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Demarcating an Israeli-Palestinian Border: Geographic Considerations

Filed under: Peace Process
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 362     10 Tamuz 5757 / 15 July 1997


Geographic Considerations in the Peace Process

Maps are a very important part of the political process of conflict resolution known as the peace process. Maps are important parts of all territorial conflicts. We often walk around with the idea of a map in our head and think we know what we are talking about, but often we do not.

When geographers give people a blank map of Israel and ask them to draw in the West Bank or the “green line,” the results are often very interesting. A colleague at Tel Aviv University did this exercise with his students, many of whom did reserve duty in the West Bank, and they drew the boundaries of the green line using many different lines.

What are the geographic considerations in the peace process? The process that began with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993 is becoming more geographical and territorial by the day. People who do not normally think in terms of the territorial aspects are now thinking about them much more because the whole process is about giving up territory. What territory is Israel going to hold, and what is going to be under Palestinian control?

A cartoon which appeared in Haaretz newspaper on Independence Day 1993, prior to the Oslo accords, showed the map of greater Israel with no boundary in the middle, at its 45th birthday and slightly worried about its shape. With spectators such as Arafat and Hussein looking on, the map is asking the weight watcher trainer, Y. Rabin, “How much of this shape do I have to get rid of in order to satisfy all these spectators.” This is basically what the process is about. Just how much of this shape must Israel change once again in order to satisfy all of the people looking on.

Skeptics will say it does not matter how much Israel changes its shape because nothing will ever satisfy them. This question is part of the political debate, the ideological debate, the debate that every one of us conducts with our friends, neighbors, and political opponents every day of the week in Israel.

The situation today is that we are part of a process which began three years ago in which the territory of the West Bank is being divided up. The pros and cons of that process are not our focus here.

We are now in the middle of that process and at the moment we have the Oslo II map. With this map, we are not quite sure not only where the boundary lines are meant to be, but where the lines are at present.

The Green Line Remains

Between 1949 and 1967 there existed what was called the green line boundary, a very artificial boundary between Israel and the West Bank. It had been drawn up in the 1949 Rhodes armistice agreement and then imposed upon the landscape, with a number of changes as it was implemented, as happens when most boundaries are implemented on the ground.

The Arab landscape of the region suddenly found itself cut in two. Half of the people became Israeli citizens and half became West Bank residents of Jordan. Although the physical distance between them was often no more than two or three kilometers, the two groups were subject to completely different influences – demographic, economic, social, cultural – so that when that boundary was removed in the 1967 Six-Day War, a single Arab society was revealed with two separate subsocieties.

Some classic research was conducted by Professor Moshe Brawer of Tel Aviv University who had been studying the Arab villages prior to 1949. After 1967 he sent students back to the same villages to undertake demographic and social surveys to see what differences had occurred on either side of the green line. In one generation the impact of a sealed boundary was so great that there were completely different levels of educational skills and economic opportunities. Yet prior to 1949 no one differentiated between Taibe or Tulkarm, Tira or Kalkilya. They were part of a single ethnic landscape. Then a boundary was superimposed as part of an agreement between the two sides.

Since 1967, major politicians have made very demonstrative statements about the fact that the green line no longer exists. Yet the necessity for so many public declarations indicates that those speaking are worried about something. When this writer started to look at the green line, he found that, although formally removed in 1967, it really still exists in a functional sense. It is not necessary to have a line or a roadblock in order to say that a boundary exists.

The green line existed for only 18 years, from 1949 to 1967, and it has not existed for nearly 30 years. Yet the imprint of the green line on our mental image of the map of the region remains strong.

Since 1967, the Government Surveyor’s Office, which produces the official Atlas of Israel and other maps of the country, is not allowed to put in the West Bank or the green line boundary. The same policy has been in effect under both the Likud and Labor governments. The green line is only marked on historical maps that illustrate the situation which existed between 1949 and 1967.

Paradoxically, Israeli policy in not annexing the West Bank, which even the Likud government at the height of its power never did and never wanted to do for obvious demographic reasons, meant that the line remains very strongly imprinted, if not as an international boundary, then certainly in a functional sense. It remains to this day an administrative line separating the area under Israeli law from military law or Jordanian law.

When there is a terrorist attack and Israel closes the territories, the roadblocks are put precisely where the green line used to be. When the intifada started and we ceased to travel to Kalkilya to shop or ceased to take the short cut from Beersheva to Jerusalem via Hebron, we intuitively knew where the line was, where it was safer to drive and where it was less safe. So the line has always been there, despite its being removed in a formal sense.

In the first Oslo accord in 1993, Israel signed an agreement which talked about the territory know as the West Bank, in a sense accepting the notion that the green line was the line to one day be talked about. It is in a sense a starting point for the final agreement negotiations.

As far as the Palestinian side is concerned, the green line is the only boundary. Accepting the notion of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank means for them that they are accepting only 23 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. In other words, they say that they are already giving up 77 percent of the area and insist on all of the remaining 23 percent.

Israel, on the other hand, is saying that the green line serves as the starting point for talks, and intends to work from the green line inward. Israel has certain interests involving security, water, and, most importantly, Israeli settlements, which means it must move the boundary in order to incorporate certain territory on the other side.

What Israel does not accept is the Palestinian claim for territorial compensation somewhere else in order to maintain the same 23 percent. Even the Labor government never accepted the notion of territorial reciprocity.

Are there Israeli Arab areas which could be given over to the Palestinians? One possibility is the area of Um el Fahm and Wadi Ara, where there are very few Israeli settlements. However, this very area was the object of a land exchange in 1948 when the green line was drawn up. At the time of the ceasefire, Arab forces controlled Wadi Ara and there were also Iraqi forces in northern Samaria. The main land exchange deal agreed upon at Rhodes was made to gain Israeli control of Wadi Ara and the main road from Hadera to Afula, an area of heavy Arab concentration. While from a pragmatic point of view this might be the area to have a territorial exchange, such a move would be very politically contentious in Israel.

Israel’s Security Interests

We must remember that the whole distance from Tel Aviv through the West Bank to the Jordan River is only 75 kilometers at its very widest. There is very little real estate to divide up, which is part of the problem. If Israel had another five or six Negevs to play around with, the debate about where to put the boundary would be very different.

Much of Israel’s coastal plain between the green line and the sea is only about 16 kilometers wide. As a result, the Israeli argument has always been that it could not go back to the green line, particularly not in the coastal plain where most of its major cities and towns are located, because the high ground overlooking its main towns represents a strategic asset for the State of Israel.

Back in the Likud election campaigns in the 1980s, Arik Sharon used to offer free bus rides to people in Tel Aviv and Netanya to go to one of the settlements such as Elkana or Karnei Shomron overlooking the coastal plain. He would offer people binoculars and ask them if they could see their own neighborhood. Then he would say, “Think what would happen if there was a Jordanian or Palestinian policeman or soldier here with a gun.”

This argument is a powerful one precisely because there is no falsification here of the scale or distance. Yet no other alternatives are considered. What if there was a demilitarized zone? What if Israel controls the Jordan Valley?

Safeguarding Water Resources

The issue of the water aquifer is another question of major importance since water is such a scarce resource in the region. There are three major water aquifers in Israel, two of which underlie the coastal plain and the green line boundary. Eighty percent of the rain in the region falls on the western slopes of the mountain range, which means that the most important parts of the aquifer are on the other side of the green line from an Israeli perspective, and which Israel argues it must control or at least have joint control.

Oslo I and II include the basics for coming to an agreement over the water issue. Rather than what territory each side controls, there is to be a binding arrangement about how much water each side is allowed to use, with some sort of joint or multinational committee to make sure that no side exploits more than they should. The debate is more about how much water each side is allowed and where it can have wells rather than how it has to acclimatize itself to a particular boundary.

The Impact of Jewish Settlements

The third major issue to consider when drawing boundaries is the location of Israeli or Jewish settlements in the West Bank. One can support or oppose the whole concept of Israeli settlements – that is a political call – but we should not forget that the history of map creation in this region has always shown that facts on the ground do create boundaries on maps.

The 1948-49 war showed this categorically. The policy of the Haganah at the time, among other objectives, was to insure control over all those areas where Jewish settlements existed and, with the one exception of Gush Etzion, this was achieved. In fact, settlements took on a very important role at that time because, given the type of warfare that existed then, individual settlements were responsible for holding up armies, as in Yad Mordechai, Ramat Rachel, Kinneret, and others. The settlements were important in creating the line that came about.

In the early 1950s settlements were used as a means of bolstering Jewish territorial presence in the Galilee, along the Lebanese border, along the Jerusalem corridor, and along the green line in the Lachish region. When the Gush Emunim movement started its settlement policy in the 1970s, over twenty years ago, one of its stated objectives was to create irreversible facts on the ground, just as the early Zionist pioneers did in the 1920s and 1930s. Its political objective was to create civilian settlements because traditionally, where a Jewish or Zionist settlement was established, that meant the land belonged to the Jews.

A debate erupted in the 1980s about whether the settlements were reversible or not. Former deputy Jerusalem mayor and West Bank researcher Meron Benvenisti claimed that settlement had reached the stage where it was irreversible. Today, there are 130-150,000 Jews living east of the green line, not including Jerusalem, of which 30-40,000 moved into existing communities there under the past Rabin government. Yet everything is always reversible. The fate of Northern Sinai and Yamit in the Camp David accords is the precedent.

The Oslo II map does show that the settlements do have a very important role to play. The map is divided into areas A, B, and C. Area A includes the Palestinian towns containing most of the population and a very small part of the territory. Area B is the Palestinian villages, with more territory and the rest of the Arab population. Area C is still under complete Israeli control and is 70 percent of the whole area. Every Israeli settlement is in Area C, and the map was drawn as it is, largely to take into account where the Israeli settlements are.

When they drew up Oslo II, Beilin and Peres may have wanted to evacuate settlements in the final arrangement – all of them, some of them, isolated ones – but they realized at the time that there was enough opposition to the Rabin government without raising the issue of evacuating settlements. Any Israeli government understands that the moment it evacuates one settler, it has an internal problem because that is going to be the rallying call of the opposition to the Oslo accords and the peace process.

It could even be argued that the Labor government did not want settlement evacuation because they saw it as a very important territorial pawn not to be given up at the Oslo II stage, but perhaps to give up some or all of the settlements at the final stage.

One can say the settlements should not have been created in the first place and that they should be evacuated in the future, but this is a very unrealistic comment, seeing what exists on the ground. It would be no small feat to move 150,000 settlers back into Israel itself. One must go and see for oneself to realize what this means. There are houses, roads, industrial areas, and schools. It would be quite a project to relocate all this, and this fact must be taken into account.

Ideas for a Permanent Solution

All sorts of ideas have been raised to help the government find a permanent solution. The map of the Third Way political party, represented in the government by Avigdor Kahalani, includes the old strategic concepts of the Jordan Valley and the Allon Plan, and has fingers to contain the main settlement concentrations. The areas along the Trans-Samarian highway, western Samaria, and Gush Etzion contain 65 percent of the Israeli settlements. The Jordan Valley is a large area because it is made up of agricultural settlements, but only includes 2-3,000 people.

A map put out last year by the Netivot Shalom peace movement retains control of some 85 percent of the settlers with only 6 percent of the land. Its problem is its rather crazy boundaries. It is just not realistic to draw boundaries through certain mountains or valleys.

The Alpher map from the Center for Strategic Studies would retain 65 percent of the settlements with 10 percent of the territory. Recently, Haaretz published the Efrat-Katz map prepared by geographers from Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University who tried to work out what they called “demographic dominance,” arguing for the necessity to keep areas where there is already Jewish demographic dominance. There is also the Beilin-Abu Mazin map, which again plays the same sort of game of how many settlements and how little territory. The Israeli side is saying, “How can we keep most of the settlers but on as little territory as possible because the less territory we want to annex to Israel, the greater chance we have of the Palestinian side agreeing to it.” Of course, these are all from an Israeli perspective. The Palestinian perspective says, “No territory, no settlements; the boundary goes back to the green line.”

It is possible to create a number of boundary scenarios using geography information systems (GIS) and computer cartography. With modern cartography and using satellite imagery, we can have very detailed data on the ground of settlements, transportation, land use, industry, and agriculture, and then superimpose the maps on top of each other. We can then predetermine certain lines, seeing what happens to each of these variables when we draw the green line here or there.

Or we can have a program written which will draw the line of optimal separation for land use or for settlement and then try and see where the spots of major conflict are. Such a project would be most useful in discussions about the final arrangement, allowing us to use technical means to try to solve some very difficult social and political problems.

Ultimately, however, there is no optimal line. Unless we accept the concept of population transfers, there is no line which will ever separate Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Dealing with Changing Realities

The realities today on both sides of the green line, in both Israeli and Palestinian settlements as well, are not the same as they were in 1967. One cannot just take a picture of what existed in 1967 and work out an agreement accordingly. A new reality under the Rabin government brought about Oslo I and Oslo II. The present Likud government is changing the reality again, moving to bolster the settlements in the territories. If the Labor government returns to power in the year 2000, it will have to deal with the realities at that time and not with the realities of 1996.

In 1984 there were about 30,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. By 1996, after twelve years, there were about 130,000. That increase took place within 92 percent of the existing settlement structure. Most of the settlement pattern was created between 1981 and 1985. In 1985 came the first National Unity government and the deal between Peres and Shamir that froze new settlements.

Of course there was a public outcry among the right wing at the time, but the truth is that they had a major problem. Within four years, between 1981 and 1985, they had created numerous communities, most of which were too small, with 20 families here and 15 families there. The next ten years witnessed a consolidation of the settlement structure that had been created in the early 1980s rather than the establishment of huge new areas of settlement. Paradoxically, the freeze on new settlements has strengthened rather than weakened the settlement network. These communities are now much larger, with 200, 300, or 500 families each, and they are internally much stronger from a political point of view than they were in 1985. Today they are in a position to expand even more.

As has always been the case over the past 100 years for both Jews and Arabs, facts on the ground create the political maps of the future. When the final political map is created, facts on the ground on both sides are going to be the major factor in determining its lines.

How Permanent are Boundaries?

How permanent are boundaries in the Middle East? Our concept of European state territories as applied in the Middle East only goes back about 100 years. The long geometric lines on today’s maps were not created by the local population, but rather by the British and the French. Look at the mess they left behind them in Africa by creating these long superimposed geometric boundaries. The concept of what we call fixed territories as part of states is a very European concept that does not necessarily appeal to all the populations of this region. Boundaries are not that permanent here because they have not been around that long.

Oslo II: A Postmodern Map

The Oslo II map can be perceived as being a postmodern map because it has so many different types of disconnected spaces within it with no clearly defined boundary. Everything is within everything else. Yet part of conflict resolution is about creating boundaries and separating spaces, not the opposite.

There is a need to create compact, separate territories, which means not creating exclaves and enclaves and bypass roads. It means creating something which has a clear line of division. This postmodern map with bits here and bits there, in the sort of ethnic conflict that we have with the Palestinians, clearly lends itself to instability.

Sharing Space vs. Creating Boundaries

There is an ongoing debate among geographers about the significance of boundaries in the postmodern world. At one time, national or international boundaries used to divide territories, preventing the crossing not only of people but also of information and media. Today in the era of globalization, boundaries are being knocked down, opened, and pushed away, with Western Europe and North America the examples.

According to this argument, we are entering into an era where boundaries are less and less important, and rather than separate spaces we need to share spaces. Rather than have single national identities, we need to have multi-identities, shared identities. While this idea makes for a lovely, esoteric, theoretical debate, when we look at the conflict resolution processes in the world, be it in Israel, Cyprus, Bosnia or other areas in central and eastern Europe, we are very well aware that those nations are not interested in getting rid of boundaries or in sharing spaces. Part of the conflict resolution process is specifically about how to separate territories and spaces, and to create boundaries. These may not be the same sort of walls and iron curtains of the past, but they are very clear lines defining what is my territory and what is yours.

In 20 or 50 or 100 years down the road, if this region really reaches a situation of conflict resolution, of something which we euphemistically call peace, and we go two or three generations without conflict, then we may talk even here about getting rid of boundaries and sharing space. But we are a long, long way from that. We have not yet gotten around to creating boundaries, so it is far too early to talk about getting rid of them.


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David Newman is Associate Professor of Political Geography and Director of the Humphrey Institute for Social Research at Ben-Gurion University. His study of the green line boundary between Israel and the West Bank has recently been published by the International Boundaries Research Institute. His book, The Dynamics of Territorial Conflict: A Political Geography of Israel-Palestine, is to be published by Westview Press later this year. This Jerusalem Letter\Viewpoints is based on his presentation at the Jerusalem Center Fellows Forum.