The West Bank’s Airspace – The Forgotten Factor of Israeli Security
It should have come as no surprise that in the Wikileaks documents that were published this week, Maj. General Ido Nechushastan, as head of the Planning Branch explained in 2007 to General Jim Jones, that Israel’s security requirements in the event a Palestinian state comes into existence would include “control” of the West Bank’s airspace. Nechushastan’s view remains significant since he was promoted subsequently to become the commander of the Israeli Air Force.
Indeed, Israeli security experts still insist that no matter where borders are ultimately drawn, Israel must control the airspace over the entire West Bank in any future peace arrangement. Brigadier General (res.) Udi Dekel, who as a former air force officer headed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s negotiating team with the Palestinians has made this very point. He wrote a few months ago that Israel must have “control over a unified airspace,…which cannot be divided.”
The reasons for the Israeli requirement of the West Bank’s airspace are simple. Israel, together with the West Bank, is only 70 kilometers wide. Modern combat aircraft, like the Russian MiG-29 or the Su-24, can cross that distance from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean in less than 4 minutes. The minimal time Israel needs to scramble Israeli fighters in order to intercept incoming enemy aircraft is about 3 minutes.
But if Israel no longer controlled the West Bank’s airspace, and all it had to defend Israel from the air along the Green Line, it would only have roughly 2 minutes or less to respond to an air threat. In short, in that narrow space, Israel could not be defended from air attack.
Is this a scenario that should concern Israel in the future? Would Jordan allow hostile aircraft into its airspace that could pose a threat to Israel? There is an important event that occurred in the late 1980’s in this regard that would be a mistake to forget. At that time, Saddam Hussein emerged from the Iran-Iraq War with a sense that he was going to be the new great power of the Middle East. The Iraqi Army had 40 divisions and one of the largest stockpiles of ballistic missiles that it had just used against Tehran.
Under these circumstances, even the pro-Western King Hussein at that time was drawn into Saddam Hussein’s orbit. In fact, in 1989, Jordan allowed Iraqi Mirage reconnaissance aircraft to enter Jordanian airspace so that they could fly right up to the Jordan River and photograph potential targets inside of Israel. Should Israel lose control of the West Bank’s airspace, there are many regional air forces in the Middle East who would seek in the future to do what Saddam Hussein did over 20 years ago.
Another issue concerning airspace control is terrorism. After 9/11, the US received intelligence information from interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects that they were seeking to penetrate the Saudi Air Force, with the aim of flying Saudi combat aircraft into tall buildings in Tel Aviv. There is a huge difference if potentially hostile aircraft regularly fly in the West Bank’s airspace and Israel has to suddenly defend itself with virtually no warning should they aim for Tel Aviv and a situation in which such mission is launched from a distance which allows the Israeli Air Force to act on time.
Finally there is the question of the defense of Israeli air space from shoulder-fired missiles that can take down commercial aircraft. Al-Qaeda fired an SA-7 at an Arkia aircraft in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002. Today SA-7 missiles have already been smuggled into the Gaza Strip, so that Israeli helicopters flying in Southern Israel must keep a safe distance of a few kilometers from the Gaza border.
If SA-7 missiles ever got into the West Bank, the entire airspace of the coastal plane of Israel–from the Green Line to the Mediterranean–would be unsafe to fly in. While Israeli commentators debate how to draw Israel’s future borders, they must not forget that if a new peace plan is proposed, it must make absolutely certain that Israel retain control of the West Bank’s airspace, over which there is a strong security consensus that it must be retained by Israel and not divided with the Palestinians.
This article appeared in Israel Hayom on January 28, 2011