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The best books to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has itself become a battleground for scholars offering wildly differing accounts. But here is a selection of the best books recommended by FT specialists on the history and global consequences of the struggle.

Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017 by Ian Black (2017)
A history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, timed for the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, that has achieved the rare distinction of being acclaimed by both Israeli and Palestinian historians for its rigour and impartiality.

Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How it Created the Modern Middle East by Uri Kaufman (2023)
Deeply researched account of the Yom Kippur war published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces that presented a mortal threat to the state of Israel. The book details the failures in Israeli intelligence to heed the warning signs of Arab preparations for war — a shortcoming that has now found a grim echo five decades later.

Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer (2018)
Brisk, engaging biography of Benjamin Netanyahu by one of Israel’s leading journalists and commentators. Pfeffer paints a portrait of the politician — at turns petulant, defiant, rejected and resurgent — who has come to cast a massive shadow over modern Israel, embodying its journey from wary, fraught beginnings to becoming a powerful state that has denied Palestinians a country to call their own.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: A Palestine Story by Nathan Thrall (2023)
A deeply immersive portrait of daily life in Israel and the West Bank arranged around the story of a Palestinian child and a school trip that ends in tragedy following a traffic accident. Weaving together the ordinary and interwoven lives of Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants, Thrall, a Jerusalem-based author and journalist, illuminates the complex realities of one of the world’s most contested regions.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco (2009)
A non-fiction graphic novel that tells the story of an Israeli massacre of 111 Palestinians in Rafah in 1956 — partially in response to the armed Palestinian raids — evokes and explains a forgotten moment in history that helped lay the seeds for Saturday’s assault into southern Israel. Joe Sacco is a gentle and compassionate storyteller, and in his hands, the suffocation of life in the blockaded strip feels suddenly real.

Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell (2010)
A deeply researched blend of academic thought and on-the-ground reporting, Milton-Edwards and Farrell’s exploration of the origins, structure and evolution of Hamas offers crucial insights into understanding the enduring rivalry between the Islamist group and the leftist, and often, secular nationalism of Fatah, Yassir Arafat’s political creation, that continues to shape Gaza today.

The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood by Rashid Khalidi (2007)
An unflinching examination of why the Palestinians failed to win a state of their own in the 20th century during and after colonial rule. External actors come in for much of the criticism, but Khalidi, a respected Palestinian-American historian, also finds fault with Palestinian community leaders.

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin (1989)
Landmark account of the events leading up to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the resulting dramatic changes that swept across the Middle East. Richard Holbrooke, the late senior US diplomat, said: “Without knowledge of its back-story, no policymaker will get the region right . . . Of the vast array of books on the region, none is more relevant than Fromkin’s sweeping epic”.

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East by James Barr (2011)
A lively, even entertaining account of the decisive moment in the history of the modern day Middle East when Britain and France carved up the Arab world after the first world war. Barr has delved deep into the diplomatic archives of both powers to tell the story of a hugely cynical — and highly consequential — act of imperial greed.

Israel: A History by Anita Shapira (2012)
Although it does not focus primarily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Anita Shapira’s book is a good introduction for general readers to the history of Israel from the origins of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century to recent times.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (2002)
Memoir of a childhood in the closing years of Mandatory Palestine and the early years of the state of Israel from one of the country’s most celebrated novelists. A loving but highly critical personal history of the promise of Israel, its mistreatment of the Palestinians and how the dream soured.

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Israel-Palestinian conflict

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