In the aftermath of World War I, Palestine had been placed under British Mandate, and the British sought to defuse the Arab uprising (1936–39) by repeated plans for the partition of Palestine, and restrictions on Jewish immigration. Jews and Arabs in the region had been at odds for decades; while the Zionist Jews sought an independent state, the native Arabs wanted to stem Jewish immigration and set up a secular Palestinian state. As a result of persecution – notably the Holocaust – Palestine had seen mass illegal Jewish immigration and tensions had mounted. In 1947, the British turned to the UN for a solution.
The Foundation of Israel
In November 1947, a United Nations (UN) resolution agreed partition of British Palestine into separate, independent Jewish and Arab states. It was further specified that the area of paramount religious significance – the environs of Jerusalem – would be placed under UN control. The Arabs were wholly opposed, and further inflamed by an Anglo-British decision to relax controls on the immigration of Holocaust survivors. Arab states, and the Palestinian Arabs, violently rejected the accord; mass flight of Arabs from territory allocated to Israel began, while Jewish residents of Jerusalem were blockaded by Palestinian militants.
On Independence Day (15 May), Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded. At the outset, the Israelis had no air defence, were outgunned and outnumbered, and had rapidly to combine the various paramilitary groups who had fought the British into a national army, the Israel Defence Force (IDF). While the Egyptians surged up the coast towards Jaffa, and Iraqis and Syrian forces occupied much of the north, the embattled Israelis, critically, kept control of a route into Jerusalem.
From May 1948, the balance of military power swung decisively in Israel’s favour. A rapid inflow of volunteers from home and abroad gave them troop parity by June 1948, a 2:1 advantage six months later. A steady supply of fighter planes from Czechoslovakia gave Israel command of the air, while resourceful engineering created a navy from civilian shipping and tanks from cannibalized parts. After two truces, in which mediation failed (and the UN negotiator was assassinated by militant Zionists), fighting recommenced in October, and the Israelis rapidly went onto the offensive, securing their borders with Lebanon and Syria within the month. The focus then moved south against the Egyptian forces. After quickly capturing Beersheba and Ashdod, the Israelis raced to encircle the Egyptian forces in the Sinai, and then Gaza, but were forced to desist by British-American pressure. By the war’s end in March 1949, the Israelis had reached the Red Sea.
When armistice agreements were concluded between the new state of Israel and the Arab states in 1949, the ‘facts on the ground’ determined the division of Jerusalem, with the west (and an exclave round the Hebrew University) in Israeli hands, while the east (and the Old City) remained in Jordanian hands. A no man’s land separated the two sectors.
Just seven years later, the newly-founded Israeli state became involved in the Suez and and Sinai Campaign, the invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and Britain in October–November 1956. Egypt, which had become increasingly hostile to Israel, began importing Soviet arms and nationalized the Suez Canal, the conduit for transporting 80 per cent of Europe’s oil. When Egyptian President Nasser signed a tripartite agreement with Syria and Jordan, he was placed in charge of their three armies and blocked Israel shipping from using the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba. On 29 October, angered by these provocations, but unsupported by the US and UN Security Council, the Israelis, aided by the French and British, launched military offensives against Egypt. Israeli paratroopers and infantry advanced on the Canal and both gulfs while, on 5 November in Port Said, French and British amphibious ships landed commandoes and captured the port. After Russian threats of an extreme military intervention, all three allies withdrew. Although they had not achieved their goals, Israel captured and held the Gaza strip.
The Six-Day War 1967
Since the 1956 Suez Crisis, a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) had been stationed in Sinai to safeguard the Israeli-Egyptian border zone agreed at the end of the 1948–49 Arab-Israeli War. By spring 1967, tensions were escalating. In response to repeated guerrilla incursions, Israel had clashed with Jordan, killing 18 in a raid on the West Bank, and Syria, where six of their fighter planes were shot down. In November 1966, Syria and Egypt signed a mutual defence pact. In May 1967, President Nasser, incited by (inaccurate) Soviet reports of Israeli mobilization and stung by Jordan’s taunt that he was ‘hiding behind UNEF skirts’, amassed troops near the Israeli border and ordered the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Forces in the area from 19 May. On 22 May, he blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba, isolating the Israeli port of Eilat.
Following this escalation, the Straits of Tiran, separating the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea, were closed to all Israeli ships from 23 May, which massively curtailed Israel’s oil supplies. Finally, Egyptian Field Marshal Emer began planning for an attack on Israel. Israel gained knowledge of the plan and voiced its concerns to the US during an ambassadorial visit on 25 May. With Jordan signing a mutual defence treaty with Egypt on 30 May, Israel planned for a decisive air offensive against Egyptian air bases beginning on 5 June. Following a lightning attack that destroyed 338 aircraft and disabled the Egyptian air force almost entirely, Israeli ground forces gained control of the Sinai Peninsula by 8 June. The war transformed Israel from a nation that was fighting for its very survival into the dominant power in the region. The war also inflicted great loss of territory and crushing humiliation on the neighbouring Arab states, in particular the Palestinians.
The Yom Kippur War 1973
On 6 October 1973, combined Egyptian and Syrian forces, hoping to win back territory lost during the Six-Day War, launched a concerted assault, choosing Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. When they launched their offensive across the Suez Canal, they had vast superiority in troop numbers and armaments in the Sinai theatre. Crucially, Egyptian investment in Soviet SAM anti-aircraft batteries mitigated Israel’s aerial superiority. In Sinai, the Egyptians rapidly established three bridgeheads across the Suez Canal, and then overran Israel’s line of 16 forts bordering the Canal. They bombed, and rendered temporarily inoperable, Israeli airfields in Sinai and on 8 October captured the town of El Qantara. Two days in, the military prognosis for Israel seemed grim.
In conjunction with the Egyptian attack, Syria launched an offensive in the Golan Heights, also with SAM protection and numerical superiority – at the outset of their Golan Heights campaign, Syria had a 10:1 advantage in troop numbers, and a 5:1 advantage in tanks. As in Sinai, the first three days developed into a series of last ditch Israeli defensive operations, made all the more critical by the proximity of the action to the Israeli heartland and its major cities. But as reinforcements poured in, and Israel’s air force learned how to evade Syria’s SAM anti-aircraft batteries, the tide inexorably turned. By 10 October, the Syrian forces had been pushed back beyond the pre-war borders. At this point, the Israelis could have consolidated, but decided to pursue their advantage and push on towards Damascus. This provoked a collective Arab response, with Iraqi and Jordanian forces rushing to support the Syrian defence of their home territory.
The Israeli defences in Sinai had taken a severe pummelling in the first week of the war. The line of fortifications east of the Suez Canal had been repeatedly breached, but by 14 October, the Egyptian offensive had been repulsed, and, with the Syrian assault on the Golan Heights likewise stalled, Israel launched a counterattack. On the night of 15 October, the Israelis managed to establish a bridgehead on the west bank of the Canal south of Ismailia; troops and tanks streamed across, and the forces then split, the northern arm moving to invest Ismailia, while the rest headed towards the Gulf of Suez. Meanwhile, the Israeli forces in Sinai bombarded Port Said on the Mediterranean mouth of the Canal. By the time a UN Resolution called for a ceasefire on 24 October, Israeli forces had reached Port Suez at the southern end of the canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army.
Jewish Settlements and the Intifada
The West Bank had become host to many settlements after the territorial gains of the Six-Day War in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal. Settlements were created throughout the occupied territories on land, it was claimed, which had been given to the Jewish people by God. In the early 1980s, there was a huge increase in settlements, not least because the Likud Party had come to power in 1977 and won a second term in 1981. The growth of settlements was actively encouraged and between 1981–83 the number of settlers on the West Bank quadrupled. The governmental aim of increasing Jewish presence and dominance throughout both Gaza and the West Bank was achieved; to this day, the legality and morality of Israeli settlements on occupied territory is central to conflict in the Middle East.
Throughout the 1980s, the increasing numbers of settlers in Palestinian territory and growing Palestinian unemployment led to increased nationalist activity. On 8 December 1987 a number of Palestinians were killed on the northern border of the Gaza Strip in a road collision with Israeli armed forces. The situation quickly escalated, with large-scale protests and subsequent retaliation from the Israel Defence Forces. The Israeli crackdown on Palestinian protestors, which went by a policy of ‘might, power and beatings’, remained harsh even after many hundreds of protestor deaths. The ‘Intifada’, (an Arabic word that means ‘shaking off’), as the uprising was called, unleashed Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, whose purpose was to carry out an armed struggle against Israel. Despite peace talks, they maintained an ongoing jihad and terror campaign against the Israelis. The Palestine Liberation Organization had recognized the state of Israel since November 1988 and asked for a two-state solution. International pressure mounted and Israel and the PLO eventually signed the Oslo I Accords in 1993.