It’s the Geography, Stupid

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is often described as a fight between two peoples over one land. The land is central to the conflict, but to understand why it is important it is necessary to go beyond this simplistic formula and look at the area once called Palestine.

Let’s start with some basic facts. Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey. When Palestinians demand that Israel return to the borders it had before the Six-Day War in 1967; that is, give up the entire West Bank, they are talking about reducing Israel’s size so that the width of the state, at its narrowest point, is only nine miles. Israel’s major cities, Tel Aviv and Haifa, were only 11 and 21 miles, respectively, from the ‘67 border. Jerusalem was literally a foot away. To get a sense of how small an area this is you can go to the Jewish Virtual Library and look at maps showing the relative size of Israel and see, for example, that Miami fits within the narrow waist of pre-67 Israel.

Think of the military implications for a nation that is so small. The Arab nations surrounding Israel have advanced aircraft that can reach Israel’s heartland in mere minutes. Jets from Saudi Arabian bases, for example, can be in Jerusalem in about 10 minutes.

Even people with no military training can understand the importance of maintaining the high ground to prevent one’s enemies from being in a position to shoot down at you. Much of the land in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, is hilly and mountainous. The Jordan Ridge is crucial high ground for any army to hold and Israel’s leaders have always maintained they would need to control that area to protect the nation’s eastern border.

Incidentally, the Israeli-Syrian dispute over the Golan Heights is primarily about high ground. Once you go up to the Golan, which rises from 400 to 1,700 feet, and visit a bunker where you can look down into the farmland and kibbutzim of northern Israel it is much easier to understand Israel’s reluctance to make any territorial compromise with Syria.

Due to the violence in the region, it may not be prudent to travel through the West Bank, but if you do you might be surprised by what you see. From the media, one gets the impression the area is filled with Jewish settlements planted in the middle of densely populated Arab cities. The sense is that for every Jew who moves to the West Bank, a thousand Palestinians have to get up and leave to make room. It isn’t so.

Most of the West Bank is dry, hilly and barren. The areas where the desert has bloomed are usually around Jewish settlements. And it is important to understand that a “settlement” is nothing more than a Jewish town. Today, approximately 200,000 Jews live in roughly 150 communities in the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of these settlements have fewer than 1,000 citizens. With only a few exceptions, such as Hebron, the Jews do not live among the Arabs. Their properties sometimes abut Arab villages or property, but most Jews in the West Bank live in relatively isolated communities. Analysts have noted that 80 percent of the Jews could be brought within Israel's borders with minor modifications of the "Green Line" (the unofficial boundary after 1967).

The politics of settlements is another matter, but geographically they are not taking up vast amounts of land and their expansion does not require the expulsion of Palestinians. The problem, from the Palestinian perspective, is the more settlements there are, the less territory there is likely to be for them to establish their state. Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly offered to give up more than 100 settlements, about two-thirds of the total, and to give the Palestinians control of roughly 96 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected the proposal.

One of the most often overlooked issues in the conflict is the supply of water. In the parched Middle East, water supplies literally are a matter of life and death. Israel has three main water sources: the coastal and mountain aquifers and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Each supply approximately 25% of the total Israelis consume. The mountain aquifer lies under the West Bank and the Palestinians want it to be under their control while Israel wants to retain control over the lion's share of the water. This may be one of the most difficult political issues to resolve.

Besides water, the West Bank has little in the way of natural resources. The land in many areas is not suited to agriculture. This helps explain why the Palestinians are, and will continue to be, heavily dependent on economic cooperation with Israel.

The Gaza Strip is a different matter. Though it has some nice beaches, little else can be said for this tiny strip of land along the coast between Israel and Egypt. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with more than one million people living in an area of only 139 square miles. Water resources are polluted and other natural resources are virtually nonexistent. The strip is so undesirable that Egypt did not want it and Israel was willing to transfer authority for most of it in the very first stage of the negotiations with the Palestinians.

When you travel through Israel, pay attention to the contours of the land, where the water sources are located, the proximity of villages to each other, the amount of open space, the quality of the soil. Without understanding the geography of the region, it is impossible to appreciate the political issues.