A Jewish Kingdom was first established circa 1020 BC, but in 930 BC the kingdom was split into a Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, and a Southern Kingdom, know as Judah or Judea. The divided kingdom was more vulnerable to invaders and in 722 BC Israel was crushed by the Assyrians. The region was conquered by various armies until 168 BC, when an independent Jewish kingdom was revived. In 63 BC the Roman Army captured Jerusalem and occupied the area. Revolts against Roman rule in 66 AD and 132 AD were brutally crushed, with Jews banned from entering Jerusalem and many sold into slavery. To underline their authority the Romans renamed the area Palestine. The Jewish population dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, and into Middle Eastern countries outside the Empire.
Initially regarded as free people, as the Roman Empire became more Christian the diaspora of exiled Jews became increasingly marginalised. Harsh anti-Jewish rulings continued to be issued by the Christian Church, even after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. In the meantime, Moslem Arabs had taken control of Palestine and in 691 AD built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem on the site of a Jewish Temple. In 800 the Emperor Charlemagne allowed Jews to settle in the Germany – later to become known as Ashkenazi Jews. These people eventually became widespread in northern Europe, but a series of expulsions from 1290 onwards saw many migrate eastwards to Poland, Lithuania and Russia.
In 1517 the Ottoman Empire took control of Palestine and showed a largely tolerant attitude to minority populations. Anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia during 1881-1882 forced large numbers of Jews to leave Russia, and many chose to move to Palestine – some 30,000 in the subsequent twenty years. At the same time, the Zionist movement – aimed at establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine – became increasingly active.
The First World War resulted in a major change. In late 1917 British forces moved into Palestine and defeated the Ottoman Army. In April 1920 the area was mandated to British control – a move subsequently confirmed by the League of Nations. At that time, the Arab population outnumbered the Jewish population by nearly 4 to 1. By 1937, Zionist organised Jewish immigration had reduced this ratio to 2.5 to 1. In the same year the British government proposed a partition of Palestine, but violent Arab protests forced abandonment of this plan. In 1939 increasing Arab opposition forced the British authorities to limit further Jewish immigration.
Following World War 2, survivors of Nazi persecution flocked to Palestine, but Britain felt unable to allow unrestricted Jewish immigration. Jewish terrorists attempted to force the issue. In April 1947 Britain referred the issue to the United Nations (UN). On 29 November 1947, the UN accepted a plan to partition the country into a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab Palestine.
Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948, and was immediately attacked by Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. The makeshift Israeli Defence Forces successfully opposed the attacks, and in 1949 staged an offensive which concluded with the capture of large areas of Arab-held territory. The War of Independence was ended by a UN mediated armistice, which established Israel’s de facto borders. What remained of Arab Palestine became parts of Jordan and Egypt, not a separate state.
In November 1956, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt, in co-operation with Anglo-French forces attempting to seize the Suez Canal. American pressure subsequently forced Israel to withdraw from all captured territory in the Sinai. In 1967, the closing off of the Gulf of Aqaba by Egypt provoked a crisis which led to the Six Day War. Catching Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces by surprise, the Israelis managed to capture large areas of territory, including the former Palestinian areas west of the river Jordan, the Golan Heights in the north, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai in the south. The resulting flood of Arab refugees into neighbouring countries led to the adoption of publicity-seeking terrorist tactics by militant Palestinian groups campaigning for an independent Arab Palestine. The largest militant group being the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Between 1968 and 1970, Israel was forced to fight a War Of Attrition against Egyptian forces mounting repeated air and ground raids on Israeli territory. The Yom Kippur war of October 1973 caught Israel by surprise. A simultaneous attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces was only stopped once full mobilisation had been achieved, at great cost in Israeli lives. A ceasefire was agreed following a successful Israeli counter-attack. In March 1979 a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was negotiated at Camp David in the United States. The provisions included the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt.
In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, hoping to expel Palestinian terrorists and establish a friendly Maronite Christian government there. The PLO was forced to withdraw from the country, but the Israeli forces overstayed their welcome, and were compelled to begin a phased withdraw in 1983, eventually moving to a Security Buffer Zone just inside the Lebanese border. This period saw the establishment of a militant Islamic group in Lebanon called Hezbollah, which aimed at forcibly removing Israel from Lebanese territory. Initially a fairly feeble guerrilla force, Hezbollah benefited greatly from extensive funding and military training supplied by Iran and Syria.
In October 1986 it was revealed in the British media that Israel had been in possession of nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. The Israeli government refused to confirm or deny the reports, but insisted that any such weapons would only be used for self-defence.
A Palestinian intifada (uprising) in the occupied territories began in December 1987, and led to a more realistic political approach by the PLO. Terrorism was renounced, the existence of Israel accepted and dialog with the USA and Israel cautiously initiated. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 resulted in a new wave of immigration by Soviet Jews. A more obvious conseqence was the ‘peace process’, which improved relations with neighbouring countries and reduced tensions in the Middle East. A peace treaty with Jordan was later signed in October 1994.
During the Gulf War of 1991, Israel experienced attacks by Iraqi Scud missiles but refrained from retaliating, and so risking splitting the Allied Coalition, thanks to pressure from the United States. In 1993 the ‘peace process’ resulted in an agreement with the Palestinians on self-governing status for the Gaza Strip and West Bank. In 1994 the Palestinian Authority was created to run the ‘occupied territories’. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by Jewish extremists in November 1995, a right wing government, strongly supported by the new immigrants, was elected and began to renege on the commitments made to the Palestinians during the ‘peace process’.
By the mid-1990s Hezbollah had begun launching rockets into northern Israel, as well as continously harrassing the Lebanese Security Buffer zone. In April 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath was launched – a 16 day air and artillery blitz on Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. In September 1999 the ‘Wye 2’ agreement was signed, between a new moderate Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, allowing the peace process to move forward again.
In the Summer of 2000, peace talks in the USA aimed at resolving issues purposely omitted from ‘Wye 2’ collapsed in mutual recriminations. Frustrated by nearly ten years of ‘peace talks’ with hardly anything to show for it, in September 2000 the Palestinians resumed their intifada protest. Unlike the earlier intifada, which was relatively low-key but continuous, the new action rapidly escalated into a series of gun-battles between Palestinians and the Israeli Army. By early 2001, nearly 300 people had died in the conflict – all but one-sixth of them being Palestinians.
By now it was clear that the weak, incompetent and corrupt Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority was unable to police it’s own territory effectively. Created at the start of the first intifada, a new militant group called Hamas (an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement) had become increasingly active in organising suicide bombings and armed attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets. The Israeli Army resorted to assassinating key Palestinian personnel in retaliation.
In elections in February 2001, hard-line ex-Army General Ariel Sharon was overwhelmingly elected Prime Minister on a promise to restore Israeli security. In April 2002 Israeli Defence Forces conducted an offensive incursion into the West Bank to hunt down terrorists. This was to be the first of many more similar incursions. A more lasting defensive measure was the construction in 2003 of the first sections of a fence or ‘security barrier’ to separate Israel from Palestinian territory. This highly controversial structure was intended to improve the security of Israeli settlements vulnerable to attacks from nearby Palestinian land, but instead seems to have merely forced a change of tactics by the militants – the firing of rockets and mortars over the fence.
In another move to improve security, a policy known as ‘unilateral disengagement’ was promoted. Between August and September 2005 the Israelis withdrew from Jewish settlements in Gaza and abandoned them to the Palestinians. This concession to long standing Palestinian demands might have led to further reciprocal security improvements, but the Palestinians threw the chance away. In October 2005 the virulently anti-Zionist President of Iran called for Israel to be ‘wiped out from the map’. The fact that Iran is widely suspected of developing nuclear weapons meant that the threat could not be taken as an idle one.
In January 2006 Hamas won a surprise victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The ruling Fatah party had been widely discredited by the poor performance of the Palestinian Authority since its creation, and suffered accordingly. The Israeli Government refused to recognise a government lead by terrorists and halted payment of all funds to the Authority. European and US funding also ceased. The Palestinian territories descended into lawless anarchy as rival Hamas and Fatah factions staged bloody gun battles for control of the territory.
On 25 June 2006 an Israeli soldier was kidnapped and held hostage somewhere in the Gaza Strip. Three days later the Israeli Army initiated a series of incursions to try to rescue the soldier, and prevent any further firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. The Army located several tunnels used for smuggling arms, but where unable to locate the hostage. IDF operations continued until November 2006.
On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah staged a pre-planned ambush to kidnap two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border. In what became known as the Second Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force staged numerous retaliatory air strikes on Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. In response Hezbollah launched nearly 4000 rockets into northern Israel. The Air Force also attacked Lebanese civilian infra-structure targets in order to put pressure on the Lebanese Government to disarm Hezbollah. A ground offensive towards the Litani River was also ordered, to clear the area of Hezbollah fighters, but had only been going a couple of days when a ceasefire came into effect.
The poor performance of the IDF in the Lebanon war aroused widespread concern within Israel, and a number of senior IDF officials later resigned. Although a UN force now monitors the Lebanese border with Israel, Hezbollah emerged from the war immensely strengthened politically. In March 2007 the Palestinians finally agreed a unity government drawn from both Fatah and Hamas, but the response from it’s international financiers was distinctly lukewarm. Its first major task will be to restore law and order to the Palestinian territories.