How Did Israel Get Its Current Borders?





Mr. Mayzel is a professor of history at the Cummings Center for Russian and East European Studies at Tel-Aviv University.


Three factors shaped the borders of present-day Israel: the British mandate on Palestine; the outcome of the Israeli War of Independence of 1948-1949 (the first of the Arab-Israeli wars of the 20th Century); and the consequence of the Six Day War of 1967 (the third Arab-Israeli war).

The oldest of the borders of Israel is the one with Egypt. This was established in 1906, when the Ottoman Empires ruled almost the whole area of the Middle East (as distinct from the Near East) on which a number of states were later established. At that time the area was part of the Vilayet (a large administrative unit) of Damascus, in which the Sanjaq (a smaller administrative unit) of Jerusalem has a special status. Lord Cromer, the British administrator of Egypt who ruled the country, was worried by the possibility of Turkish military forces being deployed in the Sinai peninsula. In 1892 Cromer therefore proposed a border line to bring the Sinai under British control. The line would go from a point on the Mediterranean coast of Sinai east of El-Arish, in southeastern direction to the Gulf of Aqaba at the northwestern point of the Arabian Peninsula. After some years and some negotiations the Turkish government agreed in 1906 to the British modified proposal, a line from Rafah southward to Taba, somewhat less than 10 miles west of Aqaba. This borderline was not changed after World War I, and remained the border between the British mandate in Palestine and Egypt.

During World War I a number of plans appeared regarding the borders envisioned for the Middle East once the Ottoman Empire was defeated. These ranged from an Arab kingdom in almost the whole of the Middle East to a variety of plans dividing the region between Great Britain, France, and the Russian Empire, the most famous of which was the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916). After the region was conquered by the British army in 1918, Great Britain and France reached an agreement on dividing the Middle East, where France took Syria and Britain took what become Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. In 1920 Britain was assigned a mandate for Palestine and Transjordan, approved by the League of Nations in 1922, which included a specific task of preparing a Jewish national home in Palestine (in accordance with the Balfour declaration). The border between Palestine under the British control and Syria under the French control was negotiated by the two powers and concluded in 1923, establishing the northern border of Palestine.

The eastern border of Palestine was determined the same year. Transjordan was separated from Palestine, established within the mandate as an autonomous area under the Emir Abdullah. The border thus ran through the middle of the Jordan river separating the two countries, and southward along the lowest line of the dry riverbed (Wadi) between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. (Click here to see a map showing the British Partition of 1946.)

A great change came in 1947: Palestine was further divided in the Partition Plan between Arabs and Jews approved by the United Nations General Assembly (29 November). According to this plan Palestine was divided into Jewish and Arab states, each composed of three areas contiguous in" choke points," while Jerusalem was to be put under international control. Immediately a war started between the people of Palestine, Jews and Arabs, and in less than three weeks the Arab League announced its rejection of the Partition Plan. Furthermore, with the declaration of the State of Israel on 15 May 1948 the neighboring Arab states (and also Iraq) invaded the country. The war was transformed then from a war between the two national communities of the country into an invasion by foreign armies in an attempt to prevent the creation of Israel while at the same time not supporting the Palestinian national aspirations. In the spring of 1948 armies of Arab states occupied most of the area previously under the British mandate, including much of the area assigned to the Jewish state. The newly created army of the state of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), fought against the regular invading armies as well as forces of the local Palestinian population. The dynamics of the war caused the lines separating the two proposed states to disappear, and the new lines were determined mainly by military success and demographics. (Click here to see a map showing the borders in 1949.)

When the fighting ended early in 1949, the situation was as follows: In the north of the country the invading Lebanese army was repelled, IDF units even crossed into Lebanon and then retreated, and the old border of 1923 was restored. The Syrian army stood on some points a short distance west of the previous border, i.e. within the area of Israel. In the south, the Egyptian army was repelled and pushed back from most of the area, and IDF forces even entered the Sinai peninsula. The southern coastal plain, around the town of Gaza, remained in Egyptian hands. The most complicated situation was in the center of the country. Most of the mountainous area remained in the hands of the army of Transjordan and their Iraqi allies. Only a narrow" corridor," on both sides of the main road to Jerusalem, was held by the IDF. In Jerusalem the western part, in which there was mainly Jewish population but also some Arab sections, was occupied by Israel, while the eastern side, including the Old City and the many holy sites, came under Jordanian rule.

The military outcome of the war was reflected in four cease fire agreements, negotiated with the encouragement and under the auspices of the UN. The first was between Israel and Egypt, signed on 24 February 1949, the second between Israel and Lebanon (23 March 1949), then Israel and Jordan (3 April 1949) and the last one Israel and Syria (20 July 1949). By these agreements some small portions of land were exchanged, an international mechanism for maintaining the agreements was established, in the form of a UN force of observers (UNTSO) and a bilateral committee also under UN chairmanship. Both on the Israeli-Egyptian border and the Israeli-Syrian border there were a few Demilitarized Zones, in which the presence of military forces was forbidden. In its southern part, Israel remained within the lines of Palestine under the British mandate.

Thus was formed the strange border line of Israel, which was, in terms of international law only a temporary cease fire line. Within the 1949 boundaries the area of the State of Israel totalled 20,500 square kilometers, 450 km long, 135 km wide at its widest point and 15 km at its narrowest point, with a narrow corridor to the capital Jerusalem, which was a divided city.

Its temporary basis notwithstanding, this border became the internationally recognized boundary of Israel. Already in December 1948 Emir Abdullah of Jordan proclaimed himself King of Palestine and annexed the area west of the river Jordan, hence known as the West Bank. But this was not recognized by the international community (except by Britain and Pakistan). A narrow strip on the southern coastal plain, from Rafah to north of Gaza city, remained under Egyptian rule, but was never incorporated into Egypt or annexed by it. Both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were established camps for Arab population who left the area now Israel. Smaller camps were established in Lebanon, Syria, and in Jordan on the east side of the river.

This situation remained without change for 19 years, except for a short period in 1956-57 on the Israeli-Egyptian border. In the Sinai Campaign Israel defeated Egypt and conquered the Sinai peninsula for the period from November 1956 to January 1957. Israel, however, withdrew to its old border, and a new UN mechanism for maintaining the peace on this line was created: the UN Emergency Force (UNEF).

The most important, and greatest change in the borders of Israel came in 1967. It began in May 1967, when the Egyptian army entered Sinai. This move was perceived by Israel as a very grave threat to its very existence. After the international community failed to resolve the crisis, and being under great military threat, Israel went to war on 5 June. The Egyptian army was defeated in two days, and in 4 days IDF forces stood on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Jordan joined the war a few hours after Egypt, and was likewise defeated and the whole West Bank was taken by Israel as were Jerusalem, the Old City and the holy places. A war with Syria followed, and in 2 days the Golan heights were taken by the IDF. Thus in 6 days Israel defeated three Arab states, took the vast area of the Sinai, took the West bank and the Golan heights.

The Six day War caused profound changes in the political and military structure of the Middle East. It compelled the Arab states to accept the existence of Israel as a political reality which they could not destroy or ignore. It brought new territories under Israeli control; it brought the entire Holy Land (including Jerusalem) under Jewish-Israeli rule; and it also brought a large Arab-Palestinian population under Israeli rule. At first, most of these changes were not perceived as permanent by the Israeli government. After long deliberations for a number of days the Israeli government accepted a decision (which was kept secret) in which Israel was ready to give back the Sinai and the Golan heights in return for a peace agreement. The question of the West Bank remained open. However a Summit meeting of the Arab states in Khartoum (Sudan) in August 1967 established three No's: no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel, and support of the claims of the Palestinians. The UN actively attempted a solution, and in November 1967 the UN Security Council passed its Resolution 242 which, inter alia, called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Arab territories occupied in the war, and the right of all states [in the Middle east, including Israel] to live in peace within secure and recognized borders.

The period of Israel's expanded borders lasted until 1973. After some years of intensive combat clashes - the"war of attrition" of 1968-1970 - and a war in 1973 between Israel and Egypt and Syria, came the era of peace agreements. It started with the visit of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1979, and was concluded with a peace agreement. Israel returned the whole of Sinai to Egypt in 1982, thus returning to the border delineated in 1906. The Gaza Strip, however, remained under Israeli rule. The border on the Golan Heights was changed only slightly, in a disengagement agreement with Syria in the wake of the 1973 war.

In 1993 the government of Israel, under Mr. Rabin, signed an agreement with the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Mr. Yasser Arafat, known as the Oslo Agreement, by which the greater part of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were given to the control of the Palestinian Authority. A year later a peace agreement was signed between Israel and Jordan. Israeli military presence in Lebanon, which started in June 1982 came to a complete end in 2000, returning the border line of 1923 to its old recognized and mutually accepted status.

Thus in 2002 Israel still has to reach an internationally accepted agreement on her border with Syria on the Golan heights, and to resolve the thorny question of the Palestinian territory of the West bank and Gaza.


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More Comments:


LAURENCE CHRISTENSON - 6/1/2005

Recently I was told by an expert in Islamic studies that "the Jews STOLE Palestine from the Palestinians." He claimed that Jewish settlers obtained land in Palestine by nefarious means prior to 1948, in effect "stole" it from Palestinian Arabs who had lived there for generations.

I have never heard such a claim. Is there any documentation for/or against such a claim?


Susan Cohen - 5/17/2002

In the author's zeal to be even-handed, I see that he has whitewashed
a few things - the most serious of which - to my mind - is neglecting to
mention the blockading of the Gulf of Aqaba by Egypt, which was a
specific act of war, leading to the "Six Day War".

Of course, I can understand how any site on the Middle East would
like to avoid controversy at all costs in order to try to get out the basic
facts to the public.

Susan Cohen

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