Morocco vs. Western Sahara: A Look at the Conflict Central to Normalization With Israel

The territory is home to one of the UN’s longest running peace-keeping forces, in place since 1991 to monitor a cease-fire and help prepare for a referendum on the territory’s future — which has never taken place

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The word Polisario is seen on the ground in Tifariti, Western Sahara, September 9, 2016
The word Polisario is seen on the ground in Tifariti, Western Sahara, September 9, 2016Credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra//File Photo

The disputed territory of Western Sahara was central to a deal announced by President Donald Trump on Thursday establishing diplomatic ties between Morocco and Israel. Here is some background on the region:

LAND AND PEOPLE

Western Sahara stretches along Africa’s Atlantic coast south of the Moroccan resort city of Agadir, and borders Algeria and Mauritania. Roughly the size of Colorado, it has a population of about 600,000 people according to the UN Its main resources are fish and phosphates and it is believed to have off-shore oil reserves.

CONFLICT

The area was colonized by Spain in the 19th century and Morocco annexed it in 1975. The pro-independence Polisario Front, representing the local Sahrawi population and backed by Algeria, fought Moroccan forces for years for control of the territory. Some countries recognize Western Sahara as independent, some others support Morocco’s claims on the land, while others back a long-running U.N. effort to seek a negotiated solution. The U.S. decision is groundbreaking but does not mean the conflict is over.

PEACE EFFORTS

The territory is home to one of the UN’s longest running peace-keeping forces, in place since 1991 to monitor a cease-fire and help prepare for a referendum on the territory’s future — which has never taken place. Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front says the local population has the right to a referendum. Fighting occasionally flares up, most recently a month ago when the Moroccan military launched an operation in the U.N.-patrolled Guerguerat border zone to clear a road it said was blocked by Polisario supporters.

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