Nation profile

Palestine
Filastin

General information
Population
4,884,336, out of which 2,972,069 in the West Bank and 1,912,267 in the Gaza Strip (2016, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Figures not including Israeli colonists, which amount to 587,100 according to 2014 CIA World Factbook)
Area
6,220 km2 (West Bank and Gaza Strip) // 26.990 km2 (historical Palestine)
Institutions
Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian Liberation Organisation
Major cities
Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Tulkarem, Jenin, Qalqilya
State administration
Israel
Territorial languages
Arabic, Domari
Official languages
Arabic (Palestinian National Authority), Hebrew (State of Israel)
Major religion
Sunni Islam (majority), Christianity
National day
15th November (Independence Day)

Presentation

Palestine is a country in the Middle East, located between the Mediterranean Sea, the Jordan River, and the Sinai Peninsula, where the Palestinian people originated.

The modern boundaries of the territory were first defined in 1920, when the 26,990 km2-large Mandate of Palestine was established under UK control. At the end of the 1947-1949 war, the territory was divided into three parts: the State of Israel (Jewish majority, independent), the West Bank (Palestinian majority, controlled by Jordan), and the Gaza Strip (Palestinian majority, controlled by Egypt). Since 1967, all three parts have been controlled by Israel.

Several UN resolutions circumscribe the illegality of the Israeli occupation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (242 of 1967 by the Security Council) and recognize these two areas —including East Jerusalem— as the constituent territory of the State of Palestine, proclaimed in 1988 by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (General Assembly resolutions 43/177 of 1988 and 58/292 of 2004). This territory has an area of 6,220 km2.

Since the 1947-1949 war, several Palestinian political-military organisations have been engaged in an armed conflict against the State of Israel. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the main one of them was the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Since the First Intifada (1987), other organisations have come to play a more prominent role in the armed struggle, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The PLO, in exile, officially declared the State of Palestine in 1988. Israel did not recognise such declaration and, to this day, the entire territory remains de facto controlled, occupied, and partially colonised by Israel, which also officially annexed East Jerusalem and several adjacent West Bank towns in 1980.

However, the PLO began peace talks with Israel which led to mutual recognition and the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, instituting Palestinian autonomy under Israeli control (governed by the Palestinian National Authority). The deal did not stop the armed conflict, nor did it make Israel stop its policy of occupation and colonisation of the West Bank. It did, however, lead Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and dismantle the settlements, while maintaining military control and blocking the Palestinian population there.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority went on after Oslo. Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams claimed to have been “closer than ever” to a final agreement at the Taba Summit in 2001. Israel did not accept full Palestinian sovereignty over the defense area, demanding to maintain several rights to control Palestinian airspace and to launch ground military intervention. Israel also called for the annexation of several settlements in the West Bank. The PNA rejected such demands.

Identity and demographics

The Palestinian people are the descendants of the Arabic-speaking populations that have inhabited historic Palestine over the last centuries. The Palestinian identity has been —and continues to be— closely linked to the wider Arab identity, and has gradually emerged over a period several decades. The formation of the Palestinian identity accelerated from the war of 1947-1949 and the creation of contemporary Palestinian nationalist organisations from the 1950s onwards.

The Palestinian people, numbering 12 to 13 million, are now spread over several territories, mainly as a result of the conflict. 5 million live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza; 2 million in Israel; as refugees, 2 million in Jordan, 0.5 million in Syria and 0.5 million in Lebanon; and 2 to 3 million in the diaspora —mainly in countries of Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.

Language

Most Palestinians, and virtually all those living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and surrounding countries, speak the Levantine dialect of Arabic, which is also spoken by Jordanians, Syrians, and Lebanese.

Arabic, in its modern standard form, is the official language of the Palestinian National Authority and was one of the two official languages of the State of Israel —along with Hebrew— until 2018, when its status was downgraded to that of a “language with special status.”

Hebrew is the majority language in the Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

A few Dom people, meanwhile, have maintained the use of the Domari language in Jerusalem and Gaza.

Politics and government

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was established in 1994 as a provisional body for Palestinian semi-autonomy, under Israeli jurisdiction, a result of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The PNA has legislative, executive and judicial powers, but no sovereignty. The Palestinian Legislative Council is the legislative branch of the PNA and is elected on the basis of universal suffrage among Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank; the President and the Government are the PNA’s executive branch; Palestinian courts are governed by the High Judicial Council.

The PNA administers about 40% of the territory of the West Bank (Areas A and B, which include the main Palestinian cities), while the remaining 60% is directly administered by the Israeli authorities, where the settlements and major roads are found.

The two main parties in the Palestinian Legislative Council until 2007 were Hamas (Islamist) and Fatah (secular, PLO’s main party member). Several disagreements between the two parties after the 2006 election (won by Hamas by an absolute majority) precipitated a civil war between them that resulted in the division of the PNA and the Palestinian territory:

Areas A and B of the West Bank remained under the control of the internationally recognised PNA, which is controlled by Fatah/PLO.

The Gaza Strip came under the control of a separate Palestinian government (split from the West Bank’s PNA), in the hands of Hamas.

A series of negotiations have taken place between the two administrations, but by 2020 both governments remain separate.

In parallel with the PNA institutions, the PLO has continued to maintain its own institutions which, unlike those of the PNA, seek to be representative of the whole of the Palestinian people, not just the part living in the occupied territories. The PLO institutions include the Palestinian National Council (legislative branch of the PLO) and the Executive Committee (executive branch), which acts as the government of the 1988-declared State of Palestine. These bodies, unlike those of the PNA until 2006, are not elected by universal suffrage.

(A very thorough overview of the Palestinian institutions and parties can be found at this link).

(Last updated November 2020.)