Israel as a nation has only existed since 1948, less than a hundred years. It was created by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II. The Jewish kingdom of Israel has been around since Biblical Old Testament times. But it vanished from history for centuries under Roman, Persian and Ottoman rule. So how did the current Israeli nation finally come about? And why, following it birth pains, has it barely had a day of peace since?
The roots go back to World War I. Between 1517 and 1917, Palestine was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which stretched from Africa, through the Middle East, to Turkey. Jews gradually migrated into Europe and eventually around the world. During the Empire’s decline, Palestine was a sparsely populated, barren region with Jerusalem the only major city. The “Zionist” movement began to emerge in early twentieth century Europe. It was caused by growing European nationalism, rampant antisemitism and even violence against Jews. The Zionists desire was to return the Jewish people to a sovereign state in Palestine. This fostered Jews immigrating back to Israel.
In 1917, at the height of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour submitted The Balfour Declaration, to the British Jewish community. It supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. At the end of World War I, the 400-year-old Ottoman Empire was defeated. Its vast lands in the Middle East were split up and given to the victorious Allies (Britain and France). They carved the empire up into new nations for the Arabs: Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, drawing straight lines on a map.
These new arbitrary borders would cause havoc for decades.
Under the World War I 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the League of Nations gave Palestine to the British government. Britain’s Mandate was to implement the Balfour Declaration, to establish a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews. Even before the declaration, European Jews had begun to purchase land and resettle in Palestine. Arabs vehemently opposed the Balfour Declaration, fearing that a Jewish homeland would subjugate the Arab Palestinians.
In July 1922, the British divided Palestine into two administrative districts with Jews in the west side of the Jordan River and Arabs in the east side. The Jewish population grew over the next 20 years to around 600,000 by World War II. Of course, Palestinian Arabs had already been living there for generations. While Jewish immigration continued, the nationalism of Palestinian Arabs also emerged. They aspire to their own Independence in the same land. Violent clashes were inevitable. As just one example, both Jews and Muslims consider the city of Jerusalem sacred to their religions.
The British authorities were constantly challenged by Zionist demands for Jewish self-government, and the Arab nationalists rejecting the Jewish presence. Jewish-Arab violence began, including attacks on British personnel. The 1939 British “White Paper” stated that Palestine would be neither a Jewish or Arab state. It would rather be a combined independent state. It also limited Jewish immigration to just 75,000 for the next five years. Restrictions were also placed on how much land Jews could buy. It remained in effect for the next 10 years.
As World War II brewed, many Jews living in Europe feared persecution under Hitler’s Nazi regime. They left and sought refuge in Palestine, and even embraced Zionism. Those that did not leave in time, tragically faced Nazi Concentration Camps and the gas chambers. After the Jewish Holocaust and World War II ended, members of the Zionist movement focused on creating an independent Jewish state once and for all.
In 1946, Britain partitioned the region and created an independent Palestine-Arab state in the eastern half – Jordan. Then in 1947, Britain announced its intention to terminate its governance of Palestine. The UN General Assembly stepped in and appointed a special committee to come up with a solution. The committee recommended two states, Jewish and Arab, to be joined economically, with Jerusalem under international rule. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly instead voted on a partition plan, adopted by a two-thirds majority of nations.
The Jewish side accepted the UN plan. The Arab states rejected it.
The day the British Mandate over Palestine ended, Israel as an independent state was officially declared in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. The new nation received its old Biblical name of Israel rather than the old Roman name of Palestine. The leader of the World Zionist Organization, David Ben-Gurion, became the first Prime Minister. He read the ‘Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel’ at the Tel Aviv Museum.
“The state of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and to the coming home of our exiles. Israel will be founded on the teaching of freedom, justice and peace; it will promote the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without any distinction in faith, race or sex; it will guarantee the full freedom of conscience, religion, education and upbringing; it will hold dear the holiness and inviolability of the holy places of all religions; and it will be loyal to these principles.”
The neighboring Arab countries all refused to accept that Israel was an independent state. Only a few hours after the Declaration, five Arab countries from the the new Arab League, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, attacked Israel in an attempt to eliminate the new Jewish state. In addition, Palestinians within Israel rose up against the Jews.
A War for Israeli Independence had begun.
The newly formed Israeli Defense Force (IDF) managed to prevail after fifteen months of war. In 1949, the conflict came to an end. During the Arab-Israeli War, about 650,000 Palestinian Arabs fled the land. Israel signed a suspension of arms with Egypt (not a peace treaty). A cease-fire also followed with Lebanon, as well as with Jordan. Syria was the last country to lay down its arms. They continued to refuse to acknowledge the Jewish State. The UN, US and USSR on the contrary, did. The new Israeli parliament, the Knesset, met for the first time in 1949.
Violent clashes between Israelis and Arabs, often escalating to war, have continued ever since. Much of the conflict has centered around who is occupying the Gaza Strip, between Israel and Egypt, the Golan Heights, between Israel and Syria, and the West Bank, between Israel and Jordan. A half dozen more full scale wars have ensued since then, including the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Lebanon War (1982), and the Gaza War (2006).
Key territories are claimed by both group Jews and Palestinians, and both cite Jerusalem as their capital. While Israel doesn’t recognize Palestine as a state, more than 135 UN member nations do. Meanwhile, Israel has encouraged the growth of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians remain divided between the semi-autonomous Gaza Strip and West Bank regions. Arab militant groups have emerged over time, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Since 1948, Israel’s population has grown tenfold. Today there are about 8.5 million Israelis; 75% of them Jews. Several countries including the U.S. and U.N. have attempted to negotiate peace agreements over the decades since 1949, with limited success. Many have suggested a two-state solution, but acknowledge that Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to agree on one any time soon. Most Arab and Muslim states continue to deny Israel’s right to exist.
Peace in the Middle East?
Two Middle Eastern states have signed peace agreements with Israel—Egypt (in 1979) negotiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Jordan (in 1994) negotiated by Bill Clinton. They demonstrate that peace is possible … with dogged persistence, and strict nonviolence.