zrl, officially State of Israel, republic (2005 est. pop. 6,277,000, including Israelis in occupied Arab territories), 7,992 sq mi (20,700 sq km), SW Asia, on the Mediterranean Sea. (The area figure used above does not include the Golan Heights or the West Bank, which are occupied by Israel.) It is bordered by Lebanon in the north, Syria and Jordan in the east, the Mediterranean Sea on the west, Egypt on the southwest, and the Gulf of Aqaba (an arm of the Red Sea) on the south. The capital and largest city of Israel is Jerusalem. This article deals primarily with the events in Israel from 1948 to the present. For the earlier history of the region, see Palestine.
The country is a narrow, irregularly shaped strip of land with four principal regions: the plain along the Mediterranean coast; the mountains, which are east of this coastal plain; the Negev, which comprises the southern half of the country; and the portion of Israel that forms part of the Jordan Valley, in turn a part of the Great Rift Valley. North of the Negev, Israel enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with long, hot, dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters. This northern half of the country has a limited but adequate supply of water, except in times of drought. The Negev, however, is a semiarid desert region, having less than 10 in. (25 cm) of rainfall a year.
The most important river in Israel is the Jordan. Other smaller rivers are the Yarkon, the Kishon, and the Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan. Other bodies of water include the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea (part of which belongs to neighboring Jordan). Owing to interior drainage and a high rate of evaporation, the waters of the Dead Sea have about eight times as much salt as the ocean.
The highest point in Israel is Mt. Meron (3,692 ft/1,125 m) near Zefat. The lowest point is the shore of the Dead Sea, which is 1,345 ft (410 m) below sea level, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. In addition to Jerusalem, other important cities include Tel AvivJaffa (see separate entries on Tel Aviv, Jaffa), Haifa, Beersheba, and Netanya).
Israel proper is made up of about 82% Jews, about 16% Arabs, and 2% Druze and others. While the Jewish population as of 1948 consisted mostly of those from central and E Europe (not including Russia), Jews from African and Asian countries came in increasing numbers after 1948 and now constitute a majority of the Jewish population. Around 500,000 Russian Jews have arrived in recent years, as have most of the small population of Ethiopian Jews (see Falashas). The Arab population is primarily Sunni Muslim; a smaller proportion are Christians. Hebrew is the official language. Arabic is spoken by the Arab minority and English is widely used. Israel has major universities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, and Rehovot, as well as many smaller institutes of higher education located throughout the country.
The economy of Israel is based on both state and private ownership and operation. Despite adverse conditions, agriculture in Israel has been developed successfully, largely by extensive irrigation to compensate for the shortage of rainfall. Agricultural exports include citrus fruits, cut flowers, non-citrus fruits, and vegetables. Other sizable crops are cotton, wheat, barley, peanuts, sunflowers, grapes, and olives. Poultry and livestock are raised. Agricultural production adds up to roughly 5% of Israel’s gross national product and of its exports.
Most of the land (apart from the land belonging to non-Jews) is held in trust for the people of Israel by the state and the Jewish National Fund. The latter was set up in 1901 to buy land in Palestine for Jews to cultivate, and now implements a wide range of forest and land development activities. The Israel Land Authority leases the land to kibbutzim, which are communal agricultural settlements; to moshavim, which are cooperative agricultural communities; and to other agricultural or rural villages.
The major industries include the cutting and polishing of diamonds and the manufacture of chemical fertilizers, apparel, and military and electronic equipment. High-technology industries are Israel’s fastest-growing businesses, with emphasis on computers, software, telecommunications, biotechnology, and medical electronics. A number of light industries produce processed foods, precision instruments, and plastic goods. The Dead Sea has minerals of commercial value, such as potash, magnesium, bromine, and salt.
Another major industry is tourism, which is one of Israel’s largest sources of revenue. The government decided to privatize El Al, Israel’s international airline, in 1998. Two nuclear reactors exist: one near Tel Aviv, and another near Dimona in the Negev, the site of research on using atomic energy for the production of electricity and the desalination of seawater. Dimona has also been credited with nuclear weapons capacities.
Processed diamonds, high-technology and military products, and agricultural products are the major exports, followed by chemicals, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and apparel. The leading imports are military equipment, machinery, rough diamonds, crude oil, chemicals, transport equipment, iron and steel, and cereals. Although Israel imports more than it exports, the balance of trade is far more favorable now than it was in the early years of the state. Israel’s chief trading partners are the United States and nations in the European Union, especially Britain and Germany.
Israel has no constitution; it is governed under the 1948 Declaration of Establishment as well as parliamentary and citizenship laws. The government consists of a legislature (the Knesset), a president, a prime minister, and the cabinet. The Knesset has a single chamber with 120 seats. The president is elected by the Knesset. The prime minister appoints a cabinet that must be approved by the Knesset; both are responsible to the Knesset. The country is divided into six administrative districts ( mezoh ).
Israel has an intricate party system with a large number of small parties. The two largest are left-of center Labor party, formed in 1968 by the merger of Mapai (founded 1930), Achdut Avoda (1944), and Rafi (1965), and the center-right Likud bloc, consisting of Gahal (the Herut Movement and the Israel Liberal party), the former Free Center party, and other factions.
The state of Israel is the culmination of nearly a century of activity in Zionism. Following World War I, Great Britain received (1922) Palestine as a mandate from the League of Nations. The struggle by Jews for a Jewish state in Palestine had begun in the late 19th cent. and had become quite active by the 1930s and 40s. The militant opposition of the Arabs to such a state and the inability of the British to solve the problem eventually led to the establishment (1947) of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which devised a plan to divide Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a small internationally administered zone including Jerusalem. The General Assembly adopted the recommendations on Nov. 29, 1947. The Jews accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it. As the British began to withdraw early in 1948, Arabs and Jews prepared for war.
On May 14, 1948, when the British high commissioner for Palestine departed, the state of Israel was proclaimed at Tel Aviv. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq invaded Israel, as most Palestinian Arabs were driven from Jewish territory. By the time armistice agreements were reached (Jan., 1949), Israel had increased its holdings by about one-half. Jordan annexed the Arab-held area adjoining its territory, and Egypt occupied the coastal Gaza Strip in the southwest.
A government was formed at Tel Aviv, with Chaim Weizmann as president and David Ben-Gurion as prime minister. The capital was moved (Dec., 1949) to Jerusalem to strengthen Israel’s claim to that city. Following the Lausanne Conference of 1949, Israel allowed the return of 150,000 Arab refugees, mostly to reunite families. One major aim of the government was to gather in all Jews who wished to immigrate to Israel. This led to the 1950 Law of the Return, which provided for free and automatic citizenship for all immigrant Jews. Border incidents with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan continued.
Trouble in the Gaza area reached new heights in the mid-1950s despite UN intervention, and in 1956, Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel made a preemptive attack on Egyptian territory and within a few days had conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula, while Britain and France invaded the area of the Suez Canal. Israel eventually yielded to strong pressure from the United States, the USSR, and the United Nations and removed its troops from Sinai in Nov., 1956, and from Gaza by Mar., 1957, as UN forces were sent to the Sinai and Gaza to keep peace between Egypt and Israel. Through this war, Israel succeeded in keeping open its shipping lanes via Elat and the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea.
In 1962, Israel became the scene of the celebrated trial of Adolf Eichmann. In 1963, Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister and was succeeded in that office by Levi Eshkol. Eshkol had to cope with increased guerrilla incursions into Israel from Syria and the shelling of Israeli villages by the Syrian army from the Golan Heights.
In May, 1967, Nasser mobilized the Egyptian army in Sinai. The UN then acceded to his demand to withdraw from the Israeli-Egyptian border, where it had been stationed since 1956. Egypt next blockaded the Israeli port of Elat (on the Gulf of Aqaba) by closing the Strait of Tiran.
On June 5, 1967, Israel struck against Egypt and Syria; Jordan subsequently attacked Israel. In six days, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, the Golan Heights of Syria, and the West Bank and Arab sector of E Jerusalem (both under Jordanian rule), thereby giving the conflict the name of the Six-Day War. Israel unified the Arab and Israeli sectors of Jerusalem, and Arab guerrillas stepped up their incursions, operating largely from Jordan. After Eshkol’s death in 1969, Golda Meir became prime minister. There followed an inconclusive period when there was neither peace nor war in the area.
On Oct. 6, 1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Other Arab states sent contingents of soldiers to aid in the attack on Israel. Egypt succeeded in sending troops in force across the Suez Canal to the east bank before being halted by Israeli troops. Toward the end of the fighting, the Israelis managed to send their own troops across the Suez Canal to the west bank, encircling Egypt’s Third Army on the east bank and clearing a path to Cairo. They also drove the Syrians even further back toward Damascus. A cease-fire called for by the UN Security Council on Oct. 22 and 23 went into effect shortly thereafter.
In Dec., 1973, the first Arab-Israeli peace conference opened in Geneva, Switzerland, under UN auspices. An agreement to disengage Israeli and Egyptian forces was reached in Jan., 1974, largely through the shuttle diplomacy mediation of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Israeli troops withdrew several miles into the Sinai, a UN buffer zone was established, and Egyptian forces reoccupied the east bank of the Suez Canal and a small, adjoining strip of land in the Sinai. A similar agreement between Israel and Syria was achieved in May, 1974, again through the efforts of Kissinger. Under its terms, Israeli forces evacuated the Syrian lands captured in the 1973 war (while continuing to hold most of the territory conquered in 1967, such as the Golan Heights) and a UN buffer zone was created.
Golda Meir resigned and was succeeded (1974) by Yitzhak Rabin, who formed a coalition government. In 1977, the Likud party under the leadership of Menachem Begin defeated the Labor party for the first time in Israeli elections. As prime minister, Begin strongly supported the development of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories and opposed Palestinian sovereignty.
Egypt began peace initiatives with Israel in late 1977, when Egyptian President Sadat visited Jerusalem. A year later, with the help of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, terms of peace between Egypt and Israel were negotiated at Camp David, Md. (see Camp David accords). A formal treaty, signed on Mar. 26, 1979, in Washington, D.C., granted full recognition of Israel by Egypt, opened trade relations between the two countries, returned the Sinai to Egyptian control (completed in 1982), and limited Egyptian military buildup in the Sinai.
Israeli troops briefly invaded (1979) Lebanon in an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases and forces used in raids on N Israel. On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in a second attempt. Israeli troops advanced to Beirut and surrounded the western part of the city, which housed PLO headquarters, and a siege ensued. Israeli troops began a gradual move out of Lebanon (completed in 1985) after PLO forces withdrew from Beirut. A 6-mi (10-km) deep security zone within S Lebanon was established to protect N Israeli settlements.
Begin had been returned to office in 1981, but he resigned in 1983 and was replaced by Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir. Undecisive majorities in the 1984 elections led to a sharing of the prime ministership by Shamir and Shimon Peres of the Labor party. Shamir, who regained sole prime ministership after the 1988 elections, strongly upheld the policy of increased Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. Large numbers of emigrants from Ethiopia and, primarily, the Soviet Union increased Israel’s population by nearly 10% in three years (198992), leading to increased unemployment and a lack of housing.
In Dec., 1987, a popular Arab uprising (Intifada) began against Israeli rule in the occupied territories. During the Persian Gulf War in early 1991, Israel suffered Iraqi missile attacks, as Iraq unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the allied coalition and widen the war. Peace talks between Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation began in Aug., 1991.
Rabin reentered the political scene in 1992, becoming prime minister after the defeat of the Likud party and the establishment of a Labor-led coalition. He pursued Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, in which significant progress was made. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed an accord providing for joint recognition and for limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. In 1995, Israel and the PLO agreed on a transition to Palestinian self-rule in most of the West Bank, although acts of terrorism continued to darken Israeli-Palestinian relations. In 1994 a treaty with Jordan ended the 46-year-old state of war between the two nations.
In Nov., 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist who opposed the West Bank peace accord with the PLO; Peres, who was foreign minister, became prime minister. In early 1996, Israel was hit by a series of suicide bombs, and Shiite Muslims launched rocket attacks into Israel from Lebanon. Retaliating, Israel blockaded the port of Beirut and launched a series of attacks on targets in S Lebanon.
The 1996 elections, in which the prime minister was elected directly for the first time, resulted in a narrow victory for Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed Labor’s land-for-peace deals. In an attempt to allay fears about Israel’s future policies, Netanyahu pledged to continue the peace process. After setbacks and delays, most of Hebron was handed over to Palestinian control in Jan., 1997, and, under an accord signed in 1998, Israel agreed to withdraw from additional West Bank territory, while the Palestinian Authority pledged to take stronger measures to fight terrorism. Further negotiations over territory, however, were essentially stalled.
In the May, 1999, elections, Labor returned to power under Ehud Barak, a former army chief of staff. He formed a broad-based coalition government, promising to ease tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, as well as to move the peace process forward. In September, Barak and Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, signed an agreement to finalize their borders and determine the status of Jerusalem within a year; Israel also began implementation of a plan to hand over additional West Bank territory, which was completed in Mar., 2000.
Barak’s coalition was weakened in May, 2000, when three right-of-center parties pulled out of the government. In the same month, Israeli forces withdrew from the buffer zone that had long been maintained in S Lebanon. In July, negotiations in the United States between Israel and the Palestinians ended without success, and Israeli-Palestinian relations turned extremely acrimonious when a September visit by Ariel Sharon to the Haram esh-Sherif (the Temple Mount to Jews) in Jerusalem sparked riots that escalated into a new, ongoing cycle of violence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel itself. Barak resigned in Dec., 2000, in an attempt to reestablish a electoral mandate, but he was trounced in the Feb., 2001, election by Ariel Sharon, who formed a national unity government.
Despite Israeli military incursions into Palestinian territory and attacks on Palestinian authorities and forces, Palestinian attacks on Israelis in Israel and the occupied territories did not end, and in 2002 Sharon’s government ordered the reoccupation of West Bank towns in a new attempt to stop those attacks. In Oct., 2002, Labor members of the government accused Sharon of favoring Israeli settlers in the occupied territories over the poor, and withdrew their support. Left with a minority government, Sharon called for parliamentary elections in early 2003, and in January Likud won a substantial victory at the polls. The following month Sharon formed a four-party, mainly right-wing coalition government.
In May, 2003, Sharon’s government accepted the internationally supported road map for peace with some limitations; the plan envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state in three years. Talks resumed with Palestinian authorities, who also negotiated a three-month cease-fire with Palestinian militants, and Israel made some conciliatory moves in Gaza and the West Bank. Suicide bombings and Israeli revenge attacks resumed, however, in August, and in October Israel attacked Syria for the first time in 20 years, bombing what it termed a terrorist training camp in retaliation for suicide bombings.
Israel’s ongoing construction of a 400-mi (640-km) fence and wall security barrier in the West Bank, potentially enclosing some 15% of that territory, brought widespread international condemnation in late 2003, and a July, 2004, advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (requested by Palestinians and the UN General Assembly) termed its construction illegal under international law because it was being constructed on Palestinian lands. Meanwhile, an Israeli court ruling (June) ordered the wall to be rerouted in certain areas because of the hardship it would cause Palestinians.
In March the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin heightened tensions in the occupied territories, especially the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the latter, while supported by most Israelis, was rejected in a nonbinding vote (May, 2004) by Likud party members. The plan then resulted in defections from his coalition, but Sharon vowed to complete the withdrawal, which was being undertaken for security reasons, by the end of 2005. In Oct., 2004, he secured parliamentary approval for the plan. The plan also called for abandoning a few settlements in the West Bank while expanding others there. Sharon formed a new coalition that included the Labor party, which supported the Gaza withdrawal, in Jan., 2005. He subsequently agreed to a truce with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and in Mar., 2005, Israeli forces began withdrawing from Jericho and other West Bank towns. The planned Gaza withdrawal sparked protests by settlers and their allies beginning in June, but in August the evacuation of the settlements proceeded relatively straightforwardly. Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza the following month.
In Nov., 2005, Shimon Peres lost his Labor party leadership post to Amir Peretz, a trade union leader. Peretz pulled Labor from the government, prompting new elections, and Sharon withdrew from Likud to form the centrist Kadima [Forward] party, in an attempt to force a realignment of Israeli politics and retain the prime ministership. In Jan., 2006, however, Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke and was hospitalized. Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, became acting prime minister and leader of the new party.
The Kadima party won a plurality in the Mar., 2006, elections, with Labor placing second. In April, Sharon was declared permanently incapacitated; Olmert became prime minister, and in May formed a new coalition government. Escalating rocket attacks from Gaza and the capture by Hamas guerrillas of an Israeli soldier led to an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in June, 2006, as well as other actions against Hamas and the Palestinians. Israel continue to mount attacks into Gaza in the succeeding months.
In July, Lebanese Hezbollah forces captured two Israeli soldiers, and Israel launched air attacks against targets throughout Lebanon and sent troops as far as 18.5 mi (30 km) into S Lebanon; Hezbollah responded mainly with rocket attacks against N Israel, including Haifa and Tiberias, but also offered resistance on the ground against Israeli forces. A UN-mediated cease-fire took effect in mid-August, and by early October Israel had essentially withdrawn from Lebanon. The invasion’s aim of disarming Hezbollah and winning the release of the captured Israeli soldiers was in the main unattained, and Hezbollah’s sustained resistance to Israeli forces enhanced the group’s prestige in the Arab world. Amnesty International accused both sides of war crimes in the fighting, mainly because of their attacks on civilians.
As a result of the fighting in Gaza and Lebanon and the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, Olmert suspended his planned unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, and brought (Oct,. 2006) a far-right party into his government to strengthen the coalition in the Knesset. Also in October, Israeli police accused Israeli President Moshe Katsav of sexual assault and other crimes, prompting an investigation and leading to calls for Katsav to resign (which he refused to do). The Israeli group Peace Now asserted in November that, according to government documents, nearly 40% (and perhaps more) of the land on which Israel’s West Bank settlements were built was privately owned Palestinian land, in violation of Israeli law. More current information given by the government to the group in Mar., 2007, indicated that private land made up more than 30% of the settlements but did not indicate how much was Palestinian-owned (the vast bulk of the private land in the first set of documents was Palestinian).
In Jan., 2007, the head of the Israeli armed forces resigned, taking responsibility for the unsuccessful anti-Hezbollah campaign of 2006; his resignation led the opposition to call for the prime minister and defense minister to resign as well. (An independent report, released in Apr., 2007, was critical of the prime minister’s and defense minister’s handling of the invasion.) Late in Jan., 2007, Katsav secured a suspension of his duties as president after Israel’s attorney general said he was considering charging Katsav with rape and other crimes; a plea deal in June allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid prison but forced him to resign. Shimon Peres was elected president earlier the same month.
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Israel – The Washington Post