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The boundaries of the Land of Israel

The Land of Israel, known as Eretz Israel for Jews, the Promised Land for Biblical scholars, and the Holy Land for Christians, has had different boundaries mentionned in the Bible. And beyond the Biblical narrative, the history of these boundaries continues until today. Here is a review of the different phases.


God's promise to Abraham

The key story starts from Genesis 12: God asked Abraham to leave his father's household in Haran and go unto the land that I will show thee (Genesis 12:1). When Abraham reached the promised land, that was inhabited by the Canaanite peoples, he made three stops to see what God had promised to his descendance: 'Unto thy seed will I give this land' (Genesis 12:7). The three stops were: (1) at the terebinth of Moreh, near Sichem (nowadays Nablus), (2) at Beth-El, and finally (3) near Hebron. These stops took him to the highest peaks of what will be known as Samaria and Judea, from which he could see all the promised land, from the Jordan valley to the great sea (the Mediterranean). This north/south path across the peaks of these regions is now known as the the Way of the Patriarchs.

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Later on, God gives more precised boundaries: 'Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates; the Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite.' (Genesis 15:18-21).

In other words, the promised land extended from the Nile until the Euphrates, covering much of the connecting land within the so-called Fertile Crescent. The Land of Israel and the Levant actually form a "bridge" between three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. This is an unique disposition on Earth. Every migration of plants, animals and humans have passed through it.


Some of the territories mentioned in these verses are historically known. For example, the Hittites were a people of Northern Syria who ruled over Canaan at the time of the Patriarchs until the Egyptians took this land from them in the 15th century BCE. The Amorite were a people who lived in what is known today as the Judean Lowlands. The Jebusite lived over what is Jerusalem today. The Canaanite were mostly the people along the coast of Israel and Lebanon. The Biblical name of Canaan, son of Noah, gave the name to the sought-after purple blue colour extracted from a sea snail, which the Greeks later called Phoenicia (Phoenicia in Greek means Canaan in Semitic languages, and both mean this special colour). At some point, the Sea People, foreigners who came from the Mediterranean islands, settled along the coast of Canaan, mixed with the locals and brought them new techniques: this gave name to what wss known as the Philistines (which means 'invaders' in Hebrew).


God repeated His promise to Abraham: 'And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.' (Genesis 17:8)

Finally, God confirmed the promise to the patriarch Jacob: 'I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.' (Genesis 28:13-15)


Boundary given to the Israelites

When the Hebrews came out of Egypt, they changed from being an enslaved people (the Hebrews, initially a family clan) to a free nation (the Israelites, or children of Israel in the Bible) to whom God gave a law (the Torah) to follow. He then repeated the promise He gave to their ancestors concerning the land where they were to settle: 'And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.' (Exodus 23:31)


Further on, He gave more details about the boundaries just before the Israelites were about to enter the land: And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Command the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye come into the land of Canaan, this shall be the land that shall fall unto you for an inheritance, even the land of Canaan according to the borders thereof. Thus your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin close by the side of Edom, and your south border shall begin at the end of the Salt Sea eastward; and your border shall turn about southward of the ascent of Akrabbim, and pass along to Zin; and the goings out thereof shall be southward of Kadesh-barnea; and it shall go forth to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon; and the border shall turn about from Azmon unto the Brook of Egypt, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Sea.

And for the western border, ye shall have the Great Sea for a border; this shall be your west border. (Numbers 34:1-6)


The Southern and Western boundaries are as follows:

- South: the wilderness of Zin, which starts south from today's Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev desert, where the tomb of Ben Gurion is located; from the south from Zin riverbed starts the "wilderness" (no human settlement, only used for nomadic routes in the past). Towards the south-east of Zin is the land of Edom: its border with the Land of Israel was the southern tip of the Salt Sea (the Dead Sea). The ascent of Akkrabim is called the Scorpions' Ascent, a very special path to climb onto the Negev plateau from the Dead Sea region. To the west of Zin, the border passed at Kadesh-Barnea, an oasis at the border between the Negev and the Sinai, near today's Nitzana, where the Hebrews dealt for 19 years. The Biblical border continued west until the "Brook of Egypt": this is a riverbed heading more or less from Kadesh-Barnea until the Mediterranean Sea near el-Arish.

- West: the border is simply the Great Sea, the Mediterranean Sea


The Biblical narrative continues: And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea ye shall mark out your line unto mount Hor; from mount Hor ye shall mark out a line unto the entrance to Hamath; and the goings out of the border shall be at Zedad; and the border shall go forth to Ziphron, and the goings out thereof shall be at Hazar-enan; this shall be your north border. (Numbers 34:7-9)


The Northern border is debated with many opinions. One is to mark it along the Litani river in present-day Lebanon because the mountain range of Southern Lebanon and of Upper Galilee is the same. Since all the Biblical borders seem to follow the natural geography, it makes sense to use rivers and mountains as these borders. Another possibility is to encompass Lebanon until the Syria border to the north, because the Bible mentions Hamath which denotes the location of hot springs: the only one known in Lebanon today is Ain Merkebta, north from Tripoli, although there could been more in the antique times. But the Bible talks about Mount Hor which is Jebel Arun, near Petra in Jordan, at the border between Edom and Moab, where Aaron brother of Moses was buried. However, the Biblical description doesn't mention Mount Hor as a border, but only as a point of reference from which to draw a line going to Hamat (which could be the famous hot springs of Hamat-Gader) and from there starts the northern border to Zedad which could Sidon (called Zidon in modern Hebrew). In this context, the northern border would not be too different from what today, approximatively: from Hamat-Gader to Ziphron (may be the sources of the Dan river) until the Mediterranean sea at Sidon. There are scholars who put this border much higher north, to encompass Antioch and part of Syria. Here I took the simplest option, roughly.


Finally the eastern border follows the Jordan river until the end of the Dead Sea: And ye shall mark out your line for the east border from Hazar-enan to Shepham; and the border shall go down from Shepham to Riblah, on the east side of Ain; and the border shall go down, and shall strike upon the slope of the sea of Chinnereth eastward; and the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Salt Sea; this shall be your land according to the borders thereof round about.' (Numbers 34:10-12). The sea of Chinnereth is the Sea of Galilee.


The conquest of Canaan

Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land and they conquered it following God's injunction: 'Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you have I given it, as I spoke unto Moses. From the wilderness, and this Lebanon, even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your border. (Joshua 1:2-4)


The settlement of the 12 Tribes inside Canaan is rather well known and more or less the previous assumptions derived from the above text from Numbers 34. There were also lands conquered by Ruben and Gad tribes during the time of Moses, because these tribes were not worthy to settle in the land promised to the descendance of Jacob.


The Land of Israel and the Quran

The Holy Quran echoes the Biblical narrative that the Land of Israel was indeed given by God, or Allah, to the Jews:

Sura 5:20-21 - And, when Moses said to his people, "O my people, remember the favor of Allah upon you when He appointed among you prophets and made you possessors and gave you that which He had not given anyone among the worlds. O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back and thus become losers.

Sura 26:59 - And We made it [the Holy Land] an inheritance for the Children of Israel.

The historical borders

Once the Israelites settled in their land, its borders varied in the course of their history, from the united monarchy under David and Solomon, through their division into a northern kingdom (Samaria) and the Judean kingdom, to the final destructions done by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Then, only a smaller province emerged at the time of the Persian empire: Judea (or Yehud). Over the following years, a monarchy was once more established and its borders reached the greatest extent under the rule of King Herod (with the support of Rome). But, after his death, his kingdom was split, and Rome finally annexed Judea as a Roman province which triggered unrest with the Jews (the Judeans). After two unsuccessful revolts against Rome, the Romans finally drew borders again by encompassing the entire region into their own empire: Judea became Palaestina when the emperor Hadrian, around 130 CE, decided to blot out the name of Judea (and Jerusalem) from human memory. This is why the name 'Palestine' stuck until today: History is written by the victors. In the Late Roman period and at the time of the Byzantine empire (the christianised Roman eastern empire), Judea became Palaestina Prima and the northern region, from the Galilee and up, became Palaestina Secunda.


After the Arab conquest, the division between the two Palaestina's remained about the same: the ancient Judea became Filastin, derived from the name Palestina (in Arabic, the letter P doesn't exist and is rendered as F). This lasted until the end of the Ottoman empire.


The partition times

During the Great War, France and England had designed a "plan" to split between themselves the Ottoman empire in the Middle-East: this became known as the Sykes-Picot secret agreement. At the end of the war, the agreement became the basis to form two mandates given by the Society of the Nations (precursor of the UN) in 1922: the French Mandate received what is today Lebanon and Syria, and the British Mandate received 'Palestine'. The goal after WW-I was to give autonomy to local ethnics, in order to avoid huge empires as before, and wars. France created Lebanon as an enclave taken from what used to be part of Syria under the Ottoman empire: the goal was to give some autonomy to the Christian population in a smaller territory. As of Britain, they were given the task to create two states, one for the Arabs and one for the Jews, with the Palestine Mandate.


But Britain had other plans because they had also secretly promised an Hashemite kingdom (Saud family) based in Damascus as a token of gratitude for the Bedouins to have helped the British effort to oust the Turks from the region (this was the Lawrence of Arabia episode). Bad luck: Damascus fell in the French Mandate... So Britain took 2/3 of the mandated Palestine and created the emirate of Transjordan which an Hashemite (foreign) ruler over a local 'Palestinians': this was of course contrary to the spirit that prevailed after WW-I which was to give autonomy to local ethnics.


This British decision triggered a complex issue: one Arab state was created but no Jewish state. So there was an argument that, since the mandated territory was already given to Arabs with a 2/3 proportion, the remaining 1/3 should then be given to Jews. This didn't happen and the Jewish-Arab conflict started to emerge. Back in the 1920's, Britain ought to have created both one Arab state and one Jewish state, whichever the borders, but not one with the other. And worse: from the 1930's, Britain allowed Arab foreign immigrants to settle in Palestine and work on their public constructions, but they shut the door of Palestine to Jews who could have escaped the Nazi slaughter that was to come. Since Britain failed in their mandate, it ultimately returned to the newly formed U.N. and a partition plan was proposed in 1947 to divide the remaining 1/3 of Palestine into two more states: one Arab and one Jewish. The plan was finally voted and approved at the end of November 1947, and Britain announced their withdrawal from the region six months later.


The State of Israel

In May 1948, one day after the departure of the last British commissioner, the State of Israel was declared based on the internationally approved partition plan. This triggered the first regional war: five Arab states attacked the small state of Israel, and its 600,000 inhabitants, along with the local Palestinian population of about 1.2 million people. The five Arab states were: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. But, like Israel, these states were also created as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Egypt gained independence in 1922, and the other four were created from the two mandates over the Middle-East: Iraq in 1930, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in 1946. The toughest army was the Arab Legion from Jordan: they were trained, armed, and commanded by British officers (the emirate of Transjordan created in 1921 under British protectorate became the independent kingdom of Jordan in 1946). Yet, against all odds, Israel prevailed and won this 1948-1949 "Independence War", although a large portion of the 1/3 territory was conquered by Jordan which, de facto, was an invader and therefore an occupier. This is because, by international law, when a nation trespasses its recognized borders, it becomes an "invader" and whatever territory they conquered becomes "occupied territory". This is no different from when Iraq invaded Kuwait or when Syria ruled over Lebanon. Yet, the UN did not request from Jordan to withdraw behind its borders and the situation remained so until June 1967. In 1949, Israel signed ceasefire agreements with Egypt and Jordan, but Lebanon Syria and Iraq remained "at war".


Jordan renamed the conquered territory as the "West Bank" (of the Jordan river) and annexed it to its kingdom in 1950. However this annexation, being illegal, was rejected by most of the world except, notably, Britain, Iraq and Pakistan. Except that the name 'West Bank', symbol of this annexation, was maintained. Instead, Israel continued to use its historical names which were Judea and Samaria: West Bank was the name given by an occupier, after all, and should not be used today. The population was predominantly Palestinian, many of them being refugees from the 1948 war (that they call the Nakba, the 'disaster') who were not given the opportunity to resettle into the Jordan realm after their conquest, despite the Jordan annexation !


The case of Jerusalem was special. In the UN Partition Plan, the holy city as well as Bethlehem and Ein Karem, were supposed to fall under U.N. international jurisdiction and be opened to all faiths. But, when Jordan conquered it in 1948, the Jordanian army expelled its Jewish residents, who had surrendered, and destroyed the Jewish Quarter by dynamite, included all its ancient synagogues. These acts amounted as violations of international laws: invading a territory of international UN jurisdiction, displacing civilians (ethnic cleansing to make Jerusalem void of Jews), destruction of their places of cult (synagogues, religious schools and properties).


After 19 years, the wish for war raised again in the Arab world. In the months before June 1967, Egypt was belligerent towards Israel and made two decisions that constituted a casus belli (a case of war): they asked the U.N. Blue Helmets to evacuate from the Egyptian-Israeli ceasefire line of 1948, and they blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. Israel didn't wait to be invaded so they attacked Egypt first: within a short time, they took the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai peninsula. In parallel, Israel sent messages to Jordan not to get involved in this conflict, but King Hussein ignored their plea and attacked Israel by bombing the Jewish neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. Israel retaliated and took over Jerusalem as well as Judea and Samaria that was occupied by Jordan since 1948.


On another hand, one territory is "occupied" by Israel: it is the buffer of land taken off the Golan Heights in 1967, during the Six-Day War. Israel has since annexed this territory by way of securing its border with Syria. The reasons were mainly that (1) Syria has never wanted to sign peace with Israel since 1948, (2) between 1948 and 1967, the Syrian army outposts were shelling the Israeli farms at the foot of the Golan Heights thus creating insecurity for villages and farms in the Israeli valley below. The Golan Heights are not a fertile land, because it is made of volcanic rocks (basalt), but it has strategic value of course. In view of the subsequent Syrian civil war, it is a luck for Israel (and for the world) to have conquered this buffer of land in 1967, otherwise Israel would have been drawn into the Syrian civil war in order to defend its territory from the Syrian army supported by Hezbollah and Iran, two arch-enemies of Israel today. And nobody knows what consequences such military intervention would have had on the region and the world.


Because Lebanon, Syria and Iraq have themselves declared war against Israel in 1948, and have never signed any peace agreement since then, Israel still remains technically at war with these three countries even today. This enables Israel, for matter of security as they see fit, to engage militarily against these three countries. This happened during the Israel-Lebanon wars, for example. Here again, unless there would a final peaceful settlement with three these countries, the state of war will remain.


Concerning the Palestinian territories, Israel is often portrayed as an "occupier" although this doesn't have legal footing: as explained above, to be an occupier, one has to trespass its internationally recognized borders which still do not exist (the borders of the 1947 Partition Plan were rejected by the Arab nations). So Jordan was an occupier, and Israel pushed them back behind their international border (the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea). But Israel and the local Palestinian people are both in their rights to claim any portion from what remained of 1/3 the British Mandate (this includes today's Israel, the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria). So these territories are not "occupied" by either Jews or Arabs, but they are still very much "disputed": only a final peace agreement could resolve the issue and then international borders would be finally settled. There was a first step towards such agreement with the Oslo Accords in the 1990's but the civil war between the two main Palestinian factions (Hamas and Fatah), and Hamas' subsequent rejection of the Oslo Accords, caused the situation to be stalled until today. May the future bring a happy ending to this long dispute.


Albert Benhamou

April 2020

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