Government and Politics

The Middle East

When was modern Israel established?

As a modern state, Israel was formed by decree in 1948. In the wake of World War II (1939–45), the United Nations (UN) formed a special committee to address the British control of Palestine, the region in the Middle East (southwest Asia) that borders the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Lebanon to the north, Syria and Jordan to the east, and Egypt (the Sinai Peninsula) to the southwest; the narrow piece of land comes to a point in the south, where it fronts the Gulf of Aqaba. In November 1947 the United Nations (UN) carved Israel out of the Palestine region; areas of Palestine that were not designated as Israel were divided between neighboring Arab countries.

Modern Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), proclaimed an independent Israel on May 14, 1948. Born in Poland, Ben-Gurion had arrived in Palestine as a young man of about 20 and became extremely active in efforts to assert Jewish autonomy in the region. He served as prime minister from 1949 to 1953 and again between 1955 and 1963. But Israel’s history goes back much farther than these twentieth-century events. And, having such a long history, it is also a complicated one.

Israel was an ancient kingdom in Palestine, formed under King Saul in 1020 B.C. Israel included the lands in Canaan, the Promised Land of the Hebrew tribes who descended from the people that Moses (fourteenth-thirteenth century B.C.) led out of Egypt. But the kingdom was subsequently divided and by the eighth century B.C. it had ceased to exist. Nevertheless, the area remained home—and holy land—to the Hebrews (Israelites) who had settled there.

The entire region of Palestine, including the kingdom of Israel, subsequently came under the control of various empires. Palestine saw the rule of the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Macedonians under Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.), and the Romans (the area was the Roman province of Syria in the time of Jesus). After Roman rule, Palestine was, with only one exception, ruled by various Muslim (Islamic) dynasties, including the Ottoman Empire (1516–1917). It was in 1917 that Palestine came under control of the British, who proclaimed in the Declaration of Balfour to support the establishment of a national home for the Jews living there. However, Britain reversed this policy in 1939 at the same time the area was seeing an influx of Jewish people who were escaping persecution in Europe. Jews in Palestine opposed British control, and at the same time fighting intensified between Jews and Arabs.

The 1947 decision by the UN to establish a Jewish homeland resulted in nearly two years of fighting between Israelis and Arabs in the region. And though boundaries among the various states were determined anew in 1949, fighting in the region continued with the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973–74, and 1982. Unrest prevailed throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, when the two sides began discussions to resolve the long conflict.


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