| The history of Israel
can be traced back to 2000 BC, though the earliest
recorded event derives from the era of Moses (around 1300 BC) when
elements of the tribes of Israel escaped to Palestine from serfdom
in the eastern Nile Delta.
Once recognized there, the Jewish people maintained control of much
of Palestine, despite occasional clashes with the neighbouring Assyrians
and Philistines, until overrun by the Greek conqueror
Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.
By AD 100 Israel was under direct Roman rule. Palestine
was consequently occupied by Arabs, then retaken by the armies of
the First Crusade (1096-1100).
The Christians established numerous states, including
the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived until the fall of Acre
in 1291, although after the battle of Hattin in 1187, in which Saladin
comprehensively defeated the Crusader army, Jerusalem was no longer
a permanent part of it.
After 1291 the area fell under the control of the Mamelukes
and subsequently the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the Jews sustained
to spread across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East (and later
Few countries today require a community descended from Jewish
settlers and few of those communities have not suffered some form
of persecution over the centuries.
The Zionist movement emerged in
the 19 th century with the aim of re establishing a separate Jewish
nation in Palestine, building on the common sense of identity of
the scattered Jewish communities and the insecurity caused by frequent
The ambitions of the Zionist movement were ultimately recognised
by the British government in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which
followed Britain’s occupation of Palestine after defeating
the Turks in the Middle East during World War I.
The Balfour Declaration formed the basis of the
1920 mandate granted by the League of Nations, which attained to
British rule over the territory. The mandate laid the foundations
of the modern Arab - Israeli conflict as the British struggled to
balance their commitment to the Jews against their parallel promises
to the original Arab population.
After World War II and the carnage of Jews in Hitler’s
concentration camps, the United Nations favoured the creation of
a separate Jewish state carved out of Palestine. The Arabs declined
to accept this, but the imminent expiry of the mandate and pressure,
often violent, from Jewish immigrants, many of whom had moved to
Palestine after the war, forced the British to withdraw.
The Jewish leaders launched the State of Israel
in May 1948, bringing an immediate conflict with the Arab population,
which escalated into full scale war.
Although neighbouring Arab states, notably Jordan, intervened
on the Arab side, the Israelis took control of and held about 3
quarters of Palestine. The remainder, the largely
Arab populated area between Jerusalem and the River Jordan commonly
described today as the West Bank, was occupied by the Jordanian
Since the 6 Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated a combined
force from many Arab countries, the West Bank has
been occupied by the Israelis; similar territorial losses were suffered
by the Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, and by the
Syrians in the Golan Heights. Efforts to improve these in the 1973
Yom Kippur War were repulsed by Israel.
Most of the Palestinian population were now stateless refugees
driven from their established lands. Many 1000's ended up in squalid
refugee camps in Lebanon. Others found relatives in Jordan, over
half of whose population is of Palestinian descent. Others moved
further afield, as with the Jews, Palestinian communities with several
of the same attributes (a focus on education, business and professional
skills) have grown up throughout the world.
Politically, the major player in Palestinian politics since its
formation in 1964 has been the Palestine Liberation Organisation
(PLO), an umbrella grouping of 7 main factions. For 40 years, the
leader of the largest faction, al-Fatah, was Yasser Arafat, a fascinating
and revolutionary figurehead.
Known among Palestinians as ‘Abu Ammar’
(the builder), Arafat was the long standing chair of the PLO and,
from 1994, leader of the Palestinian Authority (see below). The
PLO and its affiliates decided on an international campaign designed
to highlight the plight of the Palestinian peoples.
This mixed orthodox military operations with high profile urban
revolutionary and terrorist activities.
Israel responded in kind, and the underground war between the 2
has been uniquely unforgiving (apart from Arafat, all the key founding
members of the PLO were assassinated).
died in November 2004 in a Parisian hospital (where he had been
flown for medical treatment) of an unrevealed mystery condition
involving low blood platelets, resulting in him retreating into
a coma that rendered him multiple organ failure, a brain haemorrhage
and, finally, death.
Aged 75, the Palestinians' pioneer had given no
previous warning of ill health before his sudden slip into sickness.
His death caused extensive disbelief among the Palestinian people
who had thought their leader invincible for evading death on many
famous occasions, most notably in an aeroplane crash and from an
However, fears that the Palestinian movement would deteriorate into
chaos have so far proven unfounded, although there are no signs
that the Palestinians plan to relent their ongoing struggle for
reclamation of land and rights.
By the early 1980's, it was clear that their armed struggle was
of partial value. Additionally, the political environment
was fast changing. In 1979, the biggest Arab state, Egypt, signed
the Camp David Accord. The Accord included not only a peace treaty
but supplies for the return of occupied land to Egypt (which was
effected) and for a conversion to autonomous rule for West Bank
Palestinians (which was never introduced). The attitude of the right
wing Israeli government of Menachem Begin (and that of Yitzhak Shamir
which followed) was exemplifyed by the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The major purpose of the invasion was to destroy
the PLO infrastructure that had developed in the southern part of
Israel since the 1960's, as well as its headquarters in Beirut.
In this it was successful, but Israel then decided to preserve an
occupation zone in the southern part of the country jointly controlled
by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and their local proxies, the
South Lebanon Army.
Numerous indigenous guerrilla movements, notably
Hezbollah, emerged and fought a highly effective campaign of attrition
against the Israelis which led to Israel’s only military defeat
when the IDF was forced to pull out of Lebanon in 1999.
From 1987, Palestinian activists wound down the armed struggle in
favour of a more widespread campaign of civil disobedience, street
disturbances and strikes known under the collective rubric of al-intifada
This was associated with a diplomatic offensive by the exiled PLO
leadership (now based in Tunis) and endorsement of UN resolutions
242 and 338, which implicitly recognise Israel’s right to
exist. The right wing Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir seemed
unwilling to reach a settlement and such dialogue as occurred was
The 1991 war in Iraq seemed to offer a chance to
break the impasse. The Israeli government was persuaded by the Americans
to stay out of the fighting to keep the Arab members of the anti-Iraq
coalition, including Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on side.
However diplomatic manoeuvring after the war returned
to its usual snail’s pace, in public at least. For at the
same time, an exceptionally discreet diplomatic initiative brokered
by the Norwegian government was making remarkable progress and had,
by the end of the summer of 1993, brought an agreement between the
Israelis and the PLO.
The rest of the world was offered with a virtual fait accompli.
The spirit of the agreement, enshrined in a declaration of principles
and signed by Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House
in September, was that the Israelis would surrender control of the
Gaza strip and an area around the West Bank town of Jericho.
This would come under solitary Palestinian control, governed by
an elected Palestinian administration. This was
intended to be the 1st stage of a process eventually extending throughout
the occupied territories and leading to a complete and comprehensive
settlement by the end of 1998. As president of the independent Palestinian
administration, the Palestinians elected the veteran Yasser Arafat,
often referred to as Abu Ammar (‘The Builder’).
In addition to Gaza and Jericho,
the Palestinians took control of 6 major towns. That is as far as
the procedure went. Political cold feet in Israel over the recurrent
issues of security, the status of Jerusalem and the future of Jewish
settlements on the West Bank left the Palestinians with a disconnected
patchwork of isolated pockets to which access, supplies and services
are all under Israeli control.
However, back in 1994 / 1995, the deal also had significant consequences
for Israel’s relations with its neighbours. Jordan concluded
a peace treaty with Israel during 1995 but Syria (upon whom the
attitude of Lebanon also depends) has proved more stubborn. The
Syrians insist on the return of the Golan Heights, which the Israelis
will find very difficult.
The elimination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995
by right wing Jewish fundamentalists sharply polarised Israel and
made the June 1996 election which followed especially fraught. The
Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, won a trivial victory with a strong
campaign which negated much of the emotional effect of Rabin’s
death. In May 1999, the electorate returned to Labour, now led by
Ehud Barak, the latest in the long Israeli tradition of soldier
Among the 1st actions of the Barak government
was to extricate Israeli forces from southern Lebanon (see above).
However he failed to make any progress in deciding the outstanding
issues with the Palestinians whose frustration found expression
in the second intifada, which began in 2000.
By the time Barak called a general election,which was held in February
2001 and is the most recent to date, Israeli forces and Palestinian
police and guerrillas were practically at war. His opponent was
the notoriously hawkish Ariel Sharon, yet another ex general who
is particularly disliked by Palestinians for his complicity in the
1982 Sabra and Chatila massacres. (Several 1000 inhabitants, largely
civilians, of these 2 refugee camps in Lebanon were killed by Falangist
paramilitaries. Israeli forces were fully aware of the situation
and able to intervene, but did nothing.)
was duly elected but his Likud party failed to protect a majority
in the Knesset. The Labour party under the veteran politician Shimon
Peres agreed to join a union government.
Sharon was able to take advantage of a main political shift in Israeli
society since the 1990's. 2 factors were at work. 1st was the influx
of several 100,000 Russian Jews, taking advantage of their birthright
and keen to escape the deteriorating situation at home. 2nd was
the growing influence of orthodox Jewry within the country, both
fundamentalist and mainstream, which has gradually produced a schism
between the religious and secular in Israeli society, what has become
known as the ‘kulturkampf’ (literally, ‘culture
war’) between the 2.
Sharon was determined to repeal the Oslo-based process
and emasculate the Palestinian Authority through a combination of
economic strangulation and military action. He was lucky in having
the strongly pro Israeli Bush administration in the White House
from the beginning of 2001. For their part, the Palestinian population
were progressively more disillusioned with the Authority, although
it was operating in a uniquely difficult environment, it did itself
little favours through frequently inept management, nepotism and
Many Palestinians turned to the more regimented,
militant Islamic movements such as Hamas and the younger generation
of secular fighters in groups such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
The tactic of suicide bombing was effective but arbitrary and did
nothing to promote the Palestinians’ cause in the outside
The Israeli response was ever greater use of military force using
its complete armoury of conventional weapons. (It also owns a large
arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.) As ever, the utmost casualties
were among the civilian populations of both sides. By the end of
2002, the Palestinian Authority had been all but shattered.
The peace process seemed thriving. By virtue of
their massive financial support for Israel, the Americans are the
only foreign government with any influence over Sharon. Since 2001,
they have made several half hearted attempts to revive negotiations,
the latest of which, termed the ‘road map’, has been
As such, Israel has a free hand to employ its most recent plan,
which is to build a wall separating the Palestinian West Bank from
the rest of Israel (the Gaza Strip is already effectively cut off).
Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land, illegal under international
law, resumes apace. Since the withdrawal of the Labour party from
the coalition government in October 2002, Sharon faces no major
Likud has allied
itself with numerous small right wing, ultra-orthodox parties who
hold that Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, are part of the land
of Israel. The wall may buy the Israelis a quantity of security.
For the Palestinians, the political and economic outlook appears
very un welcoming.
However, as distressing as the death of their leader, Yasser Arafat,
has been, there is now the possibility that this calamity may require
some sort of closure to the lengthy conflict. The powers that were
beforehand assigned to Arafat were eventually apportioned to Mahmoud
Abbas in a landslide victory in January 2005.
It is hoped that the drama of recent events, and the demise of Arafat,
a figure viewed as disgusting as some for failing to actively address
militant Palestinian groups, will restart the peace process. Optimism,
at last, seems to be evident, Sharon has appreciated the appointment
of Abbas, declaring his desire that Abbas will clamp down on militant
Abbas, in turn, has
indicated that he wishes to meet Sharon as soon as possible to conduct
security talks. Even George Bush Jnr, who notoriously declined to
invite Arafat to Washington, has now extended such an invite to
Despite such leaked news of chaotic scenes where Israeli officials
at some polling stations were refusing to permit Palestinians the
right to vote, the staging of a independent process to appoint Arafat's
successor has been viewed favourably. The world waits with bated
breath to observe Abbas's schemes and to see whether much needed
hope can finally be administered to this troubled region.