A century ago, only a few zealots believed that the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East was a possibility.
At the time, the entire region was a part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Their empire had at one time covered the entire Middle East and had stretched all along the coast of North Africa and into Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century they were in decline, but their presence in the Balkans was a contributing factor that led to World War I.
By the end of the First World War, the empire was in a state of collapse. At the Paris peace talks, the victorious Western powers divided up its territory. This was aptly described by Archibald Wavell, later to command British army forces in the Middle East in World War II, as "a peace to end all peace."
In 1917 the British had marched into Palestine. The postwar treaty gave them administration of the territory under a mandate from the League of Nations. They were also given Iraq and Jordan. The foundations of today's Middle East had been laid, and the consequences are with us to this day.
Birth of a new Jewish homeland
Between the two world wars Palestine continued under British rule. Increasing numbers of Jews were arriving from Europe with the expectation of a Jewish nation, promised to them by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, in 1917. At the same time, the Palestinian Arabs had their own expectation of a homeland. As both peoples wanted the same land, a major problem was brewing.
Following the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews died, Jewish demands for a homeland intensified. These were finally realized in late 1947 when the British announced they were leaving and handed the problem of Palestine to the United Nations, the post–World War II successor to the League of Nations. Six months later, with UN approval, the Jewish nation-state of Israel came into being on May 14, 1948.
It truly was a miracle. A generation earlier few would have thought it even remotely possible. A country that had not existed for almost 2,000 years had been reborn. Even its own ancient language, Hebrew, had been revived and remains the national language of Israel.
It is important to recognize that the Jewish state had to be reborn to fulfill Bible prophecies regarding Judah in the last days. We should note that the citizens of the state of Israel are descended from the biblical kingdom of Judah and constitute only a small fraction of the descendants of the patriarch Israel. (To learn more, request our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.)
From the start Israel was surrounded by hostile powers intent on destroying her. Within hours of the withdrawal of British troops, five Arab armies attacked the fledgling country, which at that time had a Jewish population of only half a million. Hundreds of these were to die in Israel's War of Independence.
Hundreds more were to die in subsequent wars. The next followed in 1956 when the Egyptians seized the Anglo-French-owned Suez Canal. A joint military action involving the two European nations and Israel was thwarted by American pressure.
Six days that changed the world
Barely a decade passed before Israel again found itself imperiled.
"The population of Israel had continued to grow, mainly by immigration; by 1967 it stood at some 2.3 millions, of whom the Arabs formed roughly 13 per cent. Its economic strength had increased, with the help of aid from the United States, contributions from Jews in the outside world, and reparations from West Germany. It had also been building up the strength and expertise of its armed forces, and of the air force in particular" (Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 2002, pp. 412-413).
By 1965 Palestinian terror groups had formed and were attacking Israelis. The Israelis retaliated against neighboring states from which the attacks were launched.
"Faced with Israeli retaliation against other Arab states, and with reports (which may have been unfounded) of a coming Israeli attack on Syria, [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser] asked the United Nations to withdraw the forces which had been stationed on the frontier with Israel since the Suez war of 1956, and when this was done he closed the straits of "Aqaba to Israeli shipping," effectively an act of war (Hourani, p. 413).
Three weeks later the war began.
"As tension mounted, Jordan and Syria made military agreements with Egypt. On 5 June Israel attacked Egypt and destroyed its air force; and in the next few days of fighting the Israelis occupied Sinai as far as the Suez Canal, Jerusalem and the Palestinian part of Jordan, and part of southern Syria (the Jawlan or "Golan Heights'), before a cease-fire agreed on at the United Nations ended the fighting" (ibid.).
A pivotal turning point
The war was a pivotal turning point in the Middle East. "There has hardly been an Arab peace plan in the last 40 years—including the current Saudi version—that does not demand a return to the status quo of June 4th, 1967. Why is that date so sacred? Because it was the day before the outbreak of the Six Day War in which Israel scored one of the most stunning victories of the 20th century. The Arabs have spent four decades trying to undo its consequences" (Charles Krauthammer, May 21, 2007, column).
Israel's pre–Six-Day War borders gave those hostile to Israel a distinct military advantage. This weakness inspired Egypt, Syria and Jordan to attack in the first place, convinced that they could achieve a quick victory. The total annihilation of the Jewish state remains the goal of many Palestinians, regardless of their political affiliation.
"That three-week period between May 16 and June 5 helps explain Israel's 40-year reluctance to give up the fruits of the Six Day War—the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza—in return for paper guarantees of peace. Israel had similar guarantees from the 1956 Suez War, after which it evacuated the Sinai in return for that UN buffer force and for assurances from the Western powers of free passage through the Straits of Tiran . . .
"It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks. Egypt, already in an alliance with Syria, formed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco began sending forces to join the coming fight.
"With troops and armor massing on Israel's every frontier, jubilant broadcasts in every Arab capital hailed the imminent final war for the extermination of Israel. "We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants,' declared PLO head Ahmad al-Shuqayri" (ibid.)
Israel's stunning victory altered the military balance in the Middle East, showing the world that Israel had military superiority over its neighbors.
The war also gave Israel control of all of Jerusalem, including sites considered holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims—a major contributing factor to the continuing conflict, which threatens to spill over into all-out war at any time.
Following the Six-Day War, Jews were able to worship freely at their holiest site, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Atop the same Temple Mount are two of the holiest Islamic sites, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.
The Jews consider Jerusalem the "eternal, undivided capital" of Israel. Muslims will never accept this, nor will most accept the presence of the Jewish state, which they see as a temporary usurper, similar to the Crusader Catholic Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 11th century, which lasted less than a century.
"We also forget that Israel's occupation of the West Bank was entirely unsought. Israel begged Jordan's King Hussein to stay out of the conflict. Engaged in fierce combat with a numerically superior Egypt, Israel had no desire to open a new front just yards from Jewish Jerusalem and just miles from Tel Aviv. But Nasser personally told Hussein that Egypt had destroyed Israel's air force and airfields and that total victory was at hand. Hussein could not resist the temptation to join the fight. He joined. He lost" (ibid.).
A continuing battleground
Clearly, all is not well in Jerusalem. "Even as they were populating the Jerusalem-area settlements, Jews began leaving the heart of the city. The reasons were both economic and cultural.
A recent Newsweek article reports: "Overall, roughly 300,000 people have fled the city since 1967. According to a demographic study released this month by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 17,200 people left Jerusalem last year, while only 10,900 moved in. With Arab birthrates rising faster than Jewish ones, demographers predict the Jewish-to-Arab ratio in the city will be roughly even within 20 years" (Kevin Peraino, "A Holy City Loses Faith," Newsweek, June 4, 2007).
The same article also states that "the city is now Israel's poorest metropolis; ambitious young people prefer making their living in the country's high-tech corridor along the Mediterranean coast. A vastly disparate standard of living divides Jerusalem's Arabs and Jews, who only rarely mix."
The city remains a major source of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. It has been fought over many times down through history, and Bible prophecy shows that at least one more battle is going to take place in and around the city.
Speaking of conditions in the last days, Jesus Christ warned: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near . . . For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled . . . and Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:20-24).
The Old Testament prophet Zechariah, who lived in the sixth century before Christ, also prophesied of end-time events surrounding Jerusalem: "Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it . . .
"It shall be in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem" (Zechariah 12:2-3, 9).
Zechariah 14:4 makes clear that this is referring to events immediately prior to the coming of the Messiah in power and glory: "And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south."
Although Jesus Christ did walk on the Mount of Olives 2,000 years ago, He will walk there again when this prophecy is ultimately fulfilled.
The desire to destroy Israel continues to inspire leaders throughout the Middle East. An added threat is set to increase in the immediate years ahead as Iran becomes a nuclear power. Others in the region may follow in this. But the Bible shows us that the Jewish nation will continue to exist until the end-time events that precede Christ's return. GN