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Israel: Country Profile


City Skyline
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Official country name: State of Israel
Area: 8,090 sq miles (20,330 sq km), not including Syria’s Golan Heights (444 sq miles, 1,150 sq km), the Gaza Strip, the West Bank or East Jerusalem, which Israel occupies.
Population: 6.4 million (2007 est.), including 264,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, 20,000 in the Golan Heights, and 190,000 in East Jerusalem.
Median age: 21.4
Ethnic Groups: Jewish 76.4 percent. About 23.6 percent of Israel’s population is non-Jewish and mostly Palestinian Arab (not including the occupied territories).
GDP and GDP per capita: $142.1 billion and $20,139 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics:

Israel is a parliamentary democracy. The president is elected by the Knesset (the parliament) to a seven-year term, but the position is mostly ceremonial. The Knesset’s 120 members are popularly elected to four-year terms. Although Arabs account for 20 percent of the population, they are represented by six seats in the Knesset, or 5 percent of the assembly, as many Arabs vote for Jewish parties. The prime minister appoints a cabinet with the Knesset’s approval.


As of 2004, Israel proper was 76.4 percent Jewish, 16 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 1.6 percent Druze, 2 percent mostly-Arab Christian and 4 percent unspecified.


Sustained by trade, services and generous American government and private aid, especially military aid, Israel’s economy is growing above 5 percent a year. (U.S. economic aid to Israel is scheduled to end in 2008). Aside from grain, Israel is agriculturally self-sufficient thanks to technological advances in irrigation. Two-thirds of the Israeli economy is service-oriented. Chemicals, chemical products, electronics, computers and scientific equipment account for 45.5 percent of exports, and polished diamonds for 33 percent of exports.


Israeli men and women are drafted at 18, serve two to three years, then serve as reservists 39 days a year up to age 45 or 51, depending on previous combat service. Arabs are often exempt and generally barred from the officers’ corps. Married women, mothers and religious students are also exempt. Estimates place the Israeli regular force, known as the Israeli Defense Force, at 100,000, with an additional 500,000 reservists. The military is heavily armed by the United States. Israel signed a $30 billion military aid package with the United States in August 2007. Israel has a nuclear stockpile of 100 to 200 warheads.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Israel proper is the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East. Political parties and media are free and wide-ranging. Israeli practices in the occupied territories and with regard to Lebanon are another story. More than 1,000 people, most of them civilian, were killed in Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war. Israel has cut off fuel and power delivery to Gaza and prevents Gaza’s Palestinians from traveling beyond the strip. Israel maintains a network of more than 500 checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt barriers and other obstacles in the West Bank. Human rights groups have leveled charges of torture against Israeli authorities.

Early History:

Palestine has been inhabited continuously for 10,000 years, rarely as a unified entity, never as any single tribe’s or people’s absolute possession. For millennia, it’s been a place of semi-nomadic transience and city states. Jews and Arabs were among the region’s wandering tribes and conquerors, who included Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hittites, Aramaeans, Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites. A Jewish kingdom ruled Palestine until Babylonians, Greeks and Romans successively destroyed or deported Jews between 171 B.C. and 135 A.D. Jerusalem fell to Islam’s first conquest in 638, and to Ottomans in 1516.

Modern History:

After a steady influx of Jewish immigrants in the first half of the 20th century and a partition plan Arabs rejected, Israel became a nation on May 16, 1948, triggering the first of a half-dozen Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1982, 2006, the last three in Lebanon), not including the two “intifadas,” or uprisings, in the occupied territories. Israel made peace with Egypt in 1978 and Jordan in 1994, but numerous peace proposals—by the United States, European powers, the former Soviet Union, Arab states—have yet to lead to peace with a Palestinian state.

Current Issues:

Three sticking points prevent peace between Israelis and Palestinians. First, Palestinians want Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 borders. Israel is redrawing the map to include chunks of the West Bank should an eventual Palestinian state be created there. Second, the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Israel is opposed. Palestinians say the right is central to their claims. Third, East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed, and which Palestinians say is theirs. Israel is also facing a tense stand-off with Hezbollah militants across the border iN Lebanon, against whom Israel fought a misguided war in 2006.
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