History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States


Israelites & Israel

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Before that though lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, the long Mediterranean coast between ancient Syria and Egypt which today is known as the Levant. Various independent or united Semitic-speaking city states formed in this region from around 3000 BC onwards, reaching a peak of independent development in the second millennium BC. It was during the climate-induced social collapse of the late thirteenth century BC that both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge.

The term 'Israelite' is often used interchangeably with the terms 'Hebrew' and 'Jew', but these terms are not strictly interchangeable. The specific term 'Israelites', or 'people of Israel', is best used only for periods after the followers of Yahweh undertook their exodus from Egypt. It can also be used conveniently for the earlier period in which these people were subject to patriarchs (approximately between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BC).

The term loses its accuracy after the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon divided into the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah around 927 BC. The Old Testament tends usually to use the term 'Hebrew' for the entire period before 1000 BC, but it is best to avoid it here due to controversy surrounding its origins (regarding whether it descends from 'Eber', the ancestor of Abraham, or habiru, a general term for brigands and the dispossessed).

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Sean Bambrough & Wayne McCleese, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

Palestine (British Mandate)
AD 1917 - 1948

Having been formed as an official region in the seventh century AD, Islamic Palestine emerged from four hundred years of Ottoman rule during the First World War, when the 'Arab Uprising', led by Faysal, son of the sharif of Mecca, and British Army officer T E Lawrence combined with a British military thrust from Arabia under General Allenby to dislodge the Ottoman forces from mütesarrif-controlled Jerusalem. British numbers were swelled by five battalions of Jewish volunteers who formed the unofficially-named Jewish Legion (which saw action in the Jordan Valley in 1918).

In 1917, the British Parliament's 'Balfour Declaration' - announced by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour - gave backing for 'a national home for Jewish people' in Palestine. Finally the millions of people who were involved in the many varied branches of the Jewish Diaspora had hope of a reborn Israel in which they could settle.

More recently, extremist opinion has decried what it sees as Britain's pro-Arab stance of the time, while the Arabs themselves see it as 'a fateful promise from those who do not own to those who do not deserve', according to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2016. Sometimes good intentions are not enough.

Once the chaos of war had settled down, during which time the region was under the administrative control of the 'Occupied Enemy Territory Administration' (OETA South), mandates were granted to Britain and France, the two main victors of the First World War. They were to administer the captured territories in the Near East, until some form of independent control could be established. The situation at the end of the war was very unstable, with a serious risk of the region descending into factional fighting and further chaos, so the mandates served a very real purpose despite their later controversy.

The British mandate covered modern Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, while the French mandate covered Syria and Lebanon. Eventually, the modern nations of the Near East were established and Britain and France were able to withdraw. Before that, however, in September 1922, Great Britain in conjunction with the council of the League of Nations had decided that the provisions for setting up a Jewish national home would not apply to any land to the east of the River Jordan, which constituted seventy-five percent of territory which had been included in the mandate (albeit including a good deal of desert or scrub land). This region became Hashemite Transjordan.

The Arch of Titus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Palestine, Joshua J Mark (available via the Ancient History Encyclopaedia website), from Meqorot u-Meḥqarim be-Toldot Yisrael, Simha Assaf (Jerusalem, 1946), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (General Ed, 1986), from A History of Palestine, 634-1099, Moshe Gil (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and History: Foreign Domination (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now available only via the Wayback Machine).)

1917 - 1918

Sir Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby

First British military administrator (Dec-Jun).

1918 - 1919

Sir Arthur Wigram Money

British military administrator (Jun-Jun, one year).


H Watson

Acting administrator (Jun-Dec).

1919 - 1920

Sir Louis Jean Bols

British military administrator (Dec-Jul).


On Palestine's northern border, Faysal becomes ruler of the 'United Kingdom of Syria' on 7 March 1920. However, the San Remo conference of April gives the mandate for Syria to France and the French immediately move to end Faysal's Arab government.

King Faysal
King Faysal was photographed at Homs in 1919, standing third from the left, during an intensive period of negotiation and political manoeuvring to see who would control what in the post-Ottoman Near East

Faysal also refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the newly created sate of Lebanon, which takes a large slice of Greater Syria's coastal territory. Against his orders, his defence minister, General Yusuf al-Azmah, leads a small army into a hopeless fight at the Battle of Maysalun (Pass). It is defeated, the French take control of Syria, and Faysal is exiled. The following year, he is compensated by the British with the throne of Iraq.

In Palestine itself, increasing inwards migration and settlement into the region by large numbers of the Jewish Diaspora is stirring concern amongst Arab groups. During the Muslim Nabi Musa festival, speeches by Arab religious leaders lead to several attacks on Jews. There is fighting on both sides (the Nabi Musa Riots, or Palestine Riots), leading to nine deaths and dozens of injuries, and former members of the Jewish Legion defend their communities.

Jewish concern that the British military is not taking the situation seriously enough leads them to create their own 'shadow' administration and a security force called the Haganah.

Nabi Musa festival
The Nabi Musa festival of 1920 prompted riots in Palestine between the majority Arabs and the minority, but rapidly burgeoning, Jewish population

1920 - 1925

Sir Herbert Louis Samuel

First British high commissioner (Jul-Jun).

1920 - 1923

Although it begins in December 1919, the Third Aliyah really picks up in 1920, resulting in a fresh wave of forty thousand members of the Jewish Diaspora entering Palestine. The trigger for this migration is the October Revolution in Russia, although the fact that the largely neutral British rather than the Ottomans are now in control of Palestine makes it a much more enticing prospect than previously.

The Jaffa Riots of 1921 see tensions boil up between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, largely driven by the huge recent influx of Jewish families. In 1922, Britain assumes official governance of Palestine under the terms of its League of Nations mandate. In the following year, Transjordan is separated from Palestine.

1924 - 1929

The Fourth Aliyah follows on from the third, delivering approximately a hundred thousand members of the Jewish Diaspora into Palestine, mostly from Lithuania, Poland (up to half of them), Rumania, and Russia. Jewish communities undergo rapid development, especially in Tel Aviv, but economic crisis between 1926-1927 causes great hardship, forcing around 23,000 Jews to leave again.

Polish-Lithuanian War
A parade of Polish uhlans at Sejny, a town in Poland today, but initially Lithuanian (after 1915), which swapped hands several times in the Polish-Lithuanian War of 1919-1920

1925 - 1928

Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer

British high commissioner (Aug-Jul).


Sir Harry Charles Luke

Acting high commissioner (Jul-Dec).

1928 - 1931

Sir John Robert Chancellor

British high commissioner (Dec-Nov).

1929 - 1939

The Western Wall Uprising of 1929 (or the Palestine Riots of 1929) results from a Judo-Arab dispute about access to the Western Wall. Arabs kill 133 Jews, British police kill 110 Arabs, and a handful of Arabs are also killed by Jews. The blame for the violence is laid largely at the door of the Arabs, who are feeling increasing social pressure due to the rapid increase of Jewish immigrants into the region.

As if to highlight this, the beginning of the Fifth Aliyah follows immediately afterwards. Communities of the Jewish Diaspora have been pushed into migrating by the rise of Nazism in Germany and the threat of war. The failed Weimar republic there has been swept away and the German constitution has been suspended. Central Europe is rife with political activity and violence at this time, largely driven by the Nazis (or at least used for their own ends).

Jews in Warsaw in 1941, probably in the ghetto
Photographed here in summer 1941 is a street armband seller and a group of Jewish locals, on 18 Zamenhofa Street, which is probably in Warsaw's ghetto


Mark Aitchison Young

Acting high commissioner (Nov only).

1931 - 1938

Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope

British high commissioner (Nov-Mar).


The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 in Palestine (later dubbed The Great Revolt or The Great Palestinian Revolt) sees a general nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs against British administration.

The spark for this uprising is the murder of two Jews by followers of the Syrian Muslim preacher, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, and a retaliatory murder by Jewish gunmen of two Arab labourers. They demand Arab independence and an end to open-ended immigration and land purchases by members of the Jewish Diaspora.


Sir William Denis Battershill

Acting high commissioner for Sir Arthur (Sep-Nov).


On 7 July the British 'Peel Commission' recommends partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Palestinian states. Emir Abdullah of Transjordan supports this as it means the Arab section will be incorporated into his territory. While the Jews reluctantly accept the commission's findings, the other Arabs nations do not, and it is eventually dropped.

Emir Abdullah I of Transjordan
Emir Abdullah I was the principal Hashemite ruler of the Transjordan section of former Palestine during the British mandate period until 1948

1938 - 1944

Sir Harold Alfred MacMichael

British high commissioner (Mar-Aug).

1939 - 1945

Nazi Germany invades Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, replacing its republic with the German 'Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia'. Slovakia is separated as the Slovak republic. On the day of the invasion, Sub-Carpathian Rus declares independence as Carpatho-Ukraine. Within three days it is occupied by its old master, Hungary, and remains so until Germany itself occupies Hungary in 1944.

Until then Hungary fights on the side of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, losing a large part of its army in Soviet Russia. The Germans occupy Hungary after the latter seeks an armistice. Hundreds of thousands of gypsies and members of the Jewish Diaspora are deported to death camps in this period.

After some internal strife, the fascists rule Rumania as part of the Axis Alliance with Nazi Germany. The country is governed by its pro-German dictator, with the king powerless. Antonescu's rule is marked by anti-Semitic atrocities, including racially discriminatory laws, deportations, and pogroms.

The king and his mother, Queen Helen, are kept informed about the next actions which are planned against the Jewish population. The queen then seeks urgent meetings with Antonescu, and manages to have many anti-Jewish measures and orders rescinded, saving many thousands of Jewish lives.

King Karel II of Rumania
King Karel II of Rumania - pictured next to his brother, the more elaborately-dressed Prince Nicholas (on the right) - became increasingly dictatorial during the troubled years of the 1930s

Jews are seen by Germany's Adolf Hitler as racial pollutants. They are used by him and his followers as an excuse for all of the country's ills since the defeat of the First World War. The result is the Holocaust (or 'Catastrophe', the term preferred by modern Israel).

To Hitler it is the 'final solution' in which six million Jews (not to mention hundreds of thousands of other Europeans, mostly Balts and Slavs) are systematically exterminated, generally in organised camps which are set up in occupied Poland and other eastern territories after 1939, but often too in ad hoc arrangements such as mass shootings in front of hastily-dug trenches. Ashkenazi Jews, the predominant grouping in central and Eastern Europe, form by far the largest percentage of Jews who are killed.

The true horrors of the Holocaust, while gradually coming to light for politicians and military leaders during the course of the Second World War, are generally unknown by the world until the Nazi concentration camps are liberated in 1945.

Jewish ex-prison camp survivors at Haifa in 1945
Following their release from concentration camps and ghettos in 1945 (show here are Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp survivors arriving in Haifa in the same year), Jewish families flocked to Palestine with the intention of joining the movement which would soon create an independent state of Israel

1944 - 1945

John S Surtees Prendergast Vereker

British high commissioner (Nov-Nov).

1945 - 1948

Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham

Final British high commissioner (Nov-May).


Following the conclusion of the Second World War, in which Jordan has remained a staunch ally of Britain, the British mandate for Transjordan comes to an end. The emirate's independence is announced on 25 May, as the 'Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan' on Palestine's eastern border.


The British mandate in Palestine comes to an end on 14 May. Before withdrawal of the remaining British forces can even start, the declaration of a modern state of Israel takes place on the same day. Much of the region is captured by well-prepared Jewish forces, with the remnant gradually being reduced to the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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