Due to its location and topography, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) has played a vital role in Israel’s national security since it was captured by the IDF in 1967. The West Bank is relatively small, covering 2,123 square miles (5,500 square kilometers), but it is situated immediately adjacent to the Israeli coastal plain where more than 70 percent of Israel’s population and 80 percent of its industrial capacity are located. Moreover, the West Bank is comprised largely of a north-south mountain ridge that dominates vital Israeli infrastructure along the coast, including Israel’s international airport, high-tech companies, and most of the major highways connecting Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. Rainwater flows down the slopes of this mountain ridge into underground aquifers in western Samaria that provide Israel with approximately 30 percent of its water supply.
In short, a hostile military force located in commanding positions along the West Bank could pose a threat to the center of gravity of the State of Israel, cripple or even bring to a standstill its economic life, and put at risk large portions of its population (see Map 6). The same cannot be said about other territories that Israel came to control as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. Sinai is adjacent to the Israeli Negev. The Golan Heights dominates the Sea of Galilee and northeastern Israel. Military losses in these areas would seriously undermine Israeli security, but the State of Israel would continue to exist. Incapacitating and overrunning the coastal plain would terminate Israel’s very existence. This is the primary factor affecting the strategic importance of the West Bank for Israel from a military perspective.
Another aspect of the strategic importance of the West Bank emanates from its role as a barrier protecting the vulnerable coastal plain from armed attack from the east. The West Bank mountain ridge may reach only 3,000 feet at its highest point, but to its east is the Jordan Rift Valley which is the lowest point on earth, dipping down to 1,200 feet below sea-level. This means that the West Bank mountain ridge forms a 4,200-foot barrier facing eastward that is relatively steep for an attacking ground force (see Map 7). The distance from the Jordan River to the apex of the mountain ridge is roughly 8 to 12 miles (the entire West Bank is about 34 miles wide). Given that Israel deploys mostly small, active service units that are numerically inferior to the sizable standing armies of its neighbors, the eastern slopes of the mountain ridge provide the only practical alternative for a defense line for the Israeli army while it completes its reserve mobilization to deal with an impending threat.
The West Bank mountain ridge contributes to Israeli security in other ways. Israel’s military control of the Jordan Valley allows it to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons to Palestinian terrorist groups. Israel has only to patrol an area that is 62 miles long as opposed to the 1967 line which is 223 miles. While the Jordanian armed forces seek to halt the flow of illegal weapons across the Jordanian kingdom, they do not always succeed. Hizballah is active in trying to move illegal weaponry from Lebanon through southern Syria.
Additionally, the West Bank is crucial to Israel’s air defense. During a period of elevated alert, Israel can deploy its air defense systems along West Bank hilltops in order to intercept enemy aircraft from forward positions and not from the heavily populated coastal plain. Short-range radar and early-warning systems situated on the coastal plain would have their line-of-sight blocked by the West Bank mountain ridge (this is not a problem for missile-interception radars). Therefore, for years, Israel has deployed these facilities on the high ground of the West Bank. It goes without saying that if the airspace above the West Bank was in hostile hands, Israel would have no warning time to intercept attacking aircraft. Today, it would take three minutes for an enemy fighter bomber to cross from the Jordan River over the West Bank and Israel (42 miles) to the Mediterranean. If Israel had less than three minutes to react, the provision of adequate air defense by means of fighter interceptors or anti-aircraft missiles would be doubtful.
It may be asked who is going to pose these threats to Israel from the east if Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan and Saddam Hussein has been removed from power in Iraq. The answer to this legitimate question is that national security planning must be based not only on the current political situation, but also must take into account possible changes in the intentions of Israel’s neighbors. Israel will need defensible borders to protect it for decades, not just for the next five years.