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new internationalist
issue 239 - January 1993

Country profile: Israel

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The biblical Hebrew name 'Israel' means 'a person who struggles with God'. Modern Israelis struggle not only with God but also with the Arabs. They struggle too amongst themselves, for they are divided between religious and secular, left and right, between western origin and oriental origin.

For Jews, Israel's very existence is a modern miracle. After 2,000 years of Jewish exile (Diaspora), and the Nazi Holocaust which claimed six million European Jewish lives, the new state rose from the ashes of British-mandated Palestine in 1948.

But Israel has never known peace. It has fought five major wars with its Arab neighbours since 1947. In the 1967 war it acquired the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip. Initially seen as a security buffer against future attack, the Occupied Territories contain nearly 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs whose hostility to often harsh Israeli rule erupted in the intifada of 1987. International sympathy for Israel waned, even amongst Diaspora Jews.

In the 1992 election voters rejected the right-wing Likud, and returned Yitzhak Rabin's Labour Party to power on a promise to restart the Arab-Israeli peace talks. Unlike Likud, Labour rejects a biblically sanctioned Greater Israel and favours trading 'land for peace'.

The cost of defence and absorbing Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants has led to a housing shortage, high inflation and record unemployment. Money diverted to 'political settlements' in the Occupied Territories will now return to fund essential social projects.

If peace comes, some predict that Israel will become the high-tech Singapore of the Middle East. But peace may be elusive.

There are some four million Palestinians world-wide, almost as many as Israelis. Like pre-Israel jewry they long to 'return home'. Some 800,000 Arab Israeli citizens enjoy most civil rights, but their cousins in the Occupied Territories suffer from political constraints, deportations, curfews and punitive house demolitions. Behind the facade of heroic unity, Palestinians are split between hawks and doves, Christians and Muslims, secularists and fundamentalists. Israeli moderation serves to deepen the chasms.

Israel beat the British Empire to gain a state. It sees itself as David versus a 140-million strong Arab Goliath. But many Arabs see Israel as the West's Trojan horse and dispossessor of their brethren.

Perhaps the new administration will change attitudes. The Occupied Territories are stuck in legal limbo, neither annexed nor granted autonomy. Old verities have shattered since the Gulf War and recent multilateral peace talks. Yet hours after Labour's victory, six more people had died in the Territories. Perhaps one day Jerusalem will live up to its Hebrew name - 'God's City of Peace' - but God alone knows when.

Lawrence Joffe


LEADER: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$ 9,790 (US $20,910)
Exports Arms; citrus fruit, avocados, nuts, f lowers and bananas. Much of the food production comes from the socialist kibbutzim (collective settlements) and moshavim (co-operative land-holdings).Tourism is a major foreign-currency earner. The US subsidizes Israel to the tune of $400 annually for each citizen. In the Territories, olive trees form the mainstay of the Palestinian economy. The West Bank and Gaza form captive markets for Israeli goods and provide cheap labour for jobs which Israelis prefer not to do.

PEOPLE: 4.6 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 14 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: lsraels population reflects the diverse origins of Jewish immigrants.
Religion: Israelis the world's only Jewish state, and 82 per cent of the population are Jews, with a Muslim minority and some Christians.
Languages: Officially Hebrew and Arabic. French, English, Romanian, Russian and Amharic are also widely spoken.

Sources: Keesings Record of World Events, Vol 37, No 2, supplement 1991; Israel and the Palestinians (Longman 1989); Jerusalem Report magazine; The State of the World's Children 1992.



Income distribution

INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Few millionaires, but many poor Palestinians.


LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
95%. Good schools and universities.


SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Much US aid, but economy diversifying.


FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Good for Israelis; poor for Palestinians.

Position of women

POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Can vote; have civil rights, but rabbinical laws affect marriage etc.

Life expectancy

LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
76 years (US 76 years); lower for Palestinians.



Politics now

Labour coalition favours State spending.


NI star rating

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