Mideastweb: Middle East

Israel and Palestine: A Brief History - Part I

Israel, Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict  (Arab-Israeli Conflict)  - A brief history - Part I






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Introductory Note
Geography and Early History
The Jewish Kingdoms
From Roman to Ottoman Rule
The British Mandate
Modern History


Recent History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Second Intifada Timeline

Timeline: Second Intifada 2005 to Present

Second Intifada

Off site:

Some additional source document links are at Israel Documents

"If those who will wish to study the clear record of what happened in the past and what will, in due course, tend to be repeated with some degree of similarity (as is the way of human events) judge this work to be of help to them, it will content me.  Thucydides, Peloponnesian wars, 1:22.

"History is a myth agreed upon." Napoleon Bonaparte.

"The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." William Faulkner.

"No two historians ever agree on what happened, and the damn thing is they both think they're telling the truth."  Harry S. Truman.

Introductory Note

This page is Part I of the MidEastWeb history of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict. For Part II click here: History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict since the Oslo Accords. 

History, and different perceptions of history, are perhaps the most important factors in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Accounts of history, interpreting history in different ways, are used to justify claims and to negate claims, to vilify the enemy and to glorify "our own" side.  Dozens of accounts have been written. Most of the accounts on the Web are intended to convince rather than to inform.

This very brief account is intended as a balanced overview and introduction to Palestinian and Israeli history, and the history of the conflict. It is unlikely that anyone has written or will write an "objective" and definitive summary that would be accepted by everyone, but it is hoped that this document will provide a fair introduction.

It would be wrong to try to use this history to determine "who is right," though  many "histories" have certainly been written by partisans of either side, with precisely that purpose in mind. Those who are interested in advocacy, in collecting "points" for their side, cannot find the truth except by accident. If they find it, and it is inconvenient, they will bury it again. This account intends to inform, and nothing more. Two separate documents explain how I think we should gather facts and learn about the conflict, and the importance of words in making Middle East history, as well as in understanding it. A timeline provides details of many events not discussed in this history, and source documents provide additional background. Serious students will also refer to the bibliography for more information and different viewpoints, and will always seek out primary source documents to verify whatever claims are made about those documents or about quotes from those documents.

Click here for a brief overview of issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Click here for a perspective on the changing nature of the Israeli - Palestinian/Zionist - Arab/ Jewish-Muslim conflict.

Geography and Early History of Israel and Palestine

The land variously called Israel and Palestine is a small, (10,000 square miles at present) land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. During its long history, its area, population and ownership varied greatly. The present state of Israel occupies all the land from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean ocean, bounded by Egypt in the south, Lebanon in the north, and Jordan in the East. The recognized borders of Israel constitute about 78% of the land. The remainder is divided between land occupied by Israel since the 1967 6-day war and the autonomous regions under the control of the Palestinian autonomy. The Gaza strip occupies an additional  141 square miles south of Israel, and is under the control of the Palestinian authority.

Palestine has been settled continuously for tens of thousands of years. Fossil remains have been found of Homo Erectus, Neanderthal and transitional types between Neanderthal and modern man. Archeologists have found hybrid Emmer wheat at Jericho dating from before 8,000 B.C., making it one of the oldest sites of agricultural activity in the world. Amorites, Canaanites, and other Semitic peoples related to the Phoenicians of Tyre entered the area about 2000 B.C. The area became known as the Land of Canaan. (Click here for historical maps and some details of early history)

(Click here for books about Israel & Palestine before 1918 )

The Jewish Kingdoms of Ancient Judah and Israel

The archeological record indicates that the Jewish people evolved out of native Cana'anite peoples and invading tribes. Some time between about 1800 and 1500 B.C., it is thought that a Semitic people called Hebrews (hapiru) left Mesopotamia and settled in Canaan. Canaan was settled by different tribes including Semitic peoples, Hittites, and later Philistines, peoples of the sea who are thought to have arrived from Mycenae, or to be part of the ancient Greek peoples that also settled Mycenae.

According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites, or a portion of them, out of Egypt. Under Joshua, they conquered the tribes and city states of Canaan.  Based on biblical traditions, it is estimated that king David conquered Jerusalem about 1000 B.C. and established an Israelite kingdom over much of Canaan including parts of Transjordan. The kingdom was divided into Judea in the south and Israel in the north following the death of David's son, Solomon. Jerusalem remained the center of Jewish sovereignty and of Jewish worship whenever the Jews exercised sovereignty over the country in the subsequent period, up to the Jewish revolt in 133 AD.

The Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 or 721 B.C. The Babylonians conquered Judea or Judah around 586 B.C.  They destroyed Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, and exiled a large number of Jews.  About 50 years later, the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylonia. Cyrus allowed a group of Jews from Babylonia to rebuild Jerusalem and settle in it. However, a large number of Jews remained in Babylonia, forming the first Jewish Diaspora. After the reestablishment of a Jewish state or protectorate, the Babylonian exiles maintained contact with authorities there. The Persians ruled the land from about 530 to 331 B.C. Alexander the Great then conquered the Persian Empire. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his generals divided the empire. One of these generals, Seleucus, founded a dynasty that gained control of much of Palestine about 200 B.C. At first, the new rulers, called Seleucids, allowed the practice of Judaism. But later, one of the kings, Antiochus IV, tried to prohibit it. In 167 B.C., the Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabeans and either drove the Seleucids out of Palestine or at least established a large degree of autonomy, forming a kingdom with its capital in Jerusalem. The kingdom received Roman "protection" when Judah Maccabee was made a "friend of the Roman senate and people" in 164 B.C. according to the records of Roman historians.

Palestine From Roman to Ottoman Rule

About 61 B.C., Roman troops under Pompei invaded Judea and sacked Jerusalem in support of King Herod. Judea had become a client state of Rome.  Initially it was ruled by the client Herodian dynasty. The land was divided into districts of Judea, Galilee, Peraea and a small trans-Jordanian section, each of which eventually came under direct Roman control. The Romans called the large central area of the land, which included Jerusalem, Judea. According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the early years of Roman rule. Roman rulers put down Jewish revolts in about A.D. 70 and A.D. 132. In A.D. 135, the Romans drove the Jews out of Jerusalem, following the failed Bar Kochba revolt. The Romans named the area Palaestina, at about this time. The name Palaestina, which  became Palestine in English, is derived from Herodotus, who used the term Palaistine Syria to refer to the entire southern part of Syria, meaning "Philistine Syria." Most of the Jews who continued to practice their religion fled or were forcibly exiled from Palestine, eventually forming a second Jewish Diaspora. However, Jewish communities continued to exist, primarily in the Galilee, the northernmost part of Palestine. Palestine was governed by the Roman Empire until the fourth century A.D. (300's) and then by the Byzantine Empire. In time, Christianity spread to most of Palestine. The population consisted of Jewish converts to Christianity and paganism, peoples imported by the Romans, and others who had probably inhabited Palestine continuously.

During the seventh century (A.D. 600's), Muslim  Arab armies moved north from Arabia to conquer most of the Middle East, including Palestine. Jerusalem was conquered about 638 by the Caliph Umar (Omar) who gave his protection to its inhabitants. Muslim powers controlled the region until the early 1900's. The rulers allowed Christians and Jews to keep their religions. However, most of the local population gradually accepted Islam and the Arab-Islamic culture of their rulers. Jerusalem (Al-Quds)  became holy to Muslims as the site where, according to tradition, Muhammad ascended to heaven after a miraculous overnight ride from Mecca on his horse Al-Buraq. The al-Aqsa mosque was built on the site generally regarded as the area of the Jewish temples.

The Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem in 1071, but their rule in Palestine lasted less than 30 years. Initially they were replaced by the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. The Fatimids took advantage of the Seljuk struggles with the Christian crusaders. They made an alliance with the crusaders in 1098 and captured Jerusalem, Jaffa and other parts of Palestine.

The Crusaders, however, broke the alliance and invaded Palestine about a year later. They captured Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtered many Jewish and Muslim defenders and forbade Jews to live in Jerusalem. They held the city until 1187. In that year, the Muslim ruler Saladin conquered Jerusalem. The Crusaders then held a smaller and smaller area along the coast of Palestine, under treaty with Saladin. However, they broke the treaty with Saladin and later treaties. Crusade after crusade tried  to recapture Jerusalem, but they were unable to do so for more than a brief period.

The Crusaders left Palestine for good when the Muslims captured Acre in 1291. During the post-crusade period, crusaders often raided the coast of Palestine. To deny the Crusaders gains from these raids, the Muslims pulled their people back from the coasts and destroyed coastal towns and farms. This depopulated and impoverished the coast of Palestine for hundreds of years.

In the mid-1200's, Mamelukes, originally soldier-slaves of the Arabs based in Egypt, established an empire that in time included the area of Palestine. Arab-speaking Muslims made up most of the population of the area once called Palestine. Beginning in the late 1300's, Jews from Spain and other Mediterranean lands settled in Jerusalem and other parts of the land. The Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamelukes in 1517, and Palestine became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Sultan invited Jews fleeing the Spanish Catholic inquisition to settle in the Turkish empire, including several cities in Palestine.

In 1798, Napoleon entered the land. The war with Napoleon and subsequent misadministration by Egyptian and Ottoman rulers, reduced the population of Palestine. Arabs and Jews fled to safer and more prosperous lands. Revolts by Palestinian Arabs against Egyptian and Ottoman rule at this time may have helped to catalyze Palestinian national feeling. Subsequent reorganization and opening of the Turkish Empire to foreigners restored some order. They also allowed the beginnings of Jewish settlement under various Zionist and proto-Zionist movements.  Both Arab and Jewish population increased. By 1880, about 24,000 Jews were living in Palestine, out of a population of about 400,000. At about that time, the Ottoman government imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchase, and also began actively soliciting inviting Muslims from other parts of the Ottoman empire to settle in Palestine, including Circassians and Bosnians.  The restrictions were evaded in various ways by Jews seeking to colonize Palestine, chiefly by bribery. 

The Rise of Zionism - Jews had never stopped coming to "the Holy land" or Palestine in small numbers throughout the exile. Palestine also remained the center of Jewish worship and a part of Jewish culture. However, the Jewish connection with the land was mostly abstract and connected with dreams of messianic redemption.

In the nineteenth century new social currents animated Jewish life. The emancipation of European Jews, signaled by the French revolution, brought Jews out of the Ghetto and into the modern world, exposing them to modern ideas. The liberal concepts introduced by  emancipation and modern nationalist ideas were blended with traditional Jewish ideas about Israel and Zion. The marriage of "love of Zion" with modern nationalism took place first among the Sephardic (Spanish and Eastern) Jewish community of Europe. There, the tradition of living in the land of the Jews and return to Zion had remained practical goals rather than messianic aspirations, and  Hebrew was a living language. Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay, who lived in what is now Yugoslavia, published the first Zionist writings in the 1840s. Though practically forgotten, these ideas took root among a few European Jews. Emancipation of Jews triggered a new type of virulent anti-Jewish political and social movement in Europe, particularly in Germany and Eastern Europe. Beginning in the late 1800's, oppression of Jews in Eastern Europe stimulated emigration of Jews to Palestine.

The Zionist movement became a formal organization in 1897 with the first Zionist congress in Basle, organized by Theodor Herzl. Herzl's grandfather was acquainted with the writings of Alcalay, and it is very probable that Herzl was influenced by them. The Zionists wished to establish a "Jewish Homeland" in Palestine under Turkish or German rule. Initially, most Zionists were not concerned about the Arab population, which they ignored, or thought would agree to voluntary transfer to other Arab countries. In any case, they envisioned the population of Palestine by millions of European Jews who would soon form a decisive majority in the land.  The Zionists established farm communities in Palestine at Petah Tikva, Zichron Jacob, Rishon Letzion and elsewhere. Later they established the new city of Tel Aviv, north of Jaffa.  At the same time, Palestine's Arab population grew rapidly. By 1914, the total population of Palestine stood at about 700,000. About 615,000  were Arabs, and 85,000 to 100,000 were Jews. (See population figures).  Additional information about Zionism and the creation of Israel , British Zionism and (off site) Christian Zionism Click here for books about  Zionism. Photo history of Zionism   Zionism

World War I - During World War I (1914-1918), the Ottoman Empire joined Germany and Austria-Hungary against the Allies. An Ottoman military government ruled Palestine. The war was hard on both Jewish and Arab populations, owing to outbreaks of cholera and typhus; however, it was more difficult for the Jews. For a time, the Turkish military governor ordered internment and deportation of all foreign nationals. A large number of Jews were Russian nationals. They had been able to enter Palestine as Russian nationals because of the concessions Turkey had granted to Russian citizens, and they had used this method to overcome restrictions on immigration. They had also maintained Russian citizenship to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army. Therefore, a large number of Jews were forced to flee Palestine during the war. A small group founded the NILI underground that fed intelligence information to the British, in order to free the land of Turkish rule. The Turks eventually caught members of the NILI group, but the information they provided is said to have helped the British invasion effort.

Britain and France planned to divide the Ottoman holdings in the Middle East among themselves after the war. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 called for part of Palestine to be under British rule, part to be placed under a joint Allied government, and for Syria and Lebanon to be given to the France.  However, Britain also offered to back Arab demands for postwar independence from the Ottomans in return for Arab support for the Allies and seems to have promised the same territories to the Arabs. In 1916, Arabs led by T.E. Lawrence and backed by Sharif Husayn revolted against the Ottomans in the belief that Britain would help establish Arab independence in the Middle East. Lawrence's exploits and their importance in the war against Turkey were somewhat exaggerated by himself and by the enterprising publicist Lowell Thomas. The United States and other countries pressed for Arab self-determination. The Arabs, and many in the British government including Lawrence, believed that the Arabs had been short-changed by the British promise to give Syria to the French, and likewise by the promise of Palestine as a Jewish homeland.  The Arabs claimed that Palestine was included in the area promised to them, but the British denied this.

The British Mandate for Palestine

The Balfour Declaration - In November 1917, before Britain had conquered Jerusalem and the area to be known as Palestine, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. The declaration was a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild, based on a request of the Zionist organization in Great Britain. The declaration stated Britain's support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, without violating the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities. The declaration was the result of lobbying by the small British Zionist movement, especially by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who had emigrated from Russia to Britain, but it was motivated by British strategic considerations. Paradoxically, perhaps, a major motivation for the declaration may have been the belief, inspired by anti-Semitism, that international Jewry would come to the aid of the British if they declared themselves in favor of a Jewish homeland, and the fear that the Germans were about to issue such a declaration.

At the Paris peace conference in 1919, Zionist and Arab representatives pleaded their case, and met each other. The Zionists presented a map of the area they wanted for the Jewish national home. Remarkably, Dr. Weizmann and the Emir Feisal reached a signed agreement regarding Arab support for a Jewish national home. Feisal also assured the American Zionist representative, Chief Justice Frankfurter, of his support for the Zionist cause (see Feisal-Frankfurter Correspondence ). However, Feisal conditioned his support on satisfaction of Arab aspirations in Syria. Instead, Syria was given to the French as a League of Nations mandate and Feisal not only withdrew his support from the Zionist project, but claimed he had never signed any such documents.

At the Paris peace conference and through the League of Nations, much of the Ottoman Empire was divided into mandated territories assigned to the victors of the war. The British and French saw the Mandates as instruments of imperial ambitions. US President Wilson insisted that the mandates must foster eventual independence. The British were anxious to keep Palestine away from the French, and decided to ask for a mandate that would implement the Jewish national home of the Balfour declaration, a project that would be supported by the Americans. The Arabs opposed the idea of a Jewish national home, considering that the areas now called Palestine were their land. The Arabs felt they were in danger of dispossession by the Zionists, and did not relish living under Jewish rule.

Arabs lobbied the American King-Crane commission, in favor of annexation of the Palestine mandate area to Syria, and later formed a national movement to combat the terms of the Mandate. At the instigation of US President Wilson, the King Crane commission had been sent to hear the views of the inhabitants. At the commission hearings, Aref Pasha Dajani expressed this opinion about the Jews, "Their history and their past proves that it is impossible to live with them. In all the countries where they are at present, they are not wanted...because they always arrive to suck the blood of everybody..."

By this time, Zionists had recognized the inevitability of conflict with the Palestinian and other Arabs. David Ben Gurion, who would lead the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) and go on to be the first Prime Minister of Israel, told a meeting of the governing body of the Jewish Yishuv  in 1919 "But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question...We as a nation, want this country to be ours, the Arabs as a nation, want this country to be theirs."

   Click here for books about: The British Mandate Zionism  Palestine & Palestinians

The Zionists and others presented their case to the Paris Peace conference. Ultimately, the British plan was adopted. The main issues taken into account were division of rights between Britain and France, rather than the views of the inhabitants.

In 1920, Britain received a provisional mandate over Palestine, which would extend west and east of the River Jordan. The area of the mandate (see map at right) given to Britain at the San Remo conference was much larger than historic Palestine as envisaged by the Zionists, who had sought an eastern border to the West of Amman.  The mandate, based on the Balfour declaration, was formalized in 1922.  The British were to help the Jews build a national home and promote the creation of self-governing institutions. The mandate provided for an agency, later called "The Jewish Agency for Palestine," that would represent Jewish interests in Palestine to the British and to promote Jewish immigration. A Jewish agency was created only in 1929, delayed by the desire to create a body that represented both Zionist and non-Zionist Jews. The Jewish agency in Palestine became in many respects the de-facto government of the Jewish Yishuv (community). 

Palestine, Map of British Mandate with Transjordan

The area granted to the mandate was much larger than the area sought by the Zionists. It is possible, that as Churchill suggested in 1922, the British never intended that all of this area would become a Jewish national home. On the other hand, some believe that Britain had no special plans for Transjordan initially. In his memoirs, Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British representative in Amman, wrote that "There was no intention at that stage [1920] of forming the territory east of the river Jordan into an independent Arab state." (Kirkbride, Alexander, A crackle of thorns, London, 1956 p 19) 

However, Abdullah, the son of King Husayn of the Hijaz, marched toward Transjordan with  2,000 soldiers. He announced his intention to march to Damascus, remove the French and reinstate the Hashemite monarchy. Sir Alec Kirkbride,  had 50 policemen. He asked for guidance from the British High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel,  and Samuel eventually replied that it was unlikely Abdullah would enter British controlled areas. Two days later, Abdullah marched north and by March 1921, he occupied the entire country. Abdullah made no attempt to march on Damascus, and perhaps never intended to do so

In 1922, the British declared that the boundary of Palestine would be limited to the area west of the river. The area east of the river, called Transjordan (now Jordan), was made a separate British mandate and eventually given independence (See map at right) . A part of the Zionist movement felt betrayed at losing a large area of what they termed "historic Palestine" to Transjordan, and split off to form the "Revisionist" movement, headed by Benjamin Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky.

Palestine: Map of British Mandate for Balestine and Transjordan

The British hoped to establish self-governing institutions in Palestine, as required by the mandate. The Jews were alarmed by the prospect of such institutions, which would have an Arab majority. However, the Arabs would not accept proposals for such institutions if they included any Jews at all, and so no institutions were created. The Arabs wanted as little as possible to do with the Jews and the mandate, and would not participate in municipal councils, nor even in the Arab Agency that the British wanted to set up. Ormsby-Gore, undersecretary of state for the colonies concluded, "Palestine is largely inhabited by unreasonable people."

Arab Riots and Jewish immigration - In the spring of 1920, spring of 1921 and summer of 1929, Arab nationalists opposed to the Balfour declaration, the mandate and the Jewish National Home, instigated riots and pogroms against Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa and Haifa. The violence led to the formation of the Haganah Jewish self-defense organization in 1920. The riots of 1920 and 1921 reflected opposition to the Balfour declaration and fears that the Arabs of Palestine would be dispossessed, and were probably attempts to show the British that Palestine as a Jewish National home would be ungovernable. The major instigators were  Hajj Amin El Husseini, later Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and eventually a Nazi collaborator, and Arif -El Arif, a prominent Palestinian journalist. The riots of 1929 occurred against the background of Jewish-Arab nationalist antagonism. The Arabs claimed that Jewish immigration and land purchases were displacing and dispossessing the Arabs of Palestine. However,  economic, population and other indicators suggest that objectively, the Arabs of Palestine benefited from the Mandate and Zionist investment. Arab standard of living increased faster in Palestine than other areas, and population grew prodigiously throughout the Mandate years. (see Zionism and its Impact).  The riots were also fueled by false rumors that the Jews intended to build a synagogue at the wailing wall, or otherwise encroach upon the Muslim rule over the Temple Mount compound, including the Al-Aqsa mosque. The pogroms led to evacuation of most of the Jewish community of Hebron. . The British responded with the Passfield White Paper. The white paper attempted to stop immigration to Palestine based on the recommendations of the Hope Simpson report. That report stated that in the best case, following extensive economic development, the land could support immigration of another 20,000 families in total. Otherwise further Jewish immigration would infringe on the position of the existing Arab population.  However, British MPs and the Zionist movement sharply criticized the new policy and PM Ramsay McDonald issued a "clarification" stating that Jewish immigration would not be stopped.

Jewish immigration swelled in the 1930s, driven by persecution in Eastern Europe, even before the rise of Nazism. Large numbers of Jews began to come from Poland owing to discriminatory laws and harsh economic conditions. The rise of Hitler in Germany added to this tide of immigration. The Jewish Agency made a deal, the Hesder, that allowed Jews to escape Germany to Palestine in return for hard currency that the Reich needed. The Hesder saved tens of thousands of lives.

Arab Revolt and the White Paper - In 1936 widespread rioting, later known as the Arab Revolt or Great Uprising,  broke out. The revolt was kindled when British forces killed Izz al din El Qassam in a gun battle. Izz al Din El Qassam was a Syrian preacher who had emigrated to Palestine and was agitating against the British and the Jews. The revolt was coopted by the Husseini family and by Fawzi El Kaukji, a former Turkish officer, and it was possibly financed in part  by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Thousands of Arabs and hundreds of Jews were killed in the revolt, which spread rapidly owing to initial unpreparedness of the British authorities. About half the 5,000 residents of the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem were forced to flee, and the remnant of the Hebron Jewish community was evacuated as well.

The Husseini family killed both Jews and members of Palestinian Arab families opposed to their hegemony. The Yishuv (Jewish community) responded with both defensive measures, and with random terror and bombings of Arab civilian targets, perpetrated by the Irgun (Irgun Tsvai Leumi or "Etsel,"). Etsel was the military underground of the right-wing dissident "revisionist group" headed first by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, who seceded from the Zionist movement, and later by Menachem Begin.  The Peel commission of 1937 recommended partitioning Palestine into a small Jewish state and a large Arab one. The commission's recommendations also included voluntary transfer of Arabs and Jews to separate the populations. The Jewish leadership considered the plan but the Palestinian and Arab leadership, including King Saud of Saudi Arabia , rejected partition and demanded that the British curtail Jewish immigration. Saud said that if the British failed to follow Arab wishes in Palestine, the Arabs would turn against them and side with their enemies. He said that Arabs did not understand the "strange attitude of your British Government, and the still more strange hypnotic influence which the Jews, a race accursed by God according to His Holy Book, and destined to final destruction and eternal damnation hereafter, appear to wield over them and the English people generally." 

In response to the riots, the British began limiting immigration and the 1939 White Paper decreed that 15,000 Jews would be allowed to enter Palestine each year for five years. Thereafter, immigration would be subject to Arab approval. At the same time, the British took drastic and often cruel steps to curtail the riots. Husseini fled to Iraq, where he was involved in an Axis-supported coup against the British and then to Nazi Germany, where he subsequently broadcast for the Axis powers, was active in curtailing Jewish immigration from neutral countries and organized SS death squads in Yugoslavia. (More about he Arab Revolt or Great Uprising).

The Holocaust - During World War II (1939-1945), many Palestinian Arabs and Jews joined the Allied forces. though some Palestinian and Arab leaders were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Jews had a special motivation for fighting the Nazis because of Nazi persecution of Jews and growing suspicions that the Nazis were systematically exterminating the Jews of Europe. These suspicions were later confirmed, and the extermination of European Jews came to be known as the Holocaust.  The threat of extermination also created great pressure for immigration to Palestine, but the gates of Palestine were closed by the British White Paper.  In 1941 the British freed Jewish Haganah underground leaders in a general amnesty, and they joined the British in fighting the Germans.

Illegal Immigration - The Jews of Palestine responded to the White Paper and the Holocaust by organizing illegal immigration to Palestine from occupied Europe, through the "Institution for Illegal Immigration" (Hamossad L'aliya Beth).  Illegal immigration (Aliya Bet)  was organized by the Jewish Agency between 1939 and 1942, when a tightened British blockade and stricter controls in occupied Europe made it impractical, and again between 1945 and 1948. Rickety boats full of refugees tried to reach Palestine. Additionally, there were private initiatives, an initiative by the Nazis to deport Jews and an initiative by the US to save European Jews.  Many of the ships sank or were caught by the British or the Nazis and turned back,  or shipped to Mauritius or other destinations for internment. The Patria (also called "Patra") contained immigrants offloaded from three other ships, for transshipment to the island of Mauritius. To prevent transshipment, the Haganah placed a small explosive charge on the ship on November 25, 1940. They thought the charge would damage the engines.  Instead,  the ship sank, and over 250  lives were lost.  A few weeks later, the SS Bulgaria docked in Haifa with 350 Jewish refugees and was ordered to return to Bulgaria. The Bulgaria capsized in the Turkish straits, killing 280. The  Struma, a vessel that had left Constanta in Rumania with about 769 refugees, got to Istanbul on December 16, 1941. There, it was forced to undergo repairs of its engine and leaking hull. The Turks would not grant the refugees sanctuary. The British would not approve transshipment to Mauritius or entry to Palestine. On February 24, 1942, the Turks ordered the Struma out of the harbor. It sank with the loss of 428 men, 269 women and 70 children. It had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, either because it was mistaken for a Nazi ship, or more likely, because the Soviets had agreed to collaborate with the British in barring Jewish immigration.  Illegal immigration continued until late in the war, apparently without the participation of the  Mossad l'aliya Bet.  Despite the many setbacks, tens of thousands of Jews were saved by the illegal immigration.

The Biltmore Declaration - Reports of Nazi atrocities became increasingly frequent and vivid. Despite the desperate need to find a haven for refugees, the doors of Palestine remained shut to Jewish immigration. The Zionist leadership met in the Biltmore Hotel in New York City in 1942 and declared that it supported the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish Commonwealth. This was not simply a return to the Balfour declaration repudiated by the British White Paper, but rather a restatement of Zionist aims that went beyond the Balfour declaration, and a determination that the British were in principle, an enemy to be fought, rather than an ally. 

Assassination of Lord Moyne - On November 6, members of the Jewish Lehi underground  Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet Zuri  assassinated Lord Moyne in Cairo. Moyne, a known anti-Zionist, was Minister of State for the Middle East and in charge of carrying out the terms of the 1939 White Paper - preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine by force. He was also a personal friend of Winston Churchill. The assassination did not change British policy, but it turned Winston Churchill against the Zionists. Hakim and Bet Zuri were caught and were hanged by the British in 1945.

The Season ("Sezon") - The Jewish Agency and Zionist Executive believed that British and world reaction to the assassination of Lord Moyne could jeopardize cooperation after the war, that had been hinted at by the British, and might endanger the Jewish Yishuv if they came to be perceived as enemies of Britain and the allies. Therefore they embarked on a campaign against the Lehi and Irgun, known in Hebrew as the "Sezon" ("Season"). Members of the underground were to be ostracized. Leaders were caught by the Haganah, interrogated and sometimes tortured,  and about a thousand persons were turned over to the British.

Displaced PersonsAfter the war, it was discovered that the Germans had murdered about six million Jews in Europe, in the Holocaust. These people had been trapped in Europe, because virtually no country would give them shelter. The Zionists felt that British restriction of immigration to Palestine had cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The Jews were now desperate to bring the remaining Jews of Europe, about 250,000 people being held in displaced persons camps, to Palestine.

United Resistance - In the summer of 1945, the Labor party came to power in Great Britain. They had promised that they would reverse the British White Paper and would support a Jewish state in Palestine. However, they presently reneged on their promise, and continued and redoubled efforts to stop Jewish immigration.  The Haganah attempted to bring immigrants into Palestine illegally.  The rival Zionist underground groups now united, and all of them, in particular the Irgun and Lehi ("Stern gang") dissident terrorist groups, used force to try to drive the British out of Palestine. This included bombing of trains, train stations, an officers club and British headquarters in the King David Hotel, as well as kidnapping and murder of British personnel. In Britain, newspapers and politicians began to demand that the government settle the conflict and stop endangering the lives of British troops.

The US and other countries brought pressure to bear on the British to allow immigration. An Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry recommended allowing 100,000 Jews to immigrate immediately to Palestine.  The Arabs brought pressure on the British to block such immigration. The British found Palestine to be ungovernable and returned the mandate to the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations. The report of the Anglo-American Committee provided a detailed summary of the British mandate period and the security situation in Palestine, as well as a report on the effects of the Holocaust and the condition of European Jewry.

Partition - The United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommended that Palestine be divided into an Arab state and a Jewish state. The commission called for Jerusalem to be put under international administration The UN General Assembly adopted this plan on Nov. 29, 1947 as UN  Resolution (GA 181), owing to support of both the US and the Soviet Union, and in particular, the personal support of US President Harry S. Truman. Many factors contributed to Truman's decision to support partition, including domestic politics and intense Zionist lobbying, no doubt. Truman wrote in his diary, however,  "I think the proper thing to do, and the thing I have been doing, is to do what I think is right and let them all go to hell."

The Jews accepted the UN decision, but the Arabs rejected it. The resolution divided the land into two approximately equal portions in a complicated scheme with zig-zag borders (see map at right and  see Partition Map and detailed partition map of UNSCOP Proposal  and final map: UN Palestine Partition Plan Map - 1947). The intention was an economic union between the two states with open borders. At the time of partition, slightly less than half the land in all of Palestine was owned by Arabs, slightly less than half was "crown lands" belonging to the state, and about 8% was owned by Jews or the Jewish Agency. There were about 600,000 Jews in Palestine, almost all living in the areas allotted to the Jewish state or in the internationalized zone of Jerusalem, and about 1.2 million Arabs. The allocation of land by Resolution 181 was intended to produce two areas with Jewish and Arab majorities respectively. Jerusalem and environs were to be internationalized. The relatively large Jewish population of Jerusalem and the surroundings, about 100,000, were geographically cut off from the rest of the Jewish state, separated by a relatively large area, the "corridor," allotted to the Palestinian state. The corridor included the populous Arab towns of Lod and Ramla and the smaller towns of Qoloniyeh, Emaus, Qastel and others that guarded the road to Jerusalem. (Click for Large Detailed Map)

Map of Israel-Palestine UN Partition Plan 1947

It soon became evident that the scheme could not work. Mutual antagonism would make it impossible for either community to tolerate the other. The UN was unwilling and unable to force implementation of the internationalization of Jerusalem. The Arab League, at the instigation of Haj Amin Al-Husseini, declared a war to rid Palestine of the Jews. In fact however, the Arab countries each had separate agendas. Abdullah, king of Jordan, had an informal and secret agreement with Israel, negotiated with Golda Meir, to annex the portions of Palestine allocated to the Palestinian state in the West Bank, and prevent formation of a Palestinian state. Syria wanted to annex the northern part of Palestine, including Jewish and Arab areas.

Modern History

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The War of Independence - 1948 War (the 'Nakba') - The War of Independence or 1948 War is divided into the pre-independence period, and the post-independence period. Clashes between Israeli underground groups and Arab irregulars began almost as soon as the UN passed the partition resolution. During this time, Arab countries did not invade, though the Jordan legion did assist the in the attack against Gush Etzion, a small block of settlements in the territory allocated to the Palestinian state, south of Jerusalem. (See 1948 Israel War of Independence (1948 Arab-Israeli war) Timeline (Chronology) and Israel War of Independence (First Arab-Israel War)

Pre-Independence - During the period before Israeli independence was declared, two armies of Arab irregular volunteers, let by Haj Amin El Husseini in the Jerusalem area, and by Fawzi El Kaukji in the Galilee, placed their fighters in Arab towns and conducted various aggressive operations against the Jewish towns and village under the eyes of the British. Kaukji and his irregulars were allowed into Palestine from Syria by the British, with the agreement that he would not engage in military actions, but he soon broke the agreement and attacked across the Galilee. The Arab irregulars were met by the Zionist underground army, the Haganah, and by the underground groups of the "dissident" factions, Irgun and Lehi.

In Jerusalem, Arab riots broke out on November 30 and December 1 1947. Palestinian irregulars cut off the supply of food, water and fuel to Jerusalem during a long siege that began in late 1947. Fighting and violence broke out immediately throughout the country, including ambushes of transportation, the Jerusalem blockade, riots such as the Haifa refinery riots, and massacres that took place at Gush Etzion (by Palestinians) and in Deir Yassin (by Jews). Arab Palestinians began leaving their towns and villages to escape the fighting. Notably, most of the Arab population of Haifa left in March and April of 1948, despite pleas by both Jewish and British officials to stay.

The British did little to stop the fighting, but the scale of hostilities was limited by lack of arms and trained soldiers on both sides. Initially, the Palestinians had a clear advantage, and a Haganah intelligence report of March, 1948 indicated that the situation was critical, especially in the Jerusalem area.   It is generally agreed that April 1948 marked a turning point in the fighting  before the invasion by Arab armies, in favor of the initially outnumbered and outgunned Jewish forces. To break the siege of Jerusalem, the Haganah prematurely activated "Plan Dalet" - a plan prepared for general defense that was supposed to have been implemented when the British had left. It required use of regular armed forces and army tactics, fighting in the open, rather than as an underground. It also envisioned the "temporary" evacuation of Arab civilians from towns in certain strategic areas, such as the Jerusalem corridor. This provision has been cited as evidence that the Zionists planned for the exodus and expulsion of Arab civilians in advance.

The Haganah mounted its first full scale operation, Operation Nahshon, using 1,500 troops. It attacked the Arab villages of Qoloniyah and Qastel, occupied by Arab irregular forces after the villagers had fled, on the road to Jerusalem and temporarily broke the siege, allowing convoys of supplies to reach the city. Qastel fell on April 8, and the key Palestinian military commander, Abdel Khader Al-Husseini was killed there. Qoloniyeh fell on April 11. In the north, Fawzi El-Kaukji's "Salvation Army" was beaten back at the battle of Mishmar Haemeq on April 12, 1948. These successes helped convince US President Truman that the Jews would not be overrun by Arab forces, and he abandoned the trusteeship proposal that the US had put before the UN earlier.  Following attacks by Arab irregulars, the Irgun attacked the Arab town of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. Palestinians fled en masse despite the pleas of the British to remain.

The Arab Invasion - The governments of neighboring Arab states were more reluctant than is generally assumed to enter the war against Israel, despite bellicose declarations. However, fear of popular pressure combined with fear that other Arab states would gain an advantage over them by fighting in Palestine, helped sway Syria, Jordan and Egypt to go to war. While officially they were fighting according to one plan, in fact there was little coordination between them.

On May 14, 1948, the Jews proclaimed the independent State of Israel, and the British withdrew from Palestine. In the following days and weeks, neighboring Arab nations invaded Palestine and Israel (click here for map). The fighting was conducted in several brief periods, punctuated by cease fire agreements ( truces were declared June 11 to July 8, 1948 and July 19- October 15, 1948).

In the initial stage, notable successes were scored by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. In particular, the Egyptians, backed by tanks, artillery, armor and aircraft, which Israel did not have, were able to cut off the entire Negev and to occupy parts of the land that had been allocated to the Jewish state.  In his book, "In the Fields of Phillistia," Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery recounts how the Egyptian army attempted a massed armored strike against Tel Aviv. Palestinian attempts to set up a real state were blocked by Egypt and Jordan. Jordan kept to its agreement not to invade areas allocated to the Jewish state, but Syria and Egypt did not. The strike was turned back by a few recently arrived Messerchmitt aircraft, bought from Czechoslovakia. The Syrians made some advances into the territory that had been allotted to the Palestinian state.

While Jordan did not invade Jewish territory, the Arab Legion blocked convoys to besieged Jewish Jerusalem from its fortified positions in Latroun. Jerusalem was to have been internationalized according to UN General Assembly Resolution 181 and  UN General Assembly Resolution 303.The Jordanian positions at Latroun (or Latrun) could not be overcome despite several bloody attacks. To get around it, the Israelis ultimately built a "Burma Road' that was completed in June of 1948 and broke the siege of Jerusalem.

The first cease fire and the Altalena - A cease fire in June gave all sides time to regroup and reorganize. This marked a critical stage in the fighting. The Arab side made a crucial error in accepting the truce. The Israelis took advantage of the cease fire to reorganize and recruit and train soldiers. They were now able to bring in large shiploads of arms, despite the treaty terms, and to train and organize a real fighting force of 60,000 troops, giving them a real advantage in troops and armament for the first time. The truce probably saved Jerusalem, which had been on the brink of starvation. During the long truce, the underground armies of the Haganah, Palmah, Irgun and Lehi were amalgamated into a single national fighting force, the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The revisionist Irgun movement attempted to bring a shipload of arms into Israel on a ship called the Altalena, in order to maintain a separate fighting force. Israeli PM Ben Gurion ordered the IDF to sink the Altalena when Irgun leader Menahem Begin refused to give up its cargo of arms.  The Palestinians and Arabs did not use the time well. A large shipment of arms intended for the Palestinians was blocked by the IDF/Haganah and never reached Syria. Arab states were reluctant to commit more men to the struggle or to spend more money.

Resumption of the war - The war with the Egyptians had been static, as they were isolated in the "Falluja" pocket in central Israel. After the cease fire expired, Israel took the war with the Egyptians to their territory and entered the Sinai peninsula. The IDF was forced to withdraw after encounters with British aircraft.

In the center, the IDF cut a swath of land to open the "corridor" between Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. During the "ten days" period of fighting between the two truces, they invaded the Arab towns of Lod and Ramla that had been blocking the road to Jerusalem and expelled most of the Palestinians living there, after killing a large number. They destroyed numerous small Palestinian villages surrounding Tel-Aviv, so that virtually no Palestinians were left in central Israel. (Click here for a map of Palestine before 1948)

The Arab defeat and the birth of the refugee problem - Despite initial setbacks, better organization and intelligence successes, as well as timely clandestine arms shipments, enabled the Jews to gain a decisive victory. The Arabs and Palestinians lost their initial advantage when they failed to organize and unite. When the fighting ended in 1949, Israel held territories beyond the boundaries set by the UN plan - a total of 78% of the area west of the Jordan river. The UN made no serious attempt to enforce the internationalization of Jerusalem, which was now divided between Jordan and Israel, and separated by barbed wire fences and no man's land areas. Click here to view a map of the UN plan for Jerusalem and Jerusalem as divided under the armistice agreements. The rest of the area assigned to the Arab state was occupied by Egypt and Jordan.  Egypt held the Gaza Strip and Jordan held the West Bank.   About 726,000 Arabs fled or were driven out of Israel and became refugees in neighboring Arab countries. The conflict created about as many Jewish refugees from Arab countries, many of whom were stripped of their property, rights and nationality, but Israel has not pursued claims on behalf of these refugees (see Jewish refugees of the Arab-Israel conflict).

The Arab countries refused to sign a permanent peace treaty with Israel. Consequently, the borders of Israel established by the armistice commission never received de jure (legal) international recognition. Arabs call the defeat and exile of the Palestinian Arabs in 1948 the Nakba (disaster).

The UN arranged a series of cease-fires between the Arabs and the Jews in 1948 and 1949. UN GA Resolution 194 called for cessation of hostilities and return of refugees who wish to live in peace. Security Council Resolution 62 called for implementation of armistice agreements that would lead to a permanent peace. The borders of Israel were established along the "green line" of the armistice agreements of 1949. (Click here for a map of the armistice lines (so called "green line") . These borders were not recognized by Arab states, which continued to refuse to recognize Israel.  Though hostilities ceased, the refugee problem was not solved. Negotiations broke down because Israel refused to readmit more than a small number of refugees. The USSR, initially in favor of the Zionist state, now aligned itself with the Arab countries. Despite continued US support for the existence of Israel, US aid to Israel was minimal and did not include military aid during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were equipped with surplus arms purchased third hand and with French aircraft and light armor. The Arab countries, especially Syria and Egypt, began receiving large quantities of Soviet military aid. The Arab League instituted an economic boycott against Israel that was partly honored by most industrial nations and continued in force until the 1990s.

Israel: Map of Green line armistice borders, 1948

Map of the Israel  "Green Line" Borders

The Sinai Campaign - Following the overthrow of King Farouk of Egypt by the free officers headed by Naguib and Nasser, Egypt made some moves toward peace with Israel. However, in 1954, an Israeli spy ring was caught trying to blow up the US Information agency and other foreign institutions in Egypt. The goal was to create tension between the US and Egypt and prevent rapprochement. In Israel, both Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion disclaimed responsibility for the action, and blamed each other. This incident came to be known variously as "the Lavon affair" and "the shameful business." (click here for details).  Egypt became suspicious of Israeli intentions, and began negotiating to purchase large quantities of arms. When they were turned down by the West, the Egyptians turned to the Eastern bloc countries and concluded a deal with Czechoslovakia. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser also closed the straits of Tiran and Suez Canal  to Israeli shipping. Israeli strategists believed that Egypt would go to war or force a diplomatic showdown as soon the weapons had been integrated, and began looking for a source of arms as well. Israel concluded an arms deal with France. A series of border incursions by Palestinians and by Egyptians from Gaza evoked increasingly severe Israeli reprisals, triggering larger raids. The assessment of Israeli "activists" like Moshe Dayan was that Israel should wage preventive war before Egypt had fully integrated the new weapons.

In the summer of 1956, Israel, France and Britain colluded in a plan to reverse the nationalization of the Suez canal. Israel would invade the Sinai and land paratroopers near the Mitla pass. Britain and France would issue an ultimatum, and then land troops ostensibly to separate the sides.  The plan was carried out beginning October 29, 1956. Israel swiftly conquered Sinai. The US was furious at Israel, Britain and France. UN General Assembly Resolution 997 called for immediate withdrawal.  Israeli troops remained in Sinai for many months. Israel subsequently withdrew under pressure from the UN and in particular the United States. Israel obtained guarantees that international waterways would remain open to Israeli shipping from the US, and a UN force was stationed in Sinai.

Israel and the Arabs: Map of Sinai Campaign, 1956

Sinai Campaign - Map

The beginning of the Fatah - Yasser Arafat, an Egyptian Palestinian who grew up in the Gaza strip and had been a member of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brothers) and the Futuwwah or Futtuwah (officially called "Nazi Scouts" according to Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, 1999, page 124, Palestinian armed faction of Grand Mufti Hajj Amin El Husseini) was recruited by Egyptian intelligence while studying in Cairo in 1955, and founded the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS). In 1957 he moved to Kuwait and together with Khalil Al Wazir (Abu Jihad) Farouq Qadumi, Khalid al Hassan, Mahmoud Abass and others founded the Palestine Liberation Committee, later renamed the Fatah (reverse acronym for Harakat Tahrir Filastin - the Palestine Liberation Movement) modeled on the Algerian FLN.

The 1967 6-Day War - Tension began developing between Israel and Arab countries in the 1960s. Israel began to implement its National Water Carrier plan, which pumps water from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate south and central Israel. The project was in accordance with a plan proposed by US envoy Eric Johnston in 1955, and agreed to by Arab engineers. Arab governments refused to participate however, because of the implied recognition of Israel. In secret meetings, Israel and Jordan agreed to abide by the water quotas set by the plan.

The newly formed Palestinian Fatah movement seized on the Israeli diversion as an "imperialist event" that would catalyze their revolution, and Yasser Arafat began calling for war to eliminate Israel. In the Fatah newspaper, Filastinunah, ("our Palestine") Arafat ridiculed Egyptian President Nasser and other Arab leaders for their impotence, and called for effective action against Israel. Nasser decided to found the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a "tame" alternative to the Fatah, and placed Ahmed Shukhairy, an ineffective and bombastic diplomat at its head.

The Syrians, who had broken with Nasser's pan-Arabism, countered by supporting Fatah and attempted to take over the Fatah group. Syrian army intelligence  recruited terrorists for actions against Israel, giving credit for the operations to Fatah. The first of these actions was announced on December 31, 1964, an attack on the Israel water carrier at Beit Netopha, but in fact no attack had taken place. A second attempt was made on January 2, 1965, but the explosives charge was disarmed. However, successful attacks soon followed on January 14 and February 28. These minor terrorist activities received great publicity in the Arab world, and were contrasted with the lack of action and bombastic talk of Gamal Nasser, challenging Nasser's leadership. This ferment is considered the catalyst of the events that brought about the 6-day war. It is a moot point whether it is to be attributed to Syrian rivalry with Nasser, or as Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians claim, to the Fatah movement. Faced with the "heroic" deeds of the Palestinians under Syrian tutelage, Nasser was pushed to an increasingly bellicose stance.

In several summit conferences beginning in 1964, Arab leaders ratified the  establishment of the PLO, declared their resolve to destroy Israel, and decided to divert the sources of the Jordan river that feed the Sea of Galilee, to prevent Israel from implementing the water carrier plan. The Syrians and Lebanese began to implement the diversions. Israel responded by firing on the tractors and equipment doing the work in Syria, using increasingly accurate and longer range guns as the Syrians moved the equipment from the border. This was followed by Israeli attempts to cultivate the demilitarized zones (DMZ) as provided in the armistice agreements. Israel was within its rights according to the armistice agreements, but Moshe Dayan claimed many years later that 80% of the incidents were deliberately provoked. The Syrians responded by firing in the DMZs (Click here for a map of the demilitarized zones). When Israelis responded in force, Syria began shelling Israeli towns in the north, and the conflict escalated into air strikes.  The USSR was intent on protecting the new Ba'athist pro-Soviet government of Syria, and represented to the Syrians and Egyptians that Israel was preparing to attack Syria. As tension rose, Syria appealed to Egypt, believing the claim of the USSR that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian border. The claim was false and was denied by the UN.

Against this background, in Mid-May, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser began making bellicose statements. On May 16, 1967, a Radio Cairo broadcast stated: "The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle we have long awaited. The peak hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel." On the same day, Egypt asked for the withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. UN Secretary General U Thant agreed to remove the troops on May 18. Formally, the troops could only be stationed in Egypt with Egyptian agreement. However, for a long time it was believed that Nasser had really hoped U Thant would not remove the troops, and that he could use the presence of the UN troops as an excuse to do nothing.

On May 23, Nasser closed the straits of  Tiran to Israeli shipping. The United States failed to live up to its guarantees of freedom of the waterways to Israel. A torrent of rhetoric issued from Arab capitals and in the UN. At the UN, PLO Chairman Ahmed Shukhairy announced that "if it will be our privilege to strike the first blow" the PLO would expel from Palestine all Zionists who had arrived after 1917 and eliminate the state of Israel. In a speech to Arab Trade Unionists on May 26, 1967, Nasser justified the dismissal of the UNEF, and made it clear that Egypt was prepared to fight Israel for Palestinian rights. He also attacked the Jordanians as tools of the imperialists, stepping up the constant pressure on Jordan's King Hussein.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric, analysts such as Avi Shlaim (The Iron Wall) and others believe that each country was dragged into the conflict by inter-Arab rivalry and did not contemplate a war. Nasser never intended to attack Israel according to Shlaim. He had been dragged into the conflict by Soviet maneuvers and Syrian fears and his need to claim leadership of the Arab world according to them. Be that as it may, according to Michael Oren, recently declassified documents reveal that the Egyptians in fact planned to attack Israel on May 28, 1967. The plan, codenamed operation Dawn, was discovered by Israel. The Israelis told the Americans. US President Johnson told Soviet Premier Kosygin, and Kosygin wrote to Nasser. Nasser understood that he had lost the element of surprise and called off the attack. Nonetheless, on May 29, 1967, Nasser was still speaking of confrontation with Israel. He told members of the Egyptian National Assembly,  "God will surely help and urge us to restore the situation to what it was in 1948."

IDF officers began pressuring the civilian establishment to declare war, because it was considered that an Arab attack might be imminent, and because Israel's ability to maintain its army fully mobilized is limited, but Prime Minister Eshkol was reluctant to take action, and Foreign Minister Abba Eban opposed unilateral action, which he believed would be against the wishes of the United States. Ariel Sharon now admits that he and others, including Yitzhak Rabin, had discussed the possibility of a sort of coup, in which government officials were to be locked in a room, while the army started the war, but the idea never got passed the stage of thinking out loud.  

On May 30, Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt, readying itself for war. Nasser stated: "The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel...to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations." 

On June 4, Iraq likewise joined a military alliance with Egypt and committed itself to war. On May 31, the Iraqi President Rahman Aref announced, "This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear--to wipe Israel off the map."

US and Israeli assessments were that Israel would win any war handily, despite the huge superiority in armor, aircraft, and troops favoring the combined forces of the Arab countries. Prior to 1967, Israel had gotten almost no military aid from the United States. Egypt and Syria were equipped with large quantities of the latest Soviet military equipment. Israel's main arms supplier was France. On paper, Israel had almost as many aircraft as the Egyptians, but the Israeli aircraft were mostly old, and even the Super-Mirages were no match for the Mig-21 fighters acquired by Egypt from the USSR. On paper, the IDF had a large number of "tanks" matching or almost matching the arms of the Arab countries. However, while Syrians and Egyptians were equipped with late model Soviet heavy tanks, many of the Israeli "tanks" were in fact tiny French AMX anti-tank vehicles, and the heavy tanks were refurbished WWII Sherman tanks fitted with diesel engines. Israel had also been allowed to purchase about 250 M-48 Patton tanks from Germany in 1965.  Most of these tanks were being refitted with Diesel engines in 1967, and the US refused an Israeli request for 100 Pattons to replace the ones that were out of service. The Israeli and Jewish public, and some in the government, believed that there was a mortal threat to Israel. Ten thousand graves were dug in Tel Aviv public parks in anticipation of the heavy casualties.

The Israeli government probably did not want war, and some at least were fearful of war. Ben Gurion berated Chief of Staff Itzhak Rabin for making aggressive statements that had, according to him, escalated the conflict and gotten Israel into trouble. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol appeared hesitant, and stuttered in a dramatic radio speech to the nation. Under great public pressure from opposition parties, a unity government was formed. Foreign Minister Abba Eban tried in vain to obtain from the US a guarantee that they would reopen the straights of Tiran. At first, President Johnson promised an international flotilla, and warned Israel not to attack on its own. However, the US was unable to initiate any international action, and reversed its position, hinting broadly that Israel would have to handle the problem itself.

Israel could not maintain total mobilization indefinitely. When it became apparent that Egypt would not stand down, Israel attacked the Egyptians beginning on June 5, 1967. In the first hours of the war, Israel destroyed over 400 enemy aircraft to achieve total air superiority. Israeli troops quickly conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza. Jordanian artillery began firing at Jerusalem on the first day of the war, despite a warning by Israeli PM Levi Eshkol to stay out of the war, and then the Jordan Legion advanced and took over the headquarters of the UN (Governor's house - Armon Hanatziv ) in Jerusalem. After warning King Hussein repeatedly to cease fire and withdraw, Israel conquered the West Bank and Jerusalem. During the first days of the war, Syrian artillery based in the Golan Heights pounded civilian targets in northern Israel. After dealing with Egypt, Israel decided to conquer the Golan heights, despite opposition and doubts of some in the government, including Moshe Dayan, who had been appointed defense minister. (see map of territories occupied in 1967) and despite the fact that the UN had already called for a cease fire.  Israel agreed to a cease fire on June 10, 1967 after conquering the Golan Heights. UN Resolution 242 called for negotiations of a permanent peace between the parties, and for Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967. More details here: Six day war 1967 Six Day War Timeline (chronology)

The aftermath of the war - The 1967 6-Day war changed the perceived balance of power in the Middle East and created a new reality. Israel had acquired extensive territories - the Sinai desert, the Golan heights and the West Bank, that were several times larger than the 1948 borders. ( Click here to view a map of Israeli borders after the 6 day war). Nasser had been able to attribute the Egyptian defeat in 1956 to British and French support of the Israelis. Though he tried to blame the 1967 defeat on support supposedly given by the US Sixth fleet, this was clearly untrue.

According to analysts such as Fouad Ajami, the disastrous defeat of the Arabs spelled the end of the Pan-Arab approach advocated by Gamal Abdul Nasser and contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It should be remembered however, that Nasser and the pan-Arabists always viewed themselves as heads of the Islamic world as well as the Arab world.

While Israel had acquired territories and a military victory, it also marked a new day for Palestinian aspirations. The defeat brought about a million Palestinian Arabs under Israeli rule. After the war, the fate of the Palestinians came to play a large role in the Arab-Israeli struggle. The Fatah organization (The Movement for Liberation of Palestine) was founded about 1957 (though it was formalized much later), and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization)  was founded in 1964. Both had the declared aim of destroying Israel. After the 6-day war, Ahmad Shukairy, who had headed the PLO, was replaced as chairman by Yasser Arafat who headed the Fatah. Fatah and the PLO now had freedom of action, without the restraints of the discredited Arab regimes. Since all parts of Palestine were now under Israeli control, Fatah actions did not directly threaten Arab governments.  In time, the Palestine Liberation Organization  became recognized by all the Arab states and eventually by the UN as the representative of the Palestinian people. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat addressed a session of the UN General Assembly in 1974. Israel strongly opposed the PLO because of its terrorist acts against Jews and because of its charter aims of destroying the state of Israel and expelling Jews who had arrived after 1917.

Israel and the Arabs: Map of 6 Day war cease-fire lines 1967

Map of Israel-Arab Cease Fire Lines 1967

The Israeli government was undecided concerning its plans for the territories. The United States pressured Israel to make a statement calling for withdrawal from the conquered territories in return for peace. On June 19, 1967, the government decided to offer Egypt and Syria return of the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights for a peace settlement to be negotiated directly. The offer apparently did not include the Gaza strip, and called for demilitarization of Sinai. In the Golan, Israel offered to withdraw to the international border rather than the 1949 armistice lines, not including the territory conquered by Syria in 1948.  J ordan and the West Bank were not mentioned. The offer was transmitted in secret through the United States, but was turned down. Egypt and Syria refused to negotiate with Israel.

At the request of Jordan's King Hussein, Ya'akov Herzog met with him in the offices of his physician in London, on the evening of July 2, 1967. According to Herzog's notes of the meeting, Hussein discussed the reasons why he had been forced to go to war at length. He said that if there were to be peace, there would have to be peace with honor, however he did not ask for peace. He did not reply when Herzog asked him if he was offering peace, but said he would reply in time. Israel did not have a concrete peace proposal for Jordan. Herzog offered his private view, that there should be an economic confederation. (This meeting is documented in Segev, Tom, Israel in 1967 (1967: Veharetz shinta et paneiha - in Hebrew only), 2005, pp 530-536). 

Religious and nationalist groups began agitating for annexation and settlement of areas in the West Bank and Golan heights. Some government ministers including Pinchas Sapir, Zalman Aran of the Labor party and the NRP's Yaakov Shimshon Shapira feared the demographic problems that would arise from conquering all those Arabs. Shapira also pointed out that annexing the West Bank would lend credence to claims that Israel was a colonialist enterprise. Menachem Begin and Yigal Alon favored annexation. Moshe Dayan proposed that the Arabs of the West Bank should be given autonomy, but Menachem Begin, who was later to favor the plan, objected. He believed large numbers of Jews could now be brought to Israel to settle the territories, and the Arabs would be given a choice between becoming citizens or leaving.

The Mossad had proposed a Palestinian state under Israeli protection in a report dated June 14, 1967 (Segev, 1967, pp 537-538), but this was not accepted. According to some sources, in the summer of 1967, Moshe Dayan received a delegation of notables who proposed self-rule for the West Bank, but he rejected the offer.

By July 1967, Yigal Alon had submitted his "Alon Plan" which called for Israeli retention of large parts of the West Bank in any peace settlement for strategic reasons.   An increasing number of settlements were established as it became evident that Arab states would not negotiate with Israel. A decisive turning point was the Khartoum Arab summit, in August and September of 1967, which seemed to shut the door on the possibility of negotiations with Israel or recognition of Israel in any form. The Khartoum resolutions may not have been an insurmountable barrier to peace. In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan supposedly offered to make peace in return for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and return of the holy places, but the offer was politely turned down.

A second landmark was the "Zionism is Racism" resolution passed by the United Nations in 1975, which gave credibility in Israel to claims of Israeli extremists that opposition to settlements was opposition to Israel, and that Israel was essentially alone in a hostile world and could expect no justice. The resolution was repealed in 1991, but similar sentiments surfaced at a UN conference in Durban in 2001. Likewise in  November 1975, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Harold H Saunders, told a US House Committee that the US now recognized the importance of the Palestinian national issue in the conflict, and hinted broadly that the US would be willing to facilitate a solution that took account of Palestinian rights, if the PLO would recognize the relevant UN resolutions, including Israel's right to exist, and would be amenable to a reasonable compromise.  This policy was to bear fruit eventually in the Oslo Peace Process, after PLO Chairman Arafat announced PLO acceptance of UN Resolution 242 in 1988.

Meanwhile however, settlement expansion became official Israeli policy after the opposition revisionist Likud party came to power in 1977, and continued during the Oslo accords. As of 2003, about 220,000  Israelis had settled in areas of the West Bank and Gaza, and an additional 200,000 were settled in areas of Jerusalem and environs conquered in 1967. About 15,000 Jews were settled in the Golan heights taken from Syria. (Click for Map of Israeli West Bank Settlements-2002)

The War of Attrition - After the 6-Day war, Egyptian president Nasser launched the war of attrition on the Suez canal, breaking the cease fire. In Israel, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had died and was replaced by the hawkish Golda Meir. The sides fought to a standstill in increasingly bloody exchanges that included participation by Soviet pilots on the Egyptian side. Under US pressure, a second cease fire was signed in August 1970, with both sides declaring officially their acceptance of UN Resolution 242. Nasser died shortly thereafter, and was replaced by Anwar Sadat. Sadat tried repeatedly to interest Israel in partial peace deals in return for partial Israeli withdrawal, and the US and UN tried to mediate peace through the offices of Gunnar Jarring. Nothing came of these peace efforts, partly owing to the stubborn attitude of Israeli PM Golda Meir, who insisted that Israeli troops would not budge until there was a peace agreement in place. Sadat continued to alternate peace plans with threats of war, but he was not taken seriously in Israel. Israeli army intelligence as well as the government were convinced that Israel had absolute military superiority and that Egypt would not dare to attack until it had rebuilt its army. Therefore, the best course seemed to be to wait until the Arab countries met Israel's terms.

The October War (Yom Kippur War) - In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched another war against Israel, after the Israeli government headed by Golda Meir rebuffed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's offers to negotiate a settlement. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal on the afternoon of October 6, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Israeli government had ignored repeated intelligence warnings. They were convinced that Israeli arms were a sufficient deterrent to any aggressor. Sadat had twice announced his intention to go to war, but nothing had happened. When the intelligence reports were finally believed, on the morning of the attack, PM Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decided not to mobilize reserves.

The Israelis were caught by surprise in more ways than one. Egyptians poured huge numbers of troops across the canal unopposed and began setting up a beachhead. The Israel Army had neglected basic maintenance tasks and drill. As troops mustered, it became apparent that equipment was missing and tanks were out of commission. The line of outposts built as watch posts along the Suez canal - the Bar Lev line, was used instead as a line of fortifications intended to hold off the Egyptians as long as possible. A tiny number of soldiers faced the Egyptian onslaught and were wiped out after stubborn resistance. The Soviets had sold the Egyptians new technology - better surface to air missiles (SAM) and hand held Sager anti-tank weapons. Israel had counted on air power to tip the balance on the battlefield, and had neglected artillery. But the air-force was initially neutralized because of the effectiveness of SAM missiles, until Israel could destroy the radar stations controlling them. Futile counterattacks continued in Sinai for several days as Israeli divisions coped with traffic jams that prevented concentration of forces, and with effective Egyptian resistance.

Meanwhile, less than 200 Israeli tanks were left guarding the Golan heights against far superior numbers. Syrians made serious and at first unopposed inroads in the Golan as Egyptians crossed the Suez canal and retook a strip of the Sinai peninsula. After suffering heavily losses, Israel reconquered the Golan.  Click for map of Syrian Front

In Sinai, Israel troops crossed the canal. General Ariel Sharon, disobeying the orders of cautious superiors,  tried to run ahead of logistics and support to develop the bridgehead on the Egyptian side of the Suez canal. This small force was reinforced after bridges were put across the canal, and the Israelis cut off the entire Egyptian third army. (Click for map of Egyptian front )  Cease-fires ended most of the fighting within a month. About 2,700 Israeli soldiers and 8,500 Arab soldiers died in the war As a result of the war, the Golda Meir was forced to resign as Prime Minister of Israel, making way for Yitzhak Rabin, who had been Israeli ambassador to the US and previously Chief of staff of the IDF. Click for details of the Yom Kippur War

Oil Embargo - In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, Arab states led by Saudi Arabia declared an oil embargo, targeting the United States and the Netherlands in particular for their support for Israel. Oil production was reduced by 340 million barrels from October to December of 1973. Prices soared from $3 to over $11 a barrel, due to panic stockpiling as well as actual shortages. Oil sold to European countries eventually made its way to the United States and the Netherlands in any case, but there were nonetheless long lines for gasoline and overnight price increases. The embargo continued until March of 1974. The embargo heightened the perception that Arab countries could exercise political leverage by controlling the oil supply. It probably helped motivate European diplomatic moves that were conciliatory to the Arabs, and played a part in the invitation of Yasser Arafat to address the UN General Assembly, granting of a permanent observer status at the UN to the PLO and passage of the Zionism is Racism resolution in 1975. 

Peace With Egypt - Subsequent shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger resulted in partial Israeli withdrawals from the Sinai peninsula, under much less favorable terms than could have been obtained before the war. Right-wing opposition leader Menahem Begin was adamant in his opposition to any withdrawals. However, in 1978, Egypt led by Anwar Sadat, and Israel, now led by Menahem Begin, signed the Camp David framework agreements, leading to a Peace treaty in 1979. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982.

The PLO in Lebanon and the Lebanese Civil War -  Lebanon became increasingly unstable as Maronite Christians found their once--dominant position threatened by demographic changes which gave Muslims an increasingly large majority. Tensions between different religious groups were exacerbated by clan rivalry. Lebanon also has a relatively large population of Palestinian refugees, who incurred the animosity of native Lebanese, especially the Christians.  A revolt by the PLO against the Jordanian government led to the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan in 1970. PLO fighters streamed into Lebanon, incited tension between Muslims and Christians and turned Lebanon into a base for attacks on Israel. In 1975, an attack by Christian Phalangist militias on a bus carrying Palestinians ignited the civil war.  the Christian Phalangists and Muslim militias massacred at least 600 Muslims and Christians at checkpoints, beginning the 1975-1976 civil war. Full-scale civil war broke out, with the Palestinians joining the Muslim forces, controlling an increasingly lawless West Beirut. Lebanese political and social life descended into chaos, characterized by a grim routine of car bombs, assassinations and harassment and killing of civilians at roadblocks set up by warring militias. 

On January 20, 1976, PLO fighters, possibly reinforced by a  Syrian PLO contingent that had entered Lebanon in 1975, destroyed the Christian towns of Jiyeh and Damour, massacring about 500 people. In March, Major Saad Haddad formed the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA), a militia intended to protect Christian residents of southern Lebanon, which was allied with Israel  In June, 1976, with the Maronites on the verge of defeat,  President Elias Sarkis called for Syrian intervention. With the agreement of the Americans and the Israelis, the Syrians entered Lebanon ostensibly to protect the Christians and the fragile Lebanese multi-ethnic multi-religious constitution, but also to further long-standing Baathist ambitions to make Lebanon as part of Greater Syria.  On August 13, 1976, under the protection and with the probable active participation of the Syrian army, the Christian Phalangist militia attacked the Tel al-Za'atar refugee camp and killed as many as 3,000 civilians.

After an attack on a bus on the Haifa-Tel-Aviv road, in which about thirty people were killed, Israel invaded Lebanon in March 1978. It occupied most of the area south of the Litani River in Operation Litani. In response, UN Security Council resolution 425 called for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces and the creation of an UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), charged with maintaining peace.

Israeli forces turned over positions inside Lebanon along the border to the SLA. The SLA and Israel set up a 12-mile wide security zone to protect Israeli territory from attacks across the border, and to protect local residents from the PLO, which had been occupying their villages and using them as bases for shelling Israel.  This southern area became an "open border" area separated by the "good fence,"  allowing Lebanese residents to find work in Israel. Attacks and counter attacks along the northern border of Israel continued. In July of 1981 a cease-fire between Israel and the PLO was brokered by the US. It was generally honored by both sides. Nonetheless, the PLO continued to gather strength and dig in in southern Lebanon.

The 1982 War in Lebanon (Peace for the Galilee) - On June 3 1982, terrorists of the Abu Nidal faction, not controlled by the PLO, shot Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in the head in London. In response, Israel invaded Lebanon in force. Most analysts believe that the shooting of Argov served only as an excuse for an operation planned by defense Minister Ariel Sharon with the tacit approval of the US administration. The Iranian Islamist regime sent its Pasdaran revolutionary guards, who had previously organized the takeover of the US embassy in Teheran, into Lebanon, and began organizing a resistance movement, The Hizb Allah (party of Allah) or Hizbolla.

The Israel invasion  resulted in expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon to Tunis in August.  The war aroused furor in Israel as the army exceeded the official war aims. On September 14, 1982, the Lebanese President-elect, Bashir Gemayel, an Israeli ally, was killed by a large bomb that was apparently planted by Syrian intelligence. Ostensibly to maintain order, the Israeli government decided to move into West Beirut. They allowed or sent their Lebanese Phalangist Christian allies into the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps.  The Phalangists committed a massacre in Sabra and Shatilla, killing about 700 people and exciting the wrath of the international community as well as the Israeli public. An Israeli commission of inquiry led by judge Kahan indirectly implicated Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and several others in the massacres, noting that they could have foreseen the possibility of the violence and acted to prevent it. The Kahan report resulted in the resignation of Sharon as defense minister. Israel subsequently extricated itself slowly from Lebanon.  As Israel withdrew, Lebanon became increasingly lawless. Beirut life came to be characterized by gunfire, kidnappings and bombings.  Attempts by the US to restore order failed owing to large scale suicide bombings of a marine barracks and the US embassy. The US withdrew and Lebanon, especially Beirut, deteriorated into chaos. Order was restored only after Lebanon became essentially a satellite of Syria. Israel continued to maintain a presence in south Lebanon until 2000, when the last Israeli troops were withdrawn by PM Ehud Barak.

The Pollard Affair - In November 1985, Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish-American employee of the US Naval Anti-Terrorist Alert Center was arrested for spying for Israel. He pleaded guilty in a plea bargain deal, but the US government apparently reneged on the deal and Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987, an exceptional sentence relative to similar cases. The affair was a severe embarrassment to US-Israeli relations and raised the specter of "double loyalty" accusations for American Jews. At the same time, Pollard became a cause celebre of the Zionist right, who pointed out that he had been used and abandoned by the Israeli government, which did little to secure his freedom.

The First Intifada  - While the fortunes of the PLO waned, Palestinians in the occupied territories took their fate into their own hands. Beginning in 1987, a revolt called the Intifadeh began in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The revolt was initiated by local residents and involved mostly low-level violence such as rock throwing, winning sympathy for the struggle of the Palestinians against the Israeli occupiers.  By 1991 the Intifadeh had all but ended, but massive Israeli repression in this period laid the seeds for future violence (see First Intifada). 

Current History - Click here for The history of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict since the Oslo Accords. 


Ami Isseroff

(Latest revision June 10, 2009)

The history in Arabic:

تاريخ النزاع الإسرائيلي الفلسطيني، الجزء الأول

 تاريخ النزاع الإسرائيلي الفلسطيني، الجزء الثاني

The history in French:

Une brève histoire d'Israël, de la Palestine et du conflit

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Ami Isseroff



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