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A Ceasefire Line Is Not a Border: Debunking the Green Line Myth

avatar by Chaim Lax

Opinion

Israeli troops overlook Jerusalem’s Old City, during the Six-Day War, June 1967. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, noted Israeli activist and journalist Gershom Gorenberg referred numerous times to the Green Line as “Israel’s border.” Gorenberg is far from being the only one to refer to the line that separated Israel from its Arab neighbors between 1948 and 1967 as a “border” (see here and here). Even the European Union, in determining which Israeli entities are eligible for EU funds, refers to Israel’s “pre-1967 borders.”

However, the term “border” is a misnomer, connoting an agreed-upon permanent demarcation between two sovereign entities.

In actuality, the Green Line came about as the result of an armistice agreement between the IDF and Arab armies at the conclusion of the 1948 War of Independence.

This piece will take a look at the history of the Green Line, its status after the Six-Day War in 1967, and what it means for any future peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

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As the War of Independence was coming to a close in early 1949, Israel and its belligerent neighbors (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) entered into ceasefire talks in an effort to end hostilities and establish armistice agreements.

Between February and July 1949, Israel finalized armistice agreements with each of its neighbors. As part of these agreements, armistice lines were established, delineating the territory that separated Israeli military forces from the armed forces of its neighboring Arab countries.

These armistice lines ultimately became known as the “Green Line” due to the color of the pen that was used to mark these lines on the map.

However, at the insistence of Egypt, Jordan and Syria during the ceasefire negotiations, each of the armistice agreements features clauses that state unequivocally that these lines are not official borders and will not prejudice any future territorial claims made by any country.

The armistice agreement that was signed between Israel and Jordan states that “The Armistice Demarcation Lines…are agreed upon by the Parties without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or to claims of either Party relating thereto.”

It also states that the agreement is “dictated exclusively by military considerations” and would have no effect on a future peace settlement.

Similarly, the armistice agreement between Israel and Egypt reads, “The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary.”

This interpretation of the 1949 armistice agreements was confirmed by former vice-president of the International Court of Justice Stephen Schwebel, who wrote in “Justice in International Law”: “The armistice agreements of 1949 expressly preserved the territorial claims of all parties and did not purport to establish definitive boundaries between them.”

Thus, as can be seen, the Green Line was never intended to be an official border and would only signify the armistice between Israel and its neighbors until a proper peace agreement would be reached.

However, for the next 18 years, with no peace settlement in sight, the Green Line would remain as the dividing line between the Israel Defense Forces and the militaries of its surrounding Arab neighbors.

On June 5, 1967, following a number of acts of war committed by Egypt, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against the country. This was soon followed by Jordanian bombardment of both Israeli forces and civilian centers (even though Israel had appealed to Jordan to stay out of the war).

After six days of intense fighting, Israel emerged victorious, taking control of the Sinai Desert, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, West Bank, and eastern Jerusalem.

Once the Six-Day War ended, the Green Line was effectively rendered defunct as it no longer reflected the reality on the ground.

On November 22, 1967, in the aftermath of the war, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 242. Among other things, the resolution called for Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and for all of the involved countries to “live in peace within secure and recognized borders.”

Although some interpret this resolution as requiring Israel to return to the Green Line, this was never its original intention.

In an interview given in 1974, Lord Caradon, the British ambassador to the UN who put forward resolution 242, stated that the resolution does not call for a return to the Green Line because “it would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its position of June 4, 1967 because those positions were undesirable and artificial…they were just armistice lines.”

This is further confirmed by Arthur Goldberg, the US ambassador to the UN who helped draft resolution 242, who noted that the resolution does not stipulate “the extent of the withdrawal.”

In fact, two days before the adoption of resolution 242, the Soviet Union attempted to pass a resolution that would have required Israel to withdraw to the Green Line. This proposal was soundly rejected.

Thus, contrary to popular belief, UN Security Council resolution 242 does not regard the Green Line as significant and certainly does not require Israel to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines.

The reason Israel was not obligated to withdraw to the Green Line was that, keeping in line with resolution 242, these armistice lines would not make for “secure borders.” If Israel were to return to the Green Line, the vast majority of its civilian centers would be under the direct threat of fire from both the West Bank and Gaza.

At its narrowest, Israel would only be 9 miles wide between the Mediterranean Sea and its easternmost boundary.

The indefensibility of these armistice lines, which have been colloquially referred to as the “Auschwitz lines,” was noted by US President Lyndon Johnson in June 1967, when he said that an Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line would be a prescription for “renewed hostilities.”

Johnson’s comments were affirmed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in a telegram that stated: “From a strictly military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders.”

Even though it has been defunct since 1967, some believe that the Green Line will be the basis for a future negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

As was noted earlier, a peace plan that would make the Green Line Israel’s permanent border would leave the Jewish state virtually indefensible.

It is for this reason that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stated in 1995 that “The border of the State of Israel … will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War.”

Even during his 2000 negotiations with Yasser Arafat that saw far-reaching concessions on Israel’s part, Prime Minister Ehud Barak never intended for a full Israeli withdrawal back to the Green Line.

Similarly, in a 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, US President George W. Bush stated: “It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”

This letter was later affirmed by the US House of Representatives in resolution 460, with the Senate concurring.

Lastly, when Israel began constructing the security barrier in order to reduce the number of Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada, Ariel Sharon made it clear that even though it was based largely on the Green Line (although some of it extended both east and west of the armistice line), the security barrier did not reflect any political reality, it was solely meant to provide protection for Israeli civilians.

As can be seen from the above analysis, the Green Line was never intended to be a permanent border between Israel and its neighbors. Rather, it was only meant to temporarily demarcate the positions of the IDF and the other militaries that had been involved in Israel’s War of Independence.

Due to its indefensibility, a variety of international legal scholars, diplomats and Israeli leaders have maintained that the Green Line cannot be the basis for a permanent border as it would place nearly all citizens of the Jewish state in harm’s way.

Contrary to the narrative peddled by major media outlets such as The Washington Post, the Green Line was never a permanent border.

And no Israeli government, wherever it may fall on the political spectrum, will allow what was once a ceasefire line to become a permanent border.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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