Israel and the Palestinians
60 years of struggle, violence and accomplishment
In May 1948, a Jewish dream was realized when the modern state of Israel was proclaimed.
Jews, persecuted in many places and systematically murdered by the Nazis, again had a land of their own, the first independent Jewish state in about 2,000 years. But the age-old battle over Middle Eastern land did not end.
Within days of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the new nation was fighting for survival. The armies of its Arab neighbours invaded, sparking a conflict known to Israelis as the War of Independence.
The 1948 to 1949 Israeli-Arab War reflected the opposition of the Arab states to the formation of the Jewish state in what they considered to be Arab territory.
After Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, Arab forces from Egypt, Syria, Transjordan (later Jordan), Lebanon and Iraq invaded.
To the Palestinians and other Arabs who lived in the same territory, it is known as the Catastrophe. Many people were expelled or fled as the Israelis repulsed their attackers. Statehood for Israel left more than 700,000 Palestinians as refugees, according to UN estimates from 1950.
Since then, Israel has had parallel histories, one for the Jews who control it and one for the Palestinians who say it was built on their homeland. At the same time, the displaced Palestinians and their Arab supporters have worked, often with great violence, for a Palestinian state.
So for the past six decades, the country has been on a war footing. It has feared attack and has spent staggering amounts of cash and energy on defence.
Almost every detail of Israel's past is subject to dispute because of the deep enmity between the two sides and their seemingly irreconcilable religious claims to territory.
Yet there have been many Israeli accomplishments:
- Israelis overcame great odds in successive wars, with help from public and private benefactors in America and elsewhere.
- They captured, tried and hanged the fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann, architect of the death machine that claimed so many Jewish lives.
- They endured thousands of terrorist attacks inside and outside their borders.
- They built a strong democracy (despite the explicit ethnic/religious aims of the state) in a region where despotism is the rule.
- They developed a sophisticated economy with impressive technological capabilities, both civil (including agriculture) and military.
- And they displayed a much-admired idealism, exemplified by the kibbutz, communal farms that drew volunteers from many countries, especially in the nation's early decades.
Romans, Crusaders, Arabs and Ottoman Turks — among others — had controlled the area that is now Israel over the centuries. Its most recent rulers were the British, who held it under an international mandate they gained in the aftermath of the First World War.
Land area: 21,643 sq. km, ranging from 470 km north to south and 135 km east to west at its longest and widest areas.
Head of government: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Capital: The international community recognizes Tel Aviv as the seat of government, while Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital
Per capita GDP: $31,767, on roughly the same level as Germany and France
(All figures are for 2007. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)
It was already home to both Arabs and Jews, and thousands more Jews made their way there in the 1930s in defiance of restrictions imposed by the British. Violence soon erupted between the two peoples. Although there was disagreement about tactics among Jewish groups, Jewish extremists attacked both Arab and British targets, most famously Jerusalem's King David Hotel, where a bombing killed 91 people in 1946.
In the final hours of the British mandate in 1948, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first prime minister, led a Tel Aviv conference that issued the declaration establishing Israel.
The document laid out these principles, among others:
"The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations."
While the nation born that day has thrived, it faces unfinished business. Short of crushing all its enemies, it must make a deal with them, and there are groups on both sides that seem to prefer death to compromise.
The Palestinian question
Israel's overarching problem, aside from the wars, has been sorting out the real estate.
The biggest properties under discussion are Gaza and the West Bank, now under Palestinian administration and widely presumed to be the basis of a future Palestinian state.
Duelling Palestinian factions control the two enclaves. One of these (Hamas, in Gaza) is formally dedicated to the destruction of Israel and has repeatedly fired rockets at nearby Israeli towns.
Increasingly, among Palestinians, there is talk of a one-state solution.
This has left the Israeli government without a clear bargaining partner. It also faces internal resistance from religious hard-liners, some of whom put their lives on the line to thwart any land deal by establishing Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
Other possible sticking points — among many — include the fate of East Jerusalem, a heavily Arab district long seen by Palestinians as their future capital, and the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel.
Details aside, there is no sign that decades of peace talks involving Arab governments, Palestinian groups and a series of U.S. presidents are about to solve disputes that have festered since the country's founding.
In 1995, a Jewish extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after a peace rally, saying that Rabin wanted to "give our country to the Arabs."
In January of 2008, a hard-line party pulled out of the ruling Israeli coalition over the latest peace talks, weakening Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's grip on power.
"Negotiations on the basis of land for peace is a fatal mistake," the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party declared.
Yet despite all of the history, all the violence, all of the pressures on the current players in the process, there are fragile hopes for peace. After meeting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in early May, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas said the two sides were "in a race against time," but he hopes that a peace deal can be put in place by January 2009.