Among the many distinctive attributes of this dispute is its reliance on history as a justification for claims of territory as well as of self-righteousness; much of which is nonsense. Not factually nonsense, of course. Jews have been in the neighborhood for thousands of years, although not particularly so in the five hundred years leading up to the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 (and they haven’t been a majority since the 4C). As late as the start of WWI, they comprised just over 5% of the region’s population. Muslims arrived in the 7C and dominated the population since the 12C.
The larger question is what this might mean. What do the actions of my ancestors some generations back entitle me to? They moved (under a variety of circumstances and degrees of choice). Have Jews (or Hispanics, for that matter) established a right of permanent interest in various neighborhoods of Manhattan just because their ancestors lived there thirty or 130 years ago? Most Anglo-American legal systems have a concept called “adverse possession,” under which, if someone lives on “your” land for 30 or so years, they extinguish your claim. But law is one thing, and culture is another.
Historical resonance certainly was essential to the Zionist movement of the late 19/early 20C. European Jews, continually excluded/discriminated against felt that they, too, were entitled to their piece of the nationalist pie that led to the creation of Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, etc. What better place to send them than where they had “come from” (even if it had been a while)? Thus, the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the British (by then having taken over the region from the Ottomans) accelerated a process of recognition, if not of right. European guilt over the Holocaust locked things in and a branch of Europe was set up to spread liberal democracy amid the benighted heathens.
Jewish claims are, therefore, a bit patchy, to put it kindly. On the other hand, the so-called “Palestinians” have comparably-sized holes in their own historical claims, even if based on a stronger record of continuous residence. The biggest one is that there is no “Palestine,” at least not in any meaningful sense until the local Muslims fled/were pushed out in the middle of the 20C when Israel was created. The Ottomans controlled the areas, using various configurations of administrative districts from their conquest in the 16C, until their empire collapsed in WWI. Claims of the locals to any sort of ethnic coherence (the usual starting point for any “national” status) below the level of “Arab” seem pretty much post-hoc, especially since many nearby folks happily became “Jordanian,” “Egyptian,” or “Lebanese” as borders shuffled around.
So, who are “Palestinians”? The ~700k people who were ousted/fled the territory occupied by Israel in 1947-8? Some went east (to the “West Bank”) others to the south-west (to “Gaza”). How about their 4.5M descendants today (only about 75K actual refugees are still alive)? Do they have anything in common otherwise (other than being abused by Israel and their own Arab confreres)?
To say that there is no “Palestinian” nation is, however, not to say anything about the fact that these people have been oppressed and abused. And that they are as entitled to peace, justice, security, and opportunity as anyone else. Israel has thrown away much of its moral stature in its treatment of Arabs both within in boundaries and those in the West Bank and Gaza. The record of Arab countries is (only marginally) better. People without power have been cruelly used by established elites on both sides. It’s no wonder that their anger boils over. It’s no wonder that they seek the status and apparent security of their own state.
The resort to history on all sides is a result of their status and behavior in the current environment and recent (since WWII) past. But it is, as we have seen, no panacea; it’s just a distraction.
We live in a world of nation-states and, despite the historical dubiousness of the concept or its lack of utility in the future, such statehood seems a necessary attribute of societal organization/growth in the early 21C. Israeli Jews have a (not unreasonable) fear that they would be ‘drowned in a sea of Arabs’ if all the refugee/descendants were combined into a larger Israel (the “one-state” solution). Israel, itself isn’t going away. As Secretary of State Kerry said a few years ago to Israel: “You can have a democratic state, or you can have a Jewish state; you can’t have both.” Thus, more-or-less officially on all sides since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the hopes for peace have rested on a “two-state” (Israel + Palestine) solution.
It won’t fly. I doubt it would have worked even before the Fatah/Hamas split of the past 30 years has embedded an animosity in some ways deeper than that between Arabs and Jews. Once Hamas took over the government of Gaza in 2007 and Fatah continued to govern in the West Bank, the chances of reconciliation have dimmed. Nor is there any particular reason (other than this dubious claim of commonality), why there should be one “Palestinian” state. All their connections would find Israel in the middle; Arab-oriented cultural and economic ties would push them outward, towards Jordan and Egypt, respectively. It is reminiscent of the creation of Pakistan in 1947, two Muslim-dominated regions on the flanks of India. That fell apart in a messy war in 1971.
So, why not a three-state solution? Assuming both groups of Arabs could agree on who got to use the term “Palestine,” it might work. Hamas and Fatah could go their own separate ways (no different than Jordan and Syria). People could look to the future and build some peace and prosperity. All that would be lost is the chance to argue over history (best left to academic conferences) and the myth of a coherent “Palestine” which has fed so much hate, anger, and pain for the past 75 years.