The idea of Jewish settlement (hityashvut) in the Land of Israel is one of the most fundamental concepts in the whole of the Jewish story as it has unfolded over thousands of years. We date the beginning of that story from the biblical episode in which God gives the divine demand to Abram, to leave his native land and to go to "the Land which I shall show you," a land soon identified with the Land of Israel. Thus the connection with the Land actually precedes all other theological and practical concepts which become part of Judaism and the Jewish story over time.
The Jewish story develops over thousands of years around the axis of the Land. For long periods it is a physical centre for the Jews, at other times it is more of an emotional and spiritual centre, but Jewish existence throughout the world at all times has been defined largely by the relationship with the Land. You are either inside the Land or outside the Land (in Galut or the Diaspora), but the physical community was always defined both physically and ideologically, by relation to the Land of Israel. Another factor that defines the Jewish attitude to the Land is that settlement in the Land was traditionally defined not just as a physical act, but as an act with enormous theological significance. It was not just perceived as the land in which Jews were required to dwell; rather it was a land which demanded adherence to a special code of ethical and theological behaviour - God's code. If that behaviour was not forthcoming, the People would be divinely punished with death, destruction and exile.
Through the thousands of years that followed the destruction of the Second Temple, the Bar Kochba revolt and the identification of the Holy Land as the central focus of Christianity, Jewish settlement plunged and the Land of Israel as a physical centre of life as opposed to an emotional, psychological and theological centre - became almost marginal in the Jewish story. From the third century to the twentieth century CE, one can only really point to the sixteenth century community that developed in Safed as a physical community that affected the Jewish world. Nevertheless, it seems that even in this marginal form some kind of Jewish presence in the Land continued throughout the centuries. Despite the dominant opinion in the Jewish world which opposed the idea of mass Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel - something that was reserved for Divine intervention rather than human endeavour - individual Jews and sometimes groups of Jews, large and small, continued to make their way from different parts of the world to Palestine, reinforcing the indigenous Jewish communities there.
The nineteenth century saw a large increase in the Jewish community in Palestine as groups of Jews, primarily from Central and Eastern Europe and North Africa made their way to the country. These Jews settled almost exclusively in the towns of Palestine, principally in the four cities that were seen by the Jews as having associations of holiness, Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed. The form of life was typically urban with the Jews involved principally in small trades and crafts although many increasingly devoted themselves to lives of learning, supported by funds that subsidised their existence which were collected throughout the Jewish world.
In the second half of the century a number of initiatives were taken to break out of the restrictive nature of Jewish urban life and to set up new forms of life based on agriculture in rural areas. Land was even bought in a number of places, but the first practical attempts at settlement were made at the end of the 1870s by Jews from Jerusalem and Safed who started settlements in the centre of the country (Petach Tikva) and the north (Gai Oni, later renamed Rosh Pinah). Both of these attempts failed initially because of the physical and climatic difficulties, but the seed had been sown and it would be left to the next wave of settlers, those of the 1880s and 1890s, whom we call the settlers of the First Aliyah, to develop the idea of settlement, both in the ideological and physical senses.