The term Palestine has been associated variously and sometimes controversially with this small region, which some have asserted also includes Jordan. Both the geographic area designated by the name and the political status of it have changed over the course of some three millennia. The region (or at least a part of it) is also known as the Holy Land and is held sacred among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Since the 20th century it has been the object of conflicting claims of Jewish and Arab national movements, and the conflict has led to prolonged violence and, in several instances, open warfare.
The word Palestine derives from Philistia, the name given by Greek writers to the land of the Philistines, who in the 12th century BCE occupied a small pocket of land on the southern coast, between modern Tel Aviv–Yafo and Gaza. The name was revived by the Romans in the 2nd century CE in “Syria Palaestina,” designating the southern portion of the province of Syria, and made its way thence into Arabic, where it has been used to describe the region at least since the early Islamic era. After Roman times the name had no official status until after World War I and the end of rule by the Ottoman Empire, when it was adopted for one of the regions mandated to Great Britain; in addition to an area roughly comprising present-day Israel and the West Bank, the mandate included the territory east of the Jordan River now constituting the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan, which Britain placed under an administration separate from that of Palestine immediately after receiving the mandate for the territory.
Learn more about Israel and Palestine
Learn more about the origins and history of Israel and Palestine.
The name Palestine has long been in popular use as a general term to denote a traditional region, but this usage does not imply precise boundaries. The perception of what constitutes Palestine’s eastern boundary has been especially fluid, although the boundary frequently has been perceived as lying east of the Jordan River, extending at times to the edge of the Arabian Desert. In contemporary understanding, however, Palestine is generally defined as a region bounded on the east by the Jordan River, on the north by the border between modern Israel and Lebanon, on the west by the Mediterranean Sea (including the coast of Gaza), and on the south by the Negev, with its southernmost extension reaching the Gulf of Aqaba.
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The strategic importance of the area is immense: through it pass the main roads from Egypt to Syria and from the Mediterranean to the hills beyond the Jordan River.
Settlement depends closely on water, which is almost never abundant. Precipitation, which arrives in the cool half of the year, decreases in amount in general from north to south and from the coast inland. Perennial rivers are few, and the shortage of water is aggravated by the porous nature of the limestone rocks over much of the country.
For further reading on the political units most closely associated with Palestine, see the articles Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Coastal lowlands of varying widths front the Mediterranean. The most northerly is the Plain of ʿAkko (Acre), which extends with a breadth of 5 to 9 miles (8 to 14 km) for about 20 miles (32 km) from the Lebanon border in the north to the Carmel promontory, in Israel, in the south, where it narrows to a mere 600 feet (180 metres). Farther southward the lowland opens out rapidly into the Plain of Sharon, about 8 miles (13 km) wide and extending south to the latitude of Tel Aviv–Yafo. Once covered with marshes, the Sharon plain was reclaimed in the post-Exilic and Hellenistic period and is now a settled area. Fields and fruit groves are laid out between scattered sandstone ridges, on which villages have grown up. South of the spur of low hills that approaches the coast at about Yafo (Jaffa), the plain widens into a fertile region known in biblical times as Philistia, a district of orange groves, irrigated orchards, and fields of grain.
Farther northward the Plain of Esdraelon (ʿEmeq Yizreʿel), formed by subsidence along lines of faults, separates the hills of southern Galilee from the mountains of Samaria. The plain, 16 miles (26 km) wide at most, narrows to the northwest, where the Qishon River breaks through to the Plain of ʿAkko, and to the southeast, where the Ḥarod River—which rises at the Spring of Ḥarod—has carved the plain into the side of the Jordan Valley. Covered with rich basaltic soils washed down from the Galilean hills, Esdraelon is important both for its fertility and for the great highway it opens from the Mediterranean to the lands across the Jordan. The maritime plain connects with Esdraelon by the pass of Megiddo and several lesser routes between the mountain spurs of Carmel and Gilboaʿ.
The hill country of Galilee is better-watered and more thickly wooded than that of Samaria or Judaea. North of the Bet Netofa Valley (Plain of Asochis) is Upper Galilee, with elevations of 4,000 feet (1,200 metres), a scrub-covered limestone plateau that is thinly populated. To the south, Lower Galilee—with its highest peak, Mount Tabor (1,929 feet [588 metres])—is a land of east-west ridges enclosing sheltered vales like that of Nazareth, with rich basaltic soils.
Samaria, the region of the ancient kingdom of Israel, is a hilly district extending from the Plain of Esdraelon to the latitude of Ramallah. Its mountains—Carmel, Gilboaʿ, Aybāl (Ebal), and Al-Ṭūr (Gerizim)—are lower than those of Upper Galilee, while its basins, notably those of the ʿArrābah Plain and Nāblus, are wider and more gently contoured than their equivalents in Judaea. Samaria is easily approached from the coast across the Plain of Sharon and from the Jordan by the Fāriʿah valley. The city of Jerusalem has expanded rapidly along the mountain ridges.
From Ramallah in the north to Beersheba in the south, the high plateau of Judaea is a rocky wilderness of limestone, with rare patches of cultivation, as found around Al-Bīrah and Hebron. It is separated from the coastal plain by a longitudinal fosse and a belt of low hills of soft chalky limestone, about 5 to 8 miles (8 to 13 km) wide, known as Ha-Shefela. The Judaean plateau falls abruptly to the Jordan Valley, which is approached with difficulty along the wadis Qelt and Muqalliq.
The Jordan Valley is a deep rift valley that varies in width from 1.5 to 14 miles (2.5 to 22 km). In its northern section the bed of the drained Lake Ḥula and of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) are blocked by natural dams of basalt. Descending to about 1,310 feet (400 metres) below sea level—the lowest land depth on the Earth’s surface—the valley is exceedingly dry and hot, and cultivation is restricted to irrigated areas or rare oases, as at Jericho or at ʿEn Gedi by the shore of the Dead Sea.
The Negev, a desertlike region, is triangular in shape with the apex at the south. It extends from Beersheba in the north, where 8 inches (200 mm) or more of precipitation falls annually and grain is grown, to the port city of Elat on the Red Sea, in the extremely arid south. It is bounded by the Sinai Peninsula on the west and the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley on the east.
The social geography of modern Palestine, especially the area west of the Jordan River, has been greatly affected by the dramatic political changes and wars that have brought this small region to the attention of the world. In the early 21st century, Israeli Jewsconstituted roughly half of the population west of the Jordan, while Palestinian Arabs—Muslim, Christian, and Druze—and other smaller minorities accounted for the rest. The Jewish population is increasingly composed of persons born in Israel itself, although millions of immigrants have arrived since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The Arab population is descended from Arabs who lived in the area during the mandate period and, in most cases, for centuries before that time. The majority of both Jews and Arabs are now urbanized.
According to Jewish nationalists (Zionists), Judaism constitutes a basis for both religious and national (ethnic) identity. Palestinian nationalists usually emphasize that their shared identity as Arabs transcends the religious diversity of their community. Both Muslim Arabs, constituting about 18 percent of the Israeli population, and Christian Arabs, about 2 percent, identify themselves in the first instance as Arabs.
The Arab majority resident in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the still larger number of Arab Palestinians living outside the area (many in nearby countries such as Lebanon) have strongly opposed Israeli control and feared an eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel. Many ideological Jewish Israeli settlers support such an annexation and think those lands properly belong to Israel. In 2005 Arab concerns were partially assuaged when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and handed over control of the territory to the Palestinians, but the Israeli settlement population in the West Bank nearly doubled between 2005 and 2019.
Both Zionists and Palestinian Arab nationalists have at various times since the 19th century claimed rightful possession of the area west of the Jordan River. The rivalry between the two groups and their claims have been major causes of the numerous Arab-Israeli conflicts and the continuing crises in the region. Some members of each group still make such sweeping and mutually exclusive claims to complete control of the area, whereas others are more willing to seek a peaceful compromise solution.