HISTORY: The State of Israel

HISTORY: The State of Israel

    On 14 May 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence.
    On 14 May 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence.

  • The State of Israel is born


    On 14 May 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence. Less than 24 hours later, the regular armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded the country, forcing Israel to defend the sovereignty it had regained in its ancestral homeland.

    The State of Israel is born 

    In what became known as Israel's War of Independence, the newly formed, poorly equipped Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repulsed the invaders in fierce intermittent fighting, which lasted some 15 months and claimed over 6,000 Israeli lives (nearly one percent of the country's Jewish population at the time).

    During the first months of 1949, direct negotiations were conducted under UN auspices between Israel and each of the invading countries (except Iraq, which refused to negotiate with Israel), resulting in armistice agreements which reflected the situation at the end of the fighting.

    Accordingly, the Coastal Plain, Galilee and the entire Negev were within Israel's sovereignty, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) came under Jordanian rule, the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian administration, and the city of Jerusalem was divided, with Jordan controlling the eastern part, including the Old City, and Israel the western sector.

    1949-1967 Armistice Lines 
    1949-1967 Armistice Lines

  • State-Building


    The war over, Israel focused on building the state which the people had struggled so long and so hard to regain. The first 120-seat Knesset (parliament) went into session following national elections (25 January 1949) in which nearly 85 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballots.

    Two of the people who had led Israel to statehood became the country's leaders: David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, was chosen as the first prime minister; and Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization, was elected by the Knesset as the first president. On 11 May 1949, Israel took its seat as the 59th member of the United Nations.

    David Ben-Gurion
    David Ben-Gurion, man of vision (GPO/K. Zoltan)

    In accordance with the concept of the 'ingathering of the exiles' which lies at the heart of Israel's raison d'être, the gates of the country were thrown open, affirming the right of every Jew to come to the country and, upon entry, to acquire citizenship. In the first four months of independence, some 50,000 newcomers, mainly Holocaust survivors, reached Israel's shores. By the end of 1951, a total of 687,000 men, women, and children had arrived, over 300,000 of them refugees from Arab lands, thus doubling the Jewish population.

    The economic strain caused by the War of Independence and the need to provide for a rapidly growing population required austerity at home and financial aid from abroad.

    Assistance extended by the United States government, loans from American banks, contributions of Diaspora Jews and post-war German reparations were used to build housing, mechanize agriculture, establish a merchant fleet and a national airline, exploit available minerals, develop industries and expand roads, telecommunications, and electricity networks.

    Towards the end of the first decade, the output of industry doubled, as did the number of employed persons, with industrial exports increasing four-fold. Vast expansion of areas under cultivation had brought about self-sufficiency in the supply of all basic food products except meat and grains, while some 50,000 acres of mostly barren land were afforested and trees were planted along almost 500 miles (800 km.) of highways.

    The educational system, which had been developed by the Jewish community in the pre-state period and now included the Arab sector, was greatly expanded. School attendance became free and compulsory for all children aged 5-14 (since 1978 it has been mandatory to age 16 and free to age 18). Cultural and artistic activity flourished, blending Middle Eastern, North African, and Western elements, as Jews arriving from all parts of the world brought with them the unique traditions of their own communities as well as aspects of the culture prevailing in the countries where they had lived for generations. When Israel celebrated its 10th anniversary, the population numbered over two million.

    Immigration to Israel 
    A new immigrant woman sitting with her children on their luggage
    at the main square of Yehud (GPO/K. Zoltan)

    1956 Sinai Campaign

    The years of state-building were overshadowed by serious security problems. The 1949 armistice agreements had not only failed to pave the way to permanent peace, but were also constantly violated.

    In contradiction to the UN Security Council Resolution of 1 September 1951, Israeli and Israel-bound shipping was prevented from passing through the Suez Canal; the blockade of the Straits of Tiran was tightened; incursions into Israel of terrorist squads from neighboring Arab countries for murder and sabotage occurred with increasing frequency; and the Sinai peninsula was gradually converted into a huge Egyptian military base.

    Upon the signing of a tripartite military alliance by Egypt, Syria and Jordan (October 1956), the imminent threat to Israel's existence was intensified. In the course of an eight-day campaign, the IDF captured the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula, halting 10 miles (16 km.) east of the Suez Canal.

    A United Nations decision to station a UN Emergency Force (UNEF) along the Egypt-Israel border and Egyptian assurances of free navigation in the Gulf of Eilat led Israel to agree to withdraw in stages (November 1956 - March 1957) from the areas taken a few weeks earlier. Consequently, the Straits of Tiran were opened, enabling the development of trade with Asian and East African countries, as well as oil imports from the Persian Gulf.

    Sinai Campaign 1956 
    Sinai Campaign 1956
  • Years of Consolidation


    During Israel's second decade (1958-68), exports doubled, and the GNP increased some 10 percent annually. While some previously imported items such as paper, tires, radios, and refrigerators were now being manufactured locally, the most rapid growth took place in the newly established branches of metals, machinery, chemicals, and electronics. Since the domestic market for home-grown food was fast approaching the saturation point, the agricultural sector began to grow a larger variety of crops for the food processing industry as well as fresh produce for export. A second deep-water port was built on the Mediterranean coast at Ashdod, in addition to the existing one at Haifa, to handle the increased volume of trade.

    National Water Carrier 
    Concrete pipe section (108" diameter) of the National Water Carrier (Courtesy Central Zionist Archives)

    In Jerusalem, a permanent home for the Knesset was built, and facilities for the Hebrew University and the Hadassah Medical Center were constructed on alternative sites to replace the original buildings on Mount Scopus, which had to be abandoned after the War of Independence. At the same time, the Israel Museum was established with the aim of collecting, conserving, studying, and exhibiting the cultural and artistic treasures of the Jewish people.

    Israel's foreign relations expanded steadily, as close ties were developed with the United States, British Commonwealth countries, most western European states, nearly all the countries of Latin America and Africa, and some in Asia. Extensive programs of international cooperation were initiated, as hundreds of Israeli physicians, engineers, teachers, agronomists, irrigation experts, and youth organizers shared their know-how and experience with people in other developing countries. In 1965 ambassadors were exchanged with the Federal Republic of Germany, a move which had been delayed until then because of the Jewish people's bitter memories of the crimes committed against them during the Nazi regime (1933-45). Vehement opposition and public debate preceded normalization of relations between the two countries.



    The Eichmann Trial:​ In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann, the chief of operations of the Nazi murder program during World War II, was brought to the country to stand trial under Israel's Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law (1950).

    In the trial, which opened in April 1961, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity and the Jewish people and sentenced to death. His appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected and he was hanged on 30 May 1962. This was the only time that the death penalty has been carried out under Israeli law.

    - Eichmann trial transcripts
    - The Eichmann Trial: Fifty Years After - Arrest and Trial of Adolf Eichmann (Israel State Archives)
    - Eichmann trial videos

    Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem 

    Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem (GPO/J. Milli)


    1967 Six-Day War

    Hopes for another decade of relative tranquility were dashed with the escalation of Arab terrorist raids across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders, persistent Syrian artillery bombardment of agricultural settlements in  northern Galilee, and massive military build-ups by the neighboring Arab states. When Egypt again moved large numbers of troops into the Sinai desert (May 1967), ordered the UN peacekeeping forces (deployed since 1957) out of the area, reimposed the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and entered into a military alliance with Jordan, Israel found itself faced by hostile Arab armies on all fronts.

    As Israel's neighbors prepared to destroy the Jewish state, Israel invoked its inherent right of self-defense, launching a preemptive strike (5 June 1967) against Egypt in the South, followed by a counterattack against Jordan in the East and the routing of Syrian forces entrenched on the Golan Heights in the North.

    At the end of six days of fighting, previous cease-fire lines were replaced by new ones, with Judea, Samaria, Gaza, the Sinai peninsula, and the Golan Heights under Israel's control. As a result, the northern villages were freed from 19 years of recurrent Syrian shelling; the passage of Israeli and Israel-bound shipping through the Straits of Tiran was ensured; and Jerusalem, which had been divided under Israeli and Jordanian rule since 1949, was reunified under Israel's authority.

    Paratroopers at the Western Wall 
    Paratroopers at the Western Wall (GPO/D.Rubinger)

  • From War to War


    After the war, Israel's diplomatic challenge was to translate its military gains into a permanent peace based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.

    However, the Arab position, as formulated at the Khartoum Summit (August 1967) called for no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel. In September 1968, Egypt initiated a 'war of attrition,' with sporadic, static actions along the banks of the Suez Canal, which escalated into full-scale, localized fighting, causing heavy casualties on both sides. Hostilities ended in 1970, when Egypt and Israel accepted a renewed cease-fire along the Suez Canal.

    Ceasefire Lines after the Six-Day War, 1967 
    Ceasefire lines after the Six-Day War, 1967

    1973 Yom Kippur War

    Three years of relative calm along the borders were shattered on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the holiest day of the Jewish year, when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise assault against Israel (6 October 1973), with the Egyptian Army crossing the Suez Canal and Syrian troops penetrating the Golan Heights.

    During the next three weeks, the Israel Defense Forces turned the tide of battle and repulsed the attackers, crossing the Suez Canal into Egypt and advancing to within 20 miles (32 km.) of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Two years of difficult negotiations between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Syria resulted in disengagement agreements, according to which Israel withdrew from parts of the territories captured during the war.

    1982 Operation Peace for Galilee

    Israel has never wanted a conflict with its northern neighbor, Lebanon. However, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) redeployed itself in southern Lebanon after being expelled from Jordan (1970) and perpetrated repeated terrorist actions against the towns and villages of northern Israel (Galilee), which caused many casualties and much damage, the Israel Defense Forces crossed the border into Lebanon (1982).

    "Operation Peace for Galilee" resulted in removing the bulk of the PLO's organizational and military infrastructure from the area. For the next 18 years, Israel maintained a small security zone in southern Lebanon adjacent to its northern border to safeguard its population in Galilee against attacks by hostile elements.

    Second Lebanon War

    In May of 2000 Israel withdrew all its forces from the security zone in southern Lebanon. Lebanon however failed to comply with UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and1559, which call for the dismantling of Hizbullah and the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon.

    As a result of this failure, violence erupted in July of 2006, following Hizbullah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers and bombardment of Israel's northern cities. In the ensuing conflict, which came to be known as the Second Lebanon War, over 4,000 rockets were fired at civilian targets in Israel. The fighting concluded in August of 2006 and UNSC Resolution 1701 was passed, calling for the unconditional release of the captured Israeli soldiers, the deployment of UNIFIL and Lebanese soldiers throughout southern Lebanon, and the establishment of an embargo on weapons supplied to Lebanese armed groups.

    2008 Gaza Operation

    Following Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank, and the election of Hamas in 2007, terrorism against Israel increased. Thousands of rockets have been fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, resulting in damage to property and both physical and psychological injury to the population living in the south; and creating a situation in which Israel was forced to take military action in the form of Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 through 18 January 2009).