Well, here we go again. French officials announced last week that want to restart the arduous process of negotiating a final resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The quintessential Middle East problem, this conflict has literally divided the region for nearly a century. Over that years we have been through several rounds of negotiations, UN resolutions, Palestinian UN membership challenges, and possible action involving the International Criminal Court, but the issue remains as intractable as ever. The only difference this time around is that France is looking to have the international community lead these talks (as opposed to peace talks dominated by the United States). As can be expected, very few people are optimistic about a resolution this time (the Israeli and Palestinian leaders especially).
This crisis has been filled with so many lies, contradictions, and blanket assumptions about entire groups of people that you would think it was a Donald Trump rally. Unfortunately, this means that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around. Probably the biggest of all is that this conflict is just about religion or petty feuds. As such, the most common question people often ask is: "Why can't these two groups just kiss and make up?" The reasons are numerous (and highly debated), but this week we will examine the top five reasons Israeli-Palestinian peace is so elusive.
If you ask any Palestinian, they will probably tell you that the building of Israeli settlements within the West Bank is one of the single biggest obstacles to peace. Settlement building is a policy which has been used for decades to slowly push Palestinian residents into smaller and more contained areas. This is done by seizing land from Palestinian families (which is easy since they usually don't have a formal land deed, a requirement imposed on them by Israel and now nearly impossible to obtain). They are then evicted, their houses and crops demolished, and shiny new facilities are built for Israeli citizens to occupy. Israel allows and authorizes this because it allows them to slowly annex new land, plus it also serves as a great way to derail negotiations.
Though Israel could certainly halt the development of new settlements, removing the existing ones in the West Bank would be nearly impossible. To date, there are nearly 400 thousand Israeli settlers within the Palestinian borders of the 1967 war. Most people point to the Gaza Strip as evidence that settlement withdrawal is possible (Israel abandoned all of Gaza's settlements in 2005), but there were only eight thousand occupants then. The sheer number of people (and proximity to Jerusalem) mean that full withdrawal just isn't realistic. Instead, the more likely solution would be a deal involving land swapping or redrawing the 1967 borders to adjust to this new reality.
2) Israeli Security
At the top of Israel's political wish list is, unsurprisingly, security guarantees. Israel has the dual problem of worrying about both external military forces (though further armed conflict with an opposing military is unlikely) and an internal insurgency. Most of Israel's neighbors have either made peace or show no intention of starting another war. But internally, the Palestinian territories pose a major security risk for Israel. Suicide bombs haven't been used for several years now, but stabbings and other violence flare up regularly as Palestinians become increasingly desperate for some sort of resolution.
The major problem here is that Israel often treats the West Bank and Gaza more like traditional military threats than insurgencies or separatist movements. In a typical insurgency, the counter-insurgent force would want to win the support of the population (or at least their cooperation) to defeat an insurgent force. Israel has instead opted for the direct military solution, causing large numbers of civilian casualties in the process. This only further encourages the Palestinians to seek more and more violent and radical groups. This doesn't at all excuse the violence used by some Palestinian groups, but it's especially hard to get all Palestinians on board with a policy of nonviolence when there are so many factions (see point 4). Until Israel either changes its strategy or the Palestinians fully commit to nonviolence, Israel's security concerns will remain unresolved.
3) Blockades & Barriers
Creating peace is hard enough when two communities live together in the same area, but it's even more difficult when physical barriers separate them. Since 2002, Israel has begun a massive construction project to build a separation wall between Israeli and Palestinian regions. While this wall has greatly improved Israel's security situation, it has also divided or surrounded large sections of Palestinian territory. This, in addition to very harsh economic restrictions, the complete blockade of Gaza by land and sea, and an Israeli monopoly of critical natural resources make it nearly impossible for Palestine to build itself into a viable state. To make matters worse, Gaza's blockade prevents nearly all materials short of humanitarian aid from entering the territory. To be fair, things like aluminum tubes or fertilizer can be used as weapons. But these import bans also include basic building materials like cement, making rebuilding after battles nearly impossible. Much of Gaza is still in ruins after the latest round of fighting in 2014.
All this means that Palestine is finding it very difficult to become a viable nation. Final status agreements on the conflict would likely lift some of these economic/ import restrictions, but the wall probably isn't going anywhere (and will likely be the de-facto border anyway). Perhaps one day we could hope for a Berlin Wall type moment of peace and reconciliation, but that's probably a long, long way away. Until then, Israel is the only one that can lift these restrictions or remove the wall.
4) Palestine is politically divided
All of this would be hard enough to solve between two clearly defined groups. But even Palestine itself is divided on its current leadership. Fatah (the main party of the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas (a more militant offshoot) split nearly 10 years ago after a fierce election. Fatah now controls the West Bank while Hamas controls Gaza. Fatah formally renounced violence several years ago (but might still covertly support knife attacks), but Hamas is very open about launching rockets and wanting to attack Israel. The two groups are very far from working together towards peace and don't appear to be heading towards reconciliation anytime soon. To make matters worse, Israel refuses to even negotiate with Hamas, making realistic deals/implementation nearly impossible (since Hamas isn't likely to cooperate on something it didn't negotiate in the first place).
In the past, there have been a couple very short-lived attempts at unity coalitions between the two groups. But nothing has lasted long. Hamas' support in Gaza hasn't always been great (they worry a lot more about launching rockets than providing what few services they can with limited resources). But Hamas is also by far the most violent, and its support tends to increase with each new outbreak of violence. Fatah continues to maintain support in the West Bank, so they probably aren't going away either. This divide will have to be crossed before any real peace attempt can be made.
One of the world's most revered cities is also the source of some serious disagreements. Jerusalem is itself divided between predominantly Israeli and Palestinian communities (the aforementioned wall doing much of this work). The question of ownership over Jerusalem is extremely intractable since Israel believes it should have the whole city, and Palestine believes it should maintain the section of East Jerusalem it still has. Neither side is prepared to make any concessions to the other since Jerusalem and its holy sites are so highly venerated by both. So it's easy to see how this becomes nearly impossible to fix.
Unless one side or the other concedes, the closest thing to a real solution would be the most simple one: a solution where nobody gets Jerusalem. Or at least, nobody gets to claim full ownership of the city. Instead, as U.N. Resolution 194 states, it could become internationally administered with Israel having general jurisdiction over West Jerusalem and Palestine having nominal authority over the east. Then again, Israelis still somewhat support the idea of a two-state solution and a divided Jerusalem. Ironically, the building of the separation wall may actually be a sign that Israel is slowly accepting that it may never be able to fully incorporate all of Jerusalem into the country.
But maybe, just maybe it's possible this time. With the international community taking a larger role, it puts more pressure on Israel to get serious about a peace deal (previously America led the talks and wouldn't push Israel too hard). Even if it does succeed, all sides need to actually follow through on the agreement (something that didn't happen in the Camp David Accords). But if history is any indication, the Palestinian-Israeli crisis will continue to degrade the lives of people on both sides of the wall. With each passing year, the Palestinians lose more and more territory and the prospects of a viable state become even more dim. Until these critical issues are resolved, the peace process will continue to go nowhere.