Settlements and borders

November 22nd, 2009
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You have to see it to believe it. Jerusalem, besides its thousands of years of history, is of course modern and striving for normal development. The latter is a challenge, given the overlapping claims on the city.

Seeing it now, it is difficult to imagine how this city could have been divided. Driving through the city, if one is brought along the “green-line”, the absurdity of its path is immediately clear. What one is told there, but is rarely reported in media stories, is that the 1948- 1967 border has absolutely no historical significance. It was simply the ceasefire line at the end of the 1948 war. Whatever quarter, block or house the combatants happened to be occupying, that’s what side the respective ground went to. One part of Israeli Jerusalem around Mt. Scobus and (including Hebrew University) was an isolated enclave surrounded by Jordanian territory.

Seeing the topography of the city, one realizes the impracticability of its division, with one hill in one state, the next in another. In a sense, the city is a microcosm of the country, where the pattern of settlement also makes the drawing of a “logical” border between Israel and Palestine problematic.

But it’s not the circuity of the border that is in and of itself the problem. Scott Reid, in his book about drawing a border with Quebec after a  lost referendum, pointed out that intricate borders are not a problem. There are in fact several borders that are not only circuitous, but have enclaves/exclaves of one country within another.

The problem, rather, is the relationship across borders. If relations are benign or amicable then circuitousness is no problem. One can have a border pass through the middle of buildings, as one does in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, or stand famously “undefended” along the 49th parallel.

Where there is conflict, that’s where one gets into the question of “defensible” or strategic borders. These have created tragic consequences in history, where populations have suffered occupation or expulsion due to a neighbour’s imperative for “natural” frontiers, access to the sea and what not.

In the case of Israel there is almost certainly an imperative for defensible borders, with all the problems that go with it. One finds it hard to believe that, for example, a Jewish state could live with a Syrian-militarized Golan heights – where artillery has a clear field of fire over much of northern Israel. Similarly, in Jerusalem itself, I visited one length of the security barrier that was positioned simply because snipers had a direct line of fire into Israeli apartment blocks and schools.

One concludes that a border settlement, if it ever comes, would be controlled by such realities. So the settlements, which have every appearance of being modern suburbs – not fortified camps – serve the function of not only furthering the territorial integrity of Jerusalem, but also positioning Israel in future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Agree with this or not, there is a basic logic to it. Conversely, when one visits Israel and thinks about the phrase “land for peace” (a past strategy advocating Israeli return of land to the Palestinians), one immediately realizes how little land there is and perhaps how little peace one might expect in future.

All this leads to the conclusion that a certain realpolitik, a reality of the terrain if you will, must govern the future status of Israel’s borders. The settlements and security barrier are only the current manifestations of that. As the Obama administration criticizes Israel‘s policy regarding the settlements, little can change on the ground. Who commands which ground is just one of the obstacles on any peace roadmap.

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By John Weissenberger