History of Israel

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The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 was preceded by more than 50 years of efforts to establish a sovereign nation as a homeland for Jews. These efforts were initiated by Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, and were given added impetus by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which asserted the British Government's support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Zionism historically has taken different forms, and these variations were reflected in twentieth-century Israeli society. The leading type of early Zionism, political Zionism, came out of Western Europe in large measure as a response to the failure of the emancipation of Jews in France in 1791 to produce in the succeeding century the degree of the anticipated reduction in anti-Semitism. Jewish assimilation into West European society was inhibited by the anti-Jewish prejudice resulting from the 1894 trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer. Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew, in 1896 published a book advocating the creation of a Jewish state to which West European Jews would immigrate, thus solving the Jewish problem. Rather than emphasizing creation of a political entity, cultural Zionism, a product of oppressed East European Jewry, advocated the establishment in Palestine of self-reliant Jewish settlements to create a Hebrew cultural renaissance. Herzl was willing to have the Jewish state located in Uganda but East European Jews insisted on the state's being in Palestine, and after Herzl's death in 1904, the cultural Zionists prevailed. Meanwhile, the need arose for practical implementation of the Zionist dream and Labor Zionism came to the fore, appealing particularly to young Jews who were influenced by socialist movements in Russia and who sought to flee the pogroms in Eastern Europe. Labor Zionism advocated socialism to create an equitable Jewish society and stressed the integration of class and nation. David Ben-Gurion, who came to Palestine in 1906, became a leader of this group, which favored a strong economic basis for achieving political power. Labor Zionism in turn was challenged by the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian Jew who glorified nationalism and sought to promote Jewish immigration to Palestine and the immediate declaration of Jewish statehood.

The Zionist cause was furthered during World War I by Chaim Weizmann, a British Jewish scientist, skilled in diplomacy, who recognized that Britain would play a major role in the postwar settlement of the Middle East. At that time Britain was seeking the wartime support of the Arabs, and in the October 1915 correspondence between Sharif Husayn of Mecca and Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner in Egypt, Britain endorsed Arab postwar independence in an imprecisely defined area that apparently included Palestine. In November 1917, however, Britain committed itself to the Zionist cause by the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, which stated that the British government viewed with favor "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People," while the "civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" were not to suffer. These two concurrent commitments ultimately proved irreconcilable.

During the succeeding decades until the Holocaust conducted by Nazi Germany during World War II, Jewish immigration to Palestine continued at a fairly steady pace. The Holocaust, in which nearly 6 million Jews lost their lives, gave an impetus to the creation of the state of Israel: thousands of Jews sought to enter Palestine while Britain, as the mandatory power, imposed limits on Jewish immigration to safeguard the indigenous Arab inhabitants. An untenable situation developed, and in 1947 Britain referred the Palestine problem to the United Nations General Assembly. The latter body approved a resolution on November 29, l947, calling for a complex partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Arab Higher Committee rejected the resolution, and violence increased. The establishment of the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, and Arab military forces began invading the territory the following day. By January 1949, Israel had gained more territory than had been allotted by the partition; East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River remained in Jordanian hands as a result of fighting by the Arab Legion of Transjordan, and the Gaza area, and Gaza remained in Egyptian hands. Israel held armistice talks with the Arab states concerned in the first half of 1949 and armistice lines were agreed upon, but no formal peace treaties ensued.

Having achieved statehood, the new government faced numerous problems. These included the continued ingathering of Jews from abroad, the provision of housing, education, health and welfare facilities, and employment for the new immigrants; the establishment of all requisite government services as well as expanding the country's infrastructure; the expropriation of Arab lands--including lands left by Arabs who had fled during the 1948 war as well as by Arabs obliged by the government to relocate--so as to provide a livelihood for new immigrants; the establishment of a military government to administer Arab population areas; and the growth of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to safeguard national security.

In 1956, French, British, and Israeli forces engaged Egypt in response to its nationalization of the Suez Canal and blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Israeli forces withdrew in March 1957, after the United Nations established the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Gaza Strip and Sinai. This war resulted in no territorial shifts and was followed by several years of terrorist incidents and retaliatory acts across Israel's borders.

In June 1967, Israeli forces struck targets in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in response to Egyptian President Nasser's ordered withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula and the buildup of Arab armies along Israel's borders. All parties agreed to a cease-fire after 6 days of fighting, under which Israel retained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the formerly Jordanian-controlled West Bank of the Jordan River, and East Jerusalem. On November 22, 1967, the Security Council adopted Resolution 242, the "land for peace" formula, which called for the establishment of a just and lasting peace based on Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 in return for the end of all states of belligerency, respect for the sovereignty of all states in the area, and the right to live in peace within secure, recognized boundaries.

The following years were marked by continuing violence across the Suez Canal, punctuated by the 1969-70 war of attrition. On October 6, 1973--Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), the armies of Syria and Egypt launched an attack against Israel. Although the Egyptians and Syrians initially made significant advances, Israel was able to push the invading armies back beyond the 1967 cease-fire lines by the time the United States and the Soviet Union helped bring an end to the fighting. In the UN Security Council, the United States supported Resolution 338, which reaffirmed Resolution 242 as the framework for peace and called for peace negotiations between the parties.

In the years that followed, sporadic clashes continued along the cease-fire lines but guided by the U.S., Egypt, and Israel continued negotiations. In November 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made an historic visit to Jerusalem, which opened the door for the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace summit convened at Camp David by President Carter. These negotiations led to a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, pursuant to which Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982, signed by President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel.

In the years following the 1948 war, Israel's border with Lebanon was quiet relative to its borders with other neighbors. After the expulsion of Palestinian fighters from Jordan in 1970 and their influx into southern Lebanon, however, hostilities along Israel's northern border increased and Israeli forces crossed into Lebanon. After passage of Security Council Resolution 425, calling for Israeli withdrawal and the creation of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeeping force (UNIFIL), Israel withdrew its troops.

In June 1982, following a series of cross-border terrorist attacks and the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to the U.K., Israel invaded Lebanon to fight the forces of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO withdrew its forces from Lebanon in August 1982. Israel, having failed to finalize an agreement with Lebanon, withdrew most of its troops in June 1985 save for a residual force which remained in southern Lebanon to act as a buffer against attacks on northern Israel. These remaining forces were completely withdrawn in May 2000 behind a UN-brokered delineation of the Israel-Lebanon border (the Blue Line). Hizballah forces in Southern Lebanon continued to attack Israeli positions south of the Blue Line in the Sheba Farms/Har Dov area of the Golan Heights.

The victory of the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 opened new possibilities for regional peace. In October 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union convened the Madrid Conference, in which Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Palestinian leaders laid the foundations for ongoing negotiations designed to bring peace and economic development to the region. Within this framework, Israel and the PLO signed a Declaration of Principles on September 13, 1993, which established an ambitious set of objectives relating to a transfer of authority from Israel to an interim Palestinian authority. Israel and the PLO subsequently signed the Gaza-Jericho Agreement on May 4, 1994, and the Agreement on Preparatory Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities on August 29, 1994, which began the process of transferring authority from Israel to the Palestinians.

On October 26, 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a historic peace treaty, witnessed by President Clinton. This was followed by Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat's signing of the historic Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on September 28, 1995. This accord, which incorporated and superseded previous agreements, broadened Palestinian self-government and provided for cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in several areas.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995, by a right-wing Jewish radical, bringing the increasingly bitter national debate over the peace process to a climax. Subsequent Israeli governments continued to negotiate with the PLO resulting in additional agreements, including the Wye River and the Sharm el-Sheikh memoranda. However, ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence led to a crisis of confidence between the two sides, which continues into 2001.

A summit hosted by President Clinton at Camp David in July 2000 to address permanent status issues--including the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, final security arrangements, borders, and relations and cooperation with neighboring states--failed to produce an agreement.

Following the failed talks, widespread violence broke out in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in September 2000. In April 2001 the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee, commissioned by the October 2000 Middle East Peace Summit and chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, submitted its report, which recommended an immediate end to the violence followed by confidence-building measures and a resumption of security cooperation and peace negotiations. The United States has worked intensively to help bring an end to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians and bring about the implementation of the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee as a bridge back to political negotiations.

More History of Israel

SOURCES: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress, U.S. Department of State

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