The Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Three lessons on recent events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Assign Student Reading l.

Student Reading l:

Continuing Conflict in the Middle East

Directions: Read the following summary of the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Take notes on and be prepared to discuss the questions following the reading. Then write down two of the best questions you can think of which, if answered well, would help you to better understand the conflict.

In the summer of 2000 President Bill Clinton brought the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority president Yasir Arafat together at Camp David for a strenuous effort to find a solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The negotiations failed.

Many Israelis believe their offer of most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip for a Palestinian state that they would recognize was very generous. Many Palestinians believe this offer was less generous than it appeared and was also unacceptable because it provided nothing for 4 million Palestinian refugees. Almost two years later the merits of the Israeli proposal are still argued. The impasse left the Palestinians without a state and still largely under the control of Israel and Israel still subject to Palestinian attacks. The major issues dividing the two sides continue to be:

1. Israeli settlements in what Palestinians regard as their territory. The number of Israeli settlers in this territory has doubled from 100,000 to 200,000 since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1992 despite Israel's pledge not to "change the status" of the occupied territories pending final negotiations.

2. The status of Jerusalem, which Palestinians demand for their capital; Jerusalem is now the capital of Israel.

3. The right of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their land in 1948 to return to it with their descendants.

4. Israel's recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem

5. Israel's security from attacks and Palestinian recognition of its right to exist as a state.

In September 2000 Palestinian discontent erupted in a new intifada ("shaking off") with attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel responded with reprisals by soldiers, tanks and planes. Soon the conflict included suicide bombings that grew in frequency and killed many dozens of Israelis in major cities like Jerusalem. Israeli forces then attacked West Bank towns, causing widespread deaths and much suffering. Here is a sample of the cycle of violence during the first week of March 2002:

March 2: Palestinian suicide bomber blows himself up in a Jerusalem neighborhood, killing 10 and injuring dozens more.

March 3: Palestinian sniper shoots and kills 10 Israelis at a West Bank checkpoint.

March 4: Israeli tank shell explodes in a Ramallah truck, killing a Palestinian woman and her three children.

March 5: Palestinian suicide bomber explodes himself and kills one and wounds five Israelis on a bus in Afula.

March 6: Israeli forces raid several areas in Gaza Strip, causing many casualties.

March 7: Palestinian gunman kills five Israelis in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

March 8: Israeli soldiers kill at least 40 Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza Strip attacks.

Following a suicide bombing at a Netanya Passover Seder on March 27 that killed 26 and wounded many more, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered an invasion of the West Bank that sent troops into most Palestinian towns with the stated goal of capturing or killing militants responsible for the suicide bombings and other attacks. Abu Shanab, a leader of Hamas, one of the organizations responsible for suicide bombings, said after the Netanya attack, "That was a great success. We don't have an army, but we showed that one person can do more than an army....That showed if we suffer, our enemy suffers more." ( New York Times, 4/4/02) Hamas is the most prominent of several Palestinian groups that believe suicide bombings are their most effective weapon in the campaign to eliminate Israel as a state.

The results of the invasion from the Israeli point of view were successful, from the Palestinian devastating. Deaths among Palestinians were widespread. Medical care of the wounded was often unavailable, food in short supply, conditions desperate. Medical care was often prevented by troops and food was in short supply because of roadblocks and curfews. The New York Times reported "piles of concrete and twisted metal in the ancient casbah of Nablus, husks of savaged computers littering ministries in Ramallah, rows of storefronts sheared by passing tanks in Tulkarm, broken pipes gushing precious water, flattened cars in fields of shattered glass and garbage, electricity poles snapped like twigs, tilting walls where homes used to is safe to say that the infrastructure of life itself and of any future Palestinian state—roads, schools, electricity pylons, water pipes, telephone lines—has been devastated. ( New York Times, 4/11/02) The Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was confined to a few rooms in his Ramallah compound, often without water or electricity.

After a visit to the West Bank March 13-21, a delegation from the human rights organization Amnesty International charged that some of the Israeli force's actions "had no clear or obvious military necessity; many of these, such as unlawful killings, destruction of property and arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment, violated international human rights and humanitarian law."

In Israel, meanwhile, daily insecurity was the product of repeated suicide bombings. Its businesses, especially its tourist business, have suffered great losses. Israelis were fearful of going to public places—restaurants, malls, supermarkets—and were wary about buses and people with backpacks. Security guards were everywhere.

From September 2000 to April 2002 more than 1600 Palestinians and more than 400 Israelis were killed. Many thousands of lives on both sides were shattered.

Meanwhile, across the Arab and Muslim world and especially in the Middle East—in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Tunisia, Yemen—angry and sometimes violent demonstrators protested the Israeli invasion, U.S. support for Israel and the inactivity of their own governments. In Amman, Jordan on April 5, Abdel Qader Abel Khazem, a preacher, addressed a large group in a mosque: "Oh Arab leaders, your people are boiling like water in a pot. You have to take them on your side against your enemy before they turn against you."

In Europe, the Israeli invasion of the West Bank generated many pro-Palestinian demonstrations as well as some anti-Semitic acts, such as arson at synagogues.

Under pressure from their citizens, the leaders of Arab countries said they regard U.S. influence on Israel as essential to bring about its withdrawal from the West Bank and its agreement to a plan for a state acceptable to Palestinians. Without this leadership their support for the U.S. "war on terrorism" will probably weaken and any support for a U.S. campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein become most unlikely.

Still another threatening situation was rocket and mortar attacks on targets in Northern Israel by a militant Lebanese group, Hezbollah, which receives much of its support from Syria and Iran. Continuation of these attacks could mean Israeli retaliation and a general Middle East war.

Since President Bush took office in 2001 his position on the Middle East for many months was that there was little the U.S. could do. The Palestinian violence had to stop first. U.S. officials repeatedly condemned Yasir Arafat for not halting it and seemed to accept without much comment Israeli reprisals. However, soon after the Israeli invasion of the West Bank, President Bush publicly urged Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw his troops "without delay" and sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to work towards a solution of the conflict. But Sharon refused any withdrawal before the army had uprooted what he called "the infrastructure of terror."

After the Powell visit to several Arab countries and Israel and after his talks with Sharon and Arafat, Israel began to withdraw from some Palestinian towns, having accomplished what it set out to do. Many Palestinian militants were dead or imprisoned, equipment and offices of the Palestinian Authority were destroyed. Arafat remained a virtual prisoner. The conflict continued with no resolution in sight.

Later, after additional suicide bombings, Israeli troops moved back into most of the Palestinian cities in an effort to capture or kill Palestinian militants and to destroy bomb-making facilities. Many Palestinian civilians continue to be killed in these incursions. Israel also began building fences and ditches around Palestinian cities and fences along part of the West Bank boundary.

Some 700,000 Palestinians in seven West Bank cities were being kept under curfew, prevented from leaving their homes and allowed out only briefly every few days to get food or other necessities. A million others in surrounding villages were unable to go to doctors, schools, or work because of the city curfews and fences.

A majority of Israelis seemed to support these security measures. Among the minority who do not, one wrote: "Israel must not be tempted by the fiction of security behind a wall. Instead, it must invest its energies in negotiations. If Mr. Arafat is unacceptable to Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bush, let those leaders explain to us how they can create a better situation. Until they can do so, they bear the responsibility—no less weighty than Mr. Arafat's responsibility—for the immobility, the insensibility and the despair on both sides."
—David Grossman, an Israeli writer, New York Times, 7/12/02


1. Why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue?

2. Why do you think Palestinians have used suicide bombers against the Israelis? What have been their effects?

3. Why did Israel invade Palestinian towns? With what results?

4. What might the consequences be for the U.S. if people in Middle East countries turn against their governments?

5. Why are many Arabs in the Middle East hostile to the U.S.?

6. Why and how does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affect other Middle East countries? the U.S.?

The teacher might consider two possible approaches.

Approach l calls for a detailed class inquiry.
1. Ask the class to write down questions they have about what they have read. Divide the class into groups of 4-6 students to read the questions to each other and then to select what they regard as the two best. "Best" in this context means questions which, if answered well, would lead to better student understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

2. Write these questions on the chalkboard and then follow the procedure outlined in "The Doubting Game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website.
3. Assignment: Student Reading 2

Approach 2 calls for class discussion

1. Divide the class into groups of 4-6 students, and ask each group to discuss one of the questions following Student Reading 1 (as assigned by the teacher). Groups should name reporters to summarize their discussions.

2. Reports from each group and discussion.

3. Consider student questions.

4. Assignment: Student Reading 2


Student Reading 2:

President Bush's Views and Reactions to Them

In a shift of U.S. policy President Bush announced on June 24, 2002, that the Palestinian people must replace their leader, Yasir Arafat, and make significant reforms before the U.S. will support an independent Palestinian state. In effect agreeing with Israeli policy on Arafat, the President seems to have been influenced in particular by intelligence reports showing that Chairman Arafat had approved a $20,000 payment to the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group that has claimed responsibility for some of the suicide bombings. President Bush's speech included the following:

"My vision is two states living side by side in peace and security. There is simply no way to achieve that peace until all parties fight terror....Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty....And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state....

"Today Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing terrorism. This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure....As we make progress toward security, Israel forces need to withdraw fully to positions they held prior to Sept. 28, 2000....(and) Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop.

Reactions to President Bush's Views

"The Israelis and Palestinians need a road map in which a concession by one will be followed by concession by the other. On this point yesterday's speech left much to be desired. Mr. Bush does not seem to expect much of anything immediately from the Israelis, and he appeared to rule out much improvement in the lives of Palestinians until Yasir Arafat is ousted."
New York Times editorial, 6/25/02

"The vision Mr. Bush outlines in his forceful, but is far more an exhortation for reform than a plan....What happens, for example, if Yasir re-elected in free and fair elections early next year? How will President Bush go about making his vision of transformation a reality....The words are right, but I do not see the mechanism for connecting diplomacy to the realities on the ground."
—Dennis Ross, envoy to the Middle East in the Clinton Administration, New York Times, 6/26/02

"Tonight, the president announced the official political death of Yasir Arafat. I thought all the way through the speech, this is the carrot, now comes the stick. There was no stick—because we didn't deserve one."
—senior Israeli official, New York Times, 6/25/02

"President Bush' of an open democratic society with clean elections, a parliament that is more than a rubber stamp and 'a vibrant economy where honest enterprise is encouraged by honest government' does not exist in the Arab world, where pro-democracy advocates risk arrest and the kings, sheiks and presidents vacate power only in the event of death or coup. Given the state of the neighborhood, many Palestinians are understandably skeptical, to say the least, about the possibility of creating the full-blown democracy that Mr. Bush demanded as the price of American support for a Palestinian state."
New York Times, 6/30/02

"The Kingdom rejects any intervention by any side in Arab internal affairs, and on top of it the affairs of the Palestinian people, who alone have the right to choose their leadership."
—Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, New York Times, 7/2/02

"A number of people want to see the details; how do we get there? These are difficult issues, and I think it's a little unreasonable to expect us or anyone right now to have a precise road map as to how you get there."—Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, New York Times, 6/26/02



Divide the class into groups of four for a microlab, a structured experience in which students can deepen their understanding of an issue through speaking and listening. It isn't really a time for discussion or dialogue; instead, it's a time for each person to share her or his thoughts and feelings in response to each question When a person is speaking, the rest of the people in the group should listen only, without interrupting.

Some guidelines: It's okay for a person to pass if she or he needs more time to think or would rather not respond. This is a timed activity, and I will let you know when each person's time is up. You will have about 45 seconds. Then I will say, "Time. It's time for the next person to speak."

Ask for a volunteer from each group who is willing to speak first. Then read from the first set of points of view below. Tell the volunteers that it's time from them to speak. When 45 seconds is up, say that it's time for the next person to speak. Continue until each student in each group has had a chance to respond. Then go on to the second set of points of view.

Points of View: Which do you agree with and why?

1. President Bush was right to call upon the Palestinians to replace Yasir Arafat as their leader and elect a new one.
Crown Prince Abdullah was right when he said that only the Palestinians have the right to decide upon their leaders.

2. President Bush was right to call upon the Palestinians "to build a practicing democracy " if they want U.S. support.

Susan Sachs was right to say that such a democracy does not exist in the Arab world and therefore that the president's demand is unreasonable.

3. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell are right to think it not possible right now to provide specific details to achieve the president's vision.

Dennis Ross is right when he says that the peace effort needs specific details.

4. President Bush is right not to expect Israeli forces to withdraw from Palestinian territories until "progress toward security is made."

The New York Times editorial is right when it offers the view that a "road map in which a concession by one will be followed by a concession by the other" is necessary.


Ask students to share some of their responses with the whole group and lead a discussion on each of the issues. When the discussion is completed, ask students how the process worked for them. What did they notice about themselves when they were listening? How did it feel to be listened to in this way? Do they think the micro lab is a process worth repeating on other issues?
Assignment: Student Reading 3 .


Student Reading 3:

Competing Points of View on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Directions: Read the following, then take notes on and be prepared to discuss the questions following the reading. Write down any additional questions you would like to have answered.

1. A Story of Two Women

Ayat al-Akhras, an 18-year-old Palestinian, was the daughter of refugee parents, the seventh of eleven children. She lived all her life in Dheisheh, a refugee camp with 12,000 Palestinians in Bethlehem. As she grew up she became passionately concerned with politics. Her brother Samir was jailed twice for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. In March 2002 another brother was wounded by Israeli soldiers and that same month when Israeli soldiers invaded the refugee camp she saw Samir carrying a man who had been shot through his window and killed as he had been playing with his daughter.

An excellent student and a high school senior, Ms. Akhras was studying for graduation exams and planned to enter Bethlehem University and specialize in journalism because she wanted "to communicate to the world about the Palestinian cause," says her mother. Each afternoon after school she studied, cooked, did the laundry and other household tasks. She was engaged to be married in August 2002. After school on March 29, 2002, her friends said, Ms. Akhras talked about an errand she had in Jerusalem.

Rachel Levy, a 17-year-old Israeli, was one of three children and had spent almost all of the first nine years of her life in California. After her family returned to Israel, where she had been born, her parents divorced, her older brother moved out, and she lived with her mother and younger brother in Jerusalem. She too was a high school senior preparing for final exams. Her major interest in school was photography. An exhibit of her photos of water scenes in Jerusalem was praised highly by teachers, parents and students.

Ms. Levy worried about her weight and was a strong believer in physical fitness, working out regularly to a Jane Fonda exercise video. On March 29, 2002 her mother sent her out with a shopping list to buy some items for supper, including rice crackers, which Ms. Levy preferred to high-calorie matzos.

The two young women, who had never met, arrived at the entrance to the supermarket next to each other just before 2 p.m. A security guard stopped Ms. Akhras for a security check. As he did, she set off a bomb that blew her apart, killed Ms. Levy and the guard and wounded at least 30 others.

Ms. Akhras left behind a videotape in which she announced that she was "a living martyr," a member of the Aksa Martyr Brigades, and willing to die for Palestine. Relatives said that they had known nothing about what she had decided to do.

(This story is based on articles in The New York Times of 3/30/02 and 4/5/02 and in Newsweek of 4/15/02.)

2. Excerpts from a speech by President Bush, 4/4/02

"When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying, the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people. We mourn the dead and we mourn the damage done to the hope of peace, the hope of Israel's and Israelis' desire for a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors, the hope of the Palestinian people to build their own independent state.

"Terror must be stopped. No nation can negotiate with terrorist, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death....

"The chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists. At Oslo and elsewhere, Chairman Arafat renounced terror as an instrument of his cause, and he agreed to control it. He's not done so. The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making. He's missed his opportunities and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he is supposed to lead.

"Given this failure, the Israeli government feels it must strike at terrorist networks that are killing its citizens, yet Israel must understand that its response to these recent attacks is only a temporary measure. All parties have their own responsibilities, and all parties owe it to their own people to act."

Later in this speech, the President said of suicide bombers, "They're not martyrs. They're murderers. And they undermine the cause of the Palestinian people."

3. Excerpts from an article by Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. national security advisor,

"The current crisis poses a grave threat to United States interests. One can argue forever as to whether Yasir Arafat or Ariel Sharon is more responsible for its eruption. What is clear is that the two cannot reach peace together and neither can impose his version of it on the other.

"Ultimately, the 4.8 million Jewish Israelis cannot permanently sustain the subjugation of 4.5 million Palestinians (1.2 million of whom are second-class Israeli citizens), while Israel's own democracy and sense of moral self-respect would be jeopardized by continuing to do so. The Palestinians have neither the power nor the international support to drive the Israelis into the sea, while their terror tactics are morally indefensible.

"The Israeli sense of outrage at the suicide bombings is understandable. Any Israeli government would have had to react in the face of such provocation. But it is important to note that Mr. Sharon's retaliation over the last year has focused largely on undermining the existing Palestinian Authority, much in keeping with his decade-long opposition to the Oslo peace process and his promotion of colonial settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.....

"There is nearly unanimous global consensus that United States policy has become one-sided and morally hypocritical, with clear displays of sympathy for Israeli victims of terrorist violence and relative indifference to the (much more numerous) Palestinian civilian casualties. At risk is America's ability to maintain international support for the war on terrorism, and especially for plans to deal with Saddam Hussein." (The New York Times, 4/7/02)


1. Ms. Akhras regarded herself as a "martyr." What do you suppose she meant by that word and by saying she was willing to die for Palestine?

2. What does the story of the two women tell you about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

3. President Bush calls suicide bombers "murderers," not martyrs. Why do you suppose he disagrees with Ms. Akhras and Hamas leaders?

4. What do you think President Bush means by "the future itself is dying" and that suicide bombings "undermine the cause of the Palestinian people"? Do you agree? If not, why not?

5. What is President Bush's criticism of Arafat? of Sharon? Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. Why do you think Brzezinski regards the Middle East crisis as "a grave threat to United States interests"?

7. What criticisms does he make of Israel? the Palestinians? President Bush? Do you agree? Why or why not?



Discuss the questions from Student Reading 3 with students and any student questions about the reading.

Divide the class into three groups, one to discuss Question 5, a second to discuss Question 6, a third to discuss Question 7. Each group should name a reporter to summarize its discussion for the class.

Have reports from each group, followed by a class-wide discussion.


LESSON FOUR (two periods)

1. Introduce "The Believing Game" as described in "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website.

2. Distribute Student Reading 4 and ask students to read it and (as called for by the Believing Game) work hard to "believe" as much of the argument as they can.

3. Proceed with other elements in "The Believing Game."

4. Introduce and then proceed with "The Doubting Game" as described in the passages following "The Believing Game."

5. Have students consider possible inquiries that result.


Student Reading 4:

Excerpts from an Open Letter

The following excerpt from "an open letter" by Israeli officers and soldiers was published on January 25, 2002 in the Israeli press. There are now about 400 Israeli officers and soldiers who have signed the letter. According to The Nation (4/29/02), "Since the eruption of the second intifada, 85 conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; 35 are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history."
The letter reads, in part:

"We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel... We, combat officers and soldiers, have been on reserve duty all over the occupied territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people. We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this occupation exacts from both sides; We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country;

"We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the loss of the Israel Defense Forces' human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society; We, who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end;

We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements. We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them."


On December 30, 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that reserve soldiers don't have a right to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. The court found a distinction between those conscientious objectors who refuse on moral grounds to perform any military service and those who refuse a specific service. The court declared:" a society as pluralistic as ours, the recognition of selective conscientious objection might loosen the links that hold us together as a people. Yesterday the objection was to the service in southern Lebanon. Today the objection is to the service in Judea and Samaria. Tomorrow the objection will be against the evacuation of various settlements in the area. The people's army might turn into an army of peoples, made up of different units, each having its own spheres in which it can act conscientiously and others in which it cannot."

The ruling means that anyone who refuses to serve in the occupied territories will be subject to a prison term of up to 35 days each time he or she is called up for reserve duty. About 200 reservists have already served terms of 28 to 35 days in the past 18 months. A founder of the reservist objectors said, "The situation is that our small Zionist state is abandoning its moral force when it goes to the occupied territories, and is fighting against itself."


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: