The State of Israel is a small country in the E Mediterranean. Inland lie the Judaeo-Galilean highlands, from N Israel to the N tip of the Negev Desert in the S. To the E lie part of the Great Rift Valley, River Jordan, Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea. At 403m [1,322ft] below sea level, this last is the world's lowest point on land.
Israel has hot, dry, summers. Winters are mild and moist on the coast. Annual rainfall decreases W to E and N to S with only 70mm [2.5in] in the Dead Sea region.
Israel comprises most of the Biblical Holy Lands (for history pre-1947, see Palestine). In the late 19th century, Zionists began to agitate for a Jewish homeland. Most modern Israelis are descendants of immigrants who began to settle from the 1880s. Britain ruled Palestine from 1917. Large numbers of Jews escaping Nazi persecution arrived in the 1930s, provoking an Arab uprising. In 1947, the United Nations (UN) agreed to partition Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, but Arabs rejected the plan and fighting broke out. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled. In the first Arab-Israeli War, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria invaded, but the Haganah successfully defended the state. An Israeli government was formed with Chaim Weizmann as president, and David Ben-Gurion as prime minister. In 1949, Israel joined the United Nations and the capital moved from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. In 1950, the Law of Return provided free citizenship for all immigrant Jews. Following Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal, Israel captured Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. In 1957, Israel withdrew. In 1963 Ben-Gurion resigned, and Levi Eshkol became prime minister (1963-69). In 1967, Nasser blockaded Elat. Israel's defence minister Moshe Dayan launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt and Syria. Within six days, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Eshkol died in 1969, and Golda Meir became prime minister (1969-74). On October 6, 1973 (Yom Kippur), Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions in Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israeli troops launched a counter-offensive and retained the territories gained in 1967. Yitzhak Rabin's government (1974-77) is chiefly remembered for the daring rescue of Israeli hostages at Entebbe.
Israel signed a treaty with Egypt in 1978 and returned the Sinai Peninsula in 1979, but conflict with the PLO continued. In 1993, the PLO and Israel agreed on Palestinian self-rule for the Gaza Strip and for Jericho on the West Bank. In 1995 this was extended to over 30% of the West Bank. Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had been seeking a 'land for peace' settlement, was assassinated in 1995 and replaced by right-wing hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu.
In 1999 the left-wing Ehud Barak won elections, promising to resume the peace process. Problems included Jewish settlements in the occupied areas and attacks on Israel by the Lebanese militant Islamic group, Hezbollah. In 2001 former general Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister, adopting a hardline policy against the Palestinians. In late 2004 the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held out hope that moderate policies might lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, forcibly evicting Israeli settlers. In early 2006 a stroke left Ariel Sharon in a permanent coma, and he was succeeded by his deputy, Ehud Olmert. In June 2006 Hezbollah kidnapped two soldiers; Israel responded with a massive invasion of Lebanon, but withdrew in August.
Israel has a high standard of living. Manufacturing is important. Israel produces potash, cotton, fruits, grain, poultry and vegetables.
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