Israel is in the Middle East, located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a relatively small country, 470 km. (290 miles) in length and 135 km (85 miles) across at the widest point. Its area is 22,145 square km (8,630 sq. miles), of which 21,671 sq. km. (8,367 sq. miles) is land area. The country is bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan to the east, Egypt to the southwest and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Jerusalem the capital and is the seat of government.
Israel has a relatively diverse topography, a wide range of unique physical features and micro-climates with a long coastal plain, highlands in the north and central regions, and the Negev desert in the south. Running the length of the country from north to south along its eastern border is the northern terminus of the Great Rift Valley. It is a land of contrasts with mountains and plains, fertile land, and desert are often minutes apart. The width of the country, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Dead Sea in the east, can be crossed by car in about 90 minutes; and the trip from Metulla, in the far North, to Eilat at the country’s southern tip takes about nine hours.
The State of Israel is the only Jewish state in the modern period and has a lengthy and rich history that dates from pre-biblical times. The area was a part of the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire before falling under the control of the fledgling Islamic caliphate in the 7th century BCE. Although the object of dispute during the Crusades, the region, then generally known as Palestine, remained under the control of successive Islamic dynasties until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, when it was placed under British mandate by the League of Nations.
Towards the end of the 19th century the desire for a Jewish homeland and successive persecution prompted Jews to migrate to Palestine. This grew dramatically during the second quarter of the 20th century with the increased oppression of Jews worldwide and subsequent Holocaust. The modern state of Israel independence was declared on the 14th May 1948.
Israel has fought a series of wars against neighbouring states who declared their hostility to the new state. These have resulted in ongoing disputes over territory. Despite continuing tensions Israel made peace treaties with several neighbouring Arab states during the final quarter of the 20th century.
Israel has four geographical regions. Three parallel strips running north to south and a large, mostly arid, zone in the southern half.
The coastal plain runs parallel to the Mediterranean Sea and is composed of a sandy shoreline. The plain is a narrow strip about 185 km (115 miles) long that widens to about 40 km and provides fertile farmland in the south. In the North, expanses of sandy beach are occasionally punctuated by jagged chalk and sandstone cliffs. The coastal plain is home to more than half of Israel’s 7 million people and includes major urban centres, deep-water harbours, most of the country’s industry, and a large part of its agriculture and tourist attractions.
Several mountain ranges run the length of the country. In the northeast, the basalt landscapes of the Golan Heights, formed by volcanic eruptions in the distant past, rise as steep cliffs overlooking the Hula Valley.
The Galilee is mostly composed of limestone and dolomite and ascend to heights ranging from 500 to 1,200 m (1,600 to 4,000 feet) above sea level. Perennial streams and relatively ample rainfall keep the area green all year round. Many residents of Galilee and the Golan are engaged in agriculture, tourism-related enterprises, and light industry.
The Jezreel Valley, separating the hills of Galilee from those of Samaria, is Israel’s richest agricultural area, cultivated by kibbutzim and moshavim. The rolling hills of Samaria and Judea (the West Bank) present a mosaic of rocky hilltops and fertile valleys, dotted with groves of age-old, silver-green olive trees. The terraced hillsides, first developed by farmers in ancient times, blend into the natural landscape. The population is concentrated mainly in small urban centres and large villages.
The Negev which is about half of Israel’s land area is sparsely inhabited with an agricultural and industrial economy. To south the Negev becomes an arid zone with low sandstone hills and plains, abounding with canyons and wadis in which winter rains often produce flash floods.
The southern the region is an area of bare craggy peaks, craters, and rock-strewn plateaus, where the climate is drier and the mountains are higher. Three erosive craters, the largest of which is about 8 km (5 miles) across and 35 km (21 miles) long, cut deeply into the earth’s crust, displaying a broad range of colours and rock types.
At the tip of the Negev, near Eilat on the Red Sea, sharp pinnacles of grey and red granite are broken by dry gorges and sheer cliffs, with colourful layers of sandstone glowing in the sunlight.
Lake Kinneret which lies between the hills of Galilee and the Golan Heights at 212 m (695 feet) below sea level, is 8 km. (5 miles) wide and 21 km (13 miles) long. It is Israel’s largest lake and was the country’s main water reservoir until the development of desalination plants. Along Lake Kinneret’s shores are some important historical and religious sites, as well as agricultural communities, fisheries and tourist facilities.
The Jordan Valley and the Arava, along the country in the east, are part of the Syrian-African Rift, which split the earth’s crust millions of years ago. Its northern stretches are extremely fertile, while the southern portion is semi-arid. Agriculture, fishing, light industry and tourism constitute the area’s main sources of income.
The Jordan River, flowing from north to south through the Rift, descends over 700 m (2,300 feet) in the course of its 300 km (186 mile) route. Fed by streams from Mount Hermon, it runs through the fertile Hula Valley into Lake Kinneret and continues winding through the Jordan Valley before emptying into the Dead Sea. While it swells during the winter rainy season, the river is usually quite narrow and shallow.
The Arava, Israel’s savannah region, begins south of the Dead Sea and extends to the Gulf of Eilat, Israel’s outlet to the Red Sea. Adaptation of sophisticated farming techniques to climatic conditions, where the average annual rainfall is less than 25 mm (one inch) and summer temperatures soar to 40º C (104ºF), has made it possible to grow out of-season fruit and vegetables, mainly for export. The sub-tropical Gulf of Eilat, noted for its deep blue waters, coral reefs and exotic marine life, lies at the southern tip of the Arava.
The Dead Sea which is the lowest point on earth at about 400 m (1,300 feet) below sea level, lies at the southern end of the Jordan Valley. Its waters, with the highest level of salinity and density in the world, are rich in potash, magnesium and bromine, as well as in table and industrial salts.
The Dead Sea’s natural pace of recession has been accelerated in recent years due to a very high rate of evaporation (1.6m, 5 feet – annually) and large-scale diversion projects undertaken by Israel and Jordan for their water needs, causing a 75 percent reduction in the incoming flow of water. As a result, the surface level of the Dead Sea has dropped some 10.6 m (35 feet) since 1960. A project to link the Dead Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by means of a canal and pipe system, which may help restore the Dead Sea to its natural dimensions and level, is under consideration.
Soil and Drainage
The coastal plain is covered largely by alluvial soils. Parts of the arid northern Negev, where soil development would not be expected, have windblown loess soils because of proximity to the coastal plain. The soils of Galilee change from calcareous rock in the coastal plain, to Cenomanian and Turonian limestone (deposited from about 99 to 89 million years ago) in Upper Galilee, and to Eocene formations (those dating from about 55 to 35 million years ago) in the lower part of the region. Rock salt and gypsum are abundant in the Great Rift Valley. The southern Negev is mainly sandstone rock with strains of granite.
The main drainage comprises is the Kinneret and the Jordan River. Other rivers in are the Yarqon which flows into the Mediterranean near Tel Aviv; the Qishon, which runs through the western part of the Plain of Esdraelon to drain into the Mediterranean at Haifa; and a small section of the Yarmūk, a tributary of the Jordan that flows west along the Syria-Jordan border. Most of the country’s remaining streams are transient and flow seasonally as wadis. The rivers are supplemented by a spring-fed underground water table that is tapped by wells. Before the development of desalination plants Israel had a chronic water shortage. Water has always been a key political issue in the region.
Israel’s climate ranges from temperate to tropical, with plenty of sunshine. Two distinct seasons predominate: a rainy winter period from November to May; and a dry summer season which extends through the next six months. Rainfall is relatively heavy in the North and center of the country, with much less in the northern Negev and almost negligible amounts in the southern areas.
Regional conditions vary considerably, with humid summers and mild winters on the coast; dry summers and moderately cold winters in the hill regions (including Jerusalem), hot dry summers and pleasant winters in the Jordan Valley; and year-round semi-desert conditions in the Negev. Weather extremes range from occasional winter snowfall at higher elevations to periodic oppressively hot dry winds, which send temperatures soaring, particularly in spring and autumn.