It is a history that is usually told through one of two master narratives: Zionist or Palestinian. The visibility of the one over the other depends on the political balance of power. Hence, in the west more is known of the Israeli narrative, and much less of the one postulated by the weaker party, the Palestinians.
From Israel's viewpoint, the narrative begins in biblical times with the divine promise by God to the Jews of the land of Israel. It continues with the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon, to the collapse of the Jewish polity during Roman times. The Romans exiled the Jews and dispersed them worldwide - until they began redeeming the land in the 19th century. The people of the Diaspora cherished the homeland in their prayers, and remained attached to it through the continued presence of a small Jewish minority on the land. The longing for, and belonging to, Palestine, became the cornerstone of Zionism.
Then, in the 19th century, a modern Jewish nationalism was born in Europe as a response to the growing insecurity of Jews in a hostile Christian environment, and as part of the surge of Romantic nationalism all over the continent. The wish to end the plight of European Jewry, the desire to become a nation and the vision of a return to Palestine were all manifested in the platform of the first Zionist congress, convened in Basel in 1897.
Britain sympathised with the Zionist project. Moreover, it wished to colonise Palestine as part of its struggle with other colonial powers over the spoils of the disintegrating Ottoman empire. The First World War provided the opportunity for fusing imperial British strategy with the Zionist dream of redemption. In November 1917, Lord Balfour, Britain's foreign secretary, expressed his government's commitment to build a national homeland for the Jews, provided it did not prejudice the interests of the indigenous Palestinian population.
But it did prejudice those interests. The Palestinians rejected the new identity imposed on their homeland. They yearned for independence, first within a pan-Arab republic and then, when this failed to materialise, as a nation state. Both dreams of independence were challenged not only by the Zionist movement, but also by the European powers that wished to control their new possessions in the Arab world for as long as possible. Through the mediation of Woodrow Wilson, America's president, a compromise was suggested: the League of Nations granted a mandate to the colonial powers to supervise and ensure the advance of their new possessions towards independence.
None the less, the clash of interests bred an anti-colonial movement all over the Middle East, which ended only when the Europeans had been driven out of the area by the mid-20th century. It did not end in Palestine, however, which Britain ruled as a mandated country from 1920 onwards.
The emerging Palestinian national movement was driven by two causes: to end British rule, and to confront the growing Zionist presence on the land. The Zionist project, on the other hand, was based on expanding Jewish settlement in Palestine, through the purchase of land and extensive Jewish immigration. Arab landowners sold their land to the Jews. The Zionist leaders laid the foundations of the future Israeli state on this land, while the Palestinian majority struggled with British colonial rule.
The rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe reinforced the Zionists' sense of urgency, while blunting sentiment about the aspirations of the indigenous population. The latter were still two-thirds of the population in 1936, and yet at that time the Jewish leadership was already talking openly about transferring the Palestinians elsewhere.
An abortive Palestinian revolt against British rule and Zionism in 1936-39 left the local community leaderless - as many of its politicians were exiled - and the neighbouring Arab regimes began exerting their influence. In February 1947, Britain decided it had had enough of this troubled land, and chose to leave it as part of the overall decolonisation of the British empire. But the Jewish settlers and indigenous Palestinians reached the last days of British rule in very different conditions: the Jews had built an infrastructure for a future state; the Palestinians were just hoping that the Arab world would save them.
Britain referred the question to the UN. Its committee on Palestine (Unscop) accepted the Zionist idea to divide the land. Partitioning was unacceptable to the Palestinians, who regarded Zionism as a colonialist movement bent on taking their homeland by force. The Palestinian rejection, and the Arab world's threat to challenge the partition by force, did not deter the UN, which went ahead with its plan to cut the land roughly in half. It adopted this as a General Assembly resolution in November 1947.
The British left in May1948. Even before they had begun withdrawing in March, Zionist leaders decided that the Arab refusal to go along with partition entitled the Jewish people to pursue two plans: to take more of Palestine than had been accorded to the Jews by the United Nations, and to expel by force those Palestinians who lived within the areas deemed to be vital for the creation of a Jewish state.
In May 1948, 20,000 troops from neighbouring Arab countries entered Palestine and fought an equal number of Jewish soldiers on the borders of the new state. Inside the state, the war notwithstanding, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, begun two months previously, continued unabated. Hundreds of villages were destroyed, towns were depopulated and dozens of massacres were committed as the Palestinians were expelled. The Jewish forces eventually occupied 78 per cent of Mandatory Palestine, in which 900,000 Palestinians had lived next to 600,000 Jews.
The Jewish state became a fait accompli, and Palestine was lost. The 22 per cent that was left of the Mandate was divided between Jordan (which annexed today's West Bank) and Egypt (which ruled the Gaza strip). About 150,000 Palestinians were left in Israel: those expelled were in refugee camps all over the region.
In the early 1960s, the Palestinians began to recover from the trauma of 1948, which they call al-naqba or the catastrophe. The reawakening, led by dwellers in the refugee camps, was based on UN Resolution 194, adopted in December 1948, which sanctioned the unconditional return of the refugees to their homes. Yet those homes had long gone, wiped out by the Israelis who planted forests on them or built Jewish settlements.
The refugees established Fatah, an organisation that epitomised the wish to return and began a guerrilla campaign to advance the Palestinian cause. The Arab world, under the leadership of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, was enlisted to the cause, and invented the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Nasser pursued a policy of brinkmanship, threatening Israel with sanctions and war. These tactics enabled Israel in 1967 to go on a six-day blitzkrieg as a pre-emptive act to defend itself against what it called an all-Arab plan to destroy it. By the end of the June 1967 war, Israel controlled 100 per cent of Palestine. And much more than that: it occupied Syria's Golan Heights and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Fatah, losing faith in the Arab world, took over the PLO.
Between 1967 and 1973, several attempts, first by the UN, then by the United States, were made to solve the problem. In the peacemakers' vision, Palestine shrank into the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Only that part was negotiable; the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was ignored as an issue. There was no Palestinian partner for such a deal.
A Syrian-Egyptian surprise attack in October 1973 tried to redress the balance, but it paid off only for the Egyptians. They got their land back after their president, Anwar al-Sadat, paid his historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, and then signed a peace treaty with Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin.
At the same time, Begin encouraged the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, supported by a new Messianic Jewish settlement movement, Gush Emunim. He also allowed his minister of defence, Ariel Sharon, to try to wipe out the PLO as the organisation representing the Palestinians. After 1967, the PLO had tried to base itself in Jordan, but this raised the fear of a possible Palestinian takeover of Hashemite Jordan; hijackings of aircraft in the early 1970s gave Jordan a reason to chase out the PLO. It relocated itself in southern Lebanon, from where it waged a guerrilla war against Israel. However, in 1982, Sharon invaded Lebanon and succeeded in forcing the movement out of Lebanon and into Tunis.
Even without PLO support, the population in the occupied territories tried to shake off the Israeli military occupation. In December 1987, the first intifada or Palestinian uprising erupted. This eventually triggered a variety of peace initiatives, the most important of which was the Oslo Accord that was signed on 13 September 1993 in Washington, DC.
This new chapter in peacemaking brought the PLO and Israel into a bilateral agreement. It also enabled the Jordanians to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process continued for seven years. Eventually, in the summer of 2000, President Bill Clinton and Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, appeared to offer the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, a way out. But the talks collapsed (see next story on negotiations).
The frustration and deprivation in occupied Palestine bred a fundamentalist Islamist movement that began its war of terror against Israel in the 1990s, using human suicide bombings as its main strategy. Each such bomb, killing many innocent people, allowed Israel to retaliate with collective punishments, including house demolitions, expulsions and assassination.
In this sad way the historical conflict continues, unresolved.
Ilan Pappe teaches political science at the University of Haifa. His latest book, A History of Modern Palestine: one land, two peoples, is published by Cambridge University Press