“”The Israeli government continued to enforce severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights; restrict the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip; and facilitate the transfer of Israeli citizens to settlements in the occupied West Bank, an illegal practice under international humanitarian law.
|—Human Rights Watch report on Israel, 2020.|
The State of Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish state and a country in the Middle East. It is currently the only country with a Jewish majority population. Although once an ancient Bible-era civilization, Israel ceased to exist after being conquered by various empires and only re-emerged as a sovereign entity in 1948. The re-establishment of a Jewish state was the historical goal of Zionism. Despite many of their neighbors disliking them, they still exist with the help of western powers.
Israel is involved in numerous international disputes and conflicts, partially arising from religious hostility towards it and partially arising from Israel's own aggressive and oppressive behavior. One of those disputes concerns where exactly Israel's capital really is. Most of the world recognizes the city of Tel Aviv, but Israel itself claims the city of Jerusalem as its capital and has most of its government located there. A lot of stress also arises because Israel was built on the land that many Palestinians used to live on and Israel currently occupies the Palestinian territory. The Muslim Palestinians demand their own state and want Israel to stop its oppressive treatment of them. Israel also militarily occupies the Golan Heights region of Syria and is regularly in conflict with Palestinian liberation/terrorist groups. Complicating the problem is that Hamas and certain of Israel's neighbors don't want Israel to exist so they have a habit of launching rockets at it once in a while.
Israel has been inhabited since the earliest migration of hominids out of Africa. Its civilization solidified through the unification of various tribes into the Kingdom of Israel during the Iron Age. During this time, the Hebrew people established their city of Jerusalem and built the central temple of their Jewish faith. In 586 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its ruler Nebuchadnezzar II rolled in to smash Jerusalem and force many Hebrews into exile in Mesopotamia. The Hebrews didn't return to the region until Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire freed them and gave them money to rebuild sometime around 550 BCE. Now a province rather than a kingdom, Judah survived under Persian rule until 167 BCE, when the successful Maccabean Revolt reestablished Judah under the Hasmonean dynasty. Unfortunately, they soon got conquered again by the Roman Empire, which turned Judah into an occupied territory under the collaborationist Herod dynasty. The Hebrews fought against Roman rule, leading to a series of devastating wars and culminating with the complete destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the exile of much of the Jewish population from their historical homeland.
The Israeli region became a place of religious significance to the Christians of the Roman Empire, but it was eventually conquered by the Arab followers of Muhammad. Jerusalem, you see, had also become a city of religious significance to the Muslim religion, and we're sure you're starting to see the roots of some of Israel's modern problems. The Arabs built many religious monuments in Jerusalem, but they (most notably under Saladin) still invited the Jews to live in Israel and mostly-freely practice their religion. Nonetheless, the Jewish population remained small and became a minority among the Muslim Palestinian population.
Rule over Israel passed between various Muslim powers before ending with the Ottoman Empire, which finally lost control of the region after World War I. Israel became a mandate territory under the British Empire. Meanwhile, many members of the Jewish diaspora had become influential thinkers in Europe and elsewhere, and the Zionist movement began picking up steam in the 19th century. Europeanized Jews started immigrating into Israel during British rule; the Palestinians who were already living there and didn't appreciate being edged out by foreigners began a series of violent riots. To appease them, the British harshly limited Jewish immigration and land-owning rights in Israel in 1939. The Jews retaliated by fighting a prolonged terrorist and guerrilla campaign against the British authorities, forcing them to transfer control over Israel to the United Nations in 1947.
The UN drew up a partition plan to create a separate state of Israel and Palestine and an internationally-administered Jerusalem, an agreement accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs. Israel declared its independence in 1948 before being attacked by its various Arab neighbors. Israel won and preserved its rule over the mandate territory, but subsequent wars have seen Israel dramatically expand its territory and place various chunks of its neighbors under military occupation. Although Israel has signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, it still has fraught relations with most Muslim states and frequently clashes with Iran. Most Palestinian territories are now under de jure military occupation, and Israel's right-wing government doesn't give a shit about their rights. Lasting peace doesn't seem to be coming anytime soon.[citation NOT needed]
Early hominid life in the Israel region dates back at least 1.5 million years, which is a long-ass time.
In terms of the development of early Israeli civilization, things are very unclear. Most of the problem lies in the fact that it's heavily uncertain how historically accurate the Torah and similar writings are. The Late Bronze Age saw the rise of a culture group called Canaan, composed of various tribes paying tribute to Ancient Egypt who eventually became the Israelis. Around 1209 BCE, the Egyptians erected a stele referring to Israel by name for the first time. However, modern historians believe that this Israel was a loose cultural group rather than a centralized political entity. It's also probable that the described conflicts between the Israelites and the Canaanites and Philistines really did happen in some form or another. Although the word's exact origin is unknown, these ancient Israelis came to be known as Hebrews.
The Hebrews had come to identify themselves as separate from their neighbors due to diverging cultures and the rise of their new religion. Monotheism, or the belief in a single, all-powerful God, seems to have developed among various small cult religions before eventually merging into the Jewish religion as the idea became more influential. There are still scattered references in the Old Testament to this older polytheism/henotheism, such as Elohim (which is plural).
So that's about what modern historians know. Of course, Israeli legend goes much further. Legend describes how Abraham made a covenant with Yahweh promising to follow His laws in exchange for receiving divine aid in conquering Canaan. The Book of Exodus tells how many of these Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt during the reign of its pharaoh (who is unnamed, but Ramses II (1304-1237 BCE) is frequently thought to be the fellow referenced) before being freed by Moses and God. Moses received the Ten Commandments and the broader Mosaic Law supposedly from God during this period. This legal code was a historically significant departure from other early law codes in the region like Hammurabi's because the Mosaic Law declared that criminals would be judged in the eyes of God and not just the authorities. In this sense, Israel became the world's first theocracy.
The dynasty of King David and his son King Solomon is also thoroughly described. These kings are considered notable for establishing Israel as a kingdom and then constructing the First Jewish Temple. Indeed, this temple almost certainly existed in some form or another, and it became a critically important central feature of ancient Judaism.
The trouble begins
Hebrew civilization only thrived when it did due to a power vacuum, as it existed between the historical agricultural heartlands of Egypt and the various Mesopotamian empires. That good luck eventually came to a decisive end when Israel came under brutal assault by first the Assyrian Empire and then the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This second invasion successfully tore down Israel as a unified entity. The Neo-Babylonians used their typical scorched earth and brutality tactics to raze many Israeli villages and forcibly relocate much of its population in 586 BCE. The Neo-Babylonian ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, gets a very unflattering portrayal in the Book of Daniel as a supervillain-like figure who burns people alive.
In one of history's most resounding acts of cultural warfare, the Neo-Babylonians also destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life. The destruction caused general despair among the remaining Hebrews and inspired a long-lasting determination to see the structure rebuilt, and Jerusalem reclaimed. Nebuchadnezzar would repeatedly show up in Jerusalem, forcing thousands of people who offended him into exile in the desert. Although it was cruel to tear them away from their ancestral homeland, archaeological evidence shows that the Hebrews didn't have too bad a time once they relocated to Babylonia. They became traders, business owners, and administrators working to help Nebuchadnezzar expand his empire's economic power.
The Neo-Babylonians were raging assholes to their own people as well, and the empire quickly collapsed when Cyrus the Great rolled into town with his kickass Persian Army. Cyrus had created his Achaemenid Persian Empire on the principles of justice and regional religious liberty, and even the city of Babylon welcomed him as their ruler.
Cyrus liked to be known as a man who was generous to his enemies, and he furthered that reputation by freeing the Hebrews from exile in Babylonia. Not only did he free them, but he allowed them to retake their homeland and gave them funds to rebuild their temple. As a result, Cyrus is praised in Hebrew scriptures as a man sent by God to act as their savior. The Hebrews became a very loyal autonomous region within the Achaemenid Empire, and Hebrew soldiers participated in the Persian conquest and occupation of Egypt.
Nonetheless, most practicing Jews remained outside of Israel even after Cyrus' decree. Many chose to stay in Babylonia rather than make the difficult desert journey back home, and the Jewish diaspora increasingly relied on the importance of their traditions in maintaining unity.
Greek rule and the Maccabean uprising
Persian rule was abruptly ended by the attack of Alexander the Great. However, Alexander largely ignored Israel as a politically irrelevant backwater, and the land eventually passed under the control of the Seleucid Empire, which was established by one of Alexander's heirs. The Seleucids launched a campaign to crush the Jewish religion, which involved sacking and desecrating the Second Temple. Like the First Temple, the Second Temple had become the center of Hebrew life and was considered a place where God's presence could be felt on Earth.
The attack on the temple and the regime's previous attempts to enforce Greek culture and religion on the Hebrews finally provoked an outright revolt in 167 BCE led by Jewish rabbi Mattathias, or Maccabees the Hammer. The Hebrews proved to be competent at military matters when fighting for their own freedom (this is something of a recurring theme), and they smashed multiple Seleucid armies. There was also a period of civil war, as the rebels despised those Jews who had adopted Hellenic culture and left the old traditions behind. The Maccabees destroyed Greek altars in the villages, circumcised boys, and forced Hellenized Jews into exile.
The rebels finally secured Israel's independence by striking an alliance with the Roman Empire, which had strategic reasons to be hostile to the Seleucids. They were quite happy to build a relationship against a mutual foe. After reclaiming Jerusalem, the rebels cleaned out the Second Temple and established a new kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty.
According to legend, the rebels were besieged inside the Second Temple during the initial darkest stages of the revolt, surviving by using a one-day supply of olive oil to miraculously keep the Temple Menorah alight for eight days. That story is commemorated with the yearly Jewish Chanukah, or Hanukkah festival.
During this period, which lasted from 140 to 37 BCE, Israel started to take on many of its modern characteristics. The new state was ruled by priest-kings who were descendants of Maccabees. They combined schools and religious meeting places to create the first synagogues around the country, leading to the creation of Rabbinical Judaism. There was also a high legal court called the Sanhedrin, composed of old religious wise men who made rulings based on religious law.
Although the new Israel regained much of the power that it had lost after the first great downfall, it was still hampered by some critical weaknesses. Political and religious divisions were extreme (many Jews like to talk about how much they argue). The two main political factions were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both led by Jewish legal experts. Of course, the main source of contention was the interpretation of the Jewish faith. The Pharisees literally believed in the religion's supernatural elements, like angels and heaven and whatnot, while the Sadduccees were much more skeptical to the point of being quasi-secular. The other difference came from class, that eternal division, as the Sadduccees represented the wealthy nobles and the Pharisees were much more influential among the common people.
These divisions became the Hebrew state's downfall, as the factions supported different claimants to the throne and kept the dynastic succession in perpetual instability. Eventually, one claimant appealed to Pompey the Great of the Roman Empire for military support. That created the perfect pretext the Romans needed to sweep into the region and never sweep back out again. In 37 BCE, the Roman Senate confirmed the first Herod as the new puppet-king of Israel, and he bound the kingdom closer and closer to the Roman Empire. The state eventually became nothing more than a province within the empire, even if it was technically independent.
The trouble gets worse
The Romans were smart enough to leave the Jews' religious rights the fuck alone, considering what had happened the last time a non-Jewish power tried enforcing religion. Thus, so long as the new Roman province of Judea paid its taxes and didn't make too much trouble, the Hebrews could basically do what they wanted. The Sanhedrin could continue enacting religious laws and making the Hebrews live under them.
Despite that autonomy, Hebrew nationalists still didn't appreciate being made into an imperial outpost, and Jewish religious leaders started preaching against the occupation. According to Christian tradition and minimal historical evidence,
Brian Jesus was born into this chaotic situation and started a ministry talking about how God's Kingdom of Heaven was greater than Rome and would give hope and salvation to the faithful. Sometime around 33 CE, according to the Gospels anyway, Jesus made himself into an even bigger problem by criticizing local Jewish leaders for conducting trade in the Second Temple; those local religious leaders retaliated by convincing the Roman occupiers that the troublemaker had to go. Hence the crucifixion and the eventual kick-starting of a new religion.
Back to the stuff historians know actually happened, tensions erupted in Judea by 66 CE when the Roman governor of Judea demanded compensation payments for a series of riots earlier in the year. That demand for money triggered a general revolt and started a war until 70 CE. The Roman Empire was extremely harsh in fighting that war, and it's estimated today that at least a million Hebrews died in the struggle for independence. Some died in the fighting, some died due to economic destruction, and others were executed, massacred, or forced into slavery. For the final act, the Roman Empire besieged Jerusalem, destroyed and looted the Second Temple, and deported the Hebrew population across the empire. The remaining Hebrews, sad and furious, rose up repeatedly until about 137 CE, resulting in more and more of their population being removed from Israel.
Many of Judaism's greatest treasures are still missing, such as the legendary golden Temple Menorah that burned during the Maccabees rebellion. And, of course, to add insult to injury, the Romans later converted to Christianity and decided that Jerusalem was their holy city because Jesus had died there.
The Muslim era
Over time, the Jewish population in Israel dwindled under Roman and then Byzantine rule as Christian pilgrims settled in the region to be close to their holy sites. Over those centuries of Byzantine rule, the Samaritan ethnoreligious group launched a series of revolts that resulted in constant warfare and devastation in the region. Hundreds of thousands of people died, and the region's population declined dramatically.
These conflicts were one of the factors that significantly weakened the Byzantine Empire and made it a military pushover when the Muslims came knocking. For context, Muhammad died after unifying Arabia in 632 CE, and Israel was wholly conquered by the Arab caliphate in 638 CE. The Muslims, heavily influenced by Abrahamic traditions, considered Jerusalem a holy city. Their story goes that Muhammad was taken to Jerusalem to meet God and the other prophets. Caliph Umar of the Rashidun Caliphate officially declared Jerusalem Islam's third-holiest city. The Arabs built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the former Second Temple.
Although the early Muslim rulers were known to treat their non-Muslim subjects reasonably well, this wasn't the case in Israel, now Palestine. Umar II, who came to power in 717 CE, imposed totalitarian lifestyle restrictions on non-Muslims in the Holy Land that encouraged a wave of conversions. Whether true or not, the new converts rapidly changed the religious landscape there in favor of Islam.
Palestine was a coveted territory, and through the ages and the different caliphates, it came under attack by various factions, including the Qarmatians, the Byzantines, various Bedouin tribes, and the Seljuk Turks. Palestine was a constant battlefield, but things only got worse when the Catholics decided to jump into the fray. Following a string of Byzantine territorial losses to the Seljuk Turks, the Catholic pope delivered a sermon calling for a Christian holy war to reclaim the holy sites in Palestine. Enter the Crusades.
Although the Jews had no love for their Muslim rulers, at least the Muslims weren't interested in wholesale massacring them like the Crusaders were doing. Jews helped the Muslims try to hold Jerusalem against the Crusaders during the 1099 siege, and the Crusaders punished them by massacring most of the city's Jewish population.
By all accounts, the Jews fought bravely alongside Muslim soldiers throughout the Crusades. Saladin, the Kurdish sultan who came to rule much of the Middle East, rewarded them for this loyalty by recapturing Jerusalem in 1187 and inviting Jews to reestablish their communities and worship freely. Sure enough, Jews started arriving from Europe to settle in Palestine, especially from France and England. Sure, the journey was long and dangerous, but it sucked less than being a Jew in fucking Medieval Europe.
In 1260, the rule of Jerusalem passed to the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, who continued tolerating foreign Jewish immigration into the region. With Sephardic Jews from Spain also starting to enter the area, the Jewish population in and around Jerusalem had increased to about 10,000.
In 1517, the rising Ottoman Empire conquered the Mamluk Sultanate in its entirety, both to dominate the Middle East's spice trade and to conquer the holy cities in Palestine. Meanwhile, Spain and Portugal finished conquering the formerly Muslim-held areas in Iberia and began to forcibly expel and persecute Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. Jews fleeing or forced to leave their homes in Iberia found the Ottomans quite welcoming; the Turks only required that the Jews pay extra taxes and publicly acknowledge the superior power of Islam.
By the mid-16th century, the Ottomans had the largest Jewish community globally. The empire benefited directly from the Jewish presence in Palestine. Jewish refugees moving in came pre-packaged with European knowledge and languages, and they had no reason to feel any affection whatsoever for their former Christian oppressors. As a result, Jews generally became international businessmen, spies, and diplomats. Jewish communities prospered and were allowed to explore and develop their own unique culture.
Of course, it's common knowledge that the Ottoman Empire started going down the tubes by the 18th century. Much of that was due to Western imperialism elsewhere in the world, as the naval trade routes they established reduced Ottoman domination of trade and therefore reduced Ottoman finances. The Ottomans also entered into a brutal series of wars that lasted centuries and resulted in more and more of the empire's territory being lost to Russia. As the prosperity and power of the empire declined, so did the well-being of the empire's Jewish communities. Unfortunately, as time went on and the empire was surrounded by increasingly powerful enemies, the Turks became more and more suspicious of the empire's minority populations, including the Jews. Things got even worse after the 1908 revolution of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks.[note 1] Once in power, they started plotting the forced assimilation and possible extermination of minorities. This program began with implementing a wide variety of social programs designed to forcibly assimilate minorities, including renaming children and requiring instruction in schools to be conducted only in Turkish.
The trouble is really bad now
Any discussion about the development of Zionism should start with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was almost as influential in Jewish history as Cyrus the Great. Before the French Revolution and the subsequent continent-wide destruction of the old order, European Jews were denied citizenship, equal rights, and the right to join the government or own property. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, Jews faced waves of violence such as the slaughters during the Crusades or the horrific Chmielnicki Pogrom. Jewish emancipation, or the process by which Jews started to gain civil equality, began in principle during the early French revolutionary regimes but didn't really become a reality until Bonaparte seized control of France and started rampaging around Europe. Napoleon was basically Godzilla in that he destroyed Europe's old laws and conventions and replaced them with his own legal code and Jewish emancipation policies. These events set the stage for Jews to become more influential in European society as they gained access to education and journalist professions.
That didn't mean the end of antisemitism; the opposite was true, as poor non-Jews in Europe resented that they couldn't look down on the Jews anymore. The same process that caused race riots during America's Reconstruction saw a rapid increase in anti-Jewish pogroms and harassment. The combination of increased access to society and more fear of violence led many Jews to wonder if it might just be possible to rebuild their own nation on the soil where it once stood.
Zionism is curious in that it was both a secular and a deeply religious movement. Much of Europe's Jewish population had been forced to secularize to fit in with Europeans. Still, many other Jews were concerned about the implications for their religion and were convinced that only a return to their Holy Land could reverse this. That characteristic of Zionism helps explain Israel's paradoxically secular-yet-fundamentalist nature.
By World War I, it was clear to just about everyone that the Ottoman Empire was doomed to split into a litany of successor states. Zionists were thrilled by this idea, but so were Arab nationalists who wanted to incorporate Palestine into an Arab super-state. At this point in time, British statesman and politician Chaim Weizmann was the chief advocate for Zionism, and he knew that it was the will of the empires rather than the will of the people that mattered. Thus, he pointed out that Palestine was quite proximate to the British Suez Canal and how nice it would be to use that territory to protect Britain's lifeline to colonial India.
British diplomacy during the war concerning the Middle East was a truly disgusting display of two-faced bastardry. The British won the allegiance of Arabs revolting against Ottoman rule by promising to help them establish a unified Arab state. Then the British struck a secret agreement with the French to carve up the Middle East in 1916 and issued the Balfour Declaration stating support for a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine. Long story short, the British decided that keeping the Jews and Arabs at each others' throats would enable them to keep Palestine under control more easily. After the war, the League of Nations placed Palestine under British rule as a mandate territory, figuring that the British could keep it peaceful and prepare it for eventual independence. Both of those last two things represent disastrous miscalculations.
The British generally considered the Jews their political allies in the region, especially since the Jewish Legion of Zionist volunteers helped them conquer the area during World War I. Mass Jewish immigration into Palestine began almost immediately, as the chaos of the Russian Revolution had culminated in a series of horrific pogroms against Jews. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Arabs realized that they had been screwed out of Pan-Arabism by British colonialism and saw that the Jews were being shipped in by the British, seemingly to displace the Palestinians. This unsurprisingly culminated in a series of bloody riots in Jerusalem in 1920. More riots followed in 1921 and 1929, followed by a full Arab revolt in 1936, so the Jews organized their own militia called "Haganah" to help protect their own interests.
By 1937, the British realized that the Jews and Arabs weren't getting along, and they proposed partitioning Palestine between them. The Jews rejected the borders but accepted the principle of partition, while the Palestinians furiously rejected the entire proposal. In 1939, the British decided to end Palestinian revolts by caving to their demands. British authorities announced that they would limit Jewish immigration over the next five years and make any further immigration subject to Arab approval. David Ben-Gurion, then the leader of Jewish advocacy, declared that the Jews would support the British in the war against Adolf Hitler but would still fervently resist the new policy. Once fascist Italy joined the war in 1940, British leader Winston Churchill decided it was a crucial strategy to keep the Arabs compliant. Thus, he harshly restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine right at the point where Jewish immigration out of Europe was more essential than it had ever been before. Although thousands of Jewish volunteers served in the British military in World War II, Jewish loyalty to London was rapidly fading. Zionists increasingly turned to the United States and American Jews for support.
Insurgency and UN partition
“”The representatives of the Arab States claim that the partition of Palestine would be an historic injustice. But this view of the case is unacceptable, if only because, after all, the Jewish people has been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history. Apart from that, we must not overlook—and the USSR delegation drew attention to this circumstance originally at the special session of the General Assembly—we must not overlook the position in which the Jewish people found themselves as a result of the recent world war.
|—Soviet ambassador to the UN, Andrei Gromyko, argues for a Jewish state in Palestine.|
“”Nothing had prepared us for this windfall.... Moscow was reversing its traditional posture by proposing the option of a Jewish state... Gromyko had become a Zionist hero.
|—Abba Eban, first Israeli ambassador to the UN.|
About 1.5 million Jews fought the Axis in various allied military forces, meaning that the Jews had a lot of militarily-experienced men. Meanwhile, the Holocaust changed everything about how power worked in Palestine. US president Harry Truman felt morally obliged to support the Jews in whatever they wanted. Meanwhile, the British Labour government continued to abide by immigration restrictions out of fear that the empire could collapse if too many anti-colonial revolts happened at once. Unfortunately for them, that policy triggered a whole different kind of revolt. The Jews were enraged, and David Ben-Gurion organized Jewish militias to coordinate illegal immigration into Palestine and armed warfare against British colonial authorities.
Zionist forces utilized terrorist tactics against the British, although it's important to note that they generally focused their efforts on government and military targets. Nonetheless, civilians definitely died in Zionist attacks. Most infamous was the bombing that destroyed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which had become a British colonial headquarters. The Zionists warned of the impending explosion, but not soon enough to give the British time to escape. The bombing killed 91 people.
All in all, the insurgency and terror campaign was highly effective. By 1947, the British had been forced to dispatch about 100,000 troops into Palestine, an expense they just couldn't afford after the Second World War. Finally, the British threw their hands up and said "fuck it" and shoved the issue at the UN for them to figure out.
The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) drew up a partition plan for an independent Israel and Palestine and an internationally-governed Jerusalem; this plan was approved by both the United States and the Soviet Union in a rare show of cooperation. In fact, the Soviet delegation came out in support of the plan first after their UN ambassador Andrei Gromyko shocked the hell out of everybody by reversing decades of Soviet policy and endorsing a Jewish state. He had done this on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The latter figured that since the Jews were fighting against the British, a Jewish state in Palestine would naturally be an enemy of the British Empire and a potential regional ally for the USSR. The Zionists were thrilled by the idea of getting their Jewish state at long last, but the Arab League and the Palestinians were enraged by the plan.
Although violent Palestinian resistance to partition began immediately, Ben-Gurion was able to use his Zionist militias to gain control of the UN-mandated territories and proclaimed the establishment of an independent Israel in 1948. The US, the Soviets, and the UN-recognized Israel days later. Unfortunately for Israel, its independence wouldn't be a sure thing until it dealt with the imminent military threat presented by the Palestinians and the Arab League. A month after Israel's declaration of independence, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen mobilized troops to invade. Oh boy.
War of Independence
Open warfare between Jews and Arabs began even before the British withdrawal, and the British did nothing to put an end to the rising conflict that ended up killing 2,000 in its early stages. The Israelis were vastly outnumbered by their enemies, evidenced by most Jewish population centers being under siege early in the war and having to be liberated.
Although outnumbered, the Israelis had a few crucial advantages that proved decisive in this war. Palestinian Arabs had no professional soldiers or military structure, and the Arab states backing them were far from politically unified. By contrast, the Israelis were fighting for the survival of their new nation, and many were experienced soldiers who had fought in the world war. Within a handful of months, though, the Israeli state had to perform the frankly impressive feat of transforming the disorganized Jewish militias into a competent and professional military. In fact, by mid-1948, Israel's superior mobilization strategy paid off when they raised a larger armed force than the Arab opposition. In terms of numbers, the Israelis mobilized their entire able-bodied adult population for an army of more than 100,000 to face off against about 25,000 Arab soldiers.
That being said, Israel would have had a much worse time had the Eastern Bloc not stepped up to the plate for them once more. The Soviet Union, through its puppet Czechoslovakia, sold a shitload of weaponry to Israel that the communists had captured from Nazi Germany during the world war. Ben-Gurion later expressed his view that the guns from the commies were essential in ensuring Israel's victory in the war.
Meanwhile, the Arab League states expected an easy victory that they could use for propaganda purposes. Thus, they didn't put much effort into coordinating or planning their offensive. They were also crippled by the competing political goals of the various leaders, as Egypt's king wanted to be the ruler of the Arab world, and Jordan wanted to occupy Jerusalem for itself. Not only did the Arab forces suffer humiliating military defeats against the Israelis, but they also started turning against each other.
The war ended with an armistice between the parties, which benefited Israel greatly. Israel ended up with 50% more land than was initially allocated under the UN partition plan, creating Israel's modern borders. The remainder of Palestine effectively ceased to exist, as the West Bank came under Jordanian occupation, and the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian occupation. After the Kingdom of Jordan took over Jerusalem and the West Bank, their authorities expelled Jews from East Jerusalem, destroyed many Jewish holy sites, and forbade Jews from praying at the Western Wall.
With those territorial expansions for most parties, it wasn't the Arab states that lost the war. No, it was the poor goddamn Palestinians who lost out. The widespread destruction of Arab villages and various war crimes committed by radical Israeli militias forced about 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes into the neighboring Arab states. Once comprising villages and cities, Palestine was effectively wiped off the map. Palestinians refer to this mass exodus as the Nakba, or "catastrophe." In their absence, the Israelis passed a series of laws stripping the fleeing Arabs of their property and making it illegal for them to return. Many of those Palestinian families remain refugees to this day.
There was also a second refugee crisis, as the various Arab states, in turn, forced their Jewish population out of their homes. Israel's population swelled by hundreds of thousands as a result.
State of Israel (and more trouble with the Arabs)
Israel focused a lot on attracting foreign Jewish immigration, hoping that the state could expand territorially, although the hoped-for mass influx from the West never really materialized. Most Jews who arrived were from the Middle East or Africa, and they were generally treated worse and had fewer opportunities than those Jews who came from Europe.
Israel's early days were defined by the economic crisis. Food and other goods had to be rationed, and the economy got so bad that Ben-Gurion actually signed the reparations deal with West Germany to get some much-needed cash. That deal pissed off a lot of Jews who thought that Ben-Gurion was putting a monetary value on the lives lost in the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, previously instrumental to Israel's establishment, quickly 180'd back into hostility towards the Zionist cause. This happened when Golda Meir, Israel’s envoy to the Soviets, proposed that the Soviet Union allow and encourage its Jewish population to emigrate to Israel. As that whole Berlin Wall thing demonstrated, the Soviets weren't too keen on the concept of people leaving their communist utopia. Soviet Jews were pleased under the leadership of Comrade Stalin, thank you very much. Combined with Israel's friendly attitude towards the US, that issue cemented the Soviet Union as an enemy.
The country also suffered attacks from Palestinian raiders from across the borders; these attacks were almost always met with Israeli counter-raids. Israel also committed an act of aggression against Egypt in 1952 alongside the UK and France, when Israel agreed to invade to support the imperialists' scheme to regain the Suez Canal. For the first and probably last time, the US actually turned against Israel when president Dwight Eisenhower threatened sanctions if Israel didn't get the fuck out of Egypt, as the USSR (who backed Egypt) was threatening nuclear warfare against them, and the UK and France.
In 1960, Israel also shocked the world by sending Mossad to Argentina to kidnap the escaped Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann. This news caused consternation in the CIA, which had known about Eichmann's location and didn't say anything out of fear that Eichmann's testimony might spill some embarrassing beans over Operation Paperclip. Israel later put Eichmann on trial, found him guilty, and executed him for being
banal an evil fucker. Eichmann, to this day, holds the dubious distinction of being the only person executed on the order of an Israeli civilian court.
“”The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Gamal Abdel Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.
|—Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, 1982.|
“”Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel. The Arab people want to fight.
|—Nasser on the eve of the war, making it really easy for the Israelis to justify a first strike on him.|
Although Israel was undergoing a tumultuous period, it wasn't like their Arab neighbors were faring much better. The humiliating military smackdown inflicted on them by Israel led to domestic unrest and coups in Syria and Egypt, which installed nationalist military strongmen as dictators. The Arabs made no secret that they wanted to avenge themselves upon Israel, and Israel continued stockpiling for the inevitable next war. Making things worse, Cold War tensions played into the situation as well, as the Soviets happily sold modern weapons to Egypt and the Israelis bought equipment from the West.
By 1967, Israel was controlled by its new home-born generation, convinced that the old Jewish diaspora had suffered because they failed to fight back. The new generation was determined to kick ass first and ask questions later. In the end, the situation exploded into a war that same year based on - well, this thing remains a hot potato:
- The Arab interpretation: Israeli hardliners noticed that people were getting stressed that Egypt was building up its military, so they cooked up a story that Egypt was massing for imminent war across the Sinai.
- The Israeli interpretation: Given that Arab leaders around them were chanting "Death to Israel" pretty much every day and that Egypt had closed one of Israel's lifelines, the Strait of Tiran, it was pretty obvious they were going to attack. Better safe than sorry.
Israel basically did a Pearl Harbor to start the war, smashing most of Egypt's air force before it even got off the ground. Egyptian leader Nasser immediately declared a jihad, but the second wave of the attack came when Israeli tanks poured into the Sinai Peninsula and killed 10,000 Egyptian soldiers in 48 hours. Despite Israel's attempts to keep the conflict just between them and Egypt, Syria and Jordan joined the war to limit Israeli aggression. Although hoping to avoid that situation, Israel pushed the Arabs out and conquered the West Bank. When in control of Jerusalem, jubilant Israeli soldiers celebrated by blowing ram horns and singing.
Eventually, the UN managed to broker a ceasefire, but it could hardly be called anything other than a decisive Israeli victory. Israel had more than tripled the land under its control, gaining control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. True to its name, the war lasted only six days. Unfortunately, the short conflict was still disastrous for the Palestinians. (Bet you didn't see that coming!)
War of attrition
Now under military occupation, Palestinians still living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip faced immediate hardship under Israeli rule. Palestinians were blocked from traveling abroad or conducting foreign trade, making them prisoners inside their own communities. Another 300,000 Palestinians became displaced in the immediate aftermath of the war. In a sinister foreshadowing of what was to come, the Israeli government bulldozed an entire Muslim neighborhood to create a large praying plaza in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
This poor treatment and second defeat further radicalized Palestinians and Arabs alike. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), created in 1964, escalated its attacks on Israelis and declared that its goal was to destroy Israel and replace it with a unified Palestinian state. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a huge wave of political violence from Palestinians who were pissed off about being under Israeli occupation. Perhaps the most infamous incident was the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, in which Palestinian terrorists took eleven Israeli athletes and one West German police officer hostage and eventually killed them.
The Arab League also held a summit after the war, which resulted in the Khartoum Resolution, a declaration that there would be no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations. Israel also retaliated for the Munich massacre by bombing PLO installations the Arab League states hosted. Between 1969 and 1970, low-scale hostilities between Israel and its neighbors were constant, resulting in thousands of dead soldiers and civilians. This period is called the "War of Attrition".
Yom Kippur War and Camp David Accords
Under its new and more pragmatic ruler Anwar Sadat, Egypt offered Israel a peace deal in the early 1970s in exchange for returning the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir rejected the offer, so Sadat turned to a different regional player. He met with Syria's recently-risen dictator Hafez al-Assad, and the two leaders struck a secret accord promising to unite their forces against Israel. Despite that agreement, though, the two leaders had very different goals. Sadat only wanted to force Israel to the bargaining table to get Sinai back, while Assad wanted to militarily recapture the Golan Heights and avenge Syria's former defeats.
To maximize their chances of victory, the two leaders chose to launch their attack on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement". During that holiday, Israel shut down entirely for prayer and fasting to the point that traffic was halted and broadcasts were ceased. The attack caught the Israelis by surprise, and the Arabs were in much better shape than the last two attempts. Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal went smoother than expected, and Israel's military reserves were quickly depleted. With no other choice, Israel asked the US to save them. Richard Nixon answered the call by supplying US arms and supplies, although the US paid for it when OPEC retaliated with an oil embargo.
Once reinforced with foreign weapons, the Israelis could get back on their feet. Peace came with a UN ceasefire and an agreement to just let things go back to how they were. It was, however, clear to the Israelis that they needed to fix their issues with at least some of their neighbors once and for all.
Finally, in 1978, Sadat's attempt to force Israel into bargaining with him paid off. In 1977, Sadat had made a show of goodwill by traveling to Jerusalem and speaking before the Israeli legislature, the first time an Arab leader had recognized Israeli sovereignty. Although that made some progress, the Egyptians and the Israelis still couldn't find common ground on the Sinai. To make things move a bit faster, US president Jimmy Carter invited both Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to meet on US soil and hash out their differences with Carter as a mediator.
Over two weeks, the summit finally broke the diplomatic deadlock and created of some "framework documents". In 1979, Israel and Egypt translated that framework into a working peace treaty that saw Israel withdraw from the Sinai and Egypt agree to keep the region demilitarized. The peace treaty has lasted just fine so far, and Israel now considers Egypt one of its closest regional allies.
Hooray for not killing each other! Too bad things went sour elsewhere again.
Escalation in Palestine, the war in Lebanon
In early 1978, the PLO decided to remind everyone that they were still around and pissed off by hijacking a bus and murdering 38 Israelis, including 13 children. As it's known now, the Coastal Road bus massacre failed to sabotage the Israeli-Egyptian peace process but sure did piss Israel right the hell off. Israel retaliated by launching a full invasion of Lebanon, which was known to host PLO terrorists and bases. The short invasion resulted in about 1,000 Arab deaths and was condemned by the UN. That condemnation began an ongoing pattern of anger between Israel and the UN.
Amid escalating conflict with the PLO, Israel also became much more aggressive towards poor Joe Sixpack of Palestine, who just wanted to live his goddamn life. First came the official Israeli policy to encourage the establishment of many illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas. This policy began the current trend of harsher military occupation and virtual apartheid in the region. Then came the 1980 Jerusalem Law, which effectively announced the annexation of East Jerusalem. That's been a bit of a sore point for Palestinians too.
Then, amid much international screaming, Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. After that, amid even more international screaming, Israel launched another invasion of Lebanon in 1982 because the first invasion apparently hadn't been enough. Lebanese Christian militias used the opportunity to rise up and commit horrific massacres against the Muslim population. Israel earned the world's disgust when the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) stood by and allowed mass murder right in front of their faces. Israel declared "mission accomplished" and left Lebanon in 1985, leaving behind a country in ruins that would be embroiled in religious civil war until 1990.
In 1987, the First Intifada, a series of Palestinian protests and riots, broke out and was met with a massively disproportionate response from the Israelis.
Beginning and sabotage of the peace process
In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister on a platform calling for compromise with the Palestinians. The following year, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority as an autonomous regional government with the acknowledged right to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, the ongoing Oslo process can't be completed without resolving the vital questions of Israel's illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, illegal Israeli settlements, and the Palestinian right of return (comparable to the Jewish right of return).
Unfortunately, Israel's government has since used the Oslo agreement as a cover to seize increasing degrees of control over Palestinian land. The agreement temporarily ceded a large amount of Palestinian land to what was supposed to be Israeli custodianship and gradual transference to Palestinian governance. Instead, peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a hardline Jew in 1995, and elections saw him succeeded by the hardline rightist Benjamin Netanyahu. The Netanyahu government immediately suspended all plans of returning Palestinian land granted by the Accords for custodianship and instead effectively annexed them, beginning the long-running policy of constructing illegal Israeli settlements there. Since then, Netanyahu's bad faith has sabotaged and transformed what was supposed to be a peace process into a flimsy legal cover for land grabs and oppression.
Not a whole lot of progress has materialized on these issues since then. There's probably a Nobel Prize for you if you can figure that shitstorm out. Good luck.
In 1994, Israel signed a peace agreement with Jordan that has lasted so far. Part of the agreement stipulates that Jordanian authorities get to administer Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, which controversially includes Temple Mount.
More war in Palestine and Lebanon
Unfortunately for the Palestinians, things went bad again. Another round of diplomatic talks in 2000 fell through on the issue of what exact borders an independent Palestine might have. Both sides blamed the other for the failure. Shortly after, Palestinians were enraged by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Temple Mount. That triggered the Second Intifada, an even more intense bout of violence that lasted until about 2005 and killed thousands on both sides. During that period of violence, Israel constructed the controversial wall near the West Bank border. Israel claims it is a defensive measure. However, Palestinians see it as racial segregation. It mostly cuts into the West Bank rather than being built on the Israel - West Bank border or inside Israel proper.
Meanwhile, the chickens scattered in Lebanon by Israel came home to roost when Iranian-backed Shia militia Hezbollah started launching attacks on Israel. Israel invaded Lebanon again in 2006, conducting a war that is widely considered a failure. The IDF failed to locate and destroy most of Hezbollah's strength, failed to prevent missile attacks on Israeli soil, and failed to eliminate any of Hezbollah's leaders. Israel had been humiliated in a lost war for the first time, despite claiming victory.
Back at home, the year 2005 saw the terrorist group Hamas oust the Palestinian Authority and take control of the Gaza Strip. Political differences between the PLO and Hamas escalated into violence in 2007. Hamas also started using the Gaza Strip as a base from which to launch rocket attacks against Israel, provoking an Israeli invasion of the territory in 2008. Israel again earned the world's disgust by indiscriminately using white phosphorous explosives during the war, a weapon generally acknowledged as a WMD. This resulted in the intentional killing of Palestinians, which is forbidden under international law and is classed as a war crime. Israel has never been brought to justice at an international court despite this blatant war crime. Alongside deadly white phosphorous chemical incendiaries, Gazan civilians were killed by Israeli missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire directed at populated areas. This also contributed to the resulting death of many Palestinian civilians.
Israel attacked Gaza again in 2014, massacring hundreds of people. During this attack, Israeli troops randomly fired their weapons, resulting in the death of numerous civilians, including women and children. No fewer than 2,251 Palestinians (of which at least 65% were civilians) were intentionally killed by the Israeli military during this atrocious massacre.
Then, months later the unthinkable happened: on October 7th, 2023 Hamas militants briefly invaded parts of central Israel, killing an estimated 1,400 civilians and abducting a further 250 people, both numbers including foreign nationals.[note 2] Based on the paragraphs above, you can imagine what happened to Gaza after that. You see, Gaza is currently under a brutal siege, which has caused a rapidly-deteriorating humanitarian crisis and the destruction of the urban exclave's healthcare infrastructure; though figures vary widely, they generally agree that said siege has claimed the lives of several times that number already, estimated at around 15,000- including journalists, who of course were often deliberately targeted. As of November 24th, it was confirmed that 13 of these hostages have been released in prisoner swaps, a cautiously promising breakthrough thus far.
Strengthening diplomatic position
Israel's diplomatic status is better today than it's ever been. Israel has trade agreements with most of Europe and a big chunk of Latin America. Israel's peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt seem stable, and its relations with Saudi Arabia are improving due to their shared enemy, Iran.
Israel has previously benefited from the close personal alliance between former U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's then prime minister and notorious wingnut Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2017, President Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem, thus signaling that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The decision triggered a flurry of violence and crackdowns but noticeably didn't cause too much diplomatic unrest among the Arab states. That's probably explained by the fact that the Arab world now seems to view Israel as an uncomfortable ally helping them fight against Iranian influence. Trump also released a "peace plan" to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, which was referred to by Netanyahu as the "deal of the century"; it was created without ever speaking to Palestinians (don't look so shocked). While the plan did technically offer Palestinians a sovereign state, it would, in practice, be nothing more than an isolated, partially self-governing territory of Israel. It was widely compared to Indian reservations and bantustans. It would have also allowed Israel to continue to construct settlements in the West Bank and required the State of Palestine to concede control of crucial parts of the West Bank in exchange for isolated, worthless pieces of land in the desert. Unsurprisingly, this proposal was immediately and vehemently rejected by the Palestinian leadership. However, many believe that it was, in fact, never intended to be accepted and was made horrible on purpose so that Palestinians would immediately reject it. Thus, a person who knew nothing about the plan could believe it was rejected because those damn Arabs don't want peace. Of course, the plan was ultimately so terrible that it was hated even by many hardline Zionists.
Warming ties with the Arab world were confirmed in September 2020 when Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement with Israel to recognize the Israeli state and normalize diplomatic relations. Behind the peace deals was the offer from the US of generous arms sales; the UAE has already gone and purchased Reaper drones, EA-18G Growler jets, and F-35 fighter planes. In October 2020, Sudan's post-Bashir government followed their example in normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for the US removing them from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
In 2021, the worst violence since 2014 broke out, once again dashing any foolishly optimistic hopes that the region could be heading towards peace. Tensions spiked dangerously when Israel's "Jerusalem Day" holiday (commemorating the 1967 victory) coincided with a series of forced evictions of Palestinians from a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, sparking first peaceful protests and then clashes with Israeli police, and then escalated into riots, a freaking police raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which is the third-holiest site in Islam), and finally, rocket attacks and airstrikes carried out between Israel and Hamas. Israel took the opportunity to pound Gaza with airstrikes, flattening many buildings and murdering many civilians. Israeli forces also destroyed a business tower housing various media outlets like the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. Despite Israel's insistence that the tower housed Hamas combatants, Israel's government has failed to provide literally any evidence of that claim, making it dubious. Since 2022 there has been a drastic increase in violence within the West Bank. In 2022, Israeli Forces killed 170 Palestinians, including 30 children, making it the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2006. And in the first half of 2023 Israel has killed 160 Palestinians, including 26 children. This is due to nearly daily Israeli raids within the West Bank.
Government and politics
Democracy and elections
Israel has been called "the only democracy in the Middle East". Unfortunately, that's not quite true. While Israel is certainly the
most democratic least undemocratic state in the region, , the closest one to a proper democracy, certain failings have created a situation in which Israel's parliamentary system fails to represent the will of its people. Elections, for instance, are overseen by a partisan electoral commission. Following the 2022 legislative election Netanyahu and his coalition partners have sought to weaken the High Court of Israel. Many right wing Israelis have sought to weaken the High Court of Israel due to perceived protection of Palestinian rights, and upholding secularism. Proposed legislation from the Netanyahu government would be an expansion of use of administrative detention under the control of Ben Gvirs control.
Israel's ongoing military occupations have resulted in a cultural shift towards authoritarianism. Under the rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, the nationalist right has mounted an assault on liberal institutions by declaring Israel to be a Jewish state, bribing the media for favorable coverage, and attempting to make Netanyahu immune from any kind of prosecution. In March 2020, Netanyahu's Likud Party took the extraordinary action of shutting down the Knesset for a few days to prevent a vote to appoint a new Knesset Speaker of another party. Even with the Knesset shut down, the Netanyahu administration continued business without parliamentary oversight.
Meanwhile, Israeli colonization of the West Bank has significantly altered its political landscape. Israeli settlers on Palestinian land campaign and run for seats in the Knesset during election seasons, while Palestinians living on that same land don't even have the right to vote. This although the Israeli government rules most aspects of Palestinian life. Instead, Palestinians vote for the Palestinian Authority, a regime that controls around 40% of Palestinian land and is entirely reliant on Israel for its continued functioning.
Although right-wing Israelis call Palestine a "disputed" territory, the reality is that Palestine is under military occupation. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon admitted it before the Knesset before explaining his view that the occupation was unsustainable. Sharon was succeeded by Netanyahu, who seems to have made it his mission to make the occupation sustainable by accelerating settlement construction and increasing military presence.
Since 1967, Israel's military has been responsible for administration and governance in the Palestinian territories. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has handed partial administrative rights to the Palestinian Authority. However, the Israeli military reigns supreme in the region, and most rural areas are still under Israeli civil authority.
Israeli rule in the region is arbitrary and uncaring at best. Israeli forces' human rights violations include:
- Home demolitions and forced evictions.
- Lack of access to water.
- Punitive arrests.
- Unfair trials.
- Ill-treatment and torture of detainees.
- The use of lethal force to suppress nonviolent demonstrations.
Despite Hamas' best efforts, Israel also maintains partial control of the Gaza Strip and is considered by the international community to be the de facto occupying power in Gaza. It controls all of Gaza's border crossings, except the Rafah crossing to and from Egypt, in addition to Gaza's airspace, coastal waters, and the no-go "buffer zone" of 300 meters (as of 2021) between the Gaza Strip and Israel. On top of that, Israel maintains a population registry to determine who may leave and enter Gaza. Since 2007, Israel, with the shameful support of Egypt's current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has used that control to enforce a tight blockade on almost all goods into or out of Gaza, including medical supplies. While Israel and Egypt claim that this blockade is necessary on security grounds, the actual purpose is to collectively punish Gazans for the actions of Hamas. This is though Israel and Egypt have no basis for behaving in that manner, and collectively punishing civilians is expressly forbidden by international law.
Ultra-Orthodox influence and the coming demographic disaster
Even within Israel, there's increasing nervousness and anxiety over the Haredi Jews' outsized role in Israeli society and politics, seen often in their relentless bullying of prime ministers into acquiescing to their demands. Haredi Jews, often labeled "Ultra-Orthodox", see it as their holy obligation to spend as much of their lives as possible studying Jewish scriptures, and they also believe in gender segregation and shun the internet. Haredi political parties have managed to make themselves kingmakers within the Israeli right-wing, and they flexed that power in 2019 by sinking a coalition agreement over the issue of conscripting religious students into the military, forcing another election. The Haredi electorate has also trended sharply to the right in recent years, and their demographic support notably helped propel far-right anti-secular politician Itamar Ben-Gvir into the national spotlight. This trend is unlikely to change soon. A larger percentage of young Israelis is Haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist than in previous generations. As a result, unlike countries like the US and the UK, the youth in Israel is extremely right-wing. Over 60% of the voters below 35 identify as right-wing, while less than 50% of the older identifying as such.
Seventy years prior, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion granted draft exemptions to students at yeshivot, which initially applied to only a few hundred scholars. Over time, this number grew to tens of thousands of young men who also received state handouts so they could devote themselves to studying Jewish scriptures. By 2010, Israeli university students had become quite resentful towards the roughly 600,000 Ultra-Orthodox religious students who not only didn't pay for education but also lived almost entirely on state benefits. Worst of all, Haredi religious schools are pretty shitty. That's not our opinion, by the way; that comes from Professor Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, who notes that very few Haredi children learn core subjects like math, English or science. Ben-David also considers it a security threat, as uneducated children raised in gender-segregated environments wouldn't be effective in Israel's military even if they wanted to join.
Lack of education makes Haredi essentially unemployable in a modern economy, which would be a problem for them were the average Haredi man not completely uninterested in employment. In 2011, the Bank of Israel reported that more than 60% of Haredi men don't work and that most lived well below the poverty line and had an average of 8 children per family. The huge number of children per household is also a major problem since it means the Haredi population is rapidly increasing. Professor Ben-David predicted in 2019 that some 49% of all children in Israel aged 0 to 14 will be ultra-Orthodox by 2065. Economics professor Omer Moav from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem noted that, "They are a real danger to Israel. If we go bankrupt it’s the end of the story for us. Our strong army rests on a strong economy." Efforts to reform Haredi education have always been met with fierce opposition from the religious community.
During COVID-19, Haredim, much like the right-wing in America, refused to follow lockdown procedures; they kept schools open and large gatherings for prayers, weddings, or funerals, "ending up with spectacularly high infection rates (exacerbated by crowded living conditions) that contributed to Israel being the 2020 world leader in national lockdown days." Haredim are also known to interfere with public transportation and commerce on Shabbat, prevent women from singing in public, enforce gender segregation, and hold a monopoly on formal marriage (they refuse to marry gay Israelis) and conversions. Many Russian-speaking immigrants are not recognized as Jews, and "mixed couples in general are driven to the absurdity of traveling abroad to marry."
Ongoing disputes and crises
Status of Palestine
The Oslo Accord was never meant to be a permanent arrangement. Yet, it has remained in force ever since its adoption, largely thanks to the efforts of the extremist Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under the 1993 agreement, Palestine is split into three regions. Area A, which consists of the primary Palestinian urban areas, has most of its internal affairs and security controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Originally, Israeli forces were supposed to be legally barred from entering Area A, but Israel unilaterally dissolved this provision while hunting militants during the Second Intifada. Entry is still barred to Israeli citizens. Area B, which consists of more rural Palestinian villages, are under the Palestinian Authority's internal jurisdiction but has a nominal Israeli security presence. However, this is limited to non-existent in practice, meaning crime and disorder are rife in these areas. Israel does not give a shit about that because its government does not see this as being its problem, so it would rather just save a few shekels and leave the Palestinians without law and order.
Area C is the real problem, consisting of about 60% of Palestinian territory. Much of it is uninhabited by anyone. The Oslo Accords gave Israel full administrative control and a free hand to do whatever was necessary for its security in Area C. Still, the area was meant to be transferred to Palestinian control in 1999. However, as the transfer never happened, Israel maintained de facto control. It holds extensive power in Area C. An estimated 300,000 Palestinians live in Area C, along with some 400,000 Israeli colonists living in settlements constructed there.
Along with using its administrative control to construct settlements, Israel also regularly demolishes Palestinian homes that they have not seen fit to authorize (Israel authorizes very few Palestinian construction requests). 30% of Area C is also barred from Palestinian entry, and 70% of existing Palestinian homes there lack water infrastructure access. Nearly half of the Area C communities report that their access to emergency and basic health care is hampered by the long distances to the nearest clinic and/or the need to pass a checkpoint.
Violence is still sporadic in Palestine, with protests becoming uncontrolled and the IDF responding with often lethal force. Amid these various grievances, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced in 2015 that Palestine no longer considered the Oslo Accords legitimate. Israel's harsher treatment of Palestinians has also helped the PLO reconcile with Hamas and form a unity agreement against their common enemy.
As far as anyone has been able to envision, there are really only two broad ways for the conflict to end. The "two-state solution" would create an independent Israel and Palestine and is the most widely accepted idea internationally. It's based on the idea that the two sides are irreconcilable and thus deserve to make their own way. Unfortunately, to make a two-state solution work, you'd need to figure out exactly where the border of those two states would lie. That's the root of the problem, as Israel has been building settlements on Palestinian land, and both sides claim East Jerusalem.
Then there's the "one-state solution", which would merge Israel and Palestine. Many hardliner Israelis don't want that since annexing Palestine and granting them citizenship would mean that Israeli Jews would be outnumbered by Arabs, thus meaning the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Alternatively, there's the ethnic cleansing version, where Israel either forces out the Palestinians or outright kills them all and takes the land anyways. That solution is deemed unacceptable to everyone, bar former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and then Prime Minister Bennett, and then Netanyahu again with an even more radical right-wing government. Unfortunately, it's hard to deny that this is the direction Israel is heading with widespread settlement-building, violence against Palestinians, including massacres, and the denial of Palestinian development rights.
Status of East Jerusalem
Before 1967, Israel only controlled the western chunk of Jerusalem, but the Six-Day War saw Israel conquer the eastern half. Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law, and Palestine claims it as the capital of their proposed independent state. That, by the way, is why much of the international community continues to insist that Tel Aviv is Israel's capital and not Jerusalem. It's also why Palestinians freaked the fuck out when Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem; they don't view Israel's hold over the eastern half of the city as legitimate.
Right now, East Jerusalem is highly militarized, and Palestinians there live in fear. Israeli ministers occasionally demand the destruction of all Palestinian homes built in East Jerusalem without permits, a threat that targets nearly 40 percent of the city’s Palestinians because of restrictive zoning. Jewish mobs chanting “Death to Arabs” have paraded through the streets, nightly police raids target Palestinian neighborhoods, and people on both sides of the religious divide are occasionally shot or stabbed.
East Jerusalem is also sectioned off from the rest of the West Bank by the infamous wall, which rightly angers Palestinians. Walls are even going up inside that part of the city, as Israel has responded to the violence by building concrete barriers between Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods. So it goes.
Gaza blockade and violence
Since the beginning of the current Gaza conflict in about 2007, Israel has enforced a harsh blockade against the entirety of the Gaza Strip in the hopes that it will weaken Hamas and end the terrorist group's rocket attacks on Israel. It hasn't worked so far, and the UN denounces the measure as "collective punishment" and a "medieval siege". Hamas demands an easing of the closure in exchange for a halt in rocket fire. Still, Israel doesn't seem interested in sitting down at the negotiating table, and Hamas won't even communicate with them until that main demand is met. Egypt, which also shares a border with Gaza, has cooperated with the blockade effort despite anger from fellow Muslim nations.
More than a decade of economic warfare and boom boom warfare have turned Gaza, a dense city with about two million people, into a dystopian nightmare. About half of the population is unemployed and faces acute food insecurity; about one million people. Only minimal amounts of fuel and cooking gas are ever available, and Gaza's citizens are only permitted to fish right off the shore. That has the implications you'd expect on medical care, electricity, and general health. Water is also scarce in Gaza, as Gaza's coastline is polluted with sewage, and it's unable to build the necessary infrastructure to pipe in drinkable water. Some 80% of the area's population relies on international aid to survive, and the UN warns that conditions are so extreme here that Gaza could imminently become uninhabitable.
Israelis and Palestinians both seem to view Gaza as a giant prison. Palestinians may go to Gaza, but they aren't allowed to leave. They certainly aren't permitted to go to the West Bank, where Netanyahu seems determined to limit Palestinian population growth as much as possible. As a result, the only real hope for Palestinians in Gaza is being able to illegally emigrate out of there and move to a different country.
Palestinians in Gaza occasionally protest against Israel, but Israeli forces respond violently. In 2018, the IDF killed about 300 Gazans during that year's wave of protests and injured at least 35,000 others. Gaza's health system could not deal with the many injuries and had to resort to amputations for hundreds of people.
Hostility with Iran
Israel and Iran are on infamously bad terms with each other. It's weird, considering that Israel has historically fought much more devastating wars against Egypt and Jordan and is now on good terms with them. Iran has viewed Israel as a puppet of the West, a neo-colonial occupier state, and a religious abomination since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On the other hand, Israel hates Iran for repeatedly threatening to "wipe Israel off the map". However, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claims that only means destroying Israel's current government.
Whatever the reason, Israel and Iran have been unrelentingly hostile for decades. Part of the issue is the general fear that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. That fear motivated Israeli intelligence's various assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and Netanyahu's fierce public opposition to Barack Obama's touted nuclear deal with Iran.
That hostility has also extended into other frames of warfare. The Syrian Civil War is rapidly evolving into a proxy conflict between Israel and Iran, and both countries occasionally hit each other with cyberattacks. There's also evidence that the infamous Stuxnet virus was created by Israel to unleash against Iranian nuclear sites.
It's also widely believed that Israel has a nuclear weapons stockpile numbering between 80 and 400 warheads. Under its "strategic ambiguity" policy, Israel refuses to confirm or deny its ownership of nuclear weapons. Israel has also not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Golan Heights is a small chunk of Syria that has been under Israeli military occupation since the conclusion of the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel then unilaterally annexed the region, and the United States is the only country that recognizes that claim after Trump made that policy in 2019. Israel has thanked Trump for his diplomatic recognition by unveiling a plan to build a new settlement in the region named "Trump Heights."
There are a few reasons why Israel has been so determined to hold on to the region. The Golan Heights serves as a rugged defensive region against Syria, and it wraps around the Sea of Galilee to ensure Israel's ability to secure that water source.
The Golan Heights' residents became the victims of forced depopulation, as many fled during the war without being permitted to return. Israel often demolishes depopulated villages to make way for illegal Jewish settlements.
Israel's harsh policies towards Palestinians have provoked comparisons with South Africa's infamous apartheid regime against black Africans. Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish activist known for fighting against apartheid in South Africa, explained that Israel's land seizure, military occupation, and forced home demolition policies remind him of ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Desmond Tutu also voiced his support for the "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions" movement, saying that systemic humiliation and harassment of Palestinian civilians reminded him of conditions in apartheid South Africa. In 2021, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Israel of committing apartheid against Palestinians, stating, "Israeli authorities have carried out a range of inhumane acts in the OPT".
However, the Anti-Defamation League rejects the comparison, stating that there is no Israeli ideology, policy or plan to segregate, persecute, or mistreat the Arab population. Critics of the comparison note that Israeli law requires that citizens be treated the same regardless of race or religion, although so does the U.S. and we all know how well that works for blacks and minorities (also, Palestinians are, conveniently, not Israeli citizens)
By 2018, the Knesset under Netanyahu passed a law that explicitly declares Israel as a "Jewish nation-state," recognizes Hebrew as Israel's official language, strips Arabic of its designation as an official status (now it is a "special" language below that of Hebrew), endorses the establishment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and explicitly says national self-determination in Israel is "exclusive" to the Jewish people. As critics have stated, "defining sovereignty and democratic self-rule as belonging solely" to a specific people over others is one of the hallmarks of an apartheid state.
The increasingly powerful Israeli anti-miscegenation group, Lehava, protests weddings between Palestinians and Jews that attract many hundreds of angry Lehava supporters. Lehava receives indirect funding from the Israeli government through its sister organization Hemla.
In December 2015, the Israeli education ministry rejected Borderlife, by the Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan, from High School curricula, a book about a Palestinian and an Israeli who fall in love with each other. The stated reason by senior officials was that the theme "is perceived by large segments of society as a threat to a separate identity" and that today's Israeli adolescents are not sufficiently concerned about "considerations involving maintaining the identity of people and the significance of assimilation”.
Freedom of movement
Israel maintains strict limits on Palestinians' right to travel within the West Bank, let alone outside of it. These restrictions are designed to keep Palestinians away from illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This is to prevent Palestinian violence against the illegal settlers there. On top of that, they also force Palestinians to take time-consuming detours during their daily lives and have even restricted, or denied, their access to their own agricultural land. Restrictions are enforced by military checkpoints and perpetual troop presence.
Then there's the issue of the separation barrier that walls off much of the West Bank from the rest of Israel. Unfortunately, that wall doesn't lie on Israel's side of its border with the West Bank. Instead, it substantially infringes on the Palestinian side of the West Bank. About 11,000 Palestinians are separated from the West Bank by a wall. On top of that, they are also prevented from going to Israel proper and East Jerusalem. They're basically shit out of luck.
Torture and prisoner abuse
On the order of its high court, Israel has admitted to the use of torture for much of the country's history, but torture is still practiced in the occupied territories. Thousands of Palestinian prisoners are held in Israeli facilities and exposed to horrific conditions.
Unfortunately, prison conditions are already awful. Prisoners are often denied food and medical care, beaten and tortured, and kept in solitary confinement. Reported torture methods include beating, slapping, painful shackling, sleep deprivation, use of stress positions, and threats. Some cases are bad enough to be brought to the attention of Israeli courts, such as an instance where 20 men were gagged and bound and had their limbs broken with clubs.
Human rights organizations have strongly denounced Israel's practice of demolishing the homes of the families of those considered to be Arab terrorists. Human Rights Watch has called this common collective punishment a war crime.
In November 2015, Israel legislated a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for throwing rocks at Israeli troops, civilians, or vehicles. The law also allows Israel to cancel national health insurance and other benefits for the parents of an imprisoned minor. The government purports that the legislation is temporary, passed in response to increased Palestinian protests — including rock-throwing — against Israel's ongoing occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Demolitions and land appropriation
Home demolitions are also used arbitrarily and as a means of collective punishment. The Israeli occupation regime in Palestine demolishes hundreds of homes per year, displacing the Palestinian residents and offering no compensation. The stated justification is to preserve the IDF's "operational freedom". The courts repeatedly support the military's right to clear out houses even in areas under the nominal "full control" of the Palestinian Authority, where Israel has no legal jurisdiction.
Along with the military, many demolitions are illegally initiated by Israeli settler organizations, which like to clear Palestinians off of prime neighborhood-building land ("facts on the ground"). Homeless Palestinians have no choice but to build "unrecognized" villages that Israel refuses to provide with municipal services and are at constant risk of demolition.
The centrality of religion to Israel's identity leads to particular tensions for women. Israeli women enjoy all rights and social mobility that one would expect in a liberal democracy. They are also subject to obligations that women in most other states are free or barred from, namely conscription — though the period of conscription is shorter for women than for men at two years instead of three (which is still longer than in most other countries with conscription). However, the strong social influence of and legal control by Orthodox Judaism means that women in Israel are sometimes faced with official and unofficial sexism justified by religious dogma in places where fundamentalist communities are predominant, such as Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, where some buses and public utilities serving these areas are sex-segregated.
Freedom of expression and association
Israeli authorities use various measures, including raids, incitement campaigns, movement restrictions, and judicial harassment, to target human rights defenders, journalists, and critics of Israel's policies. Israel publishes lists of Palestinian human rights activists, calling them "terrorists in suits", and encourages law enforcement to subject these people to legal harassment.
Israel has directly targeted Human Rights Watch, ordering many of its officials to be deported. Foreign human rights activists are routinely prevented from entering occupied Palestinian territory as Israel is trying to avoid news of the conditions in these regions from getting out.
Allies of Israel have moved to suppress the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement abroad. The UK and many US states have introduced legislation restricting the ability of private interests from attempting to financially sever ties with Israel. This is a blatant use of government power to compel financial decisions from non-government entities.
Gay rights and pinkwashing
Israel is the only state in the Middle East to extend gay rights. However, Palestinian gay rights groups resent being used as "cover" for Israel's treatment of Palestinians in general. Moreover — and as is true in many countries — there are still significant homophobic members of the Israeli parliament and government.
Israel's relatively positive stance on homosexuality is often used by its supporters as evidence that it is an inherently progressive country. There is, however, no gay marriage in Israel because Israeli marriage law falls firmly under the control of the Orthodox rabbinate. Therefore, neither Reform nor Conservative rabbis may perform marriages in Israel, although Israel recognizes both gay and straight marriages entered abroad. Israel's 2020 attempt to ban conversion therapy is also under threat from member parties of the Netanyahu ruling coalition and opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Some have pointed out how gay rights have been used to "pinkwash" Israel's oppressive policies toward Palestinians. During one of the Freedom Flotillas made up mostly of Americans who set out to break the controversial blockade of Gaza, an anonymous gay man named Mark posted a YouTube video, claiming to be shocked by widespread homophobia among those on the flotilla. The Israeli government initially promoted this video; however, it turned out that "Mark" was actually an Israeli actor. The video was tweeted by Guy Seemann, an employee of the prime minister of Israel. Seemann denied that he had posted the video in any official capacity.
Discrimination against Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jews face many systemic disadvantages in Israeli society. Ethiopian Jews have the highest poverty rate among all Jewish groups in Israel, and they face a disproportionate level of imprisonment and police brutality. Additionally, they face significant barriers in employment, having a considerably lower salary on average and facing difficulty even being hired, resulting in Ethiopian Jews having a high unemployment rate. They often live segregated in their own communities, and some in the religious establishment argue that they are not true Jews.
Legitimate criticism vs. antisemitism
Many antisemites use what would be valid criticisms of Israel as a veil for their antisemitism. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the human rights organization T'ruah, has described some of these tactics. Some of these tactics and signs of antisemitism include:
- Seeing an international Jewish conspiracy
- Using code-words like "globalists" or "elites" (right-wing), or "Zionists" particularly to refer to all Israelis or all Jews (left-wing)
- Rejecting Jewish history
- Dismissing the humanity of Israelis
- Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews
- Referring to Israel as Palestine (or part of Palestine)
However, some on the pro-Israel side conflate actual, valid criticism of Israel with antisemitism to quash any opposition to Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. An example of this would be United States Representative Ilhan Omar, smeared by many pro-Israel conservatives and liberals as an antisemite because she criticized the horrific crimes against humanity perpetrated by Israel as well as the influence that pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) have in steering public opinion and government policy towards Israel in the United States. Another example is former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and a few others who were purged by the Blairites from the party for supporting Palestinians under the vague notion of eliminating antisemitism in the party. These tactics are especially ironic given the Likud government's open association and collaboration with antisemitic governments and politicians in countries like Hungary, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere (not to mention Israel's covert and increasingly overt support of anti-Iranian Wahhabi jihadis, such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front in Syria) Even Netanyahu, who throws spurious accusations at anyone who would criticize his party or government, has posed for pictures with actual neo-Nazis in Hungary.
Unsurprisingly, given the the amount of anti-Semitism, bigotry and discrimination Jews have experienced throughout the centuries, there are a lot of anti-Semitic tropes. As such, for those who want to legitimately criticize particular policies the Israeli government has taken on, endorsed or tacitly allowed, it is easy to accidentally run afoul of some dog whistle used by Neo Nazis. It is therefore best to be very specific about the policy, about the segment of Israeli society/government and about why they deserve criticism for that policy. Yes, this takes more thought and effort, but tough luck; get over your entitlement; you don't get to be lazy here (This is similar to care needed criticizing some stance by somebody claiming to speak in the name of the BLM movement)
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