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Myths & Facts
Borders and Boundaries

By Mitchell Bard

Israel has been an expansionist state since its creation.
Israel seized the Golan Heights and illegally annexed the area.
The Golan has no strategic significance for Israel.
Defensible borders are unrealistic in an era of ballistic missiles.
Israel “occupies” the West Bank.
Israel’s security fence is meant to create a Palestinian ghetto.

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. Israel has withdrawn from more than 90% of the area it won in these wars and has repeatedly offered to give up other lands it now controls in exchange for peace and security.

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 It had already withdrawn from large parts of the desert area it captured in its War of Independence.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, all troops were removed except for a small force holding a narrow “security zone” just north of the Israeli border. In 2000, Israel evacuated entirely from Lebanon.

After signing the Oslo 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% 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.

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

s

Memorandum for the secretary of defense
from the joint chiefs of staff
, June 29, 1967

In 2000, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from 97% of the West Bank and 100% 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. These offers were rejected.

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 evacuated as part of the disengagement plan. As a result, Israel has now withdrawn from approximately 94% of the territory it captured in 1967.

Today, the only question is the final disposition of the remaining 6% of the disputed territories in Israel’s possession (about 136 square miles – 350 square kilometers, roughly the size of Las Vegas). The Palestinians have turned down multiple offers in which Israel agreed to withdraw from nearly all the remaining land in exchange for land swaps. (That is, in exchange for retaining, say, 4% of the land in the West Bank, Israel would give the Palestinians an equivalent amount of land it controls, such as a swath of territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip). Israel’s willingness to make territorial concessions in exchange for security proves its goal is peace, not expansion.

MYTH

Israel seized the Golan Heights and illegally annexed the area.

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.[1]

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 Syrian ambassador responded defiantly: “It is not our duty to stop them, but to encourage and strengthen them.” [2]

Nothing was done to stop Syria’s aggression. The Soviet Union vetoed a mild Security Council resolution expressing “regret” for such incidents. 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.” [3]

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 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 nineteen years of provocation from Syria and after unsuccessful efforts to get the international community to act against the aggressors.

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 the territory’s final status.

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.” [4]

MYTH

The Golan has no strategic significance for Israel.

FACT

Syria—deterred by an IDF presence within artillery range of Damascus—kept the Golan quiet since 1974, except for a few cross-border attacks that spilled over during the Syrian civil war (2011-2022). Syria has supported and provided a haven for numerous terrorist groups that attacked 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), Hezbollah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The Golan – rising from 400 (122 meters) to 1,700 feet (518 meters) in the western section bordering on pre-1967 Israel – overlooks the Hula Valley, Israel’s richest agricultural area. From the western Golan, it is only about 60 miles (97 kilometers)—without major terrain obstacles—to Haifa and Acre, Israel’s industrial heartland. In the hands of a friendly neighbor, the escarpment has little military importance. If controlled by a hostile country, however, the Golan can 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 fire was 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.

Israel held talks with the Syrians, hoping to reach a peace agreement. Syria insisted, however, that Israel completely withdraw from the entire Golan Heights before even discussing what Syria might do in return. President Hafez Assad, and his son Bashar who succeeded him, never expressed any willingness to make peace, even if Israel met this demand.

Israel was equally adamant that it would not give up any territory without knowing what Syria was prepared to concede and insisted that Syria agree to normalize relations and sign an agreement that would end the state of war between them. These points are now moot because of the Syrian civil war.

Israel has built radar systems on Mt. Hermon, the highest point in the region. During the best of times, relinquishing the Golan to Syria without adequate security arrangements could jeopardize Israel’s early-warning system against surprise attacks. 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.

Israel’s unwillingness to give up the Golan looks even more prescient today as the civil war in Syria made it clear the northern border of Israel could be threatened by fighters from Iran, Hezbollah, and ISIS. Iran has tried establishing bases in Syria from which it can attack Israel, provoking Israeli airstrikes to prevent Iranian forces and allies from gaining a foothold.

Unless a future leader of Syria dramatically changes its orientation and accepts Israel as a neighbor, it is difficult to imagine any Israeli government considering withdrawing from the Golan Heights. In the short term, Israel adopted a plan at the end of 2021 to double the population of the Golan Heights in the next decade and invest new funds in its development.[6]

 

 

MYTH

Defensible borders are unrealistic in an era of ballistic missiles.

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 nearly 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 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 to seize control of these mountains, its army could split Israel in two: from there, it is only about 15 miles (24 kilometers) —without any significant geographic obstacles—to the Mediterranean.

At their narrowest point, these 1967 lines are within nine miles (14 kilometers) of the Israeli coast, eleven miles (18 kilometers) from Tel Aviv, ten (16 kilometers) from Beersheba, twenty-one from Haifa (34 kilometers), and one foot (.3 meters) 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.” [7]

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.

s

—Lieutenant General (Ret.) Thomas Kelly,
director of operations for the joint
 chiefs of staff during the Gulf War, June 29, 1967
[8]

Control over the Jordan River Valley is 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, language matters, and 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 an excuse to describe 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 Palestinians.

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

Israel’s international legal claim to the land goes back to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which recognized the Jewish right to a “national home” in Palestine. This position was reiterated in the San Remo Resolution (April 1920), the Treaty of Sevres (Art. 95, Aug. 1920), the Mandate for Palestine (Art. 6, July 1922), the Anglo-American Treaty (Dec. 1925), and Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949.

 

The hypocrisy of critics of Israel’s administration of the West Bank is compounded by the fact that other disputed territories around the world are not considered occupied by the party that controls them. This is true, for example, of the hotly contested regions of Kashmir, Cyprus, and Tibet, none of which attract the attention or opprobrium directed at Israel.[11]

Occupation typically refers to foreign control of an area under another state's previous sovereignty. In the case of the West Bank, there was no legitimate sovereign because Jordan had illegally occupied the territory 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. They also never called for the end of the Egyptian occupation of the Gaza Strip.

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.

s

—President George W. Bush[12]

 
It is also necessary to distinguish the acquisition of territory in a war of conquest as opposed to a war of self-defense. An occupier is a nation that attacks another and then retains the territory it conquers. One that gains territory while defending itself is not in the same category. This is the situation with Israel, which 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, UN Security Council Resolution 242 acknowledged that Israel was entitled to claim at least part of these lands for new defensible borders.

Since the Oslo Accords, the case for tagging Israel as an occupying power has been further weakened because Israel transferred virtually all civilian authority in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. Israel retained the power to control its external security and that of its citizens, but 98% of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and 100% in 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 only way to resolve the dispute over the territories is for the Palestinians to negotiate a final settlement. Until now, the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership has prevented the resumption of talks, which offer the only path to an agreement to ensure a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

 

MYTH

Israel’s security fence is meant to create a Palestinian ghetto.

FACT

Israel did not want to build a fence and resisted doing so for more than thirty-five years. If anyone is to blame for the construction, it is Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other Palestinian terrorists.

Following the 1967 War, the frontier separating Israel from the West Bank had no physical obstacles to prevent the infiltration of terrorists. In response to dozens of suicide bombings and daily terrorist attacks against its civilians, Israel decided to construct a security fence near the “Green Line” (the 1949 armistice line) to prevent Palestinian terrorists from crossing the border.

It is not unreasonable or unusual to build a fence for security purposes. Israel already had fences along the frontiers with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, so building a barrier to separate Israel from the Palestinian Authority was not revolutionary. Most nations have fences to protect their borders and several use barriers in political disputes. For example:

  • The United States built a fence to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants.
  • Spain built a fence to separate its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco to prevent people from sub-Saharan Africa from entering Europe.
  • India constructed a 460-mile barrier in Kashmir to halt infiltrations supported by Pakistan.
  • Saudi Arabia built a sixty-mile barrier along an undefined border zone with Yemen. The Saudis also built a nearly six-hundred-mile fence on the border with Iraq.
  • Turkey built a barrier in the southern province of Alexandretta, which was formerly in Syria and is an area that Syria claims as its own.
  • In Cyprus, the UN-sponsored a security fence reinforcing the island’s de facto partition.
  • The British built barriers to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast.[13]

Ironically, after condemning Israel’s barrier, the UN announced plans to build a fence to improve security around its New York headquarters.[14]

Only Israel’s security fence has been the subject of UN condemnation and a ruling by the International Court of Justice; one more example of the double standard applied to Israel.

Most of the fence runs roughly along the “Green Line.” In some places, the fence is inside this line. Critics have complained about where the fence is beyond Israel’s pre-1967 border, but the “Green Line” was not an internationally recognized border; it was an armistice line between Israel and Jordan pending the negotiation of a final border. As Israel’s Supreme Court noted in its ruling on the barrier route, building the fence along that line would have been a political statement and would not accomplish the principal goal of the barrier, namely, the prevention of terror.

The fence route must consider each area's topography, population density, and threat assessment. To effectively protect the maximum number of Israelis, it must also incorporate some of the settlements in the West Bank.

Most of the barrier is a chain-link fence combined with underground and long-range sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, trenches, landmines, and guard paths. Less than 3% (about 15 miles) is a30-foot-high concrete wall, built in areas to prevent Palestinian snipers from shooting at Israeli cars.

Despite Israel’s best efforts, the fence has caused some injury to residents near the fence. Israel’s Supreme Court took up the grievances of Palestinians (who are allowed to petition the court without being Israeli citizens). It ruled the government had to reduce the infringement upon local inhabitants by altering the path of the fence in an area near Jerusalem.

Palestinians complain that the fence creates “facts on the ground,” but most of the area incorporated within the fence is expected to be part of Israel in any peace agreement.

Meanwhile, Israelis living along the Green Line, both Jews and Arabs, are happy because the fence helps prevent penetration by thieves, vandals, and terrorists.[15]

If the Palestinians decide to negotiate an end to the conflict, the fence may be torn down or moved. Even without any change, a Palestinian state could theoretically be created in 93% of the West Bank (Hamas now controls 100% of the Gaza Strip) if Israel evacuated it entirely without any land swaps. This is very close to the 97% Israel offered to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000, which means that while other complex issues remain to be resolved, the territorial aspect of the dispute has been reduced to a negotiation over roughly 90 square miles (233 square kilometers).


[1] Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1976), pp. 106–10.

[2] Anne Sinai and Allen Pollack, The Syrian Arab Republic, (NY: American Academic Association for Peace in the Middle East, 1976), p. 117.

[3] Lorch, p. 111.

[4] Near East Report, (January 29, 1982).

[5] Sinai and Pollack, pp. 130–31.

[6] Jonathan Lis, “Israel Approves Mammoth Golan Heights Plan in Bid to Double Population,” Haaretz, (December 26, 2021).

[7] Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, June 29, 1967, cited in Dore Gold, “Defensible Borders for Israel,” JCPA, (June 15, 2003).

[8] Justus Reid Weiner and Diane Morrison, “Linking the Gaza Strip with the West Bank: Implications of a Palestinian Corridor across Israel,” JCPA, (2007).

[9] Anthony Cordesman, “Escalating to Nowhere: The Israeli-Palestinian War—The Final Settlement Issues,” (DC: CSIS, January 13, 2005), p. 15.

[10] Israel’s Options for Peace, (Tel Aviv: The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989), pp. 171–72.

[11] Douglas Murray, “‘Occupied Territories’: What about Cyprus, Kashmir, Tibet?” Gatestone Institute, (July 23, 2013).

[12] Speech to the American Jewish Committee, (May 3, 2001).

[13] Ben Thein, “Is Israel’s Security Barrier Unique?” Middle East Quarterly, (Fall 2004), pp. 25-32

[14] United Nations, (May 6, 2004).

[15] Yair Ettinger, “Highway, Fence Spur Growth in Wadi Ara,” Haaretz, (July 14, 2004).