Wars & Disputes 1948-2001

A Chronological Outline

1948 Israel’s Independence

On 14 May 1948 the British Mandate ended and Israel proclaimed its independence as a sovereign state within the borders determined by the United Nations Partition Resolution of 29 November 1947 1. A Provisional government was established under the leadership of David Ben Gurion as Prime Minister.

The Arab nations rejected the Partition Resolution, as they denied the legitimacy of Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Arabs of Palestine therefore refused to establish an Arab state in the area contemplated by the Partition Resolution, since this would imply recognition of a Jewish state in the remaining part of Palestine.

1948-1949 The War of Independence (Jewish description)


On the first night of Israel’s independence, Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv.

The next morning the regular armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq invaded, supported by volunteers from Sudan and Saudi Arabia, with the declared aim of “restoring order” 3. When the conflict began, the Jewish forces numbered some 36,500 and were without tanks, heavy weapons or combat aircraft.

After initial Arab successes, the Jewish forces recaptured some territory. Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden was appointed as a mediator by the United Nations, and he negotiated a truce, which came into effect on 11 June 1948.

During the truce Israel received an airlift of arms from Czechoslovakia and expanded its forces.

After 9 July 1948 there were ten days of fierce fighting in which Israeli forces captured important regions in the centre of the country and in the north. On 17 July 948 the Security Council imposed a further cease-fire, supported by the threat of sanctions against Israel.

Bernadotte then proposed a peace plan, which included a drastically reduced area for Israel in “union” with an enlarged Kingdom of Transjordan. Jewish immigration would be unlimited for a period of two years and would then be subject to United Nations approval. Both Arab and Jewish representatives rejected the plan.

On 15 October 1948 the Egyptians cut off Israeli supplies to the Negev – the southern desert area – and war recommenced. Israel took Beersheba (4) and advanced into the Sinai Desert. Renewed fighting in Jerusalem ended with the city divided.

On 7 January 1949 a final cease-fire was called. The war was now over, and Israel had lost some 6,000 people, including 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians. Arab casualties are not known.

1949 The Armistice Agreements

After the cease-fire, negotiations took place between Israel and Egypt on the Greek island of Rhodes under the mediation of the American diplomat Ralph Bunche. This led to an armistice agreement, which was followed, by subsequent agreements with Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria. The net result was the establishment of the cease-fire lines of 1949.

Jerusalem, which was to be internationalised under the partition resolution, was now divided. Israel took West Jerusalem; and Transjordan took East Jerusalem, including the Old City, with its centres of major religious significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (5)

The territory which Israel describes as “Judea and Samaria”, which was to be part of the proposed Arab state under the Partition Resolution, also came under the control of Transjordan. In 1950 Transjordan purported to annex this territory, which it described as the “West Bank” of the Jordan river, and its name was therefore changed to the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” (6). This annexation had no international sanction and was recognised only by Britain and Pakistan, and not by any of the Arab states. Although the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian control, it was not annexed by Egypt, and its inhabitants were defined as stateless.

Syria advanced its boundary from the international boundary agreed between Britain and France in 1923 when Britain transferred the Golan Heights to the French mandate of Syria, to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Israel expanded its borders beyond the boundaries fixed by the Partition Resolution to include a corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the whole of Upper Galilee in the north, and an extended area in the southern desert.

1947-1949 The Palestinian Arab Refugees

The origins of the Arab refugee problem lie in the events surrounding the hostilities, which commenced in November 1947 and ended with the armistice agreements of 1949.

Some hundreds of thousands of Arabs left their homes in the areas, which came under Jewish control. Estimates of the number of refugees vary from 419,000, calculated on the basis of numbers before and after the exodus (8), while the UNRWA relief figures amounted to 726,000.

Arab sources accuse the Jewish forces of a concerted terror campaign aimed at removing the Arab population (9). Israeli writers, on the other hand, point to the documented Arab calls for the inhabitants of the area to leave their homes and make way for an Arab invasion, and public statements by Israel calling on the Arab population to remain.

In the event, the refugees found themselves in camps in the Gaza strip, on the West Bank, and in Transjordan, and later in Lebanon and Syria. Although many found lucrative work in the Gulf States, and some obtained Jordanian citizenship, generally no attempt was made by the Arab nations to integrate the refugees into their surrounding economies. As a result, the camps became depressed areas, dependent on relief facilities provided by the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA).

As at 1996 UNRWA provided services to more than four and a half million people seeking aid as Palestinian refugees and their descendants, as follows:

  • West Bank: 1.2 million
  • Gaza: 880,000
  • Jordan: 1.832 million
  • Lebanon: 372,700
  • Syria: 352,100

Meanwhile, the Arabs who remained in Israel were granted full citizenship, including the right to vote and be elected as members of the Knesset. (There were two Arab members of the first Knesset; the 1999 Knesset has 15 Arab members.) However, the rights of Israeli Arabs were limited by the military administration of Arab areas introduced in 1948; the military administration was progressively eased until it was finally abolished in 1966.

1948-1951 Jewish Immigration

One of the first Laws of the State of Israel was the “Law of Return“, which provided that every Jew was entitled to immigrate to Israel as a right.

Between 15 May 1948 and 31 December 1951 a total of 686,739 Jewish immigrants arrived in Israel. The Jewish population thus grew from about 650,000 in 1948 to about 1.4 million in 1951, causing immense strains on Israel’s undeveloped economy, with desperate housing and food shortages.

The first wave of immigration following independence consisted of more than 120,000 survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, arriving from displaced persons camps in Europe and British detention camps in Cyprus (12). The Romanian government was bribed to permit another 117,950 survivors to leave.

In 1950 the Iraqi government agreed to release its Jews – provided they left behind their property and valuables – and 123,371 immigrants were immediately airlifted to Israel. Then followed the arrival of large groups of immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and 46,640 Jews airlifted from Yemen in “Operation Magic Carpet”.

By the mid-1950s the Jewish population was roughly half of European background and half non-European. Permanent housing, co-operative settlements and development towns were being established, replacing the vast tent camps and an agricultural and industrial infrastructure was being developed.

Reference Map of Israel and areas around Israel


1956 The Suez Crisis


In 1949 Egypt closed both the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships and cargoes destined for Israel. This meant that Israel had no access at all to the East, including Australia. Egypt also equipped and trained the “Fedayeen” terrorist groups based in Gaza, which engaged in violent incursions against neighbouring Israeli settlements.

In 1952 King Farouk of Egypt was deposed by an army revolt and, after a few months, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser replaced the leader of the revolt, General Mohammed Naguib, and became President. He developed a program of socialism, Arab nationalism and non-alignment (13) which had a wide appeal in the Arab world.

In September 1955 Egypt concluded an arms deal with the USSR.

In October 1955 a federation was proclaimed between Egypt and Syria, adopting the name “United Arab Republic ”.

In June 1956 Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, repudiating the treaties which had been concluded with Britain and France when the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company constructed the Canal in 1869.

Meanwhile, Fedayeen attacks against Israel were intensified, and were supported by Egyptian artillery bombardments.

Britain, France and Israel now had a community of interest.

In secret negotiations conducted through the Americans, Nasser offered to open the Suez Canal to Israel in exchange for the transfer to Egypt of a large area of southern Israel up to Beersheba, an offer rejected by Ben Gurion as clearly not serious. Meanwhile, secret discussions also took place in Paris between then Defence Director Shimon Peres and the French Defence Minister.

The Events of 1956

Between 29 October and 5 November 1956 Israel gained control of Gaza and the whole of the Sinai in a lightning but hard fought attack, and advanced to the vicinity of the Canal. Meanwhile, Britain and France bombarded the Canal area.

On 6 November 1956 the United Nations called a cease-fire. Both the USA and the USSR called for Israeli withdrawal. After lengthy negotiations and particularly as a result of American insistence, Israel agreed to withdraw on the following conditions:

  • Establishment of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in Sinai to protect Israel’s southern border.
  • Guarantees by a group of maritime nations, including the USA, of freedom of passage in the Straits of Tiran.

1967 The Six Day War


Between 1965 and 1967 Syria, with the aid of Russian “advisers” and military supplies, bombarded Israeli settlements in Galilee from gun emplacements on the Golan Heights 15. This culminated in a major air battle in which Israeli warplanes defeated Syrian planes on 7 April 1967.

On 15 May 1967 Egypt demanded the withdrawal of the UNEF in Sinai. U Thant, Secretary-General of the UN, agreed, and the UN troops were immediately withdrawn without the necessary approval of the United Nations General Assembly.

Egypt advanced a massive armoured force, including 900 tanks, into the Sinai. Syria assembled a force of more than 400 tanks on the Golan Heights. Jordan placed its troops under a unified command with the Egyptians and Iraq declared that it would join “the final battle”. In all, the Arab forces had deployed some 1,600 tanks and had some 700 combat-ready aircraft, as against Israel’s 800 tanks and 300 aircraft.

Meanwhile, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in defiance of the guarantees given by the “maritime powers” in 1956. For the next four weeks Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban travelled the world, seeking without success to enforce the guarantees, which had been given as a condition of Israel’s withdrawal from Suez and Gaza. US President Lyndon Johnson informed Eban, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone”.

Nasser made speeches comparing the coming destruction of Israel to the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin. Volunteers flew into Israel from Jewish communities throughout the world.

The Events


In a surprise attack on 5 June 1967 the Israeli air force destroyed the bulk of the Egyptian air force on the ground.

Israeli armoured forces then quickly defeated the overwhelming number of Egyptian tanks in the Sinai, and then took Gaza and the greater part of the Sinai in two days.

Jordan rejected Israel’s offer of non-belligerence and shelled Jerusalem and the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv. In heavy fighting, Israeli forces succeeded in taking East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Temple Mount. The rest of the West Bank followed this. Then General Yitzchak Rabin accompanied Moshe Dayan and Uzi Narkiss in to the Old City of Jerusalem.

At midnight on 8 June a cease-fire came into effect with Jordan and Egypt.

Meanwhile, there was a fierce battle as Israeli tanks climbed the Golan Heights under Syrian fire. The Heights were taken by Israel on 10 June and the war ended.

The Diplomatic Aftermath

In the course of defending against the Egyptian and Syrian threats outlined above, Israel came into possession of the Sinai desert up to the Suez Canal, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem – including the Old City – and the Golan Heights.

Israel announced an official policy of “territories for peace” i.e. withdrawal to secure borders in exchange for “full peace” and recognition.

The Arab response came from the 13-nation Arab Summit conference held at Khartoum. On 1 September 1967 the Conference made a declaration, which came to be known as the “Three No’s of Khartoum” – “No peace, no negotiation, no recognition.”

Resolution 242

On 22 November 1967 the Security Council of the United Nations adopted a resolution, sponsored by Britain, which remains the essential document of the Middle East conflict.

Resolution 242 16 includes the following elements:

  • Withdrawal of Israel “from territories occupied in the recent conflict”
  • The right of “every State in the area” to live in peace within “secure and recognised boundaries”
  • Guarantees for freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal and through the Straits of Tiran
  • “Just settlement of the refugee problem”

Jordan and Egypt accepted the resolution on the basis that “territories” meant “all the territories”, and that any settlement should be “subject to the right of the Palestinians to continue their struggle for the liberation of the whole of Palestine”.

The resolution was accepted by Israel (despite misgivings at the fact that the word “Israel” was conspicuously absent) on the basis that the word “territories” was read in conjunction with the need for “secure” boundaries.

Syria and the PLO, who called for the “liberation of Palestine” by force, rejected it.

1964-1968 – Emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation

In May 1964 the Arab League under the leadership of Ahmed Shukheiry established the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Egypt. The title of the organisation included the word “Palestine” rather than “Palestinian”, since it was seen as a pan-Arab organisation dedicated to the liberation of Palestine, and the concept of a “Palestinian” national identity had not yet emerged. The Arab League appointed the leadership of the organisation. Later, in 1967,Al Fatah became dominant. This was a para-military group led by Yasser Arafat and supported by Syria. In May 1968 a Palestinian National Conference was held in Cairo. Al Fatah joined the PLO and Arafat became Chairman.

The conference adopted the Palestinian National Covenant (17) which included the following articles:

Article 2:
Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit.

Article 6:
The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasions 18 will be considered Palestinians.

Article 9:
Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. Thus it is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase.

Article 21:
The Arab Palestinian people, expressing themselves by the armed Palestinian revolution, reject all solutions which are substitutes for the total liberation of Palestine and reject all proposals aiming at the liquidation of the Palestinian problem, or its internationalisation.”

The Executive of the Organisation now comprised representatives of various “terrorist” (or “guerilla”) organisations. Different Arab Governments, including Al Fatah, then sponsored by Egypt, As Saiqa, affiliated with the Syrian Ba’ath Party, and the Arab Liberation Front, sponsored by the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, sponsored some. Others, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), under George Habash, and the Democratic PFLP, under Naif Hawatmeh, represented different Marxist views.

1967-1972 – Terrorist attacks on civilians

During this period the PLO and associated groups carried out some hundreds of terrorist attacks, including bombings and hijackings. Some examples:

22 November 1968
Bomb at Jerusalem market kills 14, including two Arabs.

6 March 1969
Bomb at Hebrew University injures 28 students.

13 February 1970
47 killed when Swissair plane blown up.

22 May 1970
Eight children killed when school bus shelled.

10 May 1972
Japanese “Red army” kill 27 Christian pilgrims at Lod airport.

5 September 1972
11 Israeli athletes murdered at the Olympic Games in Munich.

29 October 1972
Lufthansa plane hijacked and Munich murderers released.

1969-1975 – Jewish Settlement in the Territories

Included in the territories taken by Israel in the 1967 war was the region described by Jordan as the “West Bank” of the Jordan river, and described by Israel as “Judea and Samaria”, the Biblical names of the southern and northern parts of the area respectively.

A religious “Land of Israel Movement” was founded in 1967 with the aim of promoting Jewish settlement in the ancient Jewish heartland of the West Bank. In 1969, settlers supported by the movement infiltrated the Arab city of Hebron. (The tomb of the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is situated in Hebron, and it had always had a small Jewish population until the Jews were massacred in the Arab riots of 1936.) The Israeli government, presented with a fait accompli, permitted the establishment of a settlement on the outskirts of the city.

The development of policies for the administration of the territories required consideration of future territorial compromise on the basis of “secure and recognised boundaries” as contemplated by Resolution 242. The Deputy Prime Minister, Yigal Allon, developed a plan, which became known as the Allon Plan, based on his conception of Israel’s essential security requirements. The plan contemplated Jewish settlement in areas adjacent to Jerusalem, in the valley next to the Jordanian border and the mountain ridge overlooking it and in Hebron.

Agricultural settlements were also established south of Gaza.

1968-70 The War of Attrition

Meanwhile, Egypt embarked on a policy of bombarding Israeli bases in Sinai. Also the Soviet Union supplied Egypt with missiles and “advisers” including Soviet pilots.

Intensive diplomatic activity involving the United Nations, the USA and the USSR ended in a UN sponsored cease-fire in August 1970, which was quickly broken.

However, after the death of Nasser on 28 September 1970 and the accession of Anwar Sadat, the tension gradually abated.

1970 “Black September”


After the PLO’s hijacking of an American passenger aircraft in Jordan and seizure of Irbid (a major Jordanian city), the Jordanian Government moved against the organisation. Some thousands were killed in the ensuing conflict and PLO power in Jordan was effectively broken.

Henceforth, Lebanon became the centre for PLO activity.

1973 – The Yom Kippur War

For three years after 1970, Sadat planned a surprise attack with Soviet support. The attack took place on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew), an annual day of fasting and prayer which is the holiest day of the Jewish year.

On 6 October 1973 Egyptian and Syrian troops struck simultaneously. Egyptian tanks crossed the Suez Canal, demolished the Israeli defence lines and sped through the Sinai towards Israel. At the same time, 1,400 Syrian tanks advanced in the Golan Heights. The Egyptian and Syrian forces were assisted by a Russian airlift of sophisticated arms supplies, including brand new wire-guided anti-tank (‘Sagger’) missiles, which were a decisive factor in the early battles.

The Israeli forces were unprepared and taken by surprise. President Nixon agreed to an American airlift of military supplies only – after a delay of more than a week – and without British or European co-operation.

Eventually, after two weeks of fierce fighting, Israeli forces gained control in the Sinai. Units under the command of General Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal, entered Egypt and encircled the Egyptian Third Army.

On 22 and 24 October, cease-fires proposed by the UN came into effect. After further negotiations, the Egyptian Army was released from encirclement and Israeli forces withdrew to the east side of the Canal.

The 1973 war is still celebrated in Egypt as a major Arab “victory”. The victory museum in Cairo stands in a suburb re-named “10th Ramadan” after the Egyptian name for the war.

1974 – Kissinger’s “Step-by-Step Negotiations”

After a dramatic series of flights between Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger succeeded in negotiating “disengagement agreements” which put in place narrow demilitarised zones between the opposing forces in the Golan Heights and next to the Suez Canal.

1977 Sadat in Jerusalem

In November 1977, after secret contacts involving President Ceausescu of Romania and King Hassan of Morocco, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt made the historic announcement to the Egyptian parliament, broadcast on American television, that he was prepared to enter into direct peace negotiations with Israel. “I am willing to go to the ends of the earth for peace”, he said. “Israel will be astonished to hear me say now, before you, that I am prepared to go to their own house, to the Knesset itself, to talk to them.”

In 1977, Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, took office. That did not stop Egyptian President Anwar Sadat from making his historic trip to Israel the same year and addressing the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. An extraordinary peace process ensued, with all the ups and downs that came with a difficult set of negotiations. After nearly 30 years of rejection by the Arab world, Israel was jubilant. Sadat was greeted with a fanfare of trumpets when he made his address to the Knesset in Jerusalem on 20 November 1977. In his speech he called for the return to Egypt of all of the Sinai in exchange for a peace treaty.

1978 The Camp David Accords


Protracted negotiations now took place. Eventually talks were held between Sadat, Begin and US President Carter at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Virginia. On 17 September 1978, Sadat and Begin signed a document entitled The Framework for Peace in the Middle East and known as the “Camp David Accords”.

It included a proposal for limited self-government for the Palestinians. (The Palestinians rejected the proposal.)

It was a remarkable moment in history. Sadat, virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic for much of his life, and the mastermind of Egypt’s surprise attack (together with Syria) on Israel that ignited the 1973 Yom Kippur War, teamed up with Begin, the head of Israel’s leading right-wing party, to open a new chapter in Arab-Israel relations. It proved that with will, courage, and vision, anything was possible.

But every Arab country, save Sudan and Oman, severed diplomatic ties with Cairo. And in 1981 members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who would later become brothers-in-arms of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network, assassinated the Egyptian leader.

For its part, Israel yielded the vast expanse of the Sinai (approximately 23,000 square miles), which had provided a critical strategic buffer zone between itself and Egypt; it also gave up valuable oil fields it discovered in the Sinai, a big sacrifice for a country with no natural resources to speak of; it closed important air bases it had constructed; and, despite Begin’s staunch commitment to settlements, it dismantled these enclaves.

In doing so, Israel demonstrated very clearly its desire for peace, its willingness to take substantial risks and make sacrifices for peace, and its scrupulous commitment to fulfilling the terms of peace.

The document was divided into two parts. Since it was important to Egypt that the accords should not be seen as a withdrawal from their commitment to the Palestinians, the first part of the document was entitled “West Bank and Gaza”. It provided for a five-year period of limited self-government, or “autonomy”, in the West Bank and Gaza, the terms of which were to be negotiated with Palestinian and Jordanian representatives. This period of autonomy was to be followed by negotiations for a final status of the territories. In fact, it was 12 years before Palestinian representatives were prepared to negotiate with Israel over the proposed autonomy arrangements.

The second part of the document provided for Israeli withdrawal from the whole of Sinai over a period of three years, in exchange for demilitarisation, and the presence of an international observer force, which was not under the auspices of the UN. Australia agreed to contribute army personnel to the observer force. The withdrawal would be followed by normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel. This took place in 1982 with the conclusion of a formal peace treaty.

1975-1988 Further Jewish Settlement in the Territories

During the 1970s religious Zionists greatly expanded the number of Jewish settlements in “Judea and Samaria”, many in places of Biblical significance. Areas of public land were allocated to them. Also, under the Likud governments of Begin and Shamir, some areas of public land on the West Bank within short travelling distances of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were opened to ordinary residential development.

By 1988 there were some 70,000 settlers in the territories, a number that approximately doubled by 1996 to represent about three per cent of Israel’s population.

The Palestinian leadership fiercely opposed the settlements. They have also been described as illegal in UN resolutions, a proposition which is simply wrong as a matter of international law.

1982 – The War in Lebanon


After ‘Black September” in 1970, the PLO established a substantial presence in Lebanon. In south Lebanon, adjacent to Israel’s northern border, the PLO effectively established a “state within a state”. The region became a staging point for PLO infiltration into Israel and rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The PLO presence was also one element in the continuing Lebanese Civil War between various armed militias, Christian, Muslim and Druze, in which nearly 100,000 Lebanese were killed between 1975 and 1982.

Israel therefore had two aims: the stated objective of removing the PLO threat from the border region; and the further hope, not publicly stated, that an alliance with the Christian Lebanese might lead to a long-term peace with Lebanon.

The Events

“Operation Peace for Galilee” was launched on 6 June 1982. After the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Israel’s air force attacked PLO bases near Beirut. The PLO then bombarded several settlements in Northern Galilee. The next day, Israeli troops crossed the Lebanese border and, as they passed through the villages in the border area, they were met with demonstrations of welcome as liberators.

As abandoned PLO bases were taken, the Israelis found large stockpiles of heavy armaments, as well as documentation of Soviet-supported training schemes in the area for international terrorist organisations such as the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof group, and the Japanese Red Army.

The original aim proclaimed by Israel (and as stated to the Israeli cabinet by Defence Minister Ariel Sharon) was to establish a 40km buffer zone north of the border, eliminate PLO influence, and then quickly withdraw.

However, when the main PLO force fled to Beirut, Israel’s troops followed them to the outskirts of the city. During this time there were engagements between Israeli and Syrian forces in Lebanon, but both were careful to avoid escalation to formal war.

The PLO set up its headquarters in West Beirut, which is predominantly Muslim, and which was divided from Christian East Beirut by a “no-man’s land”. Israel bombarded the PLO centres in Beirut with tanks and artillery, causing civilian casualties and damage to buildings, which was widely televised and was subject to intense international condemnation.

On 12 August 1982, Arafat agreed that the PLO would leave Lebanon. A truce was arranged, a multi-national force including 1800 US marines arrived in Beirut and the leadership and some of the armed troops of the PLO were evacuated to Tunisia.

Israeli soldiers linked up with the Lebanese Christian forces who controlled East Beirut. The Christian leader Bashir Jemayel, who supported co-operation with Israel, was elected President. He was assassinated soon afterwards; a Muslim group claimed responsibility.

Three days later the tragedy of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps occurred. Israel facilitated the entry of Christian militiamen into the camps in order to mop up PLO armed resistance. Instead some hundreds 20 of Palestinians – men, women and children – were massacred by the militia, possibly in revenge for the assassination of Jemayel, as well as the murder of Christian civilians by the PLO in the previous year. Israel was accused of complicity and bore the brunt of the international scandal.

In Tel Aviv 400,000 Israelis demonstrated, demanding a judicial inquiry into the massacre and withdrawal from Lebanon. A commission was held, and it found that Israel was not responsible, but that Defence Minister Sharon ought to have been aware of the danger of acts of revenge.

A chaotic situation then ensued. Israel withdrew from Beirut as the multi-national force took over. The headquarters of the US marines in Beirut was blown up and 241 people were killed. Shortly afterwards the multi-national force was withdrawn. 40,000 Syrian troops moved into the Beka’a valley. Shi’ite Islamic militants came on the scene and pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian Christian militias fought each other.

It was not until 1985, with Shimon Peres of the Labour Party as Prime Minister in a national unity government, that Israeli forces were partly extricated from the Lebanese quagmire.

Results of the war

  • The PLO threat in Lebanon was eliminated. It is arguable that the PLO impotence from its Tunisian base was one of the factors, which made the Oslo Accords a possibility.
  • Syria moved into the vacuum left by the hostilities to achieve effective control over the affairs of Lebanon.
  • Israel withdrew to the 15 km “security zone” in south Lebanon. An alliance was formed with the mainly Christian South Lebanese Army, and a United Nations force was also put in place. However, this was not sufficient to contain the militant Shi’ite Islamic Hezbollah, which was supported by Iran and Syria.
  • In May 2000, Israeli forces finally withdrew from the security zone.

1986 Various Peace Proposals

Early in 1986, Shimon Peres, as Foreign Minister in the National Unity government, and King Hussein of Jordan floated the concept of an international peace conference, including all the permanent members of the Security Council.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, of the Likud party, denounced the Peres initiative because it did not require recognition of Israel’s existence by all the negotiating parties, and also because of the danger of an imposed settlement. Peres responded by suggesting a condition that all the participants should establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and that the great powers be excluded from the actual negotiations. The proposal did not proceed.

1987-1990 The Intifada

The “Intifada” (literally “throwing off”) was an uprising by the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, taking the form of widespread rioting. It was spontaneous in the sense that the riots did not follow the direction of any organised leadership.

The uprising began in October 1987 when four Arabs were killed in a motor vehicle accident involving Israeli settlers in Gaza. The riots which followed were dealt with in the conventional manner with teargas and arrests. When these measures proved ineffective, the violence spread throughout Gaza and Judea-Samaria.

A pattern of activity was established, in which streets were blockaded with burning tyres; young boys and older youths bombarded the Israeli troops with stones; and rocks were dropped on them from adjacent houses. Occasionally “Molotov cocktail” petrol bombs were thrown at cars and buses. Women led demonstrations, holding placards, often in English for the benefit of the foreign media.

The Intifada was a spectacular media event, with television crews and press photographers alerted before each episode, and massive international coverage.

The Israeli Response

The main problem posed by the Intifada was that it was spontaneous. There were no articulated demands to negotiate, and no organised leadership to negotiate with.

As the rioting grew in intensity, Yitzhak Rabin, as Defence Minister in Shamir’s National Unity Government, attempted to neutralise it quickly with a threat to “break the bones” of the participants. The threat was withdrawn following the resultant outcry.

As the Intifada grew in intensity, troops used teargas and rubber bullets; injuries and fatalities were a daily occurrence. Schools were closed and ringleaders arrested. Borders were closed and the number of workers from the Territories employed in Israel was substantially reduced, with serious economic effects.

Israeli soldiers, mainly 18-20 year old conscripts and older reservists, found difficulty in engaging in police-type action against civilians, and there was strong pressure on the government to find a means of disengaging. The problem was that although both the PLO and Islamic fundamentalist groups claimed credit for the uprising, neither was in fact in a position to negotiate terms for any cessation of the rioting.

1988 – Jordan Withdraws Claim to West Bank

In September 1988 King Hussein of Jordan announced that he no longer sought sovereignty over the “West Bank”. Palestinian representation in the Jordanian Majlis (Parliament) would cease, as would Jordanian payment of Jordanian public servants in the area.

The announcement dealt a blow to prospects of a peace settlement on the basis of the “Jordanian option” proposed in the first Part of the Camp David Accords, and seen as essential in both Labour and Likud proposals.

1988 The Algiers Conference and Arafat’s Statement

In November 1988 the Palestinian National Council, meeting at Algiers, adopted a resolution calling for an international conference on the basis of Resolutions 242 and 338 and “all other UN resolutions”. At the meeting a declaration proclaiming a “Palestinian State” was made, but boundaries were not defined. The conference also renounced terrorism outside Israel. The clauses in the Palestine National Covenant, which call for the destruction of Israel, were not amended.

Immediately after the Algiers conference, Arafat held a press conference at which he publicly recognised “for the record” the right of all nations in region “including the State of Palestine and Israel” to live in peace. He also condemned all forms of terrorism including “state terrorism”, but not “resistance”.

The US authorised its ambassador in Tunisia to open discussions with the PLO. Israel rejected the Arafat statement as long as the PLO Covenant remained unchanged, and the Intifada and attempted PLO incursions from Lebanon continued.

1989 Diplomatic initiatives

Following his statement in 1988, Arafat repeated his call for an international conference and demanded a return to the 1947 Partition Resolution boundaries, with Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian State. He emphasised that he was not prepared to enter into direct negotiations with Israel.

On 14 May 1989,Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud party, as Prime Minister in the national unity government, and Yitzhak Rabin of the Labour party, as Defence Minister, proposed a plan, known as the “Shamir-Rabin Peace Plan” aimed at ending the Intifada. The “peace plan” called for elections to be held in the Territories, so that elected representatives could then negotiate the terms of interim self-rule and a permanent settlement, as contemplated by the first Part of the Camp David Accords. Israel refused to negotiate with the PLO.

Meanwhile Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevadnardze visited Teheran, Damascus and Cairo, where he had discussions with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens aimed at reviving the concept of an international conference.

1990 – Jews allowed to leave Soviet Union

When Gorbachev introduced the first reforms to the Soviet system, described as perestroika (“freedom”) and glasnost (“openness”), he also permitted free emigration for the first time. 185,000 Jews arrived in Israel in 1990, and 147,000 in 1991. Emigration continued with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of Communism, and in all nearly a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union settled in Israel between 1990 and 1996.

The new immigrants formed political parties, and Natan Sharansky, a former political prisoner under the Soviet regime, was a minister in the Netanyahu government.

1990-1991 – Ethiopian Jews airlifted

After Operation Solomon in 1990 a series of airlifts succeeded in rescuing some 20,000 Jews from oppression in Ethiopia and taking them to Israel.

1990 – Iraq invades Kuwait

Iraq’s claim to sovereignty over Kuwait and its subsequent invasion, combined with the prospect of Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry, posed a threat to international oil supplies from the Middle East.

The US formed a coalition, which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria as Arab participants. Arafat visited Saddam Hussein and declared his support for Iraq. Jordan remained neutral. US and British forces bombarded strategic targets in Iraq with “smart missiles” as a preliminary to the ground attack, which eventually liberated Kuwait in January 1991.

As a diversion, and with the aim of causing dissension in the Arab alliance, Iraq threatened Israel with chemical and biological attacks, and “Scud” missiles were launched, reaching the centre of Tel Aviv. Gas masks and injection kits were issued to the population and instructions were given for them to stay in sealed rooms. Fortunately none of the missiles had unconventional warheads.

The US called on Israel to stay out of hostilities in order to maintain the Arab alliance. The US provided (ineffective) “Patriot” anti-missile weapons, and Israel agreed not to attempt to destroy Iraqi missile launchers.

Television recorded Palestinians on the rooftops cheering the Scud missiles as they passed overhead.

 1991 – The Madrid Peace Conference

On 30 October 1991, a peace conference was officially called jointly by the US and USSR, although it was in fact the result of initiatives by US Secretary of State James Baker. It was an historic occasion, since for the first time other Arab nations joined Egypt in negotiating directly with Israel, implying recognition of the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan participated. Since Israel refused to deal with the PLO, the Palestinians participated as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

The conference had become a possibility largely because the Gulf War had demonstrated the impotence of the Soviet Union in the region, and the dominance of US power. The equation of forces in the Arab-Israel conflict had dramatically changed.

After the initial meeting in Madrid the conference moved to Washington. A long process of speech making and sub-committee meetings appeared to be moving towards a stalemate.

1992 Yitzhak Rabin elected

On 23 June 1992 a Labour-led government replaced the Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir. Yitzchak Rabin, who had been the commander of Israel’s forces in the Six-day War of 1967, became Prime Minister.

1993 Oslo Accords Signed

The Oslo accords were the result of secret negotiations between Israeli and PLO representatives, which were taking place at the same time as the Madrid Conference. Norwegian UNWRA workers, who made contact with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, and conveyed conciliatory messages from the PLO, initiated the talks.

Rabin and Arafat in the presence of President Clinton signed the agreement on 13 September 1993 at a dramatic ceremony in Washington.

The Accords took the form of a Declaration of Principles for a future peace agreement. A Palestinian interim self-governing authority was to be given immediate limited self-government (“autonomy”) over Gaza and the Jericho area. A timetable was set for election of a Palestinian Authority, redeployment of Israeli forces out of populated areas in the territories and the negotiation of a final status agreement. That negotiation would consider such issues as the settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.

As a condition of the agreement, Arafat delivered a letter to Rabin, in which he formally “recognise [d] Israel’s right to exist in peace and security” and “renounce [d] the use of terrorism and other acts of violence” (21).

Consequences of the Oslo Accords

One consequence of the accords was the establishment of preliminary diplomatic relationships between Israel and a number of Arab and Islamic nations. There were also economic conferences attended by Israeli and Arab representatives in which future trading relations were discussed. The boycott imposed by the Arab League was informally at an end. Investment in Israel by European and American interests increased and Israel’s economy grew dramatically.

On the other hand, almost immediately after the accords were signed there was an outbreak of terrorist activity by the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. The incidence of terrorist attacks, including a number of suicide bombings, was much greater after the accords than before. Rabin’s response was to characterise the attacks as an attempt to de-stabilise the peace process, which should not be allowed to succeed: “We will continue the process as if there is no terror. And we will fight the terror as if there is no process.”

1994 The Hebron massacre

On 25 February 1994, a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque at the tomb of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Hebron, and machine-gunned 29 Arab worshippers before he himself was killed. His action was strongly condemned by all Israeli parties. Hamas reacted with suicide bombings killing 14 Israelis.

1994 The Cairo Agreement

This agreement made detailed provision for times and places of re-deployment of Israeli troops, established the Palestinian Authority and defined its powers and territory. The public signing in Cairo on 4 May 1994 had its drama, with Arafat refusing to sign the maps until President Mubarak of Egypt took him outside and persuaded him to return and sign.

A few days later Arafat announced that the Palestinians “would continue their Jihad until they … liberated Jerusalem”.

On 13 May 1994, Israeli troops were withdrawn from Gaza, and on 17 May 1994 from Jericho.

In October 1994 there was a public ceremony in the streets of Gaza, rejoicing at the killing of a kidnapped Israeli soldier. On 19 October, a suicide bomber on a bus killed 22 Israelis.

1994 Peace treaty with Jordan


This was a much easier negotiation than with Egypt, since as Israel and Jordan already enjoyed good, if quiet, ties based on overlapping national interests vis à vis the Palestinians, Israel once again demonstrated its deep yearning for peace and readiness to take the steps necessary to achieve it, including border adjustments and water-sharing arrangements that Amman called for.

On 26 October 1994 President Clinton went to Cairo and then to Akaba, the Jordanian port city on the Red Sea, for the signing of a formal peace treaty. King Hussein spoke of the “sons of Abraham, united by genuine historical bonds”. Israel made substantial concessions on water sharing. The result was a “warm peace” with open borders, and an absence of the hostile propaganda, which still continued in Egypt.

1995 Continuing terrorism and continuing negotiation

On 22 January 1995, a suicide bomber at a bus station killed 30 Israelis. At Rabin’s request, Arafat arrested Islamic fundamentalist leaders. In April six Israelis were killed in the Gaza Strip. In July six more were killed in Tel Aviv by a bomb on a bus.

Meanwhile intensive negotiations for the implementation of the accords continued. One problem was the protection of the small religious community in Hebron, the site of the tombs of the Jewish Patriarchs and the scene of continuing riots.

1995 Oslo II

This document, 314 pages long, was signed at Washington on 28 September 1995. It included detailed maps of areas A, B and C, to be under exclusive Palestinian, joint, and exclusive Israeli control respectively. Joint control meant Palestinian civil rule with Israeli military presence. Since the major Arab population centres were in areas A and B, 96 per cent of the population in the Territories (apart from Jerusalem) now came under Palestinian self-rule. A further timetable for Israeli “redeployment from populated areas” was also set.

The agreement attracted fierce opposition from the right-wing parties in Israel, with public demonstrations denouncing Rabin. The Knesset ratified the agreement by 61 votes to 59.

1995 Rabin assassinated

On 4 November 1995, at a rally in Tel Aviv in support of the peace process, Yitzhak Rabin was shot dead by a Jewish religious fanatic, Yigal Amir. Among those attending the funeral were representatives from Qatar and Oman and the Prime Minister of Morocco. King Hussein and President Mubarak delivered eulogies. Arafat did not attend, but delivered personal condolences. Shimon Peres assumed the office of Prime Minister.

1996 Attack on South Lebanon

After an outbreak of “Katyusha” rocket attacks launched from south Lebanon against northern Israel towns and settlements, Israel invaded south Lebanon on 11 April 1996, in a campaign entitled “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. The attacks against Israel were made by the Hezbollah (“Party of God”), a radical Shi’ite Muslim group, largely financed and armed by Iran, with the connivance and support of Syria 22.

The civilian population of South Lebanon was warned to evacuate the area to enable Israeli forces to attack the Hezbollah. A tragedy occurred on 18 April at the village of Kfar Kanna. Israeli artillery, responding to a Hezbollah mortar bombardment, fired from a position next to a United Nations encampment, struck the UN building in which civilians were sheltering, and 100 people were killed.

Hostilities ceased when the “Grapes of Wrath Understandings” were reached. The Hezbollah agreed not to continue mortar attacks across the Israeli border, and not to launch any attacks from populated areas, and Israel agreed not to attack populated areas. The understandings were to be policed by an international committee, which would receive complaints.

Meanwhile Israeli troops remained in a “Security Zone” about 15km into Lebanese territory, in order to secure the area against bombardment of Israel and cross-border incursions. Also a number of Lebanese continued to cross the border on a regular basis to work in Israel. Continuing Hezbollah attacks on the Israeli forces resulted in a steady drain of casualties, and there was rising disquiet in Israel about the advisability of maintaining the Security Zone.

Nov. 1995-May 1996 Continuing terror

In January 1996 Yahiya Ayash, a manufacturer of explosives for the suicide bombers, was killed by a remote controlled explosion in his mobile phone. Arafat addressed a mass meeting condemning Israel for the killing, and visited the family to extend condolences.

In February a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 25 people on a bus in Jerusalem. In March, 13 more Israelis were killed. In all, since the Oslo Accords were signed, more than 100 Israelis had been killed and 500 injured in suicide bomb attacks.

May 1996 Netanyahu elected

Under the new election law, operating for the first time in 1996, the Prime Minister and the Knesset (parliament) were elected in separate votes. The parties are elected to the Knesset by a proportional voting system, similar to the Australian system for Senate elections, and in Israel this results in a large number of political parties, each with a different ideological, religious and/or ethnic base. In the 1996 election Binyamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres by 50.4 per cent to 49.5 per cent, although Labour obtained more seats than Likud in the Knesset. Netanyahu then had the very difficult task of arranging and maintaining a majority coalition.

1996-1997 The Netanyahu Crises

Netanyahu announced his continuing support for the peace process, but on the basis of “reciprocity”, by which he meant that there would be no forward movement without evidence of co-operation by the Palestinian Authority in eliminating terrorist attacks. This was the precise opposite of the Rabin doctrine of not allowing the peace process to be frustrated by the opponents of peace.

The Palestinian response from the outset was to characterise Netanyahu as an opponent of peace, and the policy of “reciprocity” as a mere excuse for not moving forward with the process.

The opening of an exit to enable a tunnel next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to be accessed by tourists led to an outbreak of violence throughout the territories. Accusations that the tunnel would undermine the Al Aqsa mosque led to riots throughout the Territories, including one episode in which Palestinian police opened fire on Israeli soldiers. Fifty-six Palestinians and fifteen Israeli soldiers were killed.

At first Netanyahu refused to negotiate personally with Arafat. That policy could not be sustained under the pressure of the continuing crisis in Hebron, the Arab city where the tombs of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are situated. The violent conflicts between the Jewish religious settlers in the city and the local population required urgent resolution, and on 17 January 1997, the Hebron agreement was concluded, and 80 per cent of the city came under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

October 1998 The Wye Memorandum

A summit meeting between Yasser Arafat, Binyamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton took place at the Wye Plantation near Washington, and the “Wye Memorandum” was signed on this 23 October 1998. It encapsulated the principle of “reciprocity”, providing for a step-by-step withdrawal of Israel forces from the West Bank, in parallel with steps for security co-operation by the PA, to be verified by CIA representatives.

May 1999 Barak elected

On 18 May 1999 Labour candidate Ehud Barak overwhelmingly defeated Netanyahu in the election for PM, on a peace platform. After a difficult period forming a parliamentary coalition, Barak set the following deadlines for peace arrangements:

15 Feb 2000
A framework agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

1 July 2000
A unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon if no agreement was first reached with Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian government denounced the proposal for unilateral withdrawal as a “threat”.

17 September 2000
A “final status agreement” with the Palestinians. 23
December 1999 Negotiations with Syria

On 15 December 1999, negotiations commence at Washington between Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa. At issue was Israel’s proposal to return of the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement. A stalemate resulted from failure to agree on the Syria-Israel boundary or the nature of the proposed peace, and on 17 January 2000 the talks were suspended by Syria.

May 2000 Withdrawal from Lebanon

On 24 May 2000, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the security zone in Lebanon.

However conflict with the Hezbollah continued, with a dispute over the position of the border, and the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers.

Some members of the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army took refuge in Israel.

July 2000 Camp David II

From 10 to 25 July 2000, a summit meeting took place between Clinton, Arafat and Barak at the presidential retreat at Camp David, in an attempt to reach a “Final status agreement”.

The terms of the discussions were deliberately not minuted. However it is generally agreed that in exchange for a permanent peace and renunciation of further claims, Israel offered to the Palestinian Authority:

  • A withdrawal from over 90% of West Bank, with a transfer of further territory from within Israel,
  • Total withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in Gaza,
  • Transfer to the Palestinian Authority of the suburbs of east Jerusalem with a predominantly Arab population, and
  • An arrangement was made for Arab custodial status of the Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount (24).

Arafat made no counter-offer on the territorial issues, and Israel refused his demands for full Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and recognition that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, numbering some four million people, have a right to return into Israel (25).

The conference ended in failure, and Arafat returned to be greeted in triumph.

September 2000 The “Al Aqsa Intifada” begins

On 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon, as Likud leader, made a formal visit to the Temple Mount, to assert the Jewish right of access to the area.

The next day violent riots broke out in Jerusalem and the Territories, and, for two days only, in some Israeli Arab towns and villages. The riots were called the “El Aqsa Intifada” both in recollection of the 1988 uprising, and as a call for sovereignty over the Temple Mount. The uprising still continued as at November 2001.

At first the uprising was blamed entirely on the Sharon visit, but Palestinian leaders later acknowledged that the underlying cause lay in the claims asserted by the Palestinians at Camp David II.

In contrast to the 1988 Intifada, many of the rioters were now fully armed, although stone-throwing children and youths were also involved, and the confrontations with Israeli forces resulted in a disproportionate loss of life by the rioters.

Some of the other features of the El Aqsa Intifada were suicide bombings organised by Islamic extremist groups in which large numbers of Israelis were killed at a café, a shopping mall and a bus station; mortar attacks from Gaza against settlements inside Israel; random shootings at Israeli cars on West Bank roads, and attacks on the Gaza settlements.

The uprising still continued as at November 2001.

June-December 2000 – Continuing Political Crisis in Israel

Before Camp David II, the proposed offers to the Palestinian Authority created a continuing coalition crisis as government ministers and parliamentarians demanded prior consultation. Foreign Minister David Levy refused to go to Camp David and resigned.

Eventually the Russian and the religious parties withdrew from the coalition, and their leaders resigned from the cabinet. In a contested election for the President (equivalent of the Australian Governor-General) Moshe Katsav of the Likud defeated Shimon Peres of

Labour in a parliamentary vote. On 10 December 2000 Barak formally resigned. He remained as caretaker Prime Minister, continuing to negotiate with the Palestinians, until the election in February 2001.


The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (PBS documentary)