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Monday, April 20, 1998 Published at 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK

The return of the Jews to the promised land

Jewish refugees on the Exodus, 1947
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The former BBC Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, looks back at the history of Israel.

The state of Israel was proclaimed by the Jewish leader, David Ben Gurion, on May 14, 1948, and officially came into being on the 15th, after British Mandatory rule ended at midnight. In many minds, the birth of Israel is closely identified with the Nazi terror in Europe and the Holocaust, but in fact the conception of and planning for a Jewish state had begun some 60 years earlier.

[ image: David Ben Gurion declaring the independence of Israel]
David Ben Gurion declaring the independence of Israel
The Messianic idea of returning the Jews to their "promised land" had been a Puritan religious belief since the 16th Century. In the mid-19th Century, British politicians saw another value: that of having in place in the Middle East a Jewish entity sympathetic to the British Empire.

Two phenomena made real these and the Jews' own previously vague aspirations of "return": the burgeoning European nationalism of the time, from which the Jews felt excluded; and the massacres, or pogroms, carried out by Tsarist Russia against its six million Jews, the largest single Jewish population in Europe, which spread into the Ukraine and Poland.

By the 1880s, groups of desperate Russian and other Eastern European Jews were settling in Palestine, which was under the somewhat tenuous authority of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

'A national home for the Jews'

[ image: Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism<BR> Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs]
Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The visionary Austrian-Jewish journalist, Theodore Herzl, clarified and gave political weight to the concept of Jewish nationalism - or Zionism - and a national home for the Jews in Palestine at the first Zionist Congress at Basle, in Switzerland, in 1897. He won wide Jewish backing for it, and tried, at first unsuccessfully, to encourage the British Government to support it.

It was not until World War I, when British forces were at the gates of Jerusalem, in November, 1917, that the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, anxious for Jewish support in the war, issued his epic yet ambiguous Declaration.

This said the Government viewed "with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..."

The Turks defeated, the British ruled Palestine as a military authority from 1917 until 1922. Then the League of Nations awarded Britain the Mandate to govern Palestine and prepare its citizens for self-government. From that moment, Jewish immigration from Europe increased phenomenally, with the British Cabinet pledged rigorously to honour Balfour's promise of a Jewish homeland, as it was interpreted by the Zionists.

[ image: Already during the 1930s, the displacement of the Arab population began]
Already during the 1930s, the displacement of the Arab population began
The Arabs of Palestine, not even referred to by name in Balfour's document, were increasingly angry at what they feared would be their eventual replacement and domination by an alien, inspired and technologically superior people of different religion.

Bloody inter-communal rioting broke out during the 1920s, the most notorious example perhaps being the massacres of some 60 religious Jews in the town of Hebron, about 20 miles south west of Jerusalem.

The situation intensified in the 1930s as Nazism spread across Europe, bringing more persecution and more and even more sophisticated and determined Jews to Palestine.

Arab resistance

The Arabs were incensed. In 1936, they rose in armed revolt, mainly against the British rulers they saw as authors of their plight.

But they were disorganised, factional and poorly equipped.

[ image: British soldiers searching Arabs during the revolt in the late 1930s]
British soldiers searching Arabs during the revolt in the late 1930s
By 1939, the British had crushed the uprising, ending for good effective Arab resistance to the Mandatory Power and the Zionist planners, and leaving behind a fractured Palestinian-Arab society.

The Arab resentment, however, did force the British, first, to abandon a plan to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish sectors; and seriously to restrict Jewish immigration at that very crucial moment, in 1939-40, when Hitler was at his most dangerous, conquering Europe and launching his mission to exterminate the Jewish people.

The British idea was that the Arabs would rule Palestine, inside which would be established a finite Jewish entity. It was the Zionists' turn to be outraged and to work, successfully, to explode this stratagem.

In 1948, the Jews in Palestine managed to establish their own state, Israel. The price to pay were decades of war and violence.

The History of Israel
Part 1: The return of the Jews to the promised land
Part 2: The birth of Israel
Part 3: Israel builds a nation
Part 4: Israel in war and peace
Part 5: Israel and the PLO
Part 6: The Intifada
Part 7: The road to Oslo

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In this section

The return of the Jews to the promised land

The birth of Israel

Israel builds a nation

Israel in War and Peace

Israel and the PLO

Israel and the Intifada

The road to Oslo