Archaeologists have established that the world's earliest known city was Jericho, on the present-day West Bank, built about 7000 BC . The formative period of Israel began in approximately 1800 BC , when the Hebrews entered Canaan, and resumed in approximately 1200 BC , when the Israelite tribes returned to Canaan after a period of residence in Egypt. At various times, the people were led by patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, and scribes, and the land was conquered by Assyrians, Babylonians (or Chaldeans), Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The ancient period neared its end in AD 70, when the Roman legions conquered Jerusalem after an unsuccessful revolt and destroyed the Temple, and it ended in AD 135, when the Roman Empire exiled most Jews after another unsuccessful revolt, led by Simon Bar-Kokhba, and renamed the region Syria Palaestina, which eventually became Palestine. During the next two millennia there were successive waves of foreign conquerors—Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Mongols, Turks, and Britons. Most Jews remained in dispersion, where many nourished messianic hopes for an eventual return to Zion; however, Jews in varying numbers continued to live in Palestine through the years. It is estimated that by 1900, only about 78,000 Jews were living in Palestine (less than 1% of the world Jewish population), compared with some 650,000 non-Jews, mostly Arabs.
Modern Zionism, the movement for the reestablishment of a Jewish nation, dates from the late 19th century, with small-scale settlements by Russian and Romanian Jews on lands purchased by funds from Western European and US donors. The movement received impetus from the founding of the World Zionist Organization in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, under the leadership of Theodor Herzl. Zionist hopes for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine were greatly bolstered when the British government pledged its support for this goal in 1917, in the Balfour Declaration, which was subsequently incorporated into the mandate over Palestine (originally including Transjordan) awarded to the UK by the League of Nations in 1922. Under the mandate, the Jewish community grew from 85,000 to 650,000, largely through immigration, on lands purchased from Arab owners. This growth was attended by rising hostility from the Arab community, which felt its majority status threatened by the Jewish influx. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the British mandatory authorities issued a White Paper that decreed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration and a virtual freezing of land purchase and settlement. Armed Jewish
resistance to this policy, as well as growing international backing for the establishment of a Jewish state as a haven for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, finally persuaded the British government to relinquish the mandate.
Armistice agreements concluded in 1949 failed to provide the contemplated transition to peace, and sporadic Arab incursions along the borders were answered by Israeli reprisals. Tensions were exacerbated by Arab economic boycotts and by Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956. On 29 October 1956, Israel (with British and French support) invaded Egypt and soon gained control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Fighting ended on 4 November; Israel, under US pressure, withdrew from the occupied areas in March 1957 and recognized borders consistent with its military position at the end of the 1948 war. A UN Emergency Force (UNEF) patrolled the armistice line .On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a plan for the partition of Palestine into two economically united but politically sovereign states, one Jewish and the other Arab, with Jerusalem as an international city. The Arabs of Palestine, aided by brethren across the frontiers, at once rose up in arms to thwart partition. The Jews accepted the plan; on 14 May 1948, the last day of the mandate, they proclaimed the formation of the State of Israel. The next day, the Arab League states—Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Sa'udi Arabia, and Syria—launched a concerted armed attack. There followed a mass flight of hundreds of tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs abroad. The war left Israel in possession of a much larger territory than that awarded the Jews under the UN partition plan; the planned Arab state failed to materialize, as Jordan annexed the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Palestinian refugees were resettled in camps on both banks of the Jordan River, in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian administration), in southern Lebanon, and in Syria.
Violations by both sides of the armistice lines persisted, and in May 1967, Egypt, fearing an Israeli attack on Syria, moved armaments and troops into the Sinai, ordering withdrawal of UNEF personnel from the armistice line, and closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. On 5 June, Israel attacked Egypt and its allies, Syria and Jordan. By 11 June, Israel had scored a decisive victory in the conflict, since termed the Six-Day War, and had taken control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (including Jordanian-ruled East Jerusalem). The Security Council on 22 November unanimously adopted UK-sponsored Resolution 242, calling for establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied during the war, and acknowledgment of the "sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." Israel indicated that return of the captured territories would have to be part of a general settlement guaranteeing peace; in 1967, the Israeli government began Jewish settlement in these areas; due in good part to the later encouragement of the Likud governments, by 1997 there were some 160,000 settlers in the occupied territories.
Serious shooting incidents between Egypt and Israel resumed in June 1969, following Egypt's declaration of a war of attrition against Israel. In response to a US peace initiative, a cease-fire took effect in August 1970, but tensions continued, and Palestinian Arab guerrillas mounted an international campaign of terrorism, highlighted in September 1972 by the kidnap and murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich.
On 6 October 1973, during Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria simultaneously attacked Israeli-held territory in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The Arabs won initial victories, but by 24 October, when a UN cease-fire took effect, the Israelis had crossed the Suez Canal and were 101 km (63 mi) from Cairo and about 27 km (17 mi) from Damascus. Under the impetus of the "shuttle diplomacy" exercised by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, formal first-stage disengagement agreements were signed with Egypt on 18 January 1974 and with Syria on 31 May 1974. On 4 September 1975, a second-stage disengagement pact was signed in Geneva, under which Israel relinquished some territory in the Sinai (including two oil fields) in return for Egyptian declarations of peaceful intent, free passage of nonmilitary cargoes to and from Israel through the Suez Canal, and the stationing of US civilians to monitor an early warning system.
The 30-year cycle of Egyptian-Israeli hostilities was broken in November 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (as-Sadat) paid a visit to Jerusalem on 19–21 November 1977, during which, in an address to parliament, he affirmed Israel's right to exist as a nation, thereby laying the basis for a negotiated peace. In September 1978, at a summit conference mediated by US president Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Md., Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sadat agreed on the general framework for a peace treaty which, after further negotiations, they signed in Washington, D.C. on 26 March 1979. The treaty provided for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai over a three-year period and for further negotiations concerning autonomy and future status of Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories still under Israeli occupation. Israel withdrew from the Sinai oil fields within a year, and from the remainder of Sinai by 25 April 1982. However, the two countries failed to reach agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israel continued to establish Jewish settlements in the West Bank despite Egyptian protests.
Israel's relations remained tense with other Arab countries, which ostracized Egypt for signing the peace accord. In March 1978, Israel (which had long been supporting Lebanese Christian militias against the Palestine Liberation Organization—PLO— and its Muslim backers) sent troops into southern Lebanon to destroy PLO bases in retaliation for a Palestinian terrorist attack; Israel withdrew under US pressure. In April 1981, Israeli and Syrian forces directly confronted each other in Lebanon; Israeli jet aircraft shot down two Syrian helicopters in Lebanese territory, and Syria responded by deploying Soviet-made antiaircraft missiles in the Bekaa (Biqa') Valley, which Syria had been occupying since 1976. On 7 June 1981, Israeli warplanes struck at and disabled an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction near Baghdad; the Israeli government claimed that the reactor could be employed to produce nuclear bombs for use against Israel.
Hostilities between Israel and the PLO and Syria reached a climax in early June 1982, when Israel launched a full-scale invasion of southern Lebanon, citing continued PLO shelling of the north and terrorist acts elsewhere. An estimated 90,000 troops rapidly destroyed PLO bases within a 40 km (25 mi) zone north of the Israeli border, captured the coastal towns of Tyre (Sur) and Sidon (Sayda), and then moved on to bomb and encircle Beirut by 14 June, trapping the main force of PLO fighters in the Lebanese capital and causing massive casualties and destruction. Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes destroyed Syria's Soviet-built missile batteries in the Bekaa Valley—the announced objective of the invasion. A negotiated cease-fire was arranged by US envoy Philip Habib on 25 June, and more than 14,000 Palestinian and Syrian fighters were allowed to evacuate Beirut in late August. A multinational peacekeeping force of British, French, Italian, and US military personnel was stationed in the Beirut area.
Within Israel, the Lebanese war was divisive, and there were protest rallies against the Begin government. The protests increased when, after Israeli troops moved into West Beirut in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel, Christian militiamen were allowed to "mop up" remaining resistance in the Palestinian camps. The ensuing massacres, for which an Israeli government investigating commission determined that some of Israel's civilian and military leaders were indirectly responsible, led to the resignation of Ariel Sharon as defense minister. Subsequent Israeli attempts to extricate its occupying forces from Lebanon by negotiating an agreement for the withdrawal of all foreign forces were rejected by Syria. In September, Israel pulled back its forces from the Shuf Mountains, east of Beirut, to south of the Litani River. In 1985, withdrawal from southern Lebanon took place in stages over six months, punctuated by terrorist acts of Shi'i Muslim militants against departing Israeli troops, resulting in retaliatory arrests and detention of hundreds of Lebanese. Negotiations over a Trans World Airlines (TWA) jetliner hijacked en route from Athens to Rome by Shi'i militants in June 1985 led to gradual release by Israel of its Shi'i prisoners. In 1986, troubles continued despite the occupation of a swath of southern Lebanon, which Israel continued to term a "security zone," as Shi'i militants and infiltrating Palestinian guerrillas continued to launch attacks. The war was a drain on the economy, already suffering from hyperinflation and huge foreign-exchange deficits. Prime Minister Begin resigned because of failing health in the autumn of 1983 and was replaced by Yitzhak Shamir, who, after inconclusive elections in 1984, was replaced on a rotational basis by Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. In 1986, a ground-breaking summit meeting took place when Prime Minister Peres traveled to Morocco for two days of secret talks with King Hassan II. In that year, Israel also improved relations with Egypt when Prime Minister Peres conferred with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarek in the first meeting of the two nations since 1981. Shamir replaced Peres as prime minister in October 1986. Elections were again held with equally inconclusive results in November 1988, leading to a coalition government of the Labor and Likud parties. Four years later, Labor edged Likud in elections and was able to form a government supported by left-wing and religious parties. Yitzhak Rabin became Prime Minister with Shimon Peres as Foreign Minister; both were committed to reaching peace agreements with Arab antagonists.
In December 1987, unarmed Palestinians in Gaza began what became a multi-year series of stone-throwing riots against Israeli troops in the occupied territories. In this uprising (or intifada in Arabic), well over 1,000 Palestinians were killed and—by Palestinians—several hundred Israelis and Palestinian collaborators. Israeli use of lethal force, curfews, deportations, destruction of houses, and ten thousand detentions failed to stop the demonstrations while producing criticism abroad and anxiety at home. Waves of Jewish immigrants from the collapsing Soviet Union further provoked Palestinians.
During the Gulf War of 1991, Israel was hit by Iraqi missile attacks, demonstrating for some the state's vulnerability and need to move toward peace with the Arabs. Prime Minister Shamir, who opposed the return of occupied territory, reluctantly accepted a US and Russian invitation to direct peace talks in Madrid in October 1991. These and subsequent negotiations produced few results until, under a Labor Government, Israeli and Palestinian representatives met secretly in Oslo to work out a peace agreement involving mutual recognition and transfer of authority in Gaza and Jericho to interim Palestinian rule with the final status of a Palestinian entity to be resolved in five years. The Oslo Accords were signed at the White House in Washington on 13 September 1993. Promises of international aid for the new Palestinian units poured in but the agreement was opposed by extremists on both sides and further set back by a massacre of 30 Muslims at prayer in the Hebron mosque on 25 February 1994 by a militant Israeli settler. Finally, delayed by several months, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from certain sectors and establishment of Palestinian self-rule took place on 18 May 1994. By 1997, six West Bank cities had been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. Israel balked at turning over control of Hebron even though it agreed to do so. A 1997 Hebron Protocol split the city between Palestinian rule in one part of it and Israeli rule in the remaining 20%, to guarantee the security of settlers living in Jewish enclaves. All seven of the major cities controlled by the Palestinian Authority were reoccupied by Israel in 2002.
In November 1995, the greatest setback to the peace process occurred when a militant Israeli assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in retaliation for slowing Jewish settlement in the occupied territories and for his generally dovish policy toward the PLO. The nation then entered into a tumultuous period as Shimon Peres, Rabin's co-prime minister, took control of the government. Peres was not as popular as Rabin had been and in response to civil protest he called for early elections, which were held in May 1996. For the first time in these elections, Israelis were given the opportunity to directly elect their prime minister, and Peres, Likud, and Benjamin Netanyahu fought a bitter campaign, focusing mainly on the status of the occupied territories and the threat of terrorism from radical Palestinians. The prime minister race was very close and some news reports early on suggested, based on exit polling, that Peres had won. By morning of the next day, however, Netanyahu had emerged as Israel's first directly elected prime minister and Likud emerged with a slight majority (in coalition with a range of right wing parties) in the Knesset. Netanyahu immediately took a tough stance on the occupied territories, increasing the construction of Jewish settlements and enraging the Palestinians and the international community.
As expected, progress in the Middle East peace process slowed under Netanyahu. Hostilities between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the fall of 1996, following the opening of a tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem, were the worst to occur since the days of the intifada. In 1997 and 1998 peace talks stalled over the terms of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. A new agreement, the Wye Memorandum, was reached at an October 1998 meeting in the United States between Netanyahu, Yassir Arafat, and President Bill Clinton. It set up a timetable for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. However, Netanyahu faced stiff opposition to the plan at home, and by the end of 1998, his governing coalition had collapsed, and implementation of the Wye plan was suspended until a new government could be formed following national elections the following May.
Labor candidate Ehud Barak triumphed in the May 1999 elections and formed a coalition government in July. In September, Barak and Arafat signed an agreement reviving the Wye accord (the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum), and in December peace talks between Israel and Syria—broken off in 1996—were resumed. In May 2000, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the nine-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon.
At the end of 1999 and into early 2000, three-way negotiations took place between Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States as mediator. In July 2000, President Clinton invited Barak and Arafat to Camp David, Md., for peace talks. The summit began on 11 July and ended on 25 July without an agreement being reached. President Clinton was determined to achieve a peace agreement before he left office, however, and he hosted talks with Israeli and Palestinian teams in Washington in December 2000. Negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian delegations were also held in Taba, Egypt, in late January 2001. By then President Clinton was out of office and incoming President George W. Bush took a position of nonengagement in the conflict.
On 28 September 2000, Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem in what was seen as a provocative move, setting off large-scale Palestinian demonstrations, beginning the al-Aqsa intifada. By the end of 2000, Barak was presiding over an extremely violent situation. On 9 December 2000 Barak resigned, making a special prime ministerial election necessary, in which he stated he would seek a new mandate to pursue peace with the Palestinians. On 6 February 2001, Sharon was elected prime minister in a landslide victory over Barak. Barak announced he would resign his seat in the Knesset, step down as head of the Labor Party as soon as a new government was formed, and retire from politics.
The intifada intensified, with Israel assassinating Palestinian militants and conducting air strikes and incursions into Palestinian self-rule areas; Palestinian militants increased suicide bomb attacks in Israeli cities. In spring 2002, Israel launched its largest military offensive in 20 years, since the invasion of Lebanon. In December 2001, Israeli forces besieged Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, and as of February 2003, Arafat remained confined in his compound. Under Sharon, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have increased, and he has demanded Arafat be replaced.
On 28 January 2003, Sharon's Likud Party won a strong victory in parliamentary elections, defeating the Labor Party and its chairman Amram Mitzna. The Shinui or "Change" Party, which campaigned on a platform of curtailing privileges and benefits the state offers to highly observant Orthodox Jews, also registered a clear win.