(Image: Oded Balilty/AP/PA)
ON 29 JULY this year, direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians began, with the aim of finally reaching an agreement that would end the long-running conflict.
This is not the first time direct talks have taken place to try to resolve the conflict but United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been driving the talks, is pushing for a solid and permanent agreement this time.
It’s a complex topic and many people are wondering how significant these talks really are and what it all means, so we though we would take you through it.
How did the talks get started?
In mid-July this year, United States Secretary of State John Kerry consulted, from his base in Jordan, with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinians were demanding a publicly declared freeze to all Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories as a condition to resume peace talks, with the last round of direct talks collapsing in 2010. With the settlements being one of the most contentious issues in the conflict, the Israelis rejected this.
Kerry’s bid was also complicated by new European Union guidelines that will block all funding of Jewish settlements in Palestine from next year.
John Kerry sitting across from Israel and Palestine’s chief negotiators at a dinner to mark the resumption of talks (Image: Charles Dharapek).
However on 18 July, a Palestinian official said leaders would vote on a plan under which peace talks with Israel would not depend on a settlement ban.
At the end of his sixth visit to the Middle East in as many months, Kerry announced an agreement had been reached on a basis for resuming final status negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
What are the main issues?
Essentially, the Palestinians want an end to the Israeli occupation of territories and the establishment of an independent state with defined borders, though both sides disagreeing on where the border should be drawn. However this long-fought conflict does not centre around just one topic that both sides feel strongly about but a number of arguments that have developed over the years.
Theses are some of the most contentious issues:
Settlements in the West Bank
The building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been described by many international nations as an obstacle to the peace process.
The UN and EU have also both said the settlements are illegal under international law.
This has been happening since the 1990s with Israeli settlers taking over more land in the region as the years went on, creating tension between them and the Palestinians – particularly the farmers.
An aerial view over West Bank showing a Palestinian village, left, and a Jewish settlement, right (Image: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/PA).
However Israel disputes claims the settlements are illegal, especially those built when there was no diplomatic agreement, and settlers believe they have a right to live on the land. Israel has also maintained that the settlements in the West Bank are a necessary buffer against future aggression.
Control of Jerusalem
The Jerusalem border is a particularly contentious issue as the two sides assert a claim over the city which has religious and historical significance for both.
Palestinians have concerns about the welfare of holy places that are currently under Israeli control while the Israelis are worried about the security of Jews living in neighbourhoods that would be placed under Palestinian control if they gave it up.
At Clinton’s Camp David summit, the US put forward a plan which would see the Arab parts of the city given to the proposed new Palestinian state while the Jewish parts would be retained by Israel and all archaeological work under the Temple Mount would be jointly controlled. This was accepted by both sides but then the talks fell apart.
Right of return for Palestinian refugees
Palestinian refugees carry their belongings as they prepare to cross the wrecked Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River from the Israeli-occupied section of Jordan, June 22, 1967 (Image: Bernard Frye/PA).
In 2010, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimated that the number, which includes descendants of the original refugees, had reached 4.7 million.
While Palestinian negotiators have always stressed the importance of the refugees’ right of return to Israel, the Israelis have insisted that allowing some five million people to return would not be sustainable.
Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians and military forces in the form of suicide bombs or rocket attacks is considered by the US and the EU as terrorism, with the most prominent groups, such as Hamas, seeing the conflict as a religious jihad.
Support for suicide bombing by these groups is high among Palestinians. However the incidence of these attacks has dropped considerably since the construction in 2003 of a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
Palestinian armed militants of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command carry RPG launchers (Image: Hussein Malla/PA).
The rocket attacks from Palestinian territories into Israel are a great cause of concern for defence officials. In 2006 alone, 1,726 launches by Palestinian groups were recorded by the Israeli government and this was the year after its forces disengaged from the Gaza Strip.
This has often resulted in military responses from the Israeli side with targeted attacks on suspected terrorist leaders which have also led to civilian deaths.
As for the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, while many Palestinians claim entitlement to this area, as well as the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the Israelis argue that giving up this land would create serious security risks.
Israel gets a lot of its water from large underground aqaufiers that continue under the ‘Green Line’ border between Israel and territories that include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Golan Heights and so are shared water sources.
Though there has been criticism leveled at Israel for consuming most of the water, it has been pointed out it also contributes a large proportion of the West Bank’s water supply and this was solidified in the 1995 Oslo II Accord agreement.
A Palestinian boy drinks water from a barrel near a house destroyed during an Israeli offensive in 2012 (Image: Adel Hana/PA).
UN reports found that Palestinian water resources have been confiscated or destroyed as Israeli settlements move in and there are strict development restrictions on Palestinians that mean authorities often do not allow farmers to drill new irrigation wells.
The UN has estimated that as the population of Gaza grows and its economy is constricted, people living there will find it increasingly difficult to access enough drinking water.
Talks have stuttered and started for decades in the elusive bid to reach a final peace deal between the Arab world and Israel.
(Image: Ron Edmonds/AP/PA)
The first direct talks were hosted by then US president Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. Palestinian president Yassar Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak both attended but the negotiations collapsed over issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. This also sparked a new Palestinian uprising, or intifada.
Negotiations were formally restarted in November 2007 with now Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli premier Ehud Olmert at Annapolis, Maryland.
However in December 2008, Israel began a 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip which prompted the Palestinians to suspend talks.
(Image: Charles Dharapak/AP/PA)
Three years later, Barack Obama launched a new round of direct talks, hosted by Hillary Clinton at a White House summit with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
They collapsed completely in September 2010 when Israel refused to keep in place a freeze on settlement building in Palestinian territories. Since then, while there has been quiet dialogue between the two sides, direct talks have been put on ice.
What kind of progress has been made in this round of talks?
As a ‘goodwill’ gesture in July, following an agreement to resume direct talks, Israel announced it would release 104 Palestinian prisoners who had been detained since before the 1993 Oslo I Accord. There was an angry response to this from the Israeli families of their victims, who had been killed in attacks.
It was suggested by critics that a subsequent announcements of new Israeli settlements was an attempt to appease Israeli citizens and these new settlements were condemned by the international community.
The talks themselves are supposed to be kept secret though some leaks have made their way into the press.
While Palestine’s Abbas initially said he wanted a final resolution that would see the withdrawal of all Israelis – both civilian and soldiers – from territories, he has rolled back on this slightly during the course of the negotiations.
He has also commented that the right of return for Palestinian refugees will probably have to be waived if they are to come to a final agreement this time.
The issue of water resources has been discussed but both sides were tight-lipped about progress on this issue.
In September, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad called for a third intifada, and this week, the US’s John Kerry warned that there is a real danger of this if talks collapse again.
Talks broke down temporarily on Tuesday over the issue of settlement construction and the Palestinians threatened to leave. However Kerry managed to get things back on track again, telling reporters that there has been some “clarity” on some of the points discussed.
Also this week, Israeli negotiators sought to have the separation barrier that cuts through the West Bank serve as the border of a future Palestinian state. This is contrary to the Palestinian proposal that the 1967 lines that existed before the Six-Day War and Israel’s occupation of Gaza serve as the border.
(Image: Bernat Armangue/AP/PA)
Another spanner in the works was the results of tests that suggested Yasser Arafat was killed by polonium poisoning, with the Palestinians asserting that Israel is the “only suspect” in his ‘assassination’.
Will these talks make any difference?
Talks among the Israelis and Palestinians have always been volatile and can break down over any or all of the sticking points at a moment’s notice.
Intervention from the US has kept negotiations ticking along so far but there has been skepticism about the likelihood of a final agreement that will make any real difference this time.
US Secretary of State Kerry speaks to the media after his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Wednesday (Image: Majdi Mohammed).
The talks are scheduled to last up to nine months with a view to reaching a final agreement and a resolution of the conflict by the middle of next year so while the talks themselves mean progress, there is still a long road ahead.