National name: Medinat Yisra'el
President: Shimon Peres (2007)
Prime Minister: Ehud Olmert (2006)
Land area: 7,849 sq mi (20,329 sq km); total area: 8,019 sq mi (20,770 sq km)
Population (2007 est.): 6,426,679 (growth rate: 1.2%); birth rate: 17.7/1000; infant mortality rate: 6.8/1000; life expectancy: 79.6; density per sq mi: 819
Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Jerusalem, 695,500 Note: Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but the U.S., like nearly all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.
Other large cities: Tel Aviv, 365,300; Haifa, 280,200
Monetary unit: Shekel
Languages: Hebrew (official), Arabic, English
Ethnicity/race: Jewish 80.1% (Europe/Americas/Oceania-born 32.1%, Israel-born 20.8%, Africa-born 14.6%, Asia-born 12.6%), non-Jewish 19.9% (mostly Arab) (1996 est.)
Religions: Judaism 77%, Islam 16%, Christian 2%, Druze 2% (2003)
Literacy rate: 95% (2003 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2005 est.): $140.1 billion; per capita $22,300. Real growth rate: 4.7%. Inflation: 1.3%. Unemployment: 8.9%. Arable land: 16%. Agriculture: citrus, vegetables, cotton; beef, poultry, dairy products. Labor force: 2.42 million; 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: high-technology projects (including aviation, communications, computer-aided design and manufactures, medical electronics, fiber optics), wood and paper products, potash and phosphates, food, beverages, and tobacco, caustic soda, cement, construction, metals products, chemical products, plastics, diamond cutting, textiles, footwear. Natural resources: timber, potash, copper ore, natural gas, phosphate rock, magnesium bromide, clays, sand. Exports: $40.14 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): machinery and equipment, software, cut diamonds, agricultural products, chemicals, textiles and apparel. Imports: $43.19 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): raw materials, military equipment, investment goods, rough diamonds, fuels, grain, consumer goods. Major trading partners: U.S., Belgium, Hong Kong, Switzerland, UK (2004).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 3.006 million (2002); mobile cellular: 6.334 million (2002). Radio broadcast stations: AM 23, FM 15, shortwave 2 (1998). Television broadcast stations: 17 (plus 36 low-power repeaters) (1995). Internet hosts: 437,516 (2004). Internet users: 2 million (2002).
Transportation: Railways: total: 640 km (2004). Highways: total: 16,903 km; paved: 16,903 km (including 56 km of expressways); unpaved: 0 km (2002). Ports and harbors: Ashdod, Elat (Eilat), Hadera, Haifa. Airports: 51 (2004 est.).
International disputes: West Bank and Gaza Strip are Israeli-occupied with current status subject to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement - permanent status to be determined through further negotiation; Israel continues construction of a "seam line" separation barrier along parts of the Green Line and within the West Bank; Israel announced its intention to pull out Israeli settlers and withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank in 2005; Golan Heights is Israeli-occupied (Lebanon claims the Shab'a Farms area of Golan Heights); since 1948, about 350 peacekeepers from the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) headquartered in Jerusalem monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating, and assist other UN personnel in the region.
Israel, slightly larger than Massachusetts, 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. Its maritime plain is extremely fertile. The southern Negev region, which comprises almost half the total area, is largely a desert. The Jordan, the only important river, flows from the north through Lake Hule (Waters of Merom) and Lake Kinneret (also called Sea of Galilee or Sea of Tiberias), finally entering the Dead Sea, 1,349 ft (411 m) below sea level—the world's lowest land elevation.
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, communities formed outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile. Palestine became a center of Christian pilgrimage after the emperor Constantine converted to that faith. The Arabs took Palestine from the Byzantine empire in 634–640. Interrupted only by Christian Crusaders, Muslims ruled Palestine until the 20th century. 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 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 UN 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 UN on May 11, 1949.
The next clash with Arab neighbors came when Egypt nationalized 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 UN 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 talk about reconciliation. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on Nov. 15, extended an invitation to the Egyptian leader to address the Knesset in Jerusalem. Sadat's arrival in Israel four days later raised worldwide hopes, but an 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.
Although Israel withdrew its last settlers from the Sinai in April 1982, the fragile Mideast peace was shattered on June 9, 1982, 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, canceled 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 intifada. Violence heightened as Israeli police cracked down and Palestinians retaliated. Continuing Jewish settlement of lands designated for Palestinians has added to the unrest.
In 1988, 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 the landmark Oslo Accord between the PLO and the Israeli government in 1993. The accord stipulated a five-year plan in which Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would gradually become self-governing. Arafat became president of the new Palestinian Authority. In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan; Israel still has no formal agreement with Syria or Lebanon.
On Nov. 4, 1995, Prime Minister Rabin was slain by a Jewish extremist, jeopardizing 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 Accord, contending that it offered too many concessions too fast and jeopardized Israelis' safety.
Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in 1997 were repeatedly undermined by both sides. Although the Hebron Accord was signed in January, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron, the construction of new Jewish settlements on the West Bank in March profoundly upset progress toward peace.
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 Accord. Netanyahu also persisted in authorizing 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 Netanyahu and Arafat settling several important interim issues called for by the 1993 Oslo Accord. The peace agreement, however, began unraveling almost immediately. 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 occupied a security zone set up in 1985 to guard Israel's borders. Public pressure in Israel to withdraw the troops grew.
Labor Party leader Ehud Barak won the 1999 election and announced that he planned not only to pursue peace with the Palestinians, but to establish relations with Syria and end the low-grade war in southern Lebanon with the Iranian-armed Hezbollah guerrillas. In Dec. 1999, Israeli-Syrian talks resumed after a nearly four-year hiatus. 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. Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon on May 24, 2000, after 18 consecutive years of occupation.
Peace talks in July 2000 at Camp David between Barak and Arafat ended unsuccessfully, despite President Clinton's strongest efforts—the status of Jerusalem was the primary sticking point. In September, Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon visited the compound called Temple Mount by Jews and Haram al-Sharif by Muslims, a fiercely contested site that is sacred to both faiths. The visit set off the worst violence in years, killing around 400 people, mostly Palestinians. The violence (dubbed the Al-Aksa intifada) and the stalled peace process fueled growing concerns about Israeli security, paving the way for hard-liner Sharon's stunning landslide victory over Barak in Feb. 2001. Violence on both sides continued at an alarming rate. Palestinians carried out some of the most horrific suicide bombings and terrorist attacks in years (Hamas and the Al-Aksa Martyr Brigade claimed responsibility for the majority of them), killing Israeli civilians at cafés, bus stops, and supermarkets. In retaliation, Israel unleashed bombing raids on Palestinian territory and sent troops and tanks to occupy West Bank and Gaza cities.
In 2003, in an attempt to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israel and the United States resolved to circumvent Arafat, whom Sharon called “irrelevant” and an obstacle. Under U.S. pressure, Arafat reluctantly appointed a prime minister in April, who was to replace him in negotiating the peace process, Mahmoud Abbas, formerly Arafat's second-in-command. On May 1, the “Quartet” (the U.S., UN, EU, and Russia) unfurled the “road map” for peace, which envisioned the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. Although Sharon publicly acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state and Abbas committed himself to ending Palestinian violence, the road map quickly led nowhere by fall 2003, as Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians continued, and Israel stepped up its “targeted killings” of Palestinian militants. Sharon also persisted in building the highly controversial security barrier dividing Israeli and Palestinian areas.
In May 2004, the UN Security Council condemned Israel's attack on the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, the largest Israeli military operation in Gaza in decades. In July, in response to a ruling by Israel's supreme court about the construction of the West Bank barrier, Israel revised the route so that it did not cut into Palestinian land. The UN estimated that the original route would have taken almost 15% of West Bank territory for Israel.
Yasir Arafat's death in Nov. 2004 significantly altered the political landscape. Mahmoud Abbas was easily elected the Palestinian president in Jan. 2005, and at a summit in February, Abbas and Sharon agreed to an unequivocal cease-fire. A continued danger to this cease-fire were Palestinian militant groups, over whom Abbas had little control.
On Aug. 15, the withdrawal of some 8,000 Israeli settlers began. The evacuation involved 21 Gaza settlements as well as 4 of the more isolated of the West Bank's 120 settlements. The majority of Israelis supported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral plan—which he pushed through the Knesset in Oct. 2004—viewing it as Israel's just and humane response toward the Palestinians as well as a significant step toward real security for Israelis. But tens of thousands on the right protested that Sharon, an architect of the settlement movement, had become the agent of Gaza's dismantlement.
While Sharon was lauded for what has arguably been the most significant step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since the Oslo peace accord, the prime minister’s unstated motives in conceding Gaza were generally assumed to be the strengthening of Israel's hold on the West Bank.
Israel's political parties underwent a seismic shift in late Nov. 2005. The Labor Party elected left-leaning Amir Peretz as their new leader, a defeat for long-time leader Shimon Peres. Shortly thereafter Prime Minister Sharon quit the Likud Party—a party he helped found—and formed the new, more centrist Kadima (“Forward”) Party. The Likud Party had largely disapproved of the Gaza withdrawal Sharon sponsored, and he faced increasing discontent from the more right-wing members of the Likud Party. Former prime minister and hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu became Likud's new leader.
In Jan. 2006, Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke that left him critically ill and unable to govern. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister, and in general elections on March 28, Olmert's Kadima Party won the largest number of seats. In May he formed a coalition between the Kadima, Labor, ultra-orthodox Shas, and Pensioners parties.
Israeli-Palestinian relations were thrown into further turmoil when the militant Hamas Party won a stunning and unexpected landslide victory in the January Palestinian parliamentary elections. Although Hamas had been engaged in a cease-fire with Israel for more than a year, it continued to call for Israel's destruction and refused to renounce violence.
In April 2006, Hamas fired rockets into Israeli territory, effectively ending the cease-fire between them. After Hamas militants killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped another on June 25, Israel launched air strikes and sent ground troops into Gaza, destroying its only power plant and three bridges. Fighting continued over the summer, with Hamas firing rockets into Israel, and Israeli troops reoccupying Gaza.
In early July, Israel was involved in war on a second front—which was soon to overshadow the fighting in Gaza—after Hezbollah fighters entered Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12. In response, Israel launched a major military attack, bombing the Lebanese airport and other major infrastructures, as well as parts of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, retaliated by launching hundreds of rockets and missiles into Israel. After a week of fighting, Israel made it clear that its offensive in Lebanon would continue until Hezbollah was routed. Although much of the international community demanded a cease-fire, the United States supported Israel's plan to continue the fighting until Hezbollah was drained of its military power. Hezbollah was thought to have at least 12,000 rockets and missiles, most supplied by Iran, and proved a much more formidable foe than Israel anticipated. An Israeli opinion poll after the first two weeks of fighting indicated that 81% of Israelis supported the continued attack on Lebanon, and 58% wanted the offensive to continue until Hezbollah was destroyed. The UN brokered a tenuous cease-fire on August 14. About 1,150 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 150 Israelis, the majority of them soldiers, died in the 34 days of fighting.
A commission that investigated 2006's war between Israel and Lebanon released a scathing report in April 2007, saying Prime Minister Olmert was responsible for "a severe failure in exercising judgment, responsibility, and prudence." It also said that Olmert rushed to war without an adequate plan. Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former army chief Dan Halutz were also rebuked in the report. Olmert resisted calls for his resignation and survived a no-confidence vote in parliament.
In June 2007, President Moshe Katsav reached a plea deal with the government, agreeing to resign and plead guilty to committing indecent acts without consent, sexual harassment, and harassing a witness. In exchange, the government dropped rape charges against Katsav, who maintained his innocence and said he plead guilty to avoid a long and embarrassing trial. He was accused of raping and sexually assaulting several female coworkers.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak returned to politics in June, having been elected head of the Labor Party. He defeated Parliament member Ami Ayalon. In addition, Shimon Peres, of the Kadima Party, was elected president in June by Parliament. The presidency is a mostly ceremonial post.
Israeli jets fired on targets deep inside Syria in September 2007. American and Israeli intelligence analysts later said that Israel had attacked a partially built nuclear reactor. Several officials wondered aloud if North Korea had played a role in the development of the nuclear plant. Syria denied that any such facilities exist and protested to the United Nations, calling the attack a "violation of sovereignty."
At a Middle East peace conference in November hosted by the United States in Annapolis, Md., Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreed to work together to broker a peace treaty by the end of 2008. "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements,” a joint statement said. “We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations, and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.” Officials from 49 countries attended the conference.
In January 2008, the Winograd Commission released its final report on Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. It called the operation a "large and serious" failure and criticized the country's leadership for failing to have an exit strategy in place before the invasion began. Prime Minister Olmert was spared somewhat, as the commission said that in ordering the invasion, he was acting in "the interest of the state of Israel."