On Sunday, May 15, which the Arabs call Nakba Day, the media reported that Syrian civilians had crossed over the Israeli border on the Golan Heights. The prime minister even issued a dramatic announcement of the fact and promising that Israel will protect its borders.
The incident raises the question of whether Israel has a border with Syria on the Golan Heights. The answer seems obvious, but in fact it is not. An international border is one reached by agreement between the two political entities on either side. Sometimes the line is the result of direct negotiations, but not always. Europe's post-World War II borders were drawn by the victors, while in the 19th century Africa was divided up by and among the great powers of Europe. Some of the states whose borders were drawn in that manner protested their location, but in the end they accepted the demarcation and it became an international border.
There are still some localized conflicts over the precise delimitation of borders still occur. Recent examples include those in Central America, between Nicaragua and Costa Rica; and in Southeast Asia, between Cambodia and Thailand. In both cases the argument is over the precise location of the border, not its very existence.
Israel is an atypical state in that it does not have agreed international borders with all of its neighbors. That is especially true in the case of Lebanon and Syria. Israel and Lebanon are currently separated by the so-called Line of Withdrawal of Israeli Forces from Lebanon, agreed in 2000 between Israel and the United Nations and also known as the Blue Line. It corresponds in part with the international border demarcated by the English and French governments in 1923. In practice, there is currently no border between Israel and Lebanon.
The situation on the border with Syria is more complex. In 1923 an international border was drawn between Mandatory Palestine and Syria, which was under French control. It persisted until Israel's War of Independence. As part of the armistice agreement, the so-called Green Line was created. Part of it runs west of the 1923 Mandate Line. The areas under Israeli control between the armistice line and the Mandate Line were demilitarized. The Six-Day War eliminated these boundaries, and a cease-fire line was created.
In 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, the United Nations brokered the Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel in Syria. It specified the creation of two lines delineating the areas of military control of each side. Several years after the demarcation of this line, known as the Purple Line, the Israeli cabinet approved a resolution unilaterally annexing the area held by the Israel Defense Forces to Israel and making the line on the Golan Heights Israel's border.
It was this line that Syrian citizens crossed this week. By any international criterion, this is not the border between Israel and Syria. There is still a need for an official agreement between the two countries to create an international border, just as the borders between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan were created as part of the peace agreements between the countries.
Therefore, on Sunday the Syrians penetrated an area held by the State of Israel, but they did not cross the Israeli border. Nor did Palestinians from the Gaza Strip attempt to cross the Israeli border in the south. They crossed the cease-fire line that was ratified in the Oslo Accords but never demarcated as a border between Israel and any neighbor in the south of the country.
The writer teaches in the geography department of Tel Aviv University.
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