When I was a little boy in Wales, my great-uncle Dai used to get drunk at Christmas and tell us about his WWI exploits. Dai fought with the Imperial Camel Corps as it battled through Palestine. Cutting the Turkish supply lines before the British made their final push on Jerusalem, Dai was shot in the buttock. When he was well into a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label, he used to drop his pants and show the scar. This gave me an early fascination with the Middle East.
There’s sure to be some part of the Holy Land’s history that has touched your life already – even if not quite as viscerally as the naked backside of a 90-year-old war veteran. Whether it’s singing Christmas carols about events in Bethlehem 2000 years ago; praying with your father in a synagogue, facing towards the Temple destroyed by the Romans; or shaking your head as you watch the news of an unfolding intifada on TV – in some way, the story of Israel and Palestine is part of your history. But the accepted accounts are constantly being revised by new historians and archaeologists who must grapple with the national and religious myths inscribed on almost every weathered chunk of local limestone.
In the Holy Land, ancient history is often determined by your view of contemporary politics. Some years ago, I visited the chief Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, whose position carries the title mufti. The mufti told me that ‘there’s not one single stone in Jerusalem that proves the Jews were here’ before Islam (a charge repeated by Palestinian negotiators at Camp David in 2000, to the consternation of US president Bill Clinton). Of course, Israelis have no problem finding stones that prove the mufti wrong. Archaeology involves a lot more opinion than you might think, but it’s rather more intelligent guesswork than the politically motivated mythmaking that muddies the waters even at the negotiating table.
Ancient Palestine was somewhat more physically hospitable than today’s desert landscape. Between 10,000 and 8,000 BC, a little later than in nearby Mesopotamia, locals switched from hunting to production of grain and domestication of animals. They didn’t quite ‘make the deserts bloom’, as 20th-century Zionists proclaimed to have done, but the ancients did share something in common with today’s residents: they fought a lot of wars. The first to conquer the land were Egyptian pharaohs, who controlled the Palestinian coastal plain when, around 1800 BC, Abraham led his nomadic tribe from Mesopotamia to what are now the Judean hills. Abraham fought a war over wells against indigenous tribes. His descendants were forced to move on to Egypt because of drought and crop failure, but in about 1250 BC Moses led them back. Battles with the Philistines and Canaanites pushed the Israelites to abandon their loose tribal system and unify under King Saul.
In 1006 BC, the Philistines defeated Saul at Mt Gilboa. Saul committed suicide on the battlefield, and the Israelites were divided into two kingdoms. Israel was roughly the north of today’s West Bank, while further south King David (r 1004–965 BC) ruled over Judah and conquered Salem (today’s Jerusalem). David named the city Zion, from the Hebrew ziya, meaning ‘parched desert’. At that time, Jerusalem was much smaller than today’s Old City and stood downhill from its present southern edge. Later, Jerusalem moved up the hill, across, then down, then back up and across again, until the 16th century when it finally occupied the footprint of the current Old City. The city didn’t expand much beyond there until the late-19th century and its growth – like many other things hereabouts – exploded in the last half-century.
Myth and history truly intersect on the large flat rock now contained beneath Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Originally an altar to Baal or some other pagan deity, the rock was known to Jews as the Stone of Foundation, the place where the universe began and Adam was born of dust. It’s also said to be where Abraham bound his son Isaac in preparation to sacrifice him, as a sign of his obedience to God. David’s son, Solomon, built the First Temple here to be the centre of the Jewish faith (as opposed to the Second Temple, which was constructed on the same site, was largely the work of King Herod the Great and was later destroyed by the Romans). Scholars believe the rock may have been the altar of Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples, because of a series of holes bored in it that might have provided drainage for water or sacrificial blood. It may also have been the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where only the High Priest ventured and where the Tablets of the Law given to Moses were kept.
After Solomon’s reign (965–928 BC), the Jews entered a period of division and periodic subjugation. In the 8th century, Sargon II of Assyria (r 722–705 BC) captured Israel and forced Judah to pay a tribute. He also defeated the Egyptians at Rapihu, now Rafah in the Gaza Strip.
There’s a recent theory among archaeologists called the ‘low chronology’ school of biblical history, which suggests that it’s only around this point – about 150 years after David – that Israel and Judah developed into anything more than rough collections of farming tribes. It’s a popular but controversial theory, because traditionally David and Solomon were seen as rulers of broad kingdoms. If ‘low chronology’ theory is correct, then the Israelites got it together as a state only just in time to be subjugated.
And not for the last time. In 586 BC, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and exiled the people of Judah to what’s now Iraq. Fifty years later, the Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. At that point, it seemed to the Jews that their troubles were over.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, Ptolemy, one of his generals, claimed Egypt as his own, founding a line of which Cleopatra would be the last. He also took the Holy Land, but in 200 BC the Seleucids, another dynasty descended from one of Alexander’s generals, captured it. The Seleucids displaced the Temple priests in Jerusalem and set about paganising the Jews. This ‘Hellenistic’ period – for the Greek origin of the Seleucids and the Olympian cults they promoted – is a key moment in the shaping of Jewish nationhood and is seen by many Israelis as a prototype for their recent military struggles against tough odds. In 167 BC, a Seleucid official arrived in the village of Modi’in, near what’s now Ben-Gurion airport, and ordered the construction of a pagan altar and a sacrifice. The local priest, Mattityahu, refused to comply. He killed the Seleucid official and a Jew who was about to make the sacrifice, then fled to the hills with his sons. One son, Judah Maccabee, became military leader of a revolt that restored Jewish control to an area almost the size of David’s and Solomon’s kingdoms – including most of today’s Israel and the Palestinian Territories, as well as the Golan and some land on the east bank of the Jordan River.
The Hasmoneans – as the dynasty that followed Mattityahu was called – became a useful buffer for the Roman Empire against marauding Parthians. But the Hasmoneans fought among themselves and in 63 BC Rome stepped in. Rome sometimes ruled directly through a Caesarea-based procurator – the most famous of whom was Pontius Pilate – though the Roman Empire preferred a strong client ruler like Herod the Great (37–4 BC) who married into the Hasmonean family. It was a time of tremendous religious and nationalist upheaval in the Roman province of Palestine, not least between AD 28 and 30, when it’s believed Jesus of Nazareth carried out his ministry. The tension culminated in AD 66 with the First Revolt against the Romans. Titus, the future emperor, crushed the revolt and destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70. Here, too, was a time to which Israelis often hark back – not only the religious Jews who fast on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple each year on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (Tish’a BeAv), but also secular Israelis who mourn the loss of even nominal sovereignty.
While Jerusalem was being destroyed, a group known as the Zealots (for their total commitment to Jewish law) held out on the mountain-top fortress of Masada, formerly Herod’s winter palace. On the eve of the final Roman assault in AD 73, the Masada Zealots killed themselves rather than be enslaved.
Only 60 years after Josephus wrote his account of ‘The Jewish War’, another one broke out. The Second Revolt broke out under a leader named Simon Bar Kochba, whose guerrillas lived in caves near the Dead Sea and who some considered to be the messiah. The Jews rose up because they believed the Emperor Hadrian was paganising what was left of the Temple precincts. The Romans suppressed the rebellion with difficulty. Hadrian gave Jerusalem a new name, Aelia Capitolina, and barred Jews from living or visiting there. With the Temple destroyed, Jewish religious life was thrown into a confusion that, for many Jews, didn’t end until the foundation of the State of Israel.
But even as Jews lost the centre of their faith, an era opened in which Christians would gain one for theirs through the Byzantine Empire, eastern successor to the defunct Roman Empire. In AD 313, Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity and his mother Helena set about identifying and consecrating sites associated with Jesus’ life. Most of the important Christian sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been executed, buried and resurrected, are said to date from this period. The church was begun in 335.
With the Temple no longer able to perform its role as nucleus of Jewish observance, rabbis set about writing down the old oral law, so that it could be observed uniformly in the scattered communities of the diaspora. Between the 1st and 5th centuries, rabbis wrote the Jerusalem Talmud (which is sometimes called the Palestinian Talmud because, after all, it was written in other towns in Palestine, not Jerusalem) and the more comprehensive Babylonian Talmud, written by exiled religious leaders.
From then on, good times were no more than glimmers for the Jews. In 617 a Persian general took Jerusalem and, facing a Christian revolt, allowed the Jews to rule for three years. Twenty years later, the Muslim armies arrived and the foundations of today’s implacable conflict began to be dug.
Islam came to Palestine in 638 when Caliph Omar, the second of the Prophet Mohammed’s successors, accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. Subsequent caliphs built al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, which had been a derelict trash dump during Byzantine times. With Christianity seen as a valued precursor of Islam the shrines of previous generations were preserved. Omar issued a famous promise to the Christians of Jerusalem that ‘the security of their persons, their goods, their churches, their crosses’ would be guaranteed. That is, until 1009 when the mentally disturbed Caliph Hakim destroyed many churches and persecuted the Christians.
The Temple Mount was holy to the invading Muslims as the site of Mohammed’s night-time ascencion to behold the celestial glories of heaven. In the Quran, the ascension is described as happening in the ‘faraway place’, which Muslims interpret as meaning Jerusalem. The city is Islam’s third-holiest city, after Mecca and Medina.
Christian pilgrimage to the holy sites in Jerusalem was permitted until 1071, when the Seljuk Turks captured the city. In 1095 Pope Urban II issued a call for a crusade to restore the place of Jesus’ passion to Christianity. By the time the Crusades began, the Seljuks had been displaced by the Fatimid dynasty, which was quite happy to allow the old pilgrimage routes to reopen. But sadly, it was too late for the Christians to back out. In 1099, the Crusaders overwhelmed Jerusalem’s defences and massacred its Muslims. It would be 200 years before the bloodshed came to a halt.
When the Crusaders took Jerusalem, they founded what even Arab chroniclers acknowledged was a prosperous state with an effective administration, based on the feudal system prevalent back home in Europe. The first King of Jerusalem was Baldwin I, who reigned from 1100 to 1118. Baldwin saw himself as restoring the kingdom of the biblical David (ignoring, of course, that David’s kingdom was Jewish, rather than bloodthirstily Christian as was Baldwin’s) and had himself crowned on Christmas Day in David’s hometown of Bethlehem.
Baldwin narrowly avoided death at the Battle of Ramla in 1102, lying doggo in some reeds while the Arab army hesitated, failing to press on to take Jerusalem after its victory. Baldwin was more ruthless on the occasions when he won. In 1104, he offered the garrison of Acre safe passage if it surrendered, then massacred it as it marched out of the fortress.
Such deviousness seemed to come naturally to the Kings of Jerusalem. Some struck alliances with Arab princes against other Crusader counts. When the Crusader ruler of Antioch died, his wife tried to keep possession of the town by allying with a Muslim warlord against her own father, Baldwin II of Jerusalem. Sometimes the traitorous alliances got even more personal. The successor of Baldwin II, King Fulk, discovered his wife having an affair with one of his knights. The knight fled and took refuge in the town of Ashkelon – courtesy of its Arab rulers.
The beginning of the end for the Kingdom of Jerusalem came with the death of the powerful King Amalric in 1174. He was replaced by his 13-year-old son, Baldwin IV, who suffered from leprosy. Baldwin wasn’t able to match the energetic campaigning of the Saracen general Saladin, eventually becoming paralysed by his leprosy before his death, and the Muslim leader set himself up for the final push on Jerusalem. In 1187, Saladin defeated the new King Guy at the Battle of the Horns of Hittin in the Galilee and took Jerusalem.
Not that the lack of Jerusalem ever prevented anyone calling himself King of Jerusalem. Saladin freed Guy, who proceeded to break his promise not to continue the fight and laid siege to Acre. Eventually, England’s King Richard I arrived, shipped Guy off into exile as King of Cyprus, and gave his nephew Henry of Champagne the throne of Jerusalem (though he couldn’t, of course, give him Jerusalem itself). Sadly for Henry, he fell out of a window at the palace in Acre and never got to the Holy City.
Long after the Crusaders were expelled from Palestine, there were still claimants to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the 19th century, the consuls of Austria and Sardinia in Jerusalem considered themselves viceroys of the King of Jerusalem, because their own rulers claimed to be heirs to the title. The nonexistent kingdom was also claimed at different times by the kings of Spain, England, France, Cyprus and Sicily, the German emperor, and the dukes of Swabia.
Though the Crusades generated long-lasting hatred between Christian and Muslim, they also were the origin of the romantic myth of the noble Arab, which was how Middle Easterners were generally viewed in the West until the more recent onset of terrorism gave rise to a new stereotype. Oddly, the romantic image was born largely in a figure who wasn’t even an Arab. The greatest general facing the Crusaders, Saladin, as they called him (his name was actually Salah al-Din Yussef ibn Ayyub) was of Kurdish origin. As emir of Cairo he was chosen by the caliph in Damascus to lead the fight against the Crusaders. Even his enemies acknowledged his decent treatment of prisoners and the honour with which he observed truces – not something that could be said for the Crusader chiefs. One example of the contrast between Saladin and the fractious Christian leadership came with the Muslim capture of Jerusalem. Arab chroniclers noted Saladin’s shock when he saw the Patriarch, the top Christian priest, leaving town with all his treasure. That wealth, Saladin said, should have been used to ransom the town’s poor Christians, who instead were marched off and sold into slavery. The chroniclers noted, of course, that Saladin would never have allowed such a thing to happen to Muslims.
The final Crusader left the Middle East with the fall of Acre in 1291. But the bloody symbolism of the Crusades lived on. When Britain’s General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in 1917 to become its first Christian ruler since Saladin’s victory, he read a proclamation that ‘Now the Crusades are over.’
The Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 and built an empire in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In 1516, Palestine became part of their empire, and two decades later, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r 1520–66) built the present massive walls around Jerusalem’s Old City. For most of the 400 years of Ottoman rule, Palestine was a backwater run by pashas more concerned with capricious tax-gathering than good government.
During this time of Turkish neglect in Palestine, Christian sects were forced to find a way to govern themselves and maintain the holy places. In 1757, they formulated the ‘status quo’, pledging to adhere to the responsibilities each then held for the upkeep of churches and not to infringe on the rights of other denominations in the Holy Land. That’s why, even today, if a Catholic priest sweeps the wrong step in a church in Bethlehem, he’s likely to be set upon by Greek Orthodox priests convinced he’s trying to change the status quo and claim that step for the Latin Church. It’s not only Jews and Muslims who’ve frequently been at each other’s throats in the Holy Land.
The lack of effective administration in Palestine was a reflection of the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire, which would eventually cease to exist at the end of WWI. But the final decades of the empire saw other forces taking shape in Palestine that are very much still with us. Zionism made its appearance largely in response to a combination of Eastern European pogroms and antisemitic literature in Germany. In 1896 Viennese Jewish journalist Theodore Herzl formulated his ideas in The Jewish State and, the next year, he opened the first World Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. Young Jews began migrating to Palestine, mostly from Poland and Russia. Zionist lobbying focused on London and, in 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, named for the Foreign Secretary who wrote in a letter to the Zionist Lord Rothschild that ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People’.
For such a state to work, the Zionists knew there had to be more Jews living in Palestine. That meant money had to be raised to fund the new communities, and it also meant fighting for political control of the Zionist finances in the new land. The popular image of the Zionists who came to Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel, particularly the two waves that arrived before WWI, is of self-sacrificing pioneers. But in 1925, a European Jewish leader called the Palestine pioneers kastkinder, a derogatory Yiddish term for kids dependent on the support of parents – in this case financing from Europe. Among many recent scholars, the pioneering reputation has been tarnished by the way early immigrant leaders disdained those who weren’t part of their ideological clique, keeping them away from political influence and the cash that went with it. A wave of immigration during the late 1920s was made up largely of middle-class merchants and tradesmen. The socialist leaders of Zionism kept the new arrivals away from sources of power in local councils and unions.
Even so, the rise in Jewish immigration prompted anger among the Arabs of Palestine. By 1935, there were 355,000 Jews in Palestine. The Arab Revolt began the following year with attacks on Jews and British forces, which administered Palestine under an international mandate. The revolt, however, set up the dismal failure of the Palestinian Arabs to cope with political developments as Israeli statehood approached, because infighting wiped out most of their best leaders. In 1937, a mini civil war erupted between the Husseini and Nashashibi clans, the two most powerful families in Jerusalem. By 1939, the initial campaign against the British and Zionists had been replaced largely by roaming bands of Arab guerrillas preying on their own people’s villages, a distasteful prefiguring of the gangs who controlled towns and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the end of the second intifada in 2005.
By 1947, the British government tired of the violence of Palestine and turned the problem over to the UN. The UN recommended partitioning the land between an Arab and a Jewish state. The Jews accepted, but the Arabs rejected the plan. When the British left in May 1948, a two-month Arab-Israeli War broke out between the new Israeli forces and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who won fame for his North African desert campaigns during WWII, commented that Israel would survive no longer than three weeks. In fact, recent research has shown that much of the materiel of the Arab armies was outdated or unserviceable and the Zionist militias outnumbered the troops arrayed against them throughout. Even so, that Israel surprisingly came out on top wasn’t entirely due to its own military prowess. The Iraqi commander of the Arab invasion forces was unseated by politicking officers who, he said, were more interested in jockeying for a higher rank than in winning the war. By the time a final armistice was struck, Israel was an independent country and those who had been Palestinian Arabs found themselves ruled either by Israel, Jordan or Egypt, or stateless in distant refugee camps.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War brought independence for Israel, a place of refuge for Holocaust survivors and a guarantee that, if such a horror were ever again to befall the Jews, there would be a country to which they could flee. But for the Palestinian Arabs the Arab-Israeli War is remembered as Al-Naqba, the Catastrophe. The previous year a Palestinian National Council in Gaza declared a state and an ‘all-Palestine government’. King Abdullah of Jordan prevented this government operating in the West Bank, so that he could annexe it and the 47% of all Palestinians who lived there. At the start of the 1948 war, 940, 000 Palestinians lived in what became Israel. By the end of the war, 150, 000 Arabs remained in areas under Israeli control. Though Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion frequently said that ‘Israel did not expel a single Arab’, it’s clear that many were forced to leave by Israeli military units.
Much has been made of research over the last two decades by Israeli historians (often called ‘Post-Zionists’), who debunked the national myth that Israeli forces never cleared Palestinian populations from their villages. These historians even acknowledged atrocities by Israeli soldiers. Some 60, 000 Arabs were expelled from Lydda and Ramla by Israeli soldiers, for example, while those in Nazareth, the city of Jesus’ birth, were largely left undisturbed to avoid angering Western Christians. But the researchers didn’t go as far as some of the pro-Palestinian writers who latched onto these ‘New Historians’ would have you believe.
In rarer cases, Palestinian historians have dared to point the finger at Arab newspapers. Alarmist press reports of Zionist atrocities prompted hundreds of thousands to flee who might otherwise have remained in their villages. One such inflation of fear occurred with the story of Deir Yassin, a village on the approach to Jerusalem. In the standard account, right-wing Israeli militiamen fought their way into the village and killed 258 of the 700 residents. Recent research at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah suggests about 100 died, which is what survivors of the massacre told me when I went to their homes in the West Bank. But they also said there was no real fight and the Israeli soldiers killed in cold blood, intending to scare other Palestinians into flight – a tactic that worked on surrounding villages. (Deir Yassin’s ruined buildings now stand in the grounds of an Israeli mental hospital, where tourists afflicted with the sudden apprehension that they are Jesus/the Messiah/a biblical prophet are incarcerated.) There were also at least six villages in the Galilee region and north of Jerusalem that were evacuated by order of the Arab command to clear the ground for military operations.
Though Jewish attack – or the fear of it – were the main reason for Palestinian failure and exile in 1948, there were other causes that were rooted in the unchanging nature of their society, compared with the new, dynamic Zionist community. Nationalism was strong among town-dwellers, but the largely illiterate rural population had little idea of the political situation as it developed; it was, therefore, unlikely to join an organised campaign against the new developments and more likely to react with fear and flight when those changes occurred. Also, few Arab workers had access to unemployment insurance, so when they were ejected from Jewish businesses and farms at the start of hostilities, their only economic alternative was to go into exile.
Once in exile, conditions were harsh for Palestinians. Many tried to return, but were prevented by the Haganah (the forerunner of the modern-day Israel Defence Forces, the IDF). Others who would have fled, particularly from the Galilee, heard about the poverty of the refugees and stayed put.
If the last few decades in Israel were times of terrorism, the state’s early years were times of war. In 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours, devastating the armies of Syria, Egypt and Jordan. In less than a week (which gives the war its popular name, the Six Day War) Israel won control of the Golan Heights from Syria and the entire Sinai desert and the Gaza Strip from Egypt. For Jordan, the war was a particular disaster because Israel captured the West Bank and the jewel of East Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock. Syria and Egypt fought back in 1973, launching a surprise attack on the Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur. Unprepared, it seemed at first as though Israel might be wiped out, but it pushed the Arab armies back. Israel’s situation had, for a time, been so desperate, however, that the Arab leadership portrayed the Yom Kippur War as a victory.
For Israelis, political positions often are coloured by which of the nation’s wars occurred during their youth. There are the nostalgic, old socialist Zionists of the 1948 battle for independence. The victors of the 1967 Six Day War contributed to the messianic zeal at the root of the settlements in the Palestinian Territories. Those who, by the skin of their teeth, defeated the surprise attack of 1973 felt heroic, but had a jaundiced view of the country’s leaders for failing to foresee the onslaught. But by the time Palestinian guerrilla attacks across the northern border drew Israel into an invasion of Lebanon in 1982, young Israelis questioned the sense that their nation faced an existential enemy and argued for territorial concessions. Israelis also felt they’d been sucked into someone else’s war when their troops failed to intervene to halt the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Beirut refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila. Not all Israelis went along that more dovish path. Since the Lebanon War the country has been deeply divided between a nationalist right that focuses on the settlements of the West Bank and (until 2005, when they were evacuated) the Gaza Strip, and a left that put its faith in the 1993 Oslo Accords, setting up a Palestinian Authority (PA) to govern the towns and cities of the Palestinian Territories.
For Palestinians, warfare didn’t bring any benefit: they soon realised that Arab armies wouldn’t win back their land for them. In 1964, the Arab League, which is made up of representatives of 22 Arabic-speaking nations, set up the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). But it wasn’t until the Arab defeat in the 1967 war that a Palestinian leader willing to defy the Arab League won control of the PLO. Yasser Arafat was born in Cairo in 1929 and was related to the powerful Husseini clan of Jerusalem. While working as an engineer in Kuwait, he founded Fatah, an Arabic acronym for the Palestine Liberation Movement and also the word for ‘victory’. It was through the Fatah faction that he took over the PLO in 1969. He instituted a long campaign of terrorism designed to force the international community to recognise the need for a solution to the Palestinian problem – something war with Israel hadn’t accomplished. Senior Fatah men were behind the fatal 1972 attack on Israeli athletes in the Olympic village in Munich and many other terrorist strikes. In 1987, an uprising called the intifada (Arabic for ‘shaking off’) broke out around the West Bank and Gaza. It was a spontaneous eruption of stones and Molotov cocktails by frustrated youths, but Arafat soon had control of it and kept it simmering for six years. Though Arafat kept the Palestinian question on the world’s agenda, he made a mistake in supporting Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. Kuwait and other Gulf nations cut off funding to the PLO and expelled Palestinians, on whose pay packets many families depended back in the West Bank and Gaza. The financial and political squeeze forced Arafat to consider peace negotiations, leading to the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Yasser Arafat arrived in Gaza to head the new PA in July 1994. Israel gradually handed over the remaining Palestinian towns, both in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, over the following few years. But a peace agreement didn’t bring real peace. In fact, it drove those on both sides who opposed the compromises necessary for peace into greater acts of violence. Hamas and Islamic Jihad took their terrorism to new heights with the suicide bomb. (Arafat was culpable in much of the extremist violence, for he frequently released from jail those involved in terrorism when he wanted to pressure Israel in the often interminable negotiations over further territorial withdrawals.) Israel hit back by assassinating Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the peace process came in November 1995, when a religious Israeli gunned down Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally. It was the culmination of several years of incitement from nationalist Israelis over Rabin’s agreement to give up part of ‘the Land of Israel’. Right-wingers believed the biblical lands they call Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – ought never to be surrendered. Posters appeared all over Israeli towns showing Rabin’s face surrounded by an Arab keffiyeh or the uniform of an SS officer. An extremist rabbi chanted an ancient Aramaic curse outside Rabin’s residence and others argued that the prime minister was a ‘persecutor of Jews’ who was fair game for murder. Rabin’s killing was a terrible shock to most Israelis, but it also robbed the peace process of an advocate whose background as army chief of staff gave him the trust of Israelis on security issues.
Rabin’s death wasn’t the end for the peace process. In fact, the election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s coalition government in 1999 seemed to augur well. Barak said he wanted a ‘separation’ from the Palestinians and was willing to give up almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But Barak forced the pace of negotiations and went to Camp David in summer 2000 wanting to strike a final peace deal, despite the fact that US diplomats told him Arafat wasn’t ready to move that fast. When the talks failed, widespread violence broke out and a second intifada began. Most media at the time blamed Israel’s Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon for the outbreak of violence, because he had made a visit to the Temple Mount. Palestinians called Sharon’s visit ‘a provocation’, and it surely was insensitive. But in the Middle East those who claim to have been provoked usually are in fact champing at the bit for an opportunity to vent their rage.
That was true of the intifada. At first Arafat saw an opportunity to pressure Israel into more concessions, but he quickly lost control to young Fatah leaders who felt he hadn’t given them enough power since he returned from exile – they accused him of giving all the top military and political jobs to corrupt old party hacks who’d been with him in Beirut and Tunis. The young Fatah leaders quickly allied with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, eventually launching a wave of suicide bombings. Israel hardened against the Palestinians, in 2001 electing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a former general who spoke privately of the intifada as an ‘existential danger’ to Israel. Sharon sent tanks to occupy all the West Bank towns previously ceded to Arafat and made frequent, bloody incursions into Gaza. He refused to guarantee that if Arafat left the West Bank he would be allowed to return, so the Palestinian leader stayed in his Ramallah compound. Depressed and sick, Arafat’s command of events and – according to some aides – reality weakened until his death in November 2004. His autopsy has never been released, but he seems to have died of complications from a blood disease.
With his old enemy out of the way, Sharon forged ahead with a plan to ‘disengage’ from the Palestinians, building a barrier along a defensible line near the edge of the West Bank and pulling out of isolated settlements. He completed the evacuation of all 7500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in summer 2005. Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January 2006. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, won election as prime minister in March 2006 on a platform that promised a further pullback from much of the West Bank. It wasn’t ever likely to be something Israel would negotiate with the Palestinians, and by the time Olmert was elected it was even less likely, since Palestinians had voted for a Hamas government. Now it wasn’t only the Israelis who weren’t speaking to the Palestinians: the European Union and the USA at first cut off aid unless Hamas recognised Israel and the peace deals the previous Palestinian government had made with Israel (the money began to flow once more a few months later, but donors still insisted on bypassing Hamas-run ministries and giving the money direct to institutions on the ground). There were almost continuous skirmishes along the fence between Gaza and Israel, sometimes dragging the Israeli army back into the very areas they had so recently evacuated.
With the Hamas government shunned around the world, Israel appeared to have a free hand for its unilateral West Bank withdrawal. But in summer 2006 Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped some Israeli soldiers patrolling the border with Lebanon. Israel entered a brief war with the Lebanese militia, in which the Shia group launched thousands of rockets across the border and brought northern Israel to a terrified halt. The scale of Israel’s bombing attacks on Lebanese towns was widely condemned and the war was a diplomatic disaster for Israel. Domestically, the Lebanon conflict set the government wobbling, because many of the reservists sent to fight there complained of being under-prepared and ill-equipped. It also put paid to the unilateral withdrawal for the foreseeable future, because of the fear that a similar missile barrage from a Palestinian- controlled West Bank would be even more devastating to Israel.
The situation remains highly unpredictable due to both the shifting regional political picture and pressure being exerted within opposing sides in the dispute. Despite everything, a tenuous ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was still holding, more or less, in 2012.