The West Bank

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 Mount Gerizim near Nablus.

The West Bank gets its name from the Jordan River. Under the British, it was part of the state of Palestine. The newly formed Kingdom of Transjordan occupied the West Bank in its war with the nascent State of Israel in 1948. Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan in the Six Days' War of 1967. At first, Israeli leaders assumed they would return the territory in exchange for peace, but soon changed tack and saw it as a resource of land, water, and heritage.

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).

Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, much of the West Bank was, on paper, turned over to the Palestinian Authority. However, a comprehensive agreement has proven elusive due to seemingly irreconcilable differences on the thorny issues of land, settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem.

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. The larger urban settlements are really satellite communities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; however, nationalist Israelis have also set up smaller, ideological caravan sites and settlements deep into the West Bank in a drive to maintain Jewish control in the Biblical homeland.

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. Meanwhile, Palestinians say Israeli rule has isolated their cities, stunted their economy, drawn down their water supply, and forced them to depend on low-wage work in Israel and international aid.

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.

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.

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