Locating Israel and Palestine On The Map

Why is it important to be familiar with the geographical map of Israel and Palestine to understand the complexity of the region?

Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard is the equivalent of one of Florida’s cities: women wearing summer dresses and men in shorts and flip-flops enjoy their coffee at the avenue’s cheerfully upscale cafes. Filled with restaurants and ice cream shops, boutique stores and galleries. A few blocks away from the Mediterranean Sea, the harsh sun and humidity are sometimes the only reminders that the city is located in the Middle East.

But these pockets of relative calm actually mask the chaos that swirls in and around Israel, much of it based on centuries-old resentments and, even more confusing, geography. Therefore any discussion of Israel — the 70-year-old conflict between Jews and Palestinians, its complex relationships with bordering countries — must also include a discussion of how the land is divided and why.

To begin with, contrary to its outsized influence in the United States, particularly when it comes to politics and the media, Israel is a very small country. According to the CIA data site, the state, including Palestinian territories, is roughly the same size as New Jersey, one of America’s smallest states.

The disputed land is even smaller when we consider the size of the Palestinian territories. These are divided between West Bank (2,183 mi²) next to Jordan, and the Gaza Strip (140.9 mi2) bordering Egypt. Given that the region is made of deserts, Gaza and Israel have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea on the East Coast. And the Red Sea borders the South, one of the warmest and most touristic Israeli cities, Eilat. The Dead Sea and Jordan River run along Israel’s border with Jordan and the Sea of Galilee delineates a portion of the Syrian border.

Image from GraphicMaps.com

Other than Egypt, Israel and it’s neighboring countries — Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq were not countries a century ago. How is this possible, well they were formed when the French and British intervene in the region in the 1920’s. Indeed, most modern-day borders in the neighborhood are fairly new — Israel itself was only created following World War II. Years after the creation of the Middle East as we know it, the history and geography of many of these countries is still developing as they have been independent for less than a century.

Modern-day Israel was founded in 1947, when the British mandated that Palestine, where Jews and Arabs lived peacefully together, would become a sovereign state. The United Nations introduced Resolution 181 — “The Partition Plan”, suggesting the division of the territory into Jewish and Arab halves, giving Jews 56.47% of the territory and Arabs the other 43.53%. This deal didn’t sound fair to the Arabs, who declared war, overestimating their military capacity. Eventually and after much fighting, Israel declared victory and its own independence on May 14th 1948, grabbing a much larger portion of the territory than the initial plan suggested. For the Palestinians, this defeat is remembered as the Nakba (disaster), commemorated every year on May 15.

Here’s where the borders come into play. On May 15 1948, what had been a civil war became an inter-state war when Egypt, Syria and Jordan invaded Israel and took over the Arab areas under its control; they allied against Israel, to support the Palestinian cause, a cause that ultimately came to defined Arab identity and the political decisions of many Arab states. In the outcome of the war, Israel again, retained almost 60% of the land, a larger percentage than established by the UN Resolution. During the same war, Jordan — a British protectorate at the time– annexed the remaining areas of Palestine — while Egypt took over the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians were again left with very little to nothing. After two defeats against Israel, Arab-neighboring countries had to change their strategies from offensive to defensive while defending their own borders and national interests.

Israel’s relationship with Egypt, Syria and Jordan never fully normalized; in 1967, the same players began fighting again in a conflict known as the Six-Day War; named after its exact duration, six days. This time Israel was even more successful, and was able to take back the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank and the Northern Golan Heights (bordering Syria). The borders prior, were those delineated in 1948, so after 1967, they are called the 67 borders or Green Line, and subsequently have become Israeli occupied-territories.

In 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in as part of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 to facilitate the peace negotiations. And this is how the map looks today (as seen on map).

As mentioned earlier, these countries are products of The French and British colonialism, which divided the region before they left and imposed the political structures and systems that rule today. Borders were formed unnaturally and it wasn’t today’s “Middle Easterners” who fought or decided upon them, they were established for them. The region hasn’t found stability as governments and non-governmental players still aspire to gain more territory through war. Borders face continuous existential threats, causing tensions and clashes that fluctuate from year to year through the many borders. As countries simultaneously try to to achieve and maintain stability, the region looks more like a scene of survival of the fittest in wild nature, where everyone is focused on their own survival.

Rothschild Boulevard, looks now more like a misplaced bubble within a region that is torn apart by civil wars, inner conflicts and politics. When talking about the war, the escalation of violence, the military attacks on these countries, civil wars, and the threats of terrorist organizations we talk about a battlefield within less than 100 miles distance from each other in a recently bordered region.

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