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No end to Palestinian claims: How Israel and the Palestinians view borders

By Pinhas Inbari
web posted January 13, 2014

Since the Annapolis meeting in 2007, the issues of borders and security have topped the agenda of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, including the current negotiations. True, Israel has introduced the issue of Palestinian recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a nation-state, and the issue of the refugees remains of supreme importance to the Palestinians. Still, in the international community, borders and security stand out as the most vexing issues on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. The aim at present is to settle all issues within nine months from the start of the talks. Since Annapolis, however, priority has been assigned to those two issues.

Israeli Priorities in Setting Borders

On the Israeli side, two basic concepts determine the order of priorities. The first is that the aim of setting the borders is to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. An Israeli withdrawal into borders with a clear Jewish demographic majority is, then, a supreme Israeli interest and is not a concession Israel makes to the Palestinians. This is the position of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Israeli negotiating team,3 accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s representative Yitzhak Molcho.

The second concept, which does not necessarily contradict the first, is that security considerations must take precedence in setting Israel’s borders, given the fact that the West Bank is so close to the Israeli population centers along the coast, and in the Galilee and the Negev. Thus it is not Jewish demography alone that should define Israel’s borders, but also the country’s ability to defend itself. The turmoil in the Arab world strengthens Israel’s contention that it must maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley, something it did not do when it came to withdrawing Israeli forces from the Philadelphi Route along the Gaza-Egypt border in 2005. Israel now stresses that terror must not be allowed to infiltrate the West Bank from Jordan in the way that terror capabilities from Sinai flowed to Hamas in Gaza.

The question at hand, then, is a further instance of an old argument: will peace bring security or will security bring peace? Is it the establishment of permanent borders that will foster real peace, the end of claims, and, hence, security; or is it rigorous security arrangements that will foster stability and, therefore, peace?

On the Israeli side, this debate continues. The Palestinian negotiating team, however, displays a uniformity of views. The head of the team, Saeb Erekat, who is well versed in the negotiations conducted to date, is accompanied by senior Fatah official Muhammad Shtayyeh, a former prime ministerial candidate. Their position is that the border issue is separate and must be resolved before the security issue can be tackled. What should determine the border is “international legitimacy,” that is, the relevant United Nations resolutions, up to the one granting the Palestinians an observer-state status based on the 1967 lines. The Palestinian negotiating team’s position is that, first, the borders must be finalized – after minimal territorial swaps – and only then can security arrangements based on these borders be devised.

Border Conflicts Are Endemic in the Arab World

A point of departure for all these approaches is that Israel – and, of course, the Palestinian state – needs permanent borders in order to chart a course for the future. That premise, however, is not as simple as it seems. First, surprising though it may be, Israel already has clear, agreed borders to a much greater extent than most Arab countries. Thanks to the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, Israel has well-delineated borders with two of its neighbors. Almost all the Arab countries, however, are plagued with ongoing border conflicts that erupt violently when there is an interest in inflaming them, and lie dormant when there is no interest in doing so.

Syria, for example, does not recognize either its border with Lebanon or Turkey’s annexation of the province of Iskenderun (Alexandretta). Syria also claims Arab-populated territories along Turkey’s southern border, and has a water conflict with Turkey. Iraq does not recognize Kuwait, and has dormant claims to its border with Iran. The borders between the various United Arab Emirates have not been finally determined; nor has the one between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Egypt has longstanding border conflicts with Sudan, Libya with Chad, and the various border conflicts between Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania have already sparked several rounds of war. Iran has territorial claims in the Persian Gulf, including a claim to all of Bahrain; Jordan has claims regarding Syria, and so on.

Border conflicts are, then, the rule in the Middle East, and there is almost no case of an agreed border between two countries. Israel is in fact an exception, and the Palestinians seek to impose the 1967 lines as their border with Israel. What appears to be a negotiation over borders is actually an attempt at compelling a settlement under the rubric of international legitimacy.

Compared to Israel’s positive experience in establishing its borders with Egypt and Jordan as an outcome of peace talks, an attempt to determine permanent borders within the UN framework (“international legitimacy”) in the case of the Israeli-Lebanese border did not go well. The United Nations drew that border on its own, not as a result of negotiations between Lebanon and Israel. After Israel had to invest greatly in relocating its military outposts, and after it put the village of Ghajar in crisis by making the difficult decision to transfer more than half of it to Lebanon, which also created an entry point for Hizbullah and a security headache for Israel – Hizbullah declared that it also claimed the Shebaa Farms near Mount Hermon. The sovereign Lebanese government, which was supposed to endorse the border that the United Nations had drawn so that at least the Lebanese-Israeli border would be a permanent one, instead followed Hizbullah’s line, and Lebanon’s southern border is now in dispute like its others. The United Nations itself, to its shame, did not uphold the border it had drawn and instead granted legitimacy to Hizbullah’s demands.

The Palestinian Push for the 1967 Lines

The question, then, is whether the “international legitimacy” border that the Palestinians want to establish along the 1967 lines will stabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations and end territorial claims against Israel, like the borders that were agreed upon in the Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian negotiations, or will it instead remain a disputed border like the one the United Nations devised for Lebanon, and like so many others in the Middle East. Some Israelis who have played a major role in negotiations with the Palestinians, such as Dr. Shaul Arieli, are convinced that a negotiated agreement on the border will put an end to Palestinian claims and stabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations. One hopes that will indeed be the case. The American involvement in the talks is a sort of guarantee that an agreement on the border will be final and determinative.

That optimistic assumption cannot be entirely discounted. The present talks are largely being held behind closed doors, with Secretary of State Kerry meeting separately with PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. The various Palestinian spokesmen, including the negotiators, do not know the details of those talks, and there could be surprisingly favorable developments.

At the same time, it is worth being cautious and considering the less promising aspects of the Palestinian positions.

The Palestinians insist on going “one file at a time.” That is, only after one issue has been settled can one move on to the next. They insist that the first file involves establishing the 1967 lines as a final border that will determine the contours of the settlement blocs and constitute the basis for the security arrangements. They refuse to link this issue with others, or with security, which was supposed to be the second issue in priority for the first stage of the negotiations. The Palestinians base this position on the UN resolution recognizing them as a state. In other words, notwithstanding the negotiations, they seek the imposition of a border, as in the case of the Israeli-Lebanese border. 

Does the 1967 Line Represent the End of Claims?

The question, though, is whether the ratification of the 1967 border would entail the end of the dispute. Hopefully, the answer would be yes, with the United States putting its full weight behind the finality of the agreement. Yet we cannot ignore certain Palestinian positions which, if they do not change, are likely to generate crises even after an agreement is reached. For example, in an article posted prominently on Fatah’s website, the author discussed – uncharacteristically – the issue of the Jewish refugees. Zionism, according to this author, deliberately sowed terror in Iraq so as to frighten the Jews there and, eventually, settle them in Palestinian areas that were emptied of their residents, who then became refugees. Thus, the right of return is actually the right to return to lands that the United Nations allocated to the Arab state in the partition plan.

What this means is that, from the Palestinians’ standpoint, the negotiations being held today are about the results of the 1967 war. The Palestinian state to be established along the 1967 lines is not intended to absorb the refugees from the 1948 lands; their proper place will be within the partition-plan borders. After “closing the file” on the 1967 borders, then, the “refugee file” will be opened, and the Palestinians will demand their return to the Arab state postulated by the partition plan. In other words, the real, intended border is not one along the 1967 lines, but the one of 1947. 

An internal, strategic document formulated in the office of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and posted on Palestinian websites in 2013,  states that the aim of the talks is not to reach an agreement but, rather, to create an alibi for imposing a solution on Israel. According to this document, the Palestinians agreed to enter the talks only after receiving a written commitment from Kerry to support the Palestinian position on the 1967 lines, and after publication of the European Union’s statement that Israel is to be penalized for the settlements – meaning Europe’s recognition of the 1967 lines is to be imposed on Israel. It turns out, then, that the Palestinian strategy is not to reach an agreement with Israel but, instead, to create breaches in its relations with the United States, after already fostering Israel’s dispute with Europe.

Moreover, there have been repeated signs that the Palestinian leadership has claims to Israeli territory within the 1967 lines. In 1999, when Yasser Arafat tried to revive Palestinian territorial demands on the basis of the Partition Map that appears in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, the PLO Observer, Nasser al-Kidwa, wrote an official letter to Secretary-General Kofi Anan in which he stated:

Israel must still explain to the international community the measures it took illegally to extend its laws and regulations to the territory it occupied in the war of 1948, beyond the territory allocated to the Jewish state in Resolution 181 (II).

The PLO at the time was planning to replace the Oslo Accords with Resolution 181 and thereby extend Palestinian territorial claims. This was explained by the Palestinian minister Nabil Sha’ath, who said that it was his hope that the Palestinians would also seek to obtain land in Western Jerusalem and not just in Eastern Jerusalem.

This claim is being sustained to this day. PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi told Radio Palestine on January 8, 2014, that on the Jerusalem issue the Palestinians will also raise the matter of Palestinian properties in Western Jerusalem inside the 1967 lines. Palestinian sources have told this author that the files on Palestinian properties in Western Jerusalem were already prepared at Orient House by the late Feisal Husseini.  

Abu Ala, who served as the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly and as a key Palestinian negotiator, stated in al-Hayat al-Judida on December 21, 1998: “It shall be emphasized that the [Palestinian] state has internationally recognized borders set in the [1947] partition resolution.”

Palestinian reliance on UN General Assembly Resolution 181 continued under Mahmoud Abbas. In September 2011, Abbas spoke at the UN General Assembly and explained that he was applying for UN membership “on the basis of the 1967 borders.” But in the formal Palestinian submission to the UN, in which the Palestinian Authority sought membership, there is no reference whatsoever to the 1967 lines but only to Resolution 181 from 1947. There is a second reference to the 1988 Declaration of Independence that also was based on Resolution 181. Thus, there is considerable, cumulative evidence that the Palestinian leadership is maintaining claims to Israeli territory within the 1967 lines.

An End to the Conflict

Another important sign of what was to come emerged when Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza. One could hope, at that time, to reach an understanding on Gaza’s borders with Fatah, which then ruled the Strip – even if via a unilateral act. Instead, though, at precisely that point, the Palestinians demanded the annexation to Gaza of Netiv Ha’asara, an Israeli village bordering Gaza – in other words, the Palestinian version of the Shebaa Farms. The issue of Netiv Ha’asara did not gain traction because Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza and turned its attention toward Egypt and Sinai instead of Ramallah and Israel.

An additional Palestinian claim emerged in negotiations over the water issue. The water of the West Bank and Gaza would not suffice; the Palestinians also demanded a division of the Israeli aquifer. They claimed a “right” to receive their relative portion of the total amount of water common to them and Israel, and insisted that the calculation also include the coastal aquifer and the waters of the Jordan River. The Palestinians also demanded part of the waters of the Sea of Galilee along with their share of the Jordan’s waters. They based this on their claim that they are sovereign over the al-Hama enclave in the Golan Heights because it was part of the British Mandate for Palestine.

Let us recall that Arafat, too, spoke of “the Palestinian Golan.” Moreover, when Hizbullah raised its demand for seven Shiite villages in the Galilee, Arafat lost no time declaring that these were Palestinian villages and referred to “the Palestinian Galilee.” The Palestinian state, then, is likely to see itself as the descendant of the British Mandate, with all the territorial implications for Israel.

The Palestinian Authority’s official designation for the Israeli Arabs is the “1948 Arabs.” They are considered not part of Israel but, instead, of the Palestinian people. Concomitantly, the PA has emphatically rejected all Israeli proposals for territorial swaps based on pure demographics; that is, trading the settlement blocs in the West Bank for the Arab-populated Triangle region within Israel. (The Palestinian Ma’an news service reported that Israeli-Arab leaders are scheduled to meet with Abbas to discuss how to foil Foreign Minister Lieberman’s position to give the Triangle to the PA in exchange for the settlements blocs.)

That may seem to be a contradiction. But if one takes into account the Palestinian strategy of sustaining the border dispute even after an agreement on the 1967 lines, the meaning of this apparent contradiction emerges: the Israeli Arabs, as the “1948 Arabs,” will provide the basis for ongoing demands for a solution to the 1948 problem. Indeed, Radio Palestine reported intensively on the Negev Bedouins’ protest against the Israeli government’s plan to solve questions of land ownership, casting it as part of the general Palestinian struggle against Israel, no different from protests against the settlements in the territories.

The Gaza-West Bank “Safe Passage”

One of the issues in the negotiations over borders was the safe passage or corridor between Gaza and the West Bank. After Israel recognized the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a single, integral geographic entity, talks were held on creating a safe passage, which came to be envisaged as a corridor.

However, a basic problem emerged: if the Palestinians insisted on basing their claims on the 1967 lines, then before the Six-Day War there was no linkage between Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, both sides ignored the corridor’s special significance as the lifeline of the Palestinian state. What was entailed was a major strategic change at the regional level, namely, the linkage of North Africa with the Levant.

Israel assumed a great security risk by agreeing to link problematic Gaza with the relatively stable West Bank. That arrangement also posed a risk to Jordan. At present, with the Arab world in turmoil, the linkage of Egypt and Libya with the West Bank entails even graver risks to Israel, the West Bank Palestinians, and Jordan.

Strangely, the negotiations on the corridor did not take these aspects into account, instead focusing on the territorial calculations involved in land swaps. The Palestinians were aware of the special nature of the corridor. However, based on extremely narrow calculations, they did not agree to Israel getting the settlement blocs in return.

Instead, the Palestinians apparently ascribed particular importance to being adjacent to the 1967 lines, which would afford them a good jumping-off point for demands regarding the 1947 lines. Hence, they gave up sovereignty over the corridor and settled for “management.” This amounted, however, to the same thing. Israel would have had to give up responsibility for securing and policing the border, and for who would pass through it. The Palestinians were also supposed to transfer electrical lines, water pipes, and natural gas through the corridor. “Management,” in effect, gave them additional territory beyond the 1967 lines.

Thus, to enable linkage between Gaza and the West Bank, Israel risked its own long-term division into two sections, northern and southern.

Hamas, for its part, after taking over Gaza, not only gave up the claim to Netiv Ha’asara, but also the claim to the corridor or safe passage. What it was really relinquishing was linkage with Ramallah, and it did not want linkage with Israel. Instead, Hamas turned southward toward Sinai and mainland Egypt. What interested Hamas was not a Palestinian state but an Islamic caliphate, for which it wanted linkage with the Muslim Brotherhood, not with the PLO.

One reason the PLO strongly opposed temporary borders was its suspicion that Israel and Hamas would reach an understanding that the state within the temporary borders would, in fact, be the Hamas state in Gaza. Hamas’ policy of preferring linkage with Egypt, as opposed to Ramallah, was profoundly distressing to the PLO, especially after it turned out that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had reached an understanding on broadening the Gaza Strip toward Sinai, not toward Israel. ESR

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst on the Palestinian issue for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.





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