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Israel

Related subjects Middle Eastern Countries

מדינת ישראל
Medīnat Yisrā'el
دولة إسرائيل
Dawlat Isrā'īl
State of Israel
Flag of Israel Image:COA of Israel.svg
Flag Emblem
Anthem:  Hatikvah
The Hope
Location of Israel
Capital
(and largest city)
Jerusalem
Official languages Hebrew, Arabic
Demonym Israeli
Government Parliamentary democracy
 -  President Shimon Peres
 -  Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Independence from UK-administered League of Nations mandate 
 -  Declaration 14 May 1948 (05 Iyar 5708) 
Area
 -  Total 1 20,770 / 22,072 km² ( 151st)
8,019 / 8,522  sq mi 
 -  Water (%) ~2%
Population
 -  2007 estimate 7,184,0002 ( 96th)
 -  1995 census 5,548,523 
 -  Density 324/km² ( 34th)
839/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2007 estimate
 -  Total $232.7 billion ( 44rd)
 -  Per capita $33,299 ( 22th)
Gini (2005) 38.6 
HDI (2007) 0.932 (high) ( 23rd)
Currency New Israeli Sheqel (₪) ( NIS)
Time zone IST ( UTC+2)
 -  Summer ( DST)  ( UTC+3)
Internet TLD .il
Calling code +972
1 Excluding / Including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem; see below.
2 Includes Israeli population in the West Bank.

Israel (Hebrew: יִשְרָאֵל‎, Yisra'el; Arabic: إسرائيل‎, Isrā'īl((u); Russian: Израиль, Izrá'il'), officially the State of Israel (Hebrew: מְדִינַת יִשְרָאֵל , Medinat Yisra'el; Arabic: دَوْلَةْ إِسْرَائِيل‎, Dawlat Isrā'īl), is a country in Southwest Asia located on the southeastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It has borders with Lebanon in the north, Syria and Jordan in the east, and Egypt on the southwest, and contains geographically diverse features within its relatively small area. The West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are partially administrated by the Palestinian National Authority, are also adjacent. With a population of about 7.2 million, the majority of whom are Jews, Israel is the world's only Jewish state. It is also home to Arab Muslims, Christians and Druze, as well as other religious and ethnic minority groups. Jerusalem is the nation's capital, seat of government, and largest city.

The modern state of Israel has its roots in the Land of Israel, a concept central to Judaism for over three thousand years. After World War I, the League of Nations approved the British Mandate for Palestine with the intent of creating a "national home for the Jewish people". In 1947, the United Nations approved the partition of the Mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Arab League rejected the plan, but on May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. The new country's victory in the subsequent Arab-Israeli War expanded the borders of the Jewish state beyond those in the UN Partition Plan. Since then, Israel has been in conflict with many of the neighboring Arab countries, resulting in several major wars and decades of violence. Since its foundation, Israel's boundaries and even the State's very right to exist have been subject to dispute, although Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and efforts are being made to reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians.

Unlike most countries in the Middle East, Israel is a liberal democracy and a developed country. It has also been ranked as the most progressive Middle Eastern country in terms of freedom of the press, economic competition, and human development.

Etymology

Over the past three thousand years, the name "Israel" has meant in common and religious usage both the Land of Israel and the entire Jewish nation. The name originated from a verse in the Bible ( Genesis, 32:28) where Jacob is renamed Israel after successfully wrestling with an angel of God. Commentators differ on the meaning of the name. Some say the name comes from the verb śarar ("to rule, be strong, have authority over"), thereby making the name mean "God rules" or "God judges". Other possible meanings include "the prince of God" (from the King James Version) or " El fights/struggles". Regardless of the precise meaning of the name, the biblical nation fathered by Jacob thus became the " Children of Israel" or the " Israelites".

The first historical mention of the word "Israel" is in the Merneptah Stele of ancient Egypt (dated the late 13th century BCE), although scholars disagree on whether it refers to a people or a homeland. The modern country was named Medinat Yisrael, or the State of Israel, after other proposed names, including Eretz Israel ("the Land of Israel"), Zion, and Judea, were rejected. In the early weeks of independence, the government chose the term " Israeli" to denote a citizen of Israel, with the formal announcement made by Minister of Foreign Affairs Moshe Sharett.

History

Early roots

The Land of Israel, known in Hebrew as Eretz Yisrael, has been sacred to the Jewish people since the time of the biblical patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible has placed this period in the early 2nd millennium BCE. According to the Torah, the Land of Israel was promised to the Jews as their homeland, and the sites holiest to Judaism are located there. Around the 11th century BCE, the first of a series of Jewish kingdoms and states established rule over the region; these Jewish kingdoms and states ruled intermittently for the following one thousand years.

Between the time of the Jewish kingdoms and the 7th-century Muslim conquests, the Land of Israel fell under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Sassanian, and Byzantine rule. Jewish presence in the region dwindled after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 CE and the resultant large-scale expulsion of Jews. Nevertheless, a continuous Jewish presence in Palestine was maintained, although the main Jewish population shifted from the Judea region to the Galilee; the Mishna and part of the Talmud, among Judaism's most important religious texts, were composed in Israel during this period. The Land of Israel was captured from the Byzantine Empire around 636 CE during the initial Muslim conquests. Control of the region transferred between the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Crusaders over the next six centuries, before falling in the hands of the Mamluk Sultanate, in 1260. In 1516, the Land of Israel became a part of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region until the 20th century.

Zionism and the British Mandate

Aliyah to Israel and settlement
Pre-Zionist Aliyah
  • The Return to Zion
  • The Old Yishuv

Prior to the founding of Israel
  • First Aliyah
  • Second Aliyah
  • During WWI
  • Third Aliyah
  • Fourth Aliyah
  • Fifth Aliyah
  • During and after WWII
  • Berihah

After the founding of Israel
  • Operation Magic Carpet
  • Operation Ezra and Nehemiah
  • Jewish exodus from Arab lands
  • Polish aliyah in 1968
  • Aliyah from the Soviet Union in the 1970s
  • Aliyah from Ethiopia
  • Aliyah from the Commonwealth of Independent States in the 1990s
  • Aliyah from Latin America in the 2000s

Related topics

Jewish history • Jewish diaspora • History of the Jews in the Land of Israel • Yishuv • History of Zionism ( Timeline) • Revival of Hebrew language • Religious Zionism • Haredim and Zionism • Anti-Zionism


Jews living in the Diaspora have long aspired to return to Zion and the Land of Israel. That hope and yearning was articulated in the Bible and is a central theme in the Jewish prayer book. Beginning in the twelfth century, a small but steady stream of Jews began to leave Europe to settle in the Holy Land, increasing in numbers after Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. During the 16th century large communities struck roots in the Four Holy Cities, and in the second half of the 18th century, entire Hasidic communities from eastern Europe settled in the Holy Land.

Theodor Herzl, visionary of the Jewish State
Theodor Herzl, visionary of the Jewish State

The first large wave of modern immigration, known as the First Aliyah (Hebrew: עלייה), began in 1881, as Jews fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. While the Zionist movement already existed in theory, Theodor Herzl is credited with founding political Zionism, a movement which sought to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, by elevating the Jewish Question to the international plane. In 1896, Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), offering his vision of a future state; the following year he presided over the first World Zionist Congress.

The Second Aliyah (1904–1914), began after the Kishinev Pogrom. Some 40,000 Jews settled in Palestine. Both the first and second waves of migrants were mainly Orthodox Jews, but those in the Second Aliyah included socialist pioneers who established the kibbutz movement. During World War I, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration, which "view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The Jewish Legion, a group of battalions composed primarily of Zionist volunteers, assisted in the British conquest of Israel. Arab opposition to the plan led to the 1920 Palestine riots and the formation of the Jewish defense organization known as the Haganah, from which the Irgun and Lehi split off. In 1922, the League of Nations granted Great Britain, a mandate over Palestine for the express purpose of "placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home".

Jewish immigration continued with the Third Aliyah (1919–1923) and Fourth Aliyah (1924–1929), which together brought 100,000 Jews to Palestine. In the wake of the Jaffa riots in the early days of the Mandate, the British restricted Jewish immigration and territory slated for the Jewish state was allocated to Transjordan. The rise of Nazism in the 1930s led to the Fifth Aliyah, with an influx of a quarter of a million Jews. This influx resulted in the Arab revolt of 1936–1939 and led the British to cap immigration with the White Paper of 1939. With countries around the world turning away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, a clandestine movement known as Aliyah Bet was organized to bring Jews to Palestine. By the end of World War II, Jews accounted for 33% of the population of Palestine, up from 11% in 1922.

Independence and first years

David Ben-Gurion proclaiming Israeli independence on May 14, 1948 below a portrait of Herzl
David Ben-Gurion proclaiming Israeli independence on May 14, 1948 below a portrait of Herzl

In 1947, the British government withdrew from commitment to the Mandate of Palestine, stating it was unable to arrive at a solution acceptable to both Arabs and Jews. The newly-created United Nations approved the UN Partition Plan (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181) on November 29, 1947, dividing the country into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Jerusalem was to be designated an international city – a corpus separatum – administered by the UN to avoid conflict over its status. The Jewish community accepted the plan, but the Arab League and Arab Higher Committee rejected it.

Regardless, the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, one day before the expiry of the British Mandate for Palestine. Not long after, five Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – attacked Israel, launching the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After almost a year of fighting, a ceasefire was declared and temporary borders, known as the Green Line, were instituted. Jordan annexed what became known as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. Israel was admitted as a member of the United Nations on May 11, 1949. During the course of the hostilities, 711,000 Arabs, according to UN estimates, fled from Israel. The fate of the Palestinian refugees today is a major point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the early years of the state, the Labor Zionist movement led by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion dominated Israeli politics. These years were marked by mass immigration of Holocaust survivors and Jews fleeing Arab lands; the population rose from 800,000 to two million between 1948 and 1958. Most arrived as refugees with no possessions and were housed in temporary camps known as ma'abarot. By 1952, over two hundred thousand immigrants were living in these tent cities. The need to solve the crisis led Ben-Gurion to sign a reparations agreement with West Germany that triggered mass protests by Jews angered at the idea of Israel "doing business" with Germany.

Image:Eichmann2.jpg
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem

During the 1950s, Israel was frequently attacked by Arab fedayeen, mainly from the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip. In 1956, Israel joined a secret alliance with Great Britain and France aimed at recapturing the Suez Canal, which the Egyptians had nationalized (see the Suez Crisis). Despite capturing the Sinai Peninsula, Israel was forced to retreat due to pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union in return for guarantees of Israeli shipping rights in the Red Sea and the Canal.

At the start of the following decade, Israel captured Adolf Eichmann, an implementer of the Final Solution hiding in Argentina, and brought him to trial. The trial had a major impact on public awareness of the Holocaust and to date Eichmann remains the only person sentenced to death by Israeli courts.

Conflicts and peace treaties

In 1967, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria massed troops close to Israeli borders, expelled UN peacekeepers and blocked Israel's access to the Red Sea. Israel saw these actions as a casus belli for a pre-emptive strike that launched the Six-Day War, during which it captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. The 1949 Green Line became the administrative boundary between Israel and the occupied territories. Jerusalem's boundaries were enlarged, incorporating East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Law, passed in 1980, reaffirmed this measure and reignited international controversy over the status of Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Golda Meir, who resigned following the Yom Kippur War
Prime Minister Golda Meir, who resigned following the Yom Kippur War

In the early 1970s, Palestinian groups launched a wave of attacks against Israeli targets around the world, including a massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Israel responded with Operation Wrath of God, in which those responsible for the Munich massacre were tracked down and assassinated. On October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack against Israel. The war ended on October 26 with Israel successfully repelling Egyptian and Syrian forces but suffering great losses. An internal inquiry exonerated the government of responsibility for the war, but public anger forced Prime Minister Golda Meir to resign.

The 1977 Knesset elections marked a major turning point in Israeli political history as Menachem Begin's Likud party took control from the Labor Party. Later that year, Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat made a trip to Israel and spoke before the Knesset in what was the first recognition of Israel by an Arab head of state. In the two years that followed, Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and agreed to enter negotiations over an autonomy for Palestinians across the Green Line, a plan which was never implemented.

In 1982, Israel intervened in the Lebanese Civil War to destroy the bases from which the Palestine Liberation Organization launched attacks and missiles at northern Israel. That move developed into the First Lebanon War. Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1986, but maintained a borderland buffer zone until 2000. The First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, broke out in 1987 with waves of violence occurring in the occupied territories. Over the following six years, more than a thousand people were killed in the ensuing violence, much of which was internal Palestinian violence. During the 1991 Gulf War, the PLO and many Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein and Iraqi missile attacks against Israel.

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, presided over by Bill Clinton, at the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993
Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, presided over by Bill Clinton, at the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993

In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin became Prime Minister following an election in which his party promoted compromise with Israel's neighbors. The following year, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, on behalf of Israel and the PLO, signed the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinian National Authority the right to self-govern parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in return for recognition of Israel's right to exist and an end to terrorism. In 1994, the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace was signed, making Jordan the second Arab country to normalize relations with Israel. Public support for the Accords waned as Israel was struck by a wave of attacks from Palestinians. The November 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a far-right-wing Jew, as he left a peace rally, shocked the country. At the end of the 1990s, Israel, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, withdrew from Hebron and signed the Wye River Memorandum, giving greater control to the Palestinian National Authority.

Ehud Barak, elected Prime Minister in 1999, began the new millennium by withdrawing forces from Southern Lebanon and conducting negotiations with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton at the July 2000 Camp David Summit. During the summit, Barak offered a plan for the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Yasser Arafat rejected it. After the collapse of the talks, Palestinians began the Second Intifada.

Ariel Sharon soon after became the new prime minister in a 2001 special election. During his tenure, Sharon carried out his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and also spearheaded the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier. In January 2006, after Ariel Sharon suffered a severe hemorrhagic stroke which left him in a coma, the powers of office were transferred to Ehud Olmert. The kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah and the shelling of settlements on Israel's northern border led to a five-week war, known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War. The conflict was brought to end by a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations. After the war, Israel's Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, resigned.

On November 27, 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to begin negotiations on all issues, and to make every effort reach an agreement by the end of 2008.

Geography and climate

Negev Desert landscape
Negev Desert landscape

Israel is located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, bounded by Lebanon to the north, Syria and Jordan to the east, and Egypt to the southwest. The sovereign territory of Israel, excluding all territories captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, is approximately 20,770 square kilometers (8,019 sq mi) in area, of which two percent is water. The total area under Israeli law, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, is 22,072 square kilometers (8,522 sq mi). The total area under Israeli control, including the military-controlled and Palestinian-governed territory of the West Bank, is 27,799 square kilometers (10,733 sq mi).

Despite its small size, Israel is home to a variety of geographic features, from the Negev desert in the south to the mountain ranges of the Galilee, Carmel, and the Golan in the north. The Israeli Coastal Plain on the shores of the Mediterranean is home to seventy percent of the nation's population. East of the central highlands lies the Jordan Rift Valley, which forms a small part of the 6,500-kilometer (4,040-mi) Great Rift Valley. The Jordan River runs along the Jordan Rift Valley, from Mount Hermon through the Hulah Valley and the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the surface of the Earth. Unique to Israel and the Sinai Peninsula are makhteshim, or erosion cirques. The largest makhtesh in the world is Ramon Crater in the Negev, which measures 40 kilometers by 8 kilometers (25 mi by 5 mi).

Temperatures in Israel vary widely, especially during the winter. The more mountainous regions can be windy, cold, and sometimes snowy; Mount Hermon's peak is covered with snow most of the year and Jerusalem usually receives at least one snowfall each year. Meanwhile, coastal cities, such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, have a typical Mediterranean climate with cool, rainy winters and long, hot summers. From May to September, rain in Israel is rare. With scarce water resources, Israel has developed various water-saving technologies, including drip irrigation. Israelis also take advantage of the considerable sunlight available for solar energy; making Israel the leading nation in solar energy use per capita.

Government and politics

The Knesset, home of the Israeli parliament
The Knesset, home of the Israeli parliament

Israel operates under a parliamentary system as a democratic country with universal suffrage. The President of Israel is the head of state, but his duties are largely ceremonial. A Parliament Member supported by a majority in parliament becomes the Prime Minister, usually the chairman of the largest party. The Prime Minister is the head of government and head of the Cabinet. Israel is governed by a 120-member parliament, known as the Knesset. Membership in the Knesset is based on proportional representation of political parties. Parliamentary elections are held every four years, but the Knesset can dissolve the government at any time by a no-confidence vote. The Basic Laws of Israel function as an unwritten constitution. In 2003, the Knesset began to draft an official constitution based on these laws.

Israel has a three-tier court system. At the lowest level are magistrate courts, situated in most cities across the country. Above them are district courts, serving both as appellate courts and courts of first instance; they are situated in five of Israel's six districts. The third and highest tier in Israel is the Supreme Court, seated in Jerusalem. It serves a dual role as the highest court of appeals and the High Court of Justice. In the latter role, the Supreme Court rules as a court of first instance, allowing individuals, both citizens and non-citizens, to petition against decisions of state authorities. Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court as it fears the court would be biased against it due to political pressure. Israel's legal system combines English common law, civil law, and Jewish law. It is based on the principle of stare decisis (precedent) and is an adversarial system, where the parties in the suit bring evidence before the court. Court cases are decided by professional judges rather than juries. Marriage and divorce are under the jurisdiction of the religious courts: Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian. A committee of Knesset members, Supreme Court justices, and Israeli Bar members carries out the election of judges.

Districts of Israel: (1) Northern, (2) Haifa, (3) Center, (4) Tel Aviv, (5) Jerusalem, (6) Southern
Districts of Israel: (1)  Northern, (2)  Haifa, (3)  Centre, (4)  Tel Aviv, (5)  Jerusalem, (6)  Southern

The Israeli Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty seeks to defend human rights and liberties. Israel is the only country in the region ranked "Free" by Freedom House based on the level of civil and political rights; the "Israeli Occupied Territories/Palestinian Authority" was ranked "Not Free." Similarly, Reporters Without Borders rated Israel 50th out of 168 countries in terms of freedom of the press and highest among Middle Eastern countries. Nevertheless, groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have often disapproved of Israel's human rights record in regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel's civil liberties also allow for self-criticism, from groups such as B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Israel's system of socialized medicine, which guarantees equal health care to all residents of the country, was anchored in law in 1995.

Administrative districts

The State of Israel is divided into six main administrative districts, known as mehozot (מחוזות; singular: mahoz) – Centre District, Haifa District, Jerusalem District, Northern District, Southern District, and Tel Aviv District. Districts are further divided into fifteen sub-districts known as nafot (נפות; singular: nafa), which are themselves partitioned into fifty natural regions. For statistical purposes, the country is divided into three metropolitan areas Tel Aviv and Gush Dan (population 3,150,000), Haifa (population 996,000), and Beersheba (population 531,600). However, Israel's largest city, both in population and area, is Jerusalem with 732,100 residents in an area of 126 square kilometers (49 sq mi). Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Rishon LeZion rank as Israel's next most populous cities, with populations of 384,600, 267,000, and 222,300 respectively.

Occupied territories

A road crossing the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem
A road crossing the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem

The Israeli-occupied territories – the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights – are the areas Israel captured from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six-Day War. The term was also used to describe the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Following Israel's capture of these territories, settlements consisting of Israeli citizens were established within each of them. Israel has applied civilian law to the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, incorporating them into its territory and offering their inhabitants Israeli citizenship. In contrast, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have remained under military occupation, and are widely seen – by Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community alike – as the site of a future Palestinian state. Most negotiations relating to the territories have been on the basis of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories in return for peaceful actions from Arab states (see Land for peace).

The West Bank and the Gaza Strip both have populations consisting primarily of Arab Palestinians, including historic residents of the territories and refugees of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. From their occupation in 1967 until 1993, the Palestinians living in these territories were under Israeli military administration. Since the Israel-PLO letters of recognition, most of the Palestinian population and cities have been under the internal jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, and only partial Israeli military control, although Israel has on several occasions redeployed its troops and reinstated full military administration during periods of unrest. In response to increasing attacks as part of the Second Intifada, the Israeli government started to construct the Israeli West Bank barrier, which opponents note is partially built within the West Bank. In 2005, Israel removed all of its residents and forces in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank as part of its unilateral disengagement plan.

Foreign relations

Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, presenting U.S. President Harry S. Truman with a Torah scroll in 1948
Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, presenting U.S. President Harry S. Truman with a Torah scroll in 1948

Israel maintains diplomatic relations with 161 countries and has 94 diplomatic missions around the world. Only three members of the Arab League have normalized relations with Israel; Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties in 1979 and 1994, respectively, and Mauritania opted for full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999. Two other members of the Arab League, Morocco and Tunisia, which had some diplomatic relations with Israel, severed them at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. Since 2003, however, ties with Morocco have been on the upswing, and Israel's foreign minister has visited the country. Under Israeli law, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen are enemy countries and Israeli citizens may not visit them without permission from the Ministry of the Interior. Since 1995, Israel has been a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue, which fosters cooperation between seven countries in the Mediterranean Basin and the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The United States, Turkey, Germany,The UK and India are among Israel's closest allies. The United States was the first country to recognize the State of Israel, followed by the Soviet Union. It may regard Israel as its primary ally in the Middle East, based on shared political and religious values. Although Turkey and Israel did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1991, Turkey has cooperated with the State since its recognition of Israel in 1949. However, Turkey's ties to the other Muslim-majority nations in the region have at times resulted in pressure from Arab states to temper its relationship with Israel. Germany's strong ties with Israel may stem from a desire to make amends for the Holocaust. The two countries have cooperated on scientific and educational endeavors and remain strong economic partners. India established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992 and has fostered a strong military and cultural partnership with the country since then. United Kingdom has kept full diplomatic relations with Israel since it's formation having had two visits from heads of state in 2007. It has also has a strong trade relationship, Israel being the 23rd largest market. Relations between two countries were also made stronger by former prime minister Tony Blair's efforts for a two state resolution. The UK is seen as having a "natural" relationship with Israel on the count of the British Mandate of Palestine. Iran had diplomatic relations with Israel under the Pahlavi dynasty but withdrew its recognition of Israel during the Iranian Revolution.

Military

Arrow missile test launch
Arrow missile test launch

The Israel Defense Forces consists of the Israeli Army, Israeli Air Force and Israeli Navy. It was founded during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War out of paramilitary organizations – chiefly the Haganah – that preceded the establishment of the state. The IDF also draws upon the resources of the Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman), which works with the Mossad and Shabak. The involvement of the Israel Defense Forces in major wars and border conflicts has made it one of the most battle-trained armed forces in the world.

The majority of Israelis are drafted into the military at the age of eighteen. Men serve three years and women serve two years. Following compulsory service, Israeli men join the reserve forces and do several weeks of reserve duty every year until their forties. Most women are exempt from reserve duty. Israeli Arabs and those engaged in full-time religious studies are exempt from military service, although the exemption of yeshiva students has been a source of contention in Israeli society for many years. An alternative for those who receive exemptions on various grounds is Sherut Leumi, or national service, which involves a program of service in hospitals, schools and other social welfare frameworks. As a result of its conscription program, the IDF maintains approximately 168,000 active troops and an additional 408,000 reservists.

The nation's military relies heavily on high-tech weapons systems designed and manufactured in Israel as well as some foreign imports. The United States is a particularly notable foreign contributor; they are expected to provide the country with $30 billion in military aid between 2008 and 2017. The Israeli- and U.S.-designed Arrow missile is one of the world's only operational anti-ballistic missile systems. Since the Yom Kippur War, Israel has developed a network of reconnaissance satellites. The success of the Ofeq program has made Israel one of seven countries capable of launching such satellites. The country has also developed its own main battle tank, the Merkava. Since its establishment, Israel has had to spend a significant portion of its gross domestic product on defense. In 1984, for example, the country spent 24% of its GDP on defense. Today, that figure has dropped to 7.3%.

Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and maintains a policy of deliberate ambiguity toward its nuclear capabilities, though it is widely regarded as possessing nuclear weapons. After the Gulf War in 1991, when Israel was attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles, a law was passed requiring all apartments and homes in Israel to have a mamad, a reinforced security room impermeable to chemical and biological substances.

Economy

A main business district in Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv, where the diamond stock exchange is located
A main business district in Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv, where the diamond stock exchange is located

Israel is considered one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East in economic and industrial development. The country has been ranked highest in the region on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index as well as in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report. It has the second-largest number of startup companies in the world (after the United States) and the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America. In 2007, Israel had the 44rd-highest gross domestic product and 22th-highest gross domestic product per capita (at purchasing power parity) at US$232.7 billion and US$33,299, respectively. In 2007, Israel was invited to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which promotes cooperation between countries that adhere to democratic principles and operate free-market economies.

Despite limited natural resources, intensive development of the agricultural and industrial sectors over the past decades has made Israel largely self-sufficient in food production, apart from grains and beef. Other major imports to Israel, totaling US$47.8 billion in 2006, include fossil fuels, raw materials, and military equipment. Leading exports include fruits, vegetables, pharmaceuticals, software, chemicals, military technology, and diamonds; in 2006, Israeli exports reached US$42.86 billion. Israel is a global leader in water conservation and geothermal energy, and its development of cutting-edge technologies in software, communications and the life sciences have evoked comparisons with Silicon Valley. Intel and Microsoft built their first overseas research and development centers in Israel, and other high-tech multi-national corporations, such as IBM, Cisco Systems, and Motorola, have opened facilities in the country. In July 2007, U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway bought an Israeli company Iscar, its first non-U.S. acquisition, for $4 billion. Since the 1970's, Israel has received economic aid from the United States, whose loans account for the bulk of Israel's external debt, although that aid is expected to end in 2008.

Tourism, especially religious tourism, is another important industry in Israel, with the country's temperate climate, beaches, archaeological and historical sites, and unique geography also drawing tourists. Israel's security problems have taken their toll on the industry, but the number of incoming tourists is on the rebound.

Science and education

Image:Weizmann Institute.jpg
The particle accelerator at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot

Israel has the highest school life expectancy in the Greater Middle East and Southwest Asia, and is tied with Japan for second-highest school life expectancy on the Asian continent (after South Korea). Israel similarly has the highest literacy rate in the Middle East, according to the United Nations. The State Education Law, passed in 1953, established five types of schools: state secular, state religious, ultra orthodox, communal settlement schools, and Arab schools. The public secular is the largest school group, and is attended by the majority of Jewish and non-Arab pupils in Israel. Most Arabs send their children to schools where Arabic is the language of instruction.

Education is compulsory in Israel for children between the ages of three and eighteen. Schooling is divided into three tiers – primary school (grades 1–6), middle school (grades 7–9), and high school (grades 10–12) – culminating with Bagrut matriculation exams. Proficiency in core subjects such as mathematics, Bible, Hebrew language, Hebrew and general literature, English, history, and civics is necessary to receive a Bagrut certificate. In Arab, Christian and Druze schools, the exam on Biblical studies is replaced by an exam in Islam, Christianity or Druze heritage. In 2003, over half of all Israeli twelfth graders earned a matriculation certificate.

Israel's eight public universities are subsidized by the state. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel's oldest university, houses the Jewish National and University Library, the world's largest repository of books on Jewish subjects. In 2006, the Hebrew University was ranked 60th and 119th in two surveys of the world's top universities. Other major universities in the country include the Technion, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, the University of Haifa, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Israel ranks third in the world in the number of citizens who hold university degrees (20 percent of the population). During the 1990s, an influx of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union (forty percent of whom were university graduates) helped boost Israel's high-tech sector. Israel has produced four Nobel Prize-winning scientists and publishes among the most scientific papers per capita of any country in the world. In 2003, Ilan Ramon became Israel's first astronaut, serving as payload specialist of STS-107, the fatal mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Demographics

Israel's population, as of 2007, is 7.22 million.

Of those, over 260,000 Israeli citizens lived in the West Bank settlements in Israeli cities such as Ma'ale Adumim and Ariel, and communities that predated the establishment of the State but were re-established after the Six-Day War, such as Hebron and Gush Etzion. 18,000 settlers Jews living in the Golan Heights. In 2005, there were 180,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem. The total number of Jewish settlers is over 470,000 (6.5 % of the Israeli population). Approximately 7,800 Israelis lived in settlements in the Gaza Strip until they were evacuated by the government as part of its 2005 disengagement plan.

Israel's two official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. Hebrew is the primary language of the state and spoken by the majority of the population. Arabic is spoken by the Arab minority and Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands. Most Israelis can communicate reasonably well in English, as many television programs are in English and many schools begin to teach English in the early grades. As a country of immigrants, dozens of languages can be heard on the streets of Israel. A large influx of people from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia have made Russian and Amharic widely spoken in Israel. Between 1990 and 1994, the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union increased Israel's population by twelve percent.

Religion

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people and is often referred to as the Jewish state. The country's Law of Return grants all Jews and those of Jewish lineage the right to Israeli citizenship. Just over three quarters, or 76.1%, of the population are Jews from a diversity of Jewish backgrounds. Approximately sixty-eight percent of Israeli Jews are Israeli-born, twenty-two percent are immigrants from Europe and the Americas, and ten percent are immigrants from Asia and Africa (including the Arab world). The religious affiliation of Israeli Jews varies widely: eight percent define themselves as " Haredi Jews" and twenty percent consider themselves "secular Jews". The majority of Israeli Jews, fifty-five percent, say they are "traditional," The remaining seventeen percent define themselves as Orthodox Jews.

Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa
Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa

Making up 16.2% of the population, Muslims constitute Israel's largest religious minority. Israeli Arabs, who comprise 19.8% of the population, contribute significantly to that figure as over four fifths (82.6%) of them are Muslim. Of the remaining Israeli Arabs, 8.8% are Christian and 8.4% are Druze. Members of many other religious groups, including Buddhists and Hindus, maintain a presence in Israel, albeit in small numbers.

The city of Jerusalem enjoys a special place in the hearts of Jews, Muslims, and Christians as the home of sites that are pivotal to their religious beliefs, such as the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Other landmarks of religious importance are located in the West Bank, among them the birthplace of Jesus and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The administrative centre of the Bahá'í Faith and the Shrine of the Báb are located at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa and the leader of the faith is buried in Acre. Apart from maintenance staff, there is no Bahá'í community in Israel, although it is a destination for pilgrimages.

Culture

Hebrew Book Week 2005 in Jerusalem
Hebrew Book Week 2005 in Jerusalem

Israel's diverse culture stems from the diversity of the population: Jews from around the world have brought their cultural and religious traditions with them, creating a melting pot of Jewish customs and beliefs. Israel is the only country in the world where life revolves around the Hebrew calendar. Work and school holidays are determined by the Jewish holidays, and the official day of rest is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Israel's large Arab minority has left its imprint on Israeli culture in such spheres as architecture, music, and cuisine.

Israeli literature is primarily poetry and prose written in Hebrew, as part of the renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language since the mid-19th century, although a small body of literature is published in other languages, such as Arabic and English. By law, two copies of all printed matter published in Israel must be deposited in the Jewish National and University Library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2001, the law was amended to include audio and video recordings, and other non-print media. In 2006, 85 percent of the 8,000 books transferred to the library were in Hebrew. Hebrew Book Week is held each June and features book fairs, public readings, and appearances by Israeli authors around the country. During the week, Israel's top literary award, the Sapir Prize, is presented. In 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon shared the Nobel Prize in Literature with German Jewish author Nelly Sachs.

Habima National Theatre in Tel Aviv
Habima National Theatre in Tel Aviv

Israeli music contains musical influences from all over the world; Yemenite music, Hasidic melodies, Arabic music, Greek music, jazz, and pop rock are all part of the music scene. The nation's canonical folk songs, known as "Songs of the Land of Israel," deal with the experiences of the pioneers in building the Jewish homeland. Among Israel's world-renowned orchestras is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which has been in operation for over seventy years and today performs more than two hundred concerts each year. Israel has also produced many musicians of note, some achieving international stardom. Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman are among the internationally-acclaimed musicians born in Israel. Israel has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest nearly every year since 1973, winning the competition three times and hosting it twice. Eilat has hosted its own international music festival, the Red Sea Jazz Festival, every summer since 1987. Continuing the strong theatrical traditions of the Yiddish theatre in Eastern Europe, Israel maintains a vibrant theatre scene. Founded in 1918, Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv is Israel's oldest repertory theater company and national theatre.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is one of Israel's most important cultural institutions and houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with an extensive collection of Judaica and European art. Israel's national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, houses the world's largest archive of Holocaust-related information. On the campus of Tel Aviv University is Beth Hatefutsoth (the Diaspora Museum), an interactive museum devoted to the history of Jewish communities around the world. Apart from the major museums in large cities, there are also small but high-quality artspaces in many towns and kibbutzim.

Sports

Fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv F.C. before a match
Fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv F.C. before a match

Sports and physical fitness have not always been paramount in Jewish culture. Athletic prowess, which was prized by the Ancient Greeks, was looked down upon as an unwelcome intrusion of Hellenistic values. Maimonides, however, who was both a rabbi and a physician, emphasized the importance of physical activity and keeping the body in shape. This approach received a boost in the 19th century from the physical culture campaign of Max Nordau, and in the early 20th century when the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, declared that "the body serves the soul, and only a healthy body can ensure a healthy soul".

The Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style event for Jewish athletes, was inaugurated in the 1930s, and has been held every four years since then. The most popular spectator sports in Israel today are football (soccer) and basketball. Ligat ha'Al is the country's premier soccer league, and Ligat Winner is the premier basketball league. Maccabi Tel Aviv B.C. has won the European championship in basketball five times. Beersheba has become a national chess centre and home to many chess champions from the former Soviet Union. The city hosted the World Team Chess Championship in 2005, and chess is taught in the city's kindergartens. Two years later, in 2007, an Israeli tied for second place in the World Chess Championship. To date, Israel has won six Olympic medals, including a gold medal in windsurfing at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

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