw their troops later that year.

The outcome of the Suez Crisis also fuelled the Palestine problem; Israel had gained confidence in its military capabilities and recognised itself as a regional power.

The Third Arab-Israeli War

June 5-10, 1967: After an accumulation of events between Israel and the Arab states, the Third Arab-Israeli War—also known as the Six-Day War—is set in motion. It is perhaps the most consequential of them all.

A visual map of the post-1967 borders concerning territories of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, with a 'Before' and 'After' difference side-by-side.
Image source: bbc.com

As a ceasefire sponsored by the United Nations took effect, the brief but bloody war came into an abrupt stop. It left the Arab states in a state of shocked defeat. Israel had captured the territories holding East Jerusalem and the West Bank (from Jordan), the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip (from Egypt) and Golan Heights (from Syria), expanding their nation by triple the size. This revealed Israel to be the dominant military power in the region to the extent that it had significantly changed the Middle-Eastern map for decades to come.

But most importantly, it worsened the existing Palestinian refugee crisis that began in the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. By claiming the new territories, Israel had absorbed over 1 million more Palestinian Arabs, initiating a new troublesome phase in the Palestine problem.

The Intifadas and the Rise of Hamas

The repercussions of the British Mandate for Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Wars left the state of Palestinian self-determination and self-governance open to question. This propagated the start of intifada, which is Arabic intifāḍah for “shaking off.” The term describes the two popular Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as a means to end Israeli occupation and advocate for an independent Palestinian state.

Six men in black masks, all in casual T-shirt and jeans, as intifada protestors in 1980.
Image source: picture-alliance/AFP/P

The First Intifada

December 9, 1987: The first intifada, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip riot against Israeli settlers.

The year mark the 20-year anniversary of Israel’s conquest of the two territories. But demonstrations and skirmishes had already heightened in the months following the electoral victory of right-wing Likud party in 1977.

The revolt lasted until September 1993 with the entry of the Oslo Accords (mediated by the Norwegian government). The Accords provided a framework for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. This included giving the Palestinians the power to self-govern in the two territories and permitted mutual recognition between the newly established Palestinian Authority and Israel’s government, as well as Israel recognising the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the Palestinian people’s official representative.

However, while the PLO resorted to a pragmatic approach to the situation, other organisations did not. This was the founding of Hamas: a militant, nationalist movement aiming to establish an Islamic Palestinian state. Hamas had opposed the Oslo Accords and the PLO’s point of view to the crisis.

The Second Intifada, the Rise of Hamas

September 28, 2000: The second intifada, sometimes referred to as the Al-Aqsa intifada, begins.

Both countries end up violating some agreements of the Oslo Accords, rising tensions between the two sides again. The tipping point would be when Likud’s prime ministerial candidate, Ariel Sharon, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Temple Mount housed the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is considered to be Islam’s third holiest site. The visit was seen as an act to assert his sovereignty, and an uproar quickly ensued as Israeli police and Palestinian protestors clashed once again.

Though the violence subdued in 2005, the initial conditions still hadn’t changed. Israel continued to violate the Accords and resumed settlement activity in the West Bank. They also started imposing strict inspections on Palestinian goods and people which prevented economic growth. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority lost its influence after allegations of widespread corruption, driving many Palestinians to gravitate towards Hamas. The militant organisation later won the 2006 elections and took power in Gaza in 2007.

The two uprisings resulted in some 5,000 Palestinian and 1,400 Israeli casualties.

December 27, 2008: Israel launches a major military campaign—”Operation Cast Lead”—against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was in response to rocket fire by Palestinian militants after the termination of a six-month ceasefire. Otherwise known as the Gaza War.

Despite international pressure from the UN Security Council, fighting continued until early next year. The fatalities, with approximately 1,440 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, exposes another troubling mark of discrepancy.

Israel & Palestine: A Display of Power Dynamics

A Palestinian flag paraded in a crowd of protestors and activists in front of Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah's worn-out houses.
Image source: AFP Photo

The Oppressor and the Oppressed

Since then, violence and strife continues to wage between Israel and Palestine, a back-and-forth retaliation between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police; militants and governments; rocket fires and clashes scattered around the cities. Casualties on both sides—ordinary civilians and law enforcement officers alike. However, throughout the decades of armed conflict, one might question why there exists such a wide disparity in these casualties.

One might answer that it is not by coincidence.

As one looks back in retrospective, history has spoken for itself. Israel and Palestine are not just designated as two countries fighting on opposing sides. More significantly, they present a display of power dynamics: the oppressor and the oppressed. The superior and the inferior. For years, Palestinians have endured violent displacement, military occupation and gradual ethnic cleansing in the hands of Israelis. It is what we can recognise as settler colonialism, notably exemplified by the current crisis unfolding in Sheikh Jarrah. Lands and ancestral homes have been stolen, villages have been destroyed, a country’s people have been forced to flee and systematically become refugees. Nakba is a legacy that continues to plague the Palestinian people, driven by a campaign from Israel to permanently drive Palestinians out of East Jerusalem once and for all.

Israel has a stronghold in its political power, military superiority and technological advances and armament. It has obtained vast land acquisitions and years of support from powerful, foreign nations (i.e. the US). The Palestinians have their hands tied. State-backed violence versus the powerless will never be an equal standing, especially since the fatalities over the decades comprised mostly of Palestinian civilians.

Sheikh Jarrah: the Third Intifada?

Sheikh Jarrah might very well be the spark of the third intifada. But perhaps unlike its predecessors—the first and second intifadas (1987 and 2000, respectively)— different circumstances surround this emergent uprising. The power of the internet, especially social media, allures a massive, global audience to absorb world news in a fast and widely circulating pace. Politicians, celebrities, activists and ordinary civilians are channeling their own voices and opinions. They are starting a dialogue that puts a spotlight in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—mostly on the oppression of the Palestinians—like never before. This global pressure, along with the sheer willpower of the Palestine people, might finally ignite the flames that would finally be enough to burn out the injustice, abuse and violence suffered by the Palestinians at the hands of Israeli’s government.

Because a state is violating human rights. A state is committing a genocide and an ethnic cleansing. And the whole world is watching now.

The past sometimes doesn’t stay in the past. The past continues. Palestinian history in the post-1948 era presents itself like a record disk stuck on replay. It constantly finding itself in the same situation, never able to get past that barrier, and always ending up with the same outcome. One only wishes to break that cycle, to let the disk finally play as it should, and see a future forward, one where Palestine is self-determined, self-governed and free from Israeli rule.

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