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Israel & the Palestinian Territories - History


Israel & the Palestinian Territories History

Thickly literary, packed full of household names, and always tumultuous, Israel's history seeps from the past into the present, in a country where everyday interactions are shaped by thousand-year-old conflicts. It all began around 1800 BC when Abraham led a group of nomads from Mesopotamia and settled in the mountains of Canaan. By 1023 BC the Israelites had formed a kingdom, led by Saul and then David, who captured Jerusalem and made it his capital. In around 950 BC, David's son Solomon built one of Judaism's most important sites, the First Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians, but was eventually rebuilt. The unstoppable Roman Empire took Israel in 63 BC and placed it under the control of a series of consuls, including Herod the Great and Pontius Pilate. This is when Jesus was believed to have lived and preached in Israel. The increasing insanity of the Empire under Caligula prompted a Jewish uprising, which lasted four years but was finally crushed when the Temple was again destroyed. After a second revolt, Jerusalem itself was razed, a new city (Aelia Capitolina) built on its ruins, and the province of Palestine decreed. This defeat marked the end of the Jewish state and the beginning of the Diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people.

In 331 AD Emperor Constantine became a Christian and gave his official stamp of approval to the previously illegal religion. Suddenly everyone wanted to know about the Holy Land, and a rash of buildings, including the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and the Nativity, sprang up all over Israel to mark sites of religious importance. But Christianity's hold over the country was not to last long - in 638 AD Jerusalem fell to Caliph Omar and was declared a Holy City of Islam, on the grounds that the Prophet Mohammed had ascended to heaven from atop the Temple Mount. Christians around the world raised their hackles at this desecration, and by 1099 they'd scrounged an army together and occupied Jerusalem, murdering everyone they could get their hands on and beginning nearly 100 years of Christian rule. But by 1187 the Muslims again had the upper hand - after decades of Christian/Muslim scuffling, the Islamic Mamluks knocked over the last Crusader stronghold in 1291.

The next 500 years were some of the quietest Israel has seen. Empires rose and fell, and control of the country changed hands with monotonous regularity, but very little of the fighting took place on Israeli soil - for the average Israelite, it was business as usual. The only blip occurred in the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire took over the reins and Suleyman the Magnificent rebuilt Jerusalem's city walls. By the mid-19th century the Ottomans were losing their grip and world interest once again focused on Israel. Britain opened a consulate in Jerusalem, and in 1839 Sir Moses Montefiore, a British Jew, began promoting the idea of a Jewish state. In 1878 the first Jewish colony was founded, and before long the first Aliyah, or wave of immigrants, had started. At the same time, the Arab population of Palestine was becoming strongly nationalistic and anti-European, which did not bode well for the new arrivals.

At the time of WWI, Britain promised Arabs they'd recognise an Arab state, and Jews they'd support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. When the war ended, Britain was given a mandate to rule the country, and as Europe moved towards WWII, Britain decided to stop all migration to Israel. Desperate illegal immigrants continued to arrive, and the Arab population responded violently. By 1947 the situation had reached an impasse, Britain gave up its mandate and a resolution was passed to divide the country between Arabs and Jews. On 14 May 1948 Israel came into being. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon invaded soon after but were defeated and when a ceasefire was declared in May 1949, Israel had extended the territory under its control in Palestine. Citizenship was offered to any Jewish person wishing to immigrate and the country began to fill with new arrivals.

In 1956, in response to Egyptian moves to take control of the Suez, Israeli, British and French armies invaded Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Under strong international pressure, Israel handed back the Sinai and British and French troops withdrew.

Hostilities continued to percolate between Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. On June 5, 1967 Israel reacted pre-emptively to the threats surrounding it and launched attacks against Arab troops along its borders. In the ensuing 'six day war' Israel extended its territory into the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. In response, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), founded in 1964, reformed under Yasser Arafat. The PLO claimed to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people and it vowed to regain their land and destroy the Israeli state.

In 1979, after having unsuccessfully attempted to regain the Sinai from Israel in the Yom Kippur war (1973), Egypt signed a mutual recognition pact with Israel and the Sinai was handed back. Tensions with Lebanon and Syria deteriorated and in 1981, Lebanon was invaded and the Golan Heights were formally annexed. Israel withdrew in 1985 but the area along its border in south Lebanon remained an occupied 'security zone' until 2000. A peace deal with Jordan was signed.

In 1987 a Palestinian popular uprising, the intifada, aimed at ending the encroachment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. It employed guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces. In 1993, the Oslo Peace Accord put mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO on the agenda. It also offered limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. The chances of success were scuttled when, in 1995, Rabin was assassinated. His replacement, Binyamin Netanyahu, toed a hard line in negotiations. During his time, Israeli settlements spread in the West Bank and Gaza and terrorist activity increased.

Ehud Barak was elected in 1999 promising to withdraw from the 'Security Zone' in southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas had been lobbing artillery at one another. As troops began evacuating in May 2000, the Hezbollah moved in rapidly and forced Israeli soldiers into a chaotic retreat under heavy fire. Nevertheless, it seemed that with Barak at the helm, Israel was closer to resolving its disputes with the Palestinians than at any time since 1967. At Camp David, far-reaching proposals were put on the table in exchange for a guarantee of safety and security and a cessation of terrorist violence. The Palestinians rejected the offer, with a stalemate on the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the need for a final settlement. The opportunity missed, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Following a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem, vicious fighting broke out in the West Bank between Palestinian Authority police and Israeli soldiers. This left many dead and wounded, the fallout resulting in 300 dead by the end of 2000.

In 2001, the hardliner Sharon replaced Barak, marking a shift away from peacemaking. The events of September 11 hardened the Israeli mood further as Palestinian aggression was dubbed the 'second intifada'. Sharon's pursuit of what were called Palestinian terrorists did little to stymie the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Both sides blame the other for the each outbreak of bloodshed. Palestinian suicide bombers have killed and wounded scores of innocent people, and the Israelis are clamping down on the Palestinians, launching assaults against what it believes are terrorist cells, claiming innocent lives in the process. Living conditions in the Palestinian Territories are atrocious. The ageing Arafat has ignored calls to step aside and resisted attempts to loosen his grip on power. Israeli settlers on Palestinian land now number more than 250,000. Construction of a 'security fence' - more of a wall isolating Palestinians - has torn the US roadmap to peace into shreds.



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