Israel is a one of the most controversial, prominent and misunderstood countries on the planet. Almost every aspect of its short history has been subject to conflicting interpretation and debate. This briefing seeks to give an overview of the key issues surrounding the creation of Israel and the conflicts that followed.
Zionism and the Jewish return to Palestine
Zionism as an ideology is widely misunderstood. In short, Zionism is a movement which sought to create a shared Jewish national identity, a Jewish nationalism, which in its political form sought to create a homeland for the Jewish people in the region of Palestine.
While the Jews have had a presence in the Middle East for millennia, founding the first Jewish state in around 1030 BC, the majority of Jews were expelled from or left the region of Palestine following failed revolts against the Romans around 70AD. For 1800 years Jewish people lived as minority communities throughout Europe and the Middle East, routinely subject to discrimination, persecution and expulsions.
From the early part of the 19th Century, when national movements were developing all around Europe, some Jews began to argue for their own. This desire amongst a section of Jewish opinion began to crystallise around thinkers such as Theodore Hertzl who lead the first congress of the World Zionist Organisation in 1897. Once initial moves to allow a return to Palestine were rebuffed by the Ottoman rulers, the 1903 congress debated whether other areas could be considered for a possible Jewish homeland including in British East Africa. However by 1905 the majority within the Zionist movement was clear that a return to their ancestral homeland was the only option that would be acceptable to most Zionists.
Jews began migrating to the region of Palestine, primarily from Russia and Eastern Europe, for both ideological and practical reasons. Political oppression and violent pogroms pushed many Jews to leave their homes and the US, which for many may have been an attractive destination for refugees, started to restrict Jewish immigration. Other Jews moved to the region of Palestine for reasons of cultural development.
Jewish Pioneers of the First Aliya
The First World War brought about massive change in the Middle East, with the British taking control of Palestine after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, leading to a period of history known as the British mandate. In 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild, indicating British government support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, on provision that the rights of existing peoples in Palestine should not be prejudiced. This letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, is seen as one of the first examples of wider political acceptance of the Zionist cause. In 1921 Britain divided Mandatory Palestine to create the Emirate of Transjordan, later to become the Kingdom of Jordan gaining its full independence in 1946.
Jewish immigration to Palestine increased markedly under the period of the British mandate and by the late 1930s tensions were running high between neighbouring Jewish and Arab communities. In 1937 a royal commission was established under the Earl of Peel to look into the competing claims of the Jews and Arabs living in the region. This commission accepted the validity of the claims of both sides and found them to be irreconcilable under the existing framework. The Peel Commission suggested the creation of a Jewish State and an Arab state within Palestine with Jerusalem remaining under British control. However preparations for the Second World War lead to such plans being shelved partially in return for the support of Arab governments against Hitler.
To ensure Arab support the British imposed a limit on Jewish immigration to Palestine allowing for 75,000 over five years which was to be followed by a total cessation of Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine, despite the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
The Creation of the State of Israel
The aftermath of the Holocaust lead to a rapid increase in the Jewish immigration to Palestine as survivors sought to build a new life and support grew for the Zionist cause within Western governments. On the ground in Palestine the situation was extremely tense with both Jewish and Arab militias growing in strength.
On 29 November 1947 the UN voted to adopt a partition plan which would divide British Mandate Palestine into two states; a Jewish state on 55% of the land, though a large section of this was in the Negev desert and uninhabited at the time.
The 1947 UN Partition Plan
The Arab state would comprise the major Arab population centres, with the majority of Jerusalem controlled by a UN mandate. This plan was accepted by the Jewish National Agency, the mainstream Zionist movement and forerunner to the government of Israel, but was rejected by extremist Jewish groups the Irgun and Lehi (the Stern gang), by Arab states and by local Palestinian leaders.
Rioting broke out in Jerusalem on 2 December 1947 following a call by the Arab High Committee for a three day strike and protest at the partition plan. Between 30 November and the end of March over 680 Arabs and 650 Jews were killed by sniper fire, bombs and other attacks.
In April violence escalated with atrocities being committed by both sides, including the infamous massacres of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin by the Irgun and of a Jewish medical convoy on route to Hadassah Hospital by Arab militias.
The State of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948 by David Ben Gurion and other Jewish Agency leaders before the expiry of the British Mandate at midnight. The following day all the surrounding Arab countries, Iraq and the Palestinian Arab militias declared war on Israel. Despite being at an initial numerical disadvantage and with inferior heavy weaponry to the combined Arab forces; the mainstream Jewish forces coalesced to form the Israeli Defence Force. This force was soon bolstered by an influx of Jewish refugees and imports of armaments from Czechoslovakia and as a result began to gain the upper hand in the war.
By 1949 the Arab states individually began to seek armistice agreements with Israel, with the war coming to a close following an armistice with Syria on 20 July. The 1949 Armistice lines, known as the green line, became Israel’s de-facto border, with Jordan occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Egypt taking the Gaza Strip.
The Declaration of the State of Israel
One of the lasting legacies of the 1948 war was a major refugee problem, the ramifications of which remain unsolved today. Over 700,000 Palestinian refugees left the area which would become the state of Israel, prior to and during the 1948 war. The root causes of the Palestinian refugee crisis are complex and contested. Many Palestinians fled the growing violence before and during the war, some were expelled by Jewish forces, and many were evacuated by Arab armies from areas of fighting with the intention of immediate return following an Arab victory.
Though controversy still rages over the cause of the refugee problem, it is clear that the Palestinian refugees have suffered poor conditions for decades in the camps set up in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Only Jordan has given citizenship rights to refugees living in their country, with others having very few social or political rights, living in impoverished conditions. Through natural increase, there are now over 4 million refugees.
What is far less known in discussions of the refugee issue is that in the period between 1948 and 1958 up to 900,000 Jews fled or emigrated from Arab states, 600,000 of whom were absorbed by Israel. The causes of the Jewish refugee problem varies from country to country, but were mostly due to attacks, riots and political persecution, rather than war. Jews had lived in the Arab world for many centuries with varying degrees of political rights and cultural assimilation. Tensions in mandate Palestine was followed by increased discrimination and attacks on Jews in the wider Arab world and following the creation of Israel the situation in many cases became intolerable. For example 123,000 Iraqi Jews were allowed to leave Iraq in 1950 on the condition that they forfeit their property and valuables.
This influx of Jews from the Arab world took place alongside the continued arrival of Jews from post-war Europe creating a major refugee absorption problem for the new Israeli state, with the population doubling shortly after independence. Jewish refugees were initially housed in tented camps known as Ma’abara before being resettled.
The 1967 ‘Six Day’ War
The years that followed the 1949 armistice were full of political tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours with a series of border skirmishes and the 1956 Suez Crisis. Against this backdrop of high tension the Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser made several moves in 1967 which were instrumental in turning tension into war. Egypt closed the Straights of Tiran to Israeli ships on 23 May thereby blockading the Israeli port of Eilat, preventing shipments of oil into Israel. At the same time Nasser sent a large number of Egyptian troops into the demilitarised Sinai and ordered the removal of UN observers who had been monitoring the area since the Suez crisis. Syria, Jordan and Egypt also signed a mutual defence pact in May which added to the tension.
Israeli Soldiers in Jerusalem
Fearing imminent attack, Israel mobilised its reserve forces to the IDF and on the morning of 5 June 1967 the Israeli Air force attacked Egyptian airbases achieving almost total surprise, destroying 309 Egyptian aircraft and rendering the runways unusable. Following Israel’s attack, the air forces of Jordan, Iraq and Syria joined the battle but by the end of the first day the Jordanian air force had been defeated with Israel achieving near complete air superiority.
Ground battles took place with the IDF taking control of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, Gaza strip and Golan Heights before the implementation of a ceasefire at 6.30pm on 10 July. It is the legacy of the 1967 war and the failure to reach swift peace settlements between the warring parties that led to the West Bank and Gaza strip and their Palestinian populations remaining under Israeli control.
Yom Kippur War and Lebanon
On 6 October 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise joint attack into the Sinai and Golan heights respectively. Both of these territories had been captured by Israel during the 1967 conflict. Israel was under-prepared and the Arab forces had many initial successes in the first 48 hours of the war. Though interpretations differ for the reasons behind Israel’s lack of preparedness, the timing over the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday and confusion over the motives of Egyptian and Syrian troop build-ups undoubtedly played a role.
Although by the end of the war Israel had recovered most of the ground taken in early Arab victories, the result was seen as a political victory for the Arab states. The aftermath provoked much Israeli soul searching, and laid the foundations for peace with Egypt and the collapse of the Labour-led government which had ruled Israel since its foundation.
On 19 November 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made history by becoming the first Arab leader to visit Israel and speak at the Knesset, a move which paved the way for the Camp David Accords on 17 September 1978 and the subsequent 26 March 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace treaty. In return for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, Egypt agreed to recognise the State of Israel, leading to its temporary expulsion from the Arab League. Although peace had been achieved with Egypt, the situation in Lebanon posed a major political problem for Israel.
Lebanon had been destabilised due to the civil war which had started in 1975, becoming a quagmire involving Christian, Shia and Sunni militias, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Syrian Army. Motivated to prevent PLO attacks launched from Lebanese territory into Israel and to provide support for its Christian allies, Israel invaded Lebanon on 6 June 1982. Israel attacked PLO positions throughout Southern Lebanon, briefly clashing with Syrian forces already occupying Lebanon, then laid siege to Palestinian positions in West Beirut. By 12 August the US negotiated a truce which enabled the withdrawal of many PLO fighters, including Yasser Arafat, to other countries.
Begin and Sadat making peace at the White House
By 20 August an international peace keeping force including US, French and Italian troops were stationed in Lebanon. However further violence erupted following the assassination of Lebanese President and Christian Phalangist Militia leader, Bashir Gemayel.
On 14 September, Israel crossed into West Beriut securing control of Palestinian refugee camps. In what would become infamously known as the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre, Israeli troops allowed 200 Christian militia members into the camps on 16 September, where they massacred at least 700 Palestinian civilians. Following this atrocity the Israeli Kahan commission found Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre, leading to his resignation as Minister of Defence.
By June 1985 Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon except for a small southern self-declared ‘security zone’ along the Israeli border that it occupied until May 2000.
On 9 December 1987, following the deaths of four Arab workers by an Israeli truck in Gaza, a wave of demonstrations sprung up around the West Bank and Gaza that both the Israeli army and the PLO leadership in exile were unprepared for. The IDF had no experience of dealing with rioting on this scale, so when the Intifada broke out soldiers were known to have used live rounds in several cases to disburse the crowds. The Intifada (uprising) lasted until the Oslo peace talks and introduced a younger generation of activists and leaders into Palestinian politics, including Marwan Barghouti and Mohammed Dahlan.
On 31 July 1988 Jordan dropped its claim of sovereignty over the West Bank. In response to Jordan’s move, and partially to gain some political control over the Intifada, on 18 November the PLO declared independence for Palestine from its exile in Algiers. Despite the ongoing Intifada, a formula was found by the US negotiators to enable the Madrid peace conference in October 1991 which brought Israel, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the negotiating table for the first time since the creation of the State of Israel.
The Oslo years
The election of a Labour-led coalition under Yitzhak Rabin on 23 June 1992 opened the door to the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Negotiations between Israel and the PLO were held in private, with the assistance of Norway, leading to the ‘Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements’ known as the Oslo Accords which were finalised on 20 August and signed in Washington on 13 September 1993. The accords meant that for the first time the PLO would officially recognise Israel and that Israel would accept the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In return for assurances of peace, the PLO was given responsibility for self-government over major population centres in the West Bank and Gaza pending a final status agreement. After the progress at Oslo, Israel and Jordan were able to sign a peace agreement on 26 October 1994. Rabin, Arafat and Peres shared the 1994 Noble Peace Prize.
However during this period, organisations including Hamas attempted to undermine the peace process by increasing their terrorist attacks on Israel. Despite the attacks Israel and the Palestinians signed the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip known as ‘Oslo II’, on 28 September 1995. This gave control of Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Tulkarm and 450 Palestinian villages to the Palestinian Authority, a move that only passed the Israel Knesset by a margin of 61-59 votes.
On 4 November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist Yigal Amir, with Peres taking over leadership of the Labour led-coalition. The 1996 Israel general election on 29 May led to a significant fall in the number of Labour seats, though it remained the largest party. However in the separate election for the Prime Minister, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who had campaigned on a promise to slow down the peace process defeated Shimon Peres by 1% of the vote.
Netanyahu sought to slow down the transfer of control to the Palestinians, on the pretext that they were unable to provide security assurances, but under intense pressure from the US, Netanyahu signed the Wye River Accord to facilitate the full implementation of Oslo II in 1998. It took the election of Ehud Barak and a Labour led-coalition on 18 May 1999 for further progress.
The Barak government was elected on a platform of reviving the Peace Process with the Palestinians and the wider Arab World. On 22 May 2000, Israel withdrew from its self-declared security zone in Southern Lebanon a move that drew sharp criticism within Israel due to the messy nature of the pull-out, with Hezbollah quickly moving into vacated Israeli positions. Under pressure from President Clinton, Barak moved to start final status negotiations with the Palestinians.
The peace talks at Camp David lasted from July 11-25 2000, ended in failure and recrimination. Barak was attacked in Israel for showing a willingness to divide Jerusalem and move to a territorial situation based on the 1967 borders, with the possibility of using land swaps to account for some of the Israeli settlements, whilst Arafat complained that there was no proposed solution for the Palestinian refugee problem and that Palestinians were not offered full sovereignty over the Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif in Jerusalem.
The Second Intifada
Following the collapse of the Camp David summit and the inflammatory visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, Palestinian militias launched a campaign of demonstrations and rioting which signalled the start of the second ‘Al Aqsa’ Intifada. Though peace negations continued, including the Taba peace talks, the security situation on the ground deteriorated, leading to Ehud Barak’s crushing defeat in a special election for the Prime Ministership in February 2001 against Ariel Sharon. Sharon proceeded to use hard-line measures, including targeted assassinations, airstrikes and the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, in response to a wave of suicide bombings. To this end he adopted the Labor proposal of a ‘security barrier’ to prevent suicide bombers reaching Israel, a policy he had previously opposed. However Sharon’s version controversially deviated into the West Bank to protect major Israeli settlement blocks.
In 2002 the ‘Quartet’- the US, EU, Russia and the United Nations proposed the ‘Roadmap for Peace’ which suggested a three phase plan for peace. The first phase would bring an end to terrorist attacks and introduce reforms to the Palestinian Authority in return for an end to Israeli settlement expansion and the destruction of unauthorised settlements, the second stage would create an independent Palestinian State, with the difficult final status negotiations taking place in the third phase.
However the plan stalled in the first phase due to lack of compliance by both sides. On 12 November 2004 Palestinian President Yasser Arafat died in Paris, with veteran moderate Mahmoud Abbas taking his place following the 9 January 2005 election. In September 2005 Israel took the historic step of ‘disengaging’ from the Gaza strip, removing all Israeli settlers and troops from the territory. This measure although popular with the majority of Israelis, proved highly divisive. Israel still retains control of Gaza’s borders citing security concerns, although an international agreement in November 2005 led to the control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt passing to the Palestinians and Egyptians.
Public support for this new approach and pressure from a sizable contingent Likud members led Ariel Sharon to split from his Likud party, to form a new party, Kadima. However Sharon’s health failed in January 2006, becoming comatose and permanently incapacitated. Ehud Olmert replaced him as Israeli Prime Minister and leader of Kadima. The shock election of a Hamas majority in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election and the resultant Hamas-led government brought decades of Fatah dominance in Palestinian politics to an end. This development significantly raised tension and undermined hopes for a return to peace negotiations between the two parties.
Second Lebanon War
The Olmert Government was tested early on in its administration. Between 2000 and 2006, Hezbollah carried out numerous cross border raids and missile attacks into Israel. In June 2006 a raid and rocket attack ended in the killing of 8 Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two more. In response, Israel launched a military campaign into Lebanon with Hezbollah hitting back with over 3,500 industrial missiles fired into Israeli population centres. After a month of fighting, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1701. This called for Israeli withdrawal and Hezbollah disarmament. To date Hezbollah have not adhered to this resolution.
The war was controversial in Israel with the Government and IDF taking severe criticism over the conduct of the war and outcome. This was highlighted in the damming Government appointed Winograd Commission Report into the war.
Annapolis Summit 2007
President Abbas with Prime Minister Olmert
Continuing conflict between Fatah and Hamas factions within the Gaza strip culminated in the bloody takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June 2007. Hundreds were killed by Hamas operatives and many more Fatah members fled to the West Bank. The Hamas takeover meant that administration of Gaza was in the hands of a proscribed organisation and led to global isolation of Gaza. This also led to the collapse of the Unity Government and effectively created a schism of rule in the Palestinian territories.
However, the PA solely under Fatah control and its President Mahmoud Abbas, was able to start negotiations with the Israelis. A US convened conference in the US town of Annapolis in November 2007, supported by much of the Arab world, who were in attendance, was the first real push for peace talks in seven years.
A new set of negotiations on second tier issues such as education and development of the Palestinian police force were discussed and progressed. However there were stumbling blocks over the core issues, most prominently the status of Jerusalem.
Gaza Conflict 2009
Hamas rockets fired into Israel
For many years Gaza had been the launch site for rocket attacks on Southern Israeli towns. These increased with the disengagement of Israel from Gaza and the subsequent Hamas takeover. The death, destruction and turmoil this created added up to lots of pressure on the Israeli Government to protect their citizens. As the rocket attacks increased so did the incursions and crossing closures.
Despite numerous attempts, including a six month ceasefire, to stop the attacks, Israel launched in an all out military operation in December 2008 to take out Hamas’ military infrastructure. This was a very controversial operation, which ended in the death of over 1,200 Palestinians as well as 13 Israelis. The long term effects of the action are still being felt.
End of Kadima era - return of Netanyahu
The Gaza operation coincided with new elections after a damaged Olmert, who never recovered from the perceived disaster of the second Lebanon War and claims of corruption, had to stand down. His Kadima successor, Tzipi Livni failed to form a coalition Government triggering elections in February 2009.
Whilst Kadima won the most seats, they were unable to garner the support to form a government. Second placed Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, was asked to form a government.
Unity deal and plans for statehood
In May 2011 Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to form a caretaker government with plans to have elections in 2012 and the intention of being recognised as a state by the UN in September 2011; Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted an application for statehood to the UN in September 2012 and in 2013.
Gaza Conflict 2012/2014
Despite efforts to thwart rocket attacks, two large outbreaks of conflict took place with Operations Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. Ceasefires have been observed at the time of writing. The election of a Netenyahu led government in 2013 started a talks process that collapsed after another Palestinian unity government was announced. Netenyahu was re-elected in 2015, and has put on hold the immediate prospect for peace talks.
Trade Union Friends of Israel strengthens the links between the Histadrut, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) and the British Trade Union Movement.