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History
Early history Mamluk and Ottoman rule The Suez Crisis
The Roman and Byzantine eras The growth of Zionism The Six-Day War
The Islamic conquest The British Mandate period The Yom Kippur War
The Crusades The ‘War of Independence’ 1948-1949 The road to peace
  Establishing the state  

Early history

Located at the junction of Asia, Africa and Europe, the land now occupied by the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories has long held great strategic and economic importance in world affairs. Plagued by warfare from the earliest times, it subsequently became a place of deep significance for three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and has remained a focus for conflict ever since.
The wider region was under the control of Semitic Cana’anite people from at least the third millenium BCE. According to Biblical tradition, Hebrew settlement began in the 18th century BCE, when a tribe of nomadic herders from northern Mesopotamia entered the area and settled on marginal lands in Can’aan. However, in the following century famine forced them to migrate south into the Egyptian delta where they remained for several centuries, eventually being reduced to slavery.
During the 13th century BCE the prophet Moses led a small group of these Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the Sinai Peninsula, where they forged themselves into a nation, formally embracing a religious covenant which bound them exclusively to worship God (Yahweh) and to maintain his moral laws as set out in the Torah or Pentateuch. They went on to seize large tracts of land from the native Can’aanites, settling this ‘Promised Land’ under tribal rulers known as ‘Judges’.
During the mid-12th century BCE a sea-going people from Asia Minor known as the Philistines established a powerful kingdom centred on Gaza. In order to defend themselves more effectively against this new military threat, the 12 independent Hebrew tribes abandoned their loose political federation in around 1025 BCE to form the kingdom of Israel. Under two powerful kings, David (1004-965 BCE) and his son Solomon (965-930 BCE), this kingdom emerged as a major force in Near Eastern politics.
However, heavy taxation and attempts to restructure old tribal institutions during the reign of Solomon created considerable popular discontent, and after Solomon’s death the 10 northern tribes seceded and regrouped as the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria (now the West Bank). Retaining Jerusalem as their capital, the two remaining tribes from the south founded the kingdom of Judah.
The northern kingdom of Israel lasted for a further 200 years before being crushed by an Assyrian invasion in 721 BCE, but Judah survived, retaining its independence until 586 BCE when the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar occupied Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and deporting most of its inhabitants to Babylon. Thus began the Diaspora (scattering) of Jews away from their original homeland.
In 559 BCE the Persians under Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian empire and in 538 BCE the Judean deportees were allowed to return home and construct a new Temple. Over the next four centuries they were afforded limited self-rule under first Persian and then Greek (Ptolemaic and Seleucid) overlordship. In 166 BCE heavy-handed attempts to impose Greek culture and customs on the population provoked an armed rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus, securing for the Jews a brief period of independence as the Hasmonean kingdom of Judea (166-63 BCE). However, deteriorating relations between the Hasmonean kings and the Romans after 63 BCE led to a decisive war which resulted in Judea’s annexation in 40 BCE as a province of the Roman Empire.
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The Roman and Byzantine eras

The Romans subsequently appointed Herod the Great (40 BCE-4 CE) as King of Judea. A great admirer of Greco-Roman culture, he embarked upon a massive construction programme which included the cities of Caesarea and Sabastya and the fortresses of Herodium and Masada.
After Herod’s death Judea came under direct Roman rule, and in the years which followed increasing Roman suppression of Jewish life provoked frequent outbreaks of violence which in 66 CE escalated into full-scale Jewish rebellion. The Romans responded in 70 CE by occupying Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple. The last Jewish outpost of Masada fell in 73 CE.
Jewish statehood was briefly restored by the revolt of Shimon Bar Kochba in 132 CE, which recovered Jerusalem and Judea. However, the uprising was violently suppressed three years later by the Romans, who burned Jerusalem to the ground, building on its ruins their own city of Aelia Capitolina, administrative centre of the newly-named province of Palestine. Many Jewish leaders were put to death and thousands more exiled from Judea. Thereafter, with only a handful of Jewish communities left in Palestine, Jewish exiles set about preserving their ethnic and spiritual identity through the development of a religion centred on learning rather than sacrifice, scholars (rabbis) rather than priests and a unique religious law (the Talmud) which would allow them to abide by the ethical and spiritual principles of the Jewish religion in whichever country they lived. It was this Rabbinic Judaism which subsequently allowed the Jews to survive centuries of persecution and political impotence in exile.
Early 1st-century Palestine also witnessed the birth, ministry and crucifixion of Jesus Christ (4 BCE-30 CE). The profundity of Jesus’ moral teachings and the conviction that he was subsequently raised from the dead inspired 12 of his closest companions (the Apostles) to spread his message, firstly amongst the Jews but later to a wider gentile audience. The new religion spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire and its future as a world religion was ultimately secured with the conversion of Emperor Constantine (324-337) and the founding of the Byzantine Empire. By the late 4th century Palestine had become overwhelmingly Christian; churches were built on holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Galilee and monasteries were established in many parts of the country.
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The Islamic conquest

Shortly after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 CE, Arab armies conquered the entire Near East. Syria and Palestine were amongst the first to fall, and in 637 CE Jerusalem surrendered to the Caliph Omar. The region was subsequently governed from Damascus by the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 CE), during whose rule the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram Es-Sharif (Temple Mount), site of the earlier Jewish Temple, were constructed. According to Islamic tradition, the Rock is the spot from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to view paradise during the Night Journey described in the 17th Sura of the Koran, making it the third holiest Islamic site in the world. Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands for a further four centuries after this, contributing to the origins of the Crusader movement and the rise of western European militarism.
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The Crusades

The military weaknesses of western Europe during the seventh century had left it in no position to oppose the original Arab conquest of the Holy Land, but by the 11th century European economic and military power was once more on the rise, making a concerted attempt to recover the ‘Holy Land’ from Islam inevitable. Between 1095 and 1291 seven major armies from Europe repeatedly invaded Syria, Palestine and Egypt in attempts to capture Jerusalem. The Crusades contributed to the rise of militarism throughout the Islamic world and set the stage for a second age of Islamic conquests.
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Mamluk and Ottoman rule

By the late 13th century the Crusaders had been expelled from all but a few coastal cities by the Egyptian Mamluks (1250-1517). After the massacre of the last Crusader army at Acre in 1291, Palestine became a backwater province ruled from Damascus – Acre, Jaffa and other ports were destroyed for fear of new Crusades and overland as well as maritime trade was curtailed. However, during this period Jerusalem became a thriving centre for Muslim scholarship.
Following the Ottoman conquest of 1516 a highly-efficient system of local administration was introduced into Palestine, encouraging trade and commerce and stimulating cultural development amongst all sectors of the Palestinian community; the development of Safed as a centre of Jewish scholarship and mysticism dates from this period. However, by the 18th century, with Ottoman rule in decline, government corruption and incompetence became rife, leading to economic depression and intellectual stagnation.
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The growth of Zionism

During the 19th century Western powers began to compete for influence in the region, opening up new sea routes, installing postal and telegraphic links and building roads and railways. The opening of the 100-mile long Suez Canal in 1869 further accelerated the development of the region as a crossroads for the trade and commerce of three continents. During the second half of the 20th century, Jews were but a small minority in Palestine. During the 1890s, influenced by ideas of nationalism and worried by the rising tide of European anti-Semitism, an Austrian Jew named Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) published Der Judenstaat, which established modern Zionism as an international movement dedicated to the creation of a Jewish state. Although several alternative locations were suggested, attention focused on Palestine, where a Jewish state had existed within the Roman Empire some 2,000 years earlier. The Zionist cause was further advanced by the establishment of the World Zionist Organisation (1897) and the creation of the Jewish National Fund (1901) to purchase land in Palestine for the Zionists. At the turn of the century Jewish immigration to the area (initially from Central and Eastern Europe) began to increase and by 1909 the modern Jewish city of Tel Aviv had been founded.
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The British Mandate period

At the end of World War I British troops occupied Palestine and neighbouring Transjordan, bringing to an end 400 years of Ottoman sovereignty over the region. In 1920 the League of Nations placed both territories under British ‘Mandate’, the intention being to encourage the growth of self-governing institutions and pave the way for independence. Within eight years the sovereign Arab state of Transjordan (later the kingdom of Jordan) had been established east of the Jordan River. However, conflicting Arab and Jewish claims to Palestine still remained to be assessed.
A secret Anglo-French agreement of 1916 had in fact already indicated that recognition would be granted to an independent Arab state, or confederation of states, with an international administration for Palestine. But in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 the British pledged their support for the establishment of a Palestinian national home for the Jews, at the same time insisting that nothing should be done ‘to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. In subsequent years, as the administration began openly to encourage Jewish immigration and settlement, the difficulty of reconciling the two conflicting goals of the Declaration became apparent. The arrival of new immigrants inevitably created economic pressures which impinged upon the lives of the majority Arab population, causing widespread resentment and prompting Arab attacks on Jewish settlements in 1920, 1921 and again in 1929. The Jewish community responded by organising the Haganah defence militia to safeguard the growing Jewish population from attack.
The crisis deepened during the 1930s as violent anti-Semitism took hold in Europe, prompting a substantial increase in the number of Jews entering Palestine. During this period radical Islamic nationalist groups launched numerous covert operations against Jewish settlements, and in response the newly-established Jewish underground militia Etzel began independent actions against both Arab and British targets.
In 1936, following the death at British hands of Islamic nationalist Sheikh Al-Qassam, a full-scale anti-Zionist and anti-British uprising broke out. In the three years which followed, thousands of Palestinian Arabs were killed and many of their leaders deported. By 1940 the popular Palestinian nationalist movement which had begun to take shape during the 1930s was in ruins, its forces disarmed and its capacity for further resistance neutralised. In contrast, the potential economic and military strength of Palestine’s Jewish community – administered with great efficiency by the Jewish Agency and now numbering well over 400,000 – had increased substantially.
In 1939 the British issued a White Paper which promised the establishment within 10 years of an independent Palestine with an Arab majority. To this end, the document set a limit on Jewish immigration of 1,500 per month until 1944, when Jews would only be admitted to Palestine subject to agreement by the Arab community. During the war years this was to prove a devastating blow to those European Jews seeking to escape the Nazi Holocaust; after the war the Jewish community in Palestine set about organising a special clandestine immigration network (1945-1948) geared to the rescue of Holocaust survivors.
During World War II political tensions in Palestine eased somewhat as the area became an important Allied military base for the Middle East. However, the war only served to postpone the inevitable conflict; in 1946 both Arab and Jewish terrorism resumed and the cycle of violence spiralled to new heights.
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The ‘War of Independence’ 1948-1949

In 1947 the British declared that they could do no more and referred the problem to the United Nations. In November of that year the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states – one Arab and one Jewish – with Jerusalem having a separate status because of its significance to both. This was rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab world, who refused to endorse the division of Palestine or the establishment of a separate Jewish state.
In the following year Britain relinquished its Mandate and prepared to leave the region, whereupon Jewish leaders proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. Less than 24 hours later Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq launched an invasion. In what has since become known to Israelis as the War of Independence and to Palestinians as Al-Nakba (‘The Catastrophe’), the newly-formed Israel Defence Forces (IDF) successfully repulsed the attack and by the time of the 1949 armistice controlled about three-quarters of Palestine. Egypt was left holding the Gaza Strip and Jordan retained East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and the West Bank. Over 6,000 Israelis lost their lives in the conflict.
During the course of the 1948-9 war some 726,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven from their homes and property. The subsequent denial of their basic rights and freedoms has since been the focus of a bloody conflict with the wider Arab world, involving full-scale wars, acts of terrorism, rioting and oppression.
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Establishing the state

The first decade of the State of Israel was a period of severe austerity in which substantial financial assistance from Diaspora Jewish communities and foreign governments (especially the USA) and German reparations were required to build the infrastructure of the new state and provide for its rapidly-growing population. However, painful memories of the Holocaust and the sacrifices made by those who had fought so bravely to realise the dream of a Jewish homeland instilled in Israelis a grim determination to succeed against all odds. Gradually, as modern farming and irrigation techniques were introduced and industries developed, conditions began to grow more stable.
The concept of ‘ingathering of exiles’ lay at the heart of Israel’s raison d’être; accordingly, the nation’s population quadrupled during its first decade of existence as hundreds of thousands of Jews from Europe, the Americas, neighbouring Arab countries and the North African Maghreb states arrived and were absorbed. These would later be joined by hundreds of thousands more from Eastern Europe.
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The Suez Crisis

During the Suez crisis of 1956 the Israelis joined the Anglo-French attack on Egypt, taking possession of Sinai and the Gaza Strip in the hope of putting an end to nine years of Egyptian incursions into the Negev. The following year’s settlement involved an Israeli withdrawal from the captured areas, the stationing of a UN Peacekeeping Force on the Egyptian side of the Israel-Sinai border and promises that Israeli shipping could pass freely through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. This settlement afforded 10 years of relative peace and consolidation, albeit punctuated by periodic attacks on agricultural settlements in the Galilee by Syrian batteries stationed in the Golan Heights.
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The Six-Day War

In the spring of 1967 Syrian artillery bombardments of the northern Galilee and Arab incursions across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders began to intensify. At this juncture Egypt unilaterally ordered the UN Peacekeeping Force out of Sinai, blockaded the southern Israeli port of Eilat and entered into a military alliance with Jordan. Faced with hostile Arab armies on all fronts, Israel went to war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan in June 1967. Sweeping to victory, Israel found itself in control of Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was subsequently annexed whilst the West Bank and Gaza were placed under military administration. The ‘Six-Day War’ created a further 350,000 Palestinian Arab refugees, over half of whom had already suffered displacement in 1948. In the years which followed a sense of euphoria engulfed not only the Jewish population of Israel but also the entire Jewish Diaspora. However, Israeli hopes that the war might be followed by peace and security in the region were soon dashed.
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The Yom Kippur War

On Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in 1973 a surprise two-pronged attack was launched on Israel by the forces of Egypt and Syria. After initial setbacks the IDF succeeded in repulsing the attack, crossing the Suez Canal into Egypt and advancing to within 32 kilometres of Damascus. However, the three-week campaign cost the lives of over 2,500 Israeli soldiers, shaking the nation’s confidence and turning voters against the ruling Labour Party.
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The road to peace

The 1977 Knesset elections brought to power the Likud bloc, a coalition of centre and right-of-centre parties. Within weeks the new government had taken the first tentative steps to peace with the Arab world; the historic visit to Israel by President Anwar Al-Sadat of Egypt later the same year paved the way for the Camp David accords of 1978, in which Sinai was returned to Egypt and the final status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip became subject to negotiation.
In the aftermath of Camp David no other Arab nations proved willing to talk peace. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its continued occupation of a ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon put further strains on its relations with the Arab world. In the meantime appropriation of land for Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, which had begun soon after 1967, contributed to the further deterioration of relations with the Palestinian Arabs.
During the 1970s and 1980s, with international public attention focused on the relationship between Israel and neighbouring Arab states, the plight of the Palestinian Arabs was largely ignored. In late 1987 the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza decided that they were no longer prepared to let their lands and future be controlled arbitrarily by Israel. The subsequent campaign of large-scale civil disobedience against the Israeli occupation known as the Intifada attracted international media attention and imposed the Palestinian issue on the consciousness of the United States, Europe, Israel and the Arab world.
As the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) under Yasser Arafat gained increasing international acceptance as the ‘legitimate voice’ of the Palestine Arabs, the organisation reined in its terrorist campaign and sought to negotiate. Pressed by the international community, and recognising the opportunities for co-operation created in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Israel eventually agreed to sit down and discuss a settlement for the Palestinian problem.
Negotiations began in earnest after the 1992 election victory by the Labour Party, which promptly froze all settlement activity and worked to find acceptable areas of compromise. An outline for Palestinian self-rule was finally drawn up in Norway in 1993; based on the principle of ‘land for peace’, the Oslo Agreement provided for mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO and commitment by both parties to seek a non-violent settlement of their disputes.
The Oslo Accords inflamed extremists on each side. Hard-line Palestinian Arabs continued to commit acts of terrorism with the aim of destroying the peace process, whilst the depths of opposition amongst some sectors of the Jewish community were illustrated by the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres lost the subsequent election of May 1996 to the Likud Party, led by Binyamin Netanyahu. On becoming prime minister Netanyahu pledged to continue the peace process, but since that time the revival of the Jewish settlement programme in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and an increase in acts of terrorism have brought the process to a halt on numerous occasions. At the time of writing the size and timing of further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, the future of East Jerusalem and the political status of the Palestinian Authority are still under negotiation.
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