Swimmers float effortlessly in the very salty waters of the Dead Sea.
Photograph by Nico Tondini, Photo Library
The mountain citadel of Masada overlooks the Dead Sea.
Photograph by Michael Melford
Muslim women pray outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen, AP
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is a memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Photograph by Emilio Morenatti, AP
Jews pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Photograph by Michael Melford
Map of Israel
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAPS
OFFICIAL NAME: State of Israel
FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Parliamentary Democracy
AREA: 8,550 square miles (22,145 square kilometers)
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Hebrew, Arabic
MAJOR RIVER: Jordan
Map of Israel
Israel is a small country in the Middle East about the size of the state of New Jersey. The country has a diverse climate with snowy mountains in the north and the hot desert in the south. Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority all border Israel to the east. Lebanon serves as the northern border and Egypt borders in the south.
More than half of the population lives on the narrow coastal plain near the Mediterranean Sea to the west. The Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan is the lowest point on the Earth's surface at 1,365 feet (416 meters) below sea level. The water is so salty and rich in mineral deposits that no plants and animals can survive there. The water is warm year round.
In the south and east land is hot and dry. The Negev Desert in southern Israel receives only 1 inch (32 mm) of rain a year. In the north, Galilee is known to have the most fertile farmland in the country.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
About two-thirds of the population was born in Israel. All other Israelis come from over 100 different countries. Most Israeli Jews live a lifestyle similar to western Europeans and North Americans.
Israel's population is about 75 percent Jewish; most of the rest is Arab. The Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories have some 3.5 million inhabitants—about 11 percent Jewish, 89 percent Palestinian.
About 20 percent of Israelis adhere to about 600 rules from their religion that concern their daily lives. Other people observe some of them but not all of them. Some people eat only kosher food that is prepared and certified according to the laws. No pork or shellfish is allowed, nor is the mixing of meat and dairy products. So pepperoni and cheese pizza and cheeseburgers are not kosher.
Traditional Jewish people take off Shabbat, or a day of rest, which begins on Friday at sundown and continues through Saturday evening. Stores are closed and work isn't permitted on Shabbat.
When Jewish boys reach 13 years old, they have a large celebration called a bar mitzvah after which they are allowed to make their own religious decisions. Girls celebrate their own version of this rite of passage called bat mitzvah when they are 12.
Photograph by Asafta, Dreamstime
Because of Israel's variety of terrain and climate, the country has a large variety of animals. Boars roam the damp oak woodlands of the Golan Heights. Caspian turtles live in the marshlands along the coast. And hyenas are prevalent in the Negev Desert region in the southern Israel.
In the south along the shore of the Red Sea in Elat, there's a stunning coral reef 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) long. It is covered in coral polyps. Crabs, turtles, octopuses, and sharks are found in the reef.
Lizards crawl over rocks and walls even in the heart of big cities. Fruit bats flit around the trees in city parks. Snakes sometimes slither through gardens.
Much of what is now Israel was originally covered in woodland, but in the early 1900s, many of the trees were cut for timber and the land was cleared to make way for fields. Israel is now replanting trees to bring back the woodlands. Over 200 million trees have been planted in the last 60 years. Nature reserves have also been created to protect wolves, foxes, leopards, ostriches, and other species, as well as to breed threatened animals.
Israel is the only fully democratic country in the Middle East. Elections are held for seats in the Knesset or parliament every four years. If a party wins 2 percent of the votes, the party gets one or more seats in parliament. No one party has control so they have to work together. The leader of the largest party becomes prime minister.
He/she appoints a cabinet of ministers which runs the country. The 120 members of the Knesset elect a president who is the head of state. Ehud Olmert, the leader of the Kadima party, is the prime minister. The party's policy is focused on returning parts of the Occupied Territories to Palestinians.
Peace is fragile in this volatile region. Most Jewish Israeli men and women join the Israeli Defense Forces after they finish school. Men serve for three years and women serve for two. Germany gives Israel $500 million a year in compensation for the losses suffered by the Jews during the Holocaust.
The United States gives aid to Israel and its neighbors Egypt and Jordan to help keep the region stable. Israel began to build a wall hundreds of miles long around the West Bank to stop suicide bombers from entering Israel. Palestinians believe the wall cuts towns and farms in half and turns the West Bank into a prison.
The story of modern Israel begins more than 3,500 years ago. Most Israelis are Jews, who are said to be descended from the biblical figure Abraham, through his son Isaac. They were originally a group of tribes known as Israelites. Abraham led the Israelites from Mesopotamia (now the country of Iraq) to the Judean Hills of what was then called Canaan. However, a famine later forced the Israelites to move to Egypt before Moses led them back in 1250 B.C.
The returning Israelites fought for 200 years for control of Canaan. Their main enemies were the Philistines, a powerful tribe from Crete, a Greek island, that settled along the southern coast of Canaan. The modern name for the Arabs living in the region today comes from the word "philistine": Palestinian. In 1006 B.C., King Saul united the Israelite tribes but was ultimately defeated by Philistines.
Later, Saul’s son-in-law, David, eventually overcame the Philistines and conquered Jerusalem. David’s son, King Solomon, is known for building the famous temple at Jerusalem. It became the center of the Jewish religion.
Following Solomon’s death, the Israelites split in two small kingdoms. One called Israel, was located in the north of what is now Galilee and the West Bank. The second kingdom, called Judah, was located in the city of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is considered a holy city by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. This city is the historical hub of all three religions and faithful followers of each religion have fought over it. Jews believe the Messiah will one day appear here, Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from here, and Christians believe this is where Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
After the Nazi takeover of many countries in Europe, the Jews who were able to leave needed a new home. Many went to Israel. The State of Israel was created after Israel fought six wars with its Arab neighbors and the British left Palestine in 1948.
In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel took control of Arab areas of Palestine which included the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the Golan Heights. The areas became known as the Occupied Territories. To secure peace, Israel in 1982 ended its occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and returned the land to Egypt.
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 after capturing it in 1967—Syria still claims this territory.
A Palestinian rebellion, called an intifada, began in 1987 and took hundreds of lives before negotiations resulted in a 1993 accord that granted Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.
The Israeli military withdrew from all West Bank cities by 1997—and also left southern Lebanon in 2000. After peace talks failed another intifada started in September 2000, and most of the West Bank was reoccupied by 2002.
Text adapted from the National Geographic book Countries of the World: Israel, by Emma Young