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The Birth of Israel and Ensuing Conflicts

During the early years of British-mandated Palestine, Jewish settlement increased. Jews formed 11 percent of the population of Palestine in 1922 and 29 percent in 1936. Arabs opposed British support of Zionism, and they started a revolt that lasted from 1936 to 1939. In an effort to appease the Arab world, Britain issued the White Paper of 1939, restricting Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews and providing for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within ten years. Britain's weakening commitment to Zionism, combined with the Holocaust during World War II (1939-1945)-in which German Nazis systematically murdered millions of European Jews-caused Jews in Palestine and worldwide to step up their demands for a Jewish state. In 1947 Britain decided to leave Palestine, and called on the United Nations (UN), the successor to the League of Nations, to make recommendations for the area’s future.

In November 1947 the United Nations resolved to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish areas, and Britain announced that it would leave the region by May 15, 1948. The Jews accepted the proposal, but the Arabs rejected it as a violation of their right to self-determination. Violence erupted and soon turned into full-scale civil war. In early 1948 Jewish guerrilla forces began terrorist attacks on Arab communities, forcing much of the Arab population to flee. When Israel was declared an independent Jewish state upon British withdrawal, forces from neighboring Arab countries joined the war against Israel. By the end of the fighting in 1949, Israel had substantially increased the size of its territory beyond the area granted to it by the UN partition, and about 900,000 Palestinians became refugees outside the state of Israel.

Arabs and Israelis failed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, and additional wars followed. In 1956 Britain and France joined Israel against Egypt in a conflict over control of the Suez Canal. Diplomatic intervention by the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) helped end the conflict. Israel further expanded its territory by taking the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula (known collectively as the Occupied Territories) in the Six-Day War of 1967. In this conflict and in another in 1973, the two superpowers stepped up their involvement by supplying weapons, the United States to Israel and the USSR to the Arab nations.

In October 1974 the Arab League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group founded in 1964 to work toward Palestinian nationhood, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In addition, the United Nations granted the PLO observer status, meaning it could participate in UN deliberations but could not vote on resolutions. The 1978 Camp David Accords, under which Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and the resulting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel of March 1979 removed Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Israel did not reach peace agreements with the other Arab nations, and the future of other occupied regions remained undetermined. In 1987 a movement known as the intifada, a series of demonstrations, strikes, and riots against Israeli rule, began in the Gaza Strip and spread throughout the Occupied Territories.

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