The Line of June 4, 1967
By Frederic C. Hof
The phrase "the line of June 4, 1967" has been
part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years.
Although it encapsulates the extent of the withdrawal demanded of Israel by
Syria in the context of a peace treaty its meaning has not been defined in
published accounts of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
This article seeks to define the line of June 4, 1967, in its historical context. Its diplomatic definition may, depending on the course of
Syrian-Israeli negotiations, be something quite different. As for the
historical context, however, the definition has two parts: the conceptual
meaning of the phrase and the location of the line itself.
THREE LINES: BOUNDARY, ARMISTICE DEMARCATION, AND
JUNE 4, 1967
Conceptually, the line of June 4, 1967, was the
confrontation line between Israel and Syria on the day before the outbreak
of the June 1967 war. Only along one
15-kilometer stretch did it correspond with the international boundary
between Palestine and Syria instituted by Great Britain and France in 1923.
Neither did it correspond to the Armistice Demarcation Line agreed to by
the parties in 1949. The line of June 4, 1967, was neither a boundary, nor
an armistice line, nor anything demarcated in a way recognizable to an
attorney, a diplomat, or a surveyor.
The locations of Israeli and Syrian military units and
Jewish and Arab settlements in June 1967 were the results of very recent
history. The boundary itself was a product of the post-World War I
Anglo-French partition of Ottoman Syria. It had been drawn with waterwater for the Jewish Homevery
much on the minds of British boundary negotiators. It was demarcated so
that all of Lake Tiberias, including a 10-meter wide strip of beach along
its northeastern shore, would stay inside Palestine. From Lake Tiberias
north to Lake Hula the boundary was drawn between 50 and 400 meters east of the Jordan River, keeping that stream entirely within Palestine.
Palestine also received a sliver of land along the Yarmouk River, the
Jordans largest tributary, out to the town of al-Hammatodays
This 1923 boundary was not, however, drawn to facilitate
the military defense of northeastern Palestine. The task of successfully
defending the boundary against virtually any sort of enemy presented
insurmountable problems. Short of establishing positions inside Syria, how
could one secure a 10-meter strip of beach, or a thin salient along the
Yarmouk, or a narrow strip of Palestine east of the Jordan River, all of
which were on ground lying well below the Golan
Heights? The Great War allies who accomplished the demarcation surely
did not anticipate that their respective clients would be at war within 25
Yet go to war they did, in May 1948. During the initial two months
of fighting Syrian forces advanced in several places across the 1923
boundary, most significantly across the Jordan River where they took the
Jewish settlement of Mishmar Ha-Yarden. Although Syrian attacks south of
Lake Tiberias were repelled, the 10-meter strip of beach and the east bank
of the Jordan were theirs by default, as were Palestinian Arab villages
east of the lake, such as al-Hamma and Khirbet al-Tawafiq. Syrian forces
also established a foothold in the extreme northeastern corner of
Palestine, just east of the Jewish settlement of Dan.
During armistice talks under UN auspices in the spring and summer of
1949, Israel sought the removal of all Syrian forces from Palestine/
Israel. Syria demurred, insisting on an armistice line based not on an
international border, which Syria insisted did not exist, but on the
military status quo. The result was a compromise. Under the terms of an armistice signed on July 20,
1949, Syrian forces were to withdraw east of the old Palestine-Syria
boundary. Israeli forces were to refrain from entering the evacuated areas,
which would become a demilitarized zone, "from which the armed forces
of both Parties shall be totally excluded, and in which no activities by
military or paramilitary forces shall be permitted."
In essence, therefore, major parts of the armistice line
departed from the 1923 boundary and protruded into Palestine/ Israel. There
were three distinct, non-contiguous enclaves within Palestine/ Israelin
the extreme northeast between Banias and Dan, on the west bank of the
Jordan River near Lake Hula, and the eastern-southeastern shores of Lake
Tiberias extending out to al-Hammaconsisting of 66.5 square kilometers
of land lying between the 1949 armistice line and the 1923 boundary. These
were the three sectorsnorth, central and southof the demilitarized
zone. The 1923 boundary prevailed as the armistice line in only two places:
where it connected the northern and central sectors of the demilitarized
zone; and along the 10-meter strip of Lake Tiberias, connecting the central
and southern sectors of the demilitarized zone.
FROM 1949 ARMISTICE TO JUNE 4, 1967
Major elements of the line of June 4, 1967, were set in
place by war in 1948, armistice in 1949 and, above all, by the failure of
the Parties to convert their armistice to a treaty of peace in the early
1950s. As it became increasingly clear that peace was not on the horizon,
Israel and Syria both sought to take maximum advantage of the territorial
ambiguities left in place by their armistice. This advantage-taking left
the armistice itself in a shambles and resulted in an evolving tactical
situation, one "snapshot" of which, frozen in time, was the
disposition of forces on June 4, 1967.
In 1966 an exasperated UN secretary-general reported
that Israel and Syria together had produced some 66,000 official complaints
about the conduct of the other, the vast majority of which pertained to
alleged violations in the demilitarized zone. There were numerous Israeli
complaints of infiltration, murder, mayhem, and shelling from the Syrian
side of the armistice demarcation line. Those Israeli complaints not
centering on the demilitarized zone often focused on Syrias de facto
annexation of the 10-meter strip and direct access to Lake Tiberias,
behavior explicitly criticized by the Israel-Syria Mixed Armistice
Commission (ISMAC) of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). Syrian
complaints most often centered on a theme which Israel was pleased to
acknowledge: that Israel acted as if the demilitarized zone were part of
To catalogue, recount and assess blame for the thousands
of violent incidents occurring on the Syria-Israel frontier from 1949 until
June 5, 1967, is far beyond the scope of this essay. It will suffice to
make several points with which both parties would probably agree.
1. Israel claimed the demilitarized zone as sovereign
Israeli territory in which Israel had only "consented to the
demilitarization of the areas from which the Syrian army had
retreated." Syria, on the other hand, asserted no sovereign claim to
land in what had been Palestine. Instead it considered the demilitarized
zone essentially as a buffer zone subject to UN supervision, the sovereign
definition of which had been deferred indefinitely by the armistice.
2. Starting in the spring of 1951 Israel began to assert
its sovereign claim quite actively, using the drainage and reclamation of
the Hula swamplocated adjacent to the central sector of the
demilitarized zoneto test Syrias response. Syria opposed the project
on the grounds that it would alter military geography in the demilitarized
zone to Israels advantage and do substantial harm to Palestinian Arab
farmers. According to Aryeh Shalev, "The central [Israeli] idea seems
to have been to engage in a policy of brinkmanshipforcing Syria either
not to interfere or face the risk of military deterioration which could
escalate into warcombined with an attempt to strengthen Israeli control
in the DZ." In March and April 1951 there was a series of armed
clashes when Israeli tractors crossed to the east bank of the Jordan River,
which "was under the complete control of the Syrians, as it had been
even prior to the signing of the armistice agreement." and when
Israeli soldiers, disguised as policemen, attemptedunsuccessfullyto
"show the flag" in al-Hamma.
3. The upshot of armed clashes in the spring of 1951 was
the informal partition of the demilitarized zone. Israel expelled Arab
villagers from the central sector and asserted control of that sector up to
the Jordan River. Syria exercised effective control over the east
bank portion of the central sectorfrom Lake Hula to Lake Tiberiastook
the dominating high groundTel al-Azaziatin the northern sector and,
according to Shalev, "seized areas close to its borderal-Hamma, [K]hirbet
al-Tawafiq, al-Nuqeib, [and] the northeastern shore of Tiberias . . ."
Although there would be alterations to this partition over the next 16
yearsall minor and all at Syrias expensethe events of 1951 would
essentially define the line of June 4, 1967.
4. In 1952 and 1953 Israel and Syria held secret
military talks to explore the possibility of formalizing the partition of
the demilitarized zone. Although the talks achieved consensus on some major
points: a new boundary along the east bank of the Jordan, keeping the river
within Israel, partition of the northern sector and southern sectors of the
demilitarized zone, and reduction of the 10-meter strip to one meter,
keeping Lake Tiberias within Israel, they failed. Syria essentially wanted
a new armistice line in order to halt more creeping Israeli annexation of
the demilitarized zone, but was not interested in conveying formal
recognition to Israel. To the extent that Israel might have been tempted to
abandon the 1923 boundary, it might have done so in exchange for a treaty
of peacenothing less. Even in the context of a peace treaty, according
to Professor Moshe Brawer, a Syrian presence on the water line of the
Jordan and Tiberias "would only have been possible if they gave up any
riparian rights to the river and lake."
5. From 1953 until June 1967 Israels struggle to
assert its sovereignty all the way to the 1923 boundary became a game of
inches, punctuated by serious armed clashes. In words attributed to the
late Moshe Dayan, "more
than 80 percent" of the incidents resulted from Israeli provocation
involving aggressive agricultural activities, albeit in territory claimed
by Israel. Regardless of their genesis, these incidents often involved
Syrian shelling into the demilitarized zone by artillery batteries high
above their targets, followed by Israeli attacks on Syrian positions,
sometimes within Syria. These incidents, combined with an escalating war of
words between Syria and Israel and a general breakdown in Arab-Israeli
relations, led to war in June 1967.
By June 10, 1967, the line of June 4, 1967 was well to the rear of Israeli
THE LINE OF JUNE 4, 1967 AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR
In an interview with the author, the Syrian ambassador
to the United States, Walid al-Moualem, stated that Syria has never
recognized the 1923 international boundary, that it will indeed make a
claim to lands west of that boundary, and that its claim will be consistent
with the line of June 4, 1967. He declined, however, to be specific,
asserting only that Syria and the UN possess identical maps of the status
of Syrian and Israeli forces just before the outbreak of war in June 1967.
He did, however, say that: "Sometimes people equate the line of June 4
with the town of al-Hamma. It is true that this is a place held dear by the
Syrian people, and I myself have camped there as a Boy Scout. But the line
of June 4 is more than al-Hamma. It involves water issues for which I
believe fair and equitable solutions can be found."
Water concerns would arise because a drawing of a line
representing the status quo of June 4, 1967, would place Syria on the
northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias and along the east bank of the Jordan
River between Lake Tiberias and the former Lake Hula. According to
Professor Brawer, the foremost Israeli expert on the geographical aspects
of this matter, Syria held some 18 of the 66.5 kilometers of the
demilitarized zone on the eve of war in June 1967.
In a letter to the author dated June 12, 1999, Professor
Brawer outlined his understanding of key points along the line of June 4,
1967 as follows: the northern sector of the demilitarized zone was
"dominated" by the Syrian position at Tel al-Azaziat, with Israel
controlling about one-third of the sector by means of cultivation;
"From a short distance south of the former Lake Hula to a short
distance north of Lake Kinneret [Tiberias] the River Jordan was in fact the
dividing line between Israeli and Syrian held territories; …As to the
small demilitarized zone west of the Jordan River, just above its entrance
into Lake Kinneret, I assume that the Syrians actually controlled a small
part on the eastern fringes of that zone: …The Syrians fully controlled
the northeastern shore of Lake Kinneret and the adjacent waters of the
lake;" within the southern sector of the demilitarized zone Syria
controlled small parcels of land "north of the former village [of] al-Nuqeib,
a small area near the village [of] Kafr Hareb and an area west of Upper
Khirbet al-Tawafiq" as well as al-Hamma and the entire Yarmouk
salient, "up to about three kilometers of the Israeli village [of]
A boundary settlement exactly reflecting the line of
June 4, 1967 would raise, within Israel, water-related concerns first
surfaced by Zionist leaders and their British allies during and immediately
after the first World War. It may fairly be asked, however, whether the
addition of perhaps 20 square kilometers to the Syria of 1923-1948 would
raise hydrological issues far transcending those implicit in a settlement
based on the 1923 boundary itself. In both cases Israel will be concerned
with Syrian water management practices on the Golan
Heights. In both cases Israel will want assurances concerning Syrian
control of the Banias Spring. In both casesunless Syrian citizens can be
kept a tantalizing 10 meters away from Lake Tiberias and 50 meters away
from the Jordan Riverthere would appear to be an issue of Syrian access
to and use of water from those bodies.
The sine qua non of any Israeli-Syrian
settlement rests on mutually acceptable military security provisions.
Security assurances that would permit Israel to return the Golan Heights and retire to the 1923 boundary
would surely apply with equal effect to an additional 20 square kilometers.
If the problem comes down to water, the solution, under either boundary
scenario, might involveas it did during the Mandate period and during
the secret talks of 1952-1953Israeli ownership of the water combined
with access and use provisions for Syrian nationals. Another approach to
the issue might involve the following formulation: withdrawal to the line
of June 4 by Israel without advance to the line of June 4 by Syria.
Under this scenario Syria might receive al-Hamma, and
the new boundary would keep the Banias Spring inside Israel and maintain
plenty of space between Syria and the Jordan Valley, including Lake
Tiberias. Yet the Israeli side of the new boundary would be completely
demilitarized, thus fulfilling the Syrian demand for total Israeli
withdrawal from lands occupied in June 1967. If, in the 50th anniversary year of their armistice, Syria and Israel are prepared to reach
the "ultimate territorial arrangement" anticipated by the
document, there is nothing about the line of June 4, 1967, per se that would obstruct matters. This essay has sought to define the line in
historical and geographical terms. It is up to Israel and Syria to
determine its political meaning and, assuming agreement in principle, draw
a line on the ground.
*Frederic Hof, a partner in Armitage Associates L.C.,
left government in 1993 as a member of the Senior Executive Service of the
United States. Mr. Hof has written extensively on Lebanon and the
Israel-Syria track of the peace process ands is the author of Galilee
Divided: the Israel-Lebanon Frontier 1916-1984. This article is
based on a longer monograph to be published this fall by Middle East
1. A comprehensive statement of Syrias position may
be found in an interview of Syrias ambassador to the United States,
Walid al-Moualem, conducted by Linda Butler, Managing Editor of the Journal
of Palestine Studies in the Winter 1997 (Issue 102) edition.
2. See Itamar Rabinovich, The Brink of Peace: the
Israeli-Syrian Negotiations (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1998) and Uri Savir, The Process (New York, Random House, 1998).
3. According to Ambassador al-Moualem, use of the date
June 4as opposed to June 9, the date of Israels assault on the Golan
Heightsis explained by Syrias reliance on UN Security Council
Resolution 242 as the legal basis for its position on the extent of Israeli
withdrawal. The resolution calls for "Withdrawal of Israeli armed
forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." The June
1967 war began on the Egyptian front on June 5.
4. A complete text of the Israel-Syria General Armistice
Agreement appears in N. Bar-Yaacov, The Israel-Syrian Armistice (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1967), Appendix I.
5. Security Council Official Records, Document
S/7572, p. 62.
6. Security Council Official Records, Document
S/3343, p. 12.
7. Ibid., p. 22.
8. Aryeh Shalev, The Israel Syria Armistice Regime,
1949-1955 (Tel Aviv, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1993), p. 57.
9. Ibid., pp. 83-84.
10. Ibid., p. 77.
11. Ibid., pp. 135-152.
12. Letter to the author dated July, 6 1999.
13. Rami Tal, "Moshe Dayan: Introspection," Yediot
Aharonot, April, 27 1997. FBIS Document Number FBIS-NES-97, April, 27
14. Aluf Ben and Akiva Eldar, "Syrian Demand for
Withdrawal to Armistice Line Reviewed," Haaretz, May, 29
1995, pp. A1-A2, FBIS Document Number FBIS-NES-9-104.
15. In addition to the letter cited above, Professor
Brawer provided the author a map on which he sketched his understanding of
areas west of the international boundary controlled by Syria on the eve of
war in June 1967. Information provided by Professor Brawer and by Aryeh
Shalevwith whom the other correspondedtogether with UN documentation
form the basis of the cartographic depiction of the line of June 4, 1967,
found in this study.
Source: Middle East
Insight, (September-October 1999)