History: State of Israel

HISTORY: The State of Israel

    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.
  • icon_zoom.png
    Paratroopers at the Western Wall (GPO/D.Rubinger) Paratroopers at the Western Wall (GPO/D.Rubinger)
    Paratroopers at the Western Wall (GPO/D.Rubinger)
    Israel was forced to defend its newly declared independence against attack by Arab armies

    Israeli newspapers announce the establishment of the state

    Map of 1949-1967 Armistice Lines
    1949-1967 Armistice Lines

    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.

    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.


    The gates of the country were thrown open, affirming the right of every Jew to become a citizen

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

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


    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.

    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. 

    The 1949 armistice agreements were constantly violated

    Map of Sinai Campaign 1956
    Sinai Campaign 1956

    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.


    The second decade

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

    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.

    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.

    Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem

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

    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



    As Israel's neighbors prepared to destroy the Jewish state, Israel invoked its right of self-defense

    Map of ceasefire lines after the Six-Day War, 1967
    Ceasefire lines after the Six-Day War, 1967

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

    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.

    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.



    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.


    Arab and Palestinian terrorism against Israel existed for decades prior to the establishment of the State of Israel and since then. Thousands of terrorist attacks which resulted in the death and injury of Israeli civilians occurred during the two decades preceding the 1967 Six Day War (which led to Israel's presence in the territories). The establishment of the PLO in 1964 put it at the forefront of this terrorist campaign.

    During the 1970s and 1980s, the various terrorist organizations under the PLO launched numerous attacks inside Israel and abroad. One of the most notorious attacks was the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

    In spite of the Palestinian commitment made in 1993 to renounce terrorism, thus providing the basis for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, terrorist attacks nonetheless continued, and strongly intensified since September 2000, resulting in the death of more than a thousand Israeli civilians and the wounding of many thousands more.


    The cycle of Arab rejection of Israel's appeals for peace was broken

    Egyptian President Sadat, US President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Begin
    Egyptian President Sadat, US President Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Begin (Photo: GPO/S.Tal)

    Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan
    Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan (Photo: GPO/Y.Sa'ar)

    Peace with Egypt and Jordan (map)
    Peace with Egypt and Jordan

    From War to Peace

    The 1977 Knesset elections brought the Likud bloc (a coalition of right-wing and centrist parties) to power, ending almost 30 years of Labor Party dominance. The new prime minister, Menachem Begin, reiterated the commitment of all previous prime ministers to strive for permanent peace in the region and called upon the Arab leaders to come to the negotiating table.

    The cycle of Arab rejections of Israel's appeals for peace was broken with the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem (November 1977), followed by negotiations between Egypt and Israel under American auspices. The resulting Camp David Accords (September 1978) contained a framework for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a detailed proposal for self- government for the Palestinians.

    On 26 March 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in Washington, DC, bringing the 30-year state of war between them to an end. In accordance with the terms of the treaty, Israel withdrew from the Sinai peninsula, exchanging former cease-fire lines and armistice agreements for mutually recognized international boundaries.

    Three years of talks between Jordan and Israel, following the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, culminated in a declaration by King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (July 1994), which ended the 46-year state of war between their two countries. The Jordan-Israel peace treaty was signed at the Arava border crossing (near Eilat in Israel and Akaba in Jordan) on 26 October 1994, in the presence of American President Bill Clinton.


    Domestic Challenges

    During the 1980s and 1990s, Israel absorbed over one million new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Ethiopia. The influx of so many new consumers, as well as a large number of skilled and unskilled workers, boosted the economy into a period of accelerated expansion.

    The government that came into power after the 1984 Knesset elections was made up of the two major political blocs - Labor (left/center) and Likud (right/center). It was replaced in 1988 by a Likud-led coalition, which was followed in 1992 by a coalition of Labor and smaller left-of-center parties.

    After the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, new elections were called in 1996. In direct elections for Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu came to power, and formed a Likud-led coalition. Less than three years later, his government was defeated.

    Every year, Israel holds a special commemoration to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His murder on 4 November 1995 by a Jewish extremist plunged the country into deep mourning for the soldier-statesman, who had traveled from the battleground to lead the nation on the road to peace.

    In 1999, Ehud Barak, leader of the One Israel party (left/center), was elected Prime Minister, and formed a coalition government; he resigned in December 2000. Ariel Sharon, leader of the Likud, was prime minister from early 2001 until he suffered a stroke in early 2006. Ehud Olmert, head of the Kadima Party formed by Sharon in November 2005, succeeded him as prime minister.

    Following the resignation of Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as prime minister in early elections held in February 2009, and formed a broad-based coalition government.

    Each government worked towards the achievement of peace, economic development, and immigrant absorption according to its own political convictions.