"Palestine" is an ancient name for the land situated between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Due to its position at the juncture of the Middle East and North Africa, it has traditionally played a central role in the region. Jerusalem, the disputed capital of present day Israel, is of particular significance. It is the location of the Temple Mount, an ancient shrine considered to be the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam.
The origin of the international Jewish diaspora has long been subject to dispute; however, genetic studies of Jewish communities throughout the world have demonstrated a common Semitic heritage, comparable to that of Jordanians and other inhabitants of the region. It can therefore be surmised that a large number of modern-day Jews are descendants of migrants who fled the region many centuries ago.
Israel was the name of an ancient kingdom in the northern region of Palestine (then known as Canaan); to the south was the closely related Kingdom of Judah. Although it is impossible to ascertain the exact date in which either state was formed, the earliest known record of the term "Israel" is an inscription on the Merneptah Stele, scrawled by Egyptian King Amenhotep III circa 2009 BCE. The stele details his victorious campaign against the Libyans to the west, but then deviates from this account to describe his victories in Canaan. The inscription reads as follows: "Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed." The Kingdom of Israel became a regional power by the 9th Century BCE, but was later conquered by the Neo-Assyrian Empire roughly 200 years later.
Centered around the city of Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Judah most likely came into existence after 900 BCE. Unlike Israel to the north, it was not actually conquered by the Neo-Assyrians; in exchange for their vassalage, the empire permitted them to retain significant autonomy. Jerusalem eventually became the largest and most prosperous city in the entire region, and remained so until the collapse of Assyria in 605 BCE. Judah quickly succumbed to a power struggle between Egypt and the Neo-Babylonian Empire that ultimately engulfed the entire region. Palestine was subsequently ruled by a succession of empires and would not be an independent, self-governing entity of any sort for the next 2500 years.
Beginning with the Islamic Caliphates in the Middle Ages and lasting throughout most of the Ottoman era, Palestine became home to a predominantly Arab population. Most of these people were the descendants of of native Palestinians intermingling with settlers from elsewhere in the region, leading to a gradual assimilation of Palestine into Arabic and Islamic culture. However, a significant Jewish minority (known as the "Old Yishuv") still inhabited the area. It wasn't until 1881 that the Palestinian demographics began to change with the onset of the "Aliyahs" – mass influxes of Jewish settlers fleeing persecution from Europe and other parts of the Middle East. Their intention was to gradually restore Jewish sovereignty over their ancestral homeland of Zion, a biblical term that is generally taken to be synonymous with Jerusalem. For this reason, Israeli ultranationalism came to be known as "Zionism."
For the first few decades, only tens of thousands came to Palestine, yet the Aliyahs still had a significant impact on the region. The Palestinian Arabs perceived the Jewish immigration as a threat to their own livelihood, and began to demonstrate against Jewish settlements. Protests intensified in the aftermath of World War I, when the defeat of the Ottoman Empire led to the partition of its former vilayets into European protectorates, and Palestine became a British Mandate (which also encompassed what is now known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan). At this time, Jews were coming to Palestine in droves. Hundreds of thousands emigrated from Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere to escape the rise in anti-Semitism across Eurasia. Incidents of terrorism increased between the two communities, and it eventually became clear to Britain and the international community that the situation between the Jews and the Arabs needed some form of political solution prior to establishing any independent Palestinian state.
The period from 1918 through 1947 saw the independence of several influential Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. These countries came together and formed the Arab League, seeking to promote unity and nationalism throughout the Arab world. Over the next several decades, the Arab League would admit several new members as they gained independence: these include Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Mauritania, Djibouti, Somalia, and the Comoros Islands. They had initially expected Palestine to become a sovereign Arab state; however, the sectarian issues within the mandate remained unresolved.
After the Holocaust, the international community was convinced of the necessity behind establishing a Jewish state, but they did not want to disenfranchise the Palestinians. The plan was to create three separate countries - the Jewish State of Israel, the Arab State of Palestine, and the city-state of Jerusalem. The Arab World rejected the partition plan on the basis that it would grant the Israelis more land than the Palestinians. In 1948, the year Palestine was expected to be partitioned according to the UN plan, the situation between the Jews and the Arabs degenerated into civil war. After Israel was declared independent, the Arab League intervened militarily to support the Palestinians. Jordan annexed the region now known as the West Bank, Egypt took the Gaza Strip, and the rest of the Arab countries became involved in a conflict with Israel that would only subside with the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Israel expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians shortly after the war; in turn, several Arab countries forced their Jewish populations to leave. Jerusalem was divided between the Jews and the Arabs, with the western half being granted to Israel and the eastern portion going to the Palestinians.
Several million Palestinians continue to live in crowded refugee camps throughout the Levant. Although extremely destitute, humanitarian aid and social programs are provided to them by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was founded in 1949 to assist in the development of adequate employment opportunities for Palestinians and Jews displaced by the war. Israel bars Palestinian refugees from being repatriated into any of the territories under its control. Denial of the right of return is considered illegal under international law.
In 1964, member states of the Arab League convened in Cairo and established the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a union of several Palestinian organizations that intended to liberate Palestine by means of armed struggle. Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat from 1969 until his death in 2004, the PLO quickly became recognized worldwide as the primary representative of the Palestinian people; they also gained notoriety within the international community for terrorist activities throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Initially staging attacks from Jordan, they were expelled from the country in 1970 for attempting to depose the monarchy. They subsequently established their base of operations in Lebanon. Their tactics have included massacres, rocket attacks, kidnappings, and hijackings. The most notable incident involving the PLO during this period was the 1972 Munich Massacre, where eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed. Israel responded to these provocations by launching cross-border raids and targeted assassinations as a means of disrupting PLO activities.
Egypt and Jordan continued to administer the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively, until 1967. That year, Israel launched a successful military campaign against its Arab neighbours to claim the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. This became known as the Six-Day War, and its implications have been long-lasting. Israel began building settlements in the Palestinian Territories to assert its sovereignty over the region, a tactic that has continued through to the present day. The Israeli government ceded control of the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in 1979 as part of a peace agreement between the two countries; the Golan Heights remains a disputed territory. Israel has taken drastic measures to repress any nationalist sentiments among the Palestinians, often leading to severe human rights violations in the occupied territories. These include arbitrary arrests, deportations, house demolitions, mass detentions, torturing detainees, and extrajudicial killings. In 1980, the Israeli Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, recognizing the city in its entirety as the capital of Israel.
From the 1950s onward, the United States gradually grew more supportive of Israel. However, America's decidedly pro-Israeli stance was not firmly established until President Nixon took office in 1969. In 1972, the Nixon administration became the first to veto a resolution at the UN Security Council that would have condemned Israel, and in 1973 he ordered an airlift of weapons and ammunition into the country to protect Israeli civilians from Syria and Egypt, who were waging what eventually became known as the Yom Kippur War to reclaim the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. From then on, America has frequently used its veto power to defend Israel from condemnation at the UN Security Council.
Israel's military occupation of Palestine eventually sparked an uprising. Beginning in 1987, the First Intifada (Arabic for "uprising") was a pro-democracy movement consisting of large-scale protests and non-violent demonstrations demanding an end to Israeli control over Palestinian territory. It lasted until 1993, when Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to the U.S.-brokered Oslo Accords, calling for the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The PNA included all of the organizations that formerly comprised the PLO, and has governed the Palestinian Territories ever since.
Despite a professed commitment to negotiations, Israel and the PNA have continued to quarrel over land. Of great concern to Israelis and the international community has been the rise of a new guerrilla organization. Founded in 1989, the Islamist group Hamas quickly became the primary perpetrator of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. They have been implicated in bombing transit services, recreational facilities, restaurants, and marketplaces. Their stated goal is the dissolution of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic State of Palestine. They have received funding and logistical support from several Middle Eastern governments, including Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Syria. Fatah, a member of the PLO since 1959 and the leading party of the PNA under Yasser Arafat, was widely regarded as corrupt and ineffective among both Palestinians and the international community. Anti-Israeli propaganda became dramatically more prominent during this time. Streets were named after suicide bombers, institutions employed anti-Zionist indoctrination on young children, and the media took to blaming Israel for any negative developments in the region.
The period from 2000-2005 witnessed another violent Palestinian uprising known as the al-Aqsa Intifada (otherwise referred to as the Second Intifada). The Palestinian demands included being allowed greater access to Jerusalem, granting a right of return to Palestinian refugees, and an end to ongoing Israeli settlement projects. Hamas was the most active militant organization during the al-Aqsa Intifada, with 40% of all suicide bombings carried out in its name. In 2004, PNA leader Yasser Arafat died and was succeeded by his second-in-command Mahmoud Abbas, who was then officially elected president of the PNA in 2005. But in early 2006, Hamas won a plurality of seats in the Palestinian legislative assembly. After this, the international community withdrew its support for the PNA and a civil war broke out between Fatah (led by Abbas) and Hamas (led by Khaled Mashaal). The civil war and the al-Aqsa Intifada ended with Hamas taking over the entire Gaza Strip in 2007 and expelling all Israelis from within its borders, while Fatah retained control in the West Bank.
Following the Hamas takeover, Israel instigated a near total blockade against the Gaza Strip, denying its residents access to all but the most basic of human necessities. Despite the embargo, Hamas continued to fire rockets against Israel virtually unhindered until 2011, when a sophisticated air defence system known as the Iron Dome was implemented. Since 2006, Gaza has been subject to two major military conflicts - one in early 2009, and another in mid-2014. Both wars led to the deaths of roughly two thousand civilians and the displacement of countless more. The Palestinian Territories have remained split, and Hamas's more radical stance has hindered peace talks with Israel. The 2009 election of deeply Zionist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also made negotiations between the two sides difficult. Fatah and Hamas have recently agreed to make a move towards reunification of the Palestinian Territories.
Concurrent with the revolutionary wave that swept much of the Arab World in 2011, President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a case for official Palestinian membership at the UN during its 66th session. For a state to gain membership, it must have the recommendation of the Security Council (a majority of the 15 seat council without a veto from any of the five permanent members: the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the U.K.) and a two-thirds majority vote in support at the General Assembly. The PNA has had observer status for almost two decades, with the U.S. and its allies reiterating their support for a two-state solution through continued negotiations with Israel. There are currently over 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Hamas continues to govern the Gaza Strip, often in a decidedly authoritarian manner. UNESCO recently admitted Palestine as a member state, becoming the first UN agency to do so. The push for sovereignty has been colloquially deemed "Palestine 194", referencing both Palestine's hypothetical rank in the UN by order of accession and UN General Assembly Resolution 194 which called for a return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.