(shown in blue) is located in the Middle East, along the eastern
coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is bordered by the Occupied
Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Lebanon,
Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Long and narrow in shape, the country is about 470 km
(290 miles) in length and 135 km (85 miles in width at its widest
point. (In Canadian terms, it easily fits inside Lake Winnipeg.)
Although small, Israel has a variety of topographical
features ranging from forested highlands and fertile green valleys to
mountainous deserts, and from the coastal plan to the semitropical
Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.
Approximately half of Israel's land area is semi-arid.
The climate is sunny much of the time, with a rainy season from
November to April. Total annual precipitation ranges from 50-125 cm
(20-50 inches) in the north, to less than 2.5 cm (1 inch) in the far
south. Regional climatic conditions vary considerably: hot, humid
summers and mild, wet winters on the coastal plain; dry warm summers
and moderately cold winters with rain and occasional light snow in the
hill regions (photo at right shows snow on Temple Mount in 2003); hot,
dry summers and pleasant winters in the Jordan Valley; and semi-arid
conditions with warm to hot days and cool nights in the south.
Israel and Palestine are home to over 380 kinds of
birds, some 150 species of mammals and reptiles, and nearly 3,000 plant
varieties (of which 150 are native to the region).
The scarcity of water in the region has generated intense efforts to
maximize use of the available supply and to seek new resources. In the
1960s Israel's freshwater sources were joined in an integrated grid
whose main artery, the National Water Carrier, brings water from the
north and center to the semi-arid south. Ongoing projects for utilising
new sources include cloud seeding, recycling of sewage water and
desalinization of sea water. In recent years, population growth and
expansion of agriculture combined with drought conditions have
increased water usage to the point at which there are fears of major
irreversible ecological damage to Lake Tiberias (also known as the Sea
of Galilee or Lake Kinneret) and other areas.
Israel is a country of immigrants. Since its birth in
1948 the population has grown 700%. Its over six million inhabitants
comprise a mosaic of people from varied ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles,
religions, cultures and traditions. At the end of the 20th century,
close to 79% of the population was Jewish from various parts of the
world while the remaining 21% were mostly Muslim with a tiny Christian
minority. Due to birth rate, religious conversions and immigration away
from Israel, the Jewish percentage of the population is falling.
Without a "two state" solution (creation of the State of Palestine) the
majority of the population is expected to be Moslem before 2020.
Approximately 90% of the population lives in some 200
urban centers, some of which are located on ancient historical sites.
Tel Aviv, on the coast, is the largest city and is the center of
commerce. Jerusalem is considered by Israel to be its "undivided"
capital, and is (including the areas occupied since 1967) the second
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with legislative,
executive and judicial branches. Unfortunately the judicial branch is
virtually toothless when it comes to ruling on legislation. The
government has no system of "checks and balances" such as that existing
in the USA, and other government bodies are free to ignore rulings of
the Supreme Court if they disagree with them.
The Head of State is the President, whose duties are
mainly ceremonial and formal. The office symbolizes the unity and
sovereignty of the state. The Knesset, Israel's legislative authority,
is a 120 member unicameral parliament which operates in plenary session
and through 14 standing committees. Its members are elected every four
years in nationwide elections, or sooner if the government falls. The
Government (a cabinet of ministers) is charged with administering
internal and foreign affairs. It is headed by a Prime Minister and is
collectively responsible to the Knesset.
Because of the large number of political parties, and
because for party representation in the Knesset only a tiny percentage
of the national vote is required, it is almost impossible for an
election to produce a majority government. In recent decades, Israel
has lurched through a series of relatively unstable coalition
School attendance is compulsory from age five, and free
through age 18. Almost all three and four-year olds attend some kind of
preschool program. This school system does not mesh well with either
the Canadian, American, British or International Baccalaureate systems.
There are a few barely adequate international schools in the country,
but Diplomats and Expatriates should consider boarding schools in their
home countries for children over 10 to 12 years of age.
Israel's universities offer a wide range of subjects in
science and humanities and serve as research institutions of worldwide
repute. There are also colleges which offer academic courses and many
vocational schools. The country's high level of scientific research and
development, and the application of R&D, help to compensate for
its lack of natural resources.
Health Care and Social Services
The National Health Insurance Law, in effect since
January 1995, provides for a standarized basket of medical services,
including hospitalization, for all residents of Israel. All medical
services continue to be supplied by the country's four health care
organizations. Unfortunately, there have been rumours in the press
about the low standard of care offered by some of these "for profit"
HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations). During our stay in Jerusalem
(2001 to 2004), we noticed that the general level of cleanliness in the
local hospitals, both campuses of Haddassah General as well as St
Joseph's and several smaller clinics, seemed to be significantly lower
than in comparable Canadian facilities. As we are not medically trained
we were not qualified to judge the level of medical competence
available, although I was prescribed a penicillin derivative after
informing an English speaking doctor that I had an allergy to
penicillin. Caveat Emptor.
Life expectancy for the majority Jewish population is
80 years for women and 75.9 years for men. The infant mortality rate is
5.8 per 1,000 live births. The ratio of physicians to population and
the number of specialists compare favourably with those in most
developed countries. Health statistics for the Arab minority are
The social service system is based on legislation which
provides for worker protection and a range of national and community
services including care of the elderly, assistance for single parents,
programs for children and youth, adoption agencies, as wel as
prevention and treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse. The National
Insurance Institute provides all permanent residents (including
non-citizens) with a range of benefits including unemployment
insurance, old-age pensions, survivors' benefits, maternity grants and
allowances, child allowances, and income support payments.
Israel's industry concentrates on manufacturing
products, primarily based on technological innovation, with a high
added value. These include medical electronics, agro-technology,
telecommunications, computer hardware and software, solar energy, food
processing and fine chemicals.
Agriculture represents some 2.5% of GNP and 3.5% of
exports. Israel produces 95% of its own food requirements, supplemented
by imports of grain, oil seeds, meat, coffee, cocoa and sugar. Imports
are more than offset by agricultural exports.
55% of imports and 37% of exports are with Europe,
boosted by Israel's free trade agreement with the EU (concluded in
1975). As similar agreement was signed with the USA (1985), whose trade
with Israel accounts for 19% of Israel's imports and 35% of exports.
The official languages of the country are Hebrew and
Arabic. English and Russian are also widely spoken.
We lived in East Jerusalem, in a neighbourhood called
Beit Hanina. It is one of the safest places in the region. The IDF
(Israel Defense Forces) doesn't attack it because they consider it to
be part of Jerusalem. The Palestinian suicide bombers don't attack it
because it is a Palestinian neighbourhood. Click here to learn about
our life in Beit Hanina.
This is a very sad time in the history of Israel and
Palestine. Almost everyone in the civilian population, on each side, is
Even though this is an extremely troubled and troubling
part of the world, it is also a fascinating region. To live within
minutes of the old city of Jerusalem where one can see sections of wall
dating back to the third century BC is awe inspiring. To walk in the
old city, in a place which has known human habitation for so long is a
humbling experience. To visit places mentioned in the Bible is amazing.
Links to the rest of the Israel
section of this website: