The headlines of last week’s Jewish Chronicle in Britain highlighted a new intra-community conflict concerning Israel and the peace process. Pro-Israel pro-peace groups had circulated a petition to all of the Jewish and Zionist organizations, requesting them to “sign on the Green Line” as a statement of support for the peace process. They argued that, given the fact that the Green Line was the de facto border separating Israel from the West Bank – both prior to and after the Six Day War – it was only right that it should become more prominent in the debate about Israel.
In particular, they requested that the Green Line be reintroduced on all of the maps which the Jewish organizations and schools use when they educate about Israel, so that people, especially the younger generation, are not misled into believing that there is not, or that there never has been a border, separating two political entities between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
As can be expected this was immediately interpreted as constituting a political, rather than factual, statement. With some exceptions, organizations and youth movements of the center-left, such as Habonim, Dror, Yahad, Peace Now, the Liberal and Reform Movements and New Israel Fund signed on to the statement, while those of the center-right, namely Bnei Akiva, British Herut, or the more formal establishment organizations such as the Zionist Federation and the Jewish National Fund, refused to sign on. Others maintained a dignified silence, not wishing to get drawn into a contentious intra-community debate.
It was perhaps ironic that this should have been published on the day Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett was in town and laying out his own political ideology, which strongly rejects the notion of a border between two states, at a number of community meetings and briefings.
The Green Line has a short but interesting history.
It was originally demarcated as part of the Rhodes Peace Agreements between Israel and Jordan in 1949, following the War of Independence.
For 18 years it remained the border between Israel and the Jordanian-administered West Bank – a term that came into use for the first time following the partition of Palestine west of the River Jordan and the establishment of the State of Israel.
Although the line was overrun by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967, it has never ceased to be the administrative line separating sovereign Israel from that area which is controlled/administered/ occupied (delete whichever terms is least suitable to your personal political preferences). Israel has never formally annexed the West Bank and, as such, has left the Green Line in existence by default. The one exception has been Israel’s policy regarding east Jerusalem.
For long periods of time since 1967, the Green Line has been removed from many official and educational maps. This policy was adopted by David Levy when, as housing minister back in the 1980s, he wished to make a political statement about the government’s intentions to gradually expand the construction of settlements in the West Bank which would effectively constitute a de facto annexation of parts of the area even if the government did not undertake any de jure (legal) moves in this respect.
For the first 20 years after the Six Day War, the former barrier separating Israel from the West Bank was open, and both Israelis and Palestinians crossed the Green Line freely in both directions.
But from the onset of the first intifada and up until the construction of the separation/security barrier/wall/fence (again the reader is invited to delete whichever term he/she does not wish to use), the Green Line was reintroduced as the point at which curfews were imposed, entry (for Palestinians into Israel) was prevented and, depending on the time and circumstance in question, army road-blocks became operational.
THE GREEN Line remained the default border separating Israel from the West Bank, regardless of whether there was a physical fence or barrier in place. For the Arab-Palestinian population it has a much greater significance than for the Israeli-Jewish population. Its original demarcation in 1949 largely reflected the Israeli and Arab positions immediately following the War of Independence.
But it resulted in major life changes for the Arab residents of the region, depending on which side of the line they lived.
Those remaining inside Israel became Israeli citizens, while those in the West Bank were transformed into stateless citizens, initially under Jordanian administration and, since 1967, under Israeli control.
Prior to 1948 there had been no such partition.
The transportation and commercial links between Taiba and Umm el Fahm (in Israel) and Kalkilya or Jenin (in the West Bank) were as natural as the present links between any two neighboring Israeli towns or cities. But the imposition of the line created a total split in the population, as each became subject to the law and development of different countries. By the time the Green Line was overrun in 1967, almost two distinct societies had been created, displaying different demographic, economic and educational characteristics. Such was the power of a border during a relatively brief period of time, given the total sealing of the border and the lack of contact or interaction between the two sides.
As with many borders elsewhere in the world which were created under such arbitrary conditions (many of the borders in Central and Eastern Europe during the early part of the twentieth century are good examples) they become sacrosanct in a very short period of time. And given the fact that we have, so far, been unable to demarcate an alternative line reflecting the realities of today, as contrasted with the realities of 1949, it is the Green Line which remains the default boundary to which the Palestinians desire to return and which is recognized by the international community.
It is important that maps show the location of the Green Line for anyone wishing to be educated in the history and complexities of the conflict.
International lawyers can argue as to whether the line has any legal standing or whether, even after almost 70 years, it is no more than a temporary armistice line. If, and when, Israel and the Palestinians eventually agree to the bilateral demarcation of a new line, this will then supersede any previous line which has existed. But if they are unable to agree to a new line, better reflecting today’s realities as compared to those of 1949, it will be the Green Line to which the international community will return as their default position.
In any process of conflict resolution, knowledge is of critical importance. Knowledge empowers the negotiators and the diplomats on both sides.
To refuse to show maps which display the Green Line is as self-defeating as is the position that the eventual border will never undergo modification.
Israel’s alternative civilian and military administrations begin and end at the Green Line. “Signing on” to the Green Line should not be seen as much as a political statement on the part of right- or left-wing groups, in Israel or in the Diaspora, as much as the knowledge of its existence and location should be part of the educational process for anyone desiring to have a greater understanding of the complexities of the Israel Palestine conflict.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. He has published widely on the topic of Israels borders and the Green Line. The views expressed are his alone.