General Background

While the information below is necessary for understanding the situation in Palestine and Israel, perhaps one of the most important things to realize is that “Palestine” and “Israel” are not as separate as one might expect, given various appellations like the “Palestine-Israel conflict” which imply a clear-cut separation. For one, Palestinians account for 20% of the Israeli population by citizenship. The important thing to recognize is that “Palestine” and “Israel” by no means refer to distinct geographical areas or state formations. We are talking about different people who inhabit the same area of land, over which Israel is effectively sovereign. Within the 1967 borders, the Israeli government uses civilian law and Palestinians have some rights; outside those borders, the Israeli government uses military law and Palestinians have almost no rights. This gerrymandering is meant to ensure that civil law, civil rights, and citizenship are only extended to people who live in areas where a Jewish majority can be maintained; over the rest, the Israeli government governs by the gun.



Map of Israel, West Bank, Gaza

The area of Israel and Palestine is bordered by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Jordan River. Israel has never declared its borders, but the area of Israel and Palestine which is claimed by no other state is illustrated in the map to the right. What are referred to as the occupied Palestinian territories today consist of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, which are referenced in the map to the right.


Israel, as defined by 1967 ceasefire lines, consists of roughly 8000 square miles and is home to approximately 6.5 million people. Ethnically, this population is 76% Jewish and approximately 23% Arab Palestinian. Approximately a quarter million of the Arab population in Israel are refugees who were internally displaced by Zionist militias in 1947 and 1948.1

Roughly 2300 square miles, the West Bank is home to about 2.5 million Palestinians, 42.4% of whom are under the age of 14 and 45.7% of whom live under the poverty line. Over 700,000 of the Palestinians in the West Bank are refugees expelled by Israel in 1948 and 1967. Under a program of expansion started by the Israeli government in the 1970s, the West Bank has also come to be colonized by almost a quarter million Israeli settlers who live in Jewish-only outposts and have developed a complex system of Jewish-only roads that connect the outposts to one another as well as Israel proper. These settlers and the infrastructure built by Israel to support them are the apartheid system’s most obvious face.2

The Gaza Strip is home to approximately 1.5 million Palestinians, nearly half of which are under the age of 14 and approximately a million of which are refugees displaced by Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars. Living all together in less than 140 square miles of land, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip live in one of the highest population density areas in the world. Over 60% of the population in Gaza lives below the poverty line due to the intense pressures of the Israeli siege. While the Gaza Strip borders Egypt, Israel retains sovereign control over whether or not persons are able to cross the border, leaving families, goods, and medical supplies stranded at the border for days and weeks at a time.3


Understanding the political scenario in both Israel and Palestine is essential to understanding current developments in the area. The Palestinian political scenario today is defined first and foremost by the conclusions of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which established the Palestinian Authority (PA) and granted it limited administrative control over certain portions of the West Bank and Gaza. At best, the PA and PLC can be said to represent Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but not Palestinian refugees in the diaspora or Palestinian citizens of Israel. While some characterize the PA as an independent Palestinian government, the truth is that it is not sovereign in any real sense, as it is tacitly and materially dependent upon the Israeli government for its functioning, especially under military occupation. Furthermore, as a result of Oslo, the PA is not allowed to have a military, and has no final authority whatsoever over Palestine’s borders, natural resources, or inhabitants (especially Jewish settlers).

The PA also includes the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), a parliament elected by the residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The PLC includes 13 members, and most recently Hamas was elected to power in January 2006. However, swaths of the PLC’s members at a time have been arbitrarily detained by the Israeli military, and a number of members remain in Israeli custody to this day.4

The two chief political organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today are Fatah and Hamas. In January 2006, Hamas won a plurality of parliament seats, leading to an international campaign to disenfranchise the Palestinian people by isolating their elected government with a series of sanctions, embargoes, and military incursions. The elected Prime Minister is Ismail Haniyeh, a member of the Hamas party. Fatah member Mahmoud Abbas remains in control of the executive branch and is the elected President who succeeded the late Yasir Arafat. In 2007 as a result of the intense pressures of the economic embargo and interference by outside countries like the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, clashes broke out between these two organizations, leaving the PA in a state of constitutional crisis and confusion, with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas controlling Gaza.

Mahmood Abbas

Fatah (the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine) was founded in 1957 by Yasir Arafat along secular-nationalist ideological lines. It currently holds 45 seats in the PLC. Known for the corruption of many of its officials in Palestine, and blamed partially for its failure to accomplish anything that improved the lives of Palestinians since the Oslo Accords, Fatah’s popularity has been challenged in recent years, though it remains a powerful force. Fatah’s militia is the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. As indicated by the second intifada of 2000, many Palestinians have become disillusioned with the status quo, and have come to associate the Fatah party with its problems. Today, Israel and the United States look to Fatah as a counterweight to the rise of Hamas, who they consider to be a threat to their control over the region.

Ismail Haniyeh

Hamas (the Movement of Islamic Resistance) was founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada along religious-nationalist ideological lines. A vast social organization, Hamas provides schools, medical care, and day care for a number of Palestinians who otherwise live difficult lives. Hamas also has a militia established to fight Israeli troops in the occupied territories, and has turned out to be a counterweight to Fatah, given its long record of opposition to the Oslo Accords and its clean record as far as domestic corruption in governance was concerned. Hamas officials have often stated that they are ready for a long-term truce with Israel during which time final status negotiations can occur. In the past, Hamas has conducted numerous deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, as well as making anti-Jewish pronouncements in its covenant. It has also committed numerous human rights abuses against Palestinians. SJP’s dedication to the human rights of the Palestinian people is rooted in a fundamental respect for the human rights of all people. These include the right of all civilians, including Palestinians and Israelis, not to be the targets of violence. We therefore denounce any such violence against civilians, be it by the Israeli army, settlers, Hamas, Fatah or any other party to the conflict. Just as we condemn the racism and discrimination underlying the policies and laws of the state of Israel, we reject any form of hatred or discrimination against any religious, racial, or ethnic group. Palestinian Civil Society. Both Fatah and Hamas have engaged in serious human rights violations and in persecution of their political opponents. SJP at Cal has never hosted members of these quasi-governmental groups. Instead, we have allied ourselves with representatives of independent, non-govenmental bodies from the Occupied Territories, 1948 Israel and the Diaspora. These have included members of the BDS National Committee, a wide coalition of labor unions, youth organizations and other NGOs; activists in popular committees organizing resistance to the Apartheid Wall; GLBTQ organizations like alQaws and Aswat, and other human rights organizations.


A brief history is coming soon.

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  4. More information on the PA and PLC.