Palestine is a historic region in southwestern Asia. It is situated at
the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and forms part of the larger region
known as the Middle East. Strategically located at a crossroads between East
and West and near where Africa and Asia meet, Palestine has been the site
of countless invasions and movements of peoples. It is, moreover, the land
of the Bible and is considered holy by three major religionsJudaism,
Christianity, and Islam. Few regions of such relatively small size have been
so bitterly fought over through the centuries.
Middle East: Palestine
From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge
The word "Palestine" comes from "Philistine," the name for one of its early peoples. The Roman province
in this region was known as Syria Palestina. Palestine's boundaries have varied
widely over its long history. Although it once extended over a wider area,
it is generally thought of today as the geographical region extending from
the Sinai Peninsula on the south to Lebanon and Syria on the north and from
the Mediterranean Sea on the west to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea on
The article that follows provides a brief historical overview of Palestine.
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Palestine has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In about 2000 B.C.,
the Hebrews, a nomadic people then living in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), began
their migration to the land of Canaan, as Palestine was then known. The twelve
Hebrew tribes were united under their first king, Saul, to form the kingdom
of Israel, and they eventually controlled most of the region. In about 1000 B.C.,
Saul's successor, David, made the city of Jerusalem his capital. Israel reached
the height of its power under King Solomon, son of David, but after his death
in 922 B.C., it was divided into two rival kingdomsIsrael in the north
and Judah in the south. (The term "Jew," which originally
applied only to a Hebrew of Judah, eventually came to be used in referring
to any Hebrew.)
Weakened by internal quarrels, the two kingdoms fell prey to stronger neighbors.
In the 700's B.C., Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and its people were
dispersed. Judah survived until the 500's B.C., when it fell to the Babylonians
and many of its inhabitants were forced into exile. The Babylonians were succeeded
by the Persians, under whom the Jews were allowed to return, and the Persians
by the Greek and Macedonian armies of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's
death in 323 B.C., his followers founded kingdoms in Egypt and Syria, which
ruled Palestine in turn. Attempts by the Seleucid rulers of Syria to introduce
Greek religious practices into the region in 167 B.C. provoked the Jews to
revolt. After a long struggle led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, they
re-established an independent Jewish kingdom, which lasted until 63 B.C.
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From 63 B.C. to about A.D. 630, Palestine was part of first the Roman and
then the Byzantine empires. During the reign of Herod the Great, who ruled
Judea (the Roman name for Judah) as a Roman protectorate, Jesus was born in
the town of Bethlehem. It marked the humble beginning of what would become
Christianity and eventually spread throughout the Roman world.
Roman rule over Palestine led to repeated Jewish revolts. The first, from
66 to 73, resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the center
of Jewish worship, along with much of the city itself. A second revolt broke
out in 115 and a third in 132. The last, led by Simon Bar Cocheba (or Bar
Kokhba), while at first successful, was eventually put down with great harshness.
An independent Jewish nation would not appear again in the region for more
than 1800 years.
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Shortly after 630, a powerful new force erupted out of the deserts of the
Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs, united under the banner of Islam, the religion
of the Muslims, swiftly conquered Palestine, along with most of the rest of
the Middle East. Jews and Christians continued to live in Palestine, but Muslim
Arabs became the dominant people of the region. Since Islam shared some of
its traditions with the two earlier religions and Muslims believed that their
prophet, Mohammed, had ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, Palestine became
a holy land for them as well.
For most of the centuries that followed, Palestine remained under the rule
of one or another Muslim dynasty. The exception was a period during the 1100's,
when European Crusaders ruled Jerusalem and other small states in the region.
In the 1500's, Palestine became part of the empire of the Ottoman Turks and
remained so until the 1900's.
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In the late 1800's and early 1900's, two nationalist movementsboth
involving Palestinebegan to develop. The first was Zionism, which sought
to re-establish a Jewish homeland in the region. From the 1880's on, considerable
numbers of Jews from Europe settled in Palestine. A separate Arab nationalist
movement, begun not long after, had as its aim independence from Ottoman rule.
Arab nationalism was not focused specifically on Palestine, as Zionism was,
but considered it part of the larger Arab community.
To this was added the role played by Britain, which sought the aid of both
Arabs and Jews during World War I. In 1917, British forces occupied Palestine.
That same year the British government issued the Balfour Declaration (named
for Arthur J. Balfour, then the British foreign secretary). It pledged support
for a Jewish homeland in Palestine while acknowledging the rights of its non-Jewish
population. Arab leaders also claimed that Britain had promised to make Palestine
part of an independent Arab state. These competing aspirations and claims
set the stage for the clash between Jews and Arabs over the region that continues
to the present day.
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After World War I ended in 1918, the Ottoman Empire was broken apart, its
core becoming the republic of Turkey. Palestine itself was placed under British
administration in 1922 as a mandate of the League of Nations, the forerunner
of the United Nations. The mandate also included land east of the Jordan River,
where Britain established the state of Transjordan (now Jordan) in 1923.
Arab opposition to Zionist aims led to violent incidents in the 1920's.
These grew worse during the 1930's, as increasing numbers of Jews, fleeing
Nazi persecution in Europe, arrived in Palestine. Britain was increasingly
hard-pressed to contain what had become an Arab rebellion. In 1939, just before
the outbreak of World War II, the British government proposed the creation,
within ten years, of an independent Palestine, composed of both Arabs and
Jews but maintaining an Arab majority. Jewish immigration was to be limited
and would end entirely within five years, unless approved by the Arabs. Both
sides rejected the plan.
The murder of millions of European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War
II intensified Zionist efforts to win a Palestinian homeland. After the war's
end in 1945, the Jewish population swelled with the arrival of concentration
camp survivors. Because of the immigration restrictions imposed by Britain,
many of these refugees were smuggled into Palestine by Jewish underground
groups, some of which used guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and terrorist tactics
against the British forces.
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In 1947 the British, unable to find a solution acceptable to both sides,
turned the issue of Palestine over to the United Nations, which voted to partition
the region into separate Jewish and Arab states. Jerusalem was to be an international
city, administered by the United Nations. The Jews of Palestine and Zionists
elsewhere generally accepted this decision. Palestinian Arabs and Arab nationalists
almost universally opposed it.
As the British prepared to depart, the new Jewish state of Israel was proclaimed
on May 14, 1948. It was invaded almost immediately by armies of neighboring
Arab countries, beginning the first Arab-Israeli war. When the war ended in
1949, Israel had not only successfully defended itself but had won additional
territory as well. During the fighting, Transjordan occupied the West Bank,
the region west of the Jordan River (subsequently changing its name to Jordan),
and Egypt took over the Gaza Strip. Both were areas that had been allotted
to a Palestinian Arab state. The war left Jerusalem divided between Israel
and Jordan. Large numbers of Palestinian Arabs fled from Israeli to Arab territory,
particularly the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
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The question of a Palestinian Arab state has remained one of the main causes
of hostility between Israel and the Arab countries. Three more Arab-Israeli
wars followedin 1956, 1967, and 1973. During the 1967 war, Israel gained
control of the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai
peninsula of Egypt, as well as Syria's Golan Heights. Israel's occupation
of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip brought large numbers of Palestinian Arabs
under its control. Israel returned the Sinai following a peace treaty with
Egypt concluded in 1979. The treaty also discussed, in general terms, the
possibility of a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza, but there
was no agreement on how the state would be set up and governed.
Palestinian Arab nationalism, meanwhile, found expression in militant guerrilla
organizations. Most were included in an overall body, the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO), headed by Yasir Arafat. The PLO was eventually accepted
by Arab countries as the "sole legitimate representative
of the Palestinian people" and was granted observer status by the United
Nations. Although the diverse groups had different aims, most shared the goal
of replacing Israel with a predominantly Arab state. Their activities included
widespread terrorism, often carried out far from Palestine itself, and raids
against Israeli settlements. Israeli opinion on the Palestinian question has
been mixed. Some Israelis have been willing to trade territory for peace;
others have opposed a Palestinian Arab state, fearing that it would mean the
elimination of Israel.
In 1987, Arabs in the Gaza Strip launched an uprising against Israeli occupation
that soon spread to the West Bank. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed a historic
agreement giving Arabs self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city
of Jericho. In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 1996 the
Arabs elected a self-rule Palestinian National Authority (PNA), headed by
Arafat. By 2000, under a series of accords, the PNA controlled
nearly 43 percent of the West Bank, an area containing about 60 percent of
that region's Palestinian inhabitants. But the September 2000 deadline for
a final accord was not met, chiefly because of disagreements over who would
control Jerusalem. Palestinian and Israeli Arabs then launched a new uprising
against Israel. As the death toll mounted, the focus shifted from achieving
a lasting peace to preventing a war.
Coauthor, The Middle East: A Social
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