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Israel and the Palestinian Territories lie in the Middle East, between Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and along the Mediterranean Sea.
The estimated population of Israel is 7.7 million (CIA World Factbook, July 2012), and of the Palestinian Territories is 4.4 million (UN statistics, 2010), though estimates vary for Palestinians. Israel’s two official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, though Hebrew and English are most widespread. In the Palestinian Territories the major language is Arabic. The vast majority of Israelis are Jewish, and the majority of Palestinians are Muslim. There are notable Christian communities in both societies.
Arabs and Jews have been in conflict in this part of the world for more than a century––a conflict that became particularly intense following the British withdrawal from the territory of Palestine in May 1948, after thirty years of British occupation.
The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948––which was initially rejected by Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries––touched off decades of regional tensions and a series of violent wars that pitted Israel on one side and, on the other side, Palestinians and neighboring countries including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. These Arab-Israeli wars caused massive displacement of civilians as well as untold casualties.
The June 1967 “Six-Day War” changed the calculus of the conflict, as the war ended with Israel in control of vast Arab territories––including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. Since this time, mediation efforts have focused on a “land-for-peace” formula, whereby Israel would withdraw from occupied Arab territories in exchange for formal peace agreements. The U.S. has long been a lead mediator in the long-standing effort to reach Arab-Israeli peace.
Following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Nixon and Ford Administrations brokered a series of disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria, setting in motion what has since become known as the “Middle East Peace Process.” Notably, the Camp David accords were brokered by the U.S. and signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978. This breakthrough led to a full peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in March 1979, the first of its kind between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. As a result of the peace treaty, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty brought into being a U.S.-led international peacekeeping force and a large American-financed aid package for both countries.
Despite the breakthrough with Israel and Egypt, the Palestinian question continued to linger. The lack of progress, combined with Israel’s drive to build Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, led to increased tensions that turned violent with a major Palestinian uprising (the “Intifada”).
The 1993 Oslo accord, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was a breakthrough that set in motion a period of Palestinian self-rule that was to culminate in a permanent peace treaty by 1999. However, the process suffered numerous setbacks, including a major upsurge in violence, and ultimately collapsed in 2000. Oslo did pave the way for a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, signed in 1994, and that has stood the test of time.
But the core conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians persists. Over decades of disputes over land and rights, the level of violence has been high and the effects on the entire region have been deeply destabilizing. The international community has sought to broker agreements to resolve the conflict and advance solutions to address the underlying issues.
Despite a series of U.S.-led peace initiatives, the decade following the collapse of the Oslo process was particularly destabilizing and deadly. Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians were killed during a years-long Palestinian uprising (the Second Intifada), followed by a 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, as well as a 2008 war in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Efforts to promote peace continue. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2008 (the Annapolis process) came close to a peace deal. The Obama administration has worked in partnership with neighbors in the region and others in the international community to revive peace talks, but to little effect. The most recent round of formal negotiations, led by the United States, resulted in the promise of a cease-fire, although many of the most substantial issues remained unresolved. In March of 2013, President Obama spoke to the Israeli and Palestinian public, as well as government officials, during a diplomatic trip to the Middle East, emphasizing the value of a peaceful resolution for all sides and urging them to pursue peace talks. The results of these diplomatic efforts are still unfolding.
For more than two decades, the United States Institute of Peace has been engaged in efforts to support the peace process in the Middle East, assist with conflict management and resolution, and bolster interfaith efforts on the ground.
USIP has worked quietly on people-to-people peacebuilding efforts — providing opportunities for Arabs and Israelis from a range of walks of life (educators, students, officials, and even current and former negotiators) to meet face to face and devise practical solutions to the issues that divide them. For example, the Abraham Fund with USIP support has trained Israeli police in multicultural skills and awareness to improve the relationship between Israeli police and Arab society. Another example is USIP’s work with Palestinian universities to establish a nonviolence agreement on campuses that had experienced violent divisions before.
USIP has also partnered with dozens of Arab and Israeli civil society organizations and religious groups that promote conflict resolution and peaceful existence; offered policy advice through a number of expert commissions; facilitated high-level dialogue between leaders from the region; and provided almost 200 grants to organizations seeking to address various aspects of the conflict.
As part of its ongoing efforts to assist the peace process, USIP also provides expert support for the Middle East Quartet on justice and rule of law matters.
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