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International Law and the
Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

The episode of Palestinian-Israeli violence that began in 2000 and continues today is the latest in a long cycle.

After the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which began in 1987, Israeli and Palestinian teams began secret negotiations near Oslo, Norway. They culminated in 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat signed a historic Declaration of Principles, causing much optimism that peace might take root. Several issues -- control of Jerusalem; the right of return for Palestinian refugees; Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip ); and borders -- were left to be discussed later in so-called final status talks.

Several positive developments followed, including the partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories, elections to the Palestinian Council and the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, the release of some prisoners and the establishment of a functioning administration in the areas under Palestinian self-rule.

But trust between the two sides, having reached a peak when Rabin and Arafat signed the declaration, disintegrated. Each side failed to fulfill some of its commitments. Israel, for instance, continued to allow its citizens to build settlements in the Occupied Territories, and Arafat failed to remove articles of the Palestinian Charter calling for Israelís destruction.

In 2000, during talks in the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton launched an all-out push for a final settlement with Arafat, who had become president of the Palestinian Authority. Two weeks of talks failed to produce solutions on control of Jerusalem or the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

In the uncertainty of the ensuing impasse, Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition Likud party, toured the area around the al-Aqsa mosque, a major Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. Sharon's critics saw it as a highly provocative move. Palestinian demonstrations followed, quickly developing into what became known as the al-Aqsa intifada. Since it began, Israeli forces have reoccupied much of the territory that had been ceded to Palestinian control, and numerous suicide attacks by militant Palestinian factions have targeted Israeli civilians. Yasser Arafat says that he does not control these groups, but his critics say he sanctions their attacks. For more background, see the BBCís timeline of events since 1897, a historical overview from the United Nations, or a history of Israel from Israelís Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Numerous declarations, international agreements, treaties and U.N. resolutions pertain to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was the first major declaration by a world power, Great Britain, in favor of a Jewish "national home" in what was known as Palestine.

  • U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181(II) (November 29, 1947) provided for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with international status for Jerusalem.

  • U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) (December 11, 1948) affirms the right of Palestinians to return to their original homes and lands, and to receive compensation for any losses incurred, as well as the right of resettlement for those Palestinian refugees choosing not to return, and compensation for their losses.

  • Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. The Fourth Geneva Convention Concerning the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (August 12, 1949) imposes an obligation on an occupying power to protect the civilian population. This is specified in Articles 47 to 78. In accordance with Article 1, the international community has a duty to take steps to secure compliance.

  • U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (November 22, 1967) calls on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied in the 1967 conflict.

  • U.N. Security Council Resolution 338 (October 22, 1973) calls for a ceasefire in the 1973 conflict and for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

  • On September 9, 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized one another in an exchange of letters between Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat.

  • On September 13, 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat signed a Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements.

  • The Wye River Memorandum of October 23, 1998, set out steps to facilitate implementation of the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (from September 28, 1995) and other related agreements.
  • A history in maps from the BBC.
  • Maps from the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.
  • Maps from Israelís Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • Eyal Benvenisti & Eyal Zamir, Private Claims to Property Rights in the Future Israeli-Palestinian Settlement, 89 A.J.I.L. 295 (1995).
  • Hiram E. Chodosh, Special Introduction: Shaky Pillars: An Introduction to Commentaries on the Legal Foundations for Peace and Prosperity in the Middle East, 32 Case W. Res. J. Int'l L. 181 (2000).
  • Anthony D'Amato, The Legal Boundaries of Israel in International Law, Jurist - The Legal Education Network (April 8, 2001).
  • Richard Falk, International Law and the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Middle East Report 217 (Winter 2000).
  • Allan Gerson, Trustee-Occupant: The Legal Status of Israel's Presence in the West Bank, 14 14 Harv. Intíl L.J. 1 (1973).
  • Ruth Levush, A Guide to the Israeli Legal System, Law Library Resource Xchange, (January 15, 2001).
  • John Quigley, The Role of Law in a Palestinian-Israeli Accommodation, 31 Case W. Res. J. Intíl L. (1999).
  • Adam Roberts, Prolonged Military Occupation: The Israeli-Occupied Territories Since 1967, 84 A.J.I.L. 44 (1990).
  • Yoav Tadmor, Comment: The Palestinian Refugees of 1948: The Right to Compensation and Return, 8 Temp. Int'l & Comp. L.J. 403 (1994).
  • Human Rights, Self-Determination and Political Change in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Stephen Bowen ed., The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1997). William V. O'Brien, Law and Morality in Israel's War with the PLO (London: Routledge, 1991).
  • Palestine and International Law: Essays on Politics and Economic (Sanford R. Silverburg, ed., Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co, Inc., 2002). Amos Shapira & Mala Tabory, New Political Entities in Public and Private International Law: With Special Reference to the Palestinian Entity (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1999).
  • Geoffrey R. Watson, The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).



Written November 17, 2002; Last updated Dec 15, 2006.

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