On May 15, the day after the creation of the State of Israel, the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon invaded the new state. The Arab forces were significantly larger and better equipped than Israel’s. Yet coordination and organization within the Arab armies was lacking, and political squabbles over conquered territories strained relations among the Arab allies. Despite its small number, the Israeli army was well-organized, well-disciplined and well-trained.
Months of fighting interspersed with temporary cease-fires officially ended in January 1949, followed by a series of armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt (February), Lebanon (March), Jordan (April) and Syria (July). Israel held the 5,600 square miles allotted to it by the UN partition plan plus an additional 2,500 square miles. Jordan held the eastern sector of Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Egypt held the Gaza Strip. Borders were finalized based on the frontlines.
Though Israel hoped the agreements would lead to official peace treaties, the Arab states refused to recognize Israel’s existence. A total economic, political and social boycott of Israel was maintained.
The Arab Economic Boycott was initiated in 1946 by the newly formed League of Arab States. The boycott was aimed at preventing the continued growth of the Jewish community in Mandate-era Palestine by boycotting the goods and services produced by Jews in the region. After Israel’s establishment in 1948, the Arab League expanded the boycott in an effort to undermine Israel’s economic viability.
The Arab boycott operated on several levels, targeting not only Israel, but also governments, companies, organizations, and individuals around the world with ties to Israel. The boycott weakened through the 1980s due to the decline in Arab economic power. The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty also served to further lessen the effects. The greatest change occurred after the signing of the Israel-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the start of the so-called “Oslo Process” where there was significantly less adherence to the boycott by Arab countries.
The United States was the only nation in the world to adopt comprehensive anti-boycott legislation. U.S. legislation prohibits American citizens or businesses to refuse to do business with Israel at the request of a foreign government, and prohibits furnishing information about business relations with Israel or blacklisted companies at the request of a foreign government.
From its initiation, the Arab boycott undoubtedly impaired Israel’s economic growth, but it has never been able to thwart that growth altogether. While the actual cost is impossible to quantify, the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce estimates that due to the boycott, Israel’s annual exports were 10 percent smaller than might otherwise have been expected.
While the scope and power of the official Arab boycott has lessened in recent decades, organized campaigns by pro-Palestinian groups in Europe and the United States promoting grassroots economic sanctions and cultural and academic boycotts against Israel and Israelis have gained momentum. Among these efforts are calls for the boycotting of Israeli goods, campaigns to prevent the participation of Israeli professionals and academics in international conferences and projects, calls to prevent cultural exchanges with Israelis, and initiatives to “divest” university, church and city investment portfolios of companies that do business with Israel. To date, these campaigns have been largely unsuccessful. However they serve the public relations goals of anti-Israel activists by publicly demonizing and singling out Israel. Such boycott initiatives are not covered by American anti-boycott legislation.
In May 1967, events in the region led Israel to believe that an Arab attack was imminent. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had ordered a withdrawal of the U.N. forces on the border and announced a blockade of Israeli goods through the Straits of Tiran. At the same time, Syria increased border clashes along the Golan Heights and mobilized its troops. Israel held back on military action due to a request by the United States, but international diplomatic efforts to stop the blockade failed. The Arab states began to mobilize their troops, and Arab leaders called for a war of total destruction against Israel.
Arab mobilization compelled Israel to mobilize its own troops, 80 percent of which were reserve civilians. Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt on June 5. Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and when Jordan and Syria entered the conflict Israel also gained control of the West Bank and the eastern sector of Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. In a catastrophic military defeat – which shook the Arab world for many years to come – the Arab nations ceased their fight six days after the war began.
This new territory brought great changes to Israeli daily life and created new challenges for policymakers. With the reunification of Jerusalem, Jews, who had been prevented by Jordan from entering the eastern part of the city, flocked to pray at the Western Wall for the first time in 19 years. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel had to grapple with the implications and challenges of having one million Palestinian Arabs now under its administration.
Soon after the end of the fighting, the United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 242, calling for an Israeli withdrawal from territories recently occupied and an acknowledgment by the Arab nations of Israel’s right to live in peace within secure borders.
On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in an effort to force Israel to surrender the land gained in 1967. The attack was on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Caught by surprise, in the war's initial days, Israel suffered severe losses of life, military equipment, and territory, abruptly shattering the euphoria the country had experienced since its show of strength in the Six Day War. Following an Egyptian refusal to accept a cease-fire and a Soviet airlift of military equipment to bolster Egyptian forces, the United States sent an airlift to Israel enabling her to recover from the first blow and inflict damage on Egypt and Syria. In response, Saudi Arabia led the Arab world in an oil embargo directed against the United States and other western nations. The war officially ended with a U.N.-declared cease-fire, but fighting continued.
When hostilities stopped later that month, the Israeli army held an additional 165 square miles of territory from Syria and had encircled the Egyptian Third Army by the Suez Canal. Efforts for peace treaties at that point failed, and only a year later following U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” were disengagement treaties signed by the parties. As per these limited agreements, Israel withdrew from all areas it had acquired from Syria during the 1973 war, and some territory from the 1967 war. Israel also withdrew from parts of the Sinai. Prisoners of war were exchanged, and the Arab world ended its oil embargo. Despite the victory, Israel’s near-defeat by the Arab nations highlighted her continued vulnerability.
The Lebanon War was Israel’s longest and most controversial war. In the mid-1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) broadened its presence in Lebanon, establishing military training centers and escalating artillery and cross-border attacks on civilians in northern Israel. Following the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London, Israel attacked PLO targets in Lebanon on June 4, 1982. The PLO responded with rocket and artillery barrages, and Israel retaliated by sending ground troops into Lebanon, in a mission titled “Operation Peace for the Galilee.”
While the original plan called for Israeli troops to undertake a 25-mile incursion to wipe out PLO positions in Southern Lebanon, Israeli troops on the ground quickly overran PLO positions in the south of Lebanon, destroyed Syrian installations in the Bekaa Valley, and reached Beirut by June 9. After battles in West Beirut, the PLO surrendered and agreed to evacuate to Tunisia in September.
On September 16, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan permitted Israel’s Lebanese allies, the Christian Phalangist forces, to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla with the purpose of rooting out remaining PLO forces who had evaded evacuation. The Phalangists, however, brutally massacred Palestinian civilians in the camp. Many Israelis were horrified by the incident, and on September 24, 400,000 gathered in Tel Aviv at the first of many demonstrations to protest the Lebanon War. The Government-appointed Kahane Commission released its report in February 1983 finding Sharon “indirectly responsible” and concluding that given the well-known Phalangist hatred of the Palestinians, he should have anticipated that they “were liable to commit atrocities.” Sharon resigned as defense minister.
In 1983, Israel signed an agreement with Lebanon terminating the state of war between the neighbors. While the PLO state-within-a-state had been dismantled, Syrian troops remained in Lebanon and the Christian-dominated Lebanese Government was too weak to control rival factions from attacking each other and Israel. A year later, under pressure from the Syrian government, Lebanon reneged on its agreement and the country remained volatile. Israeli troops completed a phased withdrawal from Lebanon in June 1985 and created a 9-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon along the border. The zone was intended to shield Israeli civilian settlements in the Galilee from cross-border attacks, and facilitated the capture of many terrorists. However, many Israeli soldiers continued to be killed in the security zone by terrorist groups supported by Iran and Syria, particularly Hezbollah.
The high number of casualties incurred in the South Lebanon security zone sparked widespread debate within Israel. In March 2000, the Israeli cabinet voted unanimously for a full troop withdrawal from Lebanon by July. The expectation was that such a withdrawal would be part of an agreement with Syria and Lebanon. However, after Syrian President Hafez al-Assad refused to continue talks with Israel, such coordination was not possible, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak authorized a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24, 2000. Israel remained in the Sheba Farms/Har Dov region, which it has held since the 1967 Six Day War. The area is recognized by the United Nations as Syrian, not Lebanese territory, and thus should be the subject of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Hezbollah insists that it is Lebanese territory and frequently attacks Israeli troops in the area, as well as along the border, and occasionally launches rocket attacks against northern Israeli cities.
In December 1987, collective Palestinian frustration erupted in the popular uprising against Israeli rule known as the Intifada, or “shaking off.” At first a spontaneous outburst, the Intifada developed into a well-organized rebellion. Masses of civilians attacked Israeli troops with stones, axes, Molotov cocktails, hand grenades, and firearms supplied by Fatah, killing and wounding soldiers and civilians. Israeli troops, trained for combat, were not prepared to fight this kind of war. Amid confusing directives, abuses occurred.
The Intifada petered out by 1990, with most of its leadership arrested. Nonetheless, it had a tremendous impact on Israeli public opinion and policymaking throughout the ensuing decade. While many Israelis were outraged by the Palestinian violence and angered by the danger their family members in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) encountered in the territories, the Intifada intensified the Israeli longing for normalcy and an end to the conflict, creating consensus for the peace negotiations of the 1990s.
For the Palestinians, the Intifada created a new cadre of leadership based in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These youths were supporters of the PLO leadership in Tunis, but did not consider themselves accountable to it. Many of the youths most active in the Intifada later became officials in the Palestinian Authority.
Widespread Palestinian violence erupted on Friday, September 29, 2000 in the Old City of Jerusalem and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The grassroots protests and violence soon turned to a campaign of deadly terrorism targeting Israeli civilians on buses, restaurants and on city streets. Over 1,000 Israelis were killed, and thousands severely injured in these attacks.
Palestinians claimed the outbreak of violence was “provoked” by the visit of then-Likud Party Chairman Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount the previous day. Israeli leaders maintain that the violence was orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership pointing to other incidents of violence against Israeli targets in the Gaza Strip days before the Sharon visit. Well before the Sharon visit there were incendiary calls for action in the Palestinian media and in sermons by religious leaders. Furthermore, on September 29, the PA closed the schools under its jurisdiction and coordinated the busing of demonstrators to the Temple Mount. Palestinian leaders have been quoted boasting that the violence was planned as early as July 2000.
The outbreak of Palestinian violence and terrorism was particularly disheartening for Israelis, especially those who were supportive of negotiations with the Palestinians, because it erupted just as the most serious negotiations for a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians were being pursued. At the Camp David Summit convened by U.S. President Bill Clinton in July 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians far greater concessions on Jerusalem, settlements, and territory than ever anticipated. Yet, the Palestinians refused the Israeli offer and turned to a campaign of violence.
In the initial weeks, there was a popular element to the violence, with large demonstrations in some Palestinian cities. Intermingled with the civilians at these demonstrations were armed Palestinian gunmen, who often used the cover of the crowd to shoot at Israeli installations. During this period, a Palestinian mob in Ramallah attacked two off-duty Israeli reservists, lynched them, and celebrated their deaths. Within a short time, grassroots participation in the violence ebbed, and the Palestinians turned to directly attacking Israeli civilian centers, military installations, vehicles, and civilians through suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, and rocket launchings, which killed over 1,000 Israelis, and left thousands severely injured.
The Palestinian Authority was deeply involved in the violence against Israel through PA-affiliated militia groups such as Fatah’s Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The PA leadership, including Yasir Arafat, was also fully involved in numerous arms shipments that were intercepted by Israel en route to the Gaza coast, most notably a large cache found in January 2002 aboard the Karine A ship which was on its way from Iran to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel attempted to counter Palestinian violence in a variety of ways. Most directly, it engaged in military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. A major incursion was launched in March-April 2002, following the March 22 Hamas suicide bombing of a Passover seder at a Netanya hotel in which 30 were killed and 140 were wounded. In 2003, the Government of Israel approved the building of a security fence or barrier, intended to prevent Palestinian terrorists from reaching their civilian targets inside Israel.
Numerous international efforts were undertaken to end the crisis, including plans presented by a commission headed by former Senator George Mitchell (known as the Mitchell Plan, calling for an end to violence, Israeli confidence-building measures, followed by final status negotiations) as well as a timetable set out by CIA chief George Tenet (known as the Tenet Plan, calling for an end to Palestinian violence and terror, Israeli confidence building measures, followed by negotiations for a final status agreement). In September 2002, the United States, the European Union, the Russian Federation, and the United Nations (collectively dubbed The Quartet) announced its sponsorship of “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The Roadmap, a phased peace plan, is still officially a working document for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Second Intifada petered out slowly, due in part to Palestinian malaise as well as the effectiveness of Israeli military defense and the protective security fence which served to stymie many terrorist attempts.