The Israel-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s most controversial and longstanding conflicts. At its heart, it is a fight over the same territory between two self-determination movements: the Zionist project and the Palestinian nationalist project, yet is an immensely complicated war, one that has deepened religious and political divides for decades.
The current conflict began in the early 20th century, when Jews fleeing persecution wanted to establish a national homeland in what was then an Arab – and Muslim – majority territory. The Arabs resisted, seeking the establishment of their own state after years of rule by the Ottoman and later British Empire.
An early UN plan to portion some of the land to each group failed, and several bloody wars were fought over the territory. Today’s boundaries largely indicate the outcomes of two of those wars, one waged in 1948 and the other in 1967.
Here are 15 key moments in this long-running conflict:
1. First Arab-Israeli War (1948-49)
The First Arab Israeli War commenced following the end of the British Mandate for Palestine on 14 May 1948, and the Israeli Declaration of Independence that had occurred that same day.
After 10 months of fighting, armistice agreements left Israel with more territory than was allocated in the 1947 Partition Plan, including West Jerusalem. Jordan took control and subsequently annexed the remainder of the British Mandate territories including much of the West Bank, while Egypt occupied Gaza.
Of a total population of around 1,200,000 people, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs either fled or were driven out of their territories.
2. Six Day War (1967)
In 1950 Egypt blocked the the Straits of Tiran from Israeli shipping, and in 1956 Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula during the Suez Crisis with the objective of reopening them.
Though Israel was forced to retreat, they were assured that the shipping route would remain open and a United Nations Emergency Force were deployed along the border of the two countries. In 1967 however, Egyptian President Nasser once again blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israel and replaced the UNEF troops with his own forces.
In retaliation Israel launched a pre-emptive airstrike attack on Egypt’s air bases, and Syria and Jordan then joined the war.
Lasting 6 days, the war left Israel in control of East Jerusalem, Gaza, Golan Heights, Sinai and all of the West Bank, with Jewish settlements established in these areas to help consolidate control.
3. Munich Olympics (1972)
At the 1972 Munich Olympics, 8 members of the Palestinian terrorist group ‘Black September’ took the Israeli team hostage. 2 athletes were murdered at the site and a further 9 were taken hostage, with the group’s leader Luttif Afif demanding the release of 234 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel and the founders of the Red Army Faction who were being held by the West Germans.
A failed rescue attempt by the German authorities ensued in which all 9 hostages were killed alongside 5 members of Black September, with the Israeli government launching Operation Wrath of God to hunt down and kill anyone involved in the plot.
4. Camp David Accord (1977)
In May, Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party won a surprise election victory in Israel, bringing religious Jewish parties into the mainstream and encouraging settlements and economic liberalisation.
In November, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem and began the process that would lead to Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and Egypt’s recognition of Israel in the Camp David Accords. The Accords also pledged Israel to expand Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank.
5. Invasion of Lebanon (1982)
In June, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership after an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to London.
In September, the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies led to mass protests and calls for the Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon, to be removed from office.
A hung-parliament in July 1984 led to an uneasy coalition between Likud and Labour, and in June 1985 Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon but continued to occupy a narrow ‘security zone’ along the border.
6. First Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993)
In 1987 Palestinians in Israel began to protest their marginalised position and agitated for national independence. With Israel’s settler population in the West Bank almost doubling in the mid-1980s, a growing Palestinian militancy agitated against the de-facto annexation that seemed to be taking place.
Although around 40% of the Palestinian workforce worked in Israel, they were mostly employed in jobs of unskilled or semi-skilled nature.
In 1988 Yasser Arafat formally declared the establishment of a Palestinian state, despite the fact that the PLO had no control over any territory and was held to be a terrorist organisation by Israel.
The First Intifada became a largely spontaneous series of demonstrations, nonviolent actions like mass boycotts and Palestinians refusing to work in Israel, and attacks (such as with rocks, Molotov cocktails and occasionally firearms) on Israelis.
During the six-year Intifada, the Israeli army killed from 1,162-1,204 Palestinians – 241 being children – and arrested more than 120,000. One journalistic calculation reports that in the Gaza Strip alone from 1988 to 1993, some 60,706 Palestinians suffered injuries from shootings, beatings or tear gas.
7. Oslo Declaration (1993)
Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took steps toward peace between their two countries, mediated by Bill Clinton.
They planned Palestinian self-government and formally concluded the First Intifada. Violence from Palestinian groups who reject the Declaration continues to this day.
Between May and July 1994, Israel withdrew from most of Gaza and Jericho, allowing Yasser Arafat to move the PLO administration from Tunis and to establish Palestinian National Authority. Jordan and Israel also signed a peace treaty in October.
The Interim Agreement for the transfer of further autonomy and territory to the Palestinian National Authority in September 1995 paved the way for the 1997 Hebron Protocol, 1998 Wye River Memorandum, and the 2003 ‘Road Map for Peace’.
This was despite Likud’s electoral success in May 1996 which saw Benjamin Netanyahu come to power – Netanyahu did pledge to halt further concessions and settlement expansion resumed however.
8. Pullout from Lebanon (2000)
In May, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. Two months later however, talks between Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat broke down over the timing and extent of proposed further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
In September, Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited the site in Jerusalem known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Arabs as Al-Haram-al-Sharif. This highly-provocative visit sparked new violence, known as the Second Intifada.
9. Second Palestinian Intifada – 2000-2005
A new wave of violent protests erupted between the Palestinians and Israelis following Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount/Al-Haram-al-Sharif – Sharon then went on to become Prime Minister of Israel in January 2001, and refused to continue peace talks.
Between March and May in 2002, the Israeli army launched Operation Defensive Shield on the West Bank after a significant number of Palestinian suicide bombings – the largest military operation on the West Bank since 1967.
In June 2002 the Israelis started to build a barrier around the West Bank; it frequently deviated from the agreed pre-1967 ceasefire line into the West Bank. The 2003 Road Map – as proposed by the EU, the USA, Russia and the UN – attempted to resolve the conflict and both Palestinians and Israelis supported the plan.
10. Withdrawal from Gaza (2005)
In September, Israel withdrew all Jewish settlers and military from Gaza, but maintained control over airspace, coastal waters and border crossings. At the start of 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian elections. Rocket attacks from Gaza escalated, and were met with rising Israeli violence in retaliation.
In June, Hamas took Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, hostage and tensions rose sharply. He was eventually released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 prisoners in a deal brokered by Germany and Egypt.
Between July and August, there was an Israeli incursion into Lebanon, which escalated into the Second Lebanon War. In November 2007, the Annapolis Conference established a ‘two-state solution’ for the first time as a basis for future peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
11. Gaza Invasion (2008)
In December Israel launched a month-long full-scale invasion to prevent Hamas staging further attacks. Between 1,166 and 1,417 Palestinians were killed; the Israeli’s lost 13 men.
12. Netanyahu’s fourth government (2015)
In May, Netanyahu formed a new coalition government with the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party. Another right-wing party, Yisrael Beitenu, joined the following year.
In November, Israel suspended contact with European Union officials who had been in talks with Palestinians over the decision to label goods from Jewish settlements as coming from settlements, not from Israel.
In December 2016 Israel broke ties with 12 countries that voted for a Security Council resolution condemning settlement building. This occurred after the US abstained from its vote for the first time, rather than using its veto.
In June 2017 the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank for 25 years started construction. It followed after a law was passed that retroactively legalised dozens of Jewish settlements that were built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank.
13. US raised the military aid package to Israel (2016)
In September 2016 the US agreed a military aid package worth $38bn over the next 10 years – the largest deal of its kind in US history. The previous pact, which expired in 2018, saw Israel receive $3.1bn each year.
14. US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (2017)
In an unprecedented move, Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital, causing further upset and divides in the Arab world and drawing condemnation from some Western allies. In 2019, he declared himself ‘history’s most pro-Israel U.S. president’.
15. A ceasefire between Israel and Palestine was brokered (2018)
The UN and Egypt attempted to broker a long-term ceasefire between the two states, following a steep rise in bloodshed on the Gaza border. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned in protest at the ceasefire, and withdrew the Yisrael Beteinu party from the coalition government.
For two weeks after the ceasefire a number of protests and minor incidents took place, however their intensity gradually decreased.
16. Renewed violence threatens war (2021)
In Spring 2021, the site of Temple Mount/Al-Haram-al-Sharif again became a political battlefield when a number of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians ensued over Ramadan.
Hamas issued the Israeli police an ultimatum to remove their forces from the site which, when unmet, was followed by rockets fired into southern Israel – over the coming days over 3,000 continued to be sent into the area by Palestinian militants.
In retaliation dozens of Israeli air strikes on Gaza followed, destroying tower blocks and militant tunnel systems, with many civilians and Hamas officials killed. In towns with mixed Jewish and Arab populations mass unrest broke out in the streets causing hundreds of arrests, with Lod near Tel Aviv declaring a state of emergency.
With the easing of tensions unlikely, the UN fears a ‘full scale war’ between the two sides may loom on the horizon as the decades-old crisis continues.