GEOGRAPHY & ENVIRONMENT
Palestine (Arabic pronunciation: Filas?een) 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 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 freshwater, 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 is 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 farmland 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 have destroyed 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. The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly requested for more wells in the West Bank, but these requests are usually ignored. Mekorot controls 42 wells in the West Bank. Since the summer of 2018, some parts of the West Bank only received water refills every 15 days.
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 the 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 peremptory concession to the United States President Woodrow Wilson who most certainly would have disagreed with the Sykes-Picot redesign of the Middle East.
Upon the conclusion of World War I, the people of greater Syria were unwilling to cede control to the French as outlined in the Sykes-Picot agreement. In April 1920, the Allied leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan swiftly convened at the San Remo conference to discuss the allocation of mandates for administration of the former Ottoman-ruled lands of the Middle East. Precise state borders would be determined at a later date. Ultimately, as a result of the San Remo conference, the Middle East lands of present-day Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were divided into different regions under the control of France and the United Kingdom with some variations from the original Sykes-Picot Agreement. Some of the current borders in the Middle East stem from this arrangement between western powers.
A large number of Jews began immigrating to Palestine in response to the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish state. The Jewish population in Britain was extremely politically active in lobbying for the continued support of the Zionist aspiration of a homeland based in Palestine. The Arab population in Palestine, previously the majority population, began protesting this development of a Jewish state in what the Arabs felt was historically their land. These demonstrations eventually turned violent and British authorities in mandate Palestine responded aggressively to the uprisings. Two Zionist groups, the Irgun, which would evolve into the Israeli Defense Forces, and Haganah, a militia, began attacking Palestinian civilians as well as British forces. Continued violence and upheaval resulted in the White Paper of 1939, a policy paper issued by the British government under Neville Chamberlain. The White Paper abandoned the idea of partitioning Palestine but promoted the creation of an independent Palestine to be governed by Palestinian Arabs and Jews proportionate to their numbers in the population by 1939. In addition, the White Paper limited the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine to 75,000 from 1940 to 1944, with a quota of 10,000 per year and a 25,000 supplementary allowance, after which further immigration would require the permission of the Arab majority population. Finally, there were restrictions placed on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs.
The British made a promise in the White Paper that a Jewish state would not be formed in Palestine. The Jewish populations, especially organized groups like the Irgun, were incensed by this decision but with the outbreak of World War II, their focus shifted to other, more immediate concerns facing the European Jewish population.
During World War II, the Irgun and Haganah fought alongside side the Allied forces against the Axis powers. The militant groups gained considerable combat experience and support because of their involvement. After the defeat of the Axis, the Irgun and other Zionist organizations shifted their focus back to the idea of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. The Irgun continued targeting British military positions culminating in the bombing of the King David Hotel, a 5-star hotel in Jerusalem, on June 22, 1946. The attack resulted in the deaths of 91 people along with 46 injured at the hotel, which, at the time, was the central office of British authorities in Palestine. In 1947, the UN released Resolution 181, which recommended the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, inciting more conflict. Great Britain grew weary of the ongoing animosity and violence; its resources were exhausted as a result of the devastation caused by World War II and the decision was made to leave the region and hand over control to the United Nations. The removal of British forces allowed the Irgun and Haganah to force Palestinians out of certain areas of Palestine. By May 14, 1948, the last British soldiers had left and Israel declared itself an independent state. This was further complicated by the December 1948 UN Resolution 194 which declares the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Following Israel’s formation, the surrounding Arab states attacked Israel. However, the Israeli forces, mainly the Irgun, had considerable combat experience from World War II and received arms and support from the United States. The Arab forces were pushed back and Israel remained an independent state. The defeat of the Arab armies and the Deir Yassin massacre (Irgun forces killed 107 villagers including women and children on April 9, 1948) terrified the Palestinians, resulting in large populations of refugees fleeing into Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan.
In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed and Yasser Arafat soon became its leader. The PLO became the primary force in combating Israel and was based chiefly in Jordan. In 1967, the Six-Day War began as Israel launched preemptive strikes against Egypt (who was attempting to mobilize its air force). Egypt, Syria, and Jordan launched attacks but all three were defeated resulting in Israel nearly doubling in size as a result of territorial gains. The United Nations condemned both sides and pressured Israel to withdraw forces from the land it seized. Israel withdrew from certain areas but remained in control of East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In the aftermath of the war, UN Resolution 242 was released, calling for a two-state solution. To this day, 242 provides the parameters for the recommendation of a two-state solution, though the two-state solution has become increasingly improbable due to political circumstances.
Meanwhile, in Jordan, tensions began to strain as the PLO began competing with Jordanian forces for authority in certain regions. This culminated in Black September in 1970 when the Jordanian military and PLO forces waged open war resulting in thousands of deaths and the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan. The PLO subsequently established a headquarters in Lebanon above the Israeli border.
In 1974, Yasser Arafat made his first appearance at the United Nations where he famously proclaimed, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” However, soon after the speech, the Likud, a right-wing Israeli political party who believed in extending Israel over all of the Palestinian territories, came into power. Their ideology and continued expansion of settlements resulted in a stunted peace process. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to force the PLO out of the region. Israeli forces quickly reached Beirut and established a ceasefire to allow the PLO to leave. However, Israeli troops surrounded two major Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, while protecting the Phalangists, a Christian militant group. During the occupation of Sabra and Shatila, the Israeli troops facilitated the massacre of thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children in the camps by blocking refugees from leaving and allowing the Phalangists to enter the camps. This resulted in an estimated 3,000 civilian deaths and the resignation of Israel’s defense minister, Ariel Sharon, who would later be elected as the 11th prime minister of Israel in 2001
By 1987, Palestinians began boycotting, protesting, and causing civil disobedience throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories. This spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza and is known as the First Intifada (uprising). The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded to these mostly nonviolent protests with brute force resulting in over 1,000 Palestinian civilian deaths over five years.
In the early 1990s, the peace process between Palestine and Israel began to grow. Initially, progress was stalled by Israel’s refusal to recognize the PLO. However, the election of the left-wing Labor party revitalized the process. The secret Oslo Accords made significant progress while public negotiations failed. The agreement resulted in the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat in front of an audience of 400 million people in 1993. By 1994, Israel agreed to withdraw military forces from the West Bank and Gaza (excluding areas of Israeli settlements). One year later, Oslo II was signed dividing the West Bank into 7 percent Palestinian control, 21 percent joint control, and the remainder controlled by Israel. This agreement angered extremists on both sides; radical Palestinians did not want to accept such a small proportion of the land while radical Israelis did not want to give up any “Jewish” land. This agreement resulted in the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish religious extremist on November 4, 1995. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1994 with the hope of creating an independent Palestinian state and economy, but ineffective leadership, political party infighting, the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, and the building of the separation wall have made this goal increasingly difficult to achieve.
Relations became strained in 1996 between Israel and Palestine as the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas began engaging in suicide bombings in Israel as a response to Israeli forces launching strikes in Lebanon. The election of Israeli, right-wing leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu as prime minister further strained relations as he began building settlements in Palestinian territories and campaigned against the Oslo peace deals. In 1999, Netanyahu lost reelection to Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor party. Frustration among the Palestinians began to grow as peace talks broke down. Barak and Arafat could not come to an agreement over Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Soon after, the right-wing Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon, toured the Temple Mount, the holiest site for Muslims in Palestine and Israel and the 3rd most important holy site for Muslims, while most Palestinians were restricted access to the Al Aqsa Mosque rather than the entire compound. This event combined with the stalled peace progress sparked the Second Intifada, a much more violent uprising than the first.
Barak stepped down as prime minister and Sharon took his place. Sharon emphasized using strength against the Palestinians, which became a popular decision as the Second Intifada become increasingly violent. Israeli strikes in Palestine and Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel both intensified. The Palestinian death toll began to soar as efforts by the U.S. to broker peace continued to fail. In 2002, intensified attacks by Palestinian forces resulted in Israel re-occupying the West Bank. Israel invaded several cities throughout the West Bank and began constructing its barrier wall in the West Bank thus isolating the Palestinians and restricting access to essential farmlands. According to Aljazeera in 2014, the full route, “as outlined in the blueprint approved by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, is 422 miles of zigzagging curves and loops, making it more than twice as long as the 199-mile-long Green Line. More than one-fifth of the planned barrier has not yet been constructed.”
Palestinians are required to obtain a permit to access their land on the other side of the barrier. The barrier wall has many entrances, or checkpoints, where traveling Palestinians are required to produce proper authorization for their vehicle, as well as themselves, to enter after careful inspection from Israeli security who issue fines for infractions. Each checkpoint has specific hours of operation, only allowing entrance during a certain window of time. Such rigid restrictions prevent many from obtaining basic human resources and aid including food, employment, education, and health services.
Arafat was under international pressure to rein in militant groups and reform the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas became prime minister of Palestine in 2003 as Israel and the U.S. refused to continue negotiations with Arafat due to his use and support of violence. Abbas achieved a temporary ceasefire of hostilities from Palestinian militant groups. However, internal disputes resulted in Ahmed Qurei replacing Abbas for brief periods in 2003 and later in 2005. Prospects of peace began to crumble as attacks resumed from both sides.
In April 2004, Israel began removing settlers and troops from Gaza and the West Bank. However, construction of the barrier wall in the West Bank continued despite international pressure against the project. The International Court of Justice in The Hague pronounced the barrier illegal but this did not deter Israel. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat died of a blood disorder in November 2004; he was replaced by Mahmoud Abbas. In 2005, Israel completely withdrew from Gaza. After Israel withdrew from the area, Hamas won elections in Gaza. The political legitimization of Hamas led to political strife and instability between Fatah and Hamas, dividing Palestinian politics. Hamas refused to commit to stopping its violent acts towards Israel and refused to acknowledge the state of Israel and previous agreements between the PA and Israel. This caused the United States, Russia, the European Union, and several Western and Arab States to impose sanctions on Hamas and Gaza that froze all foreign aid.
After Hamas won elections in Gaza, they acted independently of Fatah in the West Bank, stoking political deadlock that hurt the PA greatly. Fatah refused to cooperate with Hamas. The international community backed Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. Abbas boycotted the Hamas-led Palestinian parliament, (explained in the government section) and received all international funding directly. The lack of cooperation rendered Parliament dysfunctional and without proper financial support. Tensions peaked when someone tried to assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah. Hamas accused Fatah-backed security forces of carrying out the attack, an accusation Fatah denied. Clashes between Hamas supporters and Fatah supporters sporadically broke out in the West Bank from 2006 to June 2007.
In June 2007, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Ismail Haniyah, Hamas’ political leader, from his post of Prime Minister. Abbas declared a state of emergency to dissolve the government. He named Salam Fayyad, a Fatah politician, as the new Prime Minister. This move was strongly backed by the international community, which lifted sanctions against the PA in a move to help bolster a Fatah-led Palestinian government. Clashes broke out in both the West Bank and Gaza. In 2008, both sides signed the Sana’a declaration Yemen, a reconciliation deal that would restore Gaza to pre-2007 rule. However, efforts to help reconcile the groups stalled as Hamas protested the Abbas government’s detention of hundreds of Hamas members.
Since the political split in 2007, attempts have been made to reconcile both sides, but both sides’ inability to act in good faith and actions of individual actors have jeopardized the efforts. Today, the tensions are still high, as Egyptian President, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi backs Fatah and the two sides are still politically opposed to one another. In 2014, both sides signed a reconciliation deal that would help unify Hamas and Fatah. The new government was set to be loyal to Abbas’s Fatah-led government, but have independent ministers that would be accountable to their own party and citizens. This deal flamed out as the Palestinian Parliament never approved the new government. Both sides made shifts to their ministers that irked the other side. Mistrust is still high between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas governs Gaza, while Fatah governs the West Bank.
In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly officially upgraded the status of Palestine from observer status to “non-member observer state,” with the resolution passing with 138 votes in favor, 9 opposed, and 41 abstentions. The United States threatened to use its veto power to prevent similar action in the United Nations Security Council. The de facto international recognition of the State of Palestine has allowed Palestine the opportunity to pursue legal claims against Israel in international courts, although Palestine has declined this opportunity citing the desire to work out direct negotiations with Israel instead. On January 3, 2013, in response to these developments, the PA officially changed its name to the State of Palestine.
The Refugee Situation
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides services to over 1.5 million registered Palestinian refugees. This growing figure only represents roughly one-third of the refugees, as the majority of refugees are unregistered. Currently, over 5 million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA services and shelter from the organization’s 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Many of the approximately 527,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in Syria before the war have faced double displacement, forced to flee their homes because of the Civil War. Overcrowding and access to basic services are a major issue for refugees in camps, and beyond; for example, the Gaza Strip is the 5th most densely populated area of land in the world with 5,046 individuals per square kilometer.
Sources used for this section include:
BBC’s Timeline of Palestine
The British White Paper of 1939
Bushra, S. (2014, September 25). Fatah-Hamas agreement gives unity government control over Gaza. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
Institute for Middle East Understanding
Life in the Gaza Strip. (2014, July 14). Retrieved February 3, 2015.
Neep, D. (2015, January 3). Focus: The Middle East, Hallucination, and the Cartographic Imagination. Retrieved January 27, 2015, from
United Nations Refugee Reliefs and Works Agency, www.unrwa.org
Palestinian Authority officially changes name to ‘State of Palestine’ (2013, January 5). Retrieved February 4, 2015.
Tharoor, I. (2014, December 22). Map: The spread of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
Yourish, K., & Keller, J. (2014, August 8). The Toll in Gaza and Israel, Day by Day. Retrieved January 20, 2015.
Zand, B. (2014, January 31). Century of Violence: What World War I Did to the Middle East. Retrieved January 28, 2015.[/toggle]
The official government of Palestine was established by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1994 under the second Oslo Accords with Israel. The PLO was permitted to establish an independent government with civil and security powers over some urban Palestinian territories and civil powers over rural Palestinian territories. The government, called the Palestinian National Authority (PA) ruled a unified Palestine until 2006 when Hamas split with the PA after the election of the first Hamas Prime Minister led to the revocation of international recognition and foreign aid. Since then, barring brief experiments in unified interim governments, the PA has governed de jure Palestine as a whole, while Hamas has de facto controlled Gaza.
The PA functions as a parliamentary, semi-presidential democratic republic, governed by a nominally temporary constitution called the Basic Law and features three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The president, currently Mahmoud Abbas, is elected directly for four-year terms with a two-term limit (although Abbas has served since 2005). The president is the commander in chief of the security forces, manages Palestinian foreign relations, can veto legislation, and can issue executive orders while parliament is not in session. The president also appoints the prime minister. However, the prime minister is accountable to the legislature.
The legislature is called the Palestinian Legislative Council. It is a unicameral legislature comprised of 132 representatives elected by a system of proportional representation. Each representative serves a four-year term. There are a certain number of seats reserved for Christians, and political parties must include a certain number of women in their lists, including one in the top three politicians. Fatah, a secular nationalist party with Mahmoud Abbas as its leader, is the dominant political party, and Hamas, its opposition, has boycotted local elections since 2007. Regional governments are broken up into sixteen governorates (11 in the West Bank and 5 in the Gaza Strip), administered in three different categories: “Area A,” which is under PA administration and security, “Area B,” under PA administration but joint PA/IDF security, and “Area C,” under Israeli administration and security. The Palestinian Legislative Council is largely nonfunctional following the conflicts with Hamas and the difficulty of holding elections, so the PA is largely governed by the president and the presidentially appointed prime minister.
The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has administered Gaza from 2016-2014 and 2016-on, having ceded control to the PA from 2014 to 2016 to participate in the ill-fated Unity Government. The current government of Hamas does not have a clearly delineated structure, election process, or accountability. Hamas, a nationalist Sunni-Islam group considered by many in the international community to be terrorists, governs in an ad hoc fashion mostly intending to ensure the physical security of the Gaza Strip. While there exists a body of ministers tasked with different administrative goals called the Supreme Administrative Committee, the de facto executive of Gaza is the leader of Hamas, currently Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas receives limited international recognition in the form of aid, such as a 2012 deal with Egypt for fuel, and receives most of its funding from Gulf states.
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
Issues With Israel
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 with 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. In October 2020, an Israeli court ruled for the removal of several Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. This ruling sparked a renewal in Palestinian protest over the forced removal of Palestinians from their property to clear the way for Israeli settlers. When the final ruling came in May 2021 upholding the removal of the Palestinian families, many Palestinian protestors took to the streets, leading to clashes with the police at al-Aqsa mosque. Many Palestinians were injured during the clashes.
Following this outbreak of violence, days of clashes erupted all over Jerusalem. Hamas launched hundreds of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip in response, leading to indiscriminate bombings from Israel, killing at least 20 civilians. This round of fighting ultimately ended in a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
The issue of Palestinian refugees continues as well. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates there are roughly 449,957 refugees in Lebanon, 450,000 in Syria, and 2,097,338 in Jordan. The UNRWA estimates that there are 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in total. 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.
The United Nations estimated that over 72,000 Palestinians were displaced due to the outbreak of violence in Jerusalem during May 2021. The Arab League encouraged its members to not allow Palestinian refugees to become citizens in their countries to protect Palestinian identity. Israel’s official stance is that Palestinians have a right to become full citizens of Israel, but in practice, this has been proven to be untrue.
Jordan River Water Conflict
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.
Palestine’s Diminished Importance to Other Arab States
A combination of factors has led to decreased importance for Palestine over the past few years. Domestically, Palestine’s internal political divide makes it hard for other Arab states to know how to support the PA. Supporting Fatah in the West Bank could be viewed as a direct endorsement for Fatah and its policies, leading to ridicule and retaliation from Hamas. On the other hand, the same can be said for supporting Hamas in Gaza in regards to Fatah. Additionally, supporting Hamas could draw ire from the international community, as Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, many European powers, and Israel. Also, there is a sort of fatigue associated with the Palestinian campaign for independence and international recognition. The conflict has raged on for 70+ years, and the actors and political context have changed dramatically.
Externally, the Arab World has changed greatly since the inception of the conflict in 1948. Post-Arab Spring conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya have garnered more attention from regional players. Also as countries like Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates have changed the regional narrative. No longer is the Israel-Palestine conflict a fight between Arabs and the state of Israel. These changes have made it harder for the Arab World to act unilaterally, and have led to a more nuanced and diminished approach to Palestine overall.
International & Regional Issues Resources
Palestine uses the Israeli new shekel as its currency and is prohibited under the Protocol on Economic Relations from creating its own currency. Because of this, Palestine is reliant on Israel to provide currency, making Palestine reliant on Israel to set its own monetary policy.
Generally, agriculture makes up the backbone of the Palestinian economy. According to the Council for European-Palestinian Relations, 13.4% of the population is formally employed in the agriculture sector. Informally, it is estimated that around 90% of the population works in agriculture. Palestine’s most profitable export is olives. Olives generate more revenue in export income than any other crop. There are numerous problems for the Palestinian agricultural sector that has led to the impoverishment of the sector. Israeli blockades have limited exports and also slowed down or completely stopped the importation of necessary inputs for olive and crop cultivation. The confiscation of land and wells for Israeli settlers or military use has created instability in farming. Land disputes between Palestine and Israel are directly reflected in the Palestinian agriculture sector. Handicrafts and stonecutting are other key exports. The handicraft economy is central to cities like Bethlehem, Hebron, and Nablus.
The high-tech industry has taken root in Palestine, partly because of Palestine’s proximity to Israel and its own growing technology sector. By 2013, 4,500 Palestinian’s worked in IT, primarily in manufacturing tech equipment, software outsourcing, and telecommunication development. In 2010, the technology sector accounted for 5% of Palestine’s GDP. By 2017, it was estimated that venture capitalists had invested nearly $150 million into tech startups. Both the West Bank and Gaza have seen a fledgling tech industry grow in their territories.
Tourism is another important industry as the West Bank houses many important biblical sites that attract Christians from around the world. The issue with Palestinian tourism is twofold. One, most visitors only visit as part of a day trip for a few hours. Out of the 4.9 million tourists in 2010, only around 500,000 of them stayed in Palestinian hotels during their trip. The other problem is that the Israeli government has harsh restrictions on visiting Palestinian territories. These restrictions make it hard for visitors to freely visit Palestine.
Foreign aid is important to the Palestinian economy, as well as ensuring a decent quality of life for Palestinians. In 2010, approximately 30% of Palestine’s GDP was a direct result of foreign aid. Many Western states such as the United States, Great Britain, and other EU states work through Israel to send aid to Palestine. As a result, Israeli economist, Shir Hervir, estimates that as much as 78% of the foreign aid to Palestine is pocketed by Israel. Making it hard to track where the money goes, thereby decreasing the political popularity of sending aid to Palestine amongst Western governments and their constituencies. The GDP per capita, as estimated by the CIA World Factbook, 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.
According to the Palestinian government, there are four major problems directly caused by Israel. First, the blockades and restrictive border access have led to increased transportation costs and other inputs, leading to an overall high transaction cost for Palestinian businesses. The government estimates that transaction costs are 30% higher for Palestinian businesses compared to the world average, causing Palestinian businesses to be significantly less competitive in the global market. The second problem is that Israel holds all import tariffs from the Palestinian government. The PA estimates that nearly half of its trade income comes from these tariffs. Since the funds are withheld, this leads to huge trade deficits for the PA. This causes the PA to rely heavily on volatile foreign donations to offset the deficit. The third problem is that Israel restricts the movement of Palestinian workers into Israeli territory, meaning that many Palestinians are out of work and cannot generate an income for their families. The final problem is that most Palestinian imports and exports go through Israel, and Israel can set high prices and tariffs on these products.
The COVID-19 pandemic also had negative effects on the Palestinian economy. After only a month of lockdowns, Palestinian revenue from trade, tourism, and transfers decline to the lowest level in nearly 20 years. The economy is projected to contract in 2021 by 4.5% of its GDP.
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 Factbook, 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. Before the 7th century Islamic conquest and Arabization of the Levant, the primary languages spoken in Palestine among the predominantly Christian and Jewish communities were Aramaic, Greek, and Syriac. Palestinian Arabic, like other variations of the Levantine dialect, exhibits influences in the 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 the 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 administered through the PNA. The Ministry of Health provides an insurance plan for the Palestinian Territories, but in Gaza, coverage has stopped 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 are 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 that 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 rosewater 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.
Similar to the diverse structure of Palestinian society, Palestinian art extends over 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 that 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 films. 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 that 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 traveled 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, has 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 freerunners.
Palestine also boasts the world’s first all-female car-racing team. 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).