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The population of Israel is approximately 5.9 million. Israel is one of the most urbanised countries in the world with 91 per cent of the population living in communities of more than 2,000 people, and with more than half of them based in the metropolitan areas of its three largest cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Haifa.

More than a third of the world's Jewish population lives in Israel, where they comprise 82 per cent of the population. Arabs, mostly Muslim, make up almost all the remainder of the population, along with minority Christian, Druze and Bedouin groups.

Israel is almost entirely comprised of immigrants and descendants of immigrants with the common heritage of Judaism.

The two main groups of Jews are Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Ashkenazi tradition comes from Central and Eastern Europe; the Sephardim hail from Spain, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region.

In the late 1980s, the USSR weakened its grip on its citizens which subsequently saw hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews immigrate to Israel throughout the 1990s.

The Israeli Government also conducted a massive campaign in the 1980's to airlift jews from famine-stricken Ethiopia. There are currently 70,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. They are among the poorest and least integrated in Israeli society.

Israeli Arabs (those who remained in the region after the Israel's independence) comprise almost all of Israel's non-Jewish population. Despite legal equality and increased integration into Israel's economy and representation in the Knesset (Israel's Parliament), Arabs and Jews mostly live in separate areas, attend separate schools, speak different languages and follow different cultural traditions. A constant tension exists between the two groups.

Israel also has a Bedouin minority whose relations with Israel have been favourable. There are about 170,000 Bedouins, with the vast majority, some 110,000, living in the Negev. A Ministry Committee for Advancement of Bedouin Affairs comprising 10 government ministers has been established and, over the next four to five years, billions of shekels will be allotted for welfare programs for the Bedouin community, who have experienced difficulties in making the transition from nomadic to urbanised society.

The Druze, who number approximately 100,000, are Arabic-speakers and village and mountain dwellers. They constitute a separate cultural, social and religious community. Most of their beliefs and practices are shrouded in secrecy and are not accessible to outsiders. No religious conversion or intermarriage is allowed, helping to maintain their exclusivity. One known aspect of its philosophy is the concept of taqiyya, which calls for complete loyalty by its adherents to the government of the country in which they reside.

Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages. Both are taught in schools and used in legal affairs and in the legislature. Russian, Yiddish and English are also widely spoken by many Israelis.

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