Root Causes Of The Arab-Israeli Conflict

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The region of the Middle East has certainly experienced more strife and conflict than many other parts of the world. With particular emphasis on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Bickerton stated that it is among the “most confusing dimensions of the modern history of the area,” as the root-causes of this conflict have been the subject of numerous debates. Many writers posit that the conflict today is waged primarily between ‘Israelis and the Arab Palestinians that inhabit Israeli territory’ and is rooted in the separate movements of Zionism and Arab-nationalism; where both self-determination-movements had developed around the concepts of ‘identity, nationhood, history, religion, and culture.’ Originating from the nineteenth century, the Arab-Israeli conflict preceded the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, as both sides lay claim to the same territory. The Jews fled persecution in Europe and given the influx of Jewish immigration to Palestine, they intended to establish a national homeland in what was then an ‘Arab and Muslim-majority territory in the Ottoman Empire. The Arabs resisted, seeing the land as rightfully theirs,’ thus sectarian violence and several wars broke out. The political tension, military conflicts and disputes between Israel and a number of Arab countries such as Syria, therefore, comprise the Arab-Israeli conflict. Alternatively, Frieden used theoretical based scholarly literature to explain the root-causes of the conflict as “the inability of the sides to credibly commit to carry out the terms of an agreement.” Yet, Kaur Rai granted greater prominence to the impact of British foreign policy and consequently the United Nations’ policy regarding the Middle East. 

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Following the Second World War, the British handed over the Palestinian Mandate to the UN, which stemmed the ‘declaration of independence for Israel and created uproar amongst Jews and Arabs, and instigated war.’ Given the extensive existing research on this topic, this essay will critically analyse three of the more commonly discussed causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict; Zionism, Arab nationalism with reference to Palestinian nationalism, and the impact of British foreign policy regarding the protectorate of Palestine. 

One of the foremost factors discussed by many writers in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict is nationalism. Historically, the influence of European nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth century caused the Jewish diasporas of Europe to suffer persecution, resulting in immigration. For this reason, Shmuel Almog revealed a strong relationship between ‘extremism in nationalist attitudes, and the rise of political antisemitism,’ as “Jews were viewed as ‘foreigners’ hindering the development of national unity.” It is then argued that the discrimination against Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, led to the development of ‘Zionism – which emerged in Europe in the 1880s and called for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine,’ as suggested by Theodor Herzl. Huge waves of immigrant Jews filled with Zionist ideas, supported by the UK and US through policies such as the Balfour declaration in 1917, sparked problems between the Palestinians and Jews, as the 1948 Arab-Israeli war broke out, followed by further uprising such as the two Intifadas. It is precisely the spread of Zionism and its ideological political goals, which Kaur Rai affirmed as the root-causes of the conflict, as she states that “without Zionism, Arab-Israeli conflicts may never have occurred as the Jews perhaps would have had no desire to create a Jewish state, or at least not enough organisation and support to do so.” Hence, both European nationalism and Zionism were certainly prominent factors in causing this conflict. 

Although I would agree that Zionism and European nationalism could be considered as significant factors, it appears as though modern political Zionism transformed the biblical classical Zionism, (the belief that Jews were promised the Palestinian/Israeli land by God), into something more ideological, and this is what forms a root-cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ilan Pappé even concluded that such Zionism “employed, and still does employ, colonialist tools to implement its strategy and vision,” and it would be used “once more toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” Yet, though the impact of political Zionism is certainly a strong argument, many have challenged Pappé’s work on Israel and Palestine. The conclusion of a planned ‘ethnic cleansing of Palestine implemented by the Zionist movement leaders’ has been challenged for lacking in objectivity. Despite his book containing direct admissions of his bias, he is often criticised for disregarding counterarguments and sufficient evidence to support his view that the ‘expulsion of Palestinians is inherent in Zionist thought.’ This also conflicts with his other aim of, “offering an alternative narrative.” Therefore, such subjectivity undermines the validity of presenting political Zionism as a major cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A more objective approach may lay further emphasis on the influence of Arab-nationalism as a prominent factor in the dispute. In fact, with reference to both Zionism and Arab-nationalism, Schulze stated that the Arab-Israeli conflict emerged as ‘one of competing nationalisms claiming the same territory.’ 

According to De Carvalho, Arab nationalism was born out of the ‘shared language, shared religion (Islam) and history of the Middle East region,’ at the end of the eighteenth century ‘as a response to Western colonial encroachment and anti-Ottoman feeling.’ Although Arab-nationalism was not a product of Zionism, it appears as though it was fuelled by the Zionist colonial presence and the imperialist objectives toward Israel. This is particularly supported by the British government’s promise to grant the Arab people ‘political sovereignty following the inevitable collapse of the Ottoman Empire,’ as this proved contradictory in the wake of the Sykes-Picot agreement (the 1916 Asia minor agreement between Britain and France) and the Balfour Declaration, where Israel declared independence, albeit the Arabs were not granted sovereignty. Feelings of resentment among the Arabs stemmed the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Holding its roots in pan-Arabism, Palestinian nationalism is regarded as a more militaristic stance such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who sought to destroy Israel. Thus, a more objective approach focuses on the dissension between both nationalisms in causing the Arab-Israeli conflict, as the two continue to contest one another till this day. On the contrary, one may challenge the reliability of this position and adopt a more analytical approach which draws upon scholarly theoretical literature similar to that of Frieden. He posits that at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict is essentially the “inability of the sides to credibly commit to carry out the terms of an agreement.” Suggesting that neither side trusts the other to maintain the commitments that they may have agreed upon. This can be supported by the failure of The Oslo Accords in bringing peace to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This agreement was signed by the Israeli and PLO leaders in 1993, consenting upon a plan for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza as well as granting Israel peace and security. The vast objection to this deal from members of both parties had consequently led to further conflict. As Islamist militant groups, Hamas and Jihad organisations carried out a series of suicide bombings, and the Israelites began building settlements in the Palestinian land, the second Intifada (uprising) soon followed. The continuing controversy between the leaders and the population reveals an issue of trust and commitment between both camps, therefore Friedan’s use of theory and evidence to support his view can be reinforced. A weakness of this analysis, however, is the issue of oversimplification. 

I would argue that although Friedan’s approach provides a comprehensive and reliable case in examining the root-causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there exists a risk of overlooking alternative explanations, (of which there are many), and therefore this view is reductionist. Nevertheless, a more compelling argument focuses on the impact of British foreign policy and consequently the United Nations’ policy regarding the Middle East. Upon acquiring the mandate for Palestine at the end of First World War, Shlaim argues that “Britain was most directly involved in the lead up to the Palestine war.” In his view, the Arab-Israeli war was the ‘climax of conflict between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements,’ as inconsistencies became apparent in the policies implemented by Britain particularly when attempting to find solutions which would reconcile both communities. While Britain promised Palestine national independence, they declared a policy restricting Jewish immigration near the end of the Second World War, however ‘Britain came under increasing pressure to permit Jewish immigration into Palestine,’ especially from America. Being caught between the conflicting sides, Britain consequently, handed over the mandate of Palestine to the UN in 1948; who proposed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. A campaign of violence and later civil war soon followed due to the Palestinian rejection of this plan. Later the neighbouring Arab states, ‘Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Syria and to some extent Lebanon, invaded the country,’ widening the dispute from a Palestinian-Jewish conflict into a wide Arab-Israeli conflict.

Given the extensive research, I would agree with Shlaim and Kaur Rai in condemning British foreign policy for causing the Arab-Israeli war and conflict. While this essay has primarily focused on political and sociological explanations on this conflict by discussing the impact of nationalism and British foreign policy, relatively little has been dedicated to an economic perspective. This could be a significant limitation, as research has shown importance in the economy of the Middle East, therefore, I will also examine the socio-economic factors that constitute the root-causes of this conflict. Cerdeño uses Marxism to argue that the primary cause of the Arab-Israeli controversy is rooted in capitalism. She maintains that “Palestinians were betrayed by the British in 1917 when it promised Palestine both to the Jews and the Palestinians.” Since Britain was aiming to strengthen its position in the Middle East, it would continue to play the Arabs off against the Jews, through policies which favour Zionism. For example, through ‘immigration policies and granting the Jews the opportunity to consolidate power in political institutions,’ which allowed Britain to gain many economic benefits, for example through trade and the oil industry. The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 and the spread of Zionist colonialism introduced the Jewish bourgeoisie and an ‘undeveloped’ Palestinian capitalist class, as Jewish labour began to replace indigenous Palestinian labour, thus causing the Palestinian economy to be ‘inextricably tied to the Israeli economy.’ Such exploitation by the capitalist ruling class is argued to have caused Palestinians to form armed resistance against Israel and thus the conflict between the two communities grew. Cerdeño’s use of Marxism has credibility for defining capitalism and imperialism as the root-causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nevertheless, as an approach, Marxism could be criticised for economic determinism. By viewing the roots of this conflict only in terms of ‘economic laws,’ this position runs the risk of ignoring other factors such as Constructivism, hence further research which compares various theories is necessary. 


This discussion reveals that there exists a myriad of underlying root-causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict and these views are widely divergent. Varying from a range of perspectives, particularly from that of Israelis and Palestinians, the factors which showed great prominence include; Zionism, Arab nationalism with reference to Palestinian nationalism, as well as the impact of British foreign policy. Although subjectivity could be a weakness of this research, with reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ilan Pappé states “There is no historian in the world who is objective.” Therefore, bias is inevitable, and so this research discussed the weight of these factors; initially analysing the root-causes of the dispute as ‘one of competing nationalisms’ between Zionism and Arab-nationalism, as posited by Schulze. The result of discrimination from European nationalism led to the development of a more political form of Zionism, intending to establish a homeland in Palestine. The Arab opposition and consequently Palestinian nationalism are argued to have caused many wars and conflicts between the two sides which exist until today. Yet, a more analytical approach from Frieden uses theory and evidence to suggest that the conflict is rooted in issues of commitment, which can be illustrated in the failure of the Oslo Accords. Although ‘both sides may have agreed upon an ultimate settlement, neither side trusts the other to maintain their commitments.’ This argument may suffer from oversimplification, so the impact of British foreign policy during the mandate period is highlighted by Shlaim. The inconsistent policies put forward by Britain when attempting to reconcile the two sides led to contradiction and ultimately sectarian violence and war. Nevertheless, Cerdeño uses Marxism to analyse the socio-economic factors which contributed towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and have often been ignored, albeit it is important to note the economic determinism of this perspective. Thus, the root-causes of the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis over territory, national integrity, and ethnic and religious differences, are overall difficult to determine. Nonetheless, as history progresses, further research may present alternative viewpoints. 

10 Jun 2021

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