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Israel’s turbulent history

The 10,000 square miles of land west of the Jordan River and north of Egypt is one of the most hotly contested patches of earth on the planet. To most contemporary political bodies, this land constitutes the state of Israel, created by the United Nations in 1948, in large part as a response to the Holocaust of World War II. To others -- particularly Arabs -- the lands belong to the Palestinians, who assert a historical claim to the region.

The current lands of Israel and Palestine consist of the official state of Israel and the occupied territories: the Gaza Strip [from which Israeli troops withdrew in 2005], the West Bank and the Golan Heights. All of the Abrahamic traditions -- among Jews, Muslims and Christians -- have their religious roots in the Middle East and in the city of Jerusalem, now part of Israel.

The Jewish religion incorporates the concept of the “promised land,” described by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a concept that, in the late 19th century, began to take the shape of Zionism. Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jew, founded the Zionist movement, a political ideology that supports a territorial homeland for the Jewish people on lands roughly equivalent to modern Israel. In 1917, the British foreign secretary issued the Balfour Declaration, which “view[ed] with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Jews began settling in Palestine, even though Britain, the colonial ruler of the area, limited their immigration. Arabs were unhappy with the influx of settlers and attacked them, leading to the formation of the Jewish defense force, the Haganah. By 1947, battered by World War II, the British decided to pull out of Palestine, and the United Nations approved the 1947 Partition Plan to divide the land into two states.

A Land Divided

David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, accepted the plan, but Arab leaders rejected it. Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq joined the Palestinians in attacking and trying to eliminate the nascent state. Nevertheless, the Israelis prevailed and in ensuing years captured more territory west of the Jordan River. The 1949 Armistice Agreements ended the war and established the “Green Line,” which designated a temporary truce line between Israel and its opponents. Most of the Arab population fled or was turned out during the war, creating 600,000 to 900,000 refugees. Waves of Jewish refugees flooded the country, many from Europe, but most fleeing Arab countries, and more than doubling the Israeli population.

In 1955, a new Egyptian government closed the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal to Israeli ships in response to a perceived spy threat. The following year, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula, backed by Britain and France, and swiftly conquered the Egyptians. The United States and the United Nations intervened and forced the British and French to withdraw, promising that the waters would remain open to Israeli ships. U.N. troops were stationed on the border to enforce the peace settlement.

The Six Day War and Yom Kippur

Tension continued, however, and fighting broke out again in 1967. In May of that year, Egypt requested the withdrawal of U.N. troops and, upon their departure, once again closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. A blockade is generally viewed as an act of war, and this one proved no exception. On June 5, Israeli forces under Ariel Sharon commenced a massive air strike against Egyptian airfields, effectively eliminating them. In the days that followed, Israeli troops conquered the Egyptian troops defending Sinai. Israel also defeated assaults by Jordan from the east and Syria from the north. By June 10, Israel had agreed to a cease-fire, but during the fighting it had taken control of Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The Six Day War of 1967 proved that Israel had the military might to dominate its neighbors. Now in control of three new territories, Israel had shifted the balance of power in the region in its favor.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria joined in a war against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in an effort to regain the territories lost in 1967. After several weeks of fighting, Arab forces were rebuffed by Israeli troops. The war led to a Saudi oil embargo on the United States; gas prices skyrocketed; and the notorious fuel shortages of the 1970s began.

Negotiations Begin

In the late 1980s, fed up with occupation and Jewish settlements in former Palestinian territories, local Palestinians began the first intifada in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, later joined by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah militants. The skirmishes stayed mostly at the local level and were brought to an end by the landmark 1993 Oslo Accords, which established self-rule under the Palestinian National Authority in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The accords were set up as an interim agreement that would be a precursor to the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel, however, accelerated the growth of settlements in the West Bank, and although Palestinians had agreed to forego violence, attacks on settlers continued.

Gaza-West Bank negotiations began in 1999 but were interrupted by the second intifada. Violence and chaos overtook the settled areas. Palestinian suicide bombers began attacking Israeli civilians, and the increasing instability within the Palestinian leadership further derailed the talks. Ariel Sharon’s declaration of the hotly contested Temple Mount/Al-Haram As-Sharif site as eternally Israeli further enraged Palestinians.

In 2002, President George W. Bush said that the “road map” for Arab-Israeli peace would entail a two-state solution, becoming the first American president to formally call for the formation of a Palestinian state.

Nevertheless, in that year, Israel started to build a controversial West Bank barrier -- part wall, part fence. The purpose, according to the Israeli government, was to prevent Palestinians from attacking Israeli civilians. After some dispute about where the barrier would go, it was redrawn to correspond closely with the Green Line. While Israel maintains that it is a security border, others worry that the barrier will serve as a political division that will isolate Palestinians from social services.

Arafat died in November 2004, and in January 2005, Mahmoud Abbas was chosen as the new Palestinian leader. This, along with the formation of a multipartisan Israeli government and the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, raised hopes for a solution to the turmoil in the Middle East.

It remains to be seen if Israel and the international community will accept the militant group Hamas in any future peace negotiations, following the group’s landslide victory in the Palestinian elections last January. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and is regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Sources: BBC News, CIA Factbook, MidEast Web, Palestine History, Anti-Defamation League, Wikipedia. (Note: Wikipedia is a free-content encyclopedia that it is written collaboratively by people from around the world.)

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Israel and the Palestinians

The BBC’s ongoing and in-depth coverage of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict includes political profiles, maps and other resources describing the region and its history.

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosts facts about Israel’s history, land and people, in addition to details about foreign relations, government and terrorism. Also on the site, find a Guide to the Mideast Peace Process, featuring a timeline and information on key negotiations.

Daniel Pipes

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, maintains a blog of specialized information on the Middle East and Islam. He frequently focuses on Arab-Israeli issues.

Reports from Rafah, Palestine

The site features updates from Mohammed, a student in the city of Rafah, located in the southern part of the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border.


A pro-Israeli blogger look at news and opinion from the Middle East.

Coverage from PBS

Israel/Palestinian Territories: In the Line of Fire

FRONTLINE/World reviews the dilemmas and dangers reporters have faced covering the violence in the West Bank and Gaza over the past several years. Canadian TV producer Patricia Naylor interviews Palestinian cameramen and other journalists who say they have been shot by Israeli soldiers.

Israel: Tracing Borders

FRONTLINE/World sent Robin Shulman, our first Fellow, to Israel to explore the shifting frontiers of a country without established borders. She watched the construction of the Seam Line Project, a massive security fence in the northern West Bank and around parts of Jerusalem, intended to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Elsewhere, near the boundary lines of Lebanon and Gaza, she asked people what it’s like to live near moving fences, new walls and the people on the other side. Her trip traced official and unofficial lines that connect and separate people in a country where borders -- contested and actual, historical and changing -- are everywhere.

Israel: Punk Rock in the Holy Land

In Israel, a vibrant punk scene has emerged in a society torn apart by the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In these four candid video interviews, FRONTLINE/World reporter and filmmaker Liz Nord talks to the musicians driving the movement.

Rough Cut: Occupied Minds

FRONTLINE/World presents the story of two men who are committed to finding a peaceful settlement to the dilemmas of the Middle East. Occupied Minds is the personal odyssey of two journalists -- Jamal Dajani, a Palestinian American, and David Michaelis, an Israeli citizen -- who travel together to Jerusalem, where they were both born, “to face the hard realities of our shared land.” Their journey is a road trip across a grim and divided landscape, but it is leavened by gallows humor and a heartfelt desire to find solutions.

PBS Online NewsHour: Israel-Palestinian Conflict

The Web site of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer offers this portal to their coverage of Israeli-Palestinian affairs. The most recent news items are featured prominently, along with enhanced features such as maps and timelines.

Israel’s Next War?

Frontline: Israel’s Next War?

FRONTLINE goes deep inside the world of militant Jewish radicals, who pose a grave new threat to Israeli security and, potentially, to the region. The program profiles two young men who planned to set off a bomb at a Palestinian girls’ school just as hundreds of young students arrived in the morning. Watch the show online; see a chronology of Israeli and American policy concerning settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza; see a map of Jewish outposts in the West Bank; and read Web-exclusive interviews and features.

Shattered Dreams of Peace: The Road From Oslo

FRONTLINE asks the question, What went wrong after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993, promising to end 100 years of conflict in the Middle East? The Web site looks in depth at international negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offers a timeline of events that threatened and ultimately derailed the peace process.

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Map of Israel

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