The Map of Israel - It Comes With a Warning. Read It With Care

Because of the volatile political situation, travelers also need to know what places to avoid.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Maps. Simple, right? For most places, they are. Compilations of roads, cities, bodies of water and clearly delineated borders.

But Israel is not most places.

Every map of Israel is a two-dimensional, miniature version of the conflict with the Palestinians. No matter how balanced the mapmaker tries to be, the result may incense Israelis or Palestinians, or both. The names and shapes of places are disputed, a rehash of a century of bitterness and bloodshed.

Every dotted line, every choice of color is a potential uproar. Depending on who you are, a map of Israel will tell you where you can and cannot go. It can tell you where you may be at serious risk of arrest, and where you may simply be at serious risk. Every map of Israel comes with an implied warning. Read it with care. This is how:

1. Get to know the Green Line. The Green Line is a guide to the history of Israel from its beginnings. It’s also a guide to travel restrictions of various kinds, depending on who you are, where you’re from, and real-time changes in the diplomatic, military and political weather.

What you need to know now: For travelers, the Green Line marks two areas to tour with caution (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) and a third area, which, if casual tourism is your object, to avoid altogether: the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The possible hazards of travel when crossing the Green Line from Israel are neatly and often alarmingly laid out by the U.S. State Department’s website ( Just select “International Travel” and choose “Israel” from a drop-down menu.

By implication, the travel site’s map of Israel which does not recognize Israel’s claims to East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and parts of the West Bank speaks volumes about how things got the way they are and why it’s so difficult to understand them or change them for the better.

2. How things got this way. Named for the ink in the pens used to draw the map’s contours, the Green Line ended what Israelis call the War of Liberation (and/or the War of Independence) and what Palestinians call the Nakba, the Catastrophe a reference to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the war.

For 18 uneasy, violence-marred years, the Green Line was the internationally recognized, UN-supervised border between Israel and its Arab neighbors. On one side of the line, much of Israel’s population was within range of enemy gun sights in a country at one spot only a few miles wide. On the other side, homeless, stateless Palestinians were crowded into miserable refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

The war and its consequences left both sides feeling aggrieved, vulnerable and claustrophobic.

Then, in six days of war in June 1967, Israeli forces redrew the map of the Middle East, storming across the Green Line to capture the Golan Heights from Syria, the Gaza Strip and the immense Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.

Overnight, Israeli tourists, released from Holocaust-strength fears of an imminent Arab invasion, poured into the newly occupied territories to “see them before they’re given back.”

They needn’t have rushed. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s as today Israeli politicians debated the future of the territories and insisted there was an opening for peace, but the map was little changed apart from ferment and planning for settlements.

Here again, however, war intervened. On Yom Kippur 1973, a surprise offensive by Egypt and Syria cost the lives of thousands of Israeli soldiers. Four years later, it led to another surprise, a visit by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and later a peace treaty.

Under the treaty, Israel dismantled all its settlements in Sinai and withdrew its forces in stages to the 1949 lines. The key question, however, was left open: the future status of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

3. Get to know East Jerusalem. The term is used to describe the parts of the city and its environs that Israel captured in 1967. Israel declared it an integral part of the country and the rest of Jerusalem, the part that had been in Israeli hands since the 1948 war.

A number of clarifications are in order here. The concept of East Jerusalem has nothing to do with direction. A look at a map shows that the Green Line actually looped around West Jerusalem. That’s why East Jerusalem also includes areas north and south of the western part. In fact, parts of East Jerusalem are actually located to the west of much of West Jerusalem.

Although Israel formally annexed the parts of Jerusalem it captured in 1967, it remains virtually the only country in the world to recognize the annexation. The annexation, along with Palestinian and Islamic opposition, has reinforced the world’s reluctance to recognize any of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even including the western part, where the Knesset and ministries are located.

Accordingly, American citizens born in West Jerusalem are issued passports marked, under the heading for nation of birth, not Israel but Jerusalem. Moreover, not a single country has an embassy in Israel’s declared capital.

Are East and West Jerusalem in fact one city? Is East Jerusalem truly part of Israel? The unsatisfying answer is: in part.

The two areas remain worlds apart culturally. The city devotes markedly more resources to services in the Jewish western sector and in the Jewish neighborhoods/settlements of East Jerusalem than it does to Arab areas. At times, the Interior Ministry has also engaged in a policy in which East Jerusalem Palestinians can lose their permanent residency status.

For the traveler, the salient factor is that Jerusalem is even more divided and volatile than it seems. Caution is key. Depending on the time and the political mood, travelers can come under attack from a wide variety of communities, including certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups conducting campaigns against issues such as “immodest” women’s dress.

Special attention should be paid to the Western Wall/Temple Mount. By the wall, women may be arrested for praying aloud or wearing a prayer shawl. On the mount, Jewish men may, in theory, be arrested for praying even silently.

4. Get to know the 1967 lines. In the 1990s, at the end of the first Palestinian uprising or intifada, the Green Line would again come to the fore as a basis of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Of special interest to travelers then and now was a division of the maps of the West Bank and Gaza into these sectors, with different regulations and movement restrictions governing each one: Area A, under Palestinian civil and security control. Area B, under joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. Area C, under full Israeli control. At present, Area C comprises about three-fifths of the West Bank, with A and B about a fifth each.

The accords set out a future for Yasser Arafat’s new Palestinian Authority, which would gradually move toward establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Reality, however, had other plans. And other maps. In 2000, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations mediated by President Bill Clinton broke down at Camp David, and a second Palestinian uprising erupted. Some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed as Israeli military operations and Palestinian suicide bombings scuttled the peace process.

In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shocked both Palestinians and his own constituents with a new six-day campaign that changed the map yet again: Sharon pulled all Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip and dismantled the settlements there.

Within two years, Hamas had taken over the Strip in a brief but bloody civil war with Fatah, which controls the PA. Israel, meanwhile, isolated the Strip from the world with a land, air and sea blockade. This move has since been eased, but it remains in effect.

With the effective end of peace talks, settlement growth and the right citing Gaza-launched rockets as proof Israel should never return to the Green Line in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israelis increasingly have used the expression “1967 lines” to denote the area of Israel proper, the country within the 1949 truce lines.

Increasingly notably in a public spat last year with U.S. President Barack Obama Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken the view that Israel will never return to the 1967 borders. It will retain East Jerusalem forever and insist that a band of settlements alongside the Green Line, including the somewhat distant city-settlement of Ariel, will remain in Israel’s hands permanently.

5. Know where not to go. In practice, potential travelers to the Gaza Strip are warned that they may not be allowed in, may be kidnapped if they get in, and may not be allowed out for weeks or more.

While travel to the West Bank is generally less hazardous, the perils are still many. They include the possibility of searches and/or arrest at Israeli checkpoints, getting caught in clashes between Palestinians, Israeli soldiers, settlers, or all three. You may also run the risk of arrest by Israeli forces in Palestinian villages where demonstrations are held against the separation fence.

For U.S. citizens, there is also the risk of violating American prohibitions on knowingly providing material support or resources to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. Among these operating in the West Bank are Hamas and its offshoots, and the Jewish ultra-nationalist Kahane Chai, or Kach.

6. Don’t go it alone. If you do decide to venture into the West Bank, there are responsible and reliable tours for the newcomer. Here again, choose with care. Many of the tours visit and present the narrative of just one side.

There are tours that emphasize the Palestinian experience, tours that concentrate on and extol settlements, and tours by Israeli nonprofit groups critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In recent years, a unique Arab-Jewish partnership, Mejdi Tours, has taken an independent tack, presenting both the Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints in a dual-narrative tour.

Jerusalem is even more divided and volatile than it seems. Caution is key.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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