How did the situation between Israel and Palestine begin?  Where is it now and why has it remained so hard to resolve?

Skipping the ancient period through most of the Islamic and Turkish periods, European Jews began to settle in Palestine in the 1880s, driven by religious motivation, the oppression of Russian pogroms against Jews, and general hostility of European countries towards Jews.  But, it was just a trickle.  The first Jews generally settled in Jerusalem and bought land from Turkish landlords as Palestine was nominally under control of the Ottoman empire. 

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration committed England, very reluctantly and tentatively, to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine–a nation for Jews with a Jewish identity,"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," with the understanding that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”  At the end of World War I with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, France and England split up Turkey's former middle eastern territories in a secret treaty.  In 1921, England received control over present day Israel and Jordan, which it then called Trans-Jordan.  Jewish settlement increased, still by purchasing land from Turks or Arabs.

The problem of how Jews and Arabs and a few Christians would live in the land together existed from the very beginning and the earliest Jewish settlers were aware of it.  The same possible answers existed then as now, but a truly workable answer was always put off–then as now.  Jews and Arabs could live side by side in one state that recognized full rights for all.  Not clear was who would be in control of such a state:  Jews or Arabs?  The other alternative was to split the land into separate portions with each separately controlled by Arabs and Jews.  How to split the overall territory, how to determine who got what, and how the people left in the "other" territory would be protected were never figured out.

After World War II and the Holocaust, in which over five million Jews died, the urgency for finding a safe homeland for the remaining Jews of Europe increased.  Also, Arab states were influenced by Nazi propaganda so that Jews in Iraq, Iran, and Syria felt unsafe remaining there.  Jews already in Israel, with support from Jews in England, tried to bring more Jews from Europe to Palestine.  The British wanted to minimize conflicts between Jews and Arabs, so the British troops stationed in Palestine tried to prevent Jewish immigration.  Jews in England, Israel, and the United States worked in the United Nations to push for a partition of Trans-Jordan into a portion for Jews and a portion for Arabs. 

In 1947, the UN voted for the partition.  Both Arabs and Jews were concerned about what part of the land and how much land they would get.  Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank of the Jordan River, including Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Hebron, were major concerns because all contain religious sites of profound importance in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Both Arabs and Jews began fighting each other and alternately fighting the British or seeking British assistance. The British knew a bloody conflict would ensue and wanted no part of it.  They were right.  Soon after Partition, violence on both sides escalated.  Arab forces invaded to attempt to take over the Jewish portion.  Jews used terror to expel Arabs from the Jewish portion.  The Jews had already organized the beginnings of a government and an army, while the Arabs still lived in family-based clans or villages.  The Jews fought back the Arabs and extended their territory beyond the UN partition lines–establishing what became known as the "Green Line."  Most Arabs fled or were driven from the Jewish portion, which was established as the independent nation of Israel in 1948.

Three more wars were fought.  In 1956, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq invaded Israel.  With support from England and France, Israel repelled the attacks and took over most of the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal.  In the peace settlement, England, France, and the US sought to keep the Suez Canal open and asked Israel to give back the Sinai Peninsula in return for stationing UN peace-keepers near Suez and near the tip of Sinai to ensure that Egypt could not block Israeli shipping. 

In 1967, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria again invaded Israel.  In 6 days, Israel destroyed the entire Egyptian and Syrian air forces and destroyed nearly all of Egypt and Syria's tanks.  Israel won the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.  Israel intended to hold these territories in order to achieve recognition of Israel's right to exist, lasting peace, and full diplomatic relations with the surrounding Arab countries.  But, the stunning victory lead some in Israel to believe that they could hold these territories forever–some believed this would ensure Israel's security and some believed that this would enable Israel to return to the Jewish lands described in the Old Testament.  

In 1973, Egypt and Syria invaded Israel again in a surprise attack.  Israel was caught off guard and suffered defeats for 2 days.  By the third day, Israel regained the advantage and beat back the attacks—no territory changed hands or was returned.  But, Israel felt that it would always be vulnerable to attack, which became part of the Israeli ethos.

Of course, Arabs already lived in the occupied territories and the Arab population is growing faster than the Jewish population, despite extensive immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the 1980s and 1990s.  Once again the problem of who could live where and who would control territory was obvious but without a solution. In 1974, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) was recognized as the sole legitimate spokesman for the Arabs of Palestine.  At that time, the PLO's goal was to regain all of Palestine, reverse the UN partition, and eliminate Israel.  In 1979, Anwar Sadat, the leader of Egypt, offered full recognition and peace to Israel in return for Israel returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.  Israel continued to hold the Gaza strip at the southwest end of Israel, the West Bank of the Jordan, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.  People in Israel, especially orthodox Jews, feared that they would be pressured to give up more territory.  So, they began to increase settlements in these territories for several reasons, real or pretended:  to help defend Israel against her Arab neighbors, to put Jews in the territories to weaken Palestinian control to increase the chances of holding the land forever, and to fulfill a distorted, false and essentially racist religious vision based on their interpretation of the Old Testament that God had promised all of the land of Canaan to the Jews.

The problem with the settlements was that most Jews didn't want to settle there and the settlements took land from Arabs and interfered with Arabs' ability to get around and work.  Instead of providing more security, the settlements reduced security because the Jewish settlements were often deliberately placed in the middle of densely populated Arab areas and needed to be defended.  While right wing Israelis wanted to increase settlement and some Palestinians wanted to eliminate Israel, other Israelis and Palestinians believed they could find a way to create peace.  Just as in the beginning, there were only two potential solutions:  either one "bi-national" state with full rights for both Jews and Arabs or two states, one for each people. The "bi-national" state has never been realistic because the two sides don't trust each other to rule.  However, politicians on both sides resisted the more practical and just two state solution, refusing to recognize the other side's legitimate claims and rights.  But, intellectuals and practical people whose eyes were open to the injustice and instability of the situation began to realize that a two state solution was the only workable approach. 

In 1993, Jews and Arabs secretly negotiated the outline of a 2 state solution in Oslo, Norway, which has been called the Oslo Accord.  In 2000, the prime minister of Israel and the leader of the PLO came close, but ultimately failed to establish a 2-state solution in negotiations held at Camp David in the United States.  A Palestinian intellectual (Sari Nusseibeh) and the former leader of the Shin Bet Israeli equivalent of the FBI (Ami Ayalon ) published a "Destination Roadmap" which went even further and addressed the final questions that must be answered in a complete peace settlement. The answers are known and have been proposed jointly by both sides more than once.  But, both sides are politically unstable and can't get their own people to agree and accept these plans.

There have been three Palestinian uprisings, each called "Intifada" (or "shaking off" in Arabic), against Israel:  in 1987, in 2000 (after deliberate provocation by Israeli ex-general Ariel Sharon), and in 2008.  In 2000, Israel granted very limited autonomy to the PLO and Palestinian Authority to administer the West Bank under Israeli military authority.  In 2005, after it became clear that it was impossible to hold the Gaza Strip or get Israelis to settle there, Ariel Sharon, the most ruthless of Israeli former generals who was then prime minister of Israel, withdrew all Israeli settlers and Israeli military from the Gaza Strip–leaving it to the Palestinian Authority.  In 2006 under US pressure, the Palestinan Authority held elections in Gaza and a group called Hamas won.  Hamas is publicly committed to the destruction of Israel.  In 2009, right wing parties, committed to increasing settlements and controlling the Palestinian's territory were elected in Israel because of the increasing violence in Gaza.  Both sides have hardened their positions against a 2-state solution, even though 65% of Israeli citizens support a 2-state solution.

This may seem like a long blog post, but it is about the shortest way to give a very bare outline of what happened, leaving out many of the nuances and underlying causes of the situation.   Israel believes the world is against it and Arabs, who outnumber Israelis 130 to 1, are poised to destroy Israel.  The founding myth of Israel lives on: that Israel must defend itself in a hostile world.  Palestinians believe that Israel will never yield and will continue to control their territory and suppress their rights so that only eliminating Israel will restore their land, rights, and self-respect.  Many opportunities for peace have been missed.  Leadership on both sides is fractured by conflict and instability–neither side can make a hard decision that involves compromise.  Neither side will accept a bi-national state for fear the other side will control it.  Neither side will accept a two-state solution until it gets a better deal.  And that, then, is the situation.