Official name: State of Israel
Area: 20,770 square kilometers (8,019 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Meron (Har Meron) (1,208 meters/3,963 feet)
Lowest point on land: Dead Sea (408 meters/1,339 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 2 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 320 kilometers (200 miles) from north to south; 110 kilometers (70 miles) from east to west
Land boundaries: 1,006 kilometers (625 miles) total boundary length; Egypt 255 kilometers (158 miles); Gaza Strip 51 kilometers (32 miles); Jordan 238 kilometers (148 miles); Lebanon 79 kilometers (49 miles); Syria 76 kilometers (47 miles); West Bank 307 kilometers (191 miles)
Coastline: 273 kilometers (170 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
Israel is a small country located in the Middle East, bordering Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank to the east, the Gulf of Aqaba to the south, Egypt and the Gaza Strip to the southwest, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Israel consists of six administrative districts or mehoz: Central, Haifa, Jerusalem, Northern, Southern, and Tel Aviv.
In addition to the land within the country's original 1948 borders, Israel also controls the areas known as the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip These are collectively called the occupied territories. They were captured from Jordan, Syria, and Egypt during wars in 1967 and 1973, and have been occupied by Israel since that time. These occupied territories are not recognized as an integral part of Israel. Syria claims the Golan Heights, while Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have long sought to become independent of Israel.
Israel has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are hot and dry; winters are short, warm, and wet. Average summertime temperatures range from 24°C (75°F) at Safed, in the hills of Galilee, to 34°C (93°F) in Elat, the southernmost point of the Negev Desert, where high temperatures in August can reach 46°C (114°F). The hot, dry desert wind called the hamsin can raise the high summer temperatures even higher, as well as fill the air with sand and dust. Temperatures in January, the coldest month, average 13°C (56°F) on the coastal plain and 16°C (60°F) in the southern desert.
Rainfall is lightest in the south, ranging from 3 centimeters (1 inch) per year south of the Dead Sea to 118 centimeters (44 inches) in the hills of Galilee. Most rain falls between October and April.
Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel occupies most of the region historically known as Palestine. A dramatic variety of physical landscapes are found within Israel's narrow borders, including the hills and mountains of Galilee, the Mediterranean coastal plains, the dry area of the Negev Desert, and the Dead Sea—the lowest point on the surface of the earth. The country can be divided into four major regions: the coastal plain to the west, the upland areas in the central and northern parts of the country, the Great Rift Valley along its eastern border, and the Negev Desert to the south.
The Golan Heights, located to the northeast along the Israeli-Syrian border, is an upland region covering 1,710 square kilometers (660 square miles). Its major topographical sections are the Hermon Range to the north and the Golan plateau to the south. The West Bank (5,878 square kilometers/2,270 square miles) is the former Jordanian section of Palestine, whose major physical features are the hills of Judea and Samaria and the Jordan River Valley. The Gaza Strip is a narrow strip of land at the southern end of Israel's Mediterranean coast, adjacent to Egypt, with an area of only 363 square kilometers (140 square miles) and a maximum width of only 13 kilometers (8 miles).
Israel is situated along the border between the African Tectonic Plate and the Arabian Tectonic Plate. The border between these two plates forms part of the Great Rift Valley, the world's most extensive geological fault, which extends southward through eastern Africa as far south as Mozambique.
Israel lies on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean coastline is almost entirely smooth. The southern tip of Israel borders the Gulf of Aqaba, a gulf of the Red Sea.The soft pink and red coral that line the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba give the Red Sea its name. Both the coral and the plentiful marine life in these waters make the City of Elat a popular diving and snorkeling center, and home to an extensive underwater observatory and aquarium.
Israel has no notable sea inlets or straits. The only indentation is at the mouth of the Kishon River, at the port city of Haifa. In the extreme south, Israel also has a short shoreline on the Gulf of Aqaba, an extension of the Red Sea.
Israel's smooth coastline is dotted with many sandy beaches. These beach areas are bordered by agricultural land.
Israel's two major lakes (both called "seas") are the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias, or the Kinneret) in the northeast, bordering the Golan Heights; and the Dead Sea to the south along the border with Jordan. The two bodies of water are connected by the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilee actually contains fresh water, the largest such body of water in the country. The Dead Sea is a large saltwater lake. It is the lowest spot on the surface of Earth. Its high salt and mineral content gives it a bright green hue and makes it extremely easy to float in—it is possible to "sit" on the surface of the lake and remain afloat.
The Jordan River, which makes up part of the border between Israel and Jordan, is the country's largest and best-known river, as well as its main source of water. Three of its sources—the Banyas, the Dan, and the Hasban—rise on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Along its 322-kilometer (200-mile) course, the Jordan descends over 701 meters (2,300 feet) to the Dead Sea. While the river swells during the rainy season, for most of the year it is a small, muddy stream that can be forded easily at several points.
Most of Israel's other rivers are seasonal, drying up in the summer. Israel's major rivers are the Jordan; the Yarqon, which drains into the Mediterranean near Tel Aviv; and the Kishon, which enters the Mediterranean farther north, near Haifa. All rivers except the Jordan flow into the Mediterranean.
Descending eastward to the Dead Sea, the Judean Hills turn into the Judean Desert, a scenic wilderness. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s where this desert meets the Dead Sea.
Where the Judean Hills end in the south, the Negev Desert begins. Although it comprises two-thirds of Israel's land area, it contains only a small percentage of the population. The Arava, an extremely dry stretch of desert between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, has an average annual rainfall of less than 2.5 centimeters (1 inch), and its summer temperatures are very high.
Israel's narrow coastal plain includes the Plain of Judea, south of Tel Aviv, and the Plain of Sharon, between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israel's largest plains area is the fertile Esdraelon Plain, which extends southeast from the Mediterranean coast near Mount Carmel to the Jordan River valley, separating Galilee from Samaria. The Kishon River in the west and the Harod River in the east drain this region. The Valley of Jezreel lies at its eastern end, between Mount Gilboa and the Hill of Moreh, and the entire plain itself is often referred to as Jezreel.
The hills of Galilee are located in the northern part of the country. Farther south, two hilly regions—Judea and Samaria—make up most of the West Bank and also extend into Israel proper. Nestled in these hills lie the cities of Jerusalem, Nābulus, and Hebron (Al Khalil).
Next to Israel's mountains are several valleys: the Hula, between the mountains of Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights; the Caper-naum, near the Sea of Galilee; and the Jezreel Valley, on the Esdraelon Plain, between Mount Gilboa and the Hill of Moreh. The Great Rift Valley runs from north to south along the border between Israel and Jordan. In this region it is known as the Jordan Valley.
The highest mountain in Israel (not counting the occupied territories) is Mount Meron in the mountains of Upper Galilee, which rises to 1,208 meters (3,963 feet); the peaks of Lower Galilee rise to only about half this height. To the southwest, at the edge of the coastal city of Haifa, is Mount Carmel, rising to 546 meters (1,790 feet). Topping all these elevations is that of Mitzpeh Shlagim in the Golan Heights, which rises to over 2,224 meters (9,297 feet). It is the second-highest peak of the Hermon Range, whose highest point, Mount Hermon, is in Syria.
Deep canyons are located at the edges of the Golan Plateau. Small caves can be found throughout the country, which have been used over the last three thousand years as dwellings, storage areas, and even churches. Sodom Cave, near the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, is a salt cave, a type of cave rarely found because it needs a very specific climate and geographic location in order for it to form.
The Golan Plateau in the Golan Heights extends south of the Hermon Range. It is over 60 kilometers (37 miles) long and at its highest area is over 1,200 meters (3,936 feet) above sea level.
There are no notable man-made features in Israel.
Gray, Shirley W. Israel . Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2002.
Park, Ted. Israel . Austin, TX: Steadwell Books, 2000.
Richardson, Adele. Israel . Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 2000.