Israel in Brief
Israel is a land and a people. The history of the Jewish people, and its roots in the Land of Israel, spans some 35 centuries. In this land, its cultural, national and religious identity was formed; here, its physical presence has been maintained unbroken throughout the centuries, even after the majority was forced into exile. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish independence, lost almost 2,000 years earlier, was renewed.
Israel is located in the Middle East, along the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. It lies at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.
Long and narrow in shape, the country is about 290 miles (470 km.) in length and 85 miles (135 km.) in width at its widest point.
Although small in size, Israel encompasses the varied topographical features of an entire continent, ranging from forested highlands and fertile green valleys to mountainous deserts, and from the coastal plain to the semitropical Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Approximately half of the country’s land area is semi-arid.
Israel’s climate is characterized by much sunshine, with a rainy season from November to April. Total annual precipitation ranges from 20-30 inches (50-70 cm.) in the north to about an inch (2.5 cm.) in the far south. Regional climatic conditions vary considerably: hot, humid summers and mild, wet winters on the coastal plain; dry, warm summers and moderately cold winters, with rain and occasional light snow, in the hill regions; hot, dry summers and pleasant winters in the Jordan Valley; and semi-arid conditions, with warm to hot days and cool nights, in the south.
Flora and Fauna
The rich variety of Israel’s plant and animal life reflects its geographical location as well as its varied topography and climate. Over 500 kinds of birds, some 200 mammal and reptile species, and 2,600 plant types (150 of which are endemic to Israel) are found within its borders. Over 150 nature reserves and 65 national parks, encompassing nearly 400 square miles (almost 1,000 sq. km.) have been established throughout the country.
The scarcity of water in the region has generated intense efforts to maximize use of the available supply and to seek new resources. In the 1960s, Israel’s freshwater sources were joined in an integrated grid whose main artery, the National Water Carrier, brings water from the north and center to the semi-arid south. Ongoing projects for utilizing new sources include cloud seeding, recycling of sewage water and the desalination of seawater.
Israel is a country of immigrants. Since its inception in 1948, Israel’s population has grown almost ten-fold. Its 7.8 million inhabitants comprise a mosaic of people with varied ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles, religions, cultures and traditions. Today Jews comprise some 75.4% of the country’s population, while the country’s non-Jewish citizens, mostly Arabs (20.5%), number about 24.6%.
About 90% of Israel’s inhabitants live in some 200 urban centers, some of which are located on ancient historical sites. About 5% are members of unique rural cooperative settlements – the kibbutz and the moshav.
Jerusalem, Israel’s capital (population 788,100), has stood at the center of the Jewish people’s national and spiritual life since King David made it the capital of his kingdom some 3000 years ago. Today it is a flourishing, vibrant metropolis, the seat of the government and Israel’s largest city.
Tel Aviv-Yafo (population 404,300), which was founded in 1909 as the first Jewish city in modern times, is today the center of the country’s industrial, commercial, financial and cultural life.
Haifa (population 268,200), a known coastal town since ancient times, is a major Mediterranean port and the industrial and commercial center of northern Israel.
Be’er Sheva (population 195,400), named in the Bible as an encampment of the patriarchs, is today the largest urban center in the south. It provides administrative, economic, health, education and cultural services for the entire southern region.
System of Government
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive and judicial branches. The head of the state is the president, whose duties are mostly ceremonial and formal; the office symbolizes the unity and sovereignty of the state. The Knesset, Israel’s legislative authority, is a 120-member unicameral parliament which operates in plenary session and through 12 standing committees. Its members are elected every four years in universal nationwide elections. The government (cabinet of ministers) is charged with administering internal and foreign affairs. It is headed by a prime minister and is collectively responsible to the Knesset.
Education and Science
School attendance is mandatory from age five, and free through age 18. Almost all three- and four-year-olds attend some kind of preschool program.
Israel’s institutions of higher education include universities, offering a wide range of subjects in science and humanities, and serving as research institutions of worldwide repute, colleges offering academic courses and vocational schools. The country’s high level of scientific research and development and the application of R&D compensate for the country’s lack of natural resources.
The National Health Insurance Law, in effect from January 1995, provides for a standardized basket of medical services, including hospitalization, for all residents of Israel. All medical services continue to be supplied by the country’s four health care organizations.
Life expectancy is 83.4 years for women and 79.7 years for men; the infant mortality rate is 4.0 per 1,000 live births. The ratio of physicians to population and the number of specialists compare favorably with those in most developed countries.
The social service system is based on legislation which provides for workers’ protection and a broad range of national and community services, including care of the elderly, assistance for single parents, programs for children and youth, adoption agencies, as well as prevention and treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse.
The National Insurance Institute provides all permanent residents (including non-citizens) with a broad range of benefits, including unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, survivors’ benefits, maternity grants and allowances, child allowances, income support payments and more.
Israel’s industry concentrates on manufacturing products with a high added value that are primarily based on technological innovation. These include medical electronics, agrotechnology, telecommunications, computer hardware and software, solar energy, food processing and fine chemicals.
Israel’s agricultural successes are the result of a long struggle against harsh, adverse conditions and of making maximum use of scarce water and arable land. Today, agriculture represents some 2.4% of GNP and 2% of exports. Israel produces 93% of its own food requirements, supplemented by imports of grain, oil seeds, meat, coffee, cocoa and sugar, which are more than offset by the wide range of agricultural products for export.
Trade is conducted with countries on six continents. Some 48% of imports and 32% of exports are with Europe, boosted by Israel’s free trade agreement with the EU (concluded in 1975). A similar agreement was signed with the United States (1985), whose trade with Israel accounts for 12% of Israel’s imports and 35% of its exports.
Thousands of years of history, the ingathering of the Jews from over 70 countries, a society of multi-ethnic communities living side by side, and an unending flow of international input via satellite and cable have contributed to the development of an Israeli culture which reflects worldwide elements while striving for an identity of its own. Cultural expression through the arts is as varied as the people themselves, with literature, theater, concerts, radio and television programming, entertainment, museums and galleries for every interest and taste.
The official languages of the country are Hebrew and Arabic, but in the country’s streets many other languages can be heard. Hebrew, the language of the Bible, long restricted to liturgy and literature, was revived a century ago, accompanying the renewal of Jewish life in the Land.