The green line as past and future boundary

The green line, the boundary separating Israel from the West Bank, has retained its significance in all the negotiations concerning the demarcation of a boundary for a future Palestinian State. At the most, it is possible that the green line will be modified to take into account some of the Israeli settlements which are in close proximity to the line. But despite the many geographical changes which have taken place around the line during the course of the past 35 years, it is still perceived by many policymakers as the default line for future boundary demarcation.

The green line was drawn up at the Rhodes Armistice talks in 1948-49. The precise demarcation of the line reflected the military realities of the time following the Israel’s War of Independence. The implementation of the boundary gave rise to numerous functional problems for Arab-Palestinian villages and townships. Some Arab residents of the region became Israeli citizens, while others became stateless under Jordanian administration. Many villages on the West Bank side of the boundary were cut off from their fields on the Israeli side. Others were no longer able to travel beyond the new boundary to their jobs in places such as Jaffa, Ramla and Lod, thus causing substantial economic dislocation for many of the Arab inhabitants.

The “opening” of the boundary in 1967 brought about a new geographic orientation. During the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank crossed the boundary to work inside Israel, as did Israeli settlers who retained their jobs in the Israeli cities. In the other direction, many Israelis crossed the line, especially on weekends and holidays, to shop in the markets of Qalqilya and East Jerusalem and to use other services (such as dentists and car mechanics) which were offered at a considerably cheaper price than inside Israel itself.

Despite these trans-boundary movements, the line remained an important point of separation between the two territories. Since no Israeli government attempted to annex any part of the West Bank, the green line retained its administrative functions, with the legal status of the residents on both sides of the “non-existent” line remaining separate and subject to Israeli and Jordanian law respectively.

These functional realities contrasted strongly with the public statements made by many Israeli politicians to the effect that the green line no longer existed–a policy reflected in the decision not to show the green line on maps of Israel issued by the Surveyors Department or in atlases used in Israeli schools and universities.

Neither did the creation of regional councils for the benefit of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank tamper with the existing administrative divide. Even where it would have seemed to be more logical to annex some of the settlements to municipal authorities on the Israeli side of the line, this did not take place as it would have signaled the extension of Israeli civilian law to the occupied territories, an act which is strictly forbidden under international law.

With the return of violence following the first Intifada beginning in 1987, the green line became even more apparent. Whenever curfews or closures were imposed on the occupied territories, the road blocks were established at those points which had been the boundary. As Palestinians were gradually prevented from entering the Israeli market place, it was the green line which determined the point beyond which they were no longer allowed to move. For Israelis, the apprehension of traveling in the West Bank and Gaza Strip created a geography of fear in which people no longer crossed the green line. It may not always have been clearly marked on the maps, but most Israelis developed an intuitive understanding of just where the boundary was and ceased to travel beyond the line.

The recent construction of walls and fences along parts of the West Bank has taken place in close proximity to the green line (with deviations which include some Israeli settlements on the Israeli side of the fence), thus creating, de facto, a physical barrier which may yet prove to be the future boundary separating Israel from a Palestinian state.

For its part, the line separating the Gaza Strip from Israel has remained permanent and has, for the past 10 years, been enclosed by a fence clearly demarcating the limits of this region. In the Jerusalem area, it is the municipal boundaries of the city, as determined by the Israeli government after 1967, which define the course of the boundary, although this may change even further in the lead up to renewed negotiations, as the government attempts to draw surrounding Jewish communities (especially Ma’aleh Adumim) into the Jerusalem municipal area.

The history of the green line is testament to the powerful impact of arbitrary and artificial boundaries, even over a relatively short period of time. It served as a political line of separation–between Israel and the Jordanian administered territories–for no more than 18 years, half the time that has passed since it was “opened” in 1967. Yet, its retention as a line of administrative separation, coupled with the events of the past decade during which it has re-emerged as a barrier preventing movement of people and goods in both directions, have only strengthened its impact. If, and when, a political resolution of the conflict is reached, the green line–with some minor deviations–has the greatest likelihood of constituting the formal international boundary between two independent states.

David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He is the editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. He has published a major study of the Green Line Boundary for the International Boundaries Research Unit in the UK.

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