Historical Background of Palestine’s Geography
Since the appearance of the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century, there have been many endeavors to partition Palestine. The first partition plan took place under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, as part of placing Arab lands under the control of the two major colonial powers of Britain and France. One year later, Britain’s Balfour Declaration proclaimed the intention to create a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, whose geographic borders were not defined at the time and when the Jewish population comprised less than 10% of Palestine. Two years following the declaration, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the World Zionist Organization announced its intention to implement it by creating a state with borders exceeding those of historic Palestine, to include Transjordan and southern Syria. This proposed Jewish state would extend from the Litani River in the north to the city of Arish in the south. The recommendations brought by the Peel Commission–formed in 1937 following the outbreak of the 1936 Arab revolt in Palestine–are considered to be the first to suggest that Palestine be partitioned into two equal entities, an Arab and a Jewish one, keeping Jerusalem under the governance of the British Mandate. The United Nations Partition Plan of Palestine of 1947 granted 56% of historic Palestine towards the establishment of a Jewish state and 43% for an Arab Palestinian state. Jerusalem was to be placed under international administration.
The Jewish state was eventually created on 78% of the land of Palestine, following the 1948 Nakba and the expulsion of over two-thirds of this portion’s native residents. While the West Bank was annexed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Gaza Strip was placed under Egyptian control. In 1967, the arm of the Israeli occupation reached the remaining two parts of Palestine, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, placing the whole country under Israeli control. Reviewing this history provides important background for considering today’s reality.
The Geopolitical and Natural Components of One State
- The Geographic Borders of Palestine. In 1948, Palestine’s geographic unity–comprising 27,000 sq. km.–was severed into three geopolitical units: the state of Israel (20,770 sq. km.), the West Bank (5,860 sq. km.) and the Gaza Strip (365 sq. km.). The last 63 years witnessed many attempts to redraw or establish new borders based on different partition proposals, ceasefire lines, administrative borders, and others. However, all these attempts have failed. The land of Palestine, impervious to political proposals that have attempted to establish new boundaries, has maintained its well-established natural borders.
- The Oslo Accords. Neither the Oslo Accords of 1993 nor the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 succeeded in affecting Palestine’s historic and natural borders. Furthermore, the growing Jewish settlement activity in Palestine, though creating a new geographic and demographic reality, has also failed to affect Palestine’s geographic unity. In addition, the difficulty inherent in the creation of two independent states within the 60 kilometer stretch between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River (as proposed by the 1947 UN Partition Plan) has been confirmed.
- Groundwater and Natural Resources. Groundwater and other natural resources are the most unifying components of Palestine’s geography. For example, the idea of transferring a population from one place to another becomes impossible when considering groundwater. The control over groundwater and other natural resources has thus been among the most charged topics between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; for that reason, reaching an agreement on this topic has been tabled until the final status negotiations, along with the issues of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and borders. Furthermore, for Israel, the issue of water is a matter of security, demonstrated by the Israeli term, “water security.”Accordingly, Israel considers the groundwater aquifer that lies under the mountains of the West Bank as a strategic reservoir not to be conceded to a future Palestinian state. The same can be said about the coastal groundwater aquifers that lie along the Mediterranean coast between the Gaza Strip and the city of Haifa. The current water crisis that exists today, and which will become more severe in the future, will force Israeli and Palestinian water experts to create a joint water system, as well as to develop a joint water policy that considers all residents between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
- Transportation and Communication Network. The transportation and communication networks that exist in historic Palestine comprise one continuous network. The major east-west highways traverse current borders to connect the east to the west of historic Palestine. The best example is Highway 5, the so-called “Trans-Samaria Highway” that connects Tel-Aviv with Palestinian cities and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, Israel constantly uses Palestinian airspace for civil, as well as military, purposes. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority must rely on Israeli ports, which are under full Israeli control, to transport products internationally. In communications, an Israeli company established networks in areas of Palestine that were occupied in 1967, and continues to operate them to this day.
- The Labor Market and Economic Cooperation. After the Oslo Accords of 1993, the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations, signed by the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, aimed to fortify economic cooperation inside the borders of historic Palestine. Of course, Israel was the major winner of the protocol. Cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was not limited to Palestinian usage of Israeli ports as Palestinian markets became an extension–and backyard–to Israeli companies and tradesmen. The Paris Protocol also decreed a unifying customs system and implemented the use of the same currency, the Israeli Shekel. Israeli electric companies further provide electricity to vast areas of the West Bank, including to major Palestinian cities and most of the Gaza Strip, even now after the Israeli withdrawal from the latter.
- Population Distribution and Demographic Components of One State. Today, the population inside historic Palestine stands at about 10.6 million, out of which 5.5 million are Jewish and 5.3 million are Palestinian. Of the latter, 2.5 million Palestinians are residents of the West Bank, 1.5 million are residents of the Gaza Strip, and 1.3 million live inside the State of Israel and hold Israeli citizenship. The remaining 300,000 are considered residents of Jerusalem, under Israeli authority, but without holding Israeli citizenship.Furthermore, Israeli settlement policies push towards greater interconnection, as the number of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank now stands at more than 300,000, distributed among 144 settlements and 130 unofficial Jewish outposts (Ma’ahazim). In addition, 15 additional Jewish settlements are neighborhoods of “Greater Jerusalem,” which includes territory occupied in 1967 that Israel has annexed and claimed as belonging to an indivisible Jerusalem.
Palestine has resisted, and endured, all attempts of geographic partition and segmentation over the last 100 years. Today, Israel controls the totality of historic Palestine, while exerting pressure, locally and internationally, for its recognition as a Jewish state without drawing its final borders. Zionism has hereby reached an impasse in its attempt to build an ethnic Jewish state.
It is a well-established fact that Israel is the only state in the world that was established without defining its borders, which corresponds to the flexibility of Israeli citizenship; it does not align with geographic boundaries of a state as predominates in the rest of the world. Instead Israeli citizenship correlates to the boundaries of the Jewish religion around the world. Therefore, an Israeli settler in a West Bank settlement is considered an Israeli citizen, whereas a Palestinian living a kilometer away, who is an indigenous inhabitant of the land, is prevented from attaining citizenship. Thus we must ask the question: If the political and spatial interconnections, which exist between the Palestinian and Jewish societies inside the boundaries of historic Palestine, are inseparable and make partition non-amenable, how then can the future of these two societies start seeking alternatives to partition? Such a future requires that they work against the neo-apartheid regime and towards the establishment of one democratic, bi-national state.
* Dr. Thabet Abu-Ras is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environmental Development at Ben-Gurion University.