During the 400 years of Ottoman rule, the Land of Israel was divided into four districts, attached to the province of Damascus and ruled from Istanbul. By the end of the 18th century, the country had suffered from widespread neglect, taxation was crippling, the great forests of the Galilee and the Carmel mountains were denuded of trees and the country was sparsely populated, mainly by impoverished tenant farmers. The 19th century saw the first signs of progress, when Britain, France, Russia, Austria and the US opened consulates in Jerusalem, postal and telegraphic connections were installed and the first road connecting Jaffa and Jerusalem was built.
The situation of the country’s Jews slowly improved, and their numbers increased substantially. By the middle of the 19th century Jews had built the first neighborhood outside the city walls of Jerusalem, land for farming was purchased throughout the country and the Hebrew language was revived as a spoken tongue.
The agricultural school Mikve Israel, east of Jaffa, was founded in 1870 by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, to train Jewish pioneers, from urban environments in Europe, in agricultural work. In 1878 the first moshava, Petah Tikva, was established.
The pogroms in Russia and Romania in 1882 led to the First Aliya (wave of immigration) and the foundation of agricultural villages: Rishon Lezion, Ekron, Zichron Ya’akov and Rosh Pinah.
Some of the newcomers joined the old yishuv, while the majority, in both towns and rural settlements, contributed to a modern and dynamic way of life, that of the New yishuv. This new yishuv established the first industrial enterprises and introduced cultural activities and the use of Hebrew as the language of daily life. The foundations of the State of Israel, many years in the future, were thus laid.
As early as 1898, at the Second Zionist Congress in Basle, Zionists recognized the importance of settling the Land for national revival. In time they founded the Jewish National Fund to purchase land for the Jewish people and to set up villages.
The Jewish National Fund – Keren Kayemet L’Israel – the land purchase and development fund of the Zionist Organization, was founded at the Fifth Zionist Congress in December 1901. It was resolved that "The JNF shall be the eternal possession of the Jewish people. Its funds shall not be used except for the purchase of lands…" In the early years, the JNF acquired tracts of lands with funds raised from Jews abroad, in the Galilee, in Judea and near Lake Kinneret. The first large area acquired in 1921, in the Jezreel Valley, increased the JNF’s holdings to nearly 15,000 acres (60,000 dunams). Jewish-owned land and settlements rapidly increased, despite legal restrictions imposed by the British administration. JNF leasehold contracts run for 49 years and can be prolonged by the lessee or his heirs for as long as they serve the purpose specified.
With the founding of the State of Israel (1948), the emphasis of JNF activity shifted from land purchase to land improvement and development as well as afforestation. Swamps were drained, hills were readied for agriculture and settlement by stone-clearing and terracing, and new areas for farming were won in the Negev. By the 1990s, the JNF had planted over 200 million trees in forests and woods covering some 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares). It had developed parks and recreation sites, prepared infrastructure for new settlements, carried out water-conservation projects and taken part in environmental efforts.
In 1909, Degania, the first kibbutz, was founded on the shores of Lake Kinneret, followed by many more kibbutzim. Nahalal, the first moshav, was established in 1921, in the Jezreel Valley.
The Arab riots of 1936-39 – in addition to restrictions on purchase of land, imposed by the British administration – inspired the "Stockade and Watchtower" method of establishing new settlements. Convoys of hundreds of volunteers, prefabricated huts and fortifications would arrive at the designated site at daybreak. By nightfall the settlement was complete, surrounded by a protective fence and dominated by a watchtower from which to scan the surrounding area for signs of hostility. Between 1936 and 1947, over one hundred settlements were established in this manner.
Other settlements were established during and after World War II throughout the country and especially in the northern Negev. They were based on diversified farming: fruit orchards, field crops, livestock and citrus groves. Industries were established, at first to process agricultural products; roads and electric power plants were built; the mineral potential of the Dead Sea was tapped. In the cities, a Hebrew press and Hebrew radio programs functioned and literature, art, music and dance – with a flavor unique to the Jewish community in the Land – developed.
At the beginning of the century, Jewish villages numbered 22; at independence (1948) 277 Jewish villages, moshavot, kibbutzim and moshavim dotted the countryside. The Jewish community – 650,000-strong – was a well-organized community with representative national institutions – the foundation upon which Jewish statehood was renewed in the Land of Israel.
A unique product of Jewish national revival are the kvutza and kibbutz, forms of voluntary, mainly agricultural, collective communities. Here equal value in placed on all types of work and the community is responsible for the needs of its members. Inspired by the idea of social justice as an integral part of the effort to resettle their homeland, young pioneers established the first kvutza, Degania. At first kvutza denoted a smaller group and kibbutz a larger community; in time the distinction disappeared and these settlements became known as kibbutzim. The kibbutzim, whose number grew to 11 by 1914 and 29 by 1918, played an important part in the expansion of the map of Jewish settlement in the years before the establishment of the State. Perhaps more importantly, their role in safeguarding the growing Jewish community was vital.
Since its inception, the kibbutz movement has contributed far more to the development of the country than its size warrants. Today, their part in the country’s production – 33 percent of farm produce and 7.6 percent of manufactured goods – is proportionately much greater than their share of the population – some 2.2 percent living in 267 kibbutzim.
Some moshavim are organized on a more collective basis, with work and allowances distributed on a collective basis, while the family still functions as the basic unit. These settlements are called moshavim shitufi’im.
In the mid-1950s, regional planning envisioned a tri-level model of settlement: agricultural settlements surrounding a central settlement where schools, clinics and cultural and service facilities are located; these centers, in turn, surround a development town – where shopping facilities, banks, emergency hospitals and much more are located. This model was first implemented in the Lachish region, and has been duplicated, with some alterations, elsewhere in the country.
Today the vast majority of the country’s population (91%) live in urban areas, including a dozen cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. Israel’s main cities are Jerusalem, the capital and the largest city (pop. 591,000), Tel Aviv, the industrial, commercial, financial and cultural center (pop. 356,000), Haifa, the industrial center of the north (pop. 252,000) and Be’er Sheva, the largest population center in the south (pop. 153,000).
The central coastal region has become a densely populated zone, where over the 40% of population live and much of the country’s commerce and industry is located. Here and elsewhere in Israel, people have begun to move to suburban areas, farther from the cities’ centers. A proposed new railway system and improved highways are expected to promote this trend.
High-tech industrial zones have sprung up around the country, some connected to the universities. Most of these industrial zones are close to urban centers, but outside the cities themselves. One example is the Tefen industrial park in the Galilee, where a number of high-tech enterprises are based . A ‘village’ for the entrepreneurs, built near the industrial park, may be the harbinger of a new type of settlement.
Rural inhabitants live in villages (3.7%), kibbutzim (2.2%), and moshavim (3.1%). The rural population of the land, with its distinctive forms of settlement, has a uniquely Israeli atmosphere.
As the State of Israel enters the twenty-first century, the various settlements adapt themselves to modern life: kibbutzim and moshavim become less centralized, emphasizing the family and the individual; villages invest more resources in industry and in agriculture; and the cities exhibit a trend towards suburbanization and the movement of industry to outlying areas.