Israel vs Palestine conflict explained: How was Israel created, who attacked first, and why is there a war in 2023?
The modern state of Israel was founded in May 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Second World War but the conflict that has raged between Israelis and Palestinians since can be traced back much further.
Historians and commentators offer differing opinions as to when this chapter of history begins. In her series Al Nakba (2008) on Al Jazeera, documentary maker Rawan Damen begins her story with Napoleon Bonaparte, who proposed a Jewish homeland in Palestine as long ago as 1799 in the wake of the siege of Acre during his war against the Ottoman Empire.
The French commander was ultimately defeated in that conquest but his attempt to establish a European stronghold in the Middle East was revived by the British 41 years on, when foreign secretary Lord Palmerston wrote to his ambassador in Istanbul, urging him to press the Sultan to open up Palestine to Jewish immigrants as a means of countering the considerable influence of Egyptian governor Mohammed Ali.
While there were only around 3,000 Jews living in Palestine at that time, wealthy benefactors such as French aristocrat Baron Edmond de Rothschild began to sponsor others from Europe to join them and establish settlements, the most notable being Rishon Le Zion, founded in 1882.
Austrian writer Nathan Birnbaum coined the term “Zionism” in 1885 as Jews, particularly from eastern Europe, continued to arrive in Palestine.
Austro-Hungarian journalist Dr Theodor Herzl’s book The Jewish State appeared a decade later, envisioning the establishment of such an entity with the coming of the 20th century. According to Al Nakba, two rabbis were sent by Herzl’s friend Max Nordau to Palestine to investigate the feasibility of the prospect and reported back: “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man,” although the authenticity of this exchange is contested.
Birnbaum, Herzl and Nordau organised the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 to discuss their dream of an independent Jewish nation and plans to lobby European powers for its realisation.
By 1907, Britain was considering the need for a “buffer state” in the Middle East to bolster its dominance. British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, a biochemist, would arrive in Jerusalem at this time to establish a company engaged in buying up land near Jaffa. Within three years, about 10,000 dunums, an old land measurement equivalent to acres, had been acquired in the Marj Bin Amer region of northern Palestine, forcing out 60,000 local farmers to accommodate Jewish arrivals from Europe and Yemen.
As a Jewish militia, Hashomer, was established to protect the growing number of settlements, Palestinian pharmacist Najib Nassar set up a newspaper, Al-Karmel, to warn against what he considered to be a colonising force.
The First World War – 1914 – 1918
The outbreak of the First World War prompted a Britain distrustful of “Mohammedans” to intensify its interest in developing an allied presence in Palestine, not least to strengthen its grasp on the Suez Canal.
In January 1915, Liberal Party politician Herbert Samuel drafted his secret memo The Future of Palestine, which was circulated among the Cabinet and in which he backed annexation and the country gradually becoming an autonomous Jewish state under the protectorship of the British Empire.
Samuel’s recommendations were discussed privately by diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot the following year, architects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that demarcated British and French spheres of influence in the event of the collapse of Ottoman rule.
The Balfour Declaration – 1917
The British government’s Balfour Declaration followed on 9 November 1917, formally declaring support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine in a letter between David Lloyd George’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour and Jewish community leader Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, effectively assuming ownership over a land that many would argue it had no legal right to give away.
Rothschild, Samuel, Sykes and Weizmann addressed a celebratory meeting in London a month later before, on 11 December 1917, General Edmund Allenby captured the holy city of Jerusalem.
Following the Kaiser’s defeat and the Great War’s end, US president Woodrow Wilson commissioned a report into the non-Turkish regions of the fallen Ottoman Empire conducted by academic Dr Henry King and orientalist Charles Crane, who found that the almost 90 per cent non-Jewish population of Palestine were “emphatically against” the Zionist project. The authors warned of the intensity of feeling and argued that Jewish immigration should be limited in the greater interests of peace but were roundly ignored by the international community, their conclusions suppressed until 1922.
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, lieutenant-colonel TE Lawrence (much-mythologised as Lawrence of Arabia) mediated the signing of an agreement between Weizmann, now leader of the Zionist delegation, and his Arab counterpart Prince Faisal bin Hussein, agreeing in principle the founding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and an independent Arab nation in the Middle East.
In 1922, the League of Nations recognised the British Mandate to rule Palestine under the jurisdiction of Samuel, now high commissioner, who was instrumental in enacting at least 100 legal initiatives to establish a Jewish presence, including recognising Hebrew as an official language and permitting a separate Jewish educational system and Jewish army. The Hebrew University and Histadrut, a labour union, were in place by 1925.
As the decade progressed, mass protests began to erupt opposing Jewish immigration as the Palestinian movement tried in vain to counter and resist what its members considered a usurpation backed by the military and diplomatic muscle of imperial Britain.
Black flags were raised by Palestinians when Balfour visited Jerusalem and almost 250 Jews and Arabs were killed and many more wounded in August 1929 at the Wailing Wall in a tragedy that became known as the Buraq Revolt. Three Muslim men were put to death by Samuel’s successor, Sir John Chancellor, for their part in the unrest, an act of brutality intended as a deterrent.
But the protests continued, reaching fever pitch in 1933, as more Jewish immigrants arrived to make a home for themselves, the influx accelerating from 4,000 in 1931 to 62,000 in 1935. That same year, Muslim revolutionary leader Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam was shot dead by British soldiers in the hills above Jenin.
In 1936, the intensity of opposition to British colonial rule imposing the Balfour Declaration on a people who deplored it resulted in a six-month-long general strike, an impressive feat of organisation that nevertheless resulted in a backlash in which Palestinian homes were destroyed.
The Second World War – 1939 – 1945
The wider world would once more be plunged into war in 1939 in the fightback against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, whose Third Reich would ultimately be found responsible for executing six million Jews in extermination camps, and concentration camps.
Not long after the US entrance into the conflict, American-Zionist relations would be cemented with a 1942 conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. This occurred against a backdrop of several years’ activity by an armed Zionist paramilitary force known as Irgun, that had been attacking local Arab groups in Palestine.
Irgun would become notorious for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on 22 July 1946, in which 91 people died, and the Deir Yassin Massacre on 9 April 1948, carried out in collaboration with another organisation, Lehi (or the Stern Gang), in which 107 were killed.
That summer, Lehi would assassinate Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat dispatched by the United Nations to mediate the dispute.
Following the Allied victories in Europe and the Pacific in 1945, world powers turned their attention towards ending the violence in Palestine.
UN Partition Plan (or ‘two-state solution’) – 1947
A two-state solution to the disputed territory almost came into being in 1947, when the UN General Assembly volunteered Resolution 181, which proposed carving a new state from Palestine west of the River Jordan: one housing Jews, the other Arabs.
The resolution was adopted after a vote, allegedly as a result of diplomatic pressure from the US, but rejected by the Palestinians, who argued that Jewish residents owned no more than 5.5 per cent of the land at the time and so had no right to receive 56 per cent, in addition to the accompanying international legitimacy. Jewish jubilation met with Arab hostility and a civil war duly erupted.
The Arab-Israeli War and Nakba – 1948
The state of Israel was nevertheless founded under prime minister David Ben-Gurion on 14 May 1948 with the end of the British Mandate, winning immediate recognition from the US and Soviet Union but prompting the outbreak of the bloody Arab-Israeli War, which saw 3,000 resistance fighters rise up against the new nation and forced 700,000 Palestinian people to flee the fighting, seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, often without citizenship being granted.
The displacement of the Palestinian people on that date is still marked every year on “Nakba Day”, named for an Arabic word for “catastrophe” and on which Palestinians give speeches, hold rallies and brandish the keys to the homes they were forced to leave behind and still hope to return to.
In December of 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, recognising that Palestinian people “who want to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbours should be given the right to do so as soon as possible”. Israel though rejected the notion as a threat to the exclusively Jewish nature of the new state. A year later, the chamber would establish the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East to further support those displaced.
In the interim between those two events, Israel had signed armistice agreements with its neighbours in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Six-Day War – 1967
Jordan assumed administrative control of the West Bank in 1950 and Egypt would hold Gaza, an arrangement that would last until the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli forces conquered those territories.
Prior to that, the violence continued sporadically. Notable massacres took place in the villages of Qalqilya, Kufr Qasim and Khan Yunis in 1956 and in as-Samu in 1966.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation was founded in Cairo in 1964, dedicated to fighting for the ”liberation of Palestine” through armed revolution rather than dwelling on rights issues, a stance the PLO would not abandon until 1993 and which would see it labelled a terrorist organisation by both Israel and the US. It would be recognised as the sole representative of the Palestinian people by the Arab League in 1974.
Israel’s military advance on the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights and Egyptian Sinai in 1967 sparked fresh bloodshed and saw the UN Security Council pass Resolution 242 ordering it to withdraw from territories it considered occupied. The council was ignored.
Following the Yom Kippur War, the Security Council would pass another resolution, 338, calling for a ceasefire and again demanding Israel retreat from its 1967 incursions. Again, Israel refused.
On 30 March 1976, Israeli land confiscations were met with uprisings, strikes and further violent reprisals in towns from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev, a date commemorated by Palestinians ever after as “Land Day”.
An apparent breakthrough for peace in the Middle East occurred on 17 September 1978 when Israeli PM Menachem Begin met Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords at the Maryland retreat of president Jimmy Carter. One of the framework agreements clinched harmonious relations between their two nations and won the signatories the Nobel Peace Prize but the other, concerning the future of the disputed territories Palestine, would be condemned by the UN for being agreed without a Palestinian delegation’s involvement.
The First Intifada and Oslo Accords – 1987 – 1993
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 while the first Intifada in Palestinian territories would erupt protesting occupation at the decade’s end. However, further incremental steps towards peace did occur when the PLO accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338, formally recognising the state of Israel. Talks stalled again in 1991 and 1992, with no resolution in sight.
Then, in summer 1993, the Oslo I Accord was signed by Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, providing for the creation of a Palestinian interim self-government, the Palestinian National Authority, and the withdrawal of Israeli Defence Forces from zones still widely considered occupied. A second agreement, Oslo II, followed in 1995 and granted Palestinian autonomy in certain parts of the West Bank and Gaza but, again, did not offer statehood.
The Second Intifada and Gaza wars – 2002 – 2021
An uneasy truce held until a second Intifada saw Israel reoccupy West Bank cities in 2002, a destabilising event that would be worsened by the death of Arafat in 2004, a great blow to the Palestinian cause.
Since that time, violence has returned, with Israel declaring war on Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and launching repeated assaults on Hamas in Gaza, including Operation Cast Lead (2008), Operation Pillar of Defence (2012) and Operation Protective Edge (2014). Further violence blew up on Nakba Day in both 2017 and 2018, the latter severe enough to merit a UN war crimes investigation.
The election of Donald Trump as US president further shook up the situation, with the former reality television star befriending Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a gesture of recognition that the city is its capital before designating the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, in defiance of the broad international consensus that the region was illegally annexed.
Mr Trump also cut US funding to the UNRWA and absurdly tasked his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with developing a plan to bring peace to the Middle East, something the junior property developer was confident he could achieve without bias having read no fewer than 25 books on the subject.
The tensions have subsequently erupted again, after Hamas sent fighters across the border and fired thousands of rockets at Israel in what it said was a new operation on Saturday. Israel has responded by saying the country is “at war” and fired at targets in Gaza in response.