Palestine: Country profile

A country linked to prophets, historical richness and continuous civilisation dating back thousands of years, Palestine is overwhelmed by a bitter conflict caused by a lengthy Israeli occupation.

Palestinian map and flag

The name itself, in the Arabic language, has two poignant meanings, first as something beautiful and second as the land protected by God.

While the Palestinian people’s claim over the land is derived from historical, cultural and geographical connections, Israel has occupied most of historic Palestine for more than 50 years based on biblical interpretations.


Palestine lies on the western edge of Asia and towards the eastern extreme of the Mediterranean Sea.

On its northern side is Lebanon and Syria and to its east is Jordan. To the south lies the Gulf of Aqaba and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula and to the west is the Mediterranean Sea.

Historical background

The history of Palestine dates back to the earliest days of human civilisation.

Tiny grains of corn were all archaeologists needed to place Palestine as one of the oldest sites of farming in the world. As early as 9000CE, emmer wheat was being sown in Stone Age settlements and, today, fossilised husks can still be found in the town of Jericho.

The earliest known ancestors of today’s Palestinians, the Canaanites, were sophisticated city dwellers who arrived in the region from approximately 3000BCE onwards.

The Canaanites had trading links with Africa, Asia and Europe. Ports, including Gaza, saw spices and luxury goods passing through their docks and across the Mediterranean to major cities around the ancient world.

But Palestine’s strategic position, and later religious historical experience, has made it a natural battleground for great powers in the world, attracting conquerors and occupiers up to this day.

Modern political history

Five major wars have defined the Arab-Israeli conflict mostly over the question of Palestine. 

Over the past two decades, two popular uprisings have added to the cauldron that bubbles the Palestine-Israel issue and has raised Palestine in world public consciousness like never before.

But the conflict started much earlier than the intifada (uprising) of 1987 and the ongoing intifada of 2000.

In the modern era, the conflict dates back to the British mandate over Palestine in the 1920s.

Palestinian Arabs were furious over the illegal migration of Jews, mostly from Europe, to Palestine. Popular uprisings commenced, the most popular being the strike of 1936.

In November 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine in to two entities, one Arab and one Jewish. The plan received a cool reception, especially from the indigenous Palestinian majority who were left with less territorial control.

Britain’s mandate over Palestine came to an end on 14 May 1948, a move that was received by Jewish leaders with the immediate declaration of the state of Israel on the land of Palestine.

Israeli gangs that led a guerrilla war on Palestinians and Britain, including various terrorist bombings, joined in forming the first Israeli government. 

The declaration of a state also meant a large-scale ethnic cleansing of thousands of Palestinians. The Israeli move is still considered the roots of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Currently, there are nearly five million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Disorganised and with a limited mandate, troops from Egypt, Syria and Jordan entered Palestine to prevent the mass exodus of Palestinians and to counter the Israeli army’s violence.

The war proved disastrous. Despite the steadfastness of the resistance, nearly one million Palestinians were made homeless, while much of the historical land of Palestine was now part of the new state of Israel.

Between the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) and the current uprising, al-Aqsa Intifada, several major Arab-Israeli wars were fought of which the question of Palestine was a central component. 

The most emblematic of these wars are the 1956 Suez war, the 1967 six day war, the 1973 October war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

In late 1987, Palestinians led a popular uprising against Israel in the occupied territories (areas occupied by Israel in the 1967 war). Palestinians demanded a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the mostly peaceful uprising.

The uprising of the late 1980s came to an end in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords between the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Yasir Arafat and Israeli prime minister at the time Yitzhak Rabin.

The Oslo accord was received with suspicion by many Palestinians, who witnessed little change on the ground and whose economy remained highly dependent on Israel.

Another uprising, al-Aqsa Intifada, broke out in September 2000. The uprising was the outcome of years of frustration by the continuing Israeli occupation and the incompetence and corruption of the Palestinian Authority (which was formed following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993).

The act blamed for inflaming the  intifada was the provocative visit by the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to al-Aqsa Mosque. On 28 September 2000, Sharon, guarded by more than a 1000 soldiers, walked into one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Clashes broke out when hundreds of worshippers defended the mosque. Israeli troops responded with live ammunition, killing seven and wounding many more. Palestinians throughout the occupied territory rose up in mass protests.

The present intifada differed from previous ones in that Palestinian groups resorted to armed struggle and the use of human bombers. Hundreds of Israelis have been killed, many of them civilians. Israel has adopted a policy of wielding the iron fist, killing thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, and assassinating political and resistance activists.

Several peace initiatives have failed as the US government of George W Bush seems increasingly disinclined to pressurise Israel in to ending its occupation. Instead, Bush has held Arafat personally responsible and dubbed Sharon, a “man of peace”. 

The current intifada, like those in the past, is an expression of deep frustration and resentment amassed since the Nakba of 1948.

Official name: State of Palestine
Capital: Al-Quds (Jerusalem)
Form of government: Republic 
Gained independence: Still under occupation


The current intifada has had serious effects on an already dependent and ailing Palestinian economy.

Economic activity has essentially ceased as food supplies have been restricted following the Israeli imposition of lengthy and punitive curfews. Thousands of Palestinians are barred from working inside Israel.

Unemployment has soared, reaching 65% in some areas. Poverty is also widespread, especially in the Gaza Strip.

Under Israeli pressure, much of the humanitarian aid that used to reach Palestinians was halted, under the banner of preventing “supplies” to the enemy in the international War on Terrorism.

Currency: Israeli Shekel (ILS) and Jordanian Dinar (JOD) – 1 USD = (app.) 4.5 ILS; 1 USD = (app.) 0.7 JOD
Natural resources: Arable land
Major industries: Small family businesses that produce cement, textiles, soap, olive-wood carvings and mother-of-pearl souvenirs.
GDP: $3.4bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: -19.1% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $800 (2002 est)
Imports: 46.6% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 12.3% of GDP (2002 est)


The Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have an army. Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, the PA was allowed to build up a police force of several thousand. Among other duties, it was entrusted with safeguarding the Israeli border from Palestinian resistance attacks.

Following the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada, much of the police force was disbanded. Most stations were bombed by the Israeli army and, as a result, many officers joined the resistance.

Currently, there are attempts to reorganise and train officers in Gaza, mostly to assuage Israel’s demands for security.


Palestine has a deep and complex cultural heritage, with much of it associated with the history of the land. The religious significance of places such as Jerusalem is unparalleled anywhere else, it being home to three world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The whole city is rich with archaeological biblical and Quranic landmarks.

Population: 3.5 million (2003 est)
Languages: Arabic, English
Religions: Muslim (mostly Sunni), Christian, Jewish
Ethnic diversity: Palestinian Arabs
Literacy Rate:  male: 78.8%, female: 61% (2003 est)
Important Media: Al-Quds (based in al-Quds, largest-circulation Palestinian daily), Al-Ayyam (based in Ram Allah, daily newspaper), Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah (Palestinian National Authority daily newspaper), Voice of Palestine (official station of Palestinian National Authority), Palestine TV (official station of Palestinian National Authority), Palestine Satellite Channel (Gaza-based, run by Palestinian National Authority), Private TV stations include Al-Quds Educational TV, Al-Mahd TV, Al-Majd TV, Al-Nawras TV, Al-Sharq TV, Amwaj TV, Bayt Lahm TV, Shepherds TV and Watan TV

Sources: World Bank,, MSN Encarta,, The World Almanac  

Source: Al Jazeera