Aug 07 2012

Sacrifices to the god Terminus

The Elephant in the Map Room

By Frank Jacobs, August 7, 2012, 12:43 pm

 

My better half: “Are you sure about this? They’ll kill you.”

Me: “Sure I’m sure. You can hardly expect me to write a series called Borderlines, about the strange lines that people draw to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them,’  and then finish it without discussing the border between Israel and Palestine.”

Better half: “Do what you have to. But they are going to kill you.”

Me, slightly apprehensive: “You mean metaphorically kill me, right?”

Objectively speaking, a borderologist should love the Holy Land [1], veined as it is with boundaries both old and new, in different stages of acknowledgement and fortification: some internationally recognized ones are purposely overlooked [2], others are unrecognized, yet heavily militarized. Nevertheless, from the first installment of this series, this has been the elephant in the map room.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves a very small area of land, only a few million people, and no mineral resources. The reasonable solution has always been obvious: to draw a borderline somewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea that both sides, however grudgingly, could live with. Yet the conflict casts a shadow over world peace, and continues to fester.

The current borders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are the direct result of a long, complex and deadly conflict. But talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the conversational equivalent of tap-dancing on quicksand: the harder you try, the deeper you get stuck. For opinions are as sharply divided as the land itself [3].

Considering how deep those divisions are, it’s remarkable how relatively new the current set of borders is. Geography dictates the western and eastern limits of the Holy Land. Most modern maps will show the border between Israel and the main part of the Palestinian territories [4] as a cursive “e” [5] superimposed on the land’s slender waist: two ample bulges toward the sea, counterweighted by the central stake’s thrust toward the Jordan River valley. At the tip of that stake is Jerusalem.

The Ottomans, who ruled the land until the British takeover in 1917, had the place arranged much differently. The northern half of what now is Israel/the Palestine territories belonged to the vilayet [6] of Beirut, which extended from Latakia [7] to just north of Jerusalem; and the independent sanjak [8] of Jerusalem, covering most of what is now the southern half of Israel, minus part of the southern Negev Desert, plus access to the Red Sea via the Gulf of Eilat.

Jewish immigration drastically changed the ethnic makeup of what was then called the British Mandate of Palestine. The Zionist [9] dream was to establish a state for a “people without land, in a land without people” [10]. That dream was inconvenienced by the Arab population already present in Palestine. In the mid-1930s, tensions between Jewish immigrants and Arab locals came to the boil.

One result of that Arab Revolt was the Peel Commission, which in 1937 was the first to recommend partitioning  Palestine. That now forgotten plan again shows a rather differently configured territory: Jerusalem, and a corridor connecting it to the coast, was to remain a British mandate. The shape of Peel’s Jewish state is recognizable as the northern part of Israel proper: Galilee, a coastal corridor to Tel Aviv, and an exclave on the other side of Jaffa, in the Mandate corridor. In all, only 15 percent of the total area. The rest — Judea and Samaria [11] and the Negev (now in Israel) — would go to an Arab state. The establishment of both states would require a population transfer; the cited example was the 1923 exchange between Greece and Turkey.

The Arabs rejected Peel outright, objecting to any territorial concessions. The Jewish side was more equivocal: not content with the borders of Peel-Israel, they were divided on whether to reject the plan on that basis, or accept it and assume that the borders could be adjusted later [12].

The plan failed, hostilities continued and, in 1938, the Woodhead Commission reworked Peel’s proposals into three variations, eventually concluding that partition would be impracticable. Yet partition was what the newly formed United Nations proposed in 1947, as conflict between Jews and Arabs endured and the British made clear they would rather leave without a solution than stay in the cross-fire.

The United Nations partition plan ingeniously consisted of seven separate areas: an “internationalized” one for Jerusalem as corpus separatum [13], and three areas for each state. The Arab and Jewish statelets would be interlinked at two quadripoints [14], one in the north in Galilee and one in the coastal strip, south of Tel Aviv.

Extraterritorial highways [15] across the Galilean Quadripoint would link the Arab area of western Galilee with the uplands of Judea and Samaria and Jewish eastern Galilee with the Jewish coastal zone, punctuated by the Arab exclave of Jaffa. Similar connections across the Coastal Quadripoint would link the Arab coastal and desert zone in the south with Judea and Samaria and the Jewish coastal zone with the Jewish territory in the southern Negev, all the way to the Red Sea.

The plan was more generous for the Jews than the partitions proposed by either of the British commissions, but it would have left the Arabs with more territory than the Palestine most hope to achieve nowadays [16]. By now, you may have guessed the pattern, one that has persisted until the present: out of high principle, the Arabs refuse to compromise, and subsequently are confronted with a fait accompli that’s worse than their previous position.

Israel’s declaration of independence, on May 14, 1948, makes no mention of the new state’s borders; it vaguely declares “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” Eretz-Israel is a Biblical term meaning the “Land of Israel,” the borders of which are variedly defined in Scripture. A maximalist interpretation would extend it from the Nile to the Euphrates [17].

Israel’s borders were defined by the war for survival that followed its independence; apart from the external borders inherited from the British mandate, its borders with Gaza (occupied by the Egyptians) and the West Bank (annexed by the Jordanians) were the armistice lines of 1949. Although most of the world treats these green lines as Israel’s external borders, the fact that they are in reality still armistice lines has a few stark implications. For starters, armistice lines do not eradicate either party’s territorial claims. That explains the fear on both sides of the line about the other party’s “hidden agenda” [18] — total territorial annihilation of the opponent.

Israel’s greatest victory, in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, laid the foundations of today’s stalemate. The Jewish state gained East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1979, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the Camp David peace treaty. In 1981, invoking the area’s strategic importance, it effectively annexed the Golan Heights. East Jerusalem was also annexed.

All the conquered areas still under Israeli control are mostly populated by Palestinian Arabs. Post-conquest, a curious alliance took shape in Israeli society. The secular state sought effective ways to pacify (or at least control) the occupied territories. A fundamentalist element in Israeli society considered living in these newly conquered areas a religious right, if not a duty. A continuing wave of Jewish settlements [19] is establishing “facts on the ground” that are considered illegal under international law, but will prove difficult to completely reverse if and when a final settlement of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is reached.

The question is: will such a settlement ever be reached? In 1993, the Oslo Accords seemed to open the window, with the Palestine Liberation Organization established in the West Bank as the officially recognized government of a nascent state, and Israel abandoning some control to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. But Oslo turned out to be a lull between two intifadahs [20], and whatever trust was gained was largely lost in the ensuing violence and the continued construction of Jewish settlements.

The network of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is by now so dense that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal seems utterly implausible. The religion-inspired obduracy of a large segment of the settler community would make even the smallest concession unthinkable. If a final settlement is reached, present circumstance suggests it will be imposed by Israel on an unwilling Palestinian Authority. The remainder of the Palestinian territories will be locked away behind the so-called separation barrier. This barrier — a Middle Eastern variation on the Berlin Wall — has been an effective tool in stopping terrorist attacks inside Israel, but it constitutes yet another annexation of Palestinian territory: largely ignoring the Green Line, it cuts deep into the West Bank, occasionally isolating Palestinian towns and villages from their hinterland.

Israel continues to ensure the safety of its settlements in the West Bank by reserving certain roads and areas for its use. As a result, what’s left of the occupied territories for the Palestinians looks less like the contiguous mini-nation it could be, and more like a bizarre, landlocked archipelago [21]. It’s unlikely this situation, stifling free movement and free enterprise, is one that the Palestinians will tolerate forever. They,  too, know a thing or two about obduracy, be it of the religious or nationalist variety. Their memories, too, are long: for some of them, Israel is a modern-day incarnation of the crusader states, established a thousand years ago by European Christians. Subjected to continuous resistance, the crusaders were pushed back into the sea after two hundred years.

Perhaps we need to look at the conflict with fresh eyes. For Jewish Israelis, the Biblical relation with the land of their forefathers is crucial to why they’re there. But in his controversial book “The Invention of the Jewish People,” Shlomo Sand argues that Judaism used to be a proselytizing religion like Christianity or Islam, and that consequently many of today’s Jewish Israelis are descendants of converts, without an ancestral link to Eretz-Israel. Inversely, many of the Palestinians may just be the descendants of the large Jewish community who remained to toil the land, even after the destruction of the Temple and the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in the first and second centuries, respectively — and who gradually converted to Islam in the centuries after the Arab conquest.

These are highly controversial and extremely speculative notions, but they highlight an important underlying truth: Israeli Jews and Palestinians have much in common. Maybe — just maybe — one day the realization will dawn that the complicated, contested and highly lethal border between Palestinians and Israelis is separating brothers from brothers, and sisters from sisters.

So should the fence be torn down, the border erased? Considering the level of animosity on either side toward the other, arriving at a one-state solution would be nothing short of miraculous, even by Holy Land standards. But miracles are not only unlikely, they’re not always a good idea. The Holy Land has taught us some harsh truths about human nature: brotherhood does not necessarily imply brotherly love, and sometimes, as in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, it leads to its exact opposite — fratricide.

Until the day when the lamb will lie down with the lion and the lamb will live to tell it, only an equitable borderline between them will prevent carnage. Good borders, as an instrument of civil commerce between nations, are a godsend — literally: the Romans made yearly sacrifices to the god Terminus, offering him wine, honey and blood at boundary stones, thus hallowing the borderlines they marked. “Only when borders disappear,” remarks Régis Debray in his “Éloge des frontières,” “does the need arise to construct walls.”

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and blogger. He writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.

 

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[1] The Holy Land, a term used in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, usually refers to the entire area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan valley (i.e. the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, which form the western border of the kingdom of Jordan), and hinges on Jerusalem, which is sacred to all three religions.

[2] Mentioned in passing earlier in this series, the artist Francis Alÿs was filmed tracing the course of the Green Line in Jerusalem with a hole-punched bucket of green paint. Apart from his paint, there was no indication of its previous course.

[3] A whole paragraph without footnotes. Would you look at that.

[4] The smaller of the two territories is Gaza, sometimes labeled the world’s most densely populated territory — to which some Israeli commentators object, as it invites comparisons with Jewish ghettos. With a density of 9,000 inhabitants per square mile, Gaza certainly is crowded. But the world’s most densely populated places are Macau (app. 48,000 people per square mile), Monaco (46,000), Singapore (19,000), Hong Kong (16,000) and Gibraltar (12,000).

[5] Or a reverse “3,” if your cursive “e”s don’t swing that way.

[6] a province, run by a wali (“governor”).

[7] The main city of the putative Alawite state mentioned in this earlier installment.

[8] A district, the constituent part of a vilayet, run by a mutassarif (“tenant”). Because of its importance to the three monotheistic faiths, the Jerusalem sanjak was attached to and run directly by the Ottoman Ministry of the Interior.

[9] Jewish nationalism, aimed at securing sovereign territory for the Jews in the land of Israel, a k a Zion.

[10] Oft quoted by early Zionists, as by Israel Zangwill, in 1901 in the New Liberal Review: “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.” The origin of the phrase, however, is the Church of Scotland minister Alexander Keith, who wrote in 1844: “Greece was given to the Greeks, and in seeking any government for Syria, may not a confederacy of kings — give Judea to the Jews?”

[11] Largely contingent with what is now generally referred to as the West Bank.

[12] Thus missing the opportunity of establishing a Jewish homeland before the Holocaust. David Ben-Gurion, who was in favor of the Peel plan (and would declare Israel’s independence in 1948, becoming its first prime minister), said that, had the “partition been carried out, the history of our people would have been different and six million Jews in Europe would not have been killed — most of them would be in Israel.” Would it really have made much difference? Perhaps not: the small Jewish community in Palestine would have struggled to absorb any large number of immigrants. And anyway, partition was off the table because of the Arab nyet.

[13] Latin for “separate body,” the term describes a region with special legal status as compared with its surroundings, but without full independence. One of very few previous examples was Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), which was granted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to landlocked Hungary as its only seaport, and was administered as a corpus separatum from Budapest until 1918.

[14] A quadripoint is where the borders of four different territories touch; the most famous example is the Four Corners, where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. The four territories need not be from four different jurisdictions. They can be, as in this case, arranged in two-by-twos. Unfortunately, the United Nations partition map doesn’t allow us to determine whether these would have been “true” or “quasi” quadripoints. Compare the situation in the Caprivi Strip, described in this earlier post.

[15] Like the ones once linking West Berlin with West Germany over East German territory.

[16] Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

[17] The P.L.O. chairman and Palestinian president Yasir Arafat at one point claimed that the Israeli flag was an expression of the country’s maximalist territorial ambitions, with the two horizontal blue stripes representing the Nile and Euphrates. Arafat was a keen believer in the importance of geographic symbolism: he was always careful to model his keffiyeh in the shape of a triangle, so it resembled the outline of Palestine.

[18] Not so hidden, it could be argued. The destruction of Israel was part of the P.L.O. ideology for many years, and still forms part of the charter of Hamas, which rules Gaza. Many argue, conversely, that the end aim of Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is to render the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible.

[19] About 500,000 Jewish settlers live in privileged separation among more than two million Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The handful of Jewish settlements in Gaza were dismantled when Israel withdrew in 2005.

[20] Arabic for “uprising”; in the Palestinian territories referring to a first (1987-1993) and a second (2000-2005) one.

[21] See Strange Maps No. 370.

 

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/the-elephant-in-the-map-room/ or http://nyti.ms/O2O762

Map by Joe Burgess/The New York Times.  http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/08/07/opinion/0807-borderlines/0807-borderlines-blog427.jpg

Permanent link to this article: http://levantium.com/2012/08/07/sacrifices-to-the-god-terminus/

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