Although Israel's independence on May 14, 1948, triggered the first full-scale war, armed conflicts between Jews and Arabs had been frequent since Great Britain received the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in 1920. From 1945 to 1948 Zionists waged guerrilla war against British troops and against Palestinian Arabs supported by the Arab League, and they had made substantial gains by 1948. The 1948-49 War reflected the opposition of the Arab states to the formation of the Jewish state of Israel in what they considered to be Arab territory.
As independence was declared, Arab forces from Egypt, Syria, Transjordan (later Jordan), Lebanon, and Iraq invaded Israel. The Egyptians gained some territory in the south and the Jordanians took Jerusalem's Old City, but the other Arab forces were soon halted. In June the United Nations succeeded in establishing a four-week truce. This was followed in July by significant Israeli advances before another truce. Fighting erupted again in August and continued sporadically until the end of 1948. An Israeli advance in Jan., 1949, isolated Egyptian forces and led to a cease-fire (Jan. 7, 1949).
Protracted peace talks resulted in armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan by July, but no formal peace. In addition, about 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled from Israel and were settled in refugee camps near Israel's border; their status became a volatile factor in Arab-Israeli relations.
From 1949 to 1956 the armed truce between Israel and the Arabs, enforced in part by the UN forces, was punctuated by raids and reprisals. Among the world powers, the United States, Great Britain, and France sided with Israel, while the Soviet Union supported Arab demands. Tensions mounted during 1956 as Israel became convinced that the Arabs were preparing for war. The nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt's Gamal Abdal Nasser in July, 1956, resulted in the further alienation of Great Britain and France, which made new agreements with Israel.
On Oct. 29, 1956, Israeli forces, directed by Moshe Dayan, launched a combined air and ground assault into Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Early Israeli successes were reinforced by an Anglo-French invasion along the canal. Although the action against Egypt was severely condemned by the nations of the world, the cease-fire of Nov. 6, which was promoted by the United Nations with U.S. and Soviet support, came only after Israel had captured several key objectives, including the Gaza strip and Sharm el Sheikh, which commanded the approaches to the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel withdrew from these positions in 1957, turning them over to the UN emergency force after access to the Gulf of Aqaba, without which Israel was cut off from the Indian Ocean, had been guaranteed.
After a period of relative calm, border incidents between Israel and Syria, Egypt, and Jordan increased during the early 1960s, with Palestinian guerrilla groups actively supported by Syria. In May, 1967, President Nasser, his prestige much eroded through his inaction in the face of Israeli raids, requested the withdrawal of UN forces from Egyptian territory, mobilized units in the Sinai, and closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel. Israel (which had no UN forces stationed on its territory) responded by mobilizing.
The escalation of threats and provocations continued until June 5, 1967, when Israel launched a massive air assault that crippled Arab air capability. With air superiority protecting its ground forces, Israel controlled the Sinai peninsula within three days and then concentrated on the Jordanian frontier, capturing Jerusalem's Old City (subsequently annexed), and on the Syrian border, gaining the strategic Golan Heights. The war, which ended on June 10, is known as the Six-Day War.
The Suez Canal was closed by the war, and Israel declared that it would not give up Jerusalem and that it would hold the other captured territories until significant progress had been made in Arab-Israeli relations. The end of active, conventional fighting was followed by frequent artillery duels along the frontiers and by clashes between Israelis and Palestinian guerrillas.
During 1973 the Arab states, believing that their complaints against Israel were going unheeded (despite the mounting use by the Arabs of threats to cut off oil supplies in an attempt to soften the pro-Israel stance of the United States), quietly prepared for war, led by Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. On Oct. 6, 1973, the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, a two-pronged assault on Israel was launched. Egyptian forces struck eastward across the Suez Canal and pushed the Israelis back, while the Syrians advanced from the north. Iraqi forces joined the war and, in addition, Syria received some support from Jordan, Libya, and the smaller Arab states. The attacks caught Israel off guard, and it was several days before the country was fully mobilized; Israel then forced the Syrians and Egyptians back and, in the last hours of the war, established a salient on the west bank of the Suez Canal, but these advances were achieved at a high cost in soldiers and equipment.
Through U.S. and Soviet diplomatic pressures and the efforts of the United Nations, a tenuous cease-fire was implemented by Oct. 25. Israel and Egypt signed a cease-fire agreement in November, but Israeli-Syrian fighting continued until a cease-fire was negotiated in 1974. Largely as a result of the diplomatic efforts of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israel withdrew back across the Suez Canal and several miles inland from the east bank behind a UN-supervised cease-fire zone. On the Syrian front too, Israeli territorial gains made in the war were given up.
After the war Egyptian and Syrian diplomatic relations with the United States, broken since the 1967 war, were resumed, and clearance of the Suez Canal began. The 1973-74 War brought about a major shift of power in the Middle East and ultimately led to the signing of the Camp David accords.
In 1978 Palestinian guerrillas, from their base in Lebanon, launched an air raid on Israel; in retaliation, Israel sent troops into S Lebanon to occupy a strip 4-6 mi (6-10 km) deep and thus protect Israel's border. Eventually a UN peacekeeping force was set up there, but occasional fighting continued. In 1982 Israel launched a massive attack to destroy all military bases of the Palestine Liberation Organization in S Lebanon and, after a 10-week siege of the Muslim sector of West Beirut, a PLO stronghold, forced the Palestinians to accept a U.S.-sponsored plan whereby the PLO guerrillas would evacuate Beirut and go to several Arab countries that had agreed to accept them. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985 but continues to maintain a Lebanese-Christian-policed buffer zone north of its border.
See E. O'Ballance, The Sinai Campaign of 1956 (1960) and The Third Arab-Israeli War (1972); R. MacLeish, The Sun Stood Still (1967); S. L. A. Marshall et al., ed., Swift Sword (1967); F. J. Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma (1968); W. Z. Laqueur, The Road to Jerusalem (1968); I. Abu-Lughod, ed., The Arab-Israeli Confrontation of June 1967: An Arab Perspective (1970); D. Kurzman, Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (1970); S. L. A. Marshall, Sinai Victory (rev. ed. 1971); D. A. Schmidt, Armageddon in the Middle East (1974); E. Hammel, Six Days in June (1992); U. Savir, The Process (1998); B. Morris, Righteous Victims (rev. ed. 2001), The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (2d ed. 2004), and 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (2008); M. B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002); C. Enderlin, Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002 (2003); A. Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War (2004); S. Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli Arab Tragedy (2006); T. Segev, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East (2007); B. Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (2008).