Around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Feature


The West Bank

The West Bank is that part of the onetime British Mandate of Palestine, west of the Jordan River, that was occupied by the Kingdom of Transjordan in its war with the nascent State of Israel in 1948 and annexed shortly afterward. That country then changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to reflect its new geopolitical reality. The territory was lost to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, much of the West Bank has been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. In Israel itself, the region is often referred to as "the territories," "over the Green Line" (a term denoting the 1949 armistice line between the West Bank and Israel), or by its biblical names of Judea (the area south of Jerusalem) and Samaria (the much larger area north of Jerusalem).

The West Bank is a kidney-shape area, a bit larger than the U.S. state of Delaware. The large majority of the approximately 2 million Palestinians are Muslim, with the Christian minority living mostly in the greater Bethlehem area and Ramallah, and a tiny community of Samaritans living on Mt. Gerizim near Nablus.

While the Oslo Accords promised peace and final status discussions, a comprehensive agreement has proven elusive due to seemingly irreconcilable differences on the thorny issues of land, refugees, and Jerusalem. In late 2000, the simmering crisis exploded with lethal ferocity as young Palestinians took to the streets in riots known as the Second Intifada. In 2002, Israel began building a separation barrier roughly along the 1967 border. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and four remote settlements in northern Samaria. Although violence has subsided significantly, some visitors still avoid the West Bank. Others, while exercising caution, visit such worthwhile West Bank sites as Bethlehem and Jericho.

In addition to the 2 million Arabs in the West Bank, half a million Israelis also live there in hundreds of small settlements and a number of cities. Although the cities and bigger towns are really suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, nationalist Israelis who see the region as an integral and inalienable part of the biblical homeland set up other settlements.

With its prime location within 14 km (9 miles) of the Mediterranean Sea, and its mountain heights—dominating Israel's main population centers—the West Bank has a strategic value that has convinced even many Israelis that it would be folly to relinquish it to potentially hostile Arab control. Other Israelis favor some kind of two-state solution.

A person's attitude toward the questions of continuing settlement in the West Bank and the ultimate status of the region is an important touchstone of political affiliation in Israel. The country remains completely divided on these issues.

Tourists can travel to Bethlehem and Jericho as security conditions permit; they need to take passports with them. At this writing, Israeli citizens are prohibited from entering areas under full Palestinian control. Please check your government's travel advisory before visiting these areas.

Updated: 2013-11-07

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