The Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) has published a

special primer on the ongoing Palestinian uprising, to provide historical

context for current events and offer answers for some recurring questions

about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. MERIP encourages distribution of the

primer for educational purposes. A fuller version of the primer, with

graphics and links to other useful information, is posted at the MERIP

website: The primer will be updated periodically to

keep pace with events, and MERIP will continue to cover the uprising through

Press Information Notes. The winter issue of Middle East Report (MER 217)

will focus exclusively on the intifada and its likely regional impact. To

order individual copies or subscribe to Middle East Report, please call

Blackwell Publishers at 1-800-835-6770.


MERIP Primer on the Uprising in Palestine

published October 28, 2000


Not so long ago, US President Bill Clinton hosted Israeli Prime Minister

Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to discuss final

arrangements for peace in Palestine and Israel. In late October 2000, peace

seems very far away. Since September 28, 147 people--all but ten of them

Palestinians--have died, and thousands more Palestinians have been wounded,

as a popular uprising rages against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank

and the Gaza Strip. What is the history of the conflict over Palestine? Why

did Ariel Sharon's visit to a mosque in Jerusalem provoke Palestinian public

opinion? Is Israel right to blame Arafat for the numerous Palestinian deaths

and injuries? Can US mediation help to stop the violence? Does the US media

do a good job educating Americans about what's happening in Israel and



At the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Arab

world, including the lands that now constitute Israel and the Occupied

Territories. With the Allied victory in World War I, the area came under the

control of the British who made contradictory promises to Arab and Zionist

leaders about how--and by whom--the Mandate of Palestine was to be governed.

At the time, 90 percent of the population was Arab; the Jewish community

included long-time residents and new immigrants fleeing persecution in

Russia and, later, other parts of Europe. A three-year uprising in the late

1930s against British rule and increased Jewish immigration resulted in a

British proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. UN

General Assembly Resolution 181 reaffirmed partition in 1947.

The war that followed led to the establishment of the State of Israel;

Israel, Egypt and Jordan each claimed sovereignty over parts of the

territory designated for a Palestinian state, displacing some 750,000

Palestinians. Less than 20 years later, in the June 1967 War, Israel gained

control of the rest of the former Mandate of Palestine (the Gaza Strip and

the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980), the

Egyptian Sinai (since returned to Egypt), and the Syrian Golan Heights. UN

Security Council Resolution 242, never implemented, affirmed "the

inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and called upon

Israel to withdraw "from territories occupied in the recent conflict." The

1970s and 1980s saw Arab-Israeli wars in 1973 and 1982, the 1978 Camp David

Accords between Israel and Egypt, the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada

in December 1987, and Yasser Arafat's condemnation of terrorism and

recognition of the state of Israel in December 1988.

The Madrid peace conference followed the Gulf war in October 1991. A year

later, secret Israeli-Palestinian talks began in Oslo, Norway, culminating

in the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (DoP) on interim Palestinian

self-government, signed by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The DoP set out a process for transforming the nature of the Israeli

occupation but left numerous issues unresolved, including the status of

Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the disposition of

Israeli settlements (whose expansion continues until today) and final

borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Under the DoP, Israel relinquished day-to-day authority over parts of the

Gaza Strip and West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Arafat who

returned to Gaza in 1994. However, ultimate power remained with Israel,

which exercised its control by frequently sealing off the

Palestinian-governed areas from the rest of the Occupied Territories and

from Israel. Subsequent agreements in 1995, 1998 and 1999 failed to resolve

these issues. With Palestinian-Israeli negotiations stalled, US President

Bill Clinton called a summit at Camp David in July 2000. After two weeks of

intensive negotiation, the talks ended without a deal. (For background, see

MERIP Press Information Note 26: "Camp David II:


A retired army general, Ariel Sharon, 72, has been a major figure in Israeli

politics for decades. In 1971, he led a systematic campaign to quell

opposition in Gaza through massive repression, expulsions and arrests. He

was first elected to the Knesset in 1977 and, as defense minister in 1982,

he led the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. An Israeli tribunal found Sharon

indirectly responsible for the massacre (by Lebanese militias under Israeli

control) of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians living in the

Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In the aftermath, he was removed as defense

minister but retained a role in the Cabinet as "minister without portfolio."

In the early 1990s, Sharon served as housing minister and promoted a massive

construction drive to increase Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank

and Gaza Strip. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Sharon

foreign minister. As current head of the Likud party, Sharon has

vociferously criticized Prime Minister Ehud Barak for negotiating with the

Palestinians. He maintains a residence in Jerusalem's Old City (draped in an

Israeli flag) and his provocative visit to al-Haram al-Sharif on Sept. 28,

and the harsh Israeli response to the protests that followed, helped ignite

the current uprising.


Since 1994, portions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been

administered by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA is not a

fully sovereign state like Israel or the United States, but it does provide

municipal services and attempts to maintain order in the areas under its

control. The PA's top ranks, including Arafat, mostly belong to Fatah, the

largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Fatah is

independent of the PA, and Arafat does not control the entire organization.

The current uprising in the Occupied Territories has pushed militant local

leaders of Fatah to the forefront, and Fatah units have coordinated much of

the street fighting.

Above all, the ongoing intifada expresses cumulative popular anger at both

the violence of the Israeli occupation and the compromises Arafat seems

willing to make on basic Palestinian national rights-such as the

establishment of a viable sovereign state, the right of return for

Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and 1967 and Palestinian sovereignty

in East Jerusalem. Fatah has, to a limited extent, been able to channel this

anger in street protests. When Ariel Sharon visited the Haram al-Sharif on

September 28, the ensuing Palestinian protests were spearheaded by Islamists

and students--the sectors of the population that are most militant in their

criticisms of the Oslo process, and among whom Fatah enjoys little

influence. Since the initial protests, Arafat's moves to contain the

violence have been unpopular on the Palestinian street. Huge crowds in the

West Bank and Gaza demonstrated against Arafat's presence at the October 17

Sharm al-Sheikh summit, and the failure of Arab leaders to agree on concrete

action against the Israeli occupation at the October 21-22 Cairo summit.

(For background, see MERIP Press Information Note 34: After the Sharm

al-Sheikh Summit: An Armed and Temporary Truce:

The PA security forces whom Arafat does control directly have only rarely

intervened in armed clashes. Arafat does not control the armed Fatah cadres,

nor the stone-throwing students and youths who constitute a disproportionate

number of the dead and wounded. He could crack down on the uprising, but to

do so would strengthen the voices that describe the PA as a proxy police

force for the Israeli occupation, and endanger his status as leader of the

Palestinian cause.


Since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem,

there has been a nearly unanimous international consensus on how to resolve

the crisis: an international conference based on international law and

United Nations resolutions. But Israel disagreed, and the US backed Israel's


After the Cold War, the US has often relied on the UN to negotiate

agreements and provide peacekeepers to end regional wars and crises: in

Cambodia, Angola and Guatemala and more recently in East Timor, Sierra Leone

and elsewhere.

But the US, while mentioning one or two UN resolutions in passing, kept

Israel-Palestine diplomacy under its own control. Washington--Israel's major

financial, diplomatic and military backer--claimed the role of the "honest

broker." The actual requirements of international law (like Israel's

obligations as an occupying power to protect civilians and to prohibit

settling Israeli citizens in occupied territory) and existing UN resolutions

(such as 194, ensuring the right of Palestinian refugees to return and

receive compensation) were sidelined in favor of US-brokered talks between

Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East and the 17th

wealthiest country in the world, and the stateless Palestinians living under

occupation or in exile.

In the 1991 Madrid talks, the US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding stated

explicitly that the UN would have no role. In the 1993 Oslo process, the UN

was ignored. In 1999 when over 100 signatories of the Geneva Conventions met

to assess Israeli compliance with the Conventions, the meeting lasted only

ten minutes in order to "avert friction" with Israel. The failed 2000 Camp

David summit ignored the UN altogether.

In October 2000, as Palestinians continued to die, Tel Aviv insisted that

any UN fact-finding commission would be nothing but a "kangaroo court," and

that it would accept only separate Israeli and Palestinian investigations

under overall US authority. When 14 out of 15 members of the UN Security

Council voted to condemn Israel's excessive force against civilians, it was

the US alone that abstained. US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke threatened to

veto any further resolution, stating that the virtually unanimous current

resolution had taken the UN "out of the running" to play a role in


The September-October 2000 occupation crisis ushered in an unprecedented,

albeit significantly limited, role for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

A special session of the UN's High Commission for Human Rights passed a

strong resolution condemning the "grave and massive violations of the human

rights of the Palestinian people by Israel," and establishing a "human

rights inquiry commission." An enormous US lobbying campaign resulted in

Washington's Western allies opposing the vote, and many non-aligned

countries abstaining. When the General Assembly convened, US diplomats again

went into high gear to dampen the language of the resolution. Only six

countries--the US, Israel and four Polynesian island states--voted no,

though nearly a third of the General Assembly abstained.

On October 25, the US House of Representatives voted 365-30 to call on

Arafat to stop the violence. Congressional leaders said the House felt

compelled to pass the resolution to counter the UN resolutions that are

"biased against Israel." The same day, the House passed a new foreign aid

bill. Israel will receive $2.82 billion in the next fiscal year--18.9

percent of the total and the largest aid amount of any country.

After almost a month of clashes, over 140 Palestinians and ten Israelis

dead, and a military occupation and siege tighter than ever, the best hope

for peace is a return to UN resolutions, international law and direct UN

involvement in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Providing international

protection to Palestinians and putting Secretary-General Kofi Annan in

charge of negotiations instead of President Bill Clinton would certainly

raise at least a glimmer of such hope.



1. Why didn't Ehud Barak prevent Ariel Sharon from visiting the Haram


2. Why do news accounts refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel as "Israeli

Arabs," when they call themselves Palestinians?

3. What were the Israeli soldiers who were "lynched" on October 12 doing in

Palestinian-controlled Ramallah?

4. Do peoples under military occupation have a right to resist the


5. Why should the US have a "special relationship" with Israel?


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