Obstacles to peace: Borders and settlements

The modern Israeli state was forged in the fires of the first Middle East war in 1948-1949, but from the beginning it was a state without clear borders.

Leaders of the Palestinians, Jordan, the United States and Israel in 1996

In the 1990s Israel agreed borders with Jordan, but not the Palestinians

The fact that complete, permanent borders still haven’t been drawn 60 years later is testimony to the rancour of Israel’s relations with neighbouring Arab states.

Peace talks have taken place – Jordan and Egypt signed treaties with Israel turning 1949 ceasefire lines into state borders.

But the absence of a final settlement with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians mean Israel’s borders and the state itself remain inherently unstable.


In 1948, when British rule of Palestine ended, Israeli forces managed to push most of the Arab forces that joined the war to the former Mandate boundaries, which became temporary ceasefire lines.

The exceptions were what we now know as the West Bank, which remained under Jordanian control, and the Gaza Strip, which was controlled by Egypt.

Thus Israel came into being on 78% of the former Palestine, rather than the 55% allocated under the UN partition plan.

Parts of Israel’s central region were just 15km (9 miles) wide, and strategic Jordanian-held territory overlooked the whole coastal region.


Fast forward to 1967, when Israel captured both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

Map of Israel and its neighbours
Egypt-Israel treaty, 1979
Article II of peace treaty defines border along Egypt-Mandate frontier
Jordan-Israel treaty, 1994
Annex I: Border along Yarmouk and Jordan river; Demarcation of frontier from Dead Sea to Gulf of Aqaba

Israeli-controlled land now stretched from the Jordan Valley in the east and the Suez Canal to the west; it completely enclosed the Sea of Galilee in the north, and gave it a foothold on the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea.

The Sinai was exchanged for peace with Egypt in the early 1980s (at about the time Israel occupied south Lebanon, where it remained until withdrawing unilaterally in May 2000).

So it was more than 30 years after the foundation of Jewish state that it acquired its first recognised international border with an Arab neighbour.

Jordan became the second treaty holder with Israel, agreeing river borders in the north and a demarcated desert border south of the Dead Sea.

The boundary between Jordan and the occupied West Bank was agreed, but “without prejudice to the status of the territory”.

But such deals are the exception, and the state of Israel and its neighbours have had to live with the insecurity of moveable boundaries and an assortment of different coloured lines (“green”, “purple” and “blue”).


Politically, the most important of the Green Lines – as the 1949 ceasefire lines were called – is the one dividing Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Occupying the West Bank in 1967 was an important strategic gain in Israeli eyes, and successive governments have ignored the Green Line and built numerous Jewish settlements on the territory.

More than 430,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, alongside 2.5 million Palestinians
20,000 settlers live in the Golan Heights
Settlements and the area they take up cover 40% of the West Bank
There are about 100 settlements not authorised by the Israeli government in the West Bank

The settlements are illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this and has pressed ahead with its activity despite signing agreements to limit settlement growth.

Today, about 400,000 settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The land is strategically significant, but in Judaism is also religiously and historically so.

The first settlers were religious Jews who remained in Hebron after celebrating Passover there in 1968.

The settlement movement has become closely affiliated to Jewish religious nationalism, which claims boundaries of modern Israel based on Genesis 15:18: “God made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’.”

On both political and religious grounds, therefore, it is extremely risky for any Israeli politician to dabble in land-for-peace deals or unilateral pullbacks from occupied territory.

This is especially true after the 2006 war over Lebanon, when Hezbollah militants showed the effectives of rocket attacks as a terror weapon from the north, given Israel’s vulnerability at the centre.

State solutions

From the Arab viewpoint, the acceptable territorial solution for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is withdrawal from all the 1967 land.

Saudi Arabia has proposed such a formula in return for Israel gaining normal diplomatic relations with all Arab countries.

West Bank barrier running through East Jerusalem

The wall could be meant as a future border, but Israel denies it

Israel has sought to ring-fence East Jerusalem from any territorial retreat, and it hopes to annex the largest settlement blocs on the east side of the Green Line, which house a large majority of settlers.

This would involve adjustments to the Green Line, perhaps involving Israel swapping its territory for the settlements Ariel, Modiin Illit, Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, etc.

Removing thousands of hardline settlers from other smaller, more isolated outposts would be a difficult task, however, even for the most secure of Israeli governments.

Further territorial compromises by the Palestinians (having already been squeezed into 22% of pre-1948 Palestine) could be a bitter pill for their leadership to swallow as well.

Then a Palestinian state could be established in the West Bank and Gaza, from which Israel pulled troops and settlers in 2005.

Not all Palestinians, however, want a two-state solution.

Hamas, which won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, wants at all costs to avoid a peace deal with Israel that involves drawing permanent borders, because its wider aim is to establish a single, Islamic state within the borders of pre-1948 Palestine.

They argue that such a state, with the return of 1948 refugees, would have an impregnable and growing Arab, Muslim majority, spelling the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

In the long term, therefore, Israel’s reluctance to accept the existing Green Line in many ways plays into the hands of militant Islamist groups such as Hamas.

via//BBC News

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Posted in Arab World, Bush Adminisration, Dipomacy, Egypt, History, Imperialism, Israel, Lebanon, Neocons, Palestinian Territories, Politics, Religion and Politics, Reports/Studies/Books, Suspect Legislation, Syria, United States, US Foreign Policy, War
One comment on “Obstacles to peace: Borders and settlements
  1. […] : Bush: Israel Must End Occupation of Arab Land Illegal settlements, walls to create borders. Obstacles to peace: Borders and settlements Moderate Observer_ Bush asks Israel to exit West Bank | The Australian But watch, Israel will either agree and not […]

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