Dangerous Ground: How Territory Has Influenced Israel's National Security Outlook

By Rodman, David | Midstream, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Dangerous Ground: How Territory Has Influenced Israel's National Security Outlook


Rodman, David, Midstream


In the spring of 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. In the fall of 2005, it withdrew from Gaza. These withdrawals, reasoned the governments of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, respectively, would significantly promote the Jewish state's national security interests. If Israel surrendered control of these territories, they contended, calm would be restored along its borders with Lebanon and Gaza. Arab terrorist organizations, especially Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as their state sponsors, Iran and Syria, would no longer be able to justify aggression against the Jewish state from these quarters. Indeed, the withdrawals might even encourage the Lebanese and Palestinians to enter into permanent peace agreements.

This line of thought, in hindsight, proved to be completely wrongheaded in both instances. Rather than bring calm and advance peace, the Jewish state's territorial retreats created power vacuums that were quickly filled by Hizbullah and Hamas, with the enthusiastic encouragement and support of Iran and Syria. Ideologically committed to the destruction of the "Zionist entity," these terrorist organizations turned southern Lebanon and Gaza into huge armed camps for ongoing attacks against Israel.

The concomitant deterioration in security along the Lebanon and Gaza borders eventually became so bad that the Jewish state ultimately decided it had no choice but to wage war against Hizbullah (in 2006) and Hamas (in 2008-09). The overwhelming might displayed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on these occasions has clearly had a sobering effect on Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as their state sponsors; however, the tenuous quiet that now prevails along the Lebanon and Gaza borders could disappear at any time. Meanwhile, Hizbullah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas continue to build up their strength inside their enclaves for future confrontations with Israel.

What these episodes illustrate in a broad historical sense is the profound relationship that has always existed in the Jewish state between national security" and territory. Unquestionably, Israel's national security outlook has been very heavily shaped over the decades by territorial considerations. (1) Suffice it to say for the moment that the Jewish state's national security dilemma in this regard has always revolved around the closely related issues of defensible borders and strategic depth.

Though Israel won a clear victory in the 1947-49 War of Independence, actually acquiring much more territory than originally ceded to it under the terms of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which divided the western portion of British mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, it nevertheless emerged from the hostilities with very problematical borders. Extremely long, due to the Judean and Samarian "bulge" in the state's center and the Gaza "finger" in its south, they were also largely flat, devoid of topographical features that might inhibit either small-scale infiltration or large-scale invasion. The routine ease with which even untrained Arab infiltrators slipped into Israeli territory to inflict mayhem on the civilian populace during the early years of statehood serves as poignant testimony to this reality.

Furthermore, at its particularly vulnerable waist, the Jewish state's width measured a mere nine miles, as the crow flies, at its narrowest point. In the Galilee and the Negev, its width did not exceed more than a few dozen miles at its widest points. Arab control of the highlands of Judea, Samaria, and the Golan only accentuated Israel's miniscule west-east dimensions. All of the Jewish state's major population centers, industrial assets, and military bases, in short, were potentially within easy reach of Arab armies or terrorist organizations.

Unlike many other states, which either possess borders that can be easily defended against invaders (e.g., Switzerland) or that possess hinterlands where their own armies can fall back, regroup, and eventually expel the invaders (e.

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Dangerous Ground: How Territory Has Influenced Israel's National Security Outlook
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