Recorded Jewish history dates from the time of Abraham, between 2000 and 1800 b.c. Many elements of the patriarchal chronicles have been confirmed as accurate by recent archaeological discoveries, but other elements of this enormously distant past may never be historically documented. Modern scientific methods reveal that human beings have lived in the Holy Land since the Old Stone Age, some 100,000 years ago. But a history so deep and full of universal significance is almost impossible to grasp in its entirety. Here is an outline of the major periods and events up to the present.
A Brief Look At the Past
In Israel’s museums and at Israel’s archaeological sites, you will encounter the following terms used to define the many time periods in Israel’s long history.
Late Stone Age (7500–4000 b.c.): First villages appear, including Jericho. Animal husbandry, irrigation, and pottery begin.
Chalcolithic (Copper) Age (4000–3200 b.c.): Copper is used in tools; towns grow; designs appear on pottery; a culture develops at Beersheba.
Early Bronze (Canaanite) Age (3200–2200 b.c.): Towns are fortified; temples and palaces are built.
Middle Bronze (Canaanite) Age (2200–1550 b.c.): The Age of the Patriarchs; Abraham travels; trade develops; the Hyksos invade Canaan and Egypt.
Late Bronze (Canaanite) Age (1550–1200 b.c.): Hebrews are enslaved in Egypt; the alphabet develops; the Exodus from Egypt occurs; the Ten Commandments are delivered on Mount Sinai; Hebrew tribes conquer the Promised Land.
Early Iron Age (1200–1020 b.c.): Period of the Judges; Philistine invasion.
Middle Iron Age (1020–842 b.c.): The united kingdom of Israel and Judah under King David (1000 b.c.) with Jerusalem as capital; between 960 and 950, King Solomon builds the First Temple; it is a golden age of Israelite culture and power.
Late Iron Age (842–587 b.c.): Period of the later kings and prophets; the Kingdom of Israel is destroyed in 701 b.c. The Kingdom of Judah is destroyed in 587 b.c. by Babylonians; the First Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed.
Babylonian & Persian Periods (587–332 b.c.): Jewish captivity in Babylon, followed by Persian permission to return to Jerusalem; the Second Temple is built in 515 b.c.; times of Ezra and Nehemiah; public reading of the Torah begins.
Hellenistic & Maccabean Periods (332–37 b.c.): Conquest by Alexander the Great, followed by Hellenistic dynasties; the Maccabean revolt and liberation of Judea.
Roman Period (37 b.c.–a.d. 324): Herodian dynasty; birth of Jesus, his ministry, and crucifixion; Jewish revolt against Rome; the Second Temple and Jerusalem are destroyed (a.d. 70); fall of Masada (a.d. 73); Bar Kochba revolt against Rome (a.d. 132–35).
Byzantine Period (a.d. 324–640): Galilee Jews revolt against Byzantine domination; Jerusalem Talmud is completed; Persian invasion and sack of Jerusalem (a.d. 614); birth and rise of Islam in the Middle East.
Arab Period (a.d. 640–1096): Jerusalem is conquered by Islamic armies (a.d. 638); Arab Empire capital is first at Damascus, later Baghdad; joint Christian-Muslim protectorate of holy places; Christian pilgrimage rights are curtailed.
The Crusades (1096–1291): First Crusade (1096–99); Crusader conquest of Jerusalem (1099); Crusader Kingdom established under Godfrey of Bouillon; Saladin recaptures Jerusalem for Islam (1187); the end of the Fourth Crusade (1202–04) sees the destruction of the Crusader Kingdom.
Mamluk & Ottoman Turkish Period (1291–1917): Mongols and Seljuks replace Arabs and Byzantines as rulers of the Holy Land; Ottomans conquer Palestine in 1517; Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilds Jerusalem’s walls; thousands of Jews, expelled from Spain and Italy, find refuge in the Ottoman Empire; Safed, in the Galilee, becomes a center for Jewish scholarship; Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Palestine (1799); movement to re-create a Jewish homeland is led by Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), who publishes “The Jewish State”; first Zionist Congress is held in Basel (1897).
The British Mandate
The Balfour Declaration in 1917 announced British support for the creation of a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine. In 1920, after Great Britain had captured the region of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the League of Nations granted the British a “mandate” to govern Palestine. In 1922, Great Britain separated Trans-Jordan (present-day Jordan) from British Mandate Palestine and established a separate Arab country.
Within Palestine, huge progress was made during the first 20 years of British administration. Hospitals and schools were established in both Jewish and Arab areas, and in Jewish areas, dazzlingly modern, planned communities, both urban and agricultural, were built; much desolate land was reclaimed for agricultural use. The Arab population resented British policies of the early 1920s, which encouraged Jewish immigration; almost immediately after the British Mandate took effect, political disorder erupted. The era of the British Mandate saw three-way disputes between British, Jewish, and Arab factions and Arab attacks on Jewish communities, especially in 1921 and 1929. Jewish immigration increased during the early Hitler years.
An Arab insurrection from 1936 to 1939 led the British in 1939 to severely limit Jewish immigration before cutting it off entirely. Thus, during World War II, Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust in Europe were denied refuge. After the outbreak of World War II, political tensions within Palestine diminished somewhat, and the area became a bustling Allied military base. However, the coming conflict was inevitable. In 1946, Arab and Jewish terrorism against the British began, the King David Hotel was blown up by a Jewish underground group at odds with David Ben-Gurion’s more mainstream Zionist organization, and the cycle of violence reached new heights.
In November 1947, with Britain abstaining, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states—one Arab and one Jewish. On May 14, 1948, with the Jewish parts of Jerusalem under Arab siege, fighting widespread across Palestine, and 400,000 Arab Palestinian civilians fleeing their homes, the British Mandate ended in shambles, and the State of Israel was proclaimed. Arab armies from surrounding states invaded the fledgling nation but were pushed back, and the 1949 cease-fire lines left Israel in control of somewhat more territory than the UN partition had allotted. Only a few Jewish areas fell to Arab armies. The Palestinian State proposed for those areas that remained under Arab control did not come into being. The West Bank and East Jerusalem (including the Old City) were annexed by Jordan, although most of the international community did not recognize this act. Jordan granted citizenship to all Palestinians under its control, the only Arab nation to do so. Egypt occupied but did not annex the Gaza Strip. Its inhabitants were declared stateless.
The Making of an Independent State
In the beginning of the State of Israel’s history, there was enormous exhilaration but also a grim determination. The double weight of the horrors of the Holocaust and the enormous casualties suffered in the War of Independence from 1948 to 1949 drove the country to protect every sand dune, to force life out of the desert, and to create a haven for any Jews who might again find themselves in danger. Life was austere. For years, food, clothing, razor blades, and paint were severely rationed, as the country struggled to survive as well as to feed and shelter the thousands of new immigrants who arrived each month. In less than a decade, the nation’s population quadrupled as hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees from the Middle East arrived. Hundreds of thousands more were added in the 1960s as Jews fled North Africa.
Slowly, with enormous effort, conditions grew more stable. Basic housing was built, uprooted people began to develop new identities, and although life was still spartan (the founding fathers refused to allow television stations to be established, claiming that the nation had more important things to attend to), the country began to flourish. Modern farming and irrigation, along with dedication, made the desert bloom, but even more important were Israel’s developing industries (today, huge areas of hard-won agricultural land are being plowed for new cities and industrial zones).
Wars & the Search For Peace
During the Suez War of November 1956, Great Britain and France invaded Egypt to secure the Suez Canal, which Egypt had nationalized, and Israel (in coordination with the British and French recapture of Suez) conquered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, hoping to put an end to 9 years of Egyptian attacks on southern Israel. In exchange for the stationing of a UN peacekeeping force on the Egyptian side of the Israeli-Sinai border, and with promises of freedom to send its shipping through the Red Sea to Eilat, Israel withdrew entirely from the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza in early 1957. Ten years of relative peace followed, punctuated by periodic sniper attacks on the Galilee from Syrian batteries on the Golan Heights and Israeli retaliations.
In May 1967, the UN peacekeeping force that had maintained security on the Israeli-Egyptian border for 10 years was unilaterally ordered out by Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in violation of international guarantees. At the same time, Nasser blockaded the port of Eilat on the Red Sea, economically strangling Israel, while Syria stood ready to attack the Galilee from the Golan Heights. For Israelis, only too aware that the nation was less than 16km (10 miles) wide and that the Jordanian army in East Jerusalem was aimed point-blank at Jewish West Jerusalem, the agony of these weeks, while the Israeli government tried to rally international support, was unbearable. The pace of propaganda against Israel throughout the Arabic world reached new pitches of frenzy, and Arab armies in Egypt and Syria mobilized to deliver what was claimed would be a crushing blow. The Israelis dug mass graves in the parks of Tel Aviv in preparation for the civilian casualties of an Arab invasion.
In the early morning of June 5, 1967, Israel made a preemptive strike against the air forces of Egypt and Syria. At noon, Jordan, despite diplomatic pleas that it stay out of the conflict, began to shell West Jerusalem. In the Six-Day War that followed, Israel swept to an unimaginable victory, conquering the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the entire West Bank. The Arab world was left in a state of shock. Suddenly Israel was no longer a struggling state hanging on tenaciously to its hard-won independence. Land areas under its control more than tripled. Israel’s patriarch, David Ben-Gurion, by then in retirement, warned that all the conquered areas must be relinquished immediately, but in the euphoria of the day, his words made little sense to most Israelis. Many believed that peace would finally develop.
As the years passed, however, the Arab world continued to refuse to recognize Israel diplomatically, and the plight of the Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Middle East continued to be ignored by the world at large. In the absence of a peace agreement that would trade most land captured in 1967 for peace, the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began to seem less temporary. The small political movement for Jewish settlement of the Occupied Territories began to grow, although at first the Israeli government officially opposed it. Resentment grew among the Palestinians under occupation.
The country experienced a sharp change in fortune in October 1973. The Yom Kippur War, an unexpected simultaneous attack against Israel launched by Egypt and Syria, had a sobering effect on the entire nation. In the first days of the attack, the Golan Heights were almost retaken by Syria, and Egyptian forces, crossing the Suez Canal, overwhelmed Israeli troops in Sinai. More than 2,500 young Israelis were killed in 1 month, losses proportionately higher than the casualties the United States sustained during the entire Vietnam War. Egyptian and Syrian casualties were enormous. Although the war ended with Israeli forces closer than ever before to Cairo and Damascus, the high cost in lives shook the nation’s confidence and tarnished the images of its leaders. In a backlash, voters turned against the Labor Party, which had led the state since its founding, and elected a government dominated by the right-of-center Likud led by Menachem Begin.
In 1977, Prime Minister Begin quietly set in motion a series of events that resulted in Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat making a dramatic visit to Jerusalem. This led to a peace treaty with Egypt in March 1979, ending 30 years of war between the two countries. Accordingly, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt. With peace established, it remains open to tourists from Israel, although the current turmoil in Egypt makes travel to Sinai uncertain.
The hopes for a regional peace agreement that the Egyptian-Israeli settlement raised were not quickly realized. No additional Arab countries came forward to negotiate. The 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon put further strains on Israel’s relations with its neighbors. Deteriorating relations with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza marked the 1980s, as more land was appropriated for Jewish settlements. In 1987, the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza began daily commercial strikes and demonstrations. This uprising, the Intifada, continued through the early 1990s.
The 1990s brought a wave of almost a million immigrants from Ethiopia and the dissolving Soviet system and, in the summer of 1990, the Kuwait crisis. Israel was not a participant in the Allied coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War that followed, but Saddam Hussein declared that he would “incinerate half of Israel” with missile-borne chemical and bacteriological attacks if the Allied coalition moved against him. The United States asked Israel to refrain from retaliating if it came under attack and pledged that any Iraqi missile threat to Israel would be destroyed by American bombing within the first hours of war. Nevertheless, Israelis found themselves dashing for gas masks and sitting in makeshift sealed rooms, experiencing nightly Scud missile attacks for the entire six weeks of the Gulf War. Iraq’s missiles turned out to be armed only with explosives instead of the chemical weapons Hussein had threatened, but the ordeal left its mark on Israeli society. Many Israelis came to believe it was worth taking risks to try to achieve peace. Others were more determined than ever to avoid any further concessions. The Oslo peace process began in 1991 and continued after President Bill Clinton arranged a White House peace process ceremony between newly elected Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993.
The Peace Process Stalls
Negotiating directly with Palestinians and moderate Arab governments, Israel began a planned withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza in 1994. In the same year, a peace treaty was signed with the Kingdom of Jordan. The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a Jewish opponent of the peace process in 1995 was a blow for those who hoped for lasting peace.
After the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, a new, violent Palestinian Intifada erupted from 2000 to 2005. In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evacuated all Israeli settlements in Gaza but suffered a massive stroke before he could outline further plans. Since then, the conflict has continued on a course of uncertainty, punctuated by rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns from Gaza and by Israeli retaliation.
In November 2012, conflict erupted between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and lasted for eight days. Tensions boiled over again in July 2014, when rocket attacks by Hamas led Israel to launch a military operation dubbed Protective Edge; a cease-fire and fragile calm came only after seven weeks of hostilities and losses on both sides. As elsewhere in the Middle East, that politics can be volatile is an understatement.