This House of Commons Library briefing paper looks at recent developments in The Occupied Palestinian Territories (March 2017).Jump to full report >>
The West Bank and Gaza have been occupied by Israel since 1967, and are collectively known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs). Before the 1967 war, the West Bank was part of Jordan whilst Gaza was part of Egypt. Egypt never claimed permanent sovereignty over Gaza, seeing its administration as temporary pending the creation of a Palestinian state, while Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank in 1988.
Both areas remained under full Israeli control until the mid-1990s, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created. The PA controls some areas of the OPTs, but other areas remain under Israeli control. Many in the international community, including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, still regard the Territories as ‘occupied’ in their entirety because Israel retains control of their borders. Many Israeli citizens have moved into the OPTs, living in purpose-built Israeli settlements. Many think that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits this practice, though Israel argues that the prohibition is not applicable in the OPTs.
The Israeli military launched a large military operation in Gaza in July and August 2014 following increasing tension between Israel and Hamas. Over 2,250 Palestinians, mostly civilian, and over 70 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the fighting.
It is widely accepted that the most likely solution to the conflict is a “two-state solution” – the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government supports the two-state solution, although it says that the time is not ripe for it.
Fatah, one of the two leading factions in Palestinian politics, also supports the two-state solution but Hamas, its rival, takes a more radical line. Under the Hamas vision, the entire area now covered by the State of Israel would – along with the OPTs – form part of a future Palestinian state.
In 2015 and 2016 security conditions in Israel deteriorated, and a crisis of legitimacy emerged for the Palestinian Authority. Incidents of individual violence against Israelis proliferated, gaining the title of the ‘lone wolf intifada’.
The economy of both the West Bank and Gaza failed to grow enough to give hope to residents in those areas, particularly to young people, who opinion polls show have less faith in a two-state solution and increasingly support violence.
With a view to achieving a two-state solution, there have in recent years been various sets of talks between the Israeli and Palestinian administrations. The most recent set of talks, mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, began in August 2013 but collapsed in April 2014 following the decision by Mahmoud Abbas (often known as Abu Mazen), President of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, to sign a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Israel was opposed to such an agreement and withdrew from the talks in protest. There has been no resumption of formal peace talks and the prospects of a two-state solution appear, in some eyes, to be diminishing. The UK Government has warned of a drift towards a one-state solution which, it argues, is in no one’s interests.
The UN Security Council has condemned the construction and expansion of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, most recently in a resolution adopted in December 2016. The UK Government voted in favour of Resolution 2334 and the US, in one of the final acts of the Obama Presidency, chose not to exercise its veto. However, the new US Ambassador to the UN has since described Resolution 2334 as a “terrible mistake”. The resolution also condemned all acts of terror and called for a resumption of peace talks.
Since the inauguration of President Trump the Israeli Government has announced plans for further settlement expansion. The Israeli Knesset has passed a controversial law giving retrospective planning permission to settler buildings built in outposts.
Fatah and Hamas remain the two main factions in Palestinian politics and are dominant in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively. Recent efforts to reconcile the two groups and form a new national unity government include talks in Moscow early in 2017. However divisions remain and the Palestinian Authority has announced delayed municipal elections will be held in the West Bank only, and not the Gaza Strip as hoped, in May 2017. Presidential and legislative elections have not been held for over a decade.
The OPTs do not presently meet the criteria for statehood under international law. However, this fact does not inhibit other states from granting diplomatic recognition to “Palestine” if they so wish. Out of 193 UN Member States, 136 have granted diplomatic recognition to Palestine, though most Western countries have not. However, this is beginning to change. Sweden recognised Palestine on 30 October 2014, and in a number of countries which have not yet recognised Palestine (including the UK), national Parliaments have passed motions (albeit non-binding ones) calling on their governments to do so.
The Palestinian Authority has in recent years made various attempts to upgrade its status at the United Nations, some more successful than others. Following an unsuccessful application for full membership in 2011, the ‘State of Palestine’ was admitted as a non-member observer state in 2012. Subsequently, in 2014, Jordan (a key Palestinian ally and then non-permanent member of the UN Security Council) submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council, calling for an end to the occupation by 2017. This resolution was rejected by the Security Council. In protest at the Security Council’s decision, Palestine acceded to the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court. Israel, and many in the international community, had argued that it should refrain from acceding until agreement was reached on a two-state solution.
Palestine’s accession has led the ICC to launch a preliminary investigation into war crimes alleged to have been committed during the military operation in Gaza in 2014. It is not only the actions of the Israel Defence Forces at that time that have come under scrutiny, however; the ICC might also scrutinise alleged abuses by Hamas, which Amnesty accuses of “abductions, torture, and summary and extrajudicial executions with impunity in 2014.”
Successive UK Governments have supported the two-state solution. The current Government’s policy is articulated in the following statement by Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
It has been the position of every British Government since 1948 that the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs, i.e. the West Bank including East Jerusalem and Gaza) were not lawfully part of the state of Israel at its creation or at any point thereafter. We consider that the level of control that Israel retains over these territories amounts to occupation under international law and hence that Israel's presence in the OPTs is governed by the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949, to which Israel is a state party.
The Foreign Affairs select committee began an inquiry on the UK’s policy towards the Middle East Peace Process in January 2017. Further information can be found on the inquiry webpage.
 “Data featured in the report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 conflict”, UN OCHA, June 2015; “IDF soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge”, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 3 January 2017
 “Remarks at a Press Availability Following UN Security Council Consultations on the Middle East”, US mission to the United Nations, 16 February 2017
 The use of the word ‘Palestine’ without inverted commas in the paper does not imply any recognition of a Palestinian state
 ‘Strangling Necks’ - Abductions, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict, Amnesty International, May 2015.
 HL4019, 23 December 2016
This briefing paper provides a short account of recent developments in the Occupies Palestinian Territories. It updates the briefing paper published in August 2016 and updated in December 2016.
An earlier House of Commons Library briefing paper provides an historical background to the peace process: Middle East Peace Process: historical background and a detailed chronology from 1990 to 2010, SN02693
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7689
Authors: Louisa Brooke-Holland; Rob Page; Angus Andrews; Vaughne Miller