Israel - what's the story?

Despite the fact that I consider myself moderately well-read, I’ve been alarmed lately about how little I know about the state of Israel. And I suppose it’s fairly important at the moment, particularly as we rush headlong towards Armageddon (maybe), and Israel seems to have a pivotal role to play in that journey… Or, at the very least, it’s at the political heart of the Middle East, which is where the world’s attention is focused at the moment.

I know the modern state of Israel was establised in 1948, and I know that Muslim, Christian and Jew all have designs on Jerusalem… but I’m not fully certain why (other than the obvious… it’s the site of the Temple of God in the Bible). But… is there more to it than that? And Israel’s constant border disputes, wars and troubles… is that connected? Was it established as a result of terrorist action? What role does Israel play in the current Iraq conflict? Have Israel breached as many UN resolutions as Iraq? What’s its history, its politics… its relationships with its neighbours?

You can see I’m fairly ignorant about Israel. It was never taught in school… and books (at least, books that don’t portray a bias either one way or the other) seem hard to come by. So any information would be very helpful. And then I need no longer nod sagely but stay silent when people equate such-and-such to “the situation in Israel”.

I know Israel is an emotive topic for many (clearly!), but facts, rather than opinion would be preferable!


If you want to get started on understanding the modern state of Israel and the mid-east conflict I would suggest that you read “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Freidman.

The way the book is described: If you have followed the story for 20 years and still don’t understand it, this is the book to read. Although it was written about 10 years ago, the information is very pertinent and most of the characters are still around causing trouble.

BTW, there are no heros in the book so expect a pretty balanced report.

The book will not answer all of your questions but I suggest it as a place to start. After reading it you should have a clearer idea of what questions to ask and what other reading you might want to pursue.

is a good place to start learning about Israel, and it doesn’t seem biased; you have to watch out for that in topics as emotive as this.

There is a Jewish group that has published an interesting pamphlet here. It may be a bit partisan, but it has a many references as well.

A bit partisan? Try pure pro-Arab propaganda.

Pro-Arab Jews–sounds like a good centrist position. :slight_smile:

Yeah - as centrist as Noam Chomsky.

The Israeli extreme left is an extremely left by any standard. Same thing goes for the right.

After WWI and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the British were given a “Mandate” over the Middle East. Upon the approach of WWII, to prevent Arab countries from fighting for the Axis, Britain bent over backwards to appease the Palestines.

In 1939, Chamberlain’s Britain enacted “The White Paper” which provided that the Palestines shall have a state but not the Jews. It also prohibited Jewish immigration into the land in five years. The main response of the Yishuv leadership, under Ben-Gurion, in the months between the publication of the White Paper and the outbreak of war, was increased illegal immigration, for Jews to get out of Europe. At the outset of the War, Weizman said that although the Jews have grievances, above their regret and bitterness were higher interests. The British war was the Jewish war too. So the Jews fought the War as if the White Paper did not exist. Fighting the war remained for the Yishuv a matter of far greater urgency and importance than fighting the White Paper. Twice as many Jews fought for Britain than Arabs although the Arabs were double the population. The Jews pressed for the formation of large Jewish units, but the British were suspicious of the Hagana (comrades not in uniform) and also, to a lesser extent, the armed Jews, even in British uniform.

During 1939-1940 the whole Yishuv was wholeheartedly in support of the British. The Irgun not only dropped its prewar terrorist tendency, but worked closely with the British.

Churchill was a friend of the Jews and to Zionism. The Yishov hoped that the White Paper would be discarded once he replaced Chamberlain, but it was not.

Of course, events like the Struma, a cattle boat carrying 769 Jewish refugees from the Black Sea towards Palestine, which was turned back by the Turks, and which sank with only two survivors, turned many Jews against Churchill’s Britain.

In April 1948 the Arab chiefs of staff worked out a coordinated offensive. Syrian and Lebanese armies were to invade northern Palestine and occupy Tiberias, Safed, and Nazareth. The principal effort would be opened by the Iraqi army and the Arab Legion south of Lake Tiberias, moving west toward the port of Haifa,the main objective of the opening phase. The role of the Egyptians was to pin down Jewish forces south of Tel Aviv.

This might have worked, but Abdullah, the commander in chief of the Arab armies, wasn’t interested in Haifa. Abdullah kept his forces in the West Bank territory, designated by the UN for the Arab state, and in Jerusalem (theoretically internationalized).

So the Arab armies attacked piecemeal. The Syrians attacked in the Jordan Valley, a zone of heavy Jewish settlement, in brigade strength, with an armored car battalion, an artillery regiment and a company of tanks. The defenders managed to beat off the Syrians. This news spread rapidly.

The Lebanese Army made a limited invasion into Northern Galilee, but then stopped, after an Israeli counterattack into Lebanon. However, other Arab forces, Fawzi al-Kaukji’s Arab Liberation Army of volunteers, were able to penetrate into central Galilee, where they were welcomed by the local Arabs. The Syrians now returned to the attack, capturing Mishmar Hayarden.

To the south of the Syrian, Lebanese, and “Liberation” armies, the Iraqi Army was repulsed at Gesher and Geulim. The Israelis counterattacked into Arab territories, capturing the Arab villages and laying siege to Jenin. The operation was over for the Iraqis.

In the extreme south, the Negev desert, Israel was attacked by the largest and most formidable of the Arab forces, the Egyptians. They were halted at Yad Mordechai, where many of the settlers were veterans of the partisan fighting against the Germans. The defenders of Yad Mordechai numbered about one infantry company. The Egyptians had two infantry battalions, one armored battalion, and one artillery regiment. Yad Mordechai held out for five days, which was critical for the survival of Israel.

Every day gained was a day in which Israel, a state recognized by the superpowers, could import new and greatly superior weapons. Hagana agents had bought weapons even before the Mandate (the treaty at the end of WWI wherein Britain gained its Mandate over Palestine at the partition of the Ottoman Empire).

Egypt held air command, and was bombing Tel Aviv and other Jewish centers; an Egyptian brigade, with 500 vehicles, was moving north. But on May 29, the first Israeli fighter palnes attacked the Egyptian column. The Egyptian advance was halted near Ashdod.

It was in the center, in the Jerusalem sector, that the Israelis experienced their greatest rebuffs and losses, at the hands of the Arab Legion, now the Jordan army, Abdullah’s forces. Israeli barely managed to keep a lifeline open to Jewish Jerusalem by the Burma Road, a rough cross-country trail.

The Security Council called for a truce on May 29. The truce, agreed to by all combatants, came into force on June 11, for one month.

After the first Arab attack, 300,000 Arabs left Israel. After the second attack, in July 1948, another 500,000 left. Israel urged them to stay, especially in Haifa, but they feared more Arab attacks. PA refused to admit them and they became refugees, who required and received both UN and Israel aid.

After the 1967 war, Jordan (Hussein) entered into a tacit adversarial partnership with Israel re the West Bank. At first, Hussein tried to work with the PLO ensconced in the East Bank. In 1973, Hussein was constrained to join with Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War against Israel. Arabs everywhere were elated by the war, seen as proving Israel’s vulnerability. The Arab Summit at Rabat in 1974 recognized the PLO as sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Hussein was obliged to subscribe to this.

In early 1975, Jordan declared that merger of the two banks. To some, the eclipse of Hussein in the West Bank was complete. Exit Hussein. Enter the PLO. However, although the PLO controlled the rhetoric of West Bank politics, Hussein still had authority, quietly exercised, over many of the pragmatic aspects. Jordan paid the salaries of West Bank officials.

Under Israel rule after the 1967 war, between 1968 and 1980, the GNP of the West Bank increased at an average rate of 12 percent pa; the per capita GNP also increased by 10%. West Bank agriculture benefited greatly from the dependency. The total value of West Bank agricultural production rose from 114 million Israeli pounds in 1968 to 350 million in 1972.

West Bank Arabs began to commute to Israel to work. At the time this book was written, the percentage was 29-49 (depending upon whose figures you believe). These commuters said they preferred to commute because the Arab contractors have to be reminded 4 or 5 times to pay them. In both the West Bank and Gaza, inhabitants of refugee camps were fully employed in Israel, while retaining their refugee status and benefits (under the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). Access to work in Israel made a dramatic difference to life in Gaza, in particular. A carnival scene reported by a TV journalist follows. To the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza, as to the Arabs of Israel proper, Jewish rule brought a significant degree of economic progress, better material conditions - including a 15 percent annual increase in wages - and benefits in the spheres of public health and education.

As the years of occupation lengthened, controversy over the West Bank came to be increasingly dominated by the question of the Jewish settlements. It was widely held that all such settlements were contrary to international law and the Geneva Convention, concerning the military government of territory occupied in war. Israel responded that this was not equivalent to military occupation of a part of the territory of a sovereign state, since Jordanian sovereignty in the territory had never been internationally recognized.

The basic idea, during the years of Labor predominance over the West Bank - 1967-1977 - was one of limited but quite large-scale settlement, for strategic purposes. The “Allon Plan” was never officially adopted, but it became the basis for the settlements. This Plan proposed the incorporation into Israel of a strip 12-15 km wide along the western bank of the Jordan river and the western shores of the Dead Sea. (In this whole zone, the Arab population was quite small - about 20,000.) In this zone, rural and urban settlements were to be erected according to security necessities, as well as in East Jerusalem. The other main aspect of the Allon Plan was to avoid the permanent acquisition by Israel of large blocks of land densely populated by Arabs. The densely populated Arab areas were closed to Jewish settlement during this period (1967-1977). Begin and his Herut (later part of Likud) opposed withdrawal from any of the territories of Palestine conquered in the 1967 war.

In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Arab armies - to general astonishment - had achieved strategic surprise. The occupied territories gave Israel room for maneuver, and allowed it time to recover from the surprise. If Israel did not have those occupied territories, Hussein (who kept out of the 1973 war because of Israel’s strong positions along the Jordan) might have joined in the fray, and the strong Egyptian forces moving out of Sinai might have taken the IDF by surprise in the Negev insteaad of on the Suez canal. To many Israelis, it was this occupation that saved Israel in 1973 from military defeat, followed by the extermination of the Jewish population.

After the Yom Kippur War, many Israelis were not inclined to listen to anything the Labor politicians said. The Labor leaders were held responsible for the near defeat. Begin and his followers now had the public ear, and they resisted the return of any part of the occupied territories. Three events of 1974 deepened the sense of siege. In May, fedayeen kidnapped 90 Israeli school children at Ma’alot. In the subsequent rescue operation by Israeli forces, 20 of them were killed. The organizers were well-known Palestinian “moderates” who had been in dialogue with Israeli doves. In October, the Arab Summit at Rabat recognized the PLO - the confederation of fedayeen groupings - as sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. And on November 13, Arafat, head of the PLO, received a standing ovation when he addressed the UN.

It was the near defeat of Israel by the 1973 War combined with the kidnapping of the school children by “moderates” that was the cause of the hawkish ascendancy. So, at least for the first 10 years, the settlements were in sparsely populated areas, and if it weren’t for those settlements there probably would not be a Jewish Israel today. More recent settlements have been nearer to Palestinian towns, but not in an already populated area.

Blimey! Thanks for the info, folks. And particularly to barbitu8 for such a long and in-depth reply.

That’s a lot of help in allowing me to understand a little more clearly the situation in the Middle East.

Suppliment the above with Every Spy A Prince a history of Israeli intelligence. It covers the things history books gloss over.

Also, The Siege : the saga of Israel and Zionism by Conor Cruise O’Brien. O’Brien is a journalist, the former UN General Assembly Rep for the Republic of Ireland, & a Catholic. He ain’t partisan, although friendly to Israel. A good general history.

Most of my post was summarized from the Siege.

I for one am still hoping someone will give a non-biased answer (that isn’t a reference to a book, i.e. something I can read here). Everything in this thread has been extremely slanted, except perhaps the encarta reference. It is interesting to compare js_africanus’s and barbitu8’s and try to see the middle, but I’d sure enjoy seeing a single balanced reference.

Ahhh. The first time I read the Encarta reference, I stopped when they started talking about Agriculture and Transportation, as I figured the History section was over. A later re-reading revealed a very good (and what I’d consider relatively unbiased) history section at the end. You can find the history section in it’s entirety here: