Palestine | Facts and History

Families enjoy the beach, Gaza Strip. Laura Junka via Getty Images

Capital and Major Cities:

Proclaimed capital: East Jerusalem

Administrative center: Ramallah

Major Cities:

Gaza City, population 949,000

Hebron, 563,000

Nablus, 426,000

Jenin, 260,000

Ramallah, 197,000

Khan Yunis, 179,800

al-Bireh, 179,000

Tulkarm, 172,000

Bethlehem, 165,000


Palestine is a fragmented state, and its government reflects that fact.  The West Bank is administered by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA); the Gaza Strip is under Hamas's governance; and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has declared both areas a single nation called the State of Palestine.


The Palestinian territories have a total population of about 4.4 million people.  An additional 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs live in Israel.  Palestine has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world of almost 3% per year, despite its extremely limited area and unstable political situation. The Gaza Strip has a population density of almost 4,000 people per square kilometer.

Nearly everyone in Gaza is ethnically Arab - 98.7%.  In the West Bank, 83% are Arab and 17% are Jewish Israeli settlers.  


Arabic is the most commonly-spoken language in the Palestinian territories.  English is also a required subject in schools, and is widely spoken.  Israeli settlers speak Hebrew, and also usually know English.


Between 80 and 85% of Palestine residents are Muslims, mostly Sunni.  Approximately 12 to 14% are Jewish, mainly living in the West Bank.  A small minority, between 1 and 2.5%, are Arab Christians.


Palestine is currently divided between Gaza, a narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea, and the inland West Bank.  Gaza borders on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, to the southwest, and on Israel to the east and north.  

The West Bank is bounded by the Jordan River.  (In fact, its full name is "West Bank of the Jordan River.")  It also borders the Dead Sea in the southeast, the nation of Jordan in the east, and Israel to the north, west, and south.

The area of the West Bank is 5,860 square kilometers (2,263 square miles).  The Gaza Strip has an area of just 360 square kilometers (139 square miles).


Palestine's climate is hot and arid.  It has dry, hot summers and mild winters.  Average precipitation is just about 116 mm per year, or 4.6 inches, most of which falls from November to March.  


Palestine's per capita GDP is just $2,900 per year.  Its major industries include agriculture (4.2%), industry (17.9%), and services (77.9%).  The agriculture sector includes olive and citrus groves, vegetable farming, and beef or dairy cattle farms.

Palestine's economy is constrained by lack of access to land and water, as well as by import and export restrictions.  As a result, 23% of the population is unemployed, and more than 18% of Palestinians live below the poverty line.

Palestine uses the Israeli currency, the new Israeli shekel.  As of 2015, $1 US = 4.05 Israeli shekels.


The area that is now Palestine and Israel was one of the earliest to see agriculture and settled human communities. Called Canaan during the Bronze Age, it came under the sway of New Kingdom Egypt from c. 1400 to 1178 BCE.  During that time period, the Philistines arrived, possibly from the Mycenaean civilization, and established themselves along the Mediterranean coast.

 According to Biblical traditions, the Israelites established their kingdoms in the inland portion of Palestine around 1020 BCE.

In approximately 740 BCE, Palestine was conquered by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which was based in Babylon and controlled the entire Levant and Persia.  In 627 BCE, the Assyrians fell into a civil war, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire emerged victorious, assuming power over the formerly Assyrian lands.  The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II crushed an uprising in Palestine, destroying Jerusalem and sending Judean leaders into the Babylonian Captivity in 586 BCE.  By 539 BCE, however, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire.  Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, and even funded the building of the Second Temple.

Another great conqueror, Alexander of Macedon, took control of Palestine in the 330s BCE.