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The Palestinian Territories


It’s impossible to define Palestine without causing fists to rise on one side or the other. Both Jews and Arabs consider the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean and Egypt to the south as part of their holy homeland. The area has seen mass migrations of people and decades of violent conflict. Boundaries have been drawn and redrawn; peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have failed and failed again.

After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust in Europe, the United Nations divided what was previously known as Palestine into two states of approximately equal size, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The city of Jerusalem was placed under international control. The Arabs, who owned the majority of the land, rejected the plan and attacked Jewish settlements. The Israelis fought a war of independence and expelled much of the Arab population, an event Palestinians refer to as “the catastrophe.” After eight months of battle, the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its Arab enemies ended the war and established the “Green Line,” a temporary truce line between the Palestinians and Israelis. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Green Line divided dense communities and villages, and in some cases, it even separated farmers from their fields. It also divided Jerusalem in half.

Both Jews and Arabs consider the disputed territory to be their homeland. In 1967, as Arab threats against Israel mounted, Israel launched a preemptive war against its Arab neighbors. In what is known as the Six-Day War, Israel took control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

Following an Israeli-Egyptian peace accord, brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982. But Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation continued. A popular uprising known as the first intifada erupted in 1987. (The literal translation of the Arabic word intifada is “shaking off”; it is loosely translated as “uprising.”) In 1993, the Oslo Accords, signed by then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, called for a transition toward Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (the Palestinian Territories), where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were living in refugee camps. It was supposed to be an interim agreement leading to the creation of a Palestinian state. The Oslo Accords stipulated that Israel would be responsible for the security of the Jewish settlements within the Palestinian Territories.

For many Palestinians, the Oslo Accords brought great hope, but also disappointment and anger as they realized the plan did not address their claims to Jerusalem or the right of return for thousands of refugees.

Negotiations over the future status of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank resurfaced in 1999, only to be derailed in 2000 by an outbreak of violence known as the second intifada.

Israel continued to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories under the hard-line Israeli Likud Party, provoking a violent response from the Palestinians.

Widespread violence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the emergence of suicide bombers as a Palestinian tactic, and political instability within the Palestinian Authority (PA) undermined further peace efforts. According to figures from the Palestinian Red Crescent, between 2000 and 2004, nearly 4,000 people died, 3,000 of which were Palestinians. In June 2002, President George W. Bush outlined a “road map” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, proposing a two-state solution. But the plan quickly foundered as Washington pursued the war in Iraq. Upon Arafat’s death in November 2004, many hoped that the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected as the new leader of the Palestinians, would pursue an agenda of peace. Israel’s 2005 withdrawal of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and the recent landslide election victory of the militant Hamas Party have stirred fear and hope on both sides.


Israel covers an area slightly smaller than New Jersey and has a total population of 6.2 million. The West Bank has a population of 2.3 million, mostly Palestinian but including 187,000 Jewish settlers. There are 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, from which the more than 8,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated in August 2005. Overall, about 20 percent of Israel’s population is estimated to be non-Jewish.

Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem—a divided city—as their capital. Most foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv.


According to the Palestinian Economic Council for Reconstruction and Development (PECDAR), the annual per-capita income in Gaza averages US$700. Palestine’s economy, at $3 billion, is one-fortieth the size of Israel’s economy, at $130 billion.

The unemployment rate among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is 35 percent; the percentage of Palestinians living in poverty (those living on $2 a day) is running as high as 65 percent. Palestinians rely heavily on being able to move across the border into Israel to find work.

The West Bank has suffered economically since the second intifada in 2000. Israel has instituted border closures that have affected the ability of Palestinians to travel to their jobs. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Palestinians out of the 125,000 who used to work in Israeli settlements or in joint industrial zones have lost their jobs. International aid to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has prevented economic collapse, but the unemployment rate and business closures are still on the rise.

SOURCES: BBC; FRONTLINE/World; Al-Jazeera; PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer; CIA Factbook; PECDAR [Palestinian Economic Council for Development And Reconstruction]; World Bank; The New York Times.

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Israel and the Palestinians

This BBC site gives an in-depth profile of the conflict. The site includes key maps, video and audio archives, profiles of leaders on both sides, and a link to

Institute for Palestinian Studies

The Institute for Palestinian Studies, a nonprofit organization established in Beirut in 1963, is devoted to the research and analysis of Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The site hosts books and journals as well as a fully computerized library that contains more than 50,000 volumes in Arabic, English, Hebrew and French.

United Nations: Question of Palestine

This site lists the United Nations’ position on key issues and events, including the separation barrier and the two-state proposal. The site includes the full text of such documents as the road map for a two-state solution and numerous U.N. resolutions.

This site hosts audio files of Palestinian songs, photographs of life in the territories, detailed historical timelines and archived political documents. The Palestinian-run site provides a subjective view of the current conflict.

Middle East Policy Council

This U.S.-based nonprofit organization was founded in 1981 to provide political analysis of issues affecting U.S. policy in the Middle East. The council holds forums for government officials and the media as well as workshops for educators across the United States. The site includes numerous links to academic, business and educational sites related to the Middle East.

Palestinian Declaration of Independence

This 1988 document from the Palestine Ministry of Information states, “Palestine, the land of the three monotheistic faiths, is where the Palestinian Arab people was born, on which it grew, developed and excelled. Thus the Palestinian Arab people ensured for itself an everlasting union between itself, its land and its history.” Political commentary on the Declaration can be found at

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Map of Palestine

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