Israelis vs. Palestinians: New Leaders & Old Problems

Three student readings (with guidelines for classroom discussion) provide a succinct overview of basic Israeli-Palestinian issues and new developments in this old conflict.

The materials here include an overview of basic Israeli-Palestinian issues and such new developments as changes in the leadership of both groups, Israel's evacuation from the Gaza Strip, and the impact of its separation barrier and unilateral move to establish its border.

Earlier materials on this website on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict include "Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States," (background history, Palestinian refugees, the U.S.-Israel relationship); "The Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" (additional history, competing points of view, Israeli soldier resistance to service in occupied territories, President Bush's views, pro and con); and "A Road Map for Israelis & Palestinians" (the "road map" peace process, the problems of Jerusalem, and the settlements).

An Inquiry-Oriented Approach

One way to begin an inquiry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be to ask the following questions and record student answers, in outline, on the chalkboard:

1. What do you know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
2. What are your sources of information?
3. What do you think you know but aren't sure about?

Discuss responses and ask students to generate questions they may raise.

4. What additional questions, if answered well, would provide you with information about what you would like to know? Examine student questions for clarity, for the types of answers they call for, for sources that might be useful. For approaches to analyzing student questions, see Thinking Is Questioning and Teaching Critical Thinking, both of which are available on this website. Teachers might also find useful Teaching on Controversial Issues.

For individual and small-group projects, assign students to investigate their questions and report to the class on their findings. The following readings might be used as one source of information for class discussion.

Student Reading 1:

Horrors and Basic Issues

It was early afternoon, April 17, at the Rosh Hair restaurant in Tel Aviv when Sami Hamad, 21, who lived in a West Bank village, blew himself up in a shattering explosion. "I saw people flying through the air," said Chaya, a local vendor. Among the nine people killed was Philip Balahsan, 45. The 70 people wounded included Balahsan's two children. The Palestinian organization Islamic Jihad said it was responsible for the attack. ( Jerusalem Post, 4/17/06)

In the northern Gaza Strip on April 29, the Abu Odeh family was finishing lunch. Suddenly, an Israeli artillery shell exploded on their roof. Part of it collapsed, walls crumbled, windows and doors blew out of their frames. Shrapnel hit their 13-year-old son in his thigh and his pants filled with blood. Abu Odeh, one of his own hands full of shrapnel, rushed him to the hospital. His wife, in shock, was also hospitalized. "At least, thanks be to God, everyone is alive," said Abu Odeh. An Israeli army spokesman said the Israelis were responding to rocket fire the preceding day from the same area and regretted any civilian casualties. ( New York Times, 5/2/06)

These are ordinary people, Israeli and Palestinian, eating lunch, who find their lives suddenly ended or devastated. Such horrors are not unusual in Israel and the Palestinian territories. From September 2005 to early May 2006, a time of relative quiet, 30 Israelis were killed by Palestinians and 170 Palestinians killed by Israelis; 176 Israelis and 713 Palestinians were wounded, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

In the past 15 years there have been two major efforts to solve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. One was a "peace process" begun after secret meetings between leaders from the two sides in Oslo, Norway (1993). It failed. The other was "the road map" to peace (2002) led by the United States and including Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union. It, too, failed.

The basic issues:

• The fate of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes and land in 1948 in what Palestinians call al-Nakba (the catastrophe) and Israelis call the war for independence. Today, there are four million Palestinian refugees, including those directly affected in 1948 and their descendants. Of these, about 1.3 million still live in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, or the neighboring Arab countries, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in one such camp, Nuseirat in the Gaza Strip, "60,000 people are packed into cramped, temporary housing, buildings separated only by narrow alleyways... Almost all the families in the Nuseirat Camp are refugees who fled to Gaza (from what is now Israel) in 1948." Aqual Mossaed was a child when he and his family were forced by Israeli troops to leave their home in Beer Sheba, now part of Israel. "By 1997 he and his 12 children were still homeless. He applied for housing assistance from UNRWA" and with its help "built a three room brick house." (

Israel does not view itself as morally responsible for the flight of Palestinian refugees during wars when it was endangered by the attacks of Arab nations.

• Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel gained control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip by its victory over Arab states in the 1967 war. About 250,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank settlements, another 200,000 in East Jerusalem—all of them on Palestinian land.

According to B'tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: "Since 1967 Israel established in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, 152 settlements" in addition to dozens of outposts. "Two systems of law based on national origin established dozens of settlements in which thousands of Israeli civilians now live. Israel forbids Palestinians to enter and use these lands... [Israel] has turned the settlements into civilian enclaves within an area under military rule, and has given the settlers a preferred status. To perpetuate this unlawful situation, Israel has continuously violated the Palestinians' human rights." It has also frequently developed new building projects and new bypass roads by seizing Palestinian land. (

Israel views the settlements as necessary for self-defense and has ignored a number of UN Security Council resolutions (for example, #447) calling for their abandonment. Orthodox Jews, in particular, tend to regard the settlement land as having been granted to them by God in Biblical days.

• The status of Jerusalem, which Israel declares is its "eternal" capital. Palestinians claim at least East Jerusalem.

B'tselem declares that "Israel's policy gravely infringes the rights of residents of East Jerusalem and flagrantly breaches international law," which prohibits the unilateral annexation of occupied territory. For example, Israel has for years discriminated against East Jerusalem Palestinians by seizing their land, demolishing their homes, and providing much more funding for the western portion of the city. The government's current plan calls for the separation barrier to surround East Jerusalem and detach it from the rest of the West Bank.

One example of the many problems Palestinians face in East Jerusalem: Jada Taha was born in Jerusalem but now lives with her husband, who was born in the West Bank, and three small children in a Jerusalem refugee camp. Her husband used to work in a Jerusalem restaurant, something that is now impossible for him because, as a former West Bank resident, he cannot get an Israeli ID card. So now he cannot work in Israel and there is no work for him in the refugee camp. He is trapped. (

Israel views East Jerusalem as part of its historical and Biblical heritage and a Jewish possession going back to the days of King David.

• Israel's security from Palestinian attacks and suicide bombings.

B'tselem reports that between September 2000 and April 2006, Palestinians killed 233 Israeli civilians in the occupied territories and 462 in Israel and wounded many hundreds more. "Attacks aimed at civilians undermine all rules of morality and law... The illegality of the settlements has no effect at all on the status of their civilian residents...[who are] entitled to all the protections granted civilians by international law." (

Like Philip Balashan, Lior Anidzar, 26, was eating lunch at the Rosh Hair restaurant on April 17. He had been married for two weeks and wanted to take his wife Maya to lunch, but she was busy. After the bombing, Loir Anidzar lived for another month with severe burns and internal injuries before he died. On the same day Daniel Wultz, 16, a tourist from Florida who had been eating with his father at the Rosh Hair died from a torn aorta and severe internal injuries. The deaths of Lior Anidzar and Daniel Wultz raised the number killed by Sami Hamad's suicide bombing to eleven. ( New York Times, 5/15/06)

• Israel's recognition of a contiguous Palestinian state. This has been made very difficult because of Israeli settlements scattered through the West Bank. Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist was accepted by the government of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but has not been accepted by the current Palestinian leadership, which is partly controlled by the militant group Hamas.

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem so difficult to resolve?

3. Imagine yourself a Palestinian, now 70, who fled or was forced from his home and land in what is now Israel during the war in 1948. Since then, you have lived in a refugee camp, and are now there with your wife and children. Imagine also that 30 years ago Israel put up new homes or office buildings on the land you fled. Do you deserve to have that land restored to you? If so, why or why not? If not, do you deserve any compensation for the loss of your home? Why or why not?

4. What are "the two systems of laws" in effect in Palestinian areas where there are Israeli settlements? Why? What are the pros and cons of these systems? What is their human impact?

5. How do you explain the suicide attacks on Israelis?

6. Why is the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state so difficult? (A map of the West Bank showing Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages and towns would be very helpful here. See, for example, as of 2002:

Student Reading 2:

The New Situation

The basic issues remain, but some things have changed. They include:

• Leadership. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader for decades, is dead. His political party, Fatah, was rejected by Palestinian voters in January elections. But Arafat's successor as Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, continues as president of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S., and the European Union, won 74 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council to Fatah's 43. One result is a divided Palestinian government. A second has been the outbreak of armed street battles between Fatah and Hamas partisans.

"One clear reason for the surprising Hamas victory for legislative seats was that the voters were in despair about prospects for peace," former President Jimmy Carter wrote in the International Herald Tribune, 5/7/06. "With American acquiescence, the Israelis had avoided any substantive peace talks for more than five years, regardless of who had been chosen to represent the Palestinian side... "

President Abbas recognizes Israel's right to exist and seeks a diplomatic resolution of the conflict based on Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 boundary lines. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders say they would agree to a "long-term truce" with Israel but only if Israel agrees to the return of all Palestinian refugees and accepts its 1967 borders, leaving the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Israel will not negotiate with Hamas until Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist, recognizes previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and gives up violence.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader, has been in a coma for months. His successor is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who holds similar views to Sharon's on Israeli policy. Their political party, Kadima, leads a four-party Israeli coalition government.

• Land. Last summer, Israel ordered some 8,800 Israeli settlers to evacuate the Gaza Strip and to leave this territory in the hands of some 1.3 million Palestinians. Settlers who refused to leave were removed forcibly by Israeli police and soldiers. Sharon also ordered the removal of 600 settlers from four small West Bank settlements. Though he had been the strongest advocate of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for years, Sharon decided on these moves because the Palestinian population has grown far more rapidly than the Jewish in the combined population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, all of which some Israelis claim for a "Greater Israel."

Sharon concluded that continued Israeli control of all of Gaza and the West Bank and their mostly Arab Muslim inhabitants would mean that Israel could not continue to be both democratic and Jewish. The majority of people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley are not Jewish. This includes more than 1 million Israeli-Arab citizens.

Israelis have imagined a situation in which Palestinians would make up a majority of people in the area, give up attacks on Israelis, adopt a program of nonviolent resistance to Israeli rule and demand a democratic one-person, one-vote policy that could well gain international support. If Israel rejected this demand, it would no longer be democratic; if it accepted, it would no longer be a Jewish state. Meanwhile, Israel continues to expand its larger West Bank settlements, in violation of UN resolutions calling for the return of the West Bank to Palestinians.

• The Barrier. For almost four years Israel has been building a security barrier between what it regards as its territory and Palestinian territory. The barrier, now half finished and slated to run for about 400 miles, consists of concrete walls, electronic fencing, and watchtowers. Israel's High Court of Justice ruled last year that a portion of the barrier had to be rerouted because it "creates a chokehold" around five Palestinian villages. Reaching jobs, schools, farm land, stores, and hospitals, Palestinians complained, had become very difficult, even impossible. The barrier includes as part of Israel about 10 percent of the West Bank. The barrier, from Israel's point of view, is essential for defense against suicide bombers and other Palestinian attackers.

Prime Minister Olmert says that the barrier will form the basis for a permanent border by 2010. Most Jewish West Bank settlers live in large settlement blocs on land belonging to Palestinians before the 1967 war. Some 70,000 settlers on the other side of the barrier would have to leave. But the prime minister and security officials say that Israeli soldiers might stay in parts of the West Bank for security reasons after settlers are evacuated. "If he [Olmert] is to succeed, he will need financial support from the United States. His West Bank plans are estimated to cost at least $10 billion." ( New York Times, 5/19/06)

The International Court of Justice in 2004 said that all sections of the barrier in West Bank land violated international law and should be removed. Palestinians do not object to a barrier that encloses Israel; they object strenuously to one that includes any West Bank land.

• Palestinian Finances and Their Impact. After the Hamas victory in the March Palestinian elections, the US and the European Union suspended all financial aid to the Palestinians because they have designated Hamas a terrorist organization. The US and the European Union will resume aid payments in some manner, but not through the Palestinian Authority. Another blow to the Palestinians was Israel's withholding of about $50 million it collects in tax and customs revenues monthly for the Palestinians.

Arab countries raised more than $70 million for the Palestinians. But the US Treasury barred almost all financial dealings with the Palestinian Authority. Since Arab banks are tied to the US banking system and fear legal problems, they stopped transferring money to the authority. Some 165,000 Palestinians—nurses, teachers, civil servants, and security officers—were not being paid, and it was not clear when they would be.

This loss of funds has had a catastrophic effect on ordinary Palestinians. At the main Gaza hospital, Al Shifa, "Ismail Siam is watching over his sister, Asma al-Saidi, 53, who has metastatic breast cancer. She had radiation therapy, but a Tel Aviv hospital returned her to Gaza before chemotherapy because the Hamas-run government could not pay for it. Al Shifa does not have the required drugs and so provides only analgesics to ease her pain." Al Shifa has a shortage "of everything from disposable needles and adhesive tape to vital drugs. Gaza's once impressive public health system is running down fast under the dual pressure of aid cutoffs and the closing of the Karni crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Israel." ( New York Times, 5/8/06)

Israel said it closed this crossing point because the Palestinian Authority had not stopped attempted attacks there. The closing, since lifted, prevented Palestinians from transporting and selling fruits and vegetables for several months and from receiving such vital supplies as medicine. The reopening of the crossing point and resumption of foreign aid are essential to Palestinians. But unemployment and poverty are continuing facts of life for many.

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why do the Palestinians have a divided government? What effects is this division having? Why?
3. Why did Israeli evacuate its settlements in the Gaza Strip?
4. Why has Israel built a separation barrier to wall out Palestinians? What major issues have resulted from the construction of this barrier?

5. What financial pressures are on the Palestinian Authority? Why?


Student Reading 3:


"If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country... Why should they accept that?"
— David Ben Gurion, Israeli independence leader and prime minister, 1949-1963

I "would have joined a terrorist organization" if I had been a Palestinian.
— Ehud Barak, Israeli prime minister, 1999-2001

Its name is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement) and in Arabic means "zeal." It was founded in 1987 during the first intifada ("shaking off"), a revolt against the Israeli occupation led by youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

Hamas came to world-wide prominence in the 1990s with more than 350 attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, including repeated suicide bombings, that killed more than 500 Israelis. Israel, the US and the European Union labeled Hamas a terrorist organization*. Hamas regards itself as an Islamic independence organization.

Since its creation in 1993, Fatah, a secular political group, has led the Palestinian Authority. But many Palestinians came to view Fatah as hopelessly corrupt, its leaders as thieves who siphoned off for their own use hundreds of millions of dollars meant for running the Authority and for social services. Nor had Fatah made any progress with Israel toward Palestinian statehood.

Hamas and its leaders, on the other hand, have a reputation among many Palestinians for honesty and service. Although the Hamas suicide bombings attracted most of the world's attention, the organization has also been a provider of badly needed Palestinian social services—healthcare clinics, schools, orphanages, buses, sports clubs, food for the many poor and unemployed in the West Bank and Gaza. Financial support for Hamas has come from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, Iran and Palestinian expatriates.

The Hamas charter of 1988 states that the organization is "a distinct Palestinian Movement which owes its loyalty to Allah, derives from Islam its way of life and strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean... "The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Wakf ["endowment"] throughout the generations" until the Judgment Day...

"Our enemy [Israel]... has resorted to breaking bones, opening fire on women and children and the old... to setting up detention camps, where thousands upon thousands are interned in inhuman conditions. In addition, it destroys houses, renders children orphans... " The charter views Jews as having "no limits" to their plans for territorial expansion. "Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion**."

Now that Hamas has become officially involved in Palestinian politics and government, it remains to be seen whether their official status will result in any changes in its philosophy and positions. For the past year it has honored a self-proclaimed truce and made no attacks on Israelis. While it has never disavowed the views stated in its charter, recent statements suggest that Hamas would be open to a long-term truce or settlement with Israel under certain conditions.

In a BBC interview in 2002, two years before he was killed in an Israeli missile strike, the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi said, "The main aim of the intifada is the liberation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, and nothing more. We haven't the force to liberate all our land. It is forbidden in our religion to give up part of our land, so we can't recognize Israel at all. But we can accept a truce with them, and we can live side by side and refer all the issues to the coming generations."

A more recent statement along similar lines came from Khaled Meshal, Hamas' political leader in exile in Syria. He said in April: "If Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem, acknowledges the right of return [of Palestinian refugees], lifts its siege, dismantles the settlements and the wall and releases the prisoners, then it is possible for us as Palestinians and Arabs to make a serious step to match the Zionist step... We have a natural right to resist occupation. We are for war if it is being waged on us. We are for peace, if it is not at the expense of our rights and dignity."

Israel rejects any deal based on 1967 borders.


* During Israel's struggle for independence against Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, two Jewish organizations, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, were designated as terrorist groups by the British, whom they attacked repeatedly in kidnappings and murders. The two groups regarded themselves as fighters for independence. In 1946, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, the Irgun blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, British headquarters, killing 90 Britons, Jews, and Arabs. Begin became an Israeli prime minister (1977-1983). Yitzak Shamir, a Stern Gang leader, also later became an Israeli prime minister (1983-1984 and 1986-1992).

**This document details a Jewish plot for world domination but was exposed long ago as a tsarist-era Russian forgery.

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What seem to be the reasons for Palestinian support of Hamas over Fatah?
3. Examine closely the excerpt from the Hamas Charter. What do you regard as its key points? Why?

For Writing and Group Discussion

Discuss with the class: What are criteria for a good definition?

Have students draft definitions of "a terrorist act." Then have them meet in small groups to share and discuss their definitions. They then select the definition they regard as best. The group then presents this definition to the class for discussion. The class then selects the best definition from among the groups.

According to the class's best definition, which, if any, of the following would qualify as a terrorist act? Why? Which do not? Why not?

1. Timothy McVeigh's bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, which mostly killed children and adult civilians
2. The Irgun bombing of British headquarters, the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, which killed Jews and Arabs as well as Britons
3. The deliberate killing of hundreds of civilians by a platoon of American soldiers at My Lai during the Vietnam War
4. Sami Hamad's suicide bombing, targeting civilians.
5. The World War II American atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in which most of the dead and wounded were civilians

For Inquiry

1. "The Israel Lobby" article

Study and then offer your own views on a controversial article published by two American professors, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby," in the London Review of Books , 3/23/06, (

The article's thesis is that the US has had a friendly and mostly uncritical relationship with Israel. The authors argue that this relationship is largely the product of successful lobbying efforts by such Jewish groups as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Christian evangelist groups, and has not served the best interests of the US

The article has been attacked by various individuals and groups, among them the Anti-Defamation League, which has expressed the hope that "mainstream individuals and institutions will see it for what it is—a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." ( Following the Mearsheimer-Walt article online are links to a number of letters attacking or defending its thesis. Tony Judt's op-ed, "A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy," in the New York Times , 4/19/06, offers both support for and criticism of the thesis.

2. The origins of Hamas

3. What historic rights to the lands now called Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza can Israelis claim? Palestinians?

4. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

5. Irgun and the Stern Gang


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