Israel -- Facts and History

Israel's history, geography, economics, and more are detailed.
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National name: Medinat Yisra'el

Area: 8,020 sq. mi. (20,770 sq. km)

Population (2000 est.): 5,842,4541 (average annual rate of natural increase: 1.3%); birth rate: 19.3/1000; infant mortality rate: 7.9/1000; density per sq. mi.: 728

Capital and largest city (1993 est.): Jerusalem2, 550,500

Other large cities (1993 est.): Tel Aviv, 355,900; Haifa, 250,000

Monetary unit: Shekel

Languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English

Ethnicity/race:Jewish 82% (Israel-born 50%, Europe/Americas/Oceania-born 20%, Africa-born 7%, Asia-born 5%), non-Jewish 18% (mostly Arab) (1993 est.)

Religions: Judaism, 82%; Islam, 14%; Christian, 2%; others, 2%

Literacy rate: 92% (1983)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (1998 est.): $101.9 billion; $18,100 per capita. Real growth rate: 1.9%. Inflation: 5.4%. Unemployment: 8.7%. Arable land: 17%. Agriculture: citrus, vegetables, cotton, beef, poultry, dairy products. Labor force: 2.3 million (1997): public services, 31.2%; manufacturing, 20.2%; finance and business, 13.1%; commerce, 12.8%; construction, 7.5%; personal and other services, 6.4%; transport, storage, and communications, 6.2%; agriculture, forestry, and fishing, 2.6% (1996). Industries: food processing, diamond cutting and polishing, textiles and apparel, chemicals, metal products, military equipment, transport equipment, electrical equipment, potash mining, high-technology electronics, tourism. Natural resources: copper, phosphates, bromide, potash, clay, sand, sulfur, asphalt, manganese, small amounts of natural gas and crude oil. Exports: $22.1 billion (f.o.b., 1998): machinery and equipment, cut diamonds, chemicals, textiles and apparel, agricultural products, metals. Imports: $26.1 billion (f.o.b., 1998): raw materials, military equipment, investment goods, rough diamonds, oil, consumer goods. Major trading partners: U.S., U.K., Hong Kong, Benelux, Japan, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Switzerland.

1. Includes West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem.2. Not recognised by U.S., which recognises Tel Aviv.


Israel lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Egypt on the west, Syria and Jordan on the east, and Lebanon on the north. Northern Israel is largely a plateau traversed from north to south by mountains and broken by great depressions, also running from north to south.

The maritime plain of Israel is remarkably fertile. The southern Negev region, which comprises almost half the total area, is largely a wide desert steppe area. Parts of it have been irrigated and cultivated. The Jordan, the only important river, flows from the north through Lake Hule (Waters of Merom) and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee or Sea of Tiberias), finally entering the Dead Sea, 1,312 feet (400 m) below sea level. This “sea,” which is actually a salt lake (394 sq. mi.; 1,020 sq. km), has no outlet, its water balance being maintained by evaporation.




Palestine, considered a holy land by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and homeland of the modern state of Israel, was known as Canaan to the ancient Hebrews. Palestine's name derives from the Philistines, a people who occupied the southern coastal part of the country in the 12th century B.C.

A Hebrew kingdom established in 1000 B.C. was later split into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel; they were subsequently invaded by Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, and Alexander the Great of Macedonia. By A.D. 135, few Jews were left in Palestine; most lived in the scattered and tenacious communities of the Diaspora. Palestine became a centre of Christian pilgrimage after the emperor Constantine converted to that faith. The Arabs took Palestine from the Byzantine empire in A.D. 634–40. Interrupted only by Christian Crusaders, Muslims ruled Palestine until the 20th century (Turkish rule from 1516). During World War I, British forces defeated the Turks in Palestine and governed the area under a League of Nations mandate from 1923.

As part of the 19th-century Zionist movement, Jews had begun settling in Palestine as early as 1820. This effort to establish a Jewish homeland had received British approval in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. During the 1930s, Jews persecuted by the Hitler regime poured into Palestine. The postwar acknowledgment of the Holocaust—Hitler's genocide of 6 million Jews—increased international interest in and sympathy for the cause of Zionism. However, Arabs in Palestine and surrounding countries bitterly opposed prewar and postwar proposals to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish sectors. The British mandate to govern Palestine ended after the war, and in 1947 the U.N. voted to partition Palestine. When the British officially withdrew on May 14, 1948, the Jewish National Council proclaimed the State of Israel

U.S. recognition came within hours. The next day, Arab forces from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded the new nation. By the cease-fire on Jan. 7, 1949, Israel had increased its original territory by 50%, taking western Galilee, a broad corridor through central Palestine to Jerusalem, and part of modern Jerusalem. Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion became Israel's first president and prime minister. The new government was admitted to the U.N. on May 11, 1949.

The next clash with Arab neighbours came when Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 and barred Israeli shipping. Coordinating with an Anglo-French force, Israeli troops seized the Gaza Strip and drove through the Sinai to the east bank of the Suez Canal, but withdrew under U.S. and U.N. pressure. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel made simultaneous air attacks against Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian air bases, totally defeating the Arabs. Expanding its territory by 200%, Israel at the cease-fire held the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River, Jerusalem's Old City, and all of the Sinai and the east bank of the Suez Canal.

In the face of Israeli reluctance even to discuss the return of occupied territories, the fourth Arab-Israeli War erupted on Oct. 6, 1973, with a surprise Egyptian and Syrian assault on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. Initial Arab gains were reversed when a cease-fire took effect two weeks later, but Israel suffered heavy losses.

A dramatic breakthrough in the tortuous history of Mideast peace efforts occurred on Nov. 9, 1977, when Egypt's president Anwar Sadat declared his willingness to go anywhere to talk peace. Prime Minister Menachem Begin on Nov. 15 extended an invitation to the Egyptian leader to address the Knesset. Sadat's arrival in Israel four days later raised worldwide hopes, but a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel was long in coming. On March 14, 1979, the Knesset approved a final peace treaty, and 12 days later Begin and Sadat signed the document, together with President Jimmy Carter, in a White House ceremony. Israel began its withdrawal from the Sinai, which it had annexed from Egypt, on May 25, and the two countries opened their border on May 29.

Although Israel withdrew its last settlers from the Sinai in April 1982, the fragile Mideast peace was shattered on June 9 by a massive Israeli assault on southern Lebanon, where the Palestinian Liberation Organization was entrenched. The PLO had long plagued Israelis with terrorist actions. Israel destroyed PLO strongholds in Tyre and Sidon and reached the suburbs of Beirut on June 10. A U.S.-mediated accord between Lebanon and Israel, signed on May 17, 1983, provided for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel eventually withdrew its troops from the Beirut area, but kept them in southern Lebanon, where occasional skirmishes would continue. Lebanon, under pressure from Syria, cancelled the accord in March 1984.

A continual source of tension has been the relationship between the Jews and the Palestinians living within Israeli territories. Most Arabs fled the region when the state of Israel was declared, but those who remain now make up almost one-fifth of the population of Israel. They are about two-thirds Muslim, as well as Christian and Druze. Palestinians living on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip fomented the riots begun in 1987, known as the Intifadeh. Violence heightened as Israeli police cracked down and Palestinians retaliated. Continuing Jewish settlement of lands designated for Palestinians has added to the unrest.

In 1989 the leader of the PLO, Yasir Arafat, reversed decades of PLO polemic by acknowledging Israel's right to exist. He stated his willingness to enter negotiations to create a Palestinian political entity that would coexist with the Israeli state.

In 1991 Israel was struck by Iraqi missiles during the Persian Gulf War. The Israelis did not retaliate in order to preserve the international coalition against Iraq. In 1992 Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister. He halted the disputed Israeli settlement of the occupied territories. Highly secretive talks in Norway resulted in an agreement between the PLO and the Israeli government (the Oslo agreement, 1993). The accord stipulated a five-year plan in which Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would gradually become self-governing. In 1994 Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan. Israel has no formal peace agreement with Syria or Lebanon.

On Nov. 4, 1995, Prime Minister Rabin was slain by a Jewish extremist, jeopardising the tenuous progress toward peace. Shimon Peres succeeded him until May 1996 elections for the Knesset gave Israel a new hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by a razor-thin margin. Netanyahu reversed or stymied much of the Oslo agreement, contending that it offered too many concessions too fast and jeopardised Israelis' safety. Elections for seats on the Palestinian Council and for its president took place in Jan. 1996. Yasir Arafat obtained an easy victory as president.

Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in 1997 were repeatedly undermined by both sides. Although the Hebron accord was signed in Jan., calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the city, the construction of new Jewish settlements on the West Bank in March profoundly upset progress toward peace. Some Jews cited the influx of immigration from Russia (since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 700,000 Russian Jews have arrived in Israel) as necessitating the additional settlements. Others believe that Netanyahu wishes to curb Palestinian expectations raised by the Oslo agreement.

Terrorism erupted again in 1997 when radical Hamas suicide bombers claimed the lives of more than 20 Israeli civilians. Netanyahu, accusing Palestinian Authority president Arafat of lax security, retaliated with draconian sanctions against Palestinians working in Israel, including the withholding of millions of dollars in tax revenue, a blatant violation of the Oslo agreements. Netanyahu persisted in authorising right-wing Israelis to build new settlements in mostly Arab East Jerusalem. Arafat, meanwhile, seemed unwilling or unable to curb the violence of extremist Arabs.

An Oct. 1998 summit at Wye Mills, Md., generated the first real progress in the stymied Middle East peace talks in 19 months, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Yasir Arafat settling several important interim issues called for by the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The Palestinians agreed to remove language from their founding charter that called for the dismantling of the Jewish state; Israelis agreed to cede an additional 13% of the West Bank.

Although Israel completed the first of three withdrawals from the West Bank on Nov. 20, released 250 Palestinian prisoners, and authorised the opening of the Gaza airport, the peace accord began unravelling almost immediately. Disagreement over the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners led to violence in the West Bank and Gaza, for which each side blamed the other. To buttress the flagging accord, President Clinton visited the Gaza Strip on Dec. 15, becoming the first American president to set foot on Palestinian-occupied land. The visit coincided with the vote of the Palestine National Council to formally eliminate language from the organization's charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.

Netanyahu found himself attacked from both sides of the political spectrum—the left accused him of intentionally thwarting the peace process and the right accused him of betrayal, having elected him in the belief that he would never give up Israeli territory. In mid-Dec. Parliament voted to dissolve Netanyahu's government and hold elections in the spring, putting the peace negotiations on hold.

By the end of April 1999, Israel had made 41 air raids on Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The guerrillas were fighting against Israeli troops and their allies, the South Lebanon Army militia, who have occupied a security zone set up in 1985 to guard Israel's borders. Public pressure in Israel to withdraw the troops grew, and the issue dominated the Israeli election campaign in spring 1999. Ehud Barak of the Labour Party won the election with 55.9% of the vote, against 43.9% for incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud. Yasir Arafat originally planned to declare Palestinian statehood on May 4, but postponed that decision until an undefined time after the election, so as not to provoke Israeli hard-liners and lessen the chance of resuming the peace talks.

Barak created a broad coalition government and on his inauguration (July 6, 1999) announced that "nothing is more important in my view than . . . putting an end to the 100-year conflict in the Middle East." By this he meant not only pursuing peace with the Palestinians, but establishing relations with Syria and ending the low-grade war in Southern Lebanon with the Iranian-armed Hezbollah guerrillas. Syria has more than 30,000 troops in Lebanon, and Iran uses Syria as its conduit for delivering weapons to Hezbollah.

In Sept. 1999, Israel moved ahead with the 1998 Wye Accord, ceding an additional 7% of territory to the Palestinians.

No thaw with Syria seemed forthcoming until Dec., when Israeli-Syrian talks resumed after a nearly four-year hiatus. From Syria's point of view, normalisation of relations between the two countries would largely depend on Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was territory that Israel had captured from Syria during the Middle East war of 1967. From Israel's point of view, relinquishing the Golan Heights, which serves as a buffer zone between the two nations, could not occur without a guarantee of Israel's security from Syria. By Jan. 2000, however, talks had broken down when Syria demanded a detailed discussion of the return of all of the Golan Heights.

In Feb., new Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon led to Israel's retaliatory bombing as well as Barak's decision to pull out of Lebanon by July, whether or not an agreement had been reached with Syria. Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon on May 24, 2000, after 22 years of occupation.

Peace talks in July 2000 at Camp David between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat ended unsuccessfully, despite President Clinton's strongest efforts—the status of Jerusalem was the primary sticking point. Clinton blamed Arafat's intransigence, but Palestinian supporters praised his strong stand. Barak, on the other hand, returned to a volatile political situation, with conservatives angered by his concessions and threatening to abandon his fragile parliamentary coalition.

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