Ismail K Jalili


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4 History and Geography of Palestine
4.1   Introduction 4.6    Demographic changes

4.2   The West Bank

4.3   The Gaza Strip  
4.4   Israel
4.5   Topography and terrain

4.10sabilities in blindness



In Greek and Roman times, the name Palestine was applied by Herodotus and other Greek and Latin writers to mean the Philistine coastland and sometimes also to the territory between it, and the Jordan Valley. Early in the Roman Empire, the name Palastina was given to the region around Jerusalem. The Byzantines in turn named the province west of the River Jordan, stretching from Mount Carmel in the north, to Gaza in the south, Palaestina Prima. It was limited eastward and northward, and was extended southward, so that it came to describe the region between the Taurus, the Euphrates, the Syrian Desert, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. The name Palestine evolved to denote the Middle Eastern region situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, west of Jordan, south of Lebanon and north of Sinai.(1)

In geopolitical terms, Palestine constitutes the south-western part of a huge geographical unity in the eastern part of the Arab world, ‘Bilad El-Sham’. In addition to Palestine, ‘El-Sham’ contains Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.  It used to have common borders with these countries, in addition to Egypt.


Palestine’s earliest known inhabitants were the Canaanites. Theirs was the first of a series of migrations that headed north-east out of the Arab penin­sula about 3,500 BC. Persistent famine and harsh climatic conditions forced successive waves of migrants northwards to the Bilad el Sham. The Bible refers to the Arab tribes that settled west of the River Jordan as ‘Canaanites’ and to the land as ‘the country of the Canaanites’ (Exodus 3:17). Of its capital city, Jerusalem, Josephus Flavious writing in the first century, recorded that it was founded by the Canaanites. Melchiisadek, the ‘Right­eous King’ built it.  He was a contemporary of the Prophet Abraham (Genesis 14:18).


In the 8th century BC it was conquered by the Assyrians; from the 3rd to the 1st century BC, Egyptian, Syrian, and Hebrew armies fought for its possession. During the Roman occupation it was called Minoa.


At the time of the arrival of the Israelite tribes in Canaan in the 12th cen­tury BC, the population of the country included, apart from the Canaanites (Phoenicians), the Hittites, Amorites, Edmites, Moabites and Philistines. The Palestinian people of today are the descendants of the Philistines.


Gaza was an important city in the 15th century BC, when the Egyptian king Thutmose III made it a base for his army in a war with Syria. In biblical times Gaza was one of the five royal cities of the ancient Philistines.


In the 7th century AD Gaza became a sacred Muslim city, but the Crus­aders found it almost deserted in the 12th century. Gaza fell to the French general Napoleon Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign.


Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of WW1 when it came under the British mandate. In 1948, it was divided into three political identities, Israel and two Arab regions annexed to neighbouring Arab countries. The Gaza Strip came under Egyptian administration and followed the economic sphere of that country, with open routes and free travel to any part of Egypt together with the closer social and economic ties between the two that had always existed historically. The educational system and school curriculum was also that of Egypt. The West Bank on the other hand became an integrated part of the Kingdom of Jordan.


Because of its location in the middle of several Arab countries, Palestine constitutes a combin­ation of natural and humanistic geography, comprising the originality of Bedouin life in the south, and that of long settlement in the north.


More importantly, Palestine lies at the crossroads of three continents; Europe, Asia and Africa. It is a holy land to the three major mono­theistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As such it has held, and continues to hold, a pivotal place in world history. (2), (3)

4.2 The West Bank

The West Bank is the term used to mean the disputed lands located west of the Jordan River between Israel and Jordan. (Figure 4.1) It covers an area of 5,879 sq km (about 2,278 sq miles) and is roughly 130 km long and 40-65 km wide. It is hilly and, for the most part, rugged terrain which changes from desert and scrub landscape in the south to more lush vegetation in the north. The West Bank has an average elevation of 750m, but it also comprises Jericho and the shores of the Dead Sea which, at 390m below sea level, forms the lowest point on earth.(4)

The West Bank currently supports a population of about 2,090,713 (est. July 2001).  The population figure for the period in question (1985-87) was approximately 836,000 in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). It holds many sites of religious importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The largest cities of the West Bank are Jerusalem (Al-Quds), situated centrally, Hebron (al Khalil), location of the tomb of Abraham, and Nablus.

The area is divided north-south by limestone hills (Samarian Hills north of Jerusalem, Judean Hills south of Jerusalem) with an average height of 700-900 metres. The principal municipalities are Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Jericho (the latter being the municipality on the River Jordan).(5)



Figure 4.1 Map of West Bank (Google Maps)

(Accessed 3 October 2010)


4.3  Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip is an area of 378 sq km (ie 146 square miles), some 45 km long and 5-12 km wide. 
(4) (Figure 4.2)
The region is mostly flat and the soil sandy. Gaza, (Arabic: Ghazze), is a city and port near the Mediterranean Sea, about 32 km north of the Egyptian border. This ancient city has given its name to the Gaza Strip. It has an 11km border with Egypt, near the city of Rafah, and a 51km border with Israel. It also has a 40 km coastline onto the Mediterranean Sea.

The terrain is flat or rolling, with dunes near the coast. The highest point is Abu 'Awdah (Joz Abu 'Auda), at 105 metres above sea level. Natural resources include arable land (about a third of the strip is irrigated), and recently discovered natural gas.

The Gaza Strip is densely populated; an estimate in July 2001 put the population at 1,178,119 – with more than 99% of its population being stateless Palestinian Arabs.  At the time this study was undertaken (1985-87), the population was 545,000.  The majority are refugees from Israel who have lived under extremely difficult conditions in the refugee camps since 1948. There are eight refugee camps containing one third of the population. The non-camp population at the time of this study, approximately one tenth of the population, travelled daily to work in Israel.  The area was maintained jointly by the United Nations Welfare and Relief Agency) and the Israeli Civil Administration.

Environmental issues include desertification, salination of fresh water, sewage treatment, water-borne disease, soil degradation, and depletion and contamination of underground water resources.

The per capita Gross National Product of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is US $1500-2000. Using United Nations definitions, the territories are economically one of the ‘least developed’ areas of the world.
(2) (4)(5)

Figure 4.2  Map of Gaza Strip

Source: (accessed 3 October 2010)



The Muslim population in Israel, excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip, form two thirds of the Arab population there. The remainder are made up of various religious and ethnic minorities which include Greek Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholics, Uniates (ie Greek Melchites), Maronites, Chaldeans, Syrian Catholics and Armenian Catholics. (1), (2)

4.5 Climate

The climate of Palestine fluctuates between the climate of the Mediterranean Sea and a desert climate. The climate in the West Bank is temp­erate; temperature and precipitation vary with altitude, warm to hot summers, cool to mild winters. In the Gaza Strip the climate is also temperate with mild winters, dry and warm to hot summers. (2)

4.6 Topography and Terrain

Palestine can be divided into four main distinct regions. (4) (Figure 4.3)  

 Coastal and Inner Plains

These are among the most fertile lands in Palestine, with adequate resources of irrigation (from rainfall and underground water). They are where most of the Palestinian citrus groves used to stand. The coastal stretch is divided by Jabal al-Karmel (Mount Carmel) into the plain of Akka (Acre) and the plain of Palestine (also called Saruunah). The inner part consists, largely, of Marj bin Saamir. This is triangular in shape, with Jenin and Nazareth (An-Naasirah) at its base and the south-east edge of the Akka (Acre) plain as its sharp corner


Mountains and Hills 

This part is largely rocky but has terraces which make it suitable for a number of trees, olives being the most prevalent, in addition to almonds, apples and others. There are also patches of plains scattered around this region and these are fully utilised, being planted with wheat, barley and lentils in winter and vegetables during the summer (mostly tomatoes, melons, maize and other heat tolerant vegetation). Mountains are located in Galilee (al-Jalil), al-Karmel, Nablus and Hebron areas.

Jordan Valley and Ghawr (depression)

This is well below sea level, hence the name ghawr (depression), with very good soil but very little water resources. Agriculture depends on irrigation either from local streams or the Jordan River.   Due to its climate the region used to produce summer vegetables in late winter stretching the availability of fresh produce before electricity and refrigerators. The two lakes are at the northern edge of this region.

The Southern Desert

This region comprises almost half of the land of Palestine.  It is also triangular in shape. The base is fertile and the rest, with its apex near the town of Aqaba, is poor with scattered patches of regions suitable for cultiv­ation. Bi'r al Sab' (Beersheba) is the main town in that region.


  Table 4.3  Topography and terrains of the West Bank and Gaza Strip  

4.7 Demographic Changes

The area has seen major demographic movements of its population since 1948, when the British Mandate came to an end. At that time the population of Palestine was estimated at a total of 2,115,000 persons of which 1,415,000 were Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, and 700,000 were Jewish. (Figure 4.4)

According to the United Nations partition plan of 1947, the total land area of Palestine (26,323,00 dunums) should have been divided into a Jewish state made up of 56.47% of Palestine (15,261,648 dunums); and a Palestinian state of 42.88% (11,589,868 dunums).

Following the 1949 Armistice Agreement however, Israel controlled 77.94% of Palestine. Only 22.06% of Palestine was left outside Israeli control. The West Bank fell under Jordanian control, and the Gaza Strip fell under Egyptian control. Following the 1967 war however, Israel has occupied these areas.

The effect of these events has been that between 1917-49, 750,000 people were displaced from their homes to become refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and adjoining countries. Further displacements increased that figure to 1.5 million. At the current time, out of a total population of 4.7 million Palestinians, 3.4 million are refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA). Of these, 38% live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; 40% live in Jordan; Syria and Lebanon and the remainder are in other neighbouring countries or have moved to Europe, USA, Canada and South America. (Figure 4.4)

This change of demography was best described by General Moshe Dayan in 1969: (Quoted by Ha'aretz, April, 4 1969 and reproduced by Prof. Walid Khalidi in the book "All That Remains.’

 ‘Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don't blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehu­shu'a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

 (Figures 4.5, 4.6. 4.7)

  Figure 4.4 Demographic changes of the Palestinian territories. (3)  











Figure 4.5  Ruins of a Palestinian  village (6) Table 4.6 The mass exodus of Palestinians in 1984 (6)

Figure 4.7  A scene from Jabalia Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip in 1987 during the survey 1987) (7)

    The late Professor david Smith in the background screening the camp children

Palestine Info. From The Land and History: The geography of Palestine. Updated 31 January 2003, 17:53. (Accessed 15 March 2004)


Palestinian Return Centre. (Accessed 11 October 2003)

(3) Passia Org. (Accessed 6 August 2005)

Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Country Profiles. Middle East and North Africa.

(Accessed 23 July 2004)

(5) Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. West Bank and Gaza Strip – Country Profile, 2004. (Accessed 20 June 2004)

Palestine Remembered. (Accessed 17 February 2005)

Khaldi W. The Palestinian villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. (Accessed June 2005)

Ismail K Jalili 2000-2016