The Territories, 1987- 1998

An overview of Israel's relationship to the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, 1987 - 1998.

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At the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a land dispute. In order to understand this dispute, it is necessary to know the history of the territory in question. The following article discusses the history of the disputed territories between 1987 and 1999. Since then, the Second Intifada broke out, leading to the breakdown of the Oslo Agreements. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Today, Israeli society is still deeply divided regarding the fate of the territories, as attempts to negotiate a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians continue. This article is excerpted with permission from The Jewish Agency.

After the Intifada

The Intifada (literally "shaking off') or Palestinian uprising in the territories which began at the end of 1987 brought the issue of the territories to a head. The riots that spread from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank/Judea‑ Samaria and the Israeli use of force to combat them led to considerable controversy within Israeli society. Pressure on the government to find a solution to the problem of the territories mounted both from within the country and from without. As seen in the Knesset elections of 1988 which led to a national unity government dominated by the Likud, Israeli society was essentially split down the middle over the preferred policy in the territories. The Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, proposed an autonomy scheme in May 1989 that focused on elections inthe territories as a first stage in autonomy negotiations although this did not gain the support of some of his more hard‑line colleagues.

west bank and gazaThe plan was picked up by the United States and became the basis of the negotiations carried out by Secretary of State James Baker during 1989. Disagreement between Labor and Likud led to the fall of the national unity government in early 1990.

After the Gulf War in early 1991, American efforts at initiating Arab‑Israeli negotiations were resumed, culminating in the Madrid Conference (October‑November, 1991) which set in motion a process of bilateral negotiations between Israel and Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian‑Palestinian delegations respectively. In practice, the delegation split into separate Jordanian and Palestinian teams, and though Israel was formally negotiating with an independent Palestinian delegation, it was in fact dealing indirectly with the PLO. When, after the Labor party (under Yitzhak Rabin) came to power in June 1992, it became apparent that the Palestinian delegation had no real power of its own, Israeli officials began to negotiate in secret with the PLO directly. These negotiations led to an agreement in September 1993 which gave the Palestinians self‑government under a Palestinian Authority (led by Yassar Arafat, then head of the Fatah and Chairman of the PLO Executive) in almost all of the Gaza Strip and the area of Jericho. This was laterextended to most of the Arab cities in the West Bank/Judea‑Samaria, with discussion on permanent status of the territories to be continued at a later date.

At present, most of the West Bank/Judea‑ Samaria is still in Israeli hands. The residents of these territories elected their own Legislative Assembly.

The Rabin Assassination

While Israeli policy in the early 90s had been generally satisfactory to most parties to the left of Labor, there had been harsh criticism from the Likud and the more hard‑line parties which claimed that the government had put Israel's future in the hands of terrorists who had not abandoned their desire to destroy the state. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist attacks originating from the territories (especially the Gaza Strip) were raised as proof of Palestinian intentions and the failure of the Palestinian Authority to act decisively against anti‑Israel terrorism. Extremist groups even raised the specter of violent "resistance" to any attempt to turn additional territory over to the Palestinians. Some groups went so far as to label Prime Minister Rabin a traitor, delivering up Israel to its enemies.

Then, on November 4, 1995, an individual from one such group assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Shimon Peres, who took over for Yitzhak Rabin, presided over a country torn. It was during his interregnum that the level of terrorist attacks increased, with a total of 60 Israelis killed in separate incidents in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. These attacks were further proof of the Labor government's inability to insure Israel's security, and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud was elected Prime Minister in Israel's first direct prime ministerial elections. Netanyahu initially followed a hard line in dealing with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian talks, holding on to his beliefs that Israel needed to show its strength by being non‑ conciliatory. The enthusiasm of the hard‑liners which followed his election was short lived, however, as 1997 witnessed more attacks, including the murder of seven schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier in Naharayim on the Israeli‑Jordanian border and two separate suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem which killed 21. His subsequent dealings with Arafat ultimately led to intervention by the United States and the signing of the Wye Memorandum in October, 1998, which was designed to facilitate implementation of the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip of September 28, 1995. The memorandum dealt with issues of redeployment and security in the West Bank, anti‑Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter which still had not been amended and economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Wye Memorandum, however, was the start of a process which Netanyahu was loathe to finish.

One year and one Prime Minister later, (Ehud Barak who defeated Binyamin Netanyahu), Israeli and Palestinian representatives signed the Sharm Ee‑Sheikh Memorandum, restating the commitment of the two sides to full implementation of all agreements reached since September 1993. The Memorandum set out to resolve the outstanding issues of the interim status, in particular those set out in the Wye Memorandum of October 23, 1998. This document was intended to form a kind of bridge between the completion of the interim period and the initiation of the permanent status.

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Jonathan Kaplan is administrative director at the Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.