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The Israel-Palestine conflict: a 10-minute history

When you talk to people about the Israel-Palestine conflict, the myth that you're likeliest to hear — even more than the myth that they've been fighting for centuries, or that it's all about religion — is that the conflict is too complex to possibly understand, a mess so far beyond human comprehension that we shouldn't even try.

In fact, a little over a century ago, the place we today call Israel-Palestine was pretty peaceful. And if you look at the history of what's happened since, how these past few decades have unfolded, the conflict starts to make a lot more sense:

You'll see here that there are two mostly distinct chapters to this conflict: first, the Israel-Arab conflict, and second, the smaller but much tougher Israel-Palestine conflict.

That first chapter begins not with religion but with two secular nationalist causes that collided: Arab independence movements following the end of colonialism, and Zionism, in which long-persecuted Jews sought a nation of their own in their historic homeland.

This collision, at its most basic level, was about two groups of people who saw the same piece of land as rightfully theirs. The world tried to solve this problem in 1947 with a United Nations plan to divide British-ruled Palestine into two distinct countries. But in 1948 that plan turned into a war between the newly declared state of Israel and its Arab neighbors, who saw the plan as colonial theft. For decades, that war persisted as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1967, Israel fought the second of what would be three major Arab-Israeli wars and, in the process, occupied the two Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Over the next 20 or so years, the Arab-Israeli conflict wound down as the Middle East grudgingly accepted Israel would survive. But as this happened, the conflict was gradually replaced by the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This would become the second chapter: the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. For Israelis, this is a continuation of the same struggle their nation has always known: to find security in a hostile world. For Palestinians, it's about achieving freedom from the foreign military occupation that smothers their communities and daily lives.

The solution might seem obvious: two independent states. But to understand why the Israel-Palestine conflict is so hard to end, it's crucial to see how, over the past 30 years especially, it has played out. Enmity, distrust, and violence have made it hard for the two sides to come together.

When the two sides took what looked like a big step toward peace in the 1990s with something called the Oslo Accords, it ended up failing — and then, ironically, perpetuating the conflict. It made the status quo much more tolerable for Israelis, thus leaving them less inclined to make sacrifices for a long-term peace deal. And it put the Palestinian leadership in the awkward position of helping to uphold Israel's occupation.

That bargain, which at the time looked like a first step toward peace, has left the conflict where it is today: at a permanent low boil that sometimes spills over into outright violence, a conflict that Israel thinks it can sustain day to day, but that nobody thinks can really last.

The big question, then, is what the third chapter of this conflict will be — because everyone agrees that the second chapter will inevitably end, and perhaps soon, whether we're ready or not.

Will it be a peace deal in which the two sides finally each get a secure and independent state? Will the Palestinian leadership collapse, inviting a new kind of chaos? No one can say for sure, but everyone is worried, and it's not hard to see why.


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