For much of Israel's existence, the country has been one of the most contested areas in the Middle East, and a source of constant military unrest.
The nation lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, with Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, the West Bank and Jordan to the east, and Egypt and the Gaza strip to the southwest. Including East Jerusalem and Golan Heights, the country's total area measures about 8,500 square miles.
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Here are some other facts about the troubled, culturally rich nation:
• Many biblical sites are located in Israel, making it a major tourism draw. Places located in Israel include Nazareth, where Jesus grew up; the site of the Last Supper; and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, believed to be the path on which Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion.
• Israel defines itself as a Jewish and Democratic State. It is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system. The Prime Minister is the head of the government and the Knesset (legislature) makes the laws.
• David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was the initial founder and first prime minister of Israel after years of leading the cause for an independent Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, he proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, and signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence, of which he was one of the authors. As a result, he became known as "Israel's founding father." He left office in 1963.
• The "Land of Israel," or "Eretz Yisrael" in Hebrew, has been a sacred land for Jewish people since Biblical times. According to the Torah, God promised to bring those into the land which their fathers possessed. Nehemiah 1:9 states: "But if ye return unto me, and keep my commandments and do them, though your dispersed were in the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to cause my name to dwell there."
• Israel has diplomatic relations with 157 countries and engages in diplomatic missions around the world.
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