Israel (Hebrew: ישראל; Arabic: إسرائيل) is a small yet diverse Middle Eastern country with a long coastline on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a small window on the Red Sea at the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba). Israel is bordered by Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest, by Jordan to the east, and by Syria and Lebanon to the north. It shares borders to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea with the West Bank and Jordan.
Israel was established as a state for the Jewish people, following the Holocaust during Second World War. Israel is considered part of the Holy Land (together with areas of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories). The three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all have historical ties to the region. Israel thus contains a vibrant modern history and culture, based in part on the diverse, immigrant origins of its inhabitants returning from the Jewish Diaspora. These aspects make Israel a fascinating destination for many travellers and pilgrims. As a result of this vast mix of culture, in addition to the official languages of Hebrew and Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish, Amharic and Yiddish are also spoken by a significant minority of Israelis. English in many ways acts as second language. Within Israel’s recognized pre-1967 borders, about 80% of Israelis identify themselves as Jewish, the remainder classify themselves as either as Arab and/or Palestinian, Bedouin, Baha’i, Muslim, Christian or Druze.
Israel is a highly urbanized and economically developed society and is therefore best divided for the traveler into its main cities and towns, followed by the regions and other sites.
While the current State of Israel is a relatively new country founded in 1948, the Land of Israel has a long and often very complex history stretching back thousands of years to the very beginnings of human civilization. It has been invaded by virtually every Old World empire including the Persians, Romans, Ottomans, and British. (Even the Mongols once raided cities on what is now Israeli soil.) It is also the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity. Jerusalem is a sacred city for all three of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Israel has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, with Neanderthal remains from the region dating back 50,000 years. Its strategic location serving as the gateway from Asia to Egypt and Africa had made Israel an ideal target for conquerors through the ages. The first nation to have influence was the great Egyptian civilization. Approximately 1000 BC, an independent Judean Kingdom was set up under King Saul. The land lay to the south of Phoenicia. After the intermittent civil war, the land was conquered by the Assyrians and Persians and in c. 330 BC by Alexander the Great. A newly independent Jewish state, ruled by the Maccabees, was conquered in 63 BC by the Romans. Jesus of Nazareth is said to have begun his ministry in the Galilee around 30 AD.
Following a Jewish revolt against the Romans in AD 70 the Israelites were expelled from Jerusalem by the Romans, creating a substantial Jewish diaspora throughout the world and most Jews fled to Europe and North Africa. However, many Israelites did remain in the Land of Israel outside Jerusalem for a few centuries, although persecution gradually eroded at whatever Israelites population was left in their homeland. The area was conquered by Muslims in the 7th Century, and the Dome of the Rock was built by the Arab empire during this time. In the middle ages, European Christians invaded in a period known as the Crusades and established a small kingdom and killed off the non-Christian population, but after a few centuries were expelled. The land was then ruled for many years by different Muslim empires, culminating in the Ottoman Empire. During the six centuries that they ruled Jerusalem, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
During WWI, Palestine, as it was known, was captured by the British. The British designated the eastern two-thirds of Palestine as the country of Transjordan in the 1920s (now known as Jordan). The British agreed to support the idea of European Jews returning to their ancestral homeland in the remaining third of Palestine. In the late 1800s and the first two decades of the 19th Century, many European Jews fled persecution and pogroms to move to settlements in Mandatory Palestine. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a mass migration of Jews into Palestine, many of them European Jews fleeing from anti-Semitic riots (caused by political movements in Germany) which would eventually lead to the Holocaust. By 1939 the population of Palestine was one-third Jewish (by comparison, in 1917 the population was only 10% Jewish), but after the end of WWII in 1945, the British did not allow any further Jewish immigration into Palestine, fearing that the Arabs would launch a revolt against Britain’s occupying forces if more Jews continued pouring into the colony.
The Jewish nationalist movement was strengthened significantly because of the events of World War II. Many major powers, including the Americans, endorsed Jewish independence in Palestine as the only way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. The British were more hesitant, however, as they worried about a possible Arab revolt. The Jewish nationalists, emboldened by support from the Americans and the French, grew impatient with the British delay in granting independence and started several armed uprisings of their own against British rule.
After two years of growing violence and terrorism, in the fall of 1947, the British decided to withdraw their troops from the remaining western third of Palestine. The UN recommended that the territory of Palestine be partitioned into two states: A Jewish state, and an Arab state. The Jews accepted the plan, but the Arabs firmly rejected it. Nonetheless, half a year later, on 14 May 1948, the British withdrew and the Jewish nationalists immediately declared independence as the State of Israel. The Arabs responded with a military invasion of the nascent State of Israel, and consequently, no Arab State in western Palestine was ever established. The Israelis won a decisive victory in their War of Independence. Over the course of the war, approximately 600,000 Arabs in Palestine fled from the territory of the newly proclaimed Jewish state. To this day, it is hotly debated whether Israel forcibly expelled these people or they moved out on their own, but probably both occurred.
Following the establishment of Israel in May 1948, there was a surge of immigration of refugees survivors of the European Holocaust which had not been allowed to enter Palestine under the British Mandate government. At the same time, the surrounding Muslim countries expelled most of their Jewish populations, and Israel experienced a further surge of immigration of these Sephardic Jews from countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. To this day a large proportion of modern Israelis are the offspring of these refugees from those Arab countries. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a further large wave of immigration of Jews from former Soviet countries and Russian has now become a common language heard in Israel. And in the past 30 years, Jews from Africa (and to a lesser extent, Asia & Latin America) have also been moving to Israel in large numbers, mostly from countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia.
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, further fighting continued over the next few decades, and the Israelis won another decisive victory against the Arabs in the June 1967 Six-Day War. Following this victory and again in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, a slow movement towards peace and reconciliation began. In 1979, peace was concluded between Israel and Egypt, and in 1994, a peace treaty was signed with Jordan. Both agreements have held to this day. Attempts to create similar treaties with Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian-Arabs have failed. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to dismantle the presence of the PLO, a nationalist Palestinian group that had taken refuge there and helped accelerate the Lebanese Civil War. Around this time the First Intifada was launched in the West Bank, with Palestinians carrying out acts of terrorism that were forcefully put down by Israel; and in 2000, failing peace talks, violence resurfaced when Palestinian-Arabs launched a violent insurrection against Israel, the so-called ” Second Intifada”. This has tapered off after the building of a wall in the West Bank. There have been occasional flare-ups over the past decade of missile attacks into southern Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip (from which Israel withdrew totally in 2005). Three wars have been fought between Israel and Hamas (in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014) so far, and one in 2006 with Hezbollah. Israel won all of these wars but has been pressured by the international community not to respond with enough force to completely destroy the Islamists, lest large numbers of civilians die or be forced from their homes in the conflict. In 2014, civil unrest began mostly in Jerusalem, with anti-Semitic incitement leading Palestinians to launch terrorist stabbing attacks against Israelis that have killed 27, against a backdrop of over 100 Palestinians that have been killed by the Israelis, with the conflict currently ongoing.
By the late 2010s, the conflict shifted again, as the US legitimized Jewish settlement construction on the West Bank, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv, and recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Several other countries have since moved embassies there. The Israelis carried out airstrikes in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and Lebanon against terror groups backed by Iran and Syria, and put down Palestinian riots as well. In 2021 Israel defeated Hamas in an 11-day spring war.