After World War I, the League of Nations (controlled by the leading colonial powers of the time, Britain and France) carved up the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The territory now made up of Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan was granted to Great Britain as a Mandate (a quasi-colonial form of administration). In 1922, Britain established the emirate of Transjordan (east of the Jordan River), still part of its mandate but administratively distinct from Palestine.

When Britain assumed control of Palestine, over 90 percent of its population was Arab. A small indigenous Jewish population had lived there for generations, and a newer, politicized community linked to the Zionist movement had begun to immigrate to Palestine in the 1880s.

During World War I, Britain had made promises to Arab leaders for an independent Arab state that would include Palestine (the Husayn-McMahon correspondence), and to the Zionists for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration). These commitments conflicted with each other as well as with Britain’s intent to retain control over Palestine.

European Jewish immigration increased dramatically after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, with consequences for land purchases and settlements. Palestinian resistance to British control and Zionist settlement culminated with the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, which was suppressed by the British army with the help of Zionist militias and the complicity of the Arab regimes.

Following World War II, Britain relinquished its mandate over Palestine and the United Nations decided that the only means of resolving the escalating conflict between Jews and Arabs was to partition the land into two states. British evacuation and the UN partition precipitated the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-1949 and the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948.

As a result of the war, historic Palestine was divided into three parts: The new Jewish state occupied 77 percent of the territory of Palestine; Jordan occupied and annexed the “west bank” of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem; and Egypt took “temporary” control of the area surrounding Gaza City. The Palestinian Arab state provided for in the partition plan was never established.


Zionism is a modern political movement based on the proposition that Jews all over the world constitute one nationality, and that a Jewish state should serve as the expression of Jewish national self-determination. Zionism gained adherents among Jews and support from Western public opinion as a consequence of the murderous anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Nazi Holocaust. Not all Jews are Zionists, although today Zionism in one form or another is embraced by a large majority of Jews. Jewish religious attachment to Jerusalem and parts of Palestine (traditionally referred to as Eretz Israel, or the Land of Israel) prompted the Zionist movement to choose Palestine as the site for their state-building project.

The Land

The ongoing dispute in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs is not a religious conflict. The dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is essentially over land. For the Palestinians, this is their historic homeland, where they have lived for centuries. The Zionists base their claim to Palestine on the Biblical promise to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:8), and on the desperate need for a Jewish homeland as a haven from European anti-Semitism.

Palestine is a small territory — approximately 10,000 square miles, about the size of Maryland. The competing claims are not reconcilable if one or the other party exercises complete sovereignty over the total territory. Partition of the land has therefore been one proposal for resolving the issue. Although few Palestinians accept the justice of the Zionist claim in principle, many now accept the existence of Israel. But they insist that an independent Palestinian state be created alongside. Likewise, many Israelis feel that Israel must relinquish control over the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967 — the West Bank and Gaza.

The June 1967 War

In June 1967 Israel decisively and quickly defeated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies. By the end of the war, Israel had captured the remainder of historic Palestine, as well as the Sinai Peninsula from the Egyptians and the Golan Heights from the Syrians. The newly captured parts of Palestine had come to be referred to as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after 1948, and since 1967 have commonly been referred to as the Occupied Territories.

Politically, the war established Israel as the regional military power. The Arab defeat discredited the Arab regimes, especially radical Arab nationalism represented by Egypt’s President Nasser and the Baath Parties of Syria and Iraq.

On the other hand, the Palestinian national movement, which had been relatively quiescent in the post-1948 period, emerged as a major political factor after 1967 in the form of the political and guerrilla groups that make up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The Occupied Territories

Prior to 1948, neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip had constituted a separate geographical unit. Their distinctness developed as a result of the partition of Palestine that led to the creation of a Jewish state. Since the 1967 war Israel has continued to occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel withdrew from the Sinai during 1979-1982, as required by its peace treaty with Egypt, but annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. In violation of international law, Israel has confiscated over 52 percent of the West Bank and 30 percent of the Gaza Strip for military use or settlement by Jewish civilians.


According to the UN partition plan, Jerusalem and its immediate environs were to become an international zone, independent of both the proposed Jewish state and the Palestinian Arab state.

In the 1948-1949 war, Israel took control of the western part of Jerusalem, while Jordan held the eastern part, including the old walled city containing important Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites. The 1949 armistice line cut the city in two. In June 1967 Israel captured East Jerusalem and immediately annexed it. Israel reaffirmed its annexation of East Jerusalem in 1981.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital and rejects any negotiations over its political future. Arabs consider East Jerusalem part of Palestinian occupied territory and regard its future as an essential component of any negotiated settlement.


The term today refers to the Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, who have lived in Palestine for centuries. The creation of Israel entailed the destruction of Palestinian Arab society, dispersing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to lives of exile. Today about 40 percent of all Palestinians, around 2 million, remain within historic Palestine under Israeli control: approximately 645,000 in Israel, 938,000 in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and 525,000 in the Gaza Strip.

The largest Palestinian diaspora community, approximately 1.3 million, is in Jordan. Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait also have large Palestinian populations. Jordan is the only Arab state to have granted the Palestinians citizenship. Palestinians living in the Arab states generally do not have political parity with the citizens of those states or enjoy national recognition.

Many thousands still live in refugee camps and slums, under Israeli, Jordanian or Syrian control, or in Lebanon; others have become economically successful. Palestinians now have the highest per capita rate of university graduates in the Arab world. Their diaspora experience has contributed to a high level of politicization among Palestinians, from the camps to the universities. Despite this high level of politicization, Israel refuses to undertake negotiations with legitimate Palestinian representatives, insisting instead on negotiating with Jordan and other Arab states.

Palestine Liberation Organization

The PLO was established in 1964 by the Arab League in an effort to control Palestinians and their political ambitions. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war enabled the Palestinians to take over the PLO and gain some independence from the Arab regimes.

The PLO is an umbrella organization that includes different political and guerrilla organizations with varying ideological orientations. Yasser Arafat heads Fatah, the largest group, and has been PLO chairman since 1968. The other major PLO groups are the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and, in the occupied territories, the Palestine Communist Party (PCP). Despite continuing rifts between the groups, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians regard the PLO as their sole legitimate representative.

Resolution 242

After the conclusion of the 1967 war, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from the territories seized in the war and the right of all states in the area to peaceful existence within secure and recognized boundaries. (There is a difference in the grammatical construction of the French and English texts of Resolution 242, both of which are official according to the United Nations. The French version calls on Israel to withdraw “from the territories” occupied in the 1967 war, whereas the English version says “from territories,” which Israel (backed by the US) interprets to mean some but not all territories. Hardline Israelis consider Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai to satisfy the stipulation of withdrawal “from territories.”)

The Palestinian problem with Resolution 242 is that there is no declaration of the Palestinian right to self-determination or of their right to return. The only reference to the Palestinians is the call for “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Because it calls for the recognition of “every state in the area,” this would entail unilateral Palestinian recognition of Israel without a reciprocal recognition of Palestinian national rights.

Today the leadership of the PLO is clearly prepared to recognize Israel’s right to exist. As the political weight of Palestinians on the “inside” has grown, especially since the 1987-1988 uprising, Palestinian unity around this key point has correspondingly increased. But the PLO leadership continues to insist that it will recognize Israel only if Israel recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination, including an independent Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories.

The October 1973 War

After coming to power in late 1970, President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt indicated to the US that he was willing to negotiate with Israel to resolve the conflict in exchange for Egyptian territory lost in 1967. When these overtures were ignored by Washington and Tel Aviv, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack in October 1973 against Israeli forces occupying the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The crisis prompted American political intervention, along with sharply increased military aid to Israel. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy brought about limited disengagement agreements in the Sinai and Golan. But by late 1975 these efforts had exhausted their potential, and no comprehensive settlement was in sight.

Due to stalled efforts to convene a Geneva conference to which all parties to the dispute would be invited, Sadat decided in late 1977 that Egypt should break the status quo by dealing separately with Israel under US auspices. His visit to Jerusalem on November 19, 1977 began what came to be known as the “Camp David process.”

Camp David

In September 1978 President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the Camp David presidential retreat. They worked out two agreements: a framework for peace between Egypt and Israel; and a general framework for resolution of the Middle East crisis, i.e., the Palestinian question.

This latter agreement proposed to grant autonomy to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, to install a local administration for a five-year interim period, and to decide the ultimate status of the territories after that period.

Only the Egyptian-Israeli part of the Camp David agreement was ever implemented. The Palestinians and other Arab states rejected the autonomy concept as contrary to self-determination and Israel immediately sabotaged negotiations by continuing to confiscate Palestinian lands and build new settlements.

As a result of Camp David, Egypt became estranged from the other Arab nations, and only recently has Cairo begun to reintegrate. Egypt’s separate peace enabled Israel to invade Lebanon in 1982 without fear of Egyptian intervention.

The Uprising and Future Prospects

With their 1987-1988 uprising, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have transformed the situation in which political directives come from the Palestinian leadership in exile. A new leadership has emerged, aligned with the PLO but comprising a new generation from inside. The ability of the Palestinians to sustain a state of insurrection has challenged the stalemate of Israeli occupation. Palestinians are determined to continue their efforts until they achieve a political breakthrough.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin, Lisa Hajjar "Palestine for Beginners," Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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