The city grew around a Bedouin settlement near the ancient Ptolemaic outpost of Rhinocorura. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims misidentified the site as the Sukkot of the Bible. ʻArīsh means "palm huts" in Modern Standard Arabic.
New fortifications were constructed at the original site by the Ottoman Empire in 1560. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French laid siege to the fort, which fell after 11 days on February 19, 1799.
During World War I, the fort was destroyed by British bombers. It was later the location of the 45th Stationary Hospital which treated casualties of the Palestine campaign. The remains of those who died there were later moved to Kantara Cemetery.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, proposed Arish as a Jewish homeland since neither the Sultan nor the Kaiser supported settlement in Palestine.
In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, agreed to consider Arish, and Herzl commissioned the lawyer David Lloyd George a charter draft, but his application was turned down once an expedition, led by Leopold Kessler had returned and submitted a detailed report to Herzl, which outlined a proposal to divert some of the Nile waters to the area for the purpose of settlement.
El Arish Military Cemetery was built in 1919 marked the death of the First World War. It was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer.
On December 8, 1958, an air battle occurred between Egyptian and Israeli air forces over Arish.
Arish was under military occupation by Israel briefly in 1956 and again from 1967 to 1979. It was returned to Egypt in 1979 after the signing of the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty.
On 24 November 2017, 305 people were killed in a bomb and gun attack at the al-Rawda mosque near Arish.