In the past years, Israel has been exceedingly interested in what we call “Hasbara”, which would translate literally into “explaining”, in other words, making Israel’s case in the world. Every so often, clips such as this, this or this (my favorite one, so far) make the rounds on Facebook, and we get to complain (a time-honored Jewish pasttime) about how the rest of the world are ignoramuses.
So let’s go over some of the basic facts about Israel:
Israel is a tiny country. In fact, it’s so tiny, that the distance from the border with Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean sea in the west is roughly the distance between the eastern and western edges of London (about 30 Km or 18 miles, including Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as “the west bank”). You can drive from the northern borders with Syria and Lebanon, to the southernmost city of Eilat, wedged between Jordan in the east and Egypt in the west, in just over 7 hours, a total distance of just under 200 miles.
The two smaller seas seen on the map are the Sea of Galilee in the north (called Kinneret in Hebrew), which supplies 25% of Israel’s drinking water, and the larger Dead Sea in the south, which is, incidentally, the lowest place on earth. The other 75% of Israel’s drinking water is supplied from an underground aquifer.
Although Israel is such a tiny country, we have a variety of climates. The south is mostly desert, called the Negev, Judea and Samaria are hilly and green, the coast is mostly concrete and the north is also hills with rivers running between them. At the very northern tip is Mount Hermon, the only place that has snow every year and acts as a ski resort as well as having lookout posts towards Syria. The pictures in the header of this blog were all taken by me in Israel.
A very brief history of Israel:
Contrary to the beliefs of the UCLA student in the first clip above, Israel’s history did not begin in the 19th or 20th century. Jews have been present in Israel for over 3000 years, ever since the biblical crossing of the Jordan by the children of Israel under Joshua (Yehoshua in Hebrew) after coming out of slavery in Egypt. A few hundred years later kings Saul, David and Solomon ruled a united kingdom, after which the kingdom split into two: The kingdom of Judea (Yehuda), which included the tribes of Judah, Levi, Simon and Benjamin and the kingdom of Israel, which included the other tribes. The kingdom of Israel was later conquered by the Assyrians and scattered throughout the world. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, re-founded 70 years later, the temple rebuilt, only to be conquered again by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Since then, Jews lived mainly in the Diaspora and only a handful lived in the land of Israel. The Romans renamed the land “Provincia Palestina” after the biblical Philistines, who were a warlike people who had come to the region from Crete and had been finally vanquished by King David (Goliath was a Phillistine).
Jews started returning en-masse in the 1880s, when the whole world was witnessing nationalist awakenings and Jews were suffering from pogroms in Russia. They brought with them the necessary agricultural skills to be able to survive in a land that was mostly barren at the time. The rulers at the time were the Ottoman Empire (now called Turkey). As a result, the Arab population grew as well, due to migration from Egypt and from what is now Saudi Arabia and other areas. The British Empire captured the Middle East from the Turks during WWI and held onto it until after WWII. Tensions between Jews and Arabs grew, including violent attacks, mostly by Arabs on Jews. The British gave large parts of the land they held over to local warlords as ‘gifts’ for their support during WWII, and thus founded countries such as Iraq,Saudi Arabia, Modern-day Egypt and Trans-Jordan (now Jordan). In 1947 the UN proposed splitting the remaining land in “Palestine” between the Jews and the Arabs. The Jews who had just lost 1/3 of their worldwide population in the holocaust immediately said yes, the Arabs said no way, and started an all-out war. At the time there were 600,000 Jews and over 1,000,000 Arabs living here.
So on May 14th 1948, the British mandate ended, the British left, David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel, and the armies of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq along with local Arab militias declared a war to end, for once and for all, what Hitler had started. They kindly asked the local Arabs to leave their homes for a few days, while they take care of the extermination. To everyone’s surprise, not only did they fail, but the Jews managed to grab some of the land that was promised to the Arabs who had said no to the partition plan. However,Judea and Samaria, including Jerusalem, King David’s historical capital and holiest city to Judaism and ancestral home of the kingdom of Judea were taken by the Jordanian army.
The armistice line at the end of that war is called “the Green Line”, as that is the color in which it was marked on maps.
In 1967 Syria and Egypt were once again declaring that it was time to try to complete Hitler’s plan.Israel decided to fire the first shot, and destroyed the powerful Egyptian air-force while it was still on the ground. In a six-day war, the IDF (Israel Defense Force) managed to capture the Sinai desert from Egypt (including Gaza), the Golan Heights from Syria and to liberate Judea and Samaria, including Jerusalem, from Jordan. Around that time, Arabs living in Israel began calling themselves Palestinians, even though they are in no way related to the ancient Philistines for which the region was named by the Romans, 1800 years earlier. In fact, before 1948, Jews were considered Palestinians.
Sinai was later given back to Egypt when Prime Minister Menahem Begin signed a peace treaty with Anwar Saadat of Egypt in 1979.Egypt did not want Gaza back. A peace treaty with Jordan was signed in 1994 between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein. Although no treaty has ever been signed with Syria, the Syrian border has remained quiet ever since the end of the Yom-Kippur war in 1973.
Overjoyed with the outcome of the Six-Day war, and the opportunity to return to the heart of historical Israel, Israelis resettled Judea and Samaria (Yehuda and Shomron in Hebrew), and founded many settlements, many of them named for biblical Jewish towns which had previously stood there. These settlements have been the excuse used by the Palestinian Authority in the past few years for refusing to conduct peace talks- they demand the dismantling of these settlements, in which 342,000 Jews are currently living, as a prerequisite to peace talks.
In Jerusalem the Jews were finally allowed to visit the Temple Mount, the holiest place for Judaism, which had been out-of-bounds to Jews since 70 CE. However, to this day, the Temple Mount is controlled by the Muslim Waqf organization (Muslim religious trust), which does not allow Jews to pray there. Despite Jewish control of Jerusalem, Jews have to make do, to this day, with praying at the Western wall (The Kotel in Hebrew), which is the western foundation wall of theTemple Mount complex.
The Current Situation:
The population of Israel is comprised of between 7 and 8 Million people, 20% of them Arabs, 5% are other minorities and the rest are Jews. Arabs under Israeli rule enjoy complete freedom and the same rights as Jews, including the right to vote and be elected as members of the Knesset (11 of the 120 Members of Knesset are Arabs today) and the right to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the temple mount, the holiest site to Judaism and the 3rd holiest site to Islam- a right that even Jews do not have.
Due to a string of agreements signed with the Palestinian Authority over the years, the land captured from Jordan in 1967 has been divided into three types:
- “A territories” are territories controlled solely by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and are off-limits to Jews. The IDF goes into these areas only in order to conduct anti-terrorist operations.
- “B territories” are territories whose security is run by the IDF, but civil affairs are run by the PA.
- “C territories” are territories populated mostly by Jews (a recent estimate says that they include 342,000 Jews and roughly 50,000 Arabs). They are under full control ofIsrael.
- The Gaza Strip used to be mostly “A territory”. In 2005,Israel pulled out entirely from Gaza, uprooting 8,600 Jews, many of whom, to this day are still trying to find permanent housing and occupations. Soon afterwards, the entire Strip was taken over by the Muslim fundamentalist terrorist organization, Hamas. Hamas and a smaller terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad, have been firing rockets from Gaza onto Israeli towns in the south of Israel ever since. The IDF has attempted to strike at the two organizations using pinpointed air strikes. In 2009, after a particular nasty string of terrorist attacks, the IDF initiated Operation “Cast Lead”, in which ground forces entered Gaza and targeted Hamas and Islamic Jihad facilities and activists. Since 2005, the IDF has maintained a blockade around Gaza, in order to control what goes in and out. Weapons and people are not allowed in (although they find their way in and out through the Egyptian border anyway), but food and other civilian supplies are allowed to enter freely.
So that, my friends, was a very brief history of Israel with the important highlights of the Arab-Jewish conflict. Next time, I’ll talk about the present.
I plan to have three kinds of posts on this blog.
– Current affairs.
– Back to the basics (such as this post)
– A little corner in the land of .il- will tell about a different place in Israel each week.
I hope you enjoy reading them!
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