The country is a narrow, irregularly shaped strip of land with four principal regions: the plain along the Mediterranean coast; the mountains, which are east of this coastal plain; the Negev, which comprises the southern half of the country; and the portion of Israel that forms part of the Jordan Valley, in turn a part of the Great Rift Valley. North of the Negev, Israel enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with long, hot, dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters. This northern half of the country has a limited but adequate supply of water, except in times of drought. The Negev, however, is a semiarid desert region, having less than 10 in. (25 cm) of rainfall a year.
The most important river in Israel is the Jordan. Other smaller rivers are the Yarkon, the Kishon, and the Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan. Other bodies of water include the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea (part of which belongs to neighboring Jordan and the West Bank). Owing to interior drainage and a high rate of evaporation, the waters of the Dead Sea have about eight times as much salt as the ocean.
The highest point in Israel is Mt. Meron (3,692 ft/1,125 m) near Zefat. The lowest point is the shore of the Dead Sea, which is c.1,400 ft (425 m) below sea level, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. In addition to Jerusalem, other important cities include Tel Aviv–Jaffa (see separate entries on Tel Aviv, Jaffa), Haifa, Beersheba, and Netanya).
Israel proper is made up of about 76% Jews, about 18% Arabs, and the rest Druze and others. While the Jewish population as of 1948 consisted mostly of those from central and E Europe (not including Russia), Jews from African and Asian countries came in increasing numbers after 1948. The majority of the current Jewish population was born in Israel. Around 500,000 Russian Jews have arrived in recent years, as have most of the small population of Ethiopian Jews (see Falashas). The Arab population is primarily Sunni Muslim; a smaller proportion are Christians. Hebrew is the official language, while Arabic is used officially for the Arab minority and English is widely spoken.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.