Since biblical times — but especially since the beginning of the mid-nineteenth century — Jews have longed for a permanent home in the Holy Land, a stretch of rugged, but historically significant land on the eastern Mediterranean shore, stretching north from the Gulf of Aqaba over the Negev Desert, west of the Dead Sea and Jordan, and north to the borders of Syria and Lebanon.
The early name for this area of land was Palestine, first settled by agricultural people around 8000 B.C. Hebrew tribes began populating the land in the twelfth century B.C., and eventually it was ruled by Saul, David, and Solomon around 1000 B.C. The kingdom later split into two states, Israel and Judah, which were, in turn, conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Afterward, the area was ruled by foreign powers — the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Ptolemies, among others.
Romans took possession of the country in 63 B.C. and stationed Herod the Great on the throne in 37 B.C. Jesus was born into this Roman-ruled, Jewish world which would, after his crucifixion become a Christian nation. Some 500 years later, Arabs took possession, and it became an Islamic nation; by the tenth century A.D., most of the inhabitants had converted to Islam. In 1099, Western crusaders established rule, but they were eventually routed by armies of the Egyptian sultans, the Mamelukes. In 1516, the country became part of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
The influx of European Jews into the area began in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Jews living in Europe, especially those in Poland and Russia, fled from Cossack butchery and Russian pogroms, or massacres, and began immigrating into this part of the Ottoman Empire, where they established primitive farming communities. United by a common religion and the Hebrew language, they were fervent in their belief — despite having to live in crude huts and tents, exposed to the continual menace of malaria, and resented by their unfriendly Palestinian neighbors — that they had returned to a land that had, since biblical times, been divinely promised to them as a national home.
At the beginning of World War I, Great Britain inflamed the passion for a Jewish homeland on an international level by issuing the Balfour Declaration, promising a home for the Jewish people within Palestine. The war ended in 1918 and Great Britain supplanted the crumbling Turkish influence; Palestine was now in the hands of the British. The League of Nations further sanctioned the role of Great Britain in creating a Jewish state.
The plan for a Jewish homeland began to founder as Arabs realized that Zionism had spurred an immense, unprecedented immigration of Jews who suddenly destabilized a centuries-old Arab milieu. The newcomers' land-grabbing, communal living, and insistence on gender equality angered and appalled the native Palestinians, and outbreaks of hostility soon led to bloody confrontations.
Ever greater waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine resulted from the growth of Nazi hate groups in Germany and its fascist satellites during the 1930s. In 1935, for example, over 61,000 European Jews felt so threatened that they left their homes, jobs, and families and immigrated to Palestine. From 1936-39, Palestinians erupted in a series of riots, trying to force Britain out of power to save what they considered their ancestral land from the mounting tide of Zionists.
The world's reaction to the execution of six million Jews during the Holocaust forced the matter of a Jewish homeland onto the agenda of the fledgling United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a partition of lands, dividing Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. On May 13, 1948, British peacekeepers relinquished their control.
The next day, Jewish Zionists proclaimed Israel a sovereign state, with David Ben-Gurion as leader. A day later, Jordanian and Egyptian forces invaded the new nation and initiated a bloody era of terrorism, open warfare, and usurpation. During the first year of the new Jewish state, over 6,000 Jews were killed. By this time, however, Israel was now a militarily strong and victorious nation. It had increased its original territory by fifty percent and had reclaimed Jerusalem, a city held sacred by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
During the following years, the displacement of Arab refugees after they had lost their lands to Israel in military upheavals kept the area in a perpetual state of unrest, including the war for control of the Suez Canal in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967 (which increased Israel's territory two hundred percent), the assassination of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
A respite from continuous war between Israel and its neighbors took place in 1979 at Camp David, Maryland. During a meeting brokered by U.S. president Carter, President Sadat of Egypt met with Israel's Prime Minister Begin, and both men signed the first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. Israel agreed to return the oil-rich fields of the Sinai to Egypt, and, in return, Egypt, a powerful Arab state, officially recognized Israel as a state. In addition, Israel also agreed to work for peace, including an eventual plan for Palestinian autonomy.
War broke out again in 1982 when PLO guerrillas in southern Lebanon began mounting raids into Israel. In retaliation, Israel bombed Beirut for nearly two months and successfully routed Yasir Arafat and his army from the country.
Eleven years later, in September 1993, despite strained relations, Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres signed an accord in Washington, D.C., stating that Israel and the PLO recognized each other's right to exist. The PLO promised to abandon its terroristic holy war against Israel, and Israel, in turn, granted self-rule to the Palestinian entities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rabin, Peres, and Arafat later shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
Today's Israel, about the size of Massachusetts, is a highly urbanized nation, peerlessly democratic in its social laws, and in an area of the world where religious wars are commonplace, freedom of religion is guaranteed by law to Muslims and Christians living in the country. In addition, Israel has become one of the world's most envied nations in providing educational and health care services to its people. In terms of its economy, the nation is heavily dependent on oil for its energy, and thus it is a major Mediterranean ally in the U.S. struggle to protect the oil fields that fuel the world's industrial growth of the latter half of the twentieth century.