There is nothing as difficult as getting people to agree on the history of Palestine/Israel. Most histories you see are slanted dependent on whether they are written from the Jewish or Arab perspective. Following is a brief history, written largely by memory, that I believe hits the high points. Please do not get too hung up on the exact details, as it is not intended as a scholarly work.
The Jewish people go back around 4000 years or so. They inhabited Judea. They were an agrarian people, by and large, but certainly were also warlike at times. The first “diaspora” began around 586 BC, when Judea was conquered by the Babylonians. Very large numbers of Jews were forced to flee. Large numbers of Jews did remain in Judea, especially in the historic areas such as Jerusalem. The next major hit to the Jews came when Rome sacked Jerusalem in 61 BC, and in 135 AD Jews were driven from Jerusalem by the Romans. This further spread the Jews far and wide.
In approx.. 600 AD, the Muslims conquered the Middle East. They remained in control until around 1100 AD, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem and the surrounding environs, and the Crusades lasted around 200 years, when it all reverted back to Muslim control. This remained the same until Napoleon conquered the area, forcing both Jews and Arabs to flee.
An interesting phenomenon occurred roughly around 600 AD. The Jewish rabbis began to strongly encourage education. Prior to this point, the Jews were largely an agrarian people. By memory, there were approximately 5 million Jews world-wide at this time. Over the next centuries, that number dropped to approximately 1 million. One reason for the drop is of course famine, pestilence, etc. But another reason is that many of the 5 million simply left Judaism as they could not adapt to the new reality of needing to be educated, and the cost of educating themselves and their children. Eventually, the Jewish people transformed themselves into a people that are almost entirely educated, with a culture valuing education. They became very successful at business owing to their almost universal levels of education.
The Zionist movement commenced around 1900. This was a result of becoming emboldened by newly acquired freedoms and rights gained in Europe, amongst other reasons. They began to establish settlements in Palestine. Arabs began to flock to the areas around the settlements, perhaps in even larger numbers than the Jews that came, as the new settlements, run by the Jews, offered jobs and a higher standard of living and better conditions than they had elsewhere. Jews began to buy land – they did not “take it”, but bought it. By 1914, Palestine had around 700,000 inhabitants, of which approx.. 100,000 were Jews.
After WWI, the British and French carved up the Middle East primarily for their own purposes. They made conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs. The Arabs signed a deal granting the Jews a homeland (1919), which the Arabs reneged on, as Britain reneged on a land deal with the Arabs (Britain promised parts of Syria to the Arabs, but gave it instead to the French). Jews continued to immigrate to Palestine in large numbers, and Arabs followed them for the work on offer.
The League of Nations created Palestine about 1919. This is roughly the land currently known as Jordan and Israel. The French got Syria. In around 1920, the Arabs began to attack the Jews, as they 1) became fearful that the Jewish immigration would eventually see the Jews outnumber the Arabs, and 2) JERUSALEM. Always there is the issue of Jerusalem. Very serious attacks were made against the Jews in 1920, 1921, and especially in 1929. The Hebron massacre is especially gruesome and noteworthy. The Haganah became more and more active, and were not especially delicate in their activities toward the Arabs. Jewish migration exploded in the 1930s, owing to increased persecution of Jews in Europe. In 1936, the Arabs attacked the British, where thousands of Arabs and hundreds of Jews were killed.
In an effort to appease the Arabs, the British decided to limit the numbers of Jews allowed to immigrate to Palestine. This did not work, and it turned the Jews against the British. The Jews assassinated Lord Moyne who was tasked with limiting the Jewish immigration. That turned Churchill against the Jews.
WWII ends, and 6 million Jews have been killed. World opinion shifts, and a Jewish homeland is pressed for. Partition of Palestine occurs in 1947, where Jerusalem is to be under UN control, but it is surrounded by Trans-Jordan (Arab). The Jews accept the partition, but the Arabs do not. The Arabs begin making threats toward the Jews. At this point there are 600,000 Jews and 1.2 million Arabs in Palestine. On May 14, 1948, the Jews declare the Jewish state of Israel, and all surrounding Arab nations go to war against Israel, intending to drive the Jews out of Palestine.
And it is here that the Palestinian issue as it is known today really begins. Approximately 400,000 Arabs leave Israel, primarily at the urging of the Arab nations. Please read that statement again – the Arabs left at the urging of the Arab nations! This is so that they would be out of the way during the slaughter of the Jews, and they could return after the Jews were eliminated. The Arabs were unsuccessful in their war on Israel. The Arab nations, upon being unsuccessful, unanimously agreed that the 400,000 displaced Arabs would not be granted sanctuary in any of their nations – the displaced became homeless. This was despite being urged to leave by those same Arab nations. The UN compounded the problem by granting these Arabs “right of return”. A great many of these Arabs – the bulk in actuality – were not land owners, and were recent immigrants into the area, taking advantage of the economic situation the Jews were providing. It is especially interesting to note that those Arabs that did not flee by and large still live in and own their homes in Israel, and have largely not been persecuted by the Jews.
The next major incident was the 6 day war of 1967. There is much controversy over the exact events, but these are the basics: Arafat called for the elimination of Israel; PLO promises to expel all Jews from Israel; Jordan and Egypt sign pact and ready for war against Israel; Iraq joins the pact; Israel prepares for war and enters state of readiness; Israel determines ultimately that it cannot maintain its war-readiness indefinitely, and so ultimately makes a pre-emptive strike. It quickly wins the war, and seizes the Sinai, Golan Heights, Gaza. 1.2 million Palestinians fall under Israeli control.
Israel quickly offers to return most of the seized land, with a few exceptions they deem logistically important to protect against any further Arab aggression. The Arab nations refuse the offer. Israel falls under more hawkish leadership (Golda), and the offers are withdrawn. There have been ongoing wars/skirmishes ever since (Yom Kippur war, etc.).
So, that is the history in a nutshell. The Jews began migrating to what they see as their traditional homeland around 1900. It was but a desert wasteland, with few occupants. There is some indication that prior to their immigration, the wasteland had a majority of Jewish inhabitants. Arabs began to follow the Jewish immigrants in extremely large numbers owing to the economic benefits. The Arabs became concerned about the ever increasing Jewish numbers in land they believed to be theirs, and became aggressive. The Jews responded in kind. The British and French, but particularly the British, made a mess of things owing to their deceit and self-serving attitudes.
There are a few key turning points that have driven the entire issue: 1) Jerusalem, 2) the Arab refusal to accept the partition, 3) the failed attack made on the new state of Israel and the resultant displacement of 400,000 Arabs, 4) the refusal of any Arab nation to grant these 400,000 sanctuary, and the UN declaration granting these 400,000 right of return, 5) the ongoing aggression towards the state of Israel, 6) the refusal to accept the return of the Sinai, etc after the 6 Day War (that opportunity has now passed, and the lands are now integrated into Israel and I doubt they can ever be returned).
Prior to the Jewish wave of immigration into Palestine, it was a wasteland, and really had no formal borders nor was it a country or part thereof – it was Ottoman, but was of little consequence, save for the religious significance of Jerusalem. The Jews made it a desirable bit of property. There is ever possibility that the Jews were the largest proportion of inhabitants in the area prior to the immigration push, and thus have a pretty good claim on it with respect to it being a Jewish state. The Arab population only really blossomed as a result of the Jewish push.
Who should control the area? Who are the rightful owners? I do not know, nor really care. It is what it is. But in my opinion, it has almost never been the case that the Jews were the primary aggressors. At the moment, they are still capable of defending the land of Israel. And they are still not being granted right of existence by the Arabs, and are continually under threat.
It would behove all and sundry to avoid the entire area, and to let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately, the issue of oil will always play a part in the political posturing. Eventually, I am afraid something bad that way goes.