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A new nation
     The state of Israel
     The first Arab-Israeli war
     Building the nation
     Conflicts over water
     The Six-Day War
     Fatah and the PLO

Settlement and Intifadas

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The state of Israel: 1948

On 12 April 1948, a month before the departure of the British, a Provisional Government is set up with David Ben Gurion as chairman and minister of defence. And in the afternoon of May 14, the last day of the Mandate, Ben Gurion declares the creation of the state of Israel and signs the Declaration of Independence. The makes no mention of any proposed boundaries but is pacific in tone, appealing to all Palestinians to join in the building of the new state on the basis of full and equal citizenship, and looking forward to a state of peace and friendship between Israel and its Arab neighbours. But alas, events are to prove otherwise.

Areas of Palestine are clearly identifiable by the relative number of Jews and Arabs in each, forming the basis of the UN plan for partition. It immediately becomes of paramount importance for each side to defend and if possible to enlarge the territory allotted to it by the UN. On the Israeli side this is helped by the increasing panic felt by ordinary Palestinian villagers, many of them opting already for flight to other parts of Palestine or to neighbouring Arab countries. And in parts of the new state Arabs are forcibly expelled from their villages. By the end of June more than 300,000 are refugees, to be followed soon by many others beginning the problem which more than sixty years later remains a major obstacle to achieving peace in the region.

On the very day of Ben-Gurion's declaration of the new state, Egyptian aircraft bomb Tel Aviv. On May 15, when the last British soldiers leave, Iraqi troops cross the Jordan. That same night Syrian troops with thirty armoured vehicles come down from the Golan heights, while Israeli soldiers march seven miles into Lebanon to blow up a strategic bridge. The first Arab-Israeli War has begun. It will last for nearly a year, during which (in January 1949) elections are held for a fully elected parliament. Mapai is the winning party, so David Ben Gurion becomes Israel's first prime minister a position he will hold, with one short break in 1954-55, for the next fifteen years.


The first Arab-Israeli war: 1948-9

During the first two days of the war, the neighbouring Arab nations launch a coherent plan of attack, with troops from Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Egypt advancing on different fronts. They number in all about 15.000 men. But Israel is by now very much better prepared for conflict than could have been expected. Six months previously, at the time of the UN resolution, its army, an enlarged version of Haganah, had numbered 4,500: now it is more than 36,000.

The war, which lasts until March 1949, is vigorously fought on land, the sea and in the air, with the Israelis developing at short notice naval and airforce capabilities. The UN desperately tries to negotiate a truce between the sides, to give a breathing space and the opportunity to achieve a political settlement, and a four-week truce (known now as the First Truce) begins on June 11. The ceasefire itself holds for all but the last day of the four weeks, but both sides disregard the terms of the truce by taking the opportunity to build up their forces. The Israelis almost double the size of their army (from about 35,000 to more than 60,00) and contrive a significant increase in their armaments and ammunition. And both sides use the opportunity to move fresh troops to the front lines.

During the four weeks the negotiator appointed by the UN, the Swedish Count Bernadotte, proposes a new partition plan which is rejected by both sides. So full-scale fighting resumes on July 8. But after further UN efforts a second truce begins ten days later. This time it holds longer (no time limit has been placed on it at the start) and in September Bernadotte proposes a new partition. Again it is rejected by both sides. But it provokes a violent response from Lehi, the most extreme of the Israeli paramilitary groups. On the day after the new proposal of partition is published, September 17, they ambush and assassinate Count Bernadotte, fearing that the Knesset might accept his terms (unknown to Lehi, its members have already voted to reject them).

Five days after the assassination, on September 22, the Knesset passes into law an act, the Area of Jurisdiction, which dramatically alters the nature of the conflict. Instead of appearing to defend the area allotted to it in the various various partition plans, the state is now officially fighting to extend it. The act states that the area already captured and any land to be captured in future is annexed as part of Israel.

In the event the second truce lasts another month. Fighting resumes on October 15 and continues until 10 March 1949. During the early months of 1949 Israel agrees an armistice with each of its Arab neighbours, the last being Transjordan. The final Israeli success is a quick dash through Transjordanian territory to to reach the Red Sea on March 11, at what would become Eilat at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. They are a historic two days. On March 10 administrative powers are transferred from the Provisional Government to the Knesset. And on March 11 the United Nations votes to accept Israel as a member state.

By the end of the war Israel's territory has been extended to the north and to the south and by the occupation of part of the West Bank. The other part of the West Bank, bordering the Jordan river, is captured during the war by the forces of Transjordan. The king of Transjordan takes the opportunity of annexing the territory in 1950, changing the name of his kingdom to Jordan and becoming the only Arab country to have gained significant territories within the region of mandated Palestine.

But Israel's success and increase of territory has created an extra 600,000 Palestinian refugees, fleeing from their farms and villages. By 1952, just three years after independence, 1,400,000 people, a quarter of Israel's population, are housed in properties abandoned by Palestinian Arabs.

The war years have also revealed a factor that will remain a constant in the region. The Arab nations have been shown to be disorganized and weakened by mutual rivalries, while the state of Israel, less than a year old, has discovered a national cohesion, a passionate commitment by all its citizens and a military strength that will stand it in very good stead in future conflicts.Although full-scale war has ended, the years after 1949 are never peaceful. Israel, surrounded by hostile states openly committed to its destruction, is subject to constant raids across the border from all directions and sometimes reacts with extreme cautionary reprisals. An example is the long border with Jordan. During the five-year period from 1951 to 1956 there are more than 6000 aggressive border crossings and about 400 Israelis are killed.

In 1953 a reprisal raid is planned on an Arab village near the border, with Ariel Sharon in command. The written instructions from army HQ state that the object is 'to carry out destruction and maximum killing in order to drive the villagers from their homes'. Sixty-nine people are killed, mainly women and children, causing international outrage. But there is no full-scale military action involving Israel until the Suez campaign of 1956.


Building the nation: from 1948

David Ben-Gurion's Mapai party dominates Israeli politics until 1977, though from 1965 without Ben-Gurion himself. He has left in 1965, with a small but distinguished group of colleagues (including Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres) to form Rafi, a new party of his own. In 1968 Mapai, still the largest left-wing party in the country, leads a coalition with Rafi to form the Israeli Labor Party. This broadly continues Mapai's policies until for the first time losing an election, in 1977.

In its founding year, 1948, Israel shows a dramatic commitment to enabling all Jews to come to Israel. The Declaration of Independence has guaranteed their right to do so, but some are unable to most notably many in the Yemen, who have been suffering anti-Semitic violence during the Arab-Israeli war and are too poor to leave. Israel now offers them free travel into the country and a new life when they get there. But there are two problems how to bring them, and how to pay for it and for accommodation when they get to Israel.

The financial challenge in receiving a large number of immigrants begins a relationship that has been crucial to Israel. Ben-Gurion entrusts Golda Meir with the task of solving it. She goes to the USA and appeals passionately, and with success, to Jewish communities there. It is a source of support that will prove entirely reliable from that day to this. The transport problem is often even harder to solve, but it prompts a type of air-based adventure in which Israel has continued to excel. In a project known as Operation Magic Carpet, starting in June 1949, from the British colony of Aden. Between them they bring some 50,000 Yemeni Jews into Israel in an operation that is kept secret until it is completed.

Similarly vigorous is Ben-Gurion's commitment to the task of building the nation. This involves the settling of more than a million Jewish immigrants, achieved partly by the establishment of a great many new settlements, and partly by the strengthening of Israel's military forces. This is achieved by disarming of separate paramilitary groups and the merging of army, navy and airforce in the single unit known as the Israeli Defence Forces or IDI.

Mapai's long period in power also makes possible the gradual introduction of Israel's welfare state. In 1949 free compulsory schooling is introduced for all children between the ages of five and fourteen. The much broader National Insurance Act of 1953 and Social Service Welfare Law of 1958 together complete a firm foundation for a left-wing package of state-sponsored services including the provision of health insurance, workers' compensation, allowances for large families and old age pensions. This is a policy continued by the Labour party, introducing in the 1970s new areas of insurance (disability, unemployment) and more unusual benefits such as vacation pay for adopting parents.

In December 1953 Ben-Gurion astonishes and alarms the nation by the announcement that he is resigning from politics to join a small kibbutz in the Negev. Moshe Sharett takes his place as prime minister, but Ben-Gurion stands again in the 1955 election and returns to office as the leader of the country.

A seismic event in Israeli political history is the defeat of the Labour party in 1977 by a new party, Likud. This will powerfully shift Israeli policy in a right-wing neo-liberal direction. But meanwhile the Israeli Defence Forces have very effectively displayed their power in the long series of military crises and wars that also characterize the Mapai and Labour years.


Suez: 1956

During the spring of 1956 there has been persistent artillery bombardment of Israeli settlements by Egyptian forces based in the Sinai desert and in July Egypt blockades the port of Eilat, at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. It is Israel's only way of reaching the Red Sea, and the Gulf's very narrow southern exit can easily be sealed from the nearby Egyptian harbour at Sharm al-Sheikh on the southeast side of the Sinai peninsula. Israel therefore has a powerful motive for seizing from Egypt the eastern part of the Sinai.

To do so it needs a convincing pretext and in a roundabout way the events of July provide the opportunity. On July 26 the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalizes the Suez canal and sends in troops to secure it, against the interests of Britain and France.

Now Britain, France and Israel all have motives of their own to invade Egypt Britain and France to reclaim the canal, Israel to occupy part of the Sinai but none has a sufficient pretext for armed aggression. So a secret plan is agreed. If Israel begins the action, entering Egyptian Sinai and advancing far enough towards the Suez canal to suggest the intent to seize it, Britain and France will be able to intervene on the pretext of preventing the outbreak of another war between Egypt and Israel.

On October 29 Israel enters the Sinai. Paratroops are dropped at an important pass on the approach route to the canal while an infantry brigade moves south towards Sharm al-Sheikh, which is captured on November 5. Meanwhile, on October 30, Britain and France demand the immediate withdrawal of both Egyptian and Israeli forces to at least ten miles from the canal. Since the Israeli forces are thirty miles from it, the obvious purpose is simply to make Egypt do so.

With no response from Egypt, Britain and France launch their military campaign, landing paratroops at the northern end of the canal. Against active resistance from Egyptian troops they take Port Said and then begin to fight their way southwards along the canal. But this action comes to a sudden halt when it becomes painfully evident, from international condemnation and strong US opposition, that this is turning into a major diplomatic disaster. With an embarrassing loss of face, the troops from both countries are rapidly withdrawn.

Israel remains in the Sinai for longer but finally pulls back to its own borders in March 1957, with the guarantee of a demilitarized Sinai and a United Nations force in the region to ensure that both sides keep to the 1949 armistice agreements. Egypt's borders remain therefore exactly as before the war, but the next decade proves unusually peaceful in southern Israel. And the nation has again, as in 1948-9, demonstrated to the Arab world the military damage it can inflict. .


Conflicts over water: from 1953

One of the major problems inherent in the Middle East context is that three states, two of them hostile to Israel, share an area that is short of water. The Jordan, the only major river, is the border between Israel and the other two, Syria and Jordan. Each needs to extract as much fresh water from the river as it can, a sure recipe for conflict.

In the early 1950s Israel develops a plan that is not illegal but is certainly not neighbourly. It is to extract water from the very low-lying Sea of Galilee, fed by the Jordan but far enough from it not to be threatened by Syrian artillery, and to pump it up hundreds of feet to feed a gently graded complex of channels, tunnels and vast pipes that will carry it southwards through Israel. The project, constructed between 1953 and 1964 and known as the National Water Carrier, moves huge quantities of water and is immensely successful. But it is, ultimately, water from the Jordan that is being extracted.

Syria and Jordan are not pleased. In 1964, the year when the National Water Carrier is completed, Syria begins constructing a similar project. The idea is to build a canal that will divert the water from two major tributaries of the Jordan before they reach the river, carrying it in a canal southwards through Syria into Jordan. Unfortunately for the Syrians the starting point of the canal doesn't share the advantage of the Galilee scheme. It is visible from Israel and within the range of artillery. Every time any earth earth-moving equipment reaches the site it is destroyed by Israeli shells. The project has to be abandoned.

It is expected by many that this alarming confrontation must lead to war. But Nasser dissuades Syria from taking action. It is widely known that he has the intention of attacking Israel. But he is not yet ready.


The Six-Day War: 1967

During the early months of 1967 incidents across Israel's borders with Syria become much more frequent, initiated by either side and inevitably provoking reprisals. By early May Nasser, eager to establish himself as the leader of the Arab world, is making much more aggressive speeches on the theme of eliminating the state of Israel, And on May 16 he demands that the UN peace-keeping force in Sinai and the Gaza Strip is withdrawn. Its presence, protecting Israel from Egyptian attack, has been an essential part of the agreement at the endof the Suez crisis. Without the UN in place, Israel would be suddenly vulnerable.

Astonishingly U Thant, the secretary general of the UN, immediately agrees to this demand. Within three days all the UN troops have sailed away. Egyptian troops quickly move in to take their place. And on May 23 Nasser declares that the Gulf of Aqaba is now once again closed to Israeli ships.

With alarming signs that an attack may be imminent, Israel mobilizes some of its trained civilian reserves to augment the army. During the following two weeks there are urgent diplomatic efforts by the Israelis in both the USA and Europe to secure protection and avoid a war, alongside an intense debate as to whether a pre-emptive strike is becoming essential. Continuing signs of preparation for war on all three fronts Egypt, Jordan and Syria, with troops even being drafted in from Iraq tip the balance by early June in favour of striking first. The decision is taken to launch an attack during the morning of June 5.

At 7.45 nearly 200 Israeli jets take off for an attack on the airfields of Egypt and the military aircraft parked on them. Later in the morning Syria and Jordan launch an air attack against Israel, bringing them into the war. Israeli planes repel the attack and bomb the enemy airfields. Within the day more than 400 planes are destroyed and nearly all the runways are made unusable. From the first morning of the war Israel has command of the skies.

The campaign on the ground is equally quick. On June 7 Israeli troops enter the Sinai and recapture Sharm el_Sheik. Meanwhile the Jordanians are being driven from the entire West Bank and paratroops enter Jerusalem to fight for the Old City, known now as Arab East Jerusalem. By the evening of the 8th all these areas are under full Israeli control and Egypt, Jordan and Syria have all agreed to a ceasefire. But there are voices in Israel urging that the war must continue until the Syrians have been driven from the Golan Heights, the raised plateau overlooking Israel that provides an excellent vantage point for bombardment. This is achieved on the 6th day, June 10. The war ends.

Israel's newly occupied territory at the time of the ceasefire is massive, amounting to the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip (taken from Egypt), the West Bank up to the Jordan river and east Jerusalem (taken from Jordan) and the Golan Heights (taken from Syria), The taking of the West Bank means that more than a million Palestinian refugees, some from the 1948 war and some from this one, are now in territory occupied by Israel potentially storing up terrible problems in the future.

There is initial hope by many that this situation can be used to secure international guarantees for Israel's security within the 1948 borders. The country is now in control of a vast territory, with a huge indigenous population, that can be used as bargaining power in a negotiation of land for peace. But the chance of this becomes increasingly unlikely owing to Israel's new policy of building Jewish settlements in many parts of the occupied territory.


Fatah and the PLO from 1964

A growing cause of Israeli unease has been a steady increase in terrorist incidents across the country's borders. These have been the work of two recently founded groups dedicated to the Palestinian cause and eager to harm Israel by any available means.

The first of the two, founded in 1964, is the Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine, soon to be known by an acronym, Fatah, deriving from its name in Arabic. Its constitution states that one of its goals is 'the eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence'. .Its leader is Yasser Arafat who becomes and remains for another forty years the internationally accepted representative of the Palestinians. His influence is further emphasized when he becomes, in 1969, the leader of another large group dedicated to the cause the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO.

The PLO, proposed at an Arab summit in Cairo in 1965, is designed to combine the diplomatic and financial strength of Israel's Arab neighbours with the shared intention of 'liquidating Israel' (a phrase in the founding manifesto).

Raids by Fatah across Israel's borders are for the most part small-scale and largely ineffective in 1964, but from 1965 onwards and particularly with PLO involvement in the aftermath of the rapid defeat of Arab armies in the Six-Day War the frequency and scale of cross-border terrorist incidents increases steadily. Most of these immediately prompt a more destructive reprisal by Israel. A pattern develops that has blighted life in the region ever since.


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