Israel Since the Biblical Period
A.D. 70 to Present Times
The British Mandate (1917 – 1948)
On April 25, 1920, the Allied powers appointed Great Britain to govern Palestine and Transjordan, a decision that was approved two years later by the League of Nations. This led the way for increased Jewish immigration into Palestine. Jews flocked to their homeland from eastern Europe and began to develop the country economically and intellectually.
Their early accomplishments included a medical center on Mount Scopus and Hebrew University. The Arab population continued to resent the influx of Jews and hostilities became the “order of the day” for the duration of British rule.
In order to ease the growing concerns of the Arabs, the mandate was given in a 1922 statement of policy by Winston Churchill, who was then Britain’s colonial secretary.
The White Paper in effect rejected the earlier idea that Arab interests were to be subordinated to those of the Zionists, since it limited Jewish immigration and land purchase in Palestine. Although it pacified some of the Zionists, many Jews considered this paper a reversal of the Balfour Declaration.
The Arabs were also divided in their opinion of the new policy, since some felt it did not go far enough in endorsing their rights and might eventually mean their extinction as a people.
Tensions continued to grow in Palestine until the outbreak of World War II. As widespread rioting erupted in 1939, the British issued another White Paper. Again, its principle satisfied neither side. The paper promised that after ten years, there would be the establishment of an independent Palestine in which Arabs and Jews would share authority.
Meanwhile, though, Jewish immigration was to be severely limited, and the Arab farmer in certain parts of Palestine would be protected in his possession of the land. The Zionists questioned the terms of the 1939 statement and appealed to the League of Nations for a determination as to whether it fulfilled the terms of the original mandate. A decision by the League, though, was prevented by the outbreak of World War II.
The Palestinian Arabs maintained a relative neutrality during the second world war, but the Zionists generally cooperated fully with the Allies, because of their desire to gain political credibility and their hatred of Nazi Germany. Many Jewish units served with British military forces in the Middle East throughout the war years.
Meanwhile, thousands of Jews sought to escape the death grip of Nazi Germany by seeking sanctuary in Palestine. Although many were turned away as illegal immigrants by British authorities, hundreds more arrived in leaky, overloaded vessels and established residency in what they considered their homeland. They equipped an underground defense unit called the Haganah to protect themselves from ongoing Arab hostilities, and also to prepare for what they thought would be a postwar struggle for survival.
When tensions and violence between Arab and Jew mounted in severity at the close of the war, the British became virtually powerless to control the area, although they made several attempts to attain a peaceful compromise. In a final move to reach a solution, the British referred the Palestinian question to the newly formed United Nations, which voted on November 29, 1947, that Palestine should be partitioned into two independent countries – Jewish and Arab.
Jerusalem would be designated an “international enclave” that would be accessible to all. The Arab nationalists showed their dissatisfaction with the terms of the proposal by launching attacks on the Jewish section of the Holy City and other Jewish communities. A widespread war between Arab and Jew was well under way by May 15, 1948, when the British Mandate officially expired.
The State of Israel (from 1948)
On May 14, 1948, the day before the mandate was to expire, the Jews of Palestine announced the formation of a new, independent country – the State of Israel. The undeclared war between Arab and Israeli forces now became official.
Bitter battles were fought as both sides tried to retain control of Jerusalem. The fighting continued until an armistice was worked out in 1949 that left Jerusalem a divided city. Jordan, the Arab state, controlled the Old City and lands to the east. Israel, the Jewish state, retained west Jerusalem and a narrow corridor of land that broadened at the coastal plain.
The Hinnom Valley was part a “no man’s land” that divided the city. Once again, Jews were barred from visiting the temple area and their traditional place of lamentation and worship – the western wall.
Meanwhile, Israel’s relationship with Egypt continued to be strained by Egypt’s refusal to allow ships trading with Israel to use either the Suez Canal or the Gulf of Eilat, both of which the Egyptians controlled. This led to a second major conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
To deal with the economic boycott imposed on the nation by the Arab League, Israel invaded Egyptian-held Sinai in October of 1956 and quickly gained control of the region. The United States, though, pressed Israel for a prompt withdrawal, which was completed on March 8, 1957. A United Nations emergency force was established to help maintain peace along the Egyptian-Israeli border.
The Sinai campaign did not resolve the economic and international issues facing Israel. Egypt continued to interfere with Israeli shipping in the Suez Canal and Gulf of Eilat. This was brought to a crisis in late May of 1967, when Egypt’s President Nasser closed the Tiron Straits to Israeli shipping and demanded a withdrawal of United Nations troops from the border.
Anticipating unavoidable warfare, Israel initiated a preemptive strike. On the morning of June 5, Israeli warplanes bombed the airfields of their Arab neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The fighting continued for six days, during which the Israelis gained control of Egypt’s Sinai, Jordan’s West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights. The most significant result of the Six-Day War was that Jerusalem was brought under Israeli administration and the city was reunited.
The 1967 cease fire did little to bring Israel a lasting peace with her Arab neighbors. In 1973, Israeli-held Sinai was invaded by Egypt. Also conflict with Syria and Arab-held southern Lebanon has continued in the north.
Though the city has now been reunited, there is still conflict at Israel’s borders. There is also still conflict within the city itself.