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A Thumbnail History of Modern Israel




When the Romans finally destroyed the last of Jewish independence in the ancient world, almost 2,000 years ago, they also sought to erase all Jewish connection to the land.

And so, instead of using the name Judea, they adopted the name Palastina. Anglicized today, this is “Palestine.” Over the centuries, the region was controlled by a substantial number of occupiers but was always treated as no more than an appendage to a larger empire or holding, administered by outsiders from elsewhere. From the end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth to the establishment of modern Israel, there was never a state (or other local autonomy) known as Palestine. It should be noted, however, that there was a continuous Jewish presence in the area.

By the 12th Century CE, the term “Palestine” was being used only informally, at different times referring to different areas on both sides of the Jordan River. Only in modern times did “Palestine” come to have a specific designation again.

From 1517-1917 the region was part of the vast Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire, and was ruled from Damascus.

Ottoman Empire


During World War I (1914-1918), the Turks supported Germany, and so, when Germany was defeated, so was Turkey.



In the wake of victory, Britain and France divided the Middle East: Britain acquired Iraq and Palestine; France acquired Syria, which includes what is today Lebanon. This was formalized in 1922 by the League of Nations, which assigned mandates in the region. (The mandates in the former Ottoman Empire presumably granted official responsibility for administering areas, with the goal of enabling independence later.)

Once the Mandate for Palestine went to Great Britain, “Palestine” then had a very specific, internationally recognized designation. It was an area defined in today’s terms by Israel, the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria, and Jordan. (For one year, Palestine also included part of the Golan Heights, but this was then turned over to France.)


In receiving the Mandate for Palestine, Britain was charged with “secur(ing) the establishment of the Jewish national home,” which meant, in the words of the Mandate, that Britain was to “facilitate Jewish immigration” and “encourage close settlement by Jews on the land.”

Wording in the Mandate was actually drawn directly from the British Balfour Declaration of 1917. This was a letter that had been written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, which said, in part: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

Jews had already begun immigration into Palestine in substantial numbers in the 1880s, with the goal of re-establishing a Jewish state there. (The Zionist Movement was officially founded by Theodor Herzl at the end of the nineteenth century.) As the Jews cleared swamps and attempted to revitalize the land, a large immigration of Arabs from neighboring areas was generated; the Arabs were drawn by employment opportunities and healthier living conditions.



In 1923, the British divided their mandated area of Palestine into two administrative districts. Thereafter, only the region west of the Jordan River would be called “Palestine,” and it would be only here that Jews would be permitted to settle and establish their homeland.

The territory east of the Jordan River was given to Emir Abdullah of the Hashemite family from Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia). He was not indigenous — not an Arab from Palestine. The area was renamed Trans-Jordan (meaning across the Jordan River) and became Jordan in 1946 when it became an independent country and Abdullah its first king. Jews were not permitted to live there, although Arabs lived in Palestine.

The British had cut off 75% of the area originally proposed as a Jewish homeland to form an Arab state. With this, the Palestinian Arabs had their “Palestinian” state. This is largely forgotten today because of the name change, but historically it is the fact: Claims made that there is already an Arab Palestinian state are accurate. The remaining 25% of Palestine west of the Jordan River was still slated to be the Jewish Palestinian homeland.

The Arabs in Palestine, however, were not content with the Arab state being formed on the east bank of the Jordan; they sought to drive the Jews out altogether and to claim Palestine as also being theirs. This attitude was fueled by a deep seated resentment at having a Jewish presence on what was perceived religiously as “Muslim” territory (from the time of the Ottoman Empire and occupation by other Muslims earlier), as well as by a nascent nationalism beginning to be fostered in the region. Murderous attacks were launched, notably the Hebron massacre of 1929. From 1936-39 there was an “Arab Revolt,” headed by Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini.

Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini (Yasser Arafat’s relative and mentor), who had provoked the Arab riots in the 20s, shown in a later picture when he was collaborating with the Nazis in killing Jews


There was a general Arab strike and terrorism was launched against both British and Jewish targets.

The British military was able to quell the violence, but politically the British caved to Arab demands and surrendered its commitment under the Mandate to foster a Jewish Homeland in all of Palestine. The Peel Commission was charged with investigating the situation and in 1937 delivered its recommendations: That a freeze be placed on Jewish immigration with 12,000 per year permitted for five years and none thereafter, and that Palestine be partitioned. At that point, partition was rejected by the British but they were clearly tilting towards the Arabs; Jewish rights were not supported. During World War II, as Jews attempted to flee Hitler, they found the gates to Palestine substantially blocked by the British.

The Hagana, the forerunner of the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF], was established for self-defense.

Hagana members

A Jewish underground was also established.  A spin-off from the Hagana, the Irgun was based on principles espoused by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who believed that every Jew had a right to come to Palestine. It not only fought the Arabs, but also acted against the pro-Arab British, and promoted illegal aliyah (immigration into Palestine) when Jews were fleeing the Holocaust.  Menachem Begin, who later became prime minister of Israel, was a leader within this group.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky


In 1947 the British decided that they had had enough and that their balancing act between the Arabs and the Jews was not tenable. They declared their intention to pull out of Palestine and turned the matter over to the United Nations General Assembly.



The UN General Assembly, on November 29, 1947, then passed Resolution 181, which called for Palestine to be partitioned according to population concentrations. This resolution was no more than a recommendation, as General Assembly resolutions have no standing in international law. There was no means for enforcing this recommendation, and it did not supersede the Mandate as set into international law by the League of Nations. (The UN, which was the direct successor to the League, by the terms of its charter honored commitments of the League.)


What the recommendation for partition did was to divide the remaining 25% of Palestine into a Jewish Palestinian State and a SECOND Arab Palestinian State (Jordan being the first), with Jerusalem under international jurisdiction. In spite of this, the Jewish Palestinians accepted the recommendation. But the Arabs rejected it.



On May 14, 1948, the day that the British Mandate expired, the Palestinian Jews formally declared the founding of the State of Israel.

Historic moment:  David Ben Gurion — who became Israel’s first Prime Minister — declaring Israeli independence in Tel Aviv. On the wall is a picture of Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism.


For the full text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence with links to related information.


The very next day, the Arab League declared war on the new state. Armies from neighboring Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq — invaded Israel. (Yemen was part of the Arab League but sent no troops.)

Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, announced at a press conference that this was a “Jihad”: “…a war of extermination and a momentous massacre.”



In the course of the war, some 500,000 Arabs who lived in what was now Israel fled her borders. Some 70% of those who fled never saw an Israeli soldier. They ran either on their own initiative or because they were told by Arab leaders to do so. The anticipation was that the Jews would be promptly defeated; it was considered smart for the Arabs to get out of the way and then return victorious later, ready to take over and claim spoils. In large part they were duped.

There were instances in which Arabs were driven out. The Jewish citizens of the new state of Israel were facing an existential threat. The Arab League had made its intentions quite clear. Some of the Arabs living in Israel were a fifth column, and therefore undermined the security of the Israeli forces. It would have been suicidal not to push out these Arabs.  The evidence that Israel did not intend to drive out all of the Arabs is quite clear: Those who remained were made citizens. Stories are told, especially in the Haifa area, about special pleas made to the Arabs to stay and be a part of the State instead of fleeing.

Those Arabs who fled became “Palestinian refugees” as defined by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), founded in 1949.

(UNRWA is the only international agency dedicated to one group of refugees.) In some cases the refugees had been in Israel for little as two years before fleeing — having come for work — and were not indigenous to the area. They became pawns in the on-going Arab fight to destroy Israel. To this day, they and their patrilineal descendants are considered refugees. The Arab states — with the exception of Jordan — have refused to give them citizenship, while UNRWA refuses to seek permanent solutions for them elsewhere (as is the policy of the UN High Commission for Refugees in dealing with all the other refugees in the world — when these refugees cannot repatriate).  Instead, UNRWA insists that they have a “right” to return to Israel. Were Israel to grant them the “right to return” this would destroy the country. As it is, the frustration generated in the refugees by Arab/UNRWA policies has fostered radicalism and terrorism in the refugee population: much of the terrorism against Israel comes out of the UNRWA refugee camps.

(see section on Reports for more information on UNRWA)

The Balata refugee camp



In 1949, at the end of the Israeli War of Independence, Israel was slightly larger than what had been proposed by the 1947 United Nations Resolution 181.


There was no “Palestinian Arab” state in the part of Palestine that was not Jewish, however. That had been rejected. Instead, on the west, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip and on the east, Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria (which became known as the “West Bank,” i.e., the west bank of the Jordan River).

West Jerusalem was in the hands of Israel, while east Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan. This was the only time in Jerusalem’s 3,000 year history that it was divided. The Temple Mount and the adjacent Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest sites, were in east Jerusalem and Jews were denied all access to them. In fact, all Jews were banished from homes in areas controlled by Jordan, and the Jordanians destroyed synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in east Jerusalem.

An understanding of this history is exceedingly important: Today there are claims that east Jerusalem and its surrounding areas are “Arab.” They only seem so because of what happened when Jordan took over and made the area Judenrein. The historical reality is that Jewish heritage is solidly linked to this region (east Jerusalem, Judea-Samaria), actually more so than to places to the west.

(While the Jews of Israel are expected by the international community to accommodate Arabs as residents, there was never an international protest about the banishment by Jordan of Jews from places that were historically Jewish and an insistence that areas it controlled be exclusively Arab. Where Israel is concerned an international double standard adheres.)

The lines established at the end of the war were NOT final borders. They were armistice lines — determined when ceasefire (not peace) agreements were signed with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. To this day, only Jordan and Egypt, of the nations that had attacked Israel in 1948, have signed peace treaties; Iraq and Saudi Arabia which share no direct borders with Israel, would not negotiate even armistice agreements. (The armistice lines between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Lebanon did not correspond to the battlefront lines at the time of cessation of hostilities; in these instances Israel withdrew to the earlier Mandate borders.)

These armistice lines, with some small adjustments, are what has come to be known as The Green Line. They are often treated as if they were permanent borders to which Israel should now return. But when they were established, the lines were viewed as TEMPORARY, to be replaced within the next few years by permanent borders.  In fact, the armistice agreement Jordan signed with Israel specifically stated that the armistice line was temporary and that a permanent border would be determined via negotiations.

Jordan formally annexed the West Bank in 1950, and granted Palestinian Arabs living there citizenship. In 1988, Jordan reversed this, relinquishing all claims to the area.

Hostility to Israel by Arabs in the region persisted through the years following the War of Independence. This was manifested in a variety of ways, including terrorist attacks and then the blockade of the Suez Canal by Egypt, so that Israeli shipping was stymied. This led to the war of 1956, which resulted in a rout by Israel and movement of Israeli forces into the Sinai. Under pressure from the US, Israel withdrew without receiving any concessions from the Egyptians. UN forces were placed in the Sinai as a buffer between Egypt and Israel, but the stage was set for what followed 11 years later…



In May 1967, the following sequence of events occurred: the Egyptian army amassed at the border with Israel in the Sinai; Syria sent troops prepared for battle to the Israeli border in the Golan; Egypt’s President Nassar ordered the UN troops to leave the Sinai.

Along with this came open declarations of Arab intentions of going to war with Israel and destroying her. From the Voice of Arab radio: “The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.” From Hafetz Assad, who was then Syria’s Defense Minister: “…the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, thereby blocking Israeli shipping. There was major international understanding that this was illegal and that Israel had rights with regard to shipping. (These rights had been determined in 1956.) US President Johnson later even expressed the view that this blockade was the casus belli of the war that was thus precipitated. At the end of May, King Hussein of Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt and Syria, and four days later Iraq joined.

But in spite of international recognition that Israel was in the right, and acknowledgement that there was little to be done to get the Arab states to back down, there was a reluctance to see her go to war. It would seem that the international community, including ostensible allies, preferred to see Israel destroyed rather than have her cause “unrest” in the region. The US declared neutrality, and both the US and France put an embargo on arms to Israel, while the Soviets continued to ship arms to the Arabs.

The Israelis went it alone, and launched a stunning pre-emptive strike at the beginning of what became the Six Day War. On May 5, the Israeli Air Force took the Egyptian Air Force by surprise, taking out its 300 planes, within two hours, while they were still on the ground. The Israelis destroyed the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces, and half of the air force of Syria in a single day.

Israeli planes in use during the Six Day War


The focus of the war then moved to ground forces; fierce tank battles were fought in the Sinai and there was fighting on the Syrian and the Jordanian fronts.

Israeli President Levi Eshkol had sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein that there would be no ground fighting on the Jordanian front if Jordan would stay out of it. But Jordan, misled by Egypt into believing that the Arabs were winning, began to shell Jerusalem and was then very much involved. By June 7, Israel had gained control of east Jerusalem, and, most significantly, the Old City, where the Temple Mount and the Western Wall are located. Israeli Commander Moti Gur declared, “Har Habayit b’yadenu!” The Temple Mount is in our hands! There was great celebration.

The Temple Mount, Western Wall (Kotel) and plaza added after 1967


By the end of this war, Israel controlled the entire area of “Palestine” west of the Jordan River that had been promised to the Jews as a National Homeland under the Mandate: Israel within the Green Line, the Gaza Strip and all of Judea-Samaria. Israel controlled, as well, the entire city of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights at the border with Syria, and the Sinai.

The city of Jerusalem, designated as Israel’s capital from the beginning, was promptly united by Israel in 1967. In 1980, the Israeli Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, within the Basic Law of Israel, declaring Jerusalem the “eternal and indivisible capital” of Israel.

Moshe Dayan, immediately following the Six Day War, in an effort to be conciliatory, called in Arab leaders and gave to the Muslim Wakf (trust) everyday responsibility for managing the Temple Mount, thereby putting into Muslim hands the most sacred site in Judaism, where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque were constructed centuries after the destruction of the Temple.

In November 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” as well as “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” and recognition that “every State in the area” has the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” Contrary to claims frequently made, this does NOT call for withdrawal from ALL territories occupied in the Six Day War — withdrawals would be contingent on negotiations that would secure a state of peace for Israel. What this did is set in place the notion of “land for peace,” which has served Israel ill because of the intentions of the Arabs, which are not ultimately peaceful.



On October 6, 1973, on the holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria — in an effort to regain territory lost in 1967 — launched a surprise attack on Israel. Israel rebounded by moving well into Egyptian and Syrian territory, and was ultimately stopped from destroying the Egyptian army by a Security Council resolution.





Israeli tanks rolling into the desert

While Israel fought the war brilliantly, she paid a severe price in loss of lives. Ultimately the war did not affect the boundaries of Israel, but likely served the purpose of convincing the Arab nations of the futility of attempting to destroy her via conventional military means.



In 1978, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was reached at Camp David in Maryland, where Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and US President Jimmy Carter met.

Sadat, Carter and Begin at Camp David


Israel relinquished the entire Sinai in return for peace with Egypt.


The peace has been a very cold one, with no true normalization of relationships, and a great deal of anti-Semitism still extant in Egyptian culture. There are shifts in the situation now with Egyptian involvement at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and there are knowledgeable persons (such as Chair of the Israeli Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, Yuval Steinitz) who claim there is evidence that Egypt is now preparing for possible war with Israel.


In 1981, the Israeli government applied Israeli civil law to the strategically important Golan Heights. This was not the case with the Gaza Strip and has not been the case with Judea-Samaria.

The Golan Heights — of strategic importance




In 1982, Israel launched an offensive into southern Lebanon in an action against PLO forces there, which used the area as a springboard for terrorist attacks; the PLO was driven out to Tunisia. Following this, a 15 km wide security zone that paralleled the border was established and a small number of Israeli troops was retained there, to protect the towns of northern Israel from terrorist incursions and missile bombardment.



The First Intifada began in Judea-Samaria and the Gaza Strip in 1987. While it was identified as a popular uprising on the part of young Palestinian Arabs, there is evidence that it was coordinated and promoted by the PLO.




The Oslo Accords (Declaration of Principles) were first signed in 1993 amidst great hoopla on the White House lawn and declarations of a coming era of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.

A somber Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with Yasser Arafat, as President Clinton looked on.

This was followed by the Gaza-Jericho First Agreement of May 1994, which established the Palestinian Authority; a series of supplementary agreements outlining the jurisdiction and powers of the PA followed. In accordance with these agreements, Israel began to pull out of areas of major Palestinian Arab population concentration and turn them over to PA control.

A mere 10 days after the Gaza-Jericho First Agreement was signed, Yasser Arafat gave a talk in South Africa, not intended for western consumption, in which he implied that he considered the agreement he had just signed to be temporary, and that he would find a pretext to do battle with Israel when he had garnered sufficient strength. This was the tip-off regarding Arafat’s intentions: They were not peaceful. While pretending to negotiate peace and seek a state in Gaza and Judea-Samaria, the Palestinian Arabs continued to launch terrorist attacks.


In 1994, a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed. It has set borders, with just a slight adjustment in the Arava area allowing Israeli farmers to continue to function there. This has been a warmer peace than that with Egypt.

PM Rabin, smiling here, shaking hands with Jordan’s King Hussein, with President Clinton once more looking on



In 1998, a Memorandum was signed as a result of negotiations between Arafat and Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu designed to further facilitate the Interim Agreement.  It was at this time that final arrangements were made for an Israeli pullout from a substantial part of the ancient city of Hebron.

Arafat in kafiya and Netanyahu at right, signing



In May 2000, Israeli PM Ehud Barak precipitously withdrew the Israeli presence from the “security zone” in south Lebanon. Actions by Hezbollah had caused deaths of Israeli soldiers on a regular basis and ultimately made this policy unpopular in Israel. Withdrawal was done in conjunction with the UN, which officially declared that Israel had withdrawn to the internationally recognized border. This, however, did not dissuade Hezbollah from claiming that Israel was on Lebanese land in the area of the Shaba Farms; Hezbollah has continued to generate attacks into northern Israel.


In the summer of 2000, as a follow-up to negotiations that had been going on between Israel and the Palestinians, US President Clinton invited Yasser Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak to Camp David for final talks. According to reports, Barak made a stunning offer to Arafat that involved Israeli withdrawal from 100% of Gaza and from 95% of Judea-Samaria, establishment of a Palestinian state in the areas from which Israel withdrew, Palestinian control of east Jerusalem including much of the Old City and sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Arafat had to agree to “cessation of hostilities.” He professed himself unhappy with the offer, which didn’t include “right of return,” and he simply walked out without making a counter-offer. Clinton later attributed failure of the “peace process” to Arafat’s intransigence.

Israeli PM Barak and Arafat at Camp David, walking with Clinton



By late September 2000, what is know as the Second or Al Aksa Intifada  had begun. The pretext was a visit that Member of Knesset Ariel Sharon paid to the Temple Mount. (Some see this as the pretext for war Arafat spoke of in South Africa back in 1993.) Carefully coordinated, in large part by Marwan Barghouti at the beginning, it was, more accurately, a terrorist war of considerable proportions that ended at least 1,000 innocent Israeli lives and maimed many more.

Just one of many horrendous scenes of carnage from terrorist attacks

In 2002, in the face of horrific attacks — including suicide bombings at a Passover seder in the Park Hotel in Netanya, at a bar mitzvah party in Jerusalem (where the terrorist detonated himself near women with baby carriages, and at the Sbarro pizzeria in central Jerusalem) — Israel moved back into Palestinian population centers, and often into refugee camps, to combat terrorism.  This was called Operation Defensive Shield.

The height of controversy at the time was the Israeli action in the refugee camp of Jenin.  The accusation that Israel had massacred innocents was proven false; written material (from Palestinians) was uncovered that referred to Jenin as the “suiciders’ capital.”

Israeli troops moving into Jenin for Operation Defensive Shield



While the Al Aksa was still on-going, the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, met as the Quartet, to propose ways to advance peace in the Middle East and put forth what was called the “Roadmap to Peace,” which the Israeli cabinet accepted in May 2003 with 14 objections.


In 2004, Ariel Sharon, who was now prime minister, began to reverse all previous positions he had held, and to speak about withdrawal from Gaza.

Ariel Sharon


In August and early September of 2005, the “Disengagement” was completed. All Jewish communities in Gush Katif in southern Gaza and isolated communities in northern Gaza were dismantled and all Israeli military withdrawn — Israel withdrew, as well, as from a limited area in northern Samaria where there were four communities. In coordination with this was withdrawal from the Philadelphi Corridor at the border between Gaza and Egypt (where terrorists and their weapons are regularly smuggled into Gaza).

During the pullout from Gush Katif