The State of Israel (Hebrew: מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, Medinat Yisra'el from יִשְׂרָאֵל Yisra'el, "Struggled with God") is a nation located in the Middle East. It is the world's only Jewish state, having emerged from Zionism in Europe and the U.S. in the 1880s-1940s. It grants citizenship to anybody considered to be Jewish. It also contains Arab Muslim and Arab Christian minorities who are remnants of the pre-1948 Arab majority, along with a small Druze community. It is the location of most Biblical events.
Israel occupies an area along the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with Jordan and Syria to the east; Lebanon on the north; and Egypt to the south. The terrain varies from a temperate, coastal climate to desert conditions. Israel shares with Jordan the shoreline of the Dead Sea, at 1,378 feet below sea level the lowest point on earth.
Of the approximately 6.43 million Israelis in 2007, about 76% were counted as Jewish, though some of those are not considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law. Since 1989, nearly a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union have arrived in Israel, making this the largest wave of immigration since independence. In addition, an estimated 105,000 members of the Ethiopian Jewish community have immigrated to Israel, 14,000 of them during the dramatic May 1991 Operation Solomon airlift. 32.9% of Israelis were born outside of Israel.
The three broad Jewish groupings are the Ashkenazim, or Jews who trace their ancestry to western, central, and eastern Europe; the Sephardim, who trace their origin to Spain, Portugal, southern Europe, and North Africa; and Eastern or Oriental Jews, who descend from ancient communities in Islamic lands. Of the non-Jewish population, about 68% are Muslims, about 9% are Christian, and about 7% are Druze.
Education is compulsory from age six to sixteen and is free up to age eighteen. The school system is organized into kindergartens, 6-year primary schools, 3-year junior secondary schools, and 3-year senior secondary schools, after which a comprehensive examination is offered for university admissions. There are seven university-level institutions in Israel, a number of regional colleges, and an Open University program.
The majority of families in Israel - Jewish and Arab - send their children to segregated schools. This segregation poses a distinct problem, tending to promote rival viewpoints and attitudes that become ripe for exploitation by proponents of violence. Within Israel, the schools of the minority Arab population become incubators for resentment and hostility, while the schools of the majority Jewish population tend to reinforce a sense of insulation from the concerns of others.
With a population drawn from more than 100 countries on 5 continents, Israeli society is rich in cultural diversity and artistic creativity. The arts are actively encouraged and supported by the government. The first Jewish artist on record was named Bezalel. He was an architect, sculptor and designer of holy garments. Mostly he was known for making the Tabernacle that contained the Ark of the Covenant.  The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra performs throughout the country and frequently tours abroad. The Jerusalem Symphony and the New Israel Opera also tour frequently, as do other musical ensembles. Almost every municipality has a chamber orchestra or ensemble, many boasting the talents of gifted performers from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Israel has several professional ballet and modern dance companies, and folk dancing, which draws upon the cultural heritage of many immigrant groups, continues to be very popular. There is great public interest in the theater; the repertoire covers the entire range of classical and contemporary drama in translation as well as plays by Israeli authors. Of the three major repertory companies, the most famous, Habimah, was founded in 1917.
Active artist colonies thrive in Safed, Jaffa, and Ein Hod, and Israeli painters and sculptors exhibit works worldwide. Israel boasts more than 120 museums, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls along with an extensive collection of regional archaeological artifacts, art, and Jewish religious and folk exhibits. Israelis are avid newspaper readers, with more than 90% of Israeli adults reading a newspaper at least once a week. Major daily papers are in Hebrew; others are in Arabic, English, French, Polish, Yiddish, Russian, Hungarian, and German.
The name Israel refers to Jacob from the Bible, the father of the Jews who would eventually create the kingdom of Israel. (See the Book of Genesis in the Bible.) Jacob's descendants were numerous, but were put under bondage in Egypt. The first attempt at forming a nation dates back to the migration or Exodus of Israel out of Egypt after being freed from their slavery. (See the Book of Exodus in the Bible). While the exact date is not known, the most likely scenario is in the 1400s B.C. After 40 years of wandering, the Hebrews attempted to settle in the land of Canaan, after first having to fight battles with the inhabitants. (See the Book of Joshua in the Bible). The Jewish people lived for hundreds of years under Judges (See the Book of Judges in the Bible) before forming a monarchy under their first King, Saul in 1050 B.C. Israel expanded under David from 1010 to 970 B.C. and then reached its height under Solomon from 970 to 930 B.C. With the death of Solomon the united kingdom of Israel split in two with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin forming their own nation, Judah. (See I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, I Chronicles in the Bible)
The first King of Israel was Jeroboam I, who made his capital at Shechem until it was replaced by Samaria under Omri. Almost immediately the Israeli kings "did evil in the sight of the Lord" and turned away from the Lord God. Although they were larger and more powerful than Judah, they fell more quickly due to their apostacy. Israel continued being ruled by kings until its conquest by Assyria in 722 B.C. Judah had a number of kings who did what was right in God's sight, but eventually they too were turning away. They continued as an independent nation until 586 B.C. when they fell to the Babylonians. Both of these conquests led to many Jews being deported from the land of Israel. While under Persian rule after the Babylonians had fallen to the Persians, the Jews were allowed to return and rebuild their temple (520 - 516 B.C.) In the 400's B.C. they began to return to God as well, showing a reverence for Him that was often lacking during the time they had their own kingdom. Still under Persian rule and with their blessing, Nehemiah came to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, a position that was bitterly opposed by the other peoples living on the land. The Jews had to stand guard as they built.
When Alexander the Great swept through Israel in 332 B.C., Persian rule had ended to be replaced by Greek. Upon Alexander's death in 323 B.C. there was a fight for power among his generals and subordinates, which led to Israel coming under control of the Ptolemies, the Greek leaders of Egypt. The Jews were treated leniently until the Seleucids, the Greek leaders of Syria, pushed back the Ptolemies and took over Israel in 198 B.C. The Seleucids were not as lenient and under Antiochus IV (175 to 164 B.C.) conditions worsened considerably. In 168 B.C. Judaism was declared to be illegal and a pig was sacrified on the altar of the Jewish temple; the Jews revolted under the Maccabees and fought a prolonged guerrilla war until their eventual religious independence in 164 B.C. Complete acknowledgement of independence from the Seleucids didn't come until 142 B.C. when Roman pressure helped them to make the decision to let Israel go. This independence would last until 63 B.C., when infighting caused the Jews to ask for Roman intervention. Rome stopped the fighting, but Israel came under Roman rule as the province of Palestine. The Jewish people would not have their independence again for over 2000 years. It was under this state of Roman control that Jesus was born around 4 B.C. Three revolts against Roman rule by the Jews, the first in 66 A.D., the next in 115 A.D., and the last in 132 A.D. took place, and failed. After the failure of the third, the Romans forced the Jews to leave Israel thus beginning the diaspora, the dispersal of the Jews from the land of Palestine.
By the fifth century the inhabitants of the region were Christianized, under the Byzantine Empire, a situation which continued until the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries. The Arabs brought with them the Islamic faith which, due to its many similarities with Christianity and Judaism and the social advantages it brought, was gradually adopted by the population. However, Jewish and Christian citizens continued to live in the region, in relative peace, until the Crusades.
The Crusades saw part of the Holy Lands reconquered from Islam in the name of Christianity. The Crusader states were temporary before being conquered by Islam again with the fall of the last Crusader state in 1290. First the Mamelukes controlled the area, then starting in the early 1500s, the Ottoman Turks conquered the region. World War I saw a British victory over the Ottoman's and the region came under British mandate of Palestine in 1920.
The British and late Ottoman authorities permitted the resettlement of Jews from Europe, many of them looking to establish a Jewish state in the region, part of a movement called Zionism. In the last years of British mandate the number and strength of the Jews in Palestine increased, with many adopting extremely radical tactics to achieve their goal of an independent Jewish state. Terrorist organizations such as Irgun and Lehi attacked British and Arab targets, killing civilians in the process. Britain's occupation became too expensive and they handed control to the United Nations to sort out a solution.
The recreation of the State of Israel in 1948 was preceded by more than 50 years of efforts to re-establish a sovereign state as a homeland for the Jewish nation. These efforts were initiated by Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, and were given added impetus by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which asserted the B
ritish Government's support for the recreation of a Jewish homeland in roughly its original position, which was then known as Palestine.
In the years following World War I, Palestine became a British Mandate and the number of Jews returning to their homeland steadily increased, as did violence between Palestine's Jewish and Arab communities. Mounting British efforts to restrict this immigration were countered by international support for Jewish national aspirations following the near-extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis during World War II. This support led to the 1947 UN partition plan, which would have divided Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under UN administration.
On May 14, 1948, immediately after the British quit Palestine, the State of Israel was proclaimed and was immediately invaded by armies from neighboring Arab states, which rejected the UN partition plan. This conflict, Israel's War of Independence, was concluded by armistice agreements between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria in 1949 and resulted in a 50% increase in Israeli territory. The U.S. immediately recognized Israel and gave large amounts of financial aid through private sources, but did not at this time send military aid.
In 1956, French, British, and Israeli forces engaged Egypt in response to its nationalization of the Suez Canal and blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Israeli forces withdrew in March 1957, after the United Nations established the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Gaza Strip and Sinai. This war resulted in no territorial shifts and was followed by several years of terrorist incidents and retaliatory acts across Israel's borders.
Six Day War (1967)
In June 1967, Israeli forces in the Six-Day War struck targets in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in response to Egyptian President Nasser's ordered withdrawal of UN peace keepers from the Sinai Peninsula and the buildup of Arab armies along Israel's borders. After 6 days, all parties agreed to a cease-fire, under which Israel retained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the formerly Jordanian-controlled West Bank of the Jordan River, and East Jerusalem. On November 22, 1967, the Security Council adopted Resolution 242, the "land for peace" formula, which called for the establishment of a just and lasting peace based on Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 in return for the end of all states of belligerency, respect for the sovereignty of all states in the area, and the right to live in peace within secure, recognized boundaries. The Six Day War had a momentous effect on American Jews, mobilizing new support for Israel.
The following years were marked by continuing violence across the Suez Canal, punctuated by the 1969-70 War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. On October 6, 1973--Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), the armies of Syria and Egypt launched an attack against Israel. Although the Egyptians and Syrians initially made significant advances, Israel was able to push the invading armies back beyond the 1967 cease-fire lines by the time the United States and the Soviet Union helped bring an end to the fighting. In the UN Security Council, the United States supported Resolution 338, which reaffirmed Resolution 242 as the framework for peace and called for peace negotiations between the parties.
In the years that followed, sporadic clashes continued along the cease-fire lines but guided by the U.S., Egypt, and Israel continued negotiations. In November 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, which opened the door for the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace summit convened at Camp David by President Carter. These negotiations led to a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, pursuant to which Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982, signed by President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menahem Begin of Israel.
In the years following the 1948 war, Israel's border with Lebanon was quiet relative to its borders with other neighbors. After the expulsion of Palestinian fighters from Jordan in 1970 and their influx into southern Lebanon, however, hostilities along Israel's northern border increased and Israeli forces crossed into Lebanon. After passage of Security Council Resolution 425, calling for Israeli withdrawal and the creation of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeeping force (UNIFIL), Israel withdrew its troops.
In June 1982, following a series of cross-border terrorist attacks and the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to the U.K., Israel invaded Lebanon to fight the forces of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO withdrew its forces from Lebanon in August 1982. Israel, having failed to finalize an agreement with Lebanon, withdrew most of its troops in June 1985 save for a residual force which remained in southern Lebanon to act as a buffer against attacks on northern Israel. These remaining forces were completely withdrawn in May 2000 behind a UN-brokered delineation of the Israel-Lebanon border (the Blue Line). Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon continued to attack Israeli positions south of the Blue Line in the Sheba Farms/Har Dov area of the Golan Heights.
The victory of the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 opened new possibilities for regional peace. In October 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union convened the Madrid Conference, in which Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Palestinian leaders laid the foundations for ongoing negotiations designed to bring peace and economic development to the region. Within this framework, Israel and the PLO signed a Declaration of Principles on September 13, 1993, which established an ambitious set of objectives relating to a transfer of authority from Israel to an interim Palestinian authority. Israel and the PLO subsequently signed the Gaza-Jericho Agreement on May 4, 1994, and the Agreement on Preparatory Transfer of Powers and Responsibilities on August 29, 1994, which began the process of transferring authority from Israel to the Palestinians.
On October 26, 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a historic peace treaty, witnessed by President Clinton. This was followed by Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat's signing of the historic Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on September 28, 1995. This accord, which incorporated and superseded previous agreements, broadened Palestinian self-government and provided for cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in several areas.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995, by a right-wing Jewish radical, bringing the increasingly bitter national debate over the peace process to a climax. Subsequent Israeli governments continued to negotiate with the PLO resulting in additional agreements, including the Wye River and the Sharm el-Sheikh memoranda. However, a summit hosted by President Clinton at Camp David in July 2000 to address permanent status issues--including the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, final security arrangements, borders, and relations and cooperation with neighboring states--failed to produce an agreement.
Following the failed talks, widespread violence broke out in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in September 2000. In April 2001 the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee, commissioned by the October 2000 Middle East Peace Summit and chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, submitted its report, which recommended an immediate end to the violence followed by confidence-building measures and a resumption of security cooperation and peace negotiations. Building on the Mitchell report, In April 2003, the Quartet (the U.S., UN, European Union (EU), and the Russian Federation) announced the "roadmap," a performance-based plan to bring about two states, Israel and a democratic, viable Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.
Despite the promising developments of spring 2003, violence continued and in September 2003 the first Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), resigned after failing to win true authority to restore law and order, fight terror, and reform Palestinian institutions. In response to the deadlock, in the winter of 2003-2004 Prime Minister Sharon put forward his Gaza disengagement initiative, proposing the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza as well as parts of the northern West Bank. President Bush endorsed this initiative in an exchange of letters with Prime Minister Sharon on April 14, 2004, viewing Gaza disengagement as an opportunity to move towards implementation of the two-state vision and begin the development of Palestinian institutions. In a meeting in May 2004 the Quartet endorsed the initiative, which was approved by the Knesset in October 2004.
The run-up to disengagement saw a flurry of diplomatic activity, including the February 2005 announcement of Lieutenant General William Ward as U.S. Security Coordinator; the March 2005 Sharon-Abbas summit in Sharm el-Sheikh; the return of Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel; and the May 2005 appointment of former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn as Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement to work for a revitalization of the Palestinian economy after disengagement. Wolfensohn's direct involvement spurred Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the Gaza ‘crossings" at Karni and Erez, on the demolition of settler homes, water, electricity, and communications infrastructure issues, as well as other issues related to the Palestinian economy.
On August 15, 2005, Israel began implementing its disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli Defense Forces completed their withdrawal, including the dismantling of 17 settlements, on September 12. After broad recognition for Prime Minister Sharon's accomplishment at that fall's UN General Assembly, international attention quickly turned to efforts to strengthen Palestinian governance and the economy in Gaza. The United States brokered a landmark Agreement on Movement and Access between the parties in November 2005 to facilitate further progress on Palestinian economic issues. However, the terrorist organization Hamas--building on popular support for its "resistance" to Israeli occupation and a commitment to clean up the notorious corruption of the Palestinian Authority (PA)--took a majority in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, with Hamas leader Ismail Haniya as Prime Minister. The Israeli leadership pledged not to work with a Palestinian government in which Hamas had a role.
Shortly following Hamas' PLC victory, the Quartet--comprised of the United States, European Union, United Nations. and Russia--outlined three basic principles the Hamas-led PA must meet in order for the U.S. and the international community to reengage with the PA: renounce violence and terror, recognize Israel, and respect previous agreements, including the roadmap. The Hamas-led PA government rejected these principles, resulting in a Quartet statement of "grave concern" on March 30, 2006 and the suspension of U.S. assistance to the PA, complete prohibition on U.S. Government contacts with the PA, and prohibition of unlicensed transactions with the PA government. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of PLO Chairman and PA President Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), by contrast, remained consistently committed to the Quartet principles.
Despite several negotiated cease-fires between Hamas and Fatah, violent clashes in the Gaza Strip--and to a lesser extent in the West Bank--were commonplace between December 2006 and February 2007 and resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries. In an attempt to end the intra-Palestinian violence, the King of Saudi Arabia invited Palestinian rivals to Mecca, and on February 9, 2007, Abbas and Hamas leader Haniya agreed to the formation of a Palestinian national unity government and a cessation of violence. Hamas' rejectionist policies and violent behavior continued despite the formation of the national unity government.
In June 2007, Hamas effectively orchestrated a violent coup in Gaza. Hamas also launched scores of Qassam rockets into southern Israel in an attempt to involve Israel in the Hamas-Fatah conflict. On June 14, Palestinian Authority President Mahoud Abbas exercised his lawful authority by declaring a state of emergency, dissolving the national unity government, and replacing it with a new government with Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister.
The new Palestinian Authority government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad has no elements controlled by Hamas. The new government claims they are dedicated to peace and the Quartet principles and has been embraced politically and financially by the international community, including Israel, mainly because of the far worse alternative that Hamas represent.
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