The environment and configuration of the Middle East is a deliberate and capricious fruit of History, of the Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, of the charismatic appeal of leaders seen by Weber as crucial in statecraft and, among other causes, of the evolution of societies. This historical process combines, as it will be observed, elements such as the construction of the Israeli State, the rise of Pan Arabism, the Palestinian question, and a series of territorial modifications whose impact has lasted until now. Nevertheless, the Six Days War, which took place in 1967, had a much more decisive impact in Israel’s and Palestine’s territoriality, as well as in the geopolitical configuration of the region.
Israel and Palestine: territorial division and the Fedayeen movement
The formation of the State of Israel responds to a process of continued Jewish migration from Europe throughout the second half of the XIX century. Thereby increasing a social base that would be further enlarged as hostilities towards communities of Jewish Europeans increases in Western Europe. The enlargement of Jewish populations in Palestine begins to generate frictions with its secular Arab population – Muslim or Christian – and generates the first confrontations. Although the dynamic of territorial expansion that took place consisted plainly in the Jewish Agency purchasing lands and properties from the largest Palestinian landowners, absent proprietaries who in many cases inhabited in capitals such as Beirut or Damascus, thereby making possible the consolidation of the Jewish population.
When, after World War I, the partition of the Middle East takes place through the Society of Nations in the form of Mandates, the British government by 1922 finds a solid Jewish political and administrative structure, in contrast to an emergent intellectual and religious Palestinian class with limited capacity for political articulation. As a consequence, lacking valid political interlocutors, soon both communities were absorbed in frequent quarrels, generating a situation of instability that, in 1947 after World War II, derived in the end of the British Mandate and the process of partitioning of Palestine (Segev, 2001).
The first Arab-Israeli war begins as the new State of Israel proclaimes its independence, coinciding with the end of British Mandate in May 1948. After the neighboring Arab States took half a year to plot the liberation of Palestine, in the end Israel achieves a relative victory that increases its territories. However, the Palestinian part of the Gaza Strip will remain under Egyptian administration, West Bank integrates also the new kingdom of Jordan. In 1954 within these territories the first attempts of a Palestinian resistance to liberate the territory of the alleged illegal Jewish occupation took place in what is known as the Fedayeen movement (Sayigh, 1997). Following guerrilla war tactics, the Fedayeen infiltrated Israel from West Bank and Gaza, attacking objectives such as critical infrastructure or kibbutz. The Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula during the Suez Crisis (1956) was the first failed attempt to neutralize the Fedayeen menace emanating from Gaza. A second attempt, eleven years later, would be successful to the point of changing the rules of the regional game.
The rise of Pan Arabism: seeking territorial continuity
As Israel comes to life, the Middle East lives a period of nationalist commotion after the 1940s, decade which ends the Mandates, allowing the formation of the independent states we know today. In this sense, and resuming the idea of a Greater Syria, the Baath party forms in the same period. It is a catch-all political movement, secular, nationalist with leftwing orientations and based in the Pan Arab sentiment that soon will spread throughout the region, encapsulating under the same ideological framework states as different as Syria, Iraq and Egypt (Cleveland, 2009).
It’s in Egypt under the government of the Free Officers, formed in 1952, and the rise to power of Abdel Gamal Nasser, when a new wave of regional tensions begins, one which will derive in the Suez Crisis. As Nasser sought to nationalize the Canal as retaliation to perceived to US and World Bank hostilities in denying funding for the construction of the Aswan Dam, in response to Egyptian approaches to the Soviet Union.
Israeli participation in the Franco-British entente for the liberation of Suez had particular objectives, such as the protection of the Tiran Straits, key for economic development of the Negev and the Port of Eilat, as well as the neutralization of the Fedayeen in Gaza.
Although the crisis was neutralized by American and Soviet influence on both parties, Israel occupied in less that 48 hours the Sinai Peninsula, making necessary the interposition of a peacekeeping force – UNEF – to avoid a reactivation of the conflict between Israel, who had to retreat, and the Nasser government.
In any case, Suez showed the de facto weakness of the Egyptian army and the need of strengthening of Pan Arabism (Kurz, 2005). This would occur with the creation of UAR (United Arab Republic) in 1958, a political union between Egypt and Syria with the intent to expand the Pan Arab idea and free Palestine of Israeli occupation. Despite the union lasting only until 1961, the bonds between both States allowed them to act jointly in 1967. With the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) deployed in Sinai, the Fedayeen movement had to change its area of operations to be able to act effectively on Israel, resuming the launch of attacks from the Northern border, through the Syrian Golan Heights.
From preface to the conflict: The Six Days War
And so, along the decade between 1956 and 1967, tensions in the Arab-Israeli space revolved in three issues. First, the problem of the aquifers of the Jordan river, located in the Golan Heights, as Israel sought to alter its course to supply the Negev. Second, the control of the demilitarized zones after the 1948 war, which Israel sought to recuperate, causing frequent skirmishes with the Syrian armed forces. And third, the tacit support received by Palestinian armed militias operating from Syria, which infiltrated the borders to carry attacks of various kinds on Israeli soil.
However, it was a fake report that Soviet intelligence sent to Egypt and Syria about the alleged concentration of Israeli forces from the Northeast (at the border with Syria) that unleashed the rise in tensions that precipitated, in June of 1967, the Six Days War. Nasser ordering that the United Nations withdrew their interposition forces at the Sinai Peninsula to be able to blockade the straits of Tiran triggered the alarms in Israel, already worried about the Pan Arab alliance between Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
The Israeli response to a violent escalation was to provoke it, in this way holding to the initiative and control of events at all times. For this purpose, it engineered a surprise preemptive strike on the 5th of June, which destroyed in a matter of hours the entire Egyptian air force, and continuing with a land attack, re-occupying the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, thereby liberating the straits of Tiran. Two hours later, Israel opened fire on the Jordan front, destroying its two main airbases and occupying East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Finally, on the 8th of June, war focused on the Syrian front, which had kept quiet until now, occupying the Golan Heights as Damascus’ troops fought in retreat after the defeat of Jordan and Egypt. After six days of war, Israeli troops stood at 50 km of Amman, 60 km of Damascus and 110 km of Cairo, controlling 20,250 square km more than before the war (Bregman, 2010).
Occupation and control of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Desert, the Gaza Strip, where almost ninety percent of the population was refugees, and West Bank, would change the security perspective of Israel, acting as a defensive hinterland of Israeli cities and reducing the sense of insecurity against a generalized Arab invasion that could destroy the country. But here was a more important element, in regards to identity: the reconquering of East Jerusalem by Israeli forces, until then integrated to Jordan, encapsulating the main sacred places of Judaism and Christianism, as well as the most important sacred places for Muslims after Mecca and Medina, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Al-Aqsa.
Nevertheless, the occupation of such territories posed a new problem for Israel, as attacks from emerging insurgent groups, increasingly consolidating after the war, became a fifth column in Israeli lands, changing the focus of security to the interior and to traditionally pacified borders, such as with Jordan between 1967 and 1970, with events that range from the Battle of Karameh (Yaari, 1970) to the episodes of Dawson’s Field (Snow, 1970).
The civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon are linked to territorial changes derived from the 1967 war with the movement and structure of the Fedayeen within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and after the movement of their bases to the perimeter of the newly expanded Israeli state. Shifting their strikes on Israel from Jordan soil, and the expelling of the PLO of those bases by the Hashemite government, to continue the armed fight against Israel from the south of Lebanon, where the PLO was later expelled in 1982.
Paradoxically, in regards to territory, and particularly from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 onwards, when Egypt recovers Sinai and Syria equalizes possessions over the Golan Heights, which remained occupied after a bloody confrontation, the Israeli victory of 1967 and its territorial projection gave the region a period of tense stability. It inaugurated a sort of cold war with Syria, while with Anwar al-Sedat’s Egypt peace was reached in 1978, thereby displacing the focus of regional instability to the Lebanese-Israeli border (recall operation Peace for Galilee and the Siege of Beirut in 1982, the occupation of the security buffer south of Lebanon until the year 2000, and a second wave of confrontation in the second Lebanon war, against Hezbollah, in 2006).
Later, as the First Intifada initiates in 1987, the armed conflict shifts to the interior of Israel, in both sides of the non-recognized borders of 1967, followed in 2000 by a Second Intifada, where suicide terrorism devastated the country for five years. The three Gaza wars (Cast Lead in 2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014) against Hamas and other local jihadi organizations and, finally, what has been popularly known as Intifada Al-Quds. A wave of violence initiated in Autumn 2015 and focused on harassment and low sophistication strikes, such as stabbings and vehicle knock overs, perpetrated by Palestinian individuals without links to traditional organizations. Instability, therefore, has moved from periphery to the core of Israel (Gutierrez, 2016).
Territorial implications: the reconfiguration of the Middle East and end of an era
No border variations have taken place until now. However, a new milestone took place in 2011 with the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Syria and Egypt. The Golan and the Sinai Peninsula have regained notoriety in the geostrategic analysis of regional security. First, because of the stalemate in the Syrian Civil War, where the variety of actors range from the government of al-Assad to the Islamic State and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. And second, the settling in Sinai of a branch of the Islamic State, operating primarily against Egypt but on occasion against Israel.
Paradoxically, the occupied Golan Heights are acting as a security buffer against the Syrian conflict and as an escape valve to civilian victims seeking assistance in Israel. Sinai, despite being an area of operations of organizations affiliated to the Islamic State, as Bayt al-Maqdis, is a threat that is contained by Egyptian government and, on the other side of the frontier, by Hamas in Gaza, thereby establishing a de facto cooperation between Israel, Hamas and Egypt in matters of security and containment of the jihadi threat in the region (Schweitzer, 2016).
The region in the last decades has kept a tense peace disrupted by localized conflicts, but only the recent geopolitical context, characterized by a renewed jihadist surge, has mutated to an unpredictable scenario where traditional philias and phobias seen to realign, and where Israel, an uneasy neighbor, has consolidated as a necessary party for regional stability.