Israel History

Early History

The history of the evolving relationship between God and the Jewish people set forth in the Hebrew Bible – the five books of the Torah, neviim (prophets), and ketuvim (writings) – known to Christians as the Old Testament, begins with myths. The stories of creation, the temptation and sin of the first humans, their expulsion from an idyllic sanctuary, the flood and other folkloric events have analogies with other early societies. With the appearance of Abraham, however, the biblical stories introduce a new idea – that of a single tribal God. Over the course of several centuries, this notion evolved into humanity’s first complete monotheism. Abraham looms large in the traditions of the Jewish people and the foundation of their religion. Whether Jews by birth or by conversion, each male Jew is viewed as “a son of Abraham.”

It was with Abraham that God, known as Yahweh, made a covenant, promising to protect Abraham and his descendants, to wage wars on their behalf, and to obtain for them the land of Canaan, an area roughly approximate to modern Israel and the occupied West Bank (in another part of the Torah, God pledges to Abraham’s descendants “the land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” an area much larger than historic Canaan). In exchange, the ancient Hebrews were bound individually and collectively to follow the ethical precepts and rituals laid down by God.

Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, was a narrow strip, 130 kilometers wide, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Arabian Desert to the east, Egypt to the south, and Mesopotamia to the north. Situated between the great Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, Canaan served as a burgeoning trading centre for caravans between the Nile Valley and the Euphrates and as a cultural entrepôt. The clash of cultures and the diverse commercial activities gave Canaan a dynamic spiritual and material creativity. Prior to the emergence of Abraham, however, Egyptian and Mesopotamian hostility, continuous invasions of hostile peoples, and Canaan’s varied topography had resulted in frequent fighting and general instability.

In the last quarter of the 2nd millennium BC, the collapse of the Hittite Empire to the north, and the decline of Egyptian power to the south at a time when the Assyrians had not yet become a major force set the stage for the emergence of the Hebrews. As early as the latter part of the 3rd millennium BC, invasions from the east significantly disrupted Middle Eastern society. The people who moved from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean spoke western Semitic languages of which Hebrew is one. The term Hebrew apparently came from the word habiru (also hapiru or apiru), a term that was common to the Canaanites and many of their neighbours. The word was used to designate a social class of wanderers and semi-nomads who lived on the margins of, and remained separate from, sedentary settlements. Abraham was the leader of one of these immigrant habiru groups. He is depicted as a wealthy semi-nomad who possessed large flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle and enough retainers to mount small military expeditions.

The Canaanite chieftains urged Abraham to settle and join with them. Abraham remained in the land, but when it came time to select a wife for his and Sarah’s son Isaac, the wife was obtained from their relatives living in Haran, near Urfa in modern Turkey. This endogamous practice was repeated by Isaac’s son Jacob, who became known as Israel.

During Jacob-Israel’s lifetime the Hebrews completely severed their links with the peoples of the north and east and his followers began to think of themselves as permanently linked to Canaan. By his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two serving maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, Israel fathered twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, the “children of Israel.” The term Jew derives from the name of one of the tribes, Judah, which was not only one of the largest and most powerful of the tribes but also the tribe that produced David and from which, according to biblical prophecy and post-biblical legend, a messiah will emerge.

Some time late in the 16th or early in the 15th century BC, Jacob’s family – numbering about 150 people – migrated to Egypt to escape the drought and famine in Canaan. Beginning in the 3rd millennium BC large numbers of western Semites had migrated to Egypt, usually drawn by the richness of the Nile Valley. They came seeking trade, work, or escape from hunger, and sometimes they came as slaves. The period of Egyptian oppression that drove the Israelites to revolt and escape probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1304-1237 BC). Most scholars believe that the Exodus itself took place under his successor Merneptah. A victory stela dated 1220 BC relates a battle fought with the Israelites beyond Sinai in Canaan. Taken together with other evidence, it is believed that the Exodus occurred in the 13th century BC and had been completed by about 1225 BC.

The Book of Exodus describes in detail the conditions of slavery of the Jews in Egypt and their escape from bondage. The Exodus episode is a pivotal event in Jewish history. The liberation of a slave people from a powerful pharaoh – the first such successful revolt in recorded antiquity – through divine intervention tied successive generations of Hebrews (Jews) to Yahweh. The scale of the revolt and the subsequent sojourn in Sinai created a self-awareness among the Hebrews that they were a separate people sharing a common destiny. Moreover, the giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai set down a moral framework that has guided the Jewish people throughout their history. The Mosaic Code, which includes the Ten Commandments and a wide body of other laws derived from the Torah, not only proclaimed the unity of God but also set forth the revolutionary idea that all men, because they were created in God’s image, were equal. Thus, the Hebrews believed that they were to be a people guided by a moral order that transcended the temporal power and wealth of the day.

The conquest of Canaan under the generalship of Joshua took place over several decades. The biblical account depicts a primitive, outnumbered confederation of tribes slowly conquering pieces of territory from a sedentary, relatively advanced people who lived in walled cities and towns. For a long time the various tribes of Israel controlled the higher, less desirable lands, and only with the advent of David did the kingdoms of Israel and Judah come into being with a capital in Jerusalem.

Prior to the emergence of David, the Hebrew tribes, as portrayed in the last three chapters of the Book of Judges, were fighting among themselves when the Philistines (whence the term Palestine) appeared on the coast and pushed eastward. The Philistines were a warlike people possessing iron weapons and organised with great discipline under a feudal-military aristocracy. Around 1050 BC, having exterminated the coastal Canaanites, they began a large-scale movement against the interior hill country, now mainly occupied by the Israelites. To unify the people in the face of the Philistine threat, the prophet Samuel anointed the guerrilla captain Saul as the first king of the Israelites. Only one year after his coronation, however, the Philistines destroyed the new royal army at Mount Gilboa, near Bet Shean, southeast of the Plain of Yizreel (also known as the Plain of Jezreel and the Plain of Esdraelon), killing Saul and his son Jonathan.

Facing imminent peril, the leadership of the Israelites passed to David, a shepherd turned mercenary who had served Saul but also trained under the Philistines. Although David was destined to be the most successful king in Jewish history, his kingdom initially was not a unified nation but two separate national entities, each of which had a separate contract with him personally. King David, a military and political genius, successfully united the north and south under his rule, soundly defeated the Philistines, and expanded the borders of his kingdom, conquering Ammon, Moab, Edom, Zobah (also seen as Aram-Zobah), and even Damascus (also seen as Aram-Damascus) in the far northeast. His success was caused by many factors: the establishment of a powerful professional army that quelled tribal unrest, a regional power vacuum (Egyptian power was on the wane and Assyria and Babylon to the east had not yet matured), his control over the great regional trade routes, and his establishment of economic and cultural contacts with the rich Phoenician city of Tyre. Of major significance, David conquered from the Jebusites the city of Jerusalem, which controlled the main interior north-south route. He then brought the Ark of the Covenant, the most holy relic the Israelites possessed and the symbol of their unity, into the newly constituted “City of David,” which would serve as the centre of his united kingdom.

Despite reigning over an impressive kingdom, David was not an absolute monarch in the manner of other rulers of his day. He believed that ultimate authority rested not with any king but with God. Throughout his 33-year reign, he never built a grandiose temple associated with his royal line, thus avoiding the creation of a royal temple-state. His successor and son Solomon, however, was of a different ilk. He was less attached to the spiritual aspects of Judaism and more interested in creating sumptuous palaces and monuments. To carry out his large-scale construction projects, Solomon introduced corvées, or forced labour; these were applied to Canaanite areas and to the northern part of the kingdom but not to Judah in the south. He also imposed a burdensome tax system. Finally, and most egregious to the northern tribes of Israel, Solomon ensured that the Temple in Jerusalem and its priestly caste, both of which were under his authority, established religious belief and practice for the entire nation. Thus, Solomon moved away from the austere spirituality founded by Moses in the desert toward the pagan cultures of the Mediterranean Coast and Nile Valley.

When Solomon died in 925 or 926 BC, the northerners refused to recognise his successor Rehoboam. Subsequently the north broke away and was ruled by the House of Omri. The northern kingdom of Israel, more populous than the south, possessing more fertile land and closer to the trading centres of the time, flourished until it was completely destroyed and its ten tribes sent into permanent exile by the Assyrians between 740 and 721 BC. The destruction of the north had a sobering effect on the south. The prophet Isaiah eloquently proclaimed that rather than power and wealth, social justice and adherence to the will of God should be the focus of the Israelites.

At the end of the 6th century BC, the Assyrian Empire collapsed and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city of Jerusalem, captured the king, and ended the first commonwealth. Even before the first Exile, the prophet Jeremiah had stated that the Israelites did not need a state to carry out the mission given to them by God. After the Exile, Ezekiel voiced a similar belief: what mattered was not states and empires, for they would perish through God’s power, but man.

From the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC, the majority of Jews have lived outside the Holy Land. Lacking a state and scattered among the peoples of the Near East, the Jews needed to find alternative methods to preserve their special identity. They turned to the laws and rituals of their faith, which became unifying elements holding the community together. Thus, circumcision, sabbath observance, festivals, dietary laws and laws of cleanliness became especially important.

In the middle of the 6th century BC, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return to their homeland “to rebuild the house of the Lord.” The majority of Jews, however, preferred to remain in the Diaspora, especially in Babylon, which would become a great center of Jewish culture for 1,500 years. During this period Ezra, the great codifier of the laws, compiled the Torah from the vast literature of history, politics and religion that the Jews had accumulated. The written record depicting the relationship between God and the Jewish people contained in the Torah became the focal point of Judaism.

Hellenism and Roman Rule

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great of Macedon destroyed the Persian Empire but largely ignored Judah. After Alexander’s death, his generals divided – and subsequently fought over – his empire. In 301 BC, Ptolemy I took direct control of the Jewish homeland, but he made no serious effort to interfere in its religious affairs. Ptolemy’s successors were in turn supplanted by the Seleucids, and in 175 BC Antiochus IV seized power. He launched a campaign to crush Judaism, and in 167 BC he sacked the Temple.

The violation of the Second Temple, which had been built about 520-515 BC, provoked a successful Jewish rebellion under the generalship of Judas (Judah) Maccabaeus. In 140 BC the Hasmonean Dynasty began under the leadership of Simon Maccabaeus, who served as ruler, high priest, and commander in chief. Simon, who was assassinated a few years later, formalised what Judas had begun, the establishment of a theocracy, something not found in any biblical text.

Despite priestly rule, Jewish society became Hellenised except in its generally staunch adherence to monotheism. Although rural life was relatively unchanged, cities such as Jerusalem rapidly adopted the Greek language, sponsored games and sports, and in more subtle ways adopted and absorbed the culture of the Hellenes. Even the high priests bore such names as Jason and Menelaus. Biblical scholars have identified extensive Greek influence in the drafting of commentaries and interpolations of ancient texts during and after the Greek period. The most obvious influence of the Hellenistic period can be discerned in the early literature of the new faith, Christianity.

Under the Hasmonean Dynasty, Judah became comparable in extent and power to the ancient Davidic dominion. Internal political and religious discord ran high, however, especially between the Pharisees, who interpreted the written law by adding a wealth of oral law, and the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly class who called for strict adherence to the written law. In 64 BC, dynastic contenders for the throne appealed for support to Pompey, who was then establishing Roman power in Asia. The next year Roman legions seized Jerusalem, and Pompey installed one of the contenders for the throne as high priest, but without the title of king. Eighty years of independent Jewish sovereignty ended, and the period of Roman dominion began.

In the subsequent period of Roman wars, Herod was confirmed by the Roman Senate as king of Judah in 37 BC and reigned until his death in 4 BC. Nominally independent, Judah was actually in bondage to Rome, and the land was formally annexed in 6 BC as part of the province of Syria Palestina. Rome did, however, grant the Jews religious autonomy and some judicial and legislative rights through the Sanhedrin.

Chafing under foreign rule, a Jewish nationalist movement of the fanatical sect known as the Zealots challenged Roman control in 66 AD. After a protracted siege begun by Vespasian, the Roman commander in Judah, but completed under his son Titus in 70 AD, Jerusalem and the Second Temple were seized and destroyed by the Roman legions. The last Zealot survivors perished in 73 AD at the mountain fortress of Massada, about fifty-six kilometres southwest of Jerusalem above the western shore of the Dead Sea. During the siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakki received Vespasian’s permission to withdraw to the town of Yibna on the coastal plain, about twenty-four kilometers southwest of present-day Tel Aviv. There an academic centre or academy was set up and became the central religious authority; its jurisdiction was recognised by Jews in Palestine and beyond. Roman rule, nevertheless, continued. Emperor Hadrian (117-38 AD) endeavoured to establish cultural uniformity and issued several repressive edicts, including one against circumcision.

The edicts sparked the Bar-Kochba Rebellion of 132-35 AD, which was crushed by the Romans. Hadrian then closed the Academy at Yibna, and prohibited both the study of the Torah and the observance of the Jewish way of life derived from it. Judah was included in Syria Palestina, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden to come within sight of the city. Once a year on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, controlled entry was permitted, allowing Jews to mourn at a remaining fragment on the Temple site, the Western Wall, which became known as the Wailing Wall. The Diaspora, which had begun with the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC, and which had resumed early in the Hellenistic period, now involved most Jews in an exodus from what they continued to view as the land promised to them as the descendants of Abraham.

Palestine: From the Roman Rule to Modern times

As a geographic unit, Palestine extended from the Mediterranean on the west to the Arabian Desert on the east and from the lower Litani River in the north to the Gaza Valley in the south. It was named after the Philistines, who occupied the southern coastal region in the 12th century BC. The name Philistia was used in the 2nd century AD to designate Syria Palestina, which formed the southern third of the Roman province of Syria.

Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337 AD) shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 330 AD and made Christianity the official religion. With Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, a new era of prosperity came to Palestine, which attracted a flood of pilgrims from all over the empire. Upon partition of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, Palestine passed under eastern control. The scholarly Jewish communities in Galilee continued with varying fortunes under Byzantine rule and dominant Christian influence until the Arab-Muslim conquest of 638 AD. The period included, however, strong Jewish support of the briefly successful Persian invasion of 610-14 AD.

The Arab caliph, Umar, designated Jerusalem as the third holiest place in Islam, second only to Mecca and Medina. Under the Umayyads, based in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock was erected in 691 AD on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which was also the alleged nocturnal resting place of the Prophet Muhammad on his journey to heaven. It is the earliest Muslim monument still extant. Close to the shrine, to the south, the Al Aqsa Mosque was built. The Umayyad caliph, Umar II (717-720 AD), imposed humiliating restrictions on his non-Muslim subjects that led many to convert to Islam. These conversions, in addition to a steady tribal flow from the desert, changed the religious character of the inhabitants of Palestine from Christian to Muslim. Under the Abbasids the process of Islamisation gained added momentum as a result of further restrictions imposed on non-Muslims by Harun ar Rashid (786-809 AD) and more particularly by Al Mutawakkil (847-61 AD).

The Abbasids were followed by the Fatimids who faced frequent attacks from Qarmatians, Seljuks and Byzantines, and periodic beduin opposition. Palestine was reduced to a battlefield. In 1071 the Seljuks captured Jerusalem. The Fatimids recaptured the city in 1098, only to deliver it a year later to a new enemy, the Crusaders of Western Europe. In 1100 the Crusaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which remained until the famous Muslim general Salah ad Din (Saladin) defeated them at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Crusaders were not completely evicted from Palestine, however, until 1291 when they were driven out of Acre. The 14th and 15th centuries were a “dark age” for Palestine as a result of Mamluk misrule and the spread of several epidemics. The Mamluks were slave-soldiers who established a dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria, which included Palestine, from 1250 to 1516.

In 1516 the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Selim I, routed the Mamluks, and Palestine began four centuries under Ottoman domination. Under the Ottomans, Palestine continued to be linked administratively to Damascus until 1830, when it was placed under Sidon, then under Acre, then once again under Damascus. In 1887-88 the local governmental units of the Ottoman Empire were finally settled, and Palestine was divided into the administrative divisions of Nabulus and Acre, both of which were linked with the vilayet (largest Ottoman administrative division, similar to a province) of Beirut and the autonomous mutasarrifiyah of Jerusalem, which dealt directly with Constantinople.

For the first three centuries of Ottoman rule, Palestine was relatively insulated from outside influences. At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon’s abortive attempt to establish a Middle East empire led to increased Western involvement in Palestine. The trend toward Western influence accelerated during the nine years (1831-40) that the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim ruled Palestine. The Ottomans returned to power in 1840 with the help of the British, Austrians and Russians. For the remainder of the 19th century, Palestine, despite the growth of Christian missionary schools and the establishment of European consulates, remained a mainly rural, poor but self-sufficient, introverted society. Demographically its population was overwhelmingly Arab, mainly Muslim, but with an important Christian merchant and professional class residing in the cities. The Jewish population of Palestine before 1880 consisted of fewer than 25,000 people, two-thirds of whom lived in Jerusalem where they made up half the population (and from 1890 on, more than half the population). These were Orthodox Jews, many of whom had immigrated to Palestine simply to be buried in the Holy Land, and who had no real political interest in establishing a Jewish entity. They were supported by alms given by world Jewry.

Zionism and the British Mandate

The first large wave of modern immigration, known in Hebrew as the First Aliyah (Hebrew: עלייה), began in 1881, as Jews fled growing persecution in Eastern Europe. However, it is Theodor Herzl who is usually credited with founding the Zionist movement. In 1896, he published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), in which he called for the establishment of a national home for the Jews. The following year he helped convene the first World Zionist Congress. During the period later known as the Second Aliyah (1904–1914) some forty thousand Jews settled in Palestine. The first wave of immigration consisted mainly of Orthodox Jews, but the members of the second wave were secular, often socialist pioneers who established the kibbutz movement.

In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration that “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Arab opposition instigated riots and pogroms against Jews in 1920, leading to the formation of the defense organisation Hashomer, from which the Irgun and Lehi later split off. In 1922, the League of Nations granted Great Britain the mandate over Palestine the terms of which stipulated “securing the establishment of the Jewish national home”. The Arab riots caused the British Colonial Secretary (Winston Churchill) to restrict Jewish migration according to an annual quota dependent on the economic stability of the country.

After World War I, until 1929, waves of Jewish immigration resumed with the Third and Fourth Aliyahs; together they brought over 100,000 Jews to the region. The rise of Nazism throughout the 1930s led to the Fifth Aliyah, in which a quarter million Jews immigrated to the Mandatory Palestine. The 1936-1939 Arab revolt against the Jews and British led the yishuv to develop independent infrastructure. In 1939, the British introduced severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and land purchases. During World War II, as countries around the world refused to accept Jews fleeing the Holocaust, a clandestine immigration movement known as Aliyah Bet was organised to bring Jews to Palestine. By the end of World War II, Jews accounted for 33% of the population of Palestine, up from 11% in 1922.

Independence

In 1947, the British government decided to withdraw from the Mandate of Palestine, stating it was unable to arrive at a solution acceptable to both parties. The newly-created United Nations approved Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan) on November 29, 1947, allocating just over half the land, for a Jewish state and most of the rest for an Arab country. Jerusalem was to be designated as an international city administered by the UN to avoid conflict over its status. The Jewish community accepted the UN Partition Plan, but the Arab League and Arab Higher Committee rejected it.

David Ben-Gurion, later the first Prime Minister of Israel, pronounces the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv.

Regardless, the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, one day before the expiry of the British Mandate of Palestine. Not long after, five Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – attacked Israel, launching the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After almost a year of fighting, a ceasefire was declared in 1949 and temporary borders, known as the Green Line, were instituted. Jordan annexed what became known as the West Bank and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations on May 11, 1949. In the course of the hostilities, 711,000 Arabs fled from the newly-created Jewish state, according to the UN estimates. Arab persecution of Jewish communities precipitated a similar Jewish exodus from Arab lands.

The New Nation

Following the Lausanne Conference of 1949, Israel allowed the return of 150,000 Arab refugees, mostly to reunite families. One major aim of the government was to gather in all Jews who wished to immigrate to Israel. This led to the 1950 Law of the Return, which provided for free and automatic citizenship for all immigrant Jews. Border incidents with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan continued.

Trouble in the Gaza area reached new heights in the mid-1950s despite UN intervention, and in 1956, Egyptian President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. On October 29, 1956, Israel made a preemptive attack on Egyptian territory and within a few days had conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula, while Britain and France invaded the area of the Suez Canal. Israel eventually yielded to strong pressure from the United States, the USSR, and the United Nations and removed its troops from Sinai in November, 1956, and from Gaza by March, 1957, as UN forces were sent to the Sinai and Gaza to keep peace between Egypt and Israel. Through this war, Israel succeeded in keeping open its shipping lanes via Elat and the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea.

In 1962, Israel became the scene of the celebrated trial of Adolf Eichmann. In 1963, Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister and was succeeded in that office by Levi Eshkol. Eshkol had to cope with increased guerrilla incursions into Israel from Syria and the shelling of Israeli villages by the Syrian army from the Golan Heights.

The Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars

In May, 1967, Nasser mobilised the Egyptian army in Sinai. The UN then acceded to his demand to withdraw from the Israeli-Egyptian border, where it had been stationed since 1956. Egypt next blockaded the Israeli port of Elat (on the Gulf of Aqaba) by closing the Strait of Tiran.

On June 5, 1967, Israel struck against Egypt and Syria; Jordan subsequently attacked Israel. In six days, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, the Golan Heights of Syria, and the West Bank and Arab sector of E Jerusalem (both under Jordanian rule), thereby giving the conflict the name of the Six-Day War. Israel unified the Arab and Israeli sectors of Jerusalem, and Arab guerrillas stepped up their incursions, operating largely from Jordan. After Eshkol’s death in 1969, Golda Meir became prime minister. There followed an inconclusive period when there was neither peace nor war in the area.

On October 6, 1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Other Arab states sent contingents of soldiers to aid in the attack on Israel. Egypt succeeded in sending troops in force across the Suez Canal to the east bank before being halted by Israeli troops. Toward the end of the fighting, the Israelis managed to send their own troops across the Suez Canal to the west bank, encircling Egypt’s Third Army on the east bank and clearing a path to Cairo. They also drove the Syrians even further back toward Damascus. A cease-fire called for by the UN Security Council on October 22 and 23 went into effect shortly thereafter.

Peace Overtures

In December, 1973, the first Arab-Israeli peace conference opened in Geneva, Switzerland, under UN auspices. An agreement to disengage Israeli and Egyptian forces was reached in January, 1974, largely through the “shuttle diplomacy” mediation of US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Israeli troops withdrew several miles into the Sinai, a UN buffer zone was established, and Egyptian forces reoccupied the east bank of the Suez Canal and a small, adjoining strip of land in the Sinai. A similar agreement between Israel and Syria was achieved in May, 1974, again through the efforts of Kissinger. Under its terms, Israeli forces evacuated the Syrian lands captured in the 1973 war (while continuing to hold most of the territory conquered in 1967, such as the Golan Heights) and a UN buffer zone was created.

Golda Meir resigned and was succeeded (1974) by Yitzhak Rabin, who formed a coalition government. In 1977, the Likud party under the leadership of Menachem Begin defeated the Labor party for the first time in Israeli elections. As prime minister, Begin strongly supported the development of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories and opposed Palestinian sovereignty.

Egypt began peace initiatives with Israel in late 1977, when Egyptian President Sadat visited Jerusalem. A year later, with the help of US President Jimmy Carter, terms of peace between Egypt and Israel were negotiated at Camp David, Maryland. A formal treaty, signed on March 26, 1979, in Washington DC, granted full recognition of Israel by Egypt, opened trade relations between the two countries, returned the Sinai to Egyptian control (completed in 1982), and limited Egyptian military buildup in the Sinai.

Late 20th Century

In 1979, Israeli troops briefly invaded Lebanon in an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases and forces used in raids on northern Israel. On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in a second attempt. Israeli troops advanced to Beirut and surrounded the western part of the city, which housed PLO headquarters, and a siege ensued. Israeli troops began a gradual move out of Lebanon (completed in 1985) after PLO forces withdrew from Beirut. A 6-mile (10-km) deep security zone within southern Lebanon was established to protect northern Israeli settlements.

Begin had been returned to office in 1981, but he resigned in 1983 and was replaced by Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir. Undecisive majorities in the 1984 elections led to a sharing of the prime ministership by Shamir and Shimon Peres of the Labor party. Shamir, who regained sole prime ministership after the 1988 elections, strongly upheld the policy of increased Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. Large numbers of emigrants from Ethiopia and, primarily, the Soviet Union increased Israel’s population by nearly 10% in three years (1989–92), leading to increased unemployment and a lack of housing.

In December, 1987, a popular Arab uprising (Intifada) began against Israeli rule in the occupied territories. During the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, Israel suffered Iraqi missile attacks, as Iraq unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the allied coalition and widen the war. Peace talks between Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation began in August, 1991.

Rabin re-entered the political scene in 1992, becoming prime minister after the defeat of the Likud party and the establishment of a Labor-led coalition. He pursued Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, in which significant progress was made. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed an accord providing for joint recognition and for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. In 1995, Israel and the PLO agreed on a transition to Palestinian self-rule in most of the West Bank, although acts of terrorism continued to darken Israeli-Palestinian relations. In 1994 a treaty with Jordan ended the 46-year-old state of war between the two nations.

In November, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist who opposed the West Bank peace accord with the PLO; Peres, who was foreign minister, became prime minister. In early 1996, Israel was hit by a series of suicide bombs, and Shiite Muslims launched rocket attacks into Israel from Lebanon. Retaliating, Israel blockaded the port of Beirut and launched a series of attacks on targets in southern Lebanon.

The 1996 elections, in which the prime minister was elected directly for the first time, resulted in a narrow victory for Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed Labor’s land-for-peace deals. In an attempt to allay fears about Israel’s future policies, Netanyahu pledged to continue the peace process. After setbacks and delays, most of Hebron was handed over to Palestinian control in January, 1997, and, under an accord signed in 1998, Israel agreed to withdraw from additional West Bank territory, while the Palestinian Authority pledged to take stronger measures to fight terrorism. Further negotiations over territory, however, were essentially stalled.

In the May, 1999, elections, Labor returned to power under Ehud Barak, a former army chief of staff. He formed a broad-based coalition government, promising to ease tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, as well as to move the peace process forward. In September, Barak and Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, signed an agreement to finalise their borders and determine the status of Jerusalem within a year; Israel also began implementation of a plan to hand over additional West Bank territory, which was completed in March, 2000.

The 21st Century

Barak’s coalition was weakened in May, 2000, when three right-of-centre parties pulled out of the government. In the same month, Israeli forces withdrew from the buffer zone that had long been maintained in southern Lebanon. In July, negotiations in the US between Israel and the Palestinians ended without success, and Israeli-Palestinian relations turned extremely acrimonious when a September visit by Ariel Sharon to the Haram esh-Sherif (the Temple Mount to Jews) in Jerusalem sparked riots that escalated into a new, ongoing cycle of violence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel itself. Barak resigned in December, 2000, in an attempt to re-establish a electoral mandate, but he was trounced in the February, 2001, election by Ariel Sharon, who formed a national unity government.

Despite Israeli military incursions into Palestinian territory and attacks on Palestinian authorities and forces, Palestinian attacks on Israelis in Israel and the occupied territories did not end, and in 2002 Sharon’s government ordered the re-occupation of West Bank towns in a new attempt to stop those attacks. In October, 2002, Labor members of the government accused Sharon of favouring Israeli settlers in the occupied territories over the poor, and withdrew their support. Left with a minority government, Sharon called for parliamentary elections in early 2003, and in January Likud won a substantial victory at the polls. The following month Sharon formed a four-party, mainly right-wing coalition government.

In May, 2003, Sharon’s government accepted the internationally supported “road map for peace” with some limitations; the plan envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state in three years. Talks resumed with Palestinian authorities, who also negotiated a three-month cease-fire with Palestinian militants, and Israel made some conciliatory moves in Gaza and the West Bank. Suicide bombings and Israeli revenge attacks resumed, however, in August, and in October Israel attacked Syria for the first time in 20 years, bombing what it termed a terrorist training camp in retaliation for suicide bombings.

Israel’s ongoing construction of a 400-mile (640-km) fence and wall security barrier in the West Bank, potentially enclosing some 15% of that territory, brought widespread international condemnation in late 2003, and a July, 2004, advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (requested by Palestinians and the UN General Assembly) termed its construction illegal under international law because it was being constructed on Palestinian lands. Meanwhile, an Israeli court ruling (June) ordered the wall to be re-routed in certain areas because of the hardship it would cause Palestinians.

In March the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin heightened tensions in the occupied territories, especially the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the latter, while supported by most Israelis, was rejected in a non-binding vote (May, 2004) by Likud party members. The plan then resulted in defections from his coalition, but Sharon vowed to complete the withdrawal, which was being undertaken for security reasons, by the end of 2005. In October, 2004, he secured parliamentary approval for the plan. The plan also called for abandoning a few settlements in the West Bank while expanding others there. Sharon formed a new coalition that included the Labor party, which supported the Gaza withdrawal, in January, 2005. He subsequently agreed to a truce with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and in March, 2005, Israeli forces began withdrawing from Jericho and other West Bank towns. The planned Gaza withdrawal sparked protests by settlers and their allies beginning in June, but in August the evacuation of the settlements proceeded relatively straightforwardly. Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza the following month.

In November, 2005, Shimon Peres lost his Labor party leadership post to Amir Peretz, a trade union leader. Peretz pulled Labor from the government, prompting new elections, and Sharon withdrew from Likud to form the centrist Kadima (Forward) party, in an attempt to force a realignment of Israeli politics and retain the prime ministership. In January, 2006, however, Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke and was hospitalised. Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, became acting prime minister and leader of the new party.

The Kadima party won a plurality in the March, 2006, elections, with Labor placing second. In April, Sharon was declared permanently incapacitated; Olmert became prime minister, and in May formed a new coalition government. Escalating rocket attacks from Gaza and the capture by Hamas guerrillas of an Israeli soldier led to an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in June, 2006, as well as other actions against Hamas and the Palestinians. Israel continue to mount attacks into Gaza in the succeeding months.

In July, Lebanese Hezbollah forces captured two Israeli soldiers, and Israel launched air attacks against targets throughout Lebanon and sent troops as far as 18.5 miles (30 km) into southern Lebanon; Hezbollah responded mainly with rocket attacks against northern Israel, including Haifa and Tiberias, but also offered resistance on the ground against Israeli forces. A UN-mediated cease-fire took effect in mid-August, and by early October Israel had essentially withdrawn from Lebanon. The invasion’s aim of disarming Hezbollah and winning the release of the captured Israeli soldiers was in the main unattained, and Hezbollah’s sustained resistance to Israeli forces enhanced the group’s prestige in the Arab world. Amnesty International accused both sides of war crimes in the fighting, mainly because of their attacks on civilians.

As a result of the fighting in Gaza and Lebanon and the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, Olmert suspended his planned unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, and brought (October, 2006) a far-right party into his government to strengthen the coalition in the Knesset. Also in October, Israeli police accused Israeli President Moshe Katsav of sexual assault and other crimes, prompting an investigation and leading to calls for Katsav to resign (which he refused to do). The Israeli group Peace Now asserted in November that, according to government documents, nearly 40% (and perhaps more) of the land on which Israel’s West Bank settlements were built was privately owned Palestinian land, in violation of Israeli law. More current information given by the government to the group in March, 2007, indicated that private land made up more than 30% of the settlements but did not indicate how much was Palestinian-owned (the vast bulk of the private land in the first set of documents was Palestinian).

In January, 2007, the head of the Israeli armed forces resigned, taking responsibility for the unsuccessful anti-Hezbollah campaign of 2006; his resignation led the opposition to call for the prime minister and defense minister to resign as well. (An independent report, released in April, 2007, was critical of the prime minister’s and defense minister’s handling of the invasion.) Late in January, 2007, Katsav secured a suspension of his duties as president after Israel’s attorney general said he was considering charging Katsav with rape and other crimes; a plea deal in June allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid prison but forced him to resign. Shimon Peres was elected president earlier the same month.

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