As violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalates, the prospect of lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems as remote now as ever. Writing in 2018, 70 years after the founding of the modern state of Israel, Matthew Hughes charted eight key moments in the history of the hostilities
Early Jewish settlement
Palestine did not formally exist as a country before the First World War, when the British fixed Palestine’s borders after their conquest of what would become Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. For hundreds of years before the British took control, Palestine had been divided into provinces of the Ottoman empire, and had very few Jewish inhabitants.
Indeed, at the start of the 19th century the Jewish population of the territory soon to be defined as Palestine was small – only about 3%. The majority of the region’s inhabitants were Arabs, mostly Sunni Muslim, who had occupied the region since the seventh-century Arab conquest; there was also a sizeable Christian minority. Together, these formed the population that would be considered – despite the lack of a formally recognised country – as Palestinians.
The Jewish people of Palestine in 1800 were not farmers or settlers but instead lived in towns and worked as merchants or religious teachers. As the 19th century progressed, European Jews – influenced by the rise of nationalism in Europe – began to look to Palestine as the place for a possible Jewish homeland. A wave of Jewish people came to the country in an Aliyah (‘ascent’) starting in the 1880s, making their homes on land bought from Palestinians.
This brought a new type of Jew to Palestine, there to settle the land; these adopted tough new names such as Oz (‘strength’). More settlers followed as Jewish people fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe, a situation exacerbated by the rise of rightwing sentiment that presaged Nazi rule of Germany from 1933.
Settlement was core to Zionism – a Jewish nationalist movement – because it demanded land for a Jewish state. Zionists based their national claim to Palestine on ancient Jewish settlement of the area before the Romans expelled Jews from the region in the second century AD following two major Jewish revolts against their rule. Zionism and Jewish settlement were seen as a return to an ancient Jewish Palestine. “A land without a people for a people without a land” ran a pithy Zionist slogan – yet this was not accurate: the land was already occupied by predominantly Muslim communities.