There's a lot of things going on with Israel, and it can get overwhelming. Read our primers for a quick and comprehensive digest of some of the most complex issues.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, known by its more Twitter-friendly acronym, BDS, was devised by pro-Palestinian activists. Among BDS supporters, some protest Israel’s presence in or occupation of (depending on how you see the world) the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while others oppose the existence of a Jewish democratic state altogether. The originators of the BDS movement say that it is a nonviolent movement and that they are following in the footsteps of the 1980s anti-apartheid movement that used economic pressure to combat policies of the South African government.
Take a closer look and you’ll see the movements are not alike. For one, the end goal of the BDS movement’s founders isn’t just an end to certain Israeli government policies — it’s the end of a Jewish State. One founder of the campaign, Omar Barghouti, has been clear about his views. He wrote, “the two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is really dead. Good riddance! […] We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it, for Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.” Another major backer of the BDS movement is the terrorist organization Hamas, which announced via social media, “We salute and support the influential BDS Movement.”
Why is the BDS Movement Popular?
Not everyone who supports the BDS movement is aware of the ties between the movement and its founders’ and supporters’ extremist views. Some other BDS advocates call for “settlement boycotts,” or selective economic punishment for Israeli companies that operate over the Green Line as a form of protest. But the BDS movement calls for a boycott against anything Israeli, inside and outside the Green Line.
Some of the Israeli companies that are targeted by BDS employ thousands of Palestinian employees, so the movement puts their jobs at risk. For example, SodaStream is an Israeli company that had a factory in the West Bank and employed 500 Palestinians. Jews, Arab citizens of Israel, and Palestinians were paid the same salary and enjoyed the same benefits. In 2016, bowing to BDS pressure, SodaStream closed its factory leaving 500 Palestinians, 450 Israeli Arabs, and 350 Israeli Jews out of work, despite a history of equal pay, coexistence, and some of the best manufacturing wages on the West Bank.
BDS is an Obstacle to Peace
The BDS movement fails to credit Israel for the peace efforts it has made throughout its 70-year existence and blames Israel for an occupation that came about through a defensive war.
In 1967, the Arab nations that encircled Israel united to attack Israel. In a surprising turn of events, Israel drove back their combined armies and more than tripled its land mass, leaving it in control of over one million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has tried to forge peace agreements that would see the creation of a Palestinian state that includes more than 97% of the West Bank and has East Jerusalem as the capital, but in each of three instances, the Palestinian leadership has rejected the deal or walked away from negotiations.
When Israel found itself with a willing peace partner, it made peace. It did so with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1979 and King Hussein of Jordan in 1993.
The majority of Israelis believe that the Palestinians should have a state as well as the freedom and dignity that comes with self-determination. The challenge is how to create a state without endangering Israel. In 2005, Israel disengaged from Gaza, uprooting thousands of Israeli families from their homes. Hamas quickly rose to power and has used Gaza as a launching base to attack Israel, firing rockets and digging tunnels underneath the border to attack Israeli communities.
A movement created with the purpose of delegitimizing, stigmatizing, and economically isolating Israel will only make peace more difficult to achieve. Unilateral efforts to internationalize the conflict aren’t the answer. The only way to achieve peace is for Israelis and Palestinians to engage in direct negotiations and compromise.
One of the Palestinian Authority’s main obligations under the terms of the Oslo Accords is ending the anti-Israel incitement that permeates Palestinian institutions and civil society. Raising children in a culture that teaches hatred of Israelis and Jews damages the prospects for a peaceful future.
The Prevalence of Incitement
Calls for violence against Israelis are all too prevalent in Palestinian society, including in schools, summer camps, sporting events, television shows, and cartoons. Terrorists are honored by having public buildings, plazas, and even schools named after them. In Gaza, children attend terrorist summer camps and learn from textbooks that teach “jihad” and the “dangers imposed by the Zionist project.”
In 2015, the Surda-Abu Qash municipality in the West Bank renamed a street after Muhannad Halabi a week after he killed two Israeli men and wounded a mother and her child. The mayor of the municipality called Halabi, “a pride and badge of honor for the whole village.” More recently, in May 2017, the Palestinian Authority named a youth center after Dalal Mughrai, the terrorist behind a bus hijacking in which 37 Israelis were killed, including 12 children.
It’s not surprising that Palestinian social media and popular culture follow suit. Several hashtags such as "Poison the Knife before You Stab," and "Slaughtering the Jews," have trended in Arabic social media, along with how-to guides that encourage more terror attacks. Polls of Palestinian adults have found that over 90 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip have somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinions of Jews.
There’s a direct connection between anti-Israel incitement and terrorism. Violent words all too often lead to violent acts of terrorism.
The Palestinian Authority is notorious for celebrating and rewarding terrorists and their families. Palestinian laws direct that Palestinians who are convicted of attacks in Israel are entitled to monthly “salaries” and plum jobs upon their release. The deadlier an attack, the more profitable the payout. In its 2016 budget, the Palestinian Authority allocated $140 million for payments to prisoners and $175 million for payments to the families of “martyrs.” That amounts to roughly seven percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget — that’s money not being spent on infrastructure, health care, education, and other investments that could improve the quality of life for Palestinians.
The United States provides approximately $400 million a year in economic assistance to the Palestinian territories, a portion of which is dedicated to supporting the annual budget. As the Washington Post pointed out, money is fungible — any support from the US has the potential to free up funds elsewhere that can be used for terrorist payments.
Final ThoughtsAs the prevailing government in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is supposed to be Israel’s negotiating partner. Israelis question the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to make peace while it is openly rewarding and celebrating terrorists. The United States can certainly exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority, but even with some success, such as stopping payments to families of terrorists, reversing decades of violent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment will take a long time.
Israel’s security barrier has become an iconic visual in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before it was built, there was no physical separation preventing terrorists from the West Bank from entering Israel. A wave of terror attacks in the early 2000s prompted the Israeli government to erect a physical separation to stop the assault against its citizens.
Although most photos suggest a lengthy concrete wall, the 440 mile-long barrier is actually only five percent concrete and ninety-five percent multi-layered fence. The concrete section was put in places where there had been sniper attacks and in densely populated areas where there was insufficient land to build the multi-layered fence.
There is no denying that the barrier has caused substantial hardship for Palestinians who have homes or fields located on or near its route or who need to pass to the other side to access work, schools, and hospitals. Critics also say the barrier unilaterally creates a de facto border before there is an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Reduction in Terrorism
Between 2000 and 2005, Palestinian suicide attacks originating from the West Bank killed over 1,000 Israelis. In 2002 alone, the year the Israeli government began construction on the barrier, 47 terror attacks left 452 Israeli civilians dead. Since then, terrorist attacks against Israelis have dropped by about 90%, from 452 in 2002 to 117 in 2004 to 16 in 2016.
The Israeli Supreme Court has issued rulings validating the legality of the barrier as a security fence, but it has also challenged parts of the proposed route because it placed undue hardship on Palestinian residents.This has delayed construction in some areas. Internationally, the security barrier has been a source of criticism from United Nations resolutions and legal cases at the International Court of Justice.
Israelis insist the barrier is a security fence, while Palestinians claim that it is a political border. There’s no question that the barrier is saving lives, but it’s also causing economic and social hardships for Palestinians, so it continues to be a source of tension and debate.
One of the great untold stories of the twentieth century is the mass exodus of Jewish refugees from the Arab world. Lots of people have heard about Palestinian refugees, but there were in fact two large refugee populations that emerged in the Middle East in the mid-twentieth century.
For over 2,500 years, the Middle East and North Africa was home to many strong and vibrant Jewish communities. This changed in the twentieth century with the rise of widespread persecution, the expropriation of property, outbreaks of violence, arbitrary arrest and expulsions.
The situation further deteriorated when the United Nations began discussing a partition plan that would lead to the creation of two states, one Arab and one Jewish, living side-by side. Shortly before the vote on the plan, Heykal Pasha, an Egyptian delegate, delivered the following statement to the General Assembly: “The United Nations . . . should not lose sight of the fact that the proposed solution might endanger a million Jews living in the Muslim countries. Partition of Palestine might create in those countries an anti-Semitism even more difficult to root out than the anti-Semitism which the Allies were trying to eradicate in Germany. . . If the United Nations decides to partition Palestine, it might be responsible for the massacre of a large number of Jews.”
His words proved true. After the vote, the Arab League instructed its members to freeze Jewish assets and declare Jews enemies of the state. After Israel declared independence in 1948, Israel’s Arab neighbors declared war on the nascent Jewish State, triggering a dramatic surge in anti-Semitism and violence that made the lives of Jews in Arab countries untenable to the point that many were forced to leave. Between 1948 and 1951, approximately 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries.
Israel Absorbs Refugees
Israel absorbed some 688,000 Jewish refugees in its first three years, nearly doubling the country’s population. Israel faced a major logistical and budgetary struggle to feed, house, and integrate these new citizens, but the nation ultimately succeeded. Today, those refugees are part of Israel’s success story.
On two separate occasions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruled that Jews fleeing from Arab countries were indeed bona fide refugees who "fall under the mandate of my (UNHCR) office." Yet, their story has remained largely ignored outside of Israel.
There have been more than 170 UN resolutions referring to the situation of Palestinian refugees. Thirteen UN agencies and organizations provide protection and relief to them, and the international community has given tens of billions of dollars in services and assistance to support Palestinian refugees. During that same time, no UN resolutions and no UN agency has recognized or supported Jewish refugees, and the international community has given no financial assistance to their plight.
Efforts to secure rights and redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees. In any Middle East peace proposals, the rights and claims of Palestinian refugees will be discussed and negotiated. It is important to ensure that the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from Arab countries are similarly recognized and addressed.
In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, its de facto Constitution, minorities are guaranteed “full and equal citizenship.” Minority groups in Israel make up a fifth of the country’s population, and many of them identify as Israeli Arabs. Israel’s minorities serve in the IDF, achieve top positions in medicine, law, and politics, and largely co-exist with the state’s Jewish majority.
Overview of minority groups
Israeli minority groups vary widely by religious practice, national origin, and geography. While a majority (83 percent) are Muslim, Israel is also home to Druze Arabs, Circassians, and Christian Arabs. Israel is the spiritual center of Christianity — it also happens to be the only country in the region where the Christian population is increasing.
Judicial and legislative representation
As both the only functioning democracy and the only non-Muslim state in the Middle East, Israel is unique in the region for its protection of minority rights. Approximately 1.7 million Arabic speakers live in Israel. They account for about 20 percent of the population, which explains why, in addition to Hebrew, Arabic is an official language of Israel.
Israeli Arabs are well-represented in the Knesset, including by the Arab Joint List, a political party that holds 13 seats in the 120-member body. They also hold prominent positions in government, the military, Israel’s private sector, and the judiciary: Salim Joubran and George Kara both serve on Israel’s Supreme Court, and Joubran is Deputy Chief Justice; Druze politician Majalli Whabi served as Israel’s acting President in 2007; Alaa Waheeb was promoted to the rank of Major in the IDF in 2006; Dr. Aziz Darawshe is the chief of Emergency Medicine at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem; and Rasha Atamny is Israel’s first Arab diplomat, serving in Turkey.
Challenges for minorities
For all their successes, challenges remain for Israel’s minorities. Like any country, Israel has its share of societal problems, and persistent gaps between Jews and non-Jews remain in Israeli culture, Israel’s economy, and Israel’s educational system. Unemployment among Arab Israelis is higher than it is among Jews, and wages tend to be lower for those who are employed. This contributes to higher poverty rates among minority groups. Additionally, Muslims, Druze, and Jews often self-segregate, leading to greater economic inequality.
While IDF service is compulsory for Jews, it has been optional for Arabs since 1948, which has led to some institutional inequality. Israeli Arabs often lack the alumni network — and the military pension – that Israeli Jews can rely upon. Recently, the number of Arab men enlisting in the IDF has grown, which could close could help close this gap. Among Druze, more than 60 percent serve in the IDF.
For the last 3,000 years, Jerusalem has been the most contested piece of urban real estate on the planet. And within its Old City walls, the Temple Mount is the most prized property. Significant to three major faiths, the Temple Mount has inspired fervent worship, deep suspicion, and sporadic violence.
For Jews, the site of the Temple Mount is the holiest place on earth. It is believed to be the location of the Foundation Stone, which is the place from which the entire world was created, and the site where Abraham offered his son Isaac to God as a sacrifice (spoiler alert: Isaac lived). It is also the place where the two Jewish temples used to stand.
Yet from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. until 1967 when Israel captured Jerusalem from the Jordanians in the Six Day War, Jews were often banned from visiting the holy site or were restricted from worshipping their faith. Israel has since passed laws to ensure that people of all faiths have access to Jerusalem’s holy sites.
For Muslims, the Temple Mount is known as the Haram esh-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. The Koran, like the Jewish Bible, details Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and later tells of the Prophet Mohammed’s “Night Journey to the Throne of God” in this place. In the seventh century, caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount plaza as a mashhad, a shrine for pilgrims. A few decades later, the al-Aqsa mosque was built nearby for public worship to mark the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
Who can visit the Temple Mount?
A few hours after Israel won the Six-Day War and unified Jerusalem, Moshe Dayan began to devise the arrangements that would eventually be called the “status quo,” an effort to avoid a regional religious war. Jordan and Israel agreed that the Waqf, or the Islamic trust, would manage the Temple Mount and be responsible for religious and civil affairs on the site. Non-Muslims would be allowed onto the site to visit, but they would be prohibited from praying. Israel would assume responsibility for security, both within the sacred compound and along with the wall and gates surrounding it. Israeli sovereignty and law would be applied to the Temple Mount as it was to the other parts of Jerusalem. Today, Israel continues to oversee security on the Temple Mount, and, on occasion, restricts access to the site to prevent outbreaks of violence.
Violence originating at the Temple Mount, or how to spark an Intifada or two
Because of the importance of the site, one of the easiest ways to inflame religious tensions is to suggest that the status quo is being altered. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even on occasion the Palestinian Authority have accused the Israeli government of planning to change the status quo, which inevitably inflames tensions and often leads to violence.
In 2000, a visit by then-Likud leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount — which involved a 34-minute stroll around the plaza during tourist hours (and no visits to the holy Muslim shrine or mosque) — sparked violence between young Muslim men and Israeli security forces. The Palestinian Authority fanned the flames, calling all Muslims to “come and defend the al-Aqsa mosque.” The result was the Second Intifada, which lasted more than four years and had an excruciatingly painful toll on Israeli civilians and Palestinians alike.
False claims that Israel intended to change the status quo on the Temple Mount led to a spasm of violence in 2014. There were more than 12,000 instances of stone throwing, gas bombs, vehicle-based terror attacks, and stabbings. In nearly every case, the victims were Israelis and Jews, and they were also targets of convenience — children, the elderly, commuters, off- and on-duty soldiers, and police.
Most recently, in July 2017, violence that originated on the Temple Mount spilled into the surrounding areas after terrorists smuggled guns into the Temple Mount complex and murdered two Israeli police officers. After the shooting, Israeli security forces installed metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount and searched the site for hidden weapons caches. Angry Palestinian leaders called for a “day of rage,” and that resulted in violent protests. Street demonstrations erupted throughout in the Muslim world — even as far away as Malaysia and Yemen — once again demonstrating the Temple Mount’s ability to inflame tensions. The Waqf demanded that Israel remove the metal detectors and newly installed security cameras, and the Israeli government acquiesced to end the violence.
The Israeli government continues to clearly state that it has no intention of changing the status quo and that it will continue to permit people of all faiths to visit the Temple Mount. Nonetheless, there are Palestinian leaders who continue to use the holy site as a pretext to advance their own political agenda.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel is the only continuous democracy in the Middle East. A parliamentary democracy consisting of legislative, executive, and judicial branches, Israel's institutions include the Presidency, the 120-member Knesset (parliament), the Government (cabinet), and the Judiciary. Its system is based on the principle of separation of powers, with checks and balances, in which the executive branch (the government) is subject to the confidence of the legislative branch (the Knesset) and the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law.
The Prime Minister is the head of the political party that receives the most parliamentary seats. There is also a president, elected by a majority of the Knesset, who has a largely ceremonial role, symbolizing the unity of the state above and beyond party politics.
In the beginning…
Considering that their new country was made up of significant numbers of Holocaust survivors andrefugees, Israel’s founders sought to establish a governmental system that would protect individual freedom. They established a constitutional democracy resembling a parliamentary system that was similar to what many of its immigrants were familiar with in Europe. The system would guarantee freedom of the press, freedom of religion, language, and culture, and it would safeguard the holy places of all faiths.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, said, “the test of democracy is freedom of criticism.” True to his vision, Israel has a vibrant free press, expressing a wide array of political opinions and points of view.
The Knesset and elections
The Knesset? is the parliament of the State of Israel, and its main function is to legislate. It took its name and fixed its membership at 120 representatives from the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly), the representative Jewish body convened in Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C.E.
Like other parliamentary systems, Israel’s election system is based on proportional representation — that is, seats are assigned in proportion to each party's percentage of the total national vote.
Elections are mandated to take place every four years, but the Knesset can dissolve itself or be dissolved by the Prime Minister before the end of its term. Early elections have been a common occurrence in Israel’s 70-year history.
In all elections so far, turnout has been 77–87 percent of all eligible voters (citizens over the age of 18). Election day in Israel is a holiday, and free transportation is available to voters who happen to be outside their polling districts.
Like other parliamentary democracies, Israel has many political parties, from major ones such as Likud and Labor to single-issue parties that emerge before elections and just as quickly disappear. Every Knesset has included 10–15 parties, and, in the course of every term, factions have both split and united.
So how exactly does this work?
In a parliamentary system, voters don’t cast ballots for a leader: they vote for a party. Following the election, the leader of the party with the most votes is invited to form a government. In the last Israeli election, Likud received the most votes but received only a quarter of the 120 seats. Likud had to forge partnerships with other political parties to create a coalition government that agrees on who should be Prime Minister.
Given Israel’s incredible diversity of cultures, languages, religions, and immigrants, it’s not surprising that Israel’s parliament reflects those differences. In the current Knesset, there are 10 political parties. Likud is the largest, with 30 seats, with the Zionist Camp, formerly known as the Labor Party, with 24. The Joint List, comprised of four Arab political parties, is the third largest with 13 seats.
Messy, sometimes combative, and noisy, Israeli democracy reflects the famous quote by Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Israel’s highly competitive political environment guarantees each citizen in the country has a say and a political party that reflects their interests and stances on issues.
In 1948, five Arab nations invaded the newly-declared State of Israel, rejecting a United Nations-backed partition plan that would have divided British Mandate Palestine into two states: one Arab, one Jewish. The young country held off the attacks and began the process of building a modern state for the Jewish people. So many people were displaced during the war that the U.N. established U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with the singular mission of aiding the 700,000 Palestinian refugees uprooted by the war.
The U.N. established the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) two years later to assist Europeans who had fled or lost their homes in the Second World War. Today, UNHCR works in over 130 countries and resettled nearly 200,000 people in 2016 alone. In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate to work solely with Palestinians refugees.
Ending statelessness or perpetuating it?
Today, UNRWA counts over 5 million Palestinian refugees. The agency is now operating on a $1.2 billion annual budget, with nearly a third of its funding coming from the United States.
While a refugee is typically defined as a person who has been forced to leave one’s country because of war, persecution, or national disaster, Palestinians displaced in the 1948 War are the only people who can be born into refugee status and pass that status to future generations. This, as some experts point out, is a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that a person is no longer a refugee if s/he has “acquired a new nationality” and notes that refugee status should not be permanent.
According to the UNRWA, a Palestinian refugee is any person “whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1, 1946 and May 15, 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict… descendants of Palestinian males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration.” Palestinian refugees are still classified as such by UNRWA even if they are nationals of other countries, own property, hold jobs, and pay taxes in other countries.
Radicalization of the UNRWA
UNRWA is staffed in situ mainly by Palestinians — more than 23,000 of them — with only about 100 international United Nations professionals. And some UNRWA professionals have expressed strong anti-Israel sentiments in recent years.
A review of UNRWA materials for schools found that they include assertions that “Jews have no holy places” in Israel and that sites including the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs (Hebron) and Rachel’s Tomb (Bethlehem) are “threatened Muslim holy places.” A 130-page report by UN Watch issued in early 2018 found that UNRWA teachers “venerated Hitler,” called a car-ramming terrorist “a hero,” glorified stone throwers, denied the Holocaust, and celebrated the murder of rabbis by Palestinian terrorists.
And that’s just what’s happening in the classroom. On numerous occasions, Hamas rockets have been found in UNRWA-run schools in Gaza. While U.N. officials condemned the use of UNRWA facilities for terrorist armories, subsequent reports found that Hamas actually used the schools as launching pads for attacks on Israeli population centers.
Potential U.S. cuts
Since the beginning of 2018, the Trump Administration has signaled its intention to cut aid to the UNRWA, beginning with a tweet from the president that referenced “hundreds of millions of dollars” paid to Palestinians annually. That was followed by the United States freezing a $125 million aid transfer to the UNRWA.
Should the U.S. decide to cut fund to the UNRWA, the money for a number of critical needs for Palestinians would need to be made up in other ways. Israel, for its part, has a strong interest in ending Palestinian incitement, but, without the funding typically provided by the U.S., Palestinian areas could be thrown into chaos. Nearly the entire population of Gaza relies on UNRWA as a “de facto government,” handling administrative duties and public services while Hamas builds terror tunnels.
Final thoughtsThe needs of Palestinians require the UN’s attention, but whether this group requires its own agency is the key question. The UNHCR mandate could be expanded to include Palestinians and replace the UNRWA as an agency that can deliver services without hindering peace between Israelis and Palestinians.