Background: Israel's Pre-1967 Boundaries

May 20, 2011

Chuck Holmes

The Green Line. It was the line of demarcation that more than 60 years ago formed the de facto border between the new state of Israel and its Arab neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, at the time all enemies of the Jewish state.

The line was in place for nearly two decades, until June 1967, when Israel and its Arab neighbors fought yet another war — for a brief but pivotal six days — in which Israel captured significant portions of Arab-held territory.

Those pre-1967 boundaries are a tripwire in the rhetoric and realpolitik over how to achieve peace between Israel, Palestinians and the wider Arab world. In his Thursday speech on the Middle East, President Obama included this statement: "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."

What Obama said wasn't particularly new in terms of U.S. policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out, saying Obama was seeking to determine Israel's borders in advance of peace negotiations. Republican president hopeful Mitt Romney accused Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus."

The Green Line was drawn as a result of the 1949 armistice agreements. Those lines changed in 1967 with Israel's capture of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt; and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Suddenly, Israel occupied areas inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, including refugees of the 1947-49 war who had fled territory that became the state of Israel.

After the '67 war, Israel began building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians mounted a campaign — violent and otherwise — for an end to occupation. And the status of Jerusalem became a major sticking point — Israel calling it the unified capital, while Palestinians claim it will one day be the capital of their independent state.

In its peace agreement with Egypt, Israel handed back the Sinai. Peace talks with the Palestinians led Israel to give up the Gaza Strip. Israel's construction of housing, settlements and roads has asserted its control over other lands it captured. Today, some 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel says its security is paramount in any peace deal. Palestinians want land and sovereignty. In negotiations over the past two decades, leaders from both sides have expressed a willingness to swap land to achieve piece.

But, so far, no lasting peace agreement has been reached and talks are stalled.

The result: In the long history of Israeli-Arab enmity and the question of Palestinian statehood, the debate over the Green Line — the pre-1967 boundaries — has raged far longer than the lines ever existed. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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