GEOGRAPHY & ENVIRONMENT
Palestine is located at the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, to the south of Lebanon and to the west of Jordan. Palestine, also referred to as the Occupied Territories, consists of the West Bank and the non-contiguous Gaza Strip. The separated Gaza Strip lies along the Mediterranean coast just to the east of Egypt; the two areas are separated by the state of Israel. The West Bank, so called because it borders the west bank of the Jordan River, generally has a rugged mountainous terrain with some vegetation in the west and is somewhat barren in the east. The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has a land area of 5,640 square kilometers plus a water area of 220 square kilometers, consisting of the northwest quarter of the Dead Sea. The area of the West Bank is landlocked. The Gaza Strip has an arid climate, while the terrain is flat or rolling, with sand dunes near the Mediterranean coast.
Palestine’s climate for the greater part of the year is pleasant. Winter lasts for three months, from mid-December to mid-March, and can be severe with temperatures often below freezing and up to 80% humidity on many days throughout the season. During the remainder of the year, the climate is temperate, with the hottest weather in the months of July and August. The summer heat eased by breezes coming from the Mediterranean Sea, and though hot in the daytime, temperatures cool down significantly at night.
Palestine’s environmental concerns are man-made and intertwined with the area’s geopolitical challenges. Under the Oslo peace agreement, Israel retained overall control of water from the West Bank. Most significantly, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967 has affected Palestinians’ access to water. In the 1967 war Israel gained exclusive control of the waters of the West Bank and the Sea of Galilee. Those resources – the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee – give Israel about 60% of its fresh water, a billion cubic meters per year. Heated arguments are ongoing about the rights to the mountain aquifer. In 2010, the allocation was disproportionate, and remains so today: Israel, and Israeli settlements, take about 80% of the aquifer’s flow, leaving the Palestinians with 20%. However, only about 14 percent of the water from the mountain aquifer is accessible to Palestinians in the West Bank because of dried out wells and poor infrastructure. The Palestinian Water Authority is completely dependent on Israel as the main supplier of water. Palestinians must buy additional water supplies from Mekorot, Israel’s water company, to meet the increasing demand of its population. Because the diminishing supply of water from aquifers and the Sea of Galilee are insufficient to meet the needs of Israel’s population, today, about 60 percent of Israel’s domestic water demand is met through desalination – the process by which salt and other impurities are removed from seawater to produce potable water. The downside of the proliferation of desalination plants is the accumulative effect of large quantities of salt being dumped back into the sea as a by-product of the desalination process. With an excess of water now available to Israel, the concept of water diplomacy is gaining traction as the region explores the possibility of overcoming political rifts through science.
Appropriation of land and water for use in Israeli settlements has also affected the agricultural and livestock output of Arabs. Moreover, Israel’s barrier wall frequently blocks access to Palestinian property as well as communal land shared by villages. The loss of grazing and farm land has been detrimental to traditional sources of livelihood for Palestinians.
In addition, the United Nations issued a report in 2015 that argued that the Gaza Strip could become “uninhabitable” within five years as a result of Israeli military operations and a nearly decade-long blockade that have crippled its economy and infrastructure. The coastal enclave is home to around two million Palestinians whose access to the Mediterranean is regulated. Furthermore consecutive conflicts between Gaza’s leadership Hamas and Israel has resulted in the destruction of much of Gaza’s water, sewage and electrical infrastructure. Fully repairing the infrastructure is virtually impossible due to restrictions on building materials associated with the ongoing blockades by Israel and Egypt. Gaza sewage is contaminating groundwater sources and has even been found on nearby Israeli beaches. Additionally, the over-pumping of water from Gaza’s underground natural aquifers has led to seawater seeping in, making it too salty to consume. Only 10% of Gaza’s population has access to safe drinking water, compared to 90% in the West Bank or about 85% in MENA in general.
After a seven-year hiatus, the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC), established under Article 40 of the 1995 Oslo Accord, resumed its meetings on May 16, 2017. A new mechanism was developed to accelerate the implementation of infrastructure projects — such as supply lines, tanks, water and sewage networks, water pumping stations and treatment plants — in many Palestinian areas in the West Bank. Concerned by the asymmetry in the JWC functioning, Palestinians had refused to sit in the committee since 2010.
Geography & Environment Resources
The place of origin of Judaism and Christianity, Palestine comprises a geographical area, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, that is separated today by the state of Israel. At times throughout history, as a result of various conflicts, there have been border shifts. Today, Palestine refers to the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, and is recognized as a de jure sovereign state in the Middle East.
Along with Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, the southeastern area of Turkey and western parts of Iran, Palestine makes up what was known as the Fertile Crescent or the cradle of civilization. Some of the earliest human settlements thrived there as a result of the agricultural and water resources provided by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. These civilizations flourished scientifically and creatively as well, developing writing, glass, and the use of irrigation.
The history of this land is fraught with turmoil and complexity. In 1250 BCE, the Israelites began conquering the region, which led to the reign of King Solomon in 961 BCE. The Babylonians conquered the kingdom in 586 BCE and exiled the Jewish people. Seventy years later, the Jews began returning. What followed was centuries of conquest by various empires beginning with the Greeks in 333 BCE, the Jews in 165 BCE, the Romans in 63 BCE, the Jewish Diaspora in 70 CE, the Muslims in 638 CE, the Crusaders in 1099 CE, back to the Muslims in 1187 CE, and eventually the Ottomans in 1517 CE. During Ottoman rule, particularly in the late 19th century, Zionist writers such as Theodor Herzl began emphasizing the need for a Jewish homeland as a result of increasing levels of anti-Semitism in Europe. Two possibilities were strongly considered: the United States and Palestine.
During World War I, the Ottomans joined the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Allied Powers (France, Britain, Russia, United States) supported Arab uprisings throughout the Ottoman Empire that would ultimately lead to its weakening and end. After the defeat of the Central Powers by the Allied forces, a series of private agreements resulted in the division of the area into sovereign states with mandate rulers.
In 1915, the High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, engaged in secret correspondence with Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Hejaz and Mecca. Sharif is a title meaning noble and refers to descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hassan Ibn Ali. McMahon expressed Great Britain’s promise of eventual recognition and support of an Arab state whose boundaries would be determined by Hussein. These exchanges, now known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (or, alternately, as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence) lasted from July 14, 1915 to January 30, 1916. In exchange for Arab support of the war efforts through revolts against the Ottomans, the British would recognize Arab independence. This commitment was not honored.
Meanwhile, also in 1915, British parliamentarian, Sir Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, looking toward a collapsed Ottoman Empire, carved up the Middle East into hypothetical spheres of influence under either British or French control. The Sykes-Picot agreement, drafted behind closed doors unbeknownst to other world leaders, would give the northern part of the Middle East, consisting of Christian enclaves in Syria and Lebanon to France, while Great Britain would have authority over southern territory including Palestine and Iraq.
In 1917, however, British Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour promised the Zionist Federation of Great Britain “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The Balfour Declaration of a homeland for the Jewish diaspora in what was believed to be a pre-emptory concession to the United States’ President Woodrow Wilson who most certainly would have disagreed with the Sykes-Picot redesign of the Middle East.
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INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
The current political status of the West Bank and Gaza is subject to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 1995, also known as the Oslo Accords. Permanent status is to be determined through further negotiations. Israel continues the construction of settlements and the separation barrier wall along parts of the 1949 Green Line that divides Israel and Palestine within the West Bank. Large sections of barrier walls often extend beyond the 1949 Green Line into territory captured in 1967. About 8.5% of the West Bank lies on the Israeli side of the barrier, mostly in East Jerusalem, with another 3.4% on the Israeli side of sections planned or under construction.
Settlement building in the West Bank remains a major obstacle to permanent peace agreements as does the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel, and intermittently by Egypt at the Rafah crossing. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), as of March 2013 there were between 300,000 and 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, 200,000 in East Jerusalem, and 20,000 in the Golan Heights, compared to 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 250,000 in East Jerusalem, and 1.7 million in the Gaza Strip. Israel officially recognizes 130 separate settlements in the West Bank.
The issue of Palestinian refugees continues as well. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates that there are roughly 449,957 refugees in Lebanon; 450,000 in Syria; and 2,097,338 in Jordan. These nations have encountered difficulty providing basic amenities for the refugees, and the migration of displaced Palestinians has changed the demographics of neighboring countries. Many Palestinians have faced further displacement due to regional instability attributed to the Islamic State. Palestinian Arabs in Jordan, many of whom have been granted Jordanian citizenship, are close to becoming the majority population over Jordanian Arabs.
Conflict about the waters of the Jordan River was a contributing factor to the Six-Day War when, starting in 1965, Syria attempted to divert some of its headwaters in collaboration with Lebanon and Jordan (Mehr, Farhang). The diversion works would have reduced the water availability for Israel’s carrier by about 35%, and Israel’s overall water supply by about 11%. In April 1967 Israel conducted air raids into Syria to halt this work, and two months later the Six Day War followed. The use of Jordan River’s water was cited as a cause of the war by Ariel Sharon; in his memoirs, he wrote that, “While the border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.” Israel’s control of water sources, desalination technology and distribution undoubtedly has a role in the ongoing tensions. View the environment section above for more details.
International & Regional Issues Resources
The Palestinian economy is almost entirely dependent on aid from foreign governments due to several factors inhibiting economic growth. Among these are the economic disruption from the continuing conflict with Israel, Israeli restrictions on economic activity, and the internal conflict between proponents of the PLO’s Fatah in the West Bank and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The GDP per capita, as estimated by the CIA World Fact Book, is only $2,900. By comparison, the GDP per capita in Israel is around $32,200. Palestine also suffers from severe unemployment. The West Bank and Gaza Strip together have the world’s 13th highest unemployment rate at 37% for males and 50% for females.
The Palestinian people are the modern descendants of the peoples who lived in Palestine for centuries, and who are, for the most part, culturally and linguistically Arab. According to the CIA World Fact Book, many are Palestinian refugees or internally displaced Palestinians, including: more than a million in the Gaza Strip, three-quarters of a million in the West Bank, and about a quarter of a million in Israel. Of the Palestinian population who live abroad, known as the Palestinian Diaspora, more than half are stateless (lacking citizenship in any country).
Palestinian Arabic is a subgroup of the broader Levantine Arabic dialect, a dialect of Arabic spoken throughout the areas of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Prior to the 7th century Islamic conquest and Arabization of the Levant, the primary languages spoken in Palestine among the predominately Christian and Jewish communities were Aramaic, Greek, and Syriac. Palestinian Arabic, like other variations of the Levantine dialect, exhibits influences in lexicon from Aramaic.
Since 1994, education in Palestine has been administered by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOEHE). Schools are typically either established by the PNA or UNRWA, and the MOEHE administers these with monetary support through the Ministry of Finance. Attendance is compulsory in Palestine from grades 1-10, and is typically divided into the preparatory stage (1-4) and empowerment stage (5-10). However, geographic constraints and the inability of some students to attend school make compulsory education unenforceable. Students can then continue to two years of secondary instruction in preparation for university studies. Palestine has several universities, including Al-Azhar University and Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, and Arab American University, Al-Quds University, and Birzeit University in the West Bank. Despite the challenges of lacking statehood, the educational system in Palestine has had moderate success. The literacy rate for Palestine is 92%, and enrollment in the empowerment stage of education is nearly 97%.
Enrollment in the Empowerment Stage of Education
Healthcare in Palestine is also administered through the PNA. The Ministry of Health provides an insurance plan for the Palestinian Territories, but in Gaza, this oversight has ceased since Hamas came into power. Foreign aid, taxes, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all contribute financial support and supplies to the Palestinian healthcare system. The majority of services for Palestinian refugees is provided by UNRWA, which provides direct healthcare services for refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, while allocating money for healthcare to refugees within Palestine. Movement restrictions, limitations on the flow of goods and supplies, and damage to Palestine’s healthcare infrastructure from years of fighting have all created serious barriers to improving the country’s quality of life. Because of these difficulties, many Palestinians seek treatment in Israeli hospitals across the border, paid for either by the PNA or at the patient’s expense.
Palestinians in the West Bank are predominantly Muslims (about 80-85%), the vast majority of whom are Sunnis. Palestinian Christians represent a shrinking minority (1-2.5%) due to lower birth rates and migration. Israeli settlement activity has brought the Jewish population to 12-14% in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There are small minorities of other faiths including Greek Orthodox, Druze and Samaritans. In the Gaza Strip, the population is almost entirely Muslim (99%). The Jewish population of about 9,000 left the area in 2005 following Israel’s plan to completely disengage from the territory.
Palestinian cultural contributions to the fields of art, literature, music, costume, and cuisine express a common Palestinian experience despite the physical separation between the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the Diaspora.
Traditional Palestinian cuisine features Mediterranean dishes like falafel, kebabs, and maftoul. Tabikh Zahra is a traditional cauliflower stew which includes stewed beef, cauliflower, chickpeas, tomatoes, cumin, and olive oil. Knafeh is a shredded phyllo dough pastry featuring sweet cheese and spices with a sugar and rose water syrup topping. The city of Nablus, in the West Bank, is particularly famous for its knafeh. Recipes for these dishes and many others can be found in cookbooks such as Leila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey.
Traditional Palestinian women’s clothes consist of long dresses with intricate embroidery and designs. Traditional men’s clothes include a standard thobe, and the keffiyeh. However, women also will wear the keffiyeh, at times, but mostly as a symbol of Palestinian resistance, for which the keffiyeh has become emblematic.
Palestinian art varies across four main geographic centers: the West Bank and Gaza Strip; Israel; the Palestinian Diaspora in the Arab world; and Europe and the United States. Contemporary Palestinian art finds its roots in folk art and traditional Christian and Islamic painting popular in Palestine over the ages. Before 1948, Palestinian art typically portrayed strong religious themes, particularly focused on Islam. After 1948, nationalistic themes have predominated as Palestinian artists use diverse media to express and explore their identity and connections to the homeland.
In April of 2013, construction began on the Palestinian Museum, which will be the main museum in Palestine that is dedicated to Palestinian art and culture. It plans to host a variety of exhibitions, education and research programs, and cultural events featuring both Palestinian and non-Palestinian artists. The museum is located in Birzeit, which is 14 km, or about 8 miles north of the city of Ramallah. The project was led by Palestinian curator Jack Persekian, who resigned from the position in spring 2016, causing a delayed opening. The museum opened in June 2016, albeit without any exhibits or collections.
The Ethnographic and Art Museum at Birzeit University is a museum which features two main collections: The Palestinian Costumes, and The Tawfiq Canaan Amulet Collection. The Virtual Gallery at Birzeit University is a leading art gallery in the Palestinian Territories and promotes visual art through exhibitions, training, and educational workshops. Its website is currently under construction.
Modern day art and music use the Palestinian resistance (to occupation) and daily struggles as sources of inspiration. A wide range of mediums, hip-hop groups such as DAM and street artists like Banksy, articulate sentiments from Palestine in their work.
Documentaries and films are frequently used to convey the Palestinian experience. The difficulty of everyday life in Palestine is a dominant theme in Palestinian film. These films, either produced in Palestine or abroad, seek to highlight the problems faced by ordinary Palestinians as they live and work in the region. As there are few cinemas in Palestine to view these films, Palestinian movies are often viewed in greater numbers regionally and internationally, particularly at film festivals. The Palestinian Film Festival in Australia is one such festival which is devoted to screening only films created in or about Palestine. Some of the best regarded films at this festival included Last Days in Jerusalem, Tears of Gaza, and Love During Wartime, a romantic tale of a Palestinian and an Israeli trying to stay together despite the difficult situation in Jerusalem.
Palestinian music naturally reflects the unique Palestinian experience. As might be expected, much of this music seeks to address the struggle with Israel, the longing for permanent peace, and love for the land of Palestine. One example of such a song is Baladi, Baladi (My Country, My Country), which has become the unofficial Palestinian national anthem:
Palestine, Land of the fathers,
To you, I do not doubt, I will return.
Struggle, revolution, do not die,
For the storm is on the land
A significant part of the Palestinian music tradition includes wedding songs and dancers. Wedding singers have been able to maintain the tradition of Palestinian songs while incorporating modern vocals and rhythms. Wedding singers draw from a repertoire of ceremonial material including henna songs sung at the henna ceremony, wedding processionals (zeffat), and popular dance songs.
Jerusalem features several landmarks which hold great significance to all three major monotheistic faiths.
Al-Aqsa Mosque, known as “the Farthest Mosque,” is the third holiest site in Islam after the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The site on which the mosque sits, along with the Dome of the Rock, is also referred to as al-Haram ash-Sharif or “Noble Sanctuary”. Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to Al-Aqsa during the Night Journey. According to Islamic tradition, the Night Journey occurred in the year 621 CE when Muhammad travelled in one night from Mecca to Jerusalem and visited previous prophets in heaven and learned of his status as the final prophet of Islam. Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad led prayers towards this site until the seventeenth month after the Muslim emigration to Medina, when God then directed him to turn toward the Ka’aba in Mecca. This same land is also known in Judaism as the Temple Mount, and is the holiest site in Judaism. The site of the Al-Aqsa mosque is generally accepted as the site where the First Temple was built by King Solomon (destroyed in 586 BCE), as well as the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, is a church inside the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The surrounding area is called Golgotha (the Hill of Calvary), and is thought to be the hill upon which Jesus was crucified. The Sepulchre itself is said to contain the place where Jesus was buried. The church has been one of the most important pilgrimage destinations since at least the 4th century as it is recognized by many Christians as the site of the resurrection of Jesus.
Located about 10 km (6 miles) outside of Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is located on the site traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. This church’s original basilica was completed in 339 CE and destroyed during the Samaritan Revolts which took place in the sixth century. The Byzantine Empire constructed a new basilica in 565 and made several additions, including large bell towers.
Sports such as tennis, wrestling, and basketball have become popular in Palestine in recent years; however, football (soccer in the United States) remains the most played sport. The Palestine Football Association was founded in the Palestinian Territories in 1962 and admitted as a member of FIFA in 1998 following the establishment of the PA. Palestine’s national football team, The Knights, have had moderate success in international football. They reached their highest ranking (115) in 2006, but the team has yet to qualify for either the Asian Cup or the World Cup.
Palestine has also made several appearances at the Olympics. The Palestine Olympic Committee has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee since 1995, and the organization has competed in every Summer Games since. Palestine has sent competitors in swimming, athletics, and judo, but has not received any medals to date. Athletes in Palestine face difficulty in receiving adequate training as the territory often lacks the proper equipment, funding, and coaching required to develop world-class competitors.
Parkour, urban acrobatics that involves leaping on and around structures, is also a popular pastime in Palestine, particularly Gaza. It is popular among Palestinian youth not only for its subversive quality and symbolism of overcoming obstacles, but also because the environment of buildings and ruins is ideal for free runners.
Palestine also boasts the world’s first all-female car-racing team, the Speed Sisters. Made up of five women from varying Palestinian backgrounds, the team customizes street cars for racing and practices on stretches of land next to Israeli military compounds. The team’s manager attributes her love of racing to frustration at Palestine’s frequent road checkpoints and traffic jams.
PALESTINIAN NEWS OUTLETS
English language digital magazine covering issues related to Palestinian refugees and other displaced people across the world
*For the purposes of this website, Palestine is defined as the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
**There are 2.5 million Arabs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. There are 1.8 million Arabs in the Gaza Strip. There are approximately 391,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank (2016) and approximately 201,200 Israeli settlers living in East Jerusalem (2014).