Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States

July 23, 2011

Students examine differing interpretations of the same events; write and interpret history; ask and analyze questions; and consider further inquiry.

For more than a half century the Arab world has been vocal in its opposition to U.S. support for Israel. Its dissatisfaction began with America's backing for the creation of Israel in 1948. Its anger grew with US support for Israel during the wars of 1967 and 1973 and its continuing support in the quarter century since with economic and military aid and in the United Nations.

All the Arab nations, though, have given at least token approval of the US fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But with that approval has come renewed pressure on the US for a more active and more even-handed effort to help settle the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create a viable Palestinian state. Without that effort, Arab support for the continuing war on terrorism may flag or even disappear.

Student understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and impasse and of their country's support for Israel is vital to their understanding of the world we live in. Teachers can consider the lessons that follow a short introductory unit that aims to develop answers to and invite thinking about the following questions:

1. What are the major issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians?
2. Why are they so difficult to resolve?
3. Why is the US a supporter and ally of Israel?

The lessons also aim to have students examine some of the basic problems a reader of history is likely to experience, such as encountering contradictory accounts and differing interpretations of the same events; experience a little of what it means to write and interpret history oneself; learn something of the art of asking and analyzing questions, a necessity for thinking critically; and develop an interest in inquiring further into significant questions they haven't answered.


1. Distribute Student Worksheet l for students to read and study. They are then to respond to the questions.

2. Determine how students responded to each of the questions and list the results on the chalkboard. For discussion:
Are the questions difficult to answer with certainty? Why or why not? If you answered J or P to any question, how do you support your answer? What questions does this reading raise for you? As you write these questions on the chalkboard, ask students to write them in their notebooks. How might they find answers?

3. Distribute Student Worksheet 2 and ask students to read it.

4. What questions about "A Capsule History" do students have? Add these to those already on the chalkboard. Ask clarifying questions where that seems necessary and have students add the questions to their list. Are there any that can readily be answered?

5. Assignment: Student Worksheet 3


Student Worksheet 1:

Israeli And Palestinian Claims To Land

Directions: The searing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has made almost impossible any statement about which both groups can agree. Read the following descriptions about the claim each has to the land Israelis call Israel and Palestinians Palestine. Then, based on what you have read, answer questions A-D below.

1. The history of the Jewish people and of its roots in the land of Israel spans some 35 centuries. In this land, its cultural, national, and religious identity was formed; here, its physical presence has been maintained unbroken throughout the centuries, even after the majority was forced into exile. With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jewish independence, lost 2000 years earlier, was renewed. —American Jewish Committee

2. The Palestinians' claim is predicated on the right of ownership evidenced by uninterrupted possession and occupation since the dawn of recorded history. They lived in the country when the Hebrews (of whom the Jews claim descent) came and lived there for a comparatively short period. The continued to live there during the Hebrew (and Jewish) occupation. They remained there after the last Hebrew or Jew left the country nearly two thousand years ago....The people today called Palestinians...are largely the descendants of the Canaanites, the Edomites, and the Philistines who lived in Palestine when it was invaded by the Hebrews in ancient times. But the Hebrews finally left or were driven out two thousand years ago. —Frank S. Sakran, Palestine Still a Dilemma

3. There was no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state?... It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them. They did not exist. —Golda Meir, Israeli prime minister, New York Times

4. According to Genesis, this was the land that God gave to Abraham and his seed....Those Jews who rely on the biblical deed to the land take their history from the ancient period of 4,000 years or so ago, skipping easily over the centuries of Muslim rule that followed; those Arabs who regard history as their ally tend to begin with the Muslim conquests in the seventh century A.D., blithely ignoring the Jewish kingdoms that existed here 2,000 years before Muhammad made his appearance. —David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

Please respond to the questions below by marking either J (Jews), P (Palestinians) or I (Impossible to determine).
A. Which people have lived in the land longer?
B. Which people have ruled over the land longer?
C. Whose historical claim to the land is stronger?
D. Which people have been present in the land as far back as records go?


Student Worksheet 2:

A Capsule History Of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

At the end of the 19th century, an international movement of Jews who called themselves Zionists declared Palestine, the biblical land of the Jews, to be an appropriate homeland. Spurred by pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe, pogroms in Eastern Europe and a growing Zionist movement, Jews began to emigrate to this area, which was then under the control of the Ottoman Turks and populated mainly by Arabs.

During World War I, Great Britain sought the help of Arabs to fight the Turks and made promises that Arabs understood would include an Arab-ruled state in Palestine. At about the same time, in the Balfour Declaration, Britain also stated its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Increasing Jewish immigration and purchase of land led to serious Arab-Jewish violence in the 1920s and 1930s. The British ordered restrictive measures. Then German persecution, the murder of 6,000,000 European Jews, and the anti-Semitism in Western countries such as Great Britain and the US that kept Jews from emigrating, led to further Jewish immigration to Palestine, much of it illegal. International sympathy for Jewish suffering during the war contributed to support for a Jewish state in Palestine.

In 1947 the United Nations voted 33-13 to partition Palestine into two states, one for Jews, the other for Palestinians (the US voted for partition). Jerusalem was to be an international zone. At the time Palestine's population was about 30% Jewish and 70% Arab. Jews owned about 6% of the land surface; Arabs owned the rest. The Jews agreed to partition, but the Arabs did not.

Fighting began between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Jewish leaders declared the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia then invaded in support of the Palestinians. Fighting lasted until the end of that year and resulted in a victory for Israel and a 50% increase in Israeli territory in what Palestinians still call al-Nakba (the catastrophe). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees. Some were expelled by force; others fled the fighting in fear.

Other wars between Israel and Arab countries followed in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. Israel's victory in 1967 resulted in its control of the entire territory of the former Palestine mandate under Britain, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and all of Jerusalem. The population in the former two areas was, and still is, mostly Arab.

Beginning in the 1970s Israel's government encouraged Israeli citizens to create settlements in the West Bank, especially, but also in the Gaza Strip. Always a source of anger and resentment to Palestinians, settlements have gradually increased in population (they now number about 200,000, half of whom live in East Jerusalem) and new ones have been created. They are scattered through territories where about 3 million Palestinians live. Having gained control of all of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israelis made it their capital. For years they have expanded its boundaries and increased its Jewish population. But some 200,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. The international community (including the US) has not recognized the annexation of Jerusalem or its expanded boundaries, which have incorporated part of the West Bank. Most countries still maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw the rise of Fatah, a Palestinian guerilla organization led by Yasir Arafat, which took over the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. A peace agreement between Israel and Jordan followed in 1994.

A sustained Palestinian revolt against Israeli rule called an intifada ("shaking off") began in 1987 led by youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. The intifada also included arson, sabotage, riots, and killings. Israeli forces responded forcibly; over 1,000 mostly unarmed Palestinians, many of them children, were killed. Hopes for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict followed secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Oslo, Norway, that led in 1993 to an agreement giving limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to a new Palestinian Authority.

Further years of negotiation aimed at a final settlement of the major issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians: (1) the status of Palestinian refugees who Palestinians claim should have the right of return to their homes and properties in Israel (there are now about 4,000,000 of these refugees and their descendants); (2) the status of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides; (3) an end to the occupation and the settlements; and (4) security for Israel and recognition of a Palestinian state.

President Bill Clinton brought the two sides together for negotiations at Camp David, but these efforts broke down in the summer of 2000. By the fall a new and more violent intifada had begun that included Palestinian suicide and other attacks in Israeli cities as well as against Israeli slider and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel responded with reprisals by armed forces, tanks and planes, targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, and destruction of houses and crops. By the beginning of 2002 many hundreds had been killed, the great majority of them Palestinian.

The cycle of violence has brought about increasing despair and radicalization on both sides. However, many Palestinians and Israelis still hope that a two-state solution is possible and are searching for ways to resume negotiations.

During the most recent intifada Israeli actions and restrictions have disrupted Palestinian travel between villages and towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by a network of checkpoints and physical barriers. Palestinians are now often unable to get to work or take their fruits, vegetables, and other farm produce to market, go to school or receive medical care. A recent United Nations report found that Palestinians lost between $2.4 billion and $3.2 billion in income during the first year of the intifada. Unemployment more than doubled to 25%; and nearly half the population is living below the poverty line.


Student Worksheet 3:

Palestinian Refugees

The 1947-1948 Israeli-Arab war resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Many ended up in camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as in Jordan and elsewhere. These camps still exist. Though many of the original refugees have died, a good number are still alive. Children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are now part of the refugee population.

To Palestinians, a just settlement of the refugee issue is a key element in any peace agreement with Israel. Israelis, however, view it as one the Arab nations and the Palestinians created when they rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan. For both sides the refugee issue continues to be a very emotional one.

Directions: You are a historian. Read the following excerpts from varying points of view about the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. Then imagine you are writing a history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Your sources are what appear in these excerpts. You have just one well-developed paragraph to explain why there is a Palestinian refugee problem.

1. The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab States against Israel in 1947 and 1948. Let there be no mistake. If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today. Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem....The historic origins of that conflict are clearly defined by the confessions of the Arab governments themselves: "This will be a war of extermination," declared the Secretary General of the Arab League, speaking for the governments of six Arab States: "It will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades."
—Abba Eban, Chief Israeli representative to the United Nations

2. Immediately after the UN General Assembly passed the partition resolution on November 29, 1947, serious clashes broke out between the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine....some 30,000 upper- and middle-class Arabs left Palestine for safer areas....As the fighting spread and intensified, many more thousands of frightened Arabs fled their homes to escape areas of combat....After April 1, 1948, the Arab exodus accelerated as a result of several successful Jewish military offensives into Arab-inhabited territories and terroristic attacks by the Irgun and the Stern Gang (two Jewish guerilla groups) against Arab civilians, like the massacre of 250 men, women, and children in the village of Deir Yaseen, to spread panic among the Arabs and to cause them to flee whenever Jewish forces approached.... After May 15, many Arabs in combat areas fled their villages. Israelis claimed that their leaders had ordered them to leave until they could return with the victorious Arab armies. The Arabs denied this.
(Later) the Israeli authorities used both military force and psychological warfare to compel as many Arabs as possible to leave their homes because this would: (l) lessen the danger of Arab espionage and threats to Israeli lines of communication; (2) provide desperately needed land and buildings for the Jewish immigrants pouring in; (3) weaken the neighboring Arab states and interfere with their military efforts by forcing them to cope with a vast and unexpected refugee problem....and (4) give Israel a "trump card" which could be used in future political bargaining.
—Fred J. Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma

3. The official myth, widely believed in by Israeli Jews, has it that the 700,000 Arabs who fled their farms and villages and cities, most of them then barred by Israel from returning, did so only for two reasons: They left willingly, not wishing to live in a Jewish state, and they were ordered out by the commanders of the Arab Legion, who anticipated a decisive military campaign that would return the Arab residents over the ruins to a defeated Israel. In short, the Jews had no responsibility whatever for the flight of the Arabs. The truth of this is only partial....Arab residents of the new state of Israel ran for a mixture of reasons. Some were simply running from the fighting, as in any war. Others have told me that they heard the Arab Legion's broadcasts telling them to leave and took heed....Some who were wealthy enough to afford a trip to Beirut or Amman went for what they believed would be only a few weeks....But others were deliberately and forcibly expelled by the Jews. And others fled because they were convinced that if the Jews got into their villages, they would massacre men, women, and children as they had done in the Arab village of Deir Yassin in April l948.... —David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

4. It was the Arab states, not Israel, that rejected the United Nations partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. It was five Arab countries that invaded Israel upon its independence. Thousands of Palestinians fled the fighting-some left simply because of the ravages of war; others hoped to avoid the conflict and return once the Arab states defeated and occupied the new Jewish state; still others were expelled in some locations. While it is a legitimate historical task to identify these cases, it is clear that had the Arabs not gone to war with Israel there would be no refugee problem. The basic facts of Israel's creation are such that every Israeli and others have every reason to be proud. —Abraham Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League



1. Divide the class into groups of four in which each student is to read her/his paragraph from Student Worksheet 3 to the others. After each reading the group should discuss briefly the following question: How clearly and fairly does the paragraph discuss why there is a Palestinian refugee problem? After students have read and discussed all paragraphs, the group should select the one it regards as best.

2. Have the best papers read to and discussed by the entire class. Discuss with students the following questions:

  • What problems did you have in writing your paragraphs?
  • What questions arose for you? Which questions can the class answer? Add others to the class list.
  • Do we think we need more information? If so, where might it come from?
  • Why do you suppose conflicting and contradictory accounts and interpretations are written about the same event or series of events?
  • What insights are you getting into the writing and interpretation of history?

3. Assign Student Worksheet 4


Student Worksheet 4:

The U.S.-Israeli Relationship

Directions: Read and study the information and opinions below about the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Then write down 3-5 questions that, if answered well, would help you to reach your own conclusion about what that relationship should be.

"Commitment to Israel's security and well-being has been a cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East since Israel's creation in 1948, in which the United States played a key supporting role. Israel and the United States are bound closely by history and cultural ties as well as by mutual interest. Continuing US economic and security assistance to Israel acknowledges these ties and signals US commitment." —Bureau of Public Affairs, US Department of State
"Israel has got no better friend than the United States, as far as I am concerned. Israel is a democracy. We share a lot of values with Israel." —President George W. Bush, 12/4/01
"US interests in the Middle East:helping maintain the security and well-being of Israel preventing regional conflicts; ensuring free flow of oil from Gulf; enhancing business opportunities for our companies and jobs for our citizens; suppressing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction; containing rogue regimes-Iran, Iraq, Libya; preserving deep cultural ties."
— Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau, 8/21/96

There are many ways in which US support for and cooperation with Israel are evident. Among the most important are:

1. The US provides Israel with $2 billion per year in security assistance, about 90% of which comes back to the US in orders for military equipment and for research and development of advanced weapons systems. This, in turn, translates into contracts and jobs in the US"Military experts have estimated that it would cost American taxpayers over $125 billion per year to maintain a fighting force the size of Israel's to protect American interests in the Middle East," Charles Brooks, a security analyst, wrote in 1993.
2. The US and Israel cooperate on programs for weapons development and on military strategies against common threats. They engage in joint military exercises and share intelligence. An average of 300 Department of Defense and military personnel visits to Israel take place each month.
3. The US stores military equipment like trucks, ammunition, and armor in Israel.
4. Israel provides the US with high tech military hardware such as remote-controlled aircraft, fuel tanks for fighter aircraft and air-to-surface missiles.
5. The US is Israel's largest trading partner. In 2000 their two-way trade was worth $20.8 billion.
Chief US exports to Israel include computers, integrated circuits, aircraft parts, and other defense equipment. Israel's chief exports to the US include telecommunications equipment, diamonds, and printing machinery.
6. The two countries have cooperative institutions in many fields, such as science, agriculture, economic development, and counter-terrorism.
7. US officials have frequently been involved in efforts to help solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

— Summarized from websites of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the US Department of State

Palestinian views of the U.S.-Israeli relationship often focus on their perception that the US gives Israel mostly uncritical support:

"The challenge of Palestine to people in the United States, which virtually underwrites the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and in effect pays for the bullets that kill Palestinians, is an especially serious one. Since 1948, the United States has poured dozens of billions of dollars into Israel. Israel absorbs the largest portion of the foreign aid budget, and no other state gets aid without strings attached. No other country gets $1,000 per capita for every man, woman and child in subsidies; no other military power gets an average $10,000 per soldier subsidy from the United States. Today, because of the massive uprising on the West Bank and Gaza, the world is being asked to confront reality as if for the first time. A new truth has emerged, a truth Palestinians have been proclaiming during this entire century, that far from being a national liberation movement of Jews who came, in the commonly cited phrase, 'to a land without people, as a people without land,' the Zionists in fact came to Palestine, found another people already there, and then for several decades have dispossessed, alienated, and brutalized that people, the Palestinians, with the moral approval and support of the West generally and the United States in particular."
—Edward Said, University Professor, Columbia University and a Palestinian spokesperson, The Politics of Dispossession, 1988

"There seems to be a disconnect in US policy toward Israel. When diplomacy and the national interest are ascendant, the US recognizes its interest in ending the conflict, President Bush calls for the creation of a Palestinian state and Secretary of State Colin Powell declares that 'the occupation must end.' Yet when domestic political considerations win out, as they have after suicide bombings, nothing but complete identification with Israel is possible. Rather than playing a constructive role, the Bush administration has blocked efforts by the international community to help curb the violence. On Saturday (12/1/01), the US vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that encouraged 'all concerned to establish a monitoring mechanism' and condemned all terrorist acts, executions without trial, excessive use of force and the destruction of property.
Even an international intervention as limited as 'a monitoring mechanism' apparently would interfere with Israel's activities, which are aimed at breaking the will of Palestinians. As the mutual slaughter proceeds, Washington pours fuel on the fire by funding, arming and supporting one side and preventing even the most tentative international action to douse the flames."
—Hussein Ibish, communications director, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 12/3/01



1. Divide the class into small groups. Each group is to share their questions and pick the two they regard as best in helping at determine what the U.S.-Israel relationship should be. The group should select someone to report its conclusions.

2. Ask the reporters from each group for its questions and write them on the chalkboard without comment.

3. Some possible samples:

a. Why is the security of Israel important to the US?
b. When will the Palestinians get a state of their own?
c. Why has the US prevented the UN from halting Palestinian-Israeli violence?
d. What "domestic policy consideration"' is Ibish referring to?
e. Is Iraq a threat to the US?
f. What has Israeli security got to do with the US getting oil from the Gulf?
g. Why did the US veto the idea of "a monitoring mechanism"?
h. Why does the US support Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians?

A rationale and a method for examining and studying questions appears in The Doubting Game section of "Teaching Critical Thinking," an activity available on this website. Rigor in this process is important if students are to understand that a question's nature helps to determine its answer, that good questions need to be clear, that some questions are more likely to facilitate inquiry than others.

For example: Question f) above assumes connections between Israeli security and Gulf oil for the US Is this a reasonable assumption? Why or why not? What are the facts? Where will they come from? Which sources are likely to be most reliable? How can one tell? Question g) also contains an assumption that can easily be verified. But "a monitoring mechanism" needs definition. What did UN supporters of the resolution mean by it? What reasons did the US give for its veto? Were there any other possible reasons? How can one find out?

4. Following such an analysis of each student question, the class can consider how the questions might best be ordered. Does the order make any difference? Why or why not? Which questions, if any, can students answer without any further inquiry? Can they now answer any other questions on the class list?

5. Suggested essay assignment: Write an interpretive-historical essay of 300 to 500 words in which you discuss one of the following quotes, bringing to bear your understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Your discussion should include specific references to readings and discussions during this unit that support what you have to say.

a. "To fulfill its role as world leader, the United States needs to exhibit even-handedness in its relationship with Israel....As long as the present policy endures, the country that once stood as the bastion of civil liberties, freedom, and equality will continue to hear the accusations of hypocrisy and bias without an adequate response." —Anne Marie Baylouny, director of media and public relations for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

b. "The clash in Palestine was not between natives and colonialists in the ordinary sense, but between two nationalist movements. Both were, in their own way, 'right' and 'natural.'"
Amos Elon, The Israelis

6. Suggestions for further inquiry through independent or small-group projects:

a.Any of the remaining questions on the class list
b.What the status of Jerusalem should be
c.The 2000 summer negotiations at Camp David
d.The Zionist movement
e.The PLO movement
f. President Truman's decision to support the UN partition plan and then recognize Israeli statehood
g. Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip
h. Hamas

Note: Before beginning, students should prepare a specific and teacher-approved question to investigate. "The Zionist Movement," for example, is a very broad subject. In his history Walter Laqueur has written 600 pages on the subject. Students need to narrow and focus their interest considerably and design a limited question. For example: Why was the Zionist movement created? Why was Chaim Weizmann successful in convincing British officials to issue the Balfour Declaration? How did Arabs in Palestine react to Jewish immigration, 1897-1918?




Charles P. Cozic, Israel: Opposing Viewpoints
Fred J. Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma
Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, Palestinians: The Making of a People
Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism
Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, The Israel-Arab Reader
Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession
David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land


American Israel Public Affairs
American Arab Anti-Discrimination
American Jewish
Public Affairs Committee, US Department of State

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