Myths & Facts Online

Boundaries

By Mitchell G. Bard


“The creation of Israel in 1948 changed political and border arrangements between independent states that had existed for centuries.”
“Israel has been an expansionist state since its creation.”
“The West Bank is part of Jordan.”
“Israel seized the Golan Heights in a war of aggression.”
“The Golan has no strategic significance for Israel.”
“Israel refuses to compromise on the Golan Heights while Syria has been willing to trade peace for land.”
“Israel illegally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, contravening international law and UN Resolution 242.”
“Israel can withdraw from the West Bank with little more difficulty than was the case in Sinai.”
“Israel's demands for defensible borders are unrealistic in an era of ballistic missiles and long-range bombers.”
“Israel ‘occupies’ the West Bank.”

MYTH

“The creation of Israel in 1948 changed political and border arrangements between independent states that had existed for centuries.”

FACT

The boundaries of Middle East countries were arbitrarily fixed by the Western powers after Turkey was defeated in World War I and the French and British mandates were set up. The areas allotted to Israel under the UN partition plan had all been under the control of the Ottomans, who had ruled Palestine from 1517 until 1917.

When Turkey was defeated in World War I, the French took over the area now known as Lebanon and Syria. The British assumed control of Palestine and Iraq. In 1926, the borders were redrawn and Lebanon was separated from Syria.

Britain installed the Emir Faisal, who had been deposed by the French in Syria, as ruler of the new kingdom of Iraq. In 1922, the British created the emirate of Transjordan, which incorporated all of Palestine east of the Jordan River. This was done so that the Emir Abdullah, whose family had been defeated in tribal warfare in the Arabian peninsula, would have a Kingdom to rule. None of the countries that border Israel became independent until the Twentieth Century. Many other Arab nations became independent after Israel.1

MYTH

“Israel has been an expansionist state since its creation.”

FACT

Israel’s boundaries were determined by the United Nations when it adopted the partition resolution in 1947. In a series of defensive wars, Israel captured additional territory. On numerous occasions, Israel has withdrawn from these areas.

As part of the 1974 disengagement agreement, Israel returned territories captured in the 1967 and 1973 wars to Syria.

Under the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Israel withdrew from the Sinai peninsula for the third time. It had already withdrawn from large parts of the desert area it captured in its War of Independence. After capturing the entire Sinai in the 1956 Suez conflict, Israel relinquished the peninsula to Egypt a year later.

In September 1983, Israel withdrew from large areas of Lebanon to positions south of the Awali River. In 1985, it completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, except for a narrow security zone just north of the Israeli border. That too was abandoned, unilaterally, in 2000.

After signing peace agreements with the Palestinians, and a treaty with Jordan, Israel agreed to withdraw from most of the territory in the West Bank captured from Jordan in 1967. A small area was returned to Jordan, and more than 40 percent was ceded to the Palestinian Authority. The agreement with the Palestinians also involved Israel's withdrawal in 1994 from most of the Gaza Strip, which had been captured from Egypt in 1973.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from 95 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip in a final settlement. In addition, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successors offered to withdraw from virtually all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

In August 2005, all Israeli troops and civilians were evacuated from the Gaza Strip and the territory was turned over to the control of the Palestinian Authority. In addition, four communities in Northern Samaria that covered an area larger than the entire Gaza Strip were also evacuated as part of the disengagement plan. As a result, Israel has now withdrawn from approximately 94 percent of the territory it captured in 1967.

Negotiations continue regarding the final disposition of the remaining 6 percent (about 1,600 square miles) of the disputed territories in Israel's possession. Israel's willingness to make territorial concessions in exchange for security proves its goal is peace, not expansion.

MYTH

“The West Bank is part of Jordan.”

FACT

The West Bank was never legally part of Jordan. Under the UN's 1947 partition plan — which the Jews accepted and the Arabs rejected — it was to have been part of an independent Arab state in western Palestine. But the Jordanian army invaded and occupied it during the 1948 war. In 1950, Jordan annexed the West Bank.

Only two governments — Great Britain and Pakistan — formally recognized the Jordanian takeover. The rest of the world, including the United States, never did.

MYTH

“Israel seized the Golan Heights in a war of aggression.”

FACT

Between 1948 and 1967, Syria controlled the Golan Heights and used it as a military stronghold from which its troops randomly sniped at Israeli civilians in the Hula Valley below, forcing children living on kibbutzim to sleep in bomb shelters. In addition, many roads in northern Israel could be crossed only after being cleared by mine-detection vehicles. In late 1966, a youth was blown to pieces by a mine while playing soccer near the Lebanon border. In some cases, attacks were carried out by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, which Syria allowed to operate from its territory.2

Israel repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, protested the Syrian bombardments to the UN Mixed Armistice Commission, which was charged with enforcing the cease-fire. For example, Israel went to the UN in October 1966 to demand a halt to the Fatah attacks. The response from Damascus was defiant. “It is not our duty to stop them, but to encourage and strengthen them,” the Syrian ambassador responded.3

Nothing was done to stop Syria’s aggression. A mild Security Council resolution expressing “regret” for such incidents was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Israel was condemned by the UN when it retaliated. “As far as the Security Council was officially concerned,” historian Netanel Lorch wrote, “there was an open season for killing Israelis on their own territory.”4

After the Six-Day War began, the Syrian air force attempted to bomb oil refineries in Haifa. While Israel was fighting in the Sinai and West Bank, Syrian artillery bombarded Israeli forces in the eastern Galilee, and armored units fired on villages in the Hula Valley below the Golan Heights.

On June 9, 1967, Israel moved against Syrian forces on the Golan. By late afternoon, June 10, Israel was in complete control of the plateau. Israel’s seizure of the strategic heights occurred only after 19 years of provocation from Syria, and after unsuccessful efforts to get the international community to act against the aggressors.

MYTH

“The Golan has no strategic significance for Israel.”

FACT

Syria — deterred by an IDF presence within artillery range of Damascus — has kept the Golan quiet since 1974. But during this time, Syria has provided a haven and supported numerous terrorist groups that attack Israel from Lebanon and other countries. These include the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hizbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). In addition, Syria still deploys hundreds of thousands of troops — as much as 75 percent of its army — on the Israeli front near the Heights.

From the western Golan, it is only about 60 miles — without major terrain obstacles — to Haifa and Acre, Israel’s industrial heartland. The Golan — rising from 400 to 1700 feet in the western section bordering on pre­-1967 Israel — overlooks the Hula Valley, Israel’s richest agricultural area. In the hands of a friendly neighbor, the escarpment has little military importance. If controlled by a hostile country, however, the Golan has the potential to again become a strategic nightmare for Israel.

Before the Six-Day War, when Israeli agricultural settlements in the Galilee came under fire from the Golan, Israel’s options for countering the Syrian attacks were constrained by the geography of the Heights. “Counterbattery fires were limited by the lack of observation from the Hula Valley; air attacks were degraded by well-dug-in Syrian positions with strong overhead cover, and a ground attack against the positions...would require major forces with the attendant risks of heavy casualties and severe political repercussions,” U.S. Army Col. (Ret.) Irving Heymont observed.5

When Israel eventually took these risks and stormed the Syrian positions in 1967, it suffered 115 dead — roughly the number of Americans killed during Operation Desert Storm.

For Israel, relinquishing the Golan to a hostile Syria without adequate security arrangements could jeopardize its early-warning system against surprise attack. Israel has built radar systems on Mt. Hermon, the highest point in the region. If Israel withdrew from the Golan and had to relocate these facilities to the lowlands of the Galilee, they would lose much of their strategic effectiveness.

 

Israeli Settlements in the Golan Heights (February 1992)

MYTH

“Israel refuses to compromise on the Golan Heights while Syria has been willing to trade peace for land.”

FACT

Under Hafez Assad, Syria’s position was consistent: Israel must completely withdraw from the entire Golan Heights before he would entertain any discussion of what Syria might do in return. He never expressed any willingness to make peace with Israel if he received the entire Golan or any part of it.

Israel has been equally adamant that it would not give up any territory without knowing what Syria was prepared to concede. Israel’s willingness to trade some or all of the Golan is dependent on Syria’s agreement to normalize relations and to sign an agreement that would bring about an end to the state of war Syria’s says exists between them.

The topographical concerns associated with withdrawing from the Golan Heights could be offset by demilitarization, but Israel needs to have a defensible border from which the nation can be defended with minimum losses. The deeper the demilitarization, and the better the early warning, the more flexible Israel can be regarding that border.

In addition to military security, Israelis seek the normalization of relations between the two countries. At a minimum, ties with Syria should be on a par with those Israel has with Egypt; ideally, they would be closer to the type of peace Israel enjoys with Jordan. This means going beyond a bare minimum of an exchange of ambassadors and flight links and creating an environment whereby Israelis and Syrians will feel comfortable visiting each other’s country, engaging in trade and pursuing other forms of cooperation typical of friendly nations.

In past negotiations, Israel has expressed a willingness to make substantial concessions, and the outline of an agreement has been essentially sitting on the table waiting for Syria to agree to the exchange of peace for land. In the meantime, substantial opposition exists within Israel to withdrawing from the Golan Heights. The expectation of many is that public opinion will shift if and when the Syrians sign an agreement and take measures, such as ending support for Hizballah and closing the headquarters of terrorist organizations in Damascus, that demonstrate a genuine interest in peace. And public opinion will determine whether a treaty is concluded because of a law  adopted during Prime Minister Netanyahu's term that requires any agreement to be approved in a national referendum.

President Hafez Assad died in June 2000, and there have not been any formal negotiations with Assad’s son and successor, Bashar. In a speech to the Syrian parliament upon his reelection to a second seven-year term as president, Bashar acknowledged Israel’s efforts to engage in peace talks. “A number of delegations that have visited Syria have delivered messages from the Israeli prime minister by which he is seeking peace,” said Assad. “One even came during the Second Lebanon War.” His position, however, remained unchanged, insisting that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders.5a And while talking about peace, Assad has also been building up his forces to an extent that has led Israeli military officials to worry that a war with Syria is more likely than a peace agreement.5b

Absent dramatic changes in Syria’s government and its attitude toward Israel, the Jewish State’s security will depend on its retention of military control over the Golan Heights

“From a strictly military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders.”

—Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense
 from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 29, 1967

 

MYTH

“Israel illegally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, contravening international law and UN Resolution 242.”

FACT

On December 14, 1981, the Knesset voted to annex the Golan Heights. The statute extended Israeli civilian law and administration to the residents of the Golan, replacing the military authority that had ruled the area since 1967. The law does not foreclose the option of negotiations on a final settlement of the status of the territory.

Following the Knesset's approval of the law, Professor Julius Stone of Hastings College of the Law wrote: “There is no rule of international law which requires a lawful military occupant, in this situation, to wait forever before [making] control and government of the territory permanent....Many international lawyers have wondered, indeed, at the patience which led Israel to wait as long as she did.”6

“It is impossible to defend Jerusalem unless you hold the high ground....An aircraft that takes off from an airport in Amman is going to be over Jerusalem in two-and-a-half minutes, so it's utterly impossible for me to defend the whole country unless I hold that land.”

— Lieutenant General (Ret.) Thomas Kelly,
director of operations for the Joint Chiefs
 of Staff during the Gulf War
7

 

MYTH

“Israel can withdraw from the West Bank with little more difficulty than was the case in Sinai.”

FACT

Several pages of Israels peace treaty with Egypt are devoted to security arrangements. For example, Article III of the treaty’s annex concerns the areas where reconnaissance flights are permitted, and Article V allows the establishment of early-warning systems in specific zones.

The security guarantees, which were required to give Israel the confidence to withdraw, were only possible because the Sinai was demilitarized. They provide Israel a large buffer zone of more than 100 miles of sparsely populated desert. Today, the Egyptian border is 60 miles from Tel Aviv and 70 from Jerusalem, the nearest major Israeli cities.

The situation in the territories is entirely different. More than two million Arabs live in the West Bank, many in crowded cities and refugee camps. Most of them are located close to Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It is important for Israel that the West Bank not fall into the hands of hostile neighbors. The infiltration in recent years of terrorists from the Palestinian Authority, who have committed horrific acts such as suicide bombings, illustrate the danger.

Despite the risks, Israel has withdrawn from more than 40 percent of the West Bank since Oslo. In past negotiations, Israel has offered to give up 97 percent of it in return for a final settlement with the Palestinians. Israel will not, however, return to the pre-1967 borders as demanded by the Palestinians and the Arab states.

MYTH

“Israels demands for defensible borders are unrealistic in an era of ballistic missiles and long-range bombers capable of crossing vast amounts of territory in minutes.”

FACT

History shows that aerial attacks have never defeated a nation. Countries are only conquered by troops occupying land. One example of this was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in which the latter nation was overrun and occupied in a matter of hours. Though the multinational force bombed Iraq for close to six weeks, Kuwait was not liberated until the Allied troops marched into that country in the war’s final days. Defensible borders are those that would prevent or impede such a ground assault.

Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders, which the Arab states want to reimpose, would sorely tempt potential aggressors to launch attacks on the Jewish State — as they did routinely before 1967. Israel would lose the extensive system of early-warning radars it has set up in the hills of Judea and Samaria. Were a hostile neighbor then to seize control of these mountains, its army could split Israel in two: From there, it is only about 15 miles — without any major geographic obstacles — to the Mediterranean.

At their narrowest point, these 1967 lines are within 9 miles of the Israeli coast, 11 miles from Tel Aviv, 10 from Beersheba, 21 from Haifa and one foot from Jerusalem.

To defend Jerusalem, the U.S. Joint Chiefs concluded in a 1967 report to the Secretary of Defense, Israel would need to have its border “positioned to the east of the city.”8

Control over the Jordan River Valley is also critical to Israeli security because it “forms a natural security barrier between Israel and Jordan, and effectively acts as an anti-tank ditch,” military analyst Anthony Cordesman noted. “This defensive line sharply increases the amount of time Israel has to mobilize and its ability to ensure control over the West Bank in the event of a war.” He added that sacrificing control over the routes up to the heights above the West Bank makes it more difficult for the IDF to deploy and increases the risk of Jordanian, Syrian, or Palestinian forces deploying on the heights.9

Even in the era of ballistic missiles, strategic depth matters. The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, an Israeli think tank considered dovish, concluded: “Early-warning stations and the deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries can provide the time needed to sound an air-raid alert, and warn the population to take shelter from a missile attack. They might even allow enemy missiles to be intercepted in mid-flight…. As long as such missiles are armed with conventional warheads, they may cause painful losses and damage, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war.”10 

 

MYTH

“Israel ‘occupies’ the West Bank.”

FACT

In politics words matter and, unfortunately, the misuse of words applying to the Arab-Israeli conflict has shaped perceptions to Israel's disadvantage. As in the case of the term “West Bank,” the word “occupation” has been hijacked by those who wish to paint Israel in the harshest possible light. It also gives apologists a way to try to explain away terrorism as “resistance to occupation,” as if the women and children killed by suicide bombers in buses, pizzerias, and shopping malls were responsible for the plight of the Arabs.

Given the negative connotation of an “occupier,” it is not surprising that Arab spokespersons use the word, or some variation, as many times as possible when interviewed by the press. The more accurate description of the territories in Judea and Samaria, however, is “disputed” territories.

“For a Texan, a first visit to Israel is an eye-opener. At the narrowest point, it's only 8 miles from the Mediterranean to the old Armistice line: That's less than from the top to the bottom of Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. The whole of pre-1967 Israel is only about six times the size of the King Ranch near Corpus Christi.” 

— President George W. Bush11

 

In fact, most other disputed territories around the world are not referred to as being occupied by the party that controls them. This is true, for example, of the hotly contested region of Kashmir.12

Occupation typically refers to foreign control of an area that was under the previous sovereignty of another state. In the case of the West Bank, there was no legitimate sovereign because the territory had been illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Only two countries — Britain and Pakistan — recognized Jordan’s action. The Palestinians never demanded an end to Jordanian occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.

It is also important to distinguish the acquisition of territory in a war of conquest as opposed to a war of self-defense. A nation that attacks another and then retains the territory it conquers is an occupier. One that gains territory in the course of defending itself is not in the same category. And this is the situation with Israel, which specifically told King Hussein that if Jordan stayed out of the 1967 war, Israel would not fight against him. Hussein ignored the warning and attacked Israel. While fending off the assault and driving out the invading Jordanian troops, Israel came to control the West Bank.

By rejecting Arab demands that Israel be required to withdraw from all the territories won in 1967, the UN Security Council, in Resolution 242, acknowledged that Israel was entitled to claim at least part of these lands for new defensible borders.

Since Oslo, the case for tagging Israel as an occupying power has been further weakened by the fact that Israel transferred virtually all civilian authority to the Palestinian Authority. Israel retained the power to control its own external security and that of its citizens, but 98 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza came under the PA’s authority. The extent to which Israel has been forced to maintain a military presence in the territories has been governed by the Palestinians’ unwillingness to end violence against Israel. The best way to end the dispute over the territories is for the Palestinians to fulfill their obligations under the road map, reform the Palestinian Authority, stop the terror and negotiate a final settlement.

Notes

1Egypt didn't achieve independence until 1922; Lebanon, 1946; Jordan, 1946; and Syria, 1946. Many of the Gulf states became independent after Israel: Kuwait, 1961; Bahrain, 1970; the United Arab Emirates, 1971; and Qatar, 1971.
2Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1976), pp. 106-110.
3Anne Sinai and Allen Pollack, The Syrian Arab Republic, (NY: American Academic Association for Peace in the Middle East, 1976), p. 117.
4Lorch, p. 111.
5Sinai and Pollack, pp. 130-31.
5a“‘Syria ready to talk peace but not via secretive channel,’” Jerusalem Post, (July 17, 2007).
5bYaakov Katz, “‘War with Syria this summer unlikely,’” Jerusalem Post, (July 11, 2007).
6Near East Report, (January 29, 1982).
7Jerusalem Post, (November 7, 1991).
8Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, June 29, 1967, cited in Michael Widlanski, Can Israel Survive a Palestinian State?, (Jerusalem: Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, 1990), p. 148.
9Anthony Cordesman, “Escalating to Nowhere: The Israeli-Palestinian War - Fighting and Failed Peace Efforts,” (DC: CSIS, August 22, 2003).
10Israel's Options for Peace, (Tel Aviv: The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989), pp. 171-72.
11Speech to the American Jewish Committee, (May 3, 2001).
12U.S. Department of State, Consular Information Sheet: India, (February 22, 2002).

 

Maps courtesy of The Jewish Connection, Maps of the Middle East and Information Regarding Israel's Security (IRIS)


See also: History of Israel
The 1967 Six-Day War
The 1973 War

The Gulf War
Boundaries
Peace Process
Military Threats to Israel

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