No One Actually Knows Where Israel Ends and the Palestinian Territories Begin

Israel has worked hard since 1967 to erase the Green Line from public consciousness, even as the invisible border became increasingly impenetrable to Palestinians

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The Israeli barrier running along the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shoafat (L) as the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah is seen on the right, February 15, 2017
The Israeli barrier running along the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shoafat (L) as the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah is seen on the right, February 15, 2017Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Shakked Auerbach
Shakked Auerbach
Shakked Auerbach
Shakked Auerbach

Hidden amid the pines and the olive trees on the hills that surround the Palestinian town of Beit Sira, which lies just across the Green Line opposite the Israeli city of Modi’in, is a row of rusting iron posts jutting out of stone. The grooves in the stone gather moisture and are exploited as a habitat by moss and white-leaved savory. The rods have been here for nearly 60 years, dating from the period before Israel was trying to erase the memory of the Green Line, and the 1949 cease-fire line with Jordan was marked using the meager means available. Today, though, there is no real way to know where the route of the Green Line lies.

“After the Green Line was demarcated on the maps, the Jordanians declined to mark it on the ground,” says Gideon Biger, professor emeritus of geography from Tel Aviv University. “We marked the line in the 1950s,” he notes, “but in order not to clash with the Jordanians we used old barrels, iron rods and all kinds of other objects.” Israel placed the markers a few dozen meters inside its territory, he notes, adding, “The Jordanians observed us and watched to ensure that we didn’t place anything in a place they thought was theirs. If so, they warned us with the aid of gunfire.”

The Green Line was set as the cease-fire line between Israel and Jordan in the 1949 Rhodes armistice agreements. Subsequently, it became the invisible boundary between Israel and the territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. It’s transparent for most Israelis, thanks to their governments’ efforts to erase it from the consciousness of the country’s citizens. But for the Palestinians, it’s as impassable as a border made of concrete, both as a structure of consciousness and in the form of the actual separation barrier that Israel built in recent years. On one side there’s a regime of military rule, on the other a flourishing democracy.

The Green Line never was recognized by the United Nations as a border. In fact the only UN resolution ever passed with regard to Israel’s eastern border is the partition agreement of November 1947. However, in a hearing about the separation barrier in 2004, the UN’s International Court of Justice hinted that it recognizes the status of the Green Line as a border line. From the “advisory opinion” issued by the court, it could even be inferred that it would not have ruled against Israel (as it did, terming the barrier illegal) if the wall had been built along the route of the Green Line.

“We are marking 50 years since the erasure of the Green Line,” the political geographer Oren Yiftachel from Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva told me, adding, “If you enter classrooms or government ministries, there is no Green Line. But for the Palestinians, it’s a barrier. They can’t cross it without permits.” The Green Line is an Israeli instrument of rule, he observed. “It’s an instrument that crops up when needed. A Palestinian from Ramallah who wants to attend a business meeting in Tel Aviv needs a permit, an advance invitation, has to show that he’s above the age of 55 and has no security record, and agree to a body search. Suddenly the Green Line is resurrected.”

Israel and Jordan never bothered to mark the Green Line with exactitude, because they believed it would be temporary. According to Biger, the maps used by the UN for the Rhodes agreement dated from the start of World War II. In addition, the scale of the maps, at 1:20,000, was not very precise.

“Each side thought it was temporary and would ultimately be modified as an orderly boundary line, so they weren’t all that careful about marking it,” Biger explains. “They also used a green grease pencil two to three millimeters thick, which represents 60 meters on the map, and begins to be a problem.” In addition to which, new foliage and soil erosion have altered the terrain since the cease-fire lines were marked 68 years ago.

“Precision is impossible,” says Biger. “Everyone can place the line where he wants within a range of 100 meters and more. And 100 meters can be half a vineyard or half an orchard.”

The careless markings on the maps in 1949 morphed into substantive problems. Last January, some residents of Tzur Hadassah, a town just inside the Green Line, 25 kilometers west of Jerusalem, were outraged to discover that a new neighborhood in the town was being built by mistake across the Green Line, in the West Bank. In a Facebook post, one resident, Haim Weiss, commented that this was “disturbing information” and noted that a group of locals had met “in order to examine how to bring Tzur Hadassah back into Israel.” However, a “small problem” had arisen: “No one knows exactly where the Green Line runs. Every government ministry has a Green Line of its own that is slightly different.”

Prof. Biger points out that the border as it appears in Google Maps, which many people rely on to show them where the Green Line is, is not official. “It’s a line that Google drew,” he says.

In the early years after 1949, Israel tried to give physical expression to the Green Line in various places, only to find that the official map was inaccurate. In some places, the line cut through villages that had grown since the map was made. Accordingly, Jordan and Israel decided on territorial swaps to allow the people affected to lead a normal life. The solution failed to be implemented in the Galilee town of Barta’a, which ended up half in Israel and half in what is now the Palestinian Authority – and was eventually split physically into two by the separation barrier.

In another case, Israel refused to accept part of the Green Line, because it cut across an existing rail line and left parts of the routes to Jerusalem and Lod in Jordanian hands. In order to allow rail access to all parts of the country, it was decided that sections that were important for the train’s operations would remain islands under Israeli sovereignty. In this way, the train station in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah was declared to be part of Israel. “Naturally the train didn’t stop there,” Biger notes, “but if something fell out the window, it fell into Jordanian territory.” He adds that because of these small swaps, Wadi Ara too, with its large Arab population, is now part of northern Israel.

The road that traversed the region (today Highway 65) connected the center of the country to the north, Biger says: “The communities known as the ‘Triangle’ in Wadi Ara were transferred [to Israel] so that we would be able to travel from Hadera to Afula. We did it so that the whole rail line would be in our territory, and as a result of that decision the line almost abuts the railway in some places.”

'Each side thought it was temporary and would ultimately be modified as an orderly boundary line, so they weren’t all that careful about marking it. They used a green grease pencil two to three millimeters thick.'

Gideon Biger

Among those who benefited, or perhaps lost, from the attempt to have the Green Line run alongside the rail line are the residents of Beit Safafa, a small town adjacent to Jerusalem that today is a neighborhood of the city. Some of them became Israeli citizens when Israel received from Jordan areas in which the railway ran. Those who remained distant from the rail line have residency status to this day, because their homes remained in Jordanian territory until 1967.

But the consciousness of the Green Line’s temporality generated far more bizarre phenomena in the form of no-man’s-land areas and frontier regions. In some places where Israel and Jordan marked their positions, two lines were created: a western one of Israeli army outposts, and an eastern one of the Arab Legion (as the Jordanian army was known). The reason for this, Biger explains, is that “the military forces were situated on the hilltops but the area between them, such as valleys, was not divided between them. After the agreement was concluded, the Jordanians, the Israelis and UN inspectors met to divide the area from Beit Guvrin northward toward Jerusalem. They reached Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha, but then the Jordanians stopped attending. As a result, two lines remained from Ma’aleh Hahamisha until the area of [the Palestinian village of] Beit Naballah.”

No sweeping agreement exists today about the legal status of these demilitarized areas – which include the Jewish-Arab community of Neve Shalom, the “Mini Israel” tourist site, parts of Route 1, and the community of Maccabim – because international law has never clarified the issue of no-man’s-lands that are conquered in war. In other situations in which Israel conquered such areas, such as in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, it imposed statutory sovereignty on them. But Israel did not annex the lovely field-dappled valley adjacent to Mevo Horon just across the Green Line near the Latrun area of Route 1, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Israeli law prevails on the Israeli side of the Green Line. Following the conquest of the West Bank, Israeli applied military law in all the areas that had been part of Jordan. But the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan, which turned the Green Line dividing the two countries into an international border, did not include separation between Israel and the West Bank. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s institutionalized separation within the West Bank, which was divided into Area A (under control of the Palestinian Authority), Area B (mixed control) and Area C (full Israeli control). What remains are the lands described above – amounting to a tiny area of 40 square kilometers where Israel had no presence before 1967, where it did not apply military law after 1967 and which was not formally annexed. Taba, an area possessing a similar status, came up in the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, when the southern Green Line became an international border. Finally, a decade after the two states signed a peace treaty, Taba was awarded to Egypt in international arbitration.

Lawless road

On August 12, 1998, Zvi Pritash was caught driving 120 kilometers an hour, 20 kph over the legal limit at the time, on Route 1, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. In a trial, he argued that Israeli traffic laws did not apply in the stretch of the road where he was clocked speeding, because it was a no-man’s-land that was not part of the State of Israel.

Commenting on the case, Robbie Sabel, a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, told me that it wasn’t clear which law applied in that area. “Israeli law applies in Israel, [and] we placed the areas we captured from Jordan under military administration,” he noted. “The question was: Which law applies to the area of Latrun, which was not in Jordanian possession before the war? Why was it important? Because the main road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv passed through there.”

According to Sabel, a number of people who received traffic tickets in that area argued that if the violation had taken place inside Israel, they could be brought to justice, as they could in the areas under Israeli military administration. “But here, it’s neither the one nor the other.”

In response to the exploitation of this legal loophole by traffic offenders, the legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry issued a “Foreign Office Certificate” – two letters aimed at clarifying policy in regard to a specific dispute in the area. “Because of the judicial non-clarity, the Israel Police are refraining from issuing traffic tickets in the former no-man’s-land. However, in the view of all those involved, this peculiar policy should be discontinued, and it is desirable to implement the application of Israeli law,” one of the letters stated.

According to Prof. Sabel, the certificate was written in consultation with the attorney general and with former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. However, Sabel notes, nothing was said about the judicial circumstances that prompted the application of Israeli law in the area. “It states that in practice, Israeli law applies there, without explaining why. The truth is that there was no judicial recommendation.”

In addition to the mistake of applying Israeli law to the area without official annexation, the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser made a second mistake: He was too precise. In applying Israeli law, he referred primarily to traffic violations, and therefore specified the area between kilometer 30 and kilometer 31 of Route 1, “with precision of plus-minus 50 meters.”

Years later, in 2005, that mistake spared a Neve Shalom resident a court conviction for having transported a Palestinian who was in Israel illegally. Eitan Kramer, a vigorous 65-year-old brimming with humor, relates that he was driving a Palestinian in his car on the road behind the community’s swimming pool. Kramer stated in his defense that he was not on state land and therefore the Palestinian did not need a permit.

Beit Shemesh Magistrate’s Court Judge Alexander Ron explained that the Foreign Ministry documents are not valid in the area of Neve Shalom. In a lengthy, elaborately reasoned decision, he ruled that Neve Shalom is outside the State of Israel. Judge Ron found that the Foreign Ministry documents are no more than a collection of wishes and are in part mutually contradictory. He added that Israel had not demarcated its borders and that the Knesset, too, had not acted in regard to the precise demarcation of the state’s borders – “nor, to the best of my judgment, is this by chance,” he wrote in the decision.

'The line isn’t even on maps, because the State of Israel has erased it. When I was growing up, it was on every map and it was clear that it was the border.'

Yael Agmon

“It just shows how screwed up we are, because the country doesn’t have a border,” Kramer says, laughing. He is convinced that Judge Ron knew very well that his ruling was subversive. “He did serious work, [conducted] a whole study, because he wanted to be provocative. That’s why I was acquitted.”

Early last month, Kramer walked under the scorching sun across an open field below the Jewish-Arab community. With hands white with plaster, he painted squares on the ground as parking spaces for participants in the community’s Green Line March, which was to have its starting point at the nearby Latrun monastery. The march was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and to bring the Green Line back into public consciousness.

Yael Agmon from Machsomwatch, the organization of Israeli women peace activists that organized the march, related that she and her colleagues had a hard time deciding on the route for the march. “The line isn’t even on maps, because the State of Israel has erased it,” she said, in a telephone interview. “When I was growing up, it was on every map and it was clear that it was the border.”

They’d hoped that people from Neve Shalom would be able to tell them where the line was, but in the end the route was decided according to a police permit. “We’re not actually on the Green Line, but we’re marking it as a catalyst for a discussion of the issue. We know that borders move, so we also have the right to move a bit to the left or the right.”

There were areas with a similar status in Jerusalem, too, but meticulous demarcation work was carried out in the unclear sections following the Six-Day War, in order to enable the annexation of the eastern part of the city.

“Jerusalem was very messy, because there were demilitarized zones in it,” says Gideon Biger, adding, “We did a great many magnifications [of the map], and there was even a discussion about who the owners of the area under the marked line were. It sounds funny, but it’s a matter of 40 meters, and in a city 40 meters means whole buildings.”

It was the tenuous status of some areas in Jerusalem that made it possible to build Highway 60, also known as Road One, which cuts through the city from north to south. Biger: “It was possible to build the wide road because most of the houses in the areas in question were abandoned, because they were in [the former] no-man’s-land. They were simply eligible for demolition, so that this road of four to six lanes could be built.”

When Israel annexed Jerusalem the state took possession of all these areas, “but when the time comes to demarcate lines, an answer will have to be found for our eternal, single, unified Jerusalem,” the professor adds ironically.

'What characterizes frontier areas like these is that at the stage of a final agreement, it will not be self-evident that they are under Israeli sovereignty.'

Oren Yiftachel

Surprised to be settlers

Jerusalem and Neve Shalom are not the only places whose legal status has been called into question. In 2012, residents of Maccabim were astounded when the European Union declared their homes to be part of a West Bank settlement.

“It depends on which map you’re looking at,” says Igal Carmi, the chairman of Israel’s Olympic Committee and one of the founders of Maccabim (which today is incorporated together with Modi’in and Re’ut). The Maccabi sports association wanted to establish a community in this region, because that’s where the Maccabees of Hanukkah fame fought their battles. “The concept held that the land of the Maccabees was empty all these years, and we, the new Maccabees, were going to settle the region,” says Carmi.

The location of the community was decided by Ariel Sharon, in his capacity at the time, as agriculture minister and head of the ministerial committee for land settlement, in the early 1980s. “We were given a hill, and Sharon had to approve the site,” Carmi recalls. “He went to the adjacent Palestinian village of Beit Sira, stood on its high hill where the mosque is located, looked in the direction of Maccabim, where there was nothing, and decided on a new location.”

Sharon, he says, wanted to build the houses close to Highway 443, which connects Metropolitan Tel Aviv and Jerusalem via Modi’in: “He said that this hill would be better, because it’s right on the road. As though we’re a military outpost.”

Even after the community was situated in no-man’s-land, Sharon tried to persuade the residents to cross the Green Line into the West Bank. “He told us, ‘Guys, move five kilometers into that area and you’ll get state aid.’ We told him, ‘No, thanks.’ The whole of Maccabim, from A to Z, is built with our money,” Carmi notes.

The new residents never paused to wonder why they had been given this particular plot of land. “I regret to tell you that no thinking went into it. When centrist people do something, they don’t always think through the [political] implications. Neither right nor left, let it be in the middle.” He adds, “We were never accused of being settlers, we didn’t think we were settlers and it was never a subject of discussion. We’re a neighborhood of Tel Aviv, though a bit distant from it,” he laughs.

But it turns out that, like Neve Shalom, the state never officially annexed Maccabim and other nearby communities: Kfar Ruth, Lapid and Shilat. “The EU is right that it’s not part of Israel, because we didn’t issue a Foreign Office Certificate for them,” notes Robbie Sabel, the ministry’s former legal adviser, adding, “The EU did not assert that it was Jordanian territory, but did state that it didn’t belong to Israel before 1967.”

According to Sabel, these gray areas could be addressed by an article of international law. “An area can be considered state territory if the state rules it for years and no one contests this. You can maintain about this area that no one contested Israeli rule in it. This is known as ‘statutory limitation.’ In Latrun, it’s possible that the Palestinians said something about [their] sovereignty. But I’ve never heard claims that the territory of Maccabim belongs to them, so one can claim statutory limitation, which is recognized under international law.”

Nevertheless, Oren Yiftachel, the political geographer, argues that in negotiations, whether past or future, settlements in no-man’s-land are treated the same as West Bank settlements in terms of the law.

“What characterizes frontier areas like these,” he says, “is that at the stage of a final agreement, it will not be self-evident that they are under Israeli sovereignty. Possibly special arrangements will be made, as there were between Israel and Jordan in the Arava desert area. They might agree on 50-50 sovereignty, but because there are already communities living there, Israel will lease the area in all kinds of ways and the Palestinians will get substitute territory elsewhere. But that depends on the negotiations.”

According to Biger, Israel is aware of the peculiar situation of the no-man’s-land areas and already addressed the issue in the 2007 Annapolis Conference. “There was a proposal that, because we are using that whole area, we will take it for ourselves. But it will enter the quid-pro-quo account under the concept of a dunam [1/4 acre] in exchange for a dunam,” he says. “In other words, we would add the territory to our own, and we would then find 40-plus square kilometers to give them somewhere else.

“I’ve attended several advance negotiations with the Palestinians,” Biger says. “They know very well about the location of the lines. When the day comes, they will take out their copies of the maps and discuss those regions and the Green Line. But first they’ll have to understand where it is.”

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