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10 Important Moments of the 20th Century in the Arab World

posted on: May 31, 2021

arab history

By: Dani Meyer/Arab America Contributing Writer

History in the Arab world is full of incredibly defining moments that have not only shaped the region, but the entire world. Looking back at the 20th century, it is clear that there are many moments that fundamentally changed Arab history and future. While many moments, big and small, came together to shape Arab history, these are 10 of the most important events throughout the 20th century for the Arab world.

1. 1917 – Britain captures Palestine

arab history
British Gen. Edmund Allenby enters Old City of Jerusalem, December 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

The British Mandate in Palestine had its origins in the end of World War I. Before World War I, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. The December before the Armistice that ended World War I, a British general and his troops captured Jerusalem. The League of Nations “mandated” what was then Palestine to British rule. However, by the time Palestine was mandated to British rule, the British had made numerous conflicting promises about what would happen in the region. They had agreed to recognize Arab independence, agreed to divide the territories in the Middle East between themselves and the French, and also committed themselves to a “national home” for the Jewish people. So began 30 years of British rule in Palestine.

2. 1948 – State of Israel declared

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Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The modern State of Israel has its origins in the Zionist movement, led by Theodor Herzl. He identified Ottoman-controlled Palestine as the most desirable location, and unsuccessfully petitioned the Ottoman government for a charter. When the British issued the Balfour Declaration, committing themselves to a “national home” for the Jewish people, they also committed themselves to Arab independence in the region. Unable to find a practical solution, they turned the matter over to the United Nations, which voted to partition Palestine. Following the announcement of an independent Israel, five Arab nations invaded the region in what is now known as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

3. 1956 – Suez Crisis

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UK National Archives, Aerial view of the Suez operation, 1956 (catalogue reference: ADM 195/122

The Suez Crisis was precipitated by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. It had been jointly controlled by the British and the French, but Nasser wanted Egyptian control over the Canal. France joined Britain in an invasion of Egypt, and Israeli forces attacked the Sinai Peninsula. Anglo-French forces began bombing Egyptian targets and occupying strategic positions in the Canal zone. The U.N. called for a cease-fire, and both the Soviet Union and the United States called for the French and British to withdraw. An incredibly important moment in Arab history, the Suez Crisis made clear that the United States and the Soviet Union were now the big international players in the region, rather than France and Great Britain.

4. 1962 – Algerian Independence

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Copyright: ©Marc Riboud / Magnum Photos

The Algerian War, also known as the Algerian War of Independence, was fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front. From 1954 to 1962, this was both a war between Algerian forces and the French, as well as a civil war within Algeria. The French employed very brutal methods, including torture, which helped to turn the tide of public support in France and in the international community against the war. There was a U.N. Declaration supporting Algerian independence, and in 1962, Algeria gained independence from France. 

5. 1967 – Six-Day War

arab history
Assaf Kutin/© The State of Israel Government Press Office

The Six-Day War, also known as the June War, was the third of the Arab-Israeli wars. In response to the apparent mobilization and escalation of Arab forces, Israel staged a preemptive air assault on Egyptian and Syrian air forces. Without their forces in the air, both militaries were vulnerable to attack. Within three days, the Israelis had achieved an overwhelming victory on the ground, capturing the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. The lopsidedness of the defeat demoralized the Arab public, and marked a new start in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Months after the war, the U.N. passed UNSCR 242, which called for Israel to withdraw from all the territories it had captured in exchange for lasting peace. 

6. 1975 – Lebanese Civil War begins

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Supplied: Khalil Dehaini

Conflict erupted in Beirut after members of a Christian militia attacked a bus, killing 27 of its mainly Palestinian passengers. Prior to the war, Lebanon had both Muslims and Christians, who tended to support different sides in the Cold War. Also, the arrival of Palestinian refugees after the 1948 War led to a demographic shift in favor of Muslims. Fighting lasted until 1989, when the Taif Agreement marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. The Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1990, making it an incredibly important moment in Arab history.

7. 1979 – Militants Seize US Embassy in Iran

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AP Images

From 1797-1981, militants in Iran held 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for over a year. This took place in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and its overthrow of the monarchy. This revolution changed Iran’s relationship with the United States. The international community deeply opposed Iran’s taking of hostages, and the U.S. instituted an embargo of Iranian oil. 

8. 1981 – Anwar Sadat assassinated

Photo from Rare Historical Photos

On October 6, 1981, the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated, in large part due to his signing of the Camp David Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin. Sadat had strengthened ties with the United States and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Camp David Accords. However, certain factions within Egypt believed that the peace deal with Israel was too revolutionary and anti-Arab, and plotted to kill Sadat. 

9. 1990 – Gulf War

AP Photo/John Gaps III, File

Iraqi President ordered the invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait in 1990. This led to fellow Arab powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States, intervening in the region. The war began with a massive U.S.-led air assault known as Operation Desert Storm. After 42 days, U.S. President George W. Bush declared a cease-fire. At this time, most Iraqi forces in Kuwait had either surrendered or fled. Though initially considered a success by the international community, the Persian Gulf War laid the groundwork for a second Gulf War to start in 2003. 

10. 1993 – Oslo Accords

Photo Credit J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Oslo Accords initially began as secret talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Oslo in 1993. Neither side wanted to acknowledge their presence at the talks. The Camp David Accords served as a base point for the new negotiations, and the Norwegians served as mediators. There were two separate agreements that made up the Oslo Accords. Oslo I, in 1993, included mutual recognition by the PLO and Israel, established a freely elected Parliament for Palestine, and set the parameters for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Oslo II, in 1995, built upon Oslo I and included discussion of the future governance of Jerusalem, as well as issues concerning border security. 


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