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Israel at 50: A Saga of War and Peace

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Israel at 50

A Saga of War and Peace

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Fifty years ago, on May 14, 1948, Jewish leaders in what was then called Palestine gathered in Tel Aviv to declare the rebirth of Israel.

This event captured newspaper headlines around the world. The Jewish people, scattered and persecuted for centuries, could finally look to a homeland again.

Israel did not form against a background of peace. During the latter 19th century, the hopes of many Jews were shattered by waves of anti-Semitism. In Eastern Europe especially, Jews repeatedly suffered in murderous pogroms often initiated by the authorities themselves.

These traumatic experiences helped to spawn the Zionist movement. Zionism rested on the conviction that Jewish problems could be solved only by the establishment of an independent Jewish nation.

In the late 19th century Palestine seemed eminently suitable for the purpose. It was a sparsely inhabited, marginal province of the fragile Ottoman Empire. To many Jews it seemed a motherland waiting for redemption from centuries of neglect.

Jews already living in Palestine experienced their own national renaissance and revival of the Hebrew language. Simultaneously, groups of Jewish settlers returned to Palestine as pioneers to establish modern Jewish villages. At the time Arabs constituted the overwhelming majority of the population of Palestine. At first there was cordiality, but over time much of the Arab population, alarmed by increasing Jewish immigration, land purchases and claims to the area, became adamantly opposed to Zionism. This tension set the scene for the conflicts, violence and wars that continue to this day.

The British mandate

Near the end of World War I, the British had captured Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. Jewish and Arab forces had supported the British. The Arabs had been promised the independence of their lands after the war. But the British had made other conflicting promises. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised the Jews a national home in Palestine.

Such contradictory promises were impossible to reconcile. After the war, with the British government granted mandatory powers over Palestine, British policy seesawed back and forth in reaction to conflicting Arab-Jewish pressures. The Zionists wanted large-scale immigration and their own Jewish state. The Palestinian Arabs were alarmed that the Jews had been promised sovereignty over an area that the Arabs had looked upon as theirs. They feared being totally dispossessed. The climate that evolved grew ripe for confrontation and violence.

Fear of Jewish domination proved to be the catalyst for the Arab revolt, which broke out in 1936 and continued intermittently until 1939. The Jews established a clandestine nationwide defensive militia, the Haganah (meaning "defense"), to safeguard their physical security.

Mounting persecution of European Jewry increased pressure on the British at a time when they were attempting to placate Arab concerns by restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Six million Jews-a third of the world's Jewish population-died in World War II, resulting in a wave of sympathy towards European Jews. Many holocaust survivors found their way to Palestine.

The British mandate had become unworkable. In April 1947 the problem went to the newly formed United Nations. The UN recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states with an internationalized Jerusalem. The Jews accepted the partition plan, although the Arabs denounced it and vowed to oppose, by force, its implementation. By now the Jews, who numbered around 600,000, and some 1,300,000 Arabs were preparing for a showdown.

The war of independence

Under the leadership of defense minister (and later prime minister) David Ben-Gurion, the Jews prepared for the inevitable explosion of violence that began when the state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948-the day the British mandate ended.

The next day, May 15, five Arab armies invaded Israel, coming to the aid of the Arabs in Palestine. Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria all sent troops. Their combined forces gave them overwhelming superiority in armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft. They made many initial gains.

However, the Haganah, now renamed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), eventually predominated. After 15 months, and with various truces declared along the way, peace finally prevailed. It was the bloodiest of all modern Israel's wars, with more than 6,000 Jews losing their lives. In the end Israel not only repulsed the invaders, but gained a third more territory than that prescribed by the UN. Egypt eventually controlled Gaza, and Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and the area usually referred to as the West Bank of the Jordan River.

After the war Palestinian Arabs tried to salvage their goal of an independent Palestinian state. They proposed to the Arab League Council that a new Palestinian state be proclaimed on the West Bank and Gaza. However, these plans were thwarted when King Abdullah of Jordan annexed the West Bank, adding it to his kingdom. The other Arab nations, still smarting from their defeat and in no mood for further conflict, dropped the issue. Thus the Palestinian Arabs lost an early opportunity to have their own state.

In contemporary terminology, the Arab inhabitants of the former British mandate of Palestine are called Palestinians. Most of those who live within the pre-1967 borders of Israel are Israeli citizens.

The Suez-Sinai War of 1956

In 1956 Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and blocked Israel's Red Sea access, precipitating an international crisis and another war.

At the end of October, in a sweeping operation lasting only a few days, Israeli forces under Moshe Dayan seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. As Israeli forces reached the Suez, the British and French entered the conflict. Shortly thereafter the UN brought a halt to hostilities, submitting to intense pressure from the United States and Soviet Union. The UN forced Israel to return the Sinai and Gaza, but only after receiving security assurances.

The Six Day War

By spring 1967 events were spiraling out of control. The Soviet Union, hoping to benefit from an alliance with the Arabs, played a significant role in precipitating hostilities. War fever began to grip the Arab countries. Nasser mobilized his Egyptian forces and sent 100,000 troops to the Sinai. He demanded the removal of the UN peacekeeping forces and blockaded the Straits of Tiran. Jordan's King Hussein placed his forces at the disposal of the Egyptian command-a move that soon cost him half his kingdom.

On June 5 the Israeli air force launched a crippling first strike against Egyptian and Syrian airfields. The preemptive blow largely destroyed Nasser's air force on the ground. Jordan launched an attack on Israel. The IDF advanced into the Sinai, defeating the Egyptian troops, who had lost their air cover.

In just six days, Israeli troops took East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, and stood on the banks of the Suez Canal. A 2,000-year dream was realized: Jews once again controlled the whole of Jerusalem.

In September an Arab summit declared there would be no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel. The UN passed Resolution 242 in November, calling for peace and recognition of the "right of every nation to live free from threat within secure and recognized boundaries," and in return called for Israel's withdrawal from captured territories. Arab inhabitants of those territories have been seeking to establish another independent Arab state, Palestine.

A proliferation of guerrilla organizations and intensified terrorist attacks followed the war. Palestinian terrorists transferred their activities abroad, hijacking and blowing up planes. One of their most infamous operations was the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, in September 1970 Nasser died and was replaced by Anwar Sadat. In secret coordination with Syria, Egypt prepared for another round of conflict.

The October War

On October 6, 1973, Syrian and Egyptian forces attacked Israel. The date chosen for the attack was the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. After significant initial gains, Arab fortunes rapidly paled. Within a few days Israeli forces were within striking distance of both Cairo and Damascus.

The United States and U.S.S.R., fearing escalation involving nuclear weapons, frantically forced a cease-fire agreement after three weeks of hostilities. The war, though in some respects a success for Israeli forces, was a qualified failure. It became known as "the earthquake." Israelis questioned the military's unpreparedness. The cost was heavy: More than 2,500 soldiers fell, and many aircraft and tanks were lost to Soviet-made missiles. The conflict shook Israeli self-confidence.

Over the following years Israel negotiated various separation-of-forces agreements with Egypt and Syria. Terrorist attacks continued. The spectacular and daring Entebbe Raid of 1976 rescued Jewish passengers from an airliner hijacked by German terrorists and flown to Uganda. Israeli forces countered terrorist operations by attacking their strongholds in Lebanon.

In November 1977 President Sadat of Egypt, in a dramatic turnaround, visited Jerusalem on a quest for peace. This led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979. Egypt granted recognition of Israel in return for the demilitarization and withdrawal of Israel from the Sinai Peninsula.

For their efforts, President Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. Sadat was assassinated in October 1981.

Operation Peace for Galilee

In spite of the facade of peace, another crisis soon erupted. In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to eradicate Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) strongholds used for attacks against northern Israel. Six thousand PLO fighters found themselves trapped in West Beirut. For a short period the Syrians were involved in the war; they had a large expeditionary force in northern Lebanon.

By mid-August, after fierce fighting in and around Beirut, 15,000 PLO and Syrian forces evacuated the area. Israel dug in to prevent their return.

Israeli troops remained in southern Lebanon until 1985. But hitherto monolithic national support of the war effort began to break apart. Some Israelis viewed the conflict as a war of choice, unlike previous hostilities that were viewed as matters of survival.

Eventually both Israel and Syria withdrew their troops. However, attacks by members of Hezbollah (Party of God) continued.

Peace with Egypt was relatively secure. Jordan seemed eager to remain quiet. Syria was the most hostile and continued arming to achieve parity with Israel.

At the conclusion of the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussein of Iraq declared his intentions to aid the Palestinian cause. During the Gulf War of 1991 he launched numerous missile attacks against Israel, but Israel did not counterattack.

Further moves toward peace

The aftermath of the Gulf War led to renewed attempts to forge a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. After secret negotiations Israeli's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat flew to Washington to sign a historic peace agreement. Israel accepted Palestinian self-rule, first in the Gaza Strip and then in other areas of the West Bank.

In July 1994 Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein signed a peace agreement that ended 46 years of hostile relations. A full peace treaty followed several months later.

On September 28, 1995, Rabin and Arafat signed an agreement to hand over West Bank towns to the Palestine National Authority (PNA). However, opposition from extremist factions on both sides never ceased. Barely a month later an Israeli extremist assassinated Rabin. The killing served only to highlight growing divisions among Israelis over the peace process.

In January 1996 an overwhelming majority elected Arafat as the leader of the PNA. Meanwhile, Israeli voters selected as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader allied with the religious parties, by a narrow majority. Immediately the peace process began to be called into question as Netanyahu rejected negotiations on the future of Jerusalem or the possibility of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Controversy and riots erupted with the building of additional Israeli settlements. Grave doubts remain as to the future of the peace process.

What next?

An overview of Israel's brief history shows major outbreaks of violence with her Arab neighbors every 10 years or so, with ongoing violence and terrorism punctuating the intervals of peace. The price has been great in terms of war dead.

Slowly but surely the Arab world has grudgingly recognized Israel's right to exist. Yet not all Arab and Muslim countries extend this recognition. Syria and Iran continue their military buildups. Iraq continues to defy the UN, and questions and concerns abound about her chemical and biological potential to make war and threaten Israel, as well as the world. The PLO actively pursues its goal of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Meanwhile, Israel anticipates and prepares for the next round of hostilities. Her armed forces remain highly trained and among the world's best equipped. Israel's nuclear arsenal is estimated to include some 100 warheads, as well as the means to deliver them. If pushed to the limit, few observers doubt they will be used.

Will the UN yet be forced to intervene in Jerusalem to preserve peace as the original partition plan envisioned? With the peace process largely stalled and Arab tensions on the rise, we may be approaching a new pitched conflict. Some intelligence sources openly predict as much, possibly in late 1998. Others fear Israel's jubilee year of celebrations is too tempting a target for some Arab and Islamic extremists.

What does the future hold?

Bible prophecy has much to say about the future of this ancient land. Israel and Jerusalem will continue to be a focal point of world attention. Regrettably, more hostilities and wars are coming, culminating in a great final conflict that will pale into insignificance what has gone before. Israel will not emerge unscathed.

The perspective of the Bible, and therefore The Good News, is that we are approaching the end of the age of man. Our problems are so great that they defy human solution. Nowhere is this so true as in the Middle East, where events will again explode, precipitating a crisis unlike any other.

In Matthew 24:21-22 Jesus Christ predicted a time of unprecedented turmoil focused on Jerusalem. We cannot precisely pinpoint what catalyst will lead to such troubles. So many points of controversy exist that it is impossible to say what might light the final fuse.

Jerusalem, though controlled by the Israelis, remains the center of three world religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Any overt religious act particularly offensive to the Arabs could easily pull the Middle East into the maelstrom. The desire of some Jews to rebuild a temple and resume sacrifices is an obvious potential flash point (see Daniel 8:13-14, 23-27). Any interference with religious sites could lead to disaster.

Whatever the circumstances that ignite the final fuse, Bible prophecy shows that Jerusalem will be attacked (see Zechariah 14:1-2). As the major powers of the world are drawn into the developing inferno, Jesus Christ must intervene to prevent utter catastrophe (verses 3-5). "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near" (Luke 21:25-28).

We need to be alert as never before as world events unfold around us. Jesus Christ warns us to "take heed" lest events catch us spiritually unprepared (verse 34). The world at large will be surprised by these earth-shaking events (verse 35), but we need not be. "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (verse 36).

How will real peace come?

God is not through with Israel or Jerusalem-or their Arab neighbors, for that matter. He will leap to defend Jerusalem and allow Israel (Judah) to yet live there in safety (verses 4-9). Jerusalem will become the religious capital of the world at a time when all will finally dwell at peace (see Jeremiah 3:17; Zechariah 14:11, 16-17). Jerusalem, whose name means "city of peace," will finally live up to her name. The long- standing Jewish-Arab dispute will be settled, and both peoples will dwell at peace.

The Bible proclaims that a genuine peace is coming. May we all pray with the words of King David: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:6). GN