Palestine is a small region of land that has played a prominent role in the ancient and modern history of the Middle East. The history of Palestine has been marked by frequent political conflict and violent land seizures because of its importance to several major world religions, and because Palestine sits at a valuable geographic crossroads between Africa and Asia. Today, Arab people who call this territory home are known as Palestinians.
What Is Palestine?
The word Palestine derives from ancient Greek (Philistia), but ancient Egyptian, Assyrian and Hebrew languages also included similar-sounding words to describe the region or its people. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all strongly tied to the region, and trace origins to the land over the past few thousand years.
Following the 1918 fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Palestine typically referred to the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Much of this land is now part of present-day Israel.
Today, the region known as the Palestinian Territories includes the West Bank (a territory that sits between modern-day Israel and Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (bordering Israel and Egypt). These areas have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. However, control over this region is a complex and evolving situation. There is no international consensus concerning the borders—28 United Nations member countries currently do not recognize Israel at all—and many areas claimed by the Palestinian Territories are also claimed by Israel.
More than 135 United Nations member countries recognize Palestine as an independent state, but Israel and some other countries, including the United States, don’t make this distinction.
Palestine's Early Roots
Scholars believe the name “Palestine” is derived from the name of the people—the Philistines—who occupied part of the region in the 12th century B.C.
Over the centuries, Jews, Muslims and Christians and followers of other religions have all claimed special connections to the region. The Hebrew Bible contains narratives of ancient Israelites' presence in the land, including the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, established by King David and his descendants around 1000 B.C. Those kingdoms' rivals included other Canaanite groups like the Philistines, whose territory encompassed the ancient city of Gaza.
The region was later conquered by numerous empires, including the Babylonians, Persians and Romans. It first came under Muslim control when Jerusalem fell to the Rashidun Caliphate in 637, less than five years after the Prophet Muhammed's death. During the Crusades, Christian armies from Western Europe fought both Muslims and local Christian factions for control of their religions' holy sites. Between 1517 and 1917, the Ottoman Empire—whose official religion was Islam—ruled the region.
When World War I ended in 1918, the British took control of Palestine. The League of Nations issued a British mandate for Palestine—a document that gave Britain administrative control over the region, and included provisions for establishing a Jewish national homeland in Palestine—which went into effect in 1923.
The Partition of Palestine
In 1947, after more than two decades of British rule, the United Nations proposed a plan to partition Palestine into two sections: an independent Jewish state and an independent Arab state. The city of Jerusalem, which was claimed as a capital by both Jews and Palestinian Arabs, was to be an international territory with a special status.
Most Jewish leaders accepted the plan, but many Palestinian Arabs—some of whom had been actively fighting British and Jewish interests in the region since the 1920s—vehemently opposed it.
Some Arab leaders argued that they represented the majority of the population and should be granted more territory. They began to form volunteer armies throughout Palestine.
Israel Becomes a State
In May 1948, less than a year after the Partition Plan for Palestine was introduced, Britain withdrew from Palestine and Israel declared itself an independent state, implying a willingness to implement the Partition Plan.
Almost immediately, neighboring Arab armies moved in to prevent the establishment of the Israeli state. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War that ensued involved Israel and five Arab nations—Transjordan (now Jordan), Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. By the war's end in July 1949, Israel controlled more than two-thirds of the former British Mandate, while Jordan took control of the West Bank and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip.
The 1948 conflict opened a new chapter in the struggle between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, which now became a regional contest involving nation-states and a tangle of diplomatic, political and economic interests.
The PLO Is Born
In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed for the purpose of establishing a Palestinian Arab state on the land previously administered under the British Mandate, and which the PLO considered to be occupied illegitimately by the State of Israel.
The PLO was originally dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel as a means of attaining its goal of Palestinian statehood. By the time of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the PLO accepted Israel's right to exist in exchange for formal recognition of the PLO by Israel—a high water mark in Israeli-Palestinian relations. In 1969, the well-known Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat became the Chairman of the PLO and held that title until his death in 2004.
The Six-Day War
The 1967 Six-Day War was triggered during a volatile period of diplomatic friction and skirmishes between Israel and its neighbors. In April 1967, the clashes worsened after Israel and Syria fought a ferocious air and artillery engagement in which six Syrian fighter jets were destroyed.
In the wake of the April air battle, the Soviet Union provided Egypt with intelligence that Israel was moving troops to its northern border with Syria in preparation for a full-scale invasion. The information was inaccurate, but it nevertheless stirred Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to advance forces into the Sinai Peninsula, where they expelled a United Nations peacekeeping force that had been guarding the border with Israel for over a decade.
Israel Defense Forces then launched a preemptive aerial attack against Egypt on June 5, 1967. Both nations claimed that they were acting in self-defense in the ensuing conflict, which ended on June 10 and also drew in Jordan and Syria, who sided with Egypt. The Six-Day War, as it came to be called, resulted in major land gains for Israel.
By the end of the war, Israel had taken control of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula (a desert region situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea) and the Golan Heights (a rocky plateau located between Syria and modern-day Israel).
The outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War would lead to continued tension and armed conflict between Israel and its neighbors over the coming decades.
The 1978 Camp David Accords brought a formal peace between Israel and Egypt that included a return of the Sinai Peninsula and called for further negotiations about Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The First Intifada and the Oslo Accords
In 1987, the First Intifada broke out, a boiling over of Palestinian anger over ongoing Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian militia groups revolted, and hundreds of people were killed.
A subsequent peace process, known as the Oslo Peace Accords, was initiated in 1993 in a multilateral attempt to end the ongoing violence.
The first Oslo Accord (Oslo I) created a timetable for a Middle East peace process and a plan for an interim Palestinian government in parts of Gaza and the West Bank. The agreement was signed in 1993 and witnessed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Arafat returned to Gaza in 1994 after being exiled for 27 years. He headed up the newly-formed Palestinian Authority.
In 1995, Oslo II laid the groundwork for a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from parts of the West Bank and other areas. It also set a schedule for Palestinian Legislative Council elections.The Oslo Accords ultimately failed to bring Israel and the Palestinians to an agreement over a full-fledged peace plan.
The Second Intifada: Violence Continues
In September 2000, the Second Palestinian Intifada began. One of the triggers for the violence was when Ariel Sharon, a right-wing, Jewish Israeli who would later become Israel’s prime minister, visited the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The highly contested site is sacred in Judaism as the location of the Hebrew Temples, and in Islam for its association with the Prophet Mohammed. Many Palestinians felt this was an offensive and provocative move, and they protested. Riots, suicide bombings and other attacks subsequently broke out, putting an end to the once-promising peace process.
This period of violence between Palestinians and Israelis lasted nearly five years. Yasser Arafat died in November 2004, and by August of 2005, the Israeli army withdrew from Gaza.
In 2006, Hamas, a Sunni Islamist militant group, won the Palestinian legislative elections.
That same year, fighting between Hamas and Fatah, the political group that controlled the PLO, ensued. In 2007, Hamas defeated Fatah in a battle for Gaza.
Hamas has perpetrated terrorist tactics, including carrying out suicide bombings, conducting deadly raids on military and civilian targets and repeatedly calling for the destruction of Israel.
Hamas and Israel have fought each other in several bloody conflicts, including in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
In April 2014, Hamas and Fatah agreed to a deal that would form a unified national Palestinian government, but continuing power struggles between the major parties led to its full dissolution by 2019. That left Fatah dominant in the West Bank and Hamas in full control of the Gaza Strip.
Current State of Palestine
Although Palestinians occupy key areas of land, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, some Israelis, with their government's blessing, continue to settle in areas that are generally agreed to be under Palestinian control. Many international rights groups consider such settlements illegal, and multiple UN resolutions have been passed backing that position. Borders aren’t clearly defined, and persistent conflict continues to be the norm. A substantial proportion of Israelis also oppose the settlements and would prefer to find peaceful ways to resolve their land disputes with the Palestinians.
In May 2017, leaders of Hamas presented a new charter that proposed the formation of a Palestinian state using the 1967 defined borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. However, the group still refused to recognize Israel as a state, and the Israeli government promptly rejected the plan.
In May 2018, tensions increased when the U.S. Embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Perceiving this as a signal of American support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians responded with widespread protests at the Gaza-Israel border. As protests escalated, Israeli forces responded with force, leading to the deaths of dozens of protesters.
In October 2023, Hamas militants launched a coordinated terrorist assault on Israel, kidnapping more than 200 people and killing more than 1,000 Israelis, many of them civilians, leading Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare "we are at war." Israel began retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza, leading to thousands of Palestinian deaths, including civilians.
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