home Israel travel guide > Israel history
Israel guide
Traveler café 
Travel directory
Last updated : Nov 2009
Israel History
Israel History - TravelPuppy.com
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 the Americas).

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 discrimination.

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 army.

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).

Arafat 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 attempted assassination.

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 (‘uprising’).

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 largely futile.

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 politicians.

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.)

Sharon 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 corruption.

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 world.

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 stillborn.

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 domestic constraints.

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 Palestinian groups.

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 Abbas.

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.