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The 2,000-year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict

The ancient Israelites resting after crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty

The story of Israel really begins nearly 2,000 years ago, says Rory Stewart on The Rest is Politics, when a Jewish community living in what is now Israel was forced out by the Romans. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, after hundreds of years of “appalling discrimination”, that Jews launched the Zionist movement to create their own homeland. In 1948, following the “defining horror” of the Holocaust, they set up the state of Israel by seizing territories from Arab-Muslim communities. This new Israeli state was formally recognised by most governments, but in 1967 came under attack by Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The Israelis quickly won – it was dubbed the Six Day War – and took over land outside the original 1948 borders, including Gaza and the West Bank. Israel handed Gaza over to the Palestinians in 2005, after which Hamas took control, but not before building settlements that turned the two territories into “100 little enclaves divided by checkpoints and walls”.

Talk to moderate Palestinians, and they wouldn’t condone last weekend’s horrific attacks. But they would argue that Israel has turned Gaza into a “prison camp”, where people lack basic supplies and find it almost impossible to get in and out. As for the Israelis, they would say much of the territory they took in 1967 was “essential for protection”: the Golan Heights, for example, were artillery positions from which the Syrians “rained rockets down on them”. Above all, they would emphasise that their enemies want to destroy them: the founding charter of Hamas was dedicated to the “complete elimination” of Israel; the Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War were “basically designed to wipe them off the face of the map”. They see this as an “existential threat”.