Explaining the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to an Eleven-Year-Old

Iz recently read and loved Naomi Shihab Nye's lyrical, thought-provoking novel Habibi, in which "a 14-year-old Arab-American girl moves to Jerusalem and falls in love with a Jewish boy -- challenging her family, culture, and tradition." Iz fell for the book's language (the author is a poet) and ruminations (it nudged her even closer to vegetarianism) and knew that the story's location was real, but she was still surprised when I told her that the book's Israeli - Palestinian conflict elements were reality-based. She then wanted to know more about how Israelis and Palestinians continue to live alongside each other yet have never truly coexisted. As I did not feel qualified to do the topic justice, a plea went out to the Internet.

And did the Internet ever respond! First Elise Butowsky sent a link to the Council on Foreign Relations' Israeli - Palestinian Conflict timeline, and then Naomi Zikmund-Fisher wrote a lengthy essay on the Israeli - Palestinian conflict just for Iz, custom-tailored with touchpoints to engage our eleven-year-old. After I recovered from my shock over Naomi's generosity, I handed the essay to Iz, who gobbled it up, rewound, gobbled, rewound, and gobbled again.

Since Iz's reaction was so positive, and since I know I'm not the only parent who appreciates having this kind of summary on hand, I asked for and received permission to republish Naomi's essay. I hope you find it useful. If you have anything else to add -- Naomi intentionally skipped some matters -- please be respectful, and do so in the name of information sharing and dialogue.

Dear Isobel -

OK, so, the first thing you need to understand is that there aren't just two points of view on this.  There are probably 100, and so anything I try to explain about it will probably be offensive to someone or other.  You also need to know that I'm coming at it as a Jewish American who was raised in the 70s when Jewish support for Israel was something that was just expected and you weren't supposed to ask too many questions. I've learned a lot since then, and I certainly can describe other points of view, but everyone comes at this problem with their own background, so that's mine.

The second thing you need to understand is that Jews and Palestinians have been living on and arguing over this land for thousands of years. Literally. You know in the Bible when they talk about the Philistines? That's the Palestinians, or at least their ancestors.

To understand how we got where we are, it might be useful to think about a time you had an argument or saw two people have an argument about who got to sit in a particular seat. Kids at my school do this a lot, and they always have a good reason why they should be the one who gets the seat: "I was there first," "You got up," "There's no saving seats," "The teacher promised me I could sit here," "You always get to sit there, it's not fair." Sometimes (not too often) this gets to the point where the teacher sends the kids to see me (I'm the Principal). When the kids explain the problem to me, I always notice that each kid starts the story from when they were sitting in the seat, even if that's not the "beginning" according to the other kid. That's how it is with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict -- both sides have reasons why the land should be theirs, and both tend to start the story from a point that makes their side look better.

I'm not going to try to go through thousands of years of history with you, so lets start in 1900. This is totally random. In 1900 the land in question was part of the Ottoman Empire, which is essentially what is now Turkey and all the land they owned. There were Jews and Palestinians living there, as well as some other groups. At that point, there were more Palestinians than Jews by quite a bit.

In the early 1900s, more and more Jews started coming to Palestine (that's what it was called then). They were coming mostly from Eastern Europe where there was a fair amount of violence against Jews. Part of the Jewish religion includes the idea of that area being promised to the Jews by God, and every year at Passover we say that next year we'll be in Jerusalem, so when things got bad in Europe it seemed like a good idea to go there. The Ottoman's gave over control to the British, and before World War II Palestine was still mostly Palestinian, but there were more and more Jews coming and they had taken up the idea that they could have their own country there -- this idea is called Zionism.

After World War II, when millions of Jews were murdered in Europe, it became kind of obvious to the world that no one really wanted to be in charge of the Jews.  During the war no country wanted to take them all in.  So the Zionists thought this was a good time to push the issue, and in 1947 the United Nations came up with a plan called "the partition" that split up Palestine into two countries, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, based on which group was bigger in each part of the area.  It was a messy plan -- the different parts didn't connect to each other.  Also, Jerusalem was really important to both groups so the UN decided it would be in charge of Jerusalem and it would be neutral.  This plan was going to require lots of people to move -- if you were Palestinian and happened to be in a majority Jewish area you probably didn't want to stay, and vice versa.

In 1948, the day before the partition was to go into effect, the Jews declared their portion independent of Britain (no surprise) and said they were going to call it Israel (big surprise).  Calling it Israel was a big statement that this was going to be THEIR land, because that's a name that comes solely from the Jewish religion.  On the day the partition was to go into effect, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya all declared war on Israel, essentially coming in on the side of the Palestinians to say that they did not want Israel to exist.  When the war ended, the boundaries of Israel looked a lot like they do today, and most Palestinians had either been forced out of their homes or chosen to go live in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.Jerusalem was divided right down the middle, with the western part of the city, which was newer, belonging to Israel and the eastern part which has both the Jewish and the Muslim holy sites belonging to Jordan.  The Palestinian state didn't exist.

Over time, the Palestinian refugee camps became more like cities and less like camps, and of course there were already cities in the same areas.  In 1956 there was another war between the Arab countries and Israel.  In 1967, there was clearly about to be another war.  Israel decided to make the first move and bombed the Egyptian airforce while the planes were still on the runway, basically knocking out the whole airforce.  The war lasted 6 days, and when it was over Israel was occupying the west bank and Gaza strip, as well as the entire Sinai desert.  From the Jewish point of view this was great -- they had more land and they had all of Jerusalem.  From the Palestinian point of view, this was horrible.  They had been forced off their land back in 1948, there had been 3 wars to try to get them back in and now not only were they not in their homes, but the Israelis were in charge of them.

There was yet another war in 1973 which Israel almost lost before the United States sent them a lot of weapons.  Meanwhile, a group called the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had formed in the west bank.  The leader was Yassir Arafat, and they were the first well known terrorist organization.  Their goal was to scare Israelis by bombing businesses, hotels, busses, etc. in hopes that the Israeli people would pressure the government to move out of the West Bank and Gaza.  Israel responded by cracking down on the Palestinians pretty hard, and it was illegal in Israel to speak to any member of the PLO.

Meanwhile, Israel had started building "settlements" in the occupied territories.  These were essentially housing developments, neighborhoods or entire cities.  A lot of the people who moved there were super-religious Jews who believe that God wants Jews to have the land, and they are there to take it.  Israel also started building on the edge of east Jerusalem, to the point where now "Jerusalem" is immensely huge and extends much father into the west bank than it used to.

In 1978, Egypt and Israel negotiated a peace treaty (technically they had been at war this entire time!).  The heads of both countries came to the US to Camp David where President Jimmy Carter helped them work out a deal.  In exchange for peace, the Israelis gave Egypt back the Sinai desert.  In the late 1980's, the Palestinians began rising up against the Israelis in the occupied territories (this is called the first intifadah, which means "uprising").  They would refuse to obey the soldiers and throw large rocks at them.  The soldiers sometimes responded by shooting at the rock throwers, and you can imagine that this made things much worse.

In the early 1990s, through unofficial channels, some Israelis started negotiating with the PLO.  Eventually, this led to what was known as the Oslo accords (because they were signed in Oslo, Norway).  This deal included a lot of different steps that were supposed to happen over a period of time.  Israel would start to pull out of the territories and the Palestinians would swear off terrorism and start their own government, called the Palestinian Authority (PA).  The PA got its own parliament, president, prime minister and police force.  Yassir Arafat was president.  The accords agreed on everything that would happen to create two different countries except for who would get Jerusalem -- that was supposed to be decided at the end of the process.

This was really controversial.  Lots of Israelis didn't like it because they thought it would be dangerous to have the Palestinians with an army right next door, and some thought they were entitled to the territories.  Lots of Palestinians didn't like it because they weren't going to get to go back to the parts of the land they came from.  As the accords started to go into effect, terrorism in Israel by Palestinians and in the PA by Jews went way up.  Every time there was an attack in Israel, the Israeli government would say to the PA, "Look, if you can't control your people then we're not going to do our part of the deal," which of course was exactly what the terrorists wanted.  Eventually, the deal just completely fell apart, leaving the PA with its own government but still occupied by the Israelis.

In the course of all this, however, the Israeli government did remove all the settlers from the Gaza Strip (they actually had to carry people out of their houses).  In about 2000, a second intifadah began.  Meanwhile, although there hadn't been any big wars for a while, and although Jordan had actually signed a peace deal with Israel, lots and lots of pro-Palestinian terrorist groups took up residence in southern Lebanon and in Gaza, as well as in the west bank.  From time to time they would launch rockets into Israel at the people who lived just over the border.

In 2004, Yassir Arafat died, and a man named Mahmoud Abbas became president of the PA.  Abbas was from the same political party, "Fatah," as Arafat, and Arafat had pretty much picked him.  Soon after, the PA held elections and elected a parliament that was mostly from Hamas, an ultra-anti-Israeli and pro-terrorism organization based in Gaza.  Fatah did not want to share the government with Hamas, and a civil war broke out in the PA.  When it was over, Hamas was in charge in Gaza and Fatah was in charge in the west bank.  The world wanted to create a situation where the people in Gaza would not want Hamas as the government, so they blockaded supplies (food, medicine) from going in and out of Gaza, and Israel sealed the border.

Now Gaza is terribly poor and the people there are really angry at Israel and the rest of the governments causing the problem.  Hamas is stronger than ever because people feel that if this is how they're going to be treated, they need to have Hamas to protect them.

In the last few years, there have been two wars.  One was in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, after Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldiers (one of them is still being held in Gaza).  The other was between Israel and Hezbollah, a pro-Palestinian organization in southern Lebanon that was bombing northern Israel.

Israel has started building a fence to seal off the West Bank from Israel, but lots and lots of Palestinians make their living working in Israel.  Israel also continues to build new settlements in the West Bank.

So that's the story of the last 100 years or so, and it makes you wonder who the good guys are.  Both sides have reasons for what they are doing that seem totally right, but the situation is totally wrong, and no one will compromise one little bit.  It's like both of them are sitting there with half their tushes on the seat, hoping the other one will give up.

I hope this helps you understand some of what you've been reading about.  If you have any other questions I'm happy to try to answer them.



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  1. Anonymous5:40 AM

    Wow. How awesome is that? My family is Lebanese-American, so we grew up hearing about this conflict (among others) in the Middle East. But I have never read such a clear, concise, unemotional and yet absolutely informative essay on the issue. Iz is incredibly lucky to have such people in her corner. I'm guessing she's got "diplomat" in her future?

  2. In the past 5 minutes of reading I have learned more about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict than I have learned in the past 30 years. Thanks to Naomi for writing this and to you for publishing it.

  3. Excellent summary, Naomi. I too grew up being expected to support Israel and started to question when I went away to college. There are no good guys in this history.

  4. What a fantastic and balanced summary! I wonder if Iz would be interested in The Source, James Mitchener's massive tome about an archaeological dig in Israel. It goes through the dig layer by layer, telling the stories of the people who lived on the land. It's fairly pro-Jewish, but a fascinating picture, going from the Stone Age up until the 60s.

  5. Anonymous4:47 PM

    Just a few extra points.
    1. The modern Palestinians are not descended from the biblical Philistines. The biblical philistines were obliterated by the assyrian army. They destroyed the major Philistine cities and sent the People into exile.Today's "modern" day Palestinians are descended from Arab traders and persons who settled in the land over several thousand years since Roman rule.The land was named Palestine by Rome after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE. The word Palestine means land of the Philistine, the biblical enemy of the Jews.
    2. The PLOo was formed in 1964 years before the 6 day war calling for the return of occupied land meaning what is today Israel inside the "green line."
    3. The rockets being shot into Israel's civilian areas at the moment of the Gaza war (2008) numbered 8,000.
    Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of the STate of Israel 4. Hizbullah does not care about the Palesinians. They actually are enemies of the Palestinians and have been responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon as were the Chistian Phalangist. Remember the Palestinians are also responsible for killing hundreds of Christians and Shiite in Lebanon as well.
    5. At the same time Jordan in Sept 1970 was responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinains, when the PLO tried to overthrow the government.
    6. UNRWA which is the UN agency responsible for providing care and support for the Palestinians has one fo the largest budgets dedicated to a refugee group. Unfortunately the Palestinians who live in refugee camps, mostly throughout the Arab world,live in squalor and deplorable conditions. Meanwhile the headquarters of UNRWA is in Vienna.
    7. The security fence built in response to suicide bombing in Israel, has faced challenges in the Israeli court system, and the government has been forced to move it to minimize its effects upon the poplutaion. Remember if peace comes and the Palestinains give up their "right" to commit terrorism, which they call "armed resistance",the fence will come down.
    9. The Palestinians have been offered a state three times in recent history.All three times they rejected the offer, 1948, 1990under President Clinton and just recently by PM Olmert.
    10. The majority of Palestinians live in Arab nations where they are persecuted, and refused citizenship.
    11.No I don't think Israel is perfect. No nation is.But in Israel there is an active peace movement, civil rights movement, arab members of parliament, arabs at the highest level of all the universities and professions. Yes, there are problems, but I think Israel is constantly trying to fix herself, even in many ways more than we do here, only because they know they need to be vigilant on these issues.
    12. Anti-semitism around the world is close to WWII levels.Some of the worst anti-semitic books and media comes out of the Arab middle east.
    Try Uris', Exodus, Mila 18, QB7, The Hajj.
    Wouk, The Hope and The Glory

    BTW my BA is in the middle east, JD-civil right, constitutional and internatinallaw
    OK I am done now.

  6. That was a fantastic summary. Tell Iz (and Naomi!) that this 24 year old college student learned more from that than any previous readings--thanks for posting something so coherent and accessible. I don't know enough to offer opinions--my only opinion, really, is that killing is an unacceptable way to solve problems, which doesn't offer a lot in the way of actual solutions!

  7. Wow! what a fantastic summary from Naomi, and what a great "i" dotting.
    I agree anti-semitism is on the rising. Several French Jews are migrating to Israel to escape the heavy antisemitic movement of their country.

  8. what this kept reminding me of as i read it was: in 1978, just at the time sadat was going to israel, my first love--who was an isreali foreign student in los angeles who watched the arrival on television as if it had been of martians visiting orson wells-- asked me to explain what watergate had been a few years before. i was so impressed with myself that i really could do it and actually make him understand the story, at least, but now? i'm not so sure.

  9. I'd just like to say that this is one of the best rundowns of Isreali-Palestinan politics that I've ever read. As a Jew I grew up beliving only ine one side of the story and it was a very painful awakening to realize that the reality was far more complex.

    I'd also like to say that I've had the privilege of hearing Naomi Shihab Nye read her poetry in person and I think you and Iz would enjoy reading it too.

  10. Anonymous8:31 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Anonymous3:11 AM

    @ asd2mom.spaces.live.com

    All that you've written is Zionist Mythological propaganda that has been debunked by modern well-versed Jewish intellectuals.

    People like you really need to books like

    1.Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Alan Hart

    2.The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Ilan Pappe

    3.The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy- Alan Dershowitz & John Mearsheimer

    4.Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories - Anna Balter

  12. Anonymous5:16 PM

    It’s incredibly difficult to explain the Palestine/Israel conflict to anyone, let alone a child, so I guess Naomi has done her best. The reason I came across this page is because I’m doing a workshop on this subject for kids tomorrow and trying to find the most appropriate way to get information across to the kids.
    I was saddened to read a number of things written by Naomi. She says in 1948 Palestinians had ‘chosen to go live in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip’. These Palestinians were fleeing for their lives and still live in squalid refugee camps, to say they chose to leave is something that completely ignores the terror these people went through and why there is so much resentment from the refugees today.
    She then says ‘Over time, the Palestinian refugee camps became more like cities and less like camps’ These are not the words anyone who has ever visited a Palestinian refugee camp would use to describe them. It almost makes them sound like normal places to live.
    There are also lots of sad things, like Naomi only using the word ‘terrorists’ when referring to Palestinians and not mentioning at all the Jewish terrorists that carried out attacks in the lead up to the creation of Israel and the current Jewish terror from extremist Jewish settlers who the state of Israel arms.
    When talking about Oslo she again blames the ‘terrorists’ completely ignoring the fact that one of the main problems was the fact that settlement building doubled during that period bringing increased hardship to the Palestinians.
    From then on the account only gets worse. We hear of rockets being fired into Israel but no account of the air and land strikes on the Palestinian territories killing men, women and children. The settlers leaving Gaza was clearly an excuse to bomb the place to bits, which is what has been done.
    The ‘fence’ is mentioned in one sentence – The international criminal court has said this wall is illegal – it is an Israeli attempt to steal more Palestinian land and water resources. Thousands of Palestinians have lost their land and homes because of it. Israel has ignored the court ruling. Why is it not on the green line?
    This ‘explanation’ is quite patronising but typical coming from a person writing from a place of privilege. People are not sitting on their ‘tushes’. Thousands have lost loved ones and are desperate for a solution.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.