A Green Line in the Sand

By David Newman, a professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, is a co-editor of the journal Geopolitics (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 09/01/07):

NEARLY 40 years after it was removed from official maps, atlases and school books, the Green Line has made a significant comeback. Israel’s education minister, Yuli Tamir, has ordered the Green Line border, which separates Israel from the West Bank, to be reintroduced in all texts and maps used in the Israeli school system. From now on, Israeli children will know exactly where the Green Line is and what it signifies — a political border that, at some point, will almost certainly become the line separating neighboring Israeli and Palestinian sovereign territories.

It was shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967 that the Green Line was removed from atlases produced by the Israeli government. The border, hastily drawn at the Rhodes armistice talks after Israel’s war of Independence in 1948, had always been regarded as nothing more than an artificial line of separation eventually to be reworked. For most Israeli leaders in 1967, the occupation of the West Bank was a sign that the future territorial order would be vastly different from the one they had lived with for the previous 19 years.

According to Abba Eban — Israeli ambassador to the United States and the United Nations in the 1950s and foreign minister at the time of the Six-Day War — his attempts to negotiate with the Arab states to transform the border into a permanent recognized international boundary had been rejected in the early 1950s by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who had argued that the more elastic and less permanent the boundary, the easier it would be to change in the future — as indeed seemed to be the case in the aftermath of the 1967 war.

The Green Line’s removal from maps was meant to signify that it existed no longer, but in reality it never disappeared. It remained the administrative boundary separating Israel from the occupied territories, with one law for the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and quite another one for the stateless Palestinian residents of the West Bank. Even Israeli settlers who moved to the occupied territories and continued to enjoy Israeli citizenship were ultimately subject to the military authorities — just to show the world that Israel had not formally annexed these territories or, as the Israeli government preferred to put it, had extended civilian law to these areas over which they did not enjoy sovereign rights.

But in the past decade, for most Israelis, the Green Line has once again become the line separating the relatively safe roads of Israel from the danger of the West Bank. Few Israelis, other than the settlers, venture beyond it, even when doing so would make their route shorter. It is along the Green Line that the unilateral West Bank separation barrier has been constructed in large sections.

Where the barrier has deviated from the Green Line, in practice annexing some parts of the West Bank to Israel, the International Court of Justice has ruled it illegal. Many Palestinians are caught in a state of territorial limbo: they live east of the Green Line inside the West Bank, but west of the separation barrier, in effect spatial hostages to this exercise in redrawing the border.

At last year’s Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering arranged by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and attended by the prime minister and leading political figures, a group of Israeli geographers, planners and cartographers proposed that the Green Line serve as the foundation for any future territorial agreement, based on the principles of the road map and a two-state solution to this never-ending conflict. They identified certain areas along the line where, given the variations that have occurred during almost 40 years of occupation, territorial exchanges could be made between the two sides — as opposed to returning to a line that even 60 years ago was not ideal and that today is out of touch with the region’s demographic realities.

The international legal status of the Green Line is not clear. On the one hand, it is no more than an armistice line — it is not a recognized boundary, unlike the borders separating Israel from both Egypt and Jordan, which were drawn up and ratified as part of peace agreements. Yet the Oslo accords make mention of the West Bank as constituting the future Palestinian state. This region has a clearly defined boundary — the Green Line — and many international jurists argue that this is sufficient to recognize it as the formal line of political separation. The jurists’ time in court is yet to come, but the groundwork has already been prepared by international boundary experts on both sides.

If some Israelis were unclear about the long-term significance of the Green Line, the education minister’s decision to return the border to the geography and history textbooks will have left no one in doubt.

There may never be peace in this troubled region. But if there is to be a return to the negotiation table, the issue of boundary demarcation will be of paramount importance in determining the territorial configuration of the respective sovereignty to be practiced by each of the two states. On the ground, there are many reasons for drawing a completely new line, but it will always be easier for the politicians to return to what was once — however briefly — there. The Green Line is the default boundary, and it has finally been recognized anew by the Israeli government.