Israel - Arab World Conflict: Background, History, Notable Events
Children have been severely impacted by the latest flare-up of violence between Israelis and Palestinian factions in Gaza. (Photo: AFP)

Israel - Arab World Conflict: Deep roots in Religion

The contemporary history of the Arab–Israeli conflict is very much affected by the religious beliefs of the various sides and their ideas and views of the chosen people in their policies concerning the "Promised Land" and the "Chosen City" of Jerusalem. The Land of Canaan or Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) was, according to the Hebrew Bible, promised by God to the Children of Israel. This is also mentioned in the Qur'an.

Muslims also claim rights to that land following the Quran. Contrary to the Jewish claim that this land was promised only to the descendants of Abraham's grandson Jacob (Yisrael), they argue that the Land of Canaan was promised to what they consider the elder son of Abraham, Ishmael, from whom Arabs claim descent. Additionally, Muslims also revere many sites holy for Biblical Israelites, such as the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Temple Mount. In the past 1,400 years, Muslims have constructed Islamic landmarks on these ancient Israelite sites, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. This has brought the two groups into conflict over the rightful possession of Jerusalem. Muslim teaching is that Muhammad passed through Jerusalem on his first journey to heaven. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, claims that all of the lands of Palestine (the current Israeli and Palestinian territories) is an Islamic waqf that must be governed by Muslims.

What is Zionism?

Zionism, Jewish nationalist movement that has had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine. Though Zionism originated in eastern and central Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, it is in many ways a continuation of the ancient attachment of the Jews and the Jewish religion to the historical region of Palestine, where one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem was called Zion, according to Britannica.

In 1920, the British government obtained authorization from the League of Nations to administer a mandate over Palestine to foster the development of a Jewish national home under the Balfour Declaration, which it had promulgated three years earlier. The convergence between its strategic interests and the furtherance of historical justice for the Jewish people of the Bible, scattered and persecuted through the centuries, would be disrupted by an element that, excluded from the arrangement, would stridently voice its opposition: the Arab population of Palestine. Jewish and Muslim communities thus became actors not just in the religious domain but also in the form of national collectivities.

A political turn was given to Zionism by Theodor Herzl, an Austrian journalist who regarded assimilation as most desirable but, because of anti-Semitism, impossible to realize. Thus, he argued, if Jews were forced by external pressure to form a nation, they could lead a normal existence only through concentration in one territory. In 1897 Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, which drew up the Basel program of the movement, stating that “Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.”

Israel - Arab World Conflict: Background, History, Notable Events
An anti-Israel demonstration in Tehran in 2012. (Photo: AFP)

Timeline of Arab–Israeli War

The Arab-Israeli war was series of military conflicts between Israeli forces and various Arab forces, most notably in 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006.

1948–49: Israel’s War of Independence and the Palestinian Nakbah

In November 1947 the United Nations (UN) voted to partition the British mandate of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state (see United Nations Resolution 181). Clashes broke out almost immediately between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. As British troops prepared to withdraw from Palestine, conflict continued to escalate, with both Jewish and Arab forces committing belligerences. Among the most infamous events was the attack on the Arab village of Dayr Yāsīn on April 9, 1948. The news of a brutal massacre there by Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang forces spread widely and inspired both panic and retaliation. Days later, Arab forces attacked a Jewish convoy headed for Hadassah Hospital, killing 78.

On the eve of the British forces’ May 15, 1948, withdrawal, Israel declared independence. The next day, Arab forces from Egypt, Transjordan (Jordan), Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon occupied the areas in southern and eastern Palestine not apportioned to the Jews by the UN partition of Palestine and then captured east Jerusalem, including the small Jewish quarter of the Old City. The stated purpose of the invasion was to restore law and order in light of British withdrawal, citing incidents such as that at Dayr Yāsīn, and a growing refugee crisis in neighboring Arab countries. The Israelis, meanwhile, won control of the main road to Jerusalem through the Yehuda Mountains (“Hills of Judaea”) and successfully repulsed repeated Arab attacks. By early 1949 the Israelis had managed to occupy all of the Negev up to the former Egypt-Palestine frontier, except for the Gaza Strip.

Between February and July 1949, a temporary frontier was fixed between Israel and its neighbors as a result of separate armistice agreements between Israel and each of the Arab states. In Israel, the war is remembered as its War of Independence. In the Arab world, it came to be known as the Nakbah (“Catastrophe”) because of the large number of refugees and displaced persons resulting from the war.

1956: Suez Crisis

Tensions mounted again with the rise to power of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a staunch Pan-Arab nationalist. Nasser took a hostile stance toward Israel. In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, a vital waterway connecting Europe and Asia that was largely owned by French and British concerns. France and Britain responded by striking a deal with Israel—whose ships were barred from using the canal and whose southern port of Elat had been blockaded by Egypt—wherein Israel would invade Egypt; France and Britain would then intervene, ostensibly as peacemakers, and take control of the canal.

In October 1956 Israel invaded Egypt’s the Sinai Peninsula. In five days the Israeli army captured Gaza, Rafaḥ, and Al-ʿArīsh—taking thousands of prisoners—and occupied most of the peninsula east of the Suez Canal. The Israelis were then in a position to open sea communications through the Gulf of Aqaba. In December, after the joint Anglo-French intervention, a UN Emergency Force was stationed in the area, and Israeli forces withdrew in March 1957. Though Egyptian forces had been defeated on all fronts, the Suez Crisis, as it is sometimes known, was seen by Arabs as an Egyptian victory. Egypt dropped the blockade of Elat. A UN buffer force was placed in the Sinai Peninsula.

1967: Six-Day War

Arab and Israeli forces clashed for the third time June 5–10, 1967, in what came to be called the Six-Day War (or June War). In early 1967 Syria intensified its bombardment of Israeli villages from positions in the Golan Heights. When the Israeli Air Force shot down six Syrian MiG fighter jets in reprisal, Nasser mobilized his forces near the Sinai border, dismissing the UN force there, and he again sought to blockade Elat. In May 1967 Egypt signed a mutual defense pact with Jordan.

Israel answered this apparent Arab rush to war by staging a sudden air assault, destroying Egypt’s air force on the ground. The Israeli victory on the ground was also overwhelming. Israeli units drove back Syrian forces from the Golan Heights, took control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and drove Jordanian forces from the West Bank. Importantly, the Israelis were left in sole control of Jerusalem.

Israel - Arab World Conflict: Background, History, Notable Events
Iranian protesters hold anti-Israel and anti-US placards during the Jerusalem Day march in Tehran on September 3, 2010. (Photo: CNN)

1973: Yom Kippur War

The sporadic fighting that followed the Six-Day War again developed into full-scale war in 1973. On October 6, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (thus, “Yom Kippur War”), Israel was caught off guard by Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal and by Syrian forces crossing into the Golan Heights. The Arab armies showed greater aggressiveness and fighting ability than in the previous wars, and the Israeli forces suffered heavy casualties. However, the Israeli army reversed many of its early losses and pushed its way into Syrian territory, and encircled the Egyptian Third Army by crossing the Suez Canal and establishing forces on its west bank. Still, it never regained the seemingly impenetrable fortifications along the Suez Canal that Egypt had destroyed in its initial successes.

The fighting, which lasted through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, came to an end on October 26. Israel signed a formal cease-fire agreement with Egypt on November 11 and with Syria on May 31, 1974. A disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt signed on January 18, 1974, provided for Israeli withdrawal into the Sinai west of the Mitla and Gidi passes, while Egypt was to reduce the size of its forces on the east bank of the canal. A UN peacekeeping force was established between the two armies. This agreement was supplemented by another, signed on September 4, 1975.

On March 26, 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty formally ending the state of war that had existed between the two countries for 30 years. Under the terms of the treaty, which had resulted from the Camp David Accords signed in 1978, Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and, in return, Egypt recognized Israel’s right to exist. The two countries subsequently established normal diplomatic relations.

1982: Lebanon War

On June 5, 1982, less than six weeks after Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai, increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians resulted in the Israeli bombing of Beirut and southern Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had a number of strongholds. The following day Israel invaded Lebanon, and by June 14 its land forces reached as far as the outskirts of Beirut, which was encircled, but the Israeli government agreed to halt its advance and begin negotiations with the PLO. After much delay and massive Israeli shelling of west Beirut, the PLO evacuated the city under the supervision of a multinational force. Eventually, Israeli troops withdrew from west Beirut, and the Israeli army had withdrawn entirely from Lebanon by June 1985.

2006: Second Lebanon War

In July 2006 Hezbollah launched an operation against Israel in an attempt to pressure the country into releasing Lebanese prisoners, killing a number of Israeli soldiers in the process and capturing two. Israel launched an offensive into southern Lebanon to recover the captured soldiers. The war lasted 34 days but left more than one thousand Lebanese dead and about one million others displaced. Several Arab leaders criticized Hezbollah for inciting the conflict. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s ability to fight the Israel Defense Forces to a standstill won its praise throughout much of the Arab world.

2006-the 2010s: Israel - Iran conflict

In June 2006, Hamas militants infiltrated an army post near the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip and abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Two IDF soldiers were killed in the attack, while Shalit was wounded after his tank was hit with an RPG. Three days later Israel launched Operation Summer Rains to secure the release of Shalit. He was held hostage by Hamas, who barred the International Red Cross from seeing him, until 18 October 2011, when he was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Israel - Arab World Conflict: Background, History, Notable Events
Iranian protesters hold up caricatures of leaders of Israel during the annual anti-Israeli Al-Quds, Jerusalem, Day rally in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 8, 2018. (Photo: AP)

Israeli normalization with Gulf states and Sudan

The Arab states–Israeli alliance against Iran emerged by November 2017, upon warming ties between Israel and the Gulf States and received broad media attention in light of the February 2019 Warsaw Conference. The coordination took place in light of the mutual regional security interests of Israel and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, and their standoff against Iranian interests across the Middle East - the Iran–Israel proxy conflict and the Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. The Arab states participating in the coordination group are the core of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Those include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a delegation to Oman and met with Sultan Qaboos and other senior Omani officials.

In February 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met in Uganda, where they both agreed to normalize the ties between the two countries. Later that month, Israeli planes were allowed to fly over Sudan. This was followed by the Abraham Accords was agreed to by Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 13 August 2020. The treaty was intended to settle relations between the two countries. Concurrently, Israel agreed to suspend plans for the annexation of the Jordan Valley, according to Financial Times.

Israel - Arab current relations: Arab world expresses solidarity with Palestine amidst Israel bombardment

Several Arab states have expressed solidarity with Palestine amidst escalating violence in Sheikh Jarrah, Gaza, and the West Bank due to Israel’s military operations against militants in the occupied territory.

Saudi Arabia for one is leading Arab group meetings at the UN regarding the situation between Palestine and Israel, state news agency SPA reported. The Kingdom’s permanent representative at the UN Abdallah Yahya Al-Mouallimi met with the President of the General Assembly Volkan Bozkir to highlight the recent Israeli attacks, the report said. Al-Mouallimi also met with China’s permanent representative to the global body, the report added. The UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan also expressed his concern over the escalating violence between Israel and Palestine.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a telephone call between the two, also affirmed the right of the Palestinian people to establish their own state, Iraqi news agency INA reported. The Iraqi leader’s expression of support was reflected on the streets of Baghdad as residents, holding Iraqi and Palestinian flags, gathered to condemn the Israeli attacks against “defenseless Palestinians” and “the violation of Islamic sanctities in the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” the report added.

The Tunisian Presidency also issued a statement supporting Palestinians and their right to peace and an independent state. The presidency denounced “the provocations and violations committed by the occupation forces in the precincts of the holy places and which have already caused several ‘innocent’ victims,” Tunisian state agency TAP reported.

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