Introduction to Israel

Basic Geography

Israel lies on the sole land link between Africa and Europe at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The Great Rift Valley separates the mountains of today's Jordan from the hills of Samaria and Judea (today's West Bank). Samaria and Judea separate the Rift Valley from the Coastal Plain.

Terra rosa soil, weathered from limestone, covers most of Israel; in the north-east volcanoes overlaid these with black basalt; near the Red Sea, granite, sandstone and limestone blend in a rich variety of colors.

Rain falls only in winter, from 40" in the north to 1/2" in the south, washing the soil down into the valleys, leaving little on the hills, but creating, particularly in the north, a relatively fertile subsystem. These radical changes in topography and climate result in a vibrant variety of wildflowers, life in the wild and cultivation.

Historical Overview

This tiny area gave birth, first to Judaism, then Christianity, and became important to Islam. In antiquity this land was caught up in a tug of war between the superpowers of Egypt to the south-west, and Mesopotamia (Nineveh, Babylon, Persia) or Anatolya (under the Hittites) to the east and north. Alexander the Great (4th century BCE) introduced Greek ways, reinforced by Rome who eventually (135) expelled the Jews, renaming Judea, Palestina. The takeover of the Roman Empire from within by Christianity, turned Palestine from a backwater province into an important center. Shortly after Mohammed's death (about 632), Omar led the Arabs to spread Islam beyond Arabia. Palestine fell in 638 since when, with a European interlude (Crusader rule 1099 - 1291) until the mid-20th century it remained predominantly Arab. Moslem Turkey ruled from 1517 until the British conquered the Middle East in 1917-1918.

The order established by the British Mandate facilitated the Zionist movement, born in the 1880's, and the Jewish population grew. After the Second World War the UN voted (November 29, 1947) to partition British-created Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Arab rejection and invasion in 1948 led to war: Palestine was divided between Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

Israel's borders have undergone modification in a series of wars but the western, southern and northern borders appear to be generally recognized. The eastern border is still to be defined.