Arab-Israeli Conflict

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Since the United Nations General Assembly resolution that recommended partitioning the British Mandate of Palestine into the State of Israel and a Palestinian state, there have been active wars and continuing military confrontations between Israel, the Arab nations that surround it, and nonadjacent Arab nations supporting the neighboring states. Israel has won each of the wars, at varying cost, through superior organization and technology, not numbers.

Beginning with migration after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but principally after Israel took the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the situation has led to the continuing Israel-Palestine Conflict. In other words, the military balance for Israel involves both insurgency and conventional war.

Adding to the complexity of the situation are actions of non-national radical Islamist groups, and strategic tension, potentially involving weapons of mass destruction, with Muslim but non-Arab Iran. While Israel maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity, it is accepted that the country has a significant number of deliverable nuclear weapons.


The conflict's origins trace back to the late 19th century. In response to the ongoing antisemitism in Europe, Jews such as Theodor Herzl began to advocate the return of Jews to their ancient homeland of Israel, known to its Arab inhabitants and most of the world as Palestine, or the political philosophy of Zionism. Often fleeing pogroms and inspired by Zionist ideas, several tens of thousands of Jews had immigrated to Palestine by the start of World War I. The Palestinian Jewish population, which stood at roughly 24,000 in 1880, swelled to approximately 90,000 in 1914. Already in 1891, some Arab notables sent a petition to Constantinople demanding an end to Jewish immigration and land purchase.[1]

At the end of War War I, the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had been in control of Palestine, and indeed much of the Middle East, was dissolved. Palestine became a mandated territory of the United Kingdom. During World War I, British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour had issued the Balfour Declaration, a statement that the UK supported the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as long as the civil rights of the Arab population were preserved.

Following its handover to the British, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased greatly. Between 1915 and 1931, British Palestine received almost as many Jewish immigrants as it had in the entire time before World War I. This alarmed the Arabs, and tensions between the two communities increased, leading to rioting on several occasions in the 1920's and 1930's. A major Arab riot lasting from August 23-26, 1929 claimed the lives of 133 Jews, and caused the abandonment of a number Jewish new communities and, most notably, the "old established" community of Hebron.[2] While "there was little retaliation by Jews[3], a Jewish counter-attack claimed the lives of six Arabs; British police killed 116 Arabs while trying to reimpose order.[4] Again in 1936, Palestinian Arabs, demanding an end to all Jewish immigration, rioted, launching attacks on Jewish towns and farms, and clashing with British police.[5] At this time, British officials looking for a solution to the problem began to propose the division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab components. Since Jews and Arabs were both scattered throughout the country, and since both would want control of the holy city of Jerusalem, just how to divided the area up proved an almost unsolvable problem. The British also implemented measures restricting further Jewish immigration to Palestine, in hopes of comforting Arab fears of a demographic takeover and reducing tensions.

The problem, however, wasn't going away. In 1933, the extremely anti-Semitic Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany, which, at the time, had a fairly large Jewish population. The Nazis immediately passed laws discriminating against German Jews, going so far as to strip them of German citizenship. For many of Germany's Jews, immigration to Palestine became an ever more attractive option.

Hitler's influence did not remain only in Germany for long. In 1938, Hitler forced the nations of Austria and Czechoslovakia to submit to German rule. In 1939, he invaded Poland, starting World War II. During this War, Hitler's Germany took over most of Europe and held it for a four to five year period. Hitler took his anti-Semitic ideas to their horrific conclusion, murdering over six million people-the majority of Europe's Jewish population, in the Holocaust

The implications for Palestine were profound. Jews attempting to flee Nazi brutality saw Palestine as a potential refuge, and in the period leading up to the war, immigration to Palestine had increased dramatically. After the war, most of Europe's surviving Jews had lost their homes and livelihoods, and needed a new place to rebuild their lives. The Holocaust had also had a profound psychological effect on the Jews-many, rightly or wrongly, believed that their non-Jewish neighbors had been complicit in their persecution, or at least allowed it to happen. They began to feel that they would never be truly safe an any country were they were a minority-which, at the time, was everywhere in the world. Many began to see Zionism as the solution, and what was once a minority opinion among Jews quickly became mainstream. The number of Jews wishing to go to Palestine exploded.

Tensions, meanwhile, between Arabs and Jews in Palestine had likewise gone through the roof. The British had completely closed Palestine to Jewish immigration in the years leading up to World War II-a move designed to placate the Arabs, who feared being made a minority in their own country, but which infuriated the Jews. Jewish terrorist groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang were formed to throw off British rule and establish a Jewish state by force. They attacked the British as well as the Arab population, who they saw as enemies conspiring against the Jewish people. In 1946, Irgun bombed the southern wing of the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, which the British had established as their headquarters. Ninety-one people were killed.

The situation in Palestine was rapidly escalating into a civil war, with Jews attacking Arabs, Arabs increasingly retaliating, and the British coming under fire from both. Feeling unable to do any more to solve the problem, and wanting to wash its hands of the whole situation, the British asked the newly created United Nations to come up with a solution.

Partition and the War of 1948

Division of Palestine proposed by UNSCOP (compare with map in introduction, which shows territory the Israelis actually took during the war)

The UN created the United Nations Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP), to study the problem and officially recommend a solution. In 1947, UNSCOP, returning to the earlier British proposals of partition, recommended that Palestine be divided into two non-contiguous areas-a Jewish state with a slight Jewish majority and an Arab state with a large Arab majority. Jerusalem and the area surrounding it were to be administered by the United Nations. The Jews accepted the plan, but the Arabs vehemently rejected it, claiming that giving half of Palestine to a minority of its population-many of whom, moreover, had only recently arrived from foreign countries-was unfair, especially since many Arabs would wind up living in the Jewish state. Nevertheless, the plan was supported by practically all western countries, who ensured its passage by the United Nations General Assembly. The passing of Resolution 181 (which was not legally binding, and indeed was phrased only as a recommendation) on November 29, 1947 immediately prompted Arab attacks on Jewish population centers and traffic, thus signalling the start of the civil war in Palestine. While there were counter-attacks by the mainstream and splinter Jewish militias, the community generally engaged only in defensive operations through March of 1948, when, with the war going poorly, there was a shift to offensive operations.

The conventional phase of the war began after May 14th, 1948, when the Jewish community of Palestine officially declared independence as the State of Israel. The following day, the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan (now Jordan), and Lebanon, along with Palestinian Arab volunteers, immediately attacked the new country. The Arab armies suffered from poor training, as well as a lack of planning, and the war went spectacularly badly for them from the start. The Transjordanian Arab Legion, which had been trained by the British and was by far the best fighting force the Arabs had, managed to hold a large area abutting the Jordan river, including the eastern half of Jerusalem, which became known as the West Bank. The Egyptians retained a small piece of land, centered around the city of Gaza, that became known as the Gaza Strip. The rest of Palestine fell to the Israelis, who took and annexed large areas that UNSCOP's partition plan had allocated to the Arabs. Most of the Arab population of these areas fled and became refugees. Mainstream Israeli historians and some other historians focus on the large numbers of refugees who chose to flee of their own free will or responded to Arab calls for evacuation. Official Arab and revisionist Israeli historiography, and some other historians, focus on the refugees who were expelled by Israeli troops. In addition, substantial numbers of Jews fled or were driven out from Arab countries. In 1949, the Arab states and Israel agreed to a truce.

Following the war, the region slipped into an uneasy peace. The Palestinian refugees, about 750,000 people, stayed in nearby Arab countries, where the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a special organization created by the UN to care for the refugees, built camps for them. Jordan allowed Palestinians in its territory full citizenship, and annexed the West Bank in 1950. The other Arab states did not allow their refugee populations citizenship, and denied them access to high-paying jobs and confined the majority of them to the camps, which over time grew into large, impoverished slums.

Uneasy peace and crises

An uneasy peace reigned for the next decade and a half, broken only by the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Israel, along with France and the UK, invaded Egypt to stop its new ruler, Gamel Abdul Nasser, from gaining control over the Suez Canal. The UN angrily told the invaders to leave Egypt, and the crisis subsided.

Lebanon had considerable sectarian conflict, and the U.S. intervened in 1958, sending U.S. Marines at the request of the Lebanese president.[6]

The Six Days War

For more information, see: 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

An escalating series of border skirmishes began in 1965, however, and continued throughout the following year. In May of 1967, Egypt demanded that the UN remove from the Sinai peninsula a peacekeeping force that had been their since the 1948 war. The UN complied, and Egypt promptly sent troops into the area, stationing them on the Israel-Egypt border. That same month, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, completely cutting off Israel's trade through the Red Sea. Syria and Jordan, following the lead of Egypt, began massing troops on their own borders with Israel.The Israelis interpreted these actions as precursors to a major Arab invasion from three sides. On June 5th, 1967, they launched a preemptive strike against the Arab air forces, which left them carry out the ground war under conditions of air supremacy.

For the Arabs, the war proved to be a disaster on par with 1948. Israel carried out a preemptive attack bombing the planes on the airfields before they could take off. Arab armies, caught off guard, suffered similar fates. In less than a week, Israeli forces had captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, a mountainous area of Syria known as the Golan Heights, and had taken the entire Sinai Peninsula, advancing right up to the Suez Canal. The conflict would go down in history books as the Six Days War.

The Yom Kippur War and the Rise of the PLO

For more information, see: 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

The Six-Day War shocked the Arab world. For the Palestinians, nothing could hide the fact that, twice, their Arab allies had gone up against Israel only to suffer resounding defeats. A new militancy began to spread among the Palestinians, calling for them to fight Israel themselves, rather than leave it to the other Arab states.

In 1964, the Arab countries had brought together a collection of Palestinian parties into an umbrella group, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), dedicated to the military destruction of Israel. For most of its early years, however, it had been controlled by individuals influenced by Nasser and had not led an independent existence.

In 1969 however, a charismatic Palestinian politician, Yasser Arafat, maneuvered himself into the PLO presidency. He placed members of his own party, Fatah, in control at the expense of the now, to many Palestinians, discredited Egyptians and Syrians. The PLO began, increasingly, to take on an independent existence. The organization, however, suffered a major setback. In September 1970, the government of Jordan, concerned that the PLO was becoming a threat to its power, moved against the organization and suppressed it. The PLO leadership and many of its members fled to Lebanon, where they established a new base in that country's many Palestinian refugee camps.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Nasser died in 1970 and was replaced by Anwar Sadat, who advocated continued war with Israel, and made plans with Syria for another surprise attack. On October 6th, 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian armies, supported by Iraq, launched a surprise attack on Israel, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. At first, the Arab armies did well, with Egypt advancing into the Sinai and Syria retaking parts of the Golan Heights. Then, the war swung back in Israel's favor. By the second week, the Golan Heights had been retaken. On October 15th, an Israeli force under General Ariel Sharon pushed through a week point in Egyptian lines and crossed the Suez canal. On October 26th, the parties agreed to a UN-brokered cease-fire. Farther peace negotiations, however, failed.


  1. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, pg. 3
  2. A Survey of Palestine, Vol. I: Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, pg. 24
  3. A Survey of Palestine, Vol. I: Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, pg. 24
  4. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, pg. 13
  5. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, pgs. 18-21
  6. Jack Shulimson, Marines in Lebanon 1958, United States Marine Corps