Six Decades of Israel

A special review of the 60 years since the miraculous re-birth of the Jewish State.

When I "temporarily" moved to Israel from my native United States in 1980, the reborn Jewish state was only 32 years old. Now 28 years later - just under half of Israel's modern lifespan - I am still working as a journalist in the holy city of Jerusalem, which as God proclaimed through the prophet Ezekiel is "set at the center of the world, with lands all around her" (5:5). Many significant historical events have transpired over the six decades since Israel's turbulent reappearance after a nearly 2,000 year absence from the world stage. Some are extremely positive developments that have substantially contributed to the richness and vitality of life on this bustling globe. Others have proved to be anything but that, seemingly increasing the prospects of additional regional violence and upheaval. The 1950s Israel is unique in far too many ways to adequately detail here. But in reviewing modern Israel's journey over the past six decades, one feature stands out right away - no other country on earth has been forced to endure a hot war in every single decade of its existence. The early 1950s saw the struggling new state take in vast numbers of such Jewish refugees from around the region. Government statistics reveal that some 690,000 Jews had been welcomed into nascent Israel by the end of 1951 alone, more than doubling the May 14, 1948 population. Jewish historians note this was approximately equal to the number of Arabs that fled their homes during the War of Independence. Most Jewish immigrants traveled long distances to get to the Promised Land, the majority coming from Morocco and o ther Arab countries in North Africa. Three-fourths of the Arab refugees, on the other hand, moved just a few miles to the flat coastal Gaza Strip or to the verdant hills of Judea and Samaria. As Israelis were busy building up their national institutions, economy and defense forces, surrounding Arab countries were engaged in saber rattling and acts of violence against the detested "Zionist entity." Cross-border terrorist raids from the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip left many dead, as did attacks from Syria and Jordanian-controlled territory. The 1960s The internationalization of the Arab-Israeli conflict was the principal lasting result of the short 1956 Suez war. A special United Nations force was created to separate Egyptian troops from Israeli soldiers, who withdrew from the captured Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in early 1957. Syrian forces shelled Israeli communities in the northern Galilee in the mid-1960s, completely destroying one kibbutz, which naturally provoked armed Israeli responses. Meanwhile it seemed another heinous mass slaughter was looming as Egypt and Syria, now fully backed by the Soviet Union, vowed once again to destroy the detested Jewish state. The two Arab countries helped establish a hostile anti-Israel group called the Palestine Liberation Organization, which held its first meeting at a hotel on the Mount of Olives in 1964. An increasingly bombastic Nasser ordered UN buffer forces out of the Sinai on May 14, 1967, and then blockaded Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat once again (an act of war under international law), signaling that another full-blown conflict was imminent. He then signed mutual "defense" pacts with Jordan and Iraq while reinforcing his Sinai troop concentrations. Fearing the worst from their powerful Soviet-backed enemies, Israeli leaders realized their only hope of survival, let alone victory, was to throw the first punch - and to make it a powerful one. In an intricate surprise operation, Israeli Air Force jets took to the skies on the morning of June 5 in carefully calibrated sequences. The goal, successfully accomplished, was to simultaneously attack more than 15 Egyptian military bases throughout the sprawling Arab country. The assault caught Nasser completely off guard, nearly wiping out his entire air force in just a few minutes. This audacious Israeli "shock and awe" action left the pan-Arab coalition reeling, as it did its Russian backers. Recently released Kremlin documents reveal that Soviet leaders were planning to intervene directly by bombing Israel's newly constructed nuclear reactor in the Negev town of Dimona, but changed their minds after witnessing Israel 's stunning display of military power. Largely because of that initial blow, the vastly outnumbered Israeli forces routed their foes in a mere six days. During that short time, the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be radically altered. By June 10, Israeli troops had captured the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, Syria 's strategic Golan Heights, and Jordan's self-annexed "West Bank," as well as the prize of Jerusalem 's hallowed Old City. Once fearing they might not survive the conflict, Israeli Jews - and their Jewish and Christian supporters worldwide - were overjoyed by the spectacular outcome. The Jewish people were in control of the Temple Mount for the first time since the sacred site was destroyed during the Roman assault on Jerusalem some 1,900 years before. The 1970s Despite the painful loss of 766 soldiers during the Six Day War, the Israeli government responded positively to a United Nations call for an immediate withdrawal. They offered to hand back almost all of the territory that the outnumbered IDF forces had captured during the short defensive conflict in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel 's permanent existence and an end to the conflict. But humiliated Arab leaders, meeting in Khartoum, Sudan rejected any notion of recognizing or holding talks with the Zionists - vowing once again to wipe out the world's only Jewish state. The ruling Labor Party leaders enacted the "Allon Plan," allowing for limited settlement in areas considered vital for Israel 's future security - mainly around Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley. This move further infuriated pan-Arab leader Nasser, who ordered his forces to step up armed assaults against IDF positions along the Suez Canal, leaving dozens of Israeli soldiers dead. Nasser finally passed away in late 1970, succeeded by Anwar Sadat. Many Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1967 fighting had moved to the areas where new Jewish communities were being established. Their sometimes violent protests over the Israeli construction, fanned by fiery PLO leader Yasser Arafat, reflected the Arab world's continuing determination to "drive the Jews into the sea." The Kremlin also egged on Israel's Arab adversaries, while plotting a surprise attack against the West's Cold War ally. This joint Egyptian-Syrian sneak attack was nefariously launched mid-day on October 6, 1973. It was Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, when a majority of Israelis fast and all radio, television and public transportation is shut down. Having been supplied with the latest Soviet weaponry - twice as many warplanes and tanks as Israel - and partially commanded by skilled Russian "advisors," the attacking Arab armies were quickly backed by "volunteer" fighters and equipment from Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even a small force from Cuba.                                                                                 The stunning loss of 2,378 soldiers added to the post-war political upheaval in Jerusalem , especially when it became clear that a warning from Jordan 's King Hussein of an imminent Arab attack had been downplayed by prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan. They had decided not to order a pre-emptive strike just hours before the war began. Both resigned in April 1974, succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin. However Rabin later became embroiled in a political scandal, which led to a 1977 electoral triumph by longtime Opposition leader Menachem Begin's right-wing Likud party. The 1980s Israel had just signed an historic peace accord with Egypt when I arrived in the country in 1980. Sadat's dramatic November 1977 visit to Jerusalem , just six months after the Likud party swept to power set the stage for the American-brokered agreement. Despite sadness over the Sinai withdrawal that was a central requirement of the accord, nearly every Israeli I met was optimistic that peace pacts would soon follow with Jordan, Lebanon, and maybe even with the Palestinians and Syria. But that positive view began to crumble when some of Sadat's soldiers assassinated him in October 1981.   Sadat's death at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists signaled a sea change in the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. With most Arab leaders denouncing his peace deal, it was no longer a pan-Arabist assault on "the Zionist entity" led by Cairo, but increasingly a radical Islamic struggle fueled mainly by non-Arab Iran. The deepening religious nature of the conflict had already been magnified by Israel's formal annexation of Jerusalem's Old City in 1980 - including the Temple Mount, an area claimed exclusively by Islam. This act also brought Evangelicals from around the world more actively into the mix, as the International Christian Embassy was founded in Jerusalem in support of the Jewish people's attachment to their holy city. Strongly backed by prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ariel Sharon, nationalistic Orthodox Jews led a movement to expand the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem, and throughout Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. By this time, I was living on a kibbutz next to the border with Lebanon. The Upper Galilee communities were frequently struck by Katyusha rockets fired by PLO forces that had taken over south Lebanon after being tossed out of Jordan in 1970 for plotting to overthrow the king. I was working at a Christian radio station in south Lebanon when thousands of IDF soldiers crossed the border in June 1982 to launch "Operation Peace for Galilee" - a major military campaign designed to push PLO fighters and rockets away from the border, and later entirely out of Lebanon. Begin proclaimed that the new war would last just a few days or weeks. In the end, though, it would be 18 years before Israeli forces finally left Lebanon . The September 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in south Beirut by Lebanese Maronite Catholic forces, who some have charged acted with the connivance of Sharon, led to Begin's resignation in late 1983. The increasing role of militant Islam in the region was later highlighted by the creation of a new Palestinian group called Hamas in 1988, soon after the first Palestinian uprising broke out in the Gaza Strip. Hamas would go on to play a major role in the expanding jihad to annihilate the Jewish state. The 1990s With news of the violent Palestinian uprising dominating world headlines, I began reporting for the CBS radio network in April 1988. But in October, an entirely different topic would herald good news for Israel during the 1990s. Likely as a result of Russia's economic collapse, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced that members of the world's third-largest Jewish community were free to leave "the worker's paradise." Thus began a massive migration that would bring nearly one million Russian-speaking Jews to Israel by the end of the century. Planes and boats continued to carry Jewish immigrants to the Promised Land despite the ongoing Palestinian uprising. The huge immigrant wave kept rolling along despite yet another traumatic chapter in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict - Saddam Hussein's 1991 Scud attacks on Israel's coastal cities. Not one person was directly killed in the powerful blasts, and none of the warheads carried chemical agents. An international conference in October 1991 in Spain would signal the end of the violent uprising and the beginning of a new era of relative peace and prosperity in the land. The "land for peace" process had begun. The Madrid peace conference was sponsored mainly by the United States , but was strongly supported by the European Union and even the USSR, which was in collapse. A reluctant Yitzhak Shamir attended but dispatched his eloquent deputy foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to warn that any proposed peace process involving Arafat would likely end in failure. Likud party skepticism was replaced by Labor party optimism when Yitzhak Rabin returned as premier in June 1992. The decorated former general gladly endorsed public peace talks in Washington with Palestinian, Jordanian and Syrian representatives, although the main action was occurring in oil-rich Norway. There, a series of clandestine talks took place between Israeli and PLO negotiators, leading to the signing of the Oslo Accords and a famous handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993. The peace process quickly began to unravel, however, when Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing extremist in Tel Aviv in November 1995. Meanwhile, Arafat's pledge to end all violence in exchange for an IDF withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip and Arab population centers in Judea and Samaria proved hollow, just as Likud leaders had predicted. As the new millennium drew near, the peace process was faltering as the PLO chief abandoned even talk of a democratic " Palestine " meant to please Western audiences, and instead openly preached jihad, calling forth "a million martyrs marching to Jerusalem." 2000 to present The new millennium began with renewed optimism that a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord might be on the horizon. Prime minister Ehud Barak, who defeated Netanyahu during 1999 national elections, held a series of talks at Camp David with Arafat in July 2000, hosted by US president Bill Clinton. Barak offered to hand over most of Jerusalem's Old City, surrounding Arab neighborhoods and the West Bank to Palestinian control - a generosity not felt by the majority of the Israeli public. But even this was not enough for the recalcitrant PLO chief, who demanded a total withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and a share of Jerusalem. The negotiations ended in failure, prompting Arafat to carry out earlier threats to return to full-scale violence against Israel. The result was the "al-Aksa intifada" - a deliberate terror campaign launched when then -opposition leader Ariel Sharon "dared" to visit the Israel-controlled but Muslim administered Temple Mount in late September 2000. It would prove to be Israel's worst war ever in terms of civilian casualties, with over 1,000 Jews - 70% of them civilians and a disproportionate number  women, children and the elderly - murdered by Palestinian terrorists on city buses, in restaurants, shopping malls and other public places. Over 5,000 Palestinians were also killed, four-fifths of them combatants. A horrendous attack during the Passover Seder meal at a Netanya hotel in March 2002, which took 29 lives, was the final straw for the nation. Sharon had been overwhelmingly elected premier in February 2001 on a platform to quell the violence. The former military commander unleashed a month-long operation called "Defensive Shield" which proved to be the turning point in the new war of attrition. Meanwhile, Israelis braced for another round of Scud attacks from Saddam as the US once again led a coalition strike against Iraq in 2003. Fortunately they were spared that ordeal in the midst of the ongoing Palestinian violence, which was slowly dissipating. However, another ordeal was just around the corner - the Sharon government's August 2005 unilateral evacuation of over 9,000 Jews from 25 communities in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. The Likud leader, once the main patron of the settlement movement, had bucked his own party in carrying out the contentious uprooting, but suffered a massive stroke four months later and was succeeded by Ehud Olmert. Meanwhile Hizbullah continued an ominous military buildup in Lebanon. Its main sponsor, Iran, elected hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, and he has repeatedly called for Israel 's annihilation while pursuing a nuclear program that few continue to deny is a cover for producing atomic weapons. Soon after Hamas gunmen kidnapped an Israel soldier near the Gaza Strip in June 2006, Hizbullah did the same along the northern border, killing eight soldiers and capturing two others on July 12. This prompted Olmert to launch a 33-day military campaign which came to be known as the Second Lebanon War. Hizbullah responded by pummeling northern Israel with over 4,000 rockets - the largest missile assault upon population centers anywhere since World War II. It left 44 civilians dead and over 2,000 wounded, along with 119 soldiers who perished during fighting in Lebanon. Although Olmert was widely criticized for his conduct of a war that many saw as Israel's first military defeat, he remains in power, vowing to sign a final peace accord with the Palestinian Authority by the end of this year, despite the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and escalating rocket attacks on nearby Israeli communities. While terrorism and war are sadly still with us, Israel's economy is flourishing like never before, making the shekel one of the strongest currencies in the world. Mounting exports, hi-tech enterprises, medical breakthroughs and swelling foreign investment - a major endorsement of Israel 's future - have caused the Tel Aviv stock market to soar. Despite continuing conflicts and sorrows, Israel is back on the map - for good!         David Dolan is a veteran Christian journalist and author of several books on Israel, including the best-selling Holy War for the Promised Land; www.ddolan.com