Palestine, historic region on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, comprising parts of modern Israel, Jordan, and Egypt; also known as the Holy Land. This article discusses the physical geography and history of Palestine until the UN took up the Palestine problem in 1947; for the economy and later history, see Gaza Strip, Israel, Jordan, and West Bank. Palestine is the Holy Land of the Jews, promised to them by God according to the Bible; of the Christians because it was the scene of Jesus’ life; and of the Muslims because Jerusalem is the traditional site of Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. Palestine comprises three geographic zones: a part of the Great Rift Valley, a ridge, and a coastal plain. The earliest known settlements in Palestine, e.g. Jericho, may date from 8000 BC An independent Hebrew kingdom was established 1000 BC After 950 BC this kingdom broke up into two states, Israel and Judah. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans in turn conquered Palestine, which fell to the Muslim Arabs by AD 640. The area was the focus of the Crusades and was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1516. By the late 19th cent., Zionism arose with the aim of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and during World War I the British, who captured the area, appeared to support this goal. After the League of Nations approved (1922) the British mandate of Palestine, Jews immigrated there in large numbers despite Arab opposition. There was tension and violence between Jews and Arabs, and the British, unable to resolve the problem, turned (1947) the Palestine question over to the UN. At that time there were about 1,091,000 Muslims, 614,000 Jews, and 146,000 Christians in Palestine.
For the earlier history of the region, see Palestine. In Nov. 1947 the United Nations divided Palestine, then under British mandate, into Jewish and Arab states. Six months later the British withdrew, and on May 14, 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed. The neighboring Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq rejected both the partition of Palestine and the existence of the new nation. In the war that followed (1948–49), Israel emerged victorious and with its territory increased by one half. Arab opposition continued, however, and full-scale fighting broke out again in 1956 (the Sinai campaign), 1967 (the Six-Day War), and 1973 (the Yom Kippur War). Israel emerged from these conflicts with large tracts of its neighbors’ territories.
In 1978 Israeli Prime Min. Menachem Begin and Egyptian Pres. Anwar al-Sadat signed the Camp David accords; a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed (1979) in Washington, D.C., and Israel withdrew from the Sinai by 1982. Little progress was made, however, with respect to the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and in 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in 1967). Israel’s fierce, intermittent fighting with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon led to a devastating Israeli invasion in 1982. Israel withdrew in 1985 but maintained a 6–12 mi (10–20 km) security zone there just north of the border. Begin retired in 1983 and was succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir.
Indecisive elections in 1984 and 1988 resulted in an awkward coalition government, led by Labor party leader Shimon Peres (1984–86) and Shamir (1986–90). In June 1990, after the coalition collapsed, Shamir formed a right-wing government. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were increasingly violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the occupied territories.
Soviet Jews began emigrating to Israel in large numbers in 1990, strapping Israel’s resources, and Iraq launched missiles at Israel during the Persian Gulf War. Israel began peace talks with Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians in 1991. In 1992 the Labor party and its allies won the largest bloc of seats in parliament, and Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister.
In 1993 Israel signed an accord with the PLO that led to Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho in mid-1994; a 1995 accord called for the expansion of self-rule to all Arab cities and villages in the West Bank by 1996. A peace treaty with Jordan was signed in 1994. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995; Peres succeeded him as prime minister. Internal terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists in 1996 and 1997 postponed the peace process and, in elections held in 1996, Peres narrowly lost the prime ministership to the Likud candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Under an accord signed in 1998, Israel agreed to withdraw from additional West Bank territory, while the Palestinian Authority pledged to take stronger measures to fight terrorism. In the May 1999 elections, Labor returned to power under Ehud Barak, a former army chief of staff, who formed a coalition government. In September, Barak and Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, signed an agreement to finalize their borders and to determine the status of Jerusalem within a year. By Mar. 2000 Israel completed handing over additional West Bank territory; in May it withdrew from S Lebanon. Further peace talks deadlocked in July, and in the fall a new cycle of violence erupted in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself following Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram esh-Sherif (the Temple Mount to Jews) in Jerusalem.
In Feb. 2001 Sharon defeated Barak for the prime ministership. Sharon formed a broad national unity government and pursued a hard line with the Palestinians, leading to reoccupation of West Bank towns in 2002 in an attempt to end attacks against Israelis. Labor left the government in Oct. 2002, forcing Sharon to call for elections in Jan. 2003, which resulted in a victory for his Likud bloc and brought a four-party, mainly right-wing coalition to power.
In May, 2003, Sharon’s government accepted the internationally supported “road map for peace” with some limitations; the plan envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state in three years. Talks resumed with Palestinian authorities, who also negotiated a three-month cease-fire with Palestinian militants, and Israel made some conciliatory moves in Gaza and the West Bank. Suicide bombings and Israeli revenge attacks resumed, however, in August, and in October Israel attacked Syria for the first time in 20 years, bombing what it termed a terrorist training camp in retaliation for suicide bombings.
Israel’s ongoing construction of a 400-mi (640-km) fence and wall security barrier in the West Bank, potentially enclosing some 15% of that territory, brought widespread international condemnation in late 2003, and a July, 2004, advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (requested by Palestinians and the UN General Assembly) termed its construction illegal under international law because it was being constructed on Palestinian lands. Meanwhile, an Israeli court ruling (June) ordered the wall to be rerouted in certain areas because of the hardship it would cause Palestinians.
In March the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin heightened tensions in the occupied territories, especially the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the latter, while supported by most Israelis, was rejected in a nonbinding vote (May, 2004) by Likud party members. The plan then resulted in defections from his coalition, but Sharon vowed to complete the withdrawal, which was being undertaken for security reasons, by the end of 2005. In Oct., 2004, he secured parliamentary approval for the plan. The government also plans to abandon a few settlements in the West Bank while expanding others there. Sharon formed a new coalition that included the Labor party, which supported the Gaza withdrawal, in Jan., 2005. He subsequently agreed to a truce with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and in Mar., 2005, Israeli forces began withdrawing from Jericho and other West Bank towns.