Photo essay: Israeli society shaped by borders

AP News
Posted: Oct 30, 2010 3:59 AM
Photo essay: Israeli society shaped by borders

All countries are literally defined by their borders, but few have had their history, society and national mindset shaped by their frontiers as much as Israel.

Most residents of Israel, a narrow strip of land surrounded by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian territories and the Mediterranean Sea, live within a short drive of a frontier. The longest drive an Israeli can take without encountering a border runs from the country's northern tip to the south, and takes about eight hours.

Israelis can theoretically cross two of their borders, into Egypt and Jordan, but today few do. For the most part, the frontiers are seen as virtually impassable walls keeping enemies at bay.

With their barbed wire coils, hills scarred by patrol roads and weather-beaten guard posts manned by young soldiers, the borders are perhaps the most dominant single feature of the landscape.

Numerous infiltrations, skirmishes and wars have made the frontiers a matter of life and death. The border dispute with the Palestinians in the West Bank has become the central feature of Israel's fractious politics and one of the main obstacles in deadlocked peace talks the U.S. is currently trying to restart.

Israel's borders were set in 1949, at the end of the war that began with the U.N. decision to partition Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews.

The border negotiations opened in January of that year at the picturesque Hotel des Roses on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, where Israeli and Egyptian representatives met face to face for the first time.

The mediator was U.N. envoy Ralph Bunche, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a truce. In one instance, as the Israeli historian Tom Segev has written, the American diplomat had commemorative plates made, then threatened to break them over the heads of the recalcitrant delegates.

The end of the negotiations gave Israel borders but not peace or security.

In 1967, Israel fought a war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan and captured land from each. Israel later returned the Sinai peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt, but several rounds of talks between Israel and Syria over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have failed.

The question of the border between Israel and the West Bank, home to 2.5 million Palestinians and about 300,000 Israeli settlers, has riven Israeli society to the point of violence.

"Between me and you, between us and them," one contemporary songwriter wrote, "without a border, there are no limits to anything."

In 1995 an assassin opposed to a government attempt to set a border in a peace agreement shot and killed Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Rabin, as a young field commander, had been one of the negotiators at the Hotel des Roses when the country's borders were first set.

At that time, before the frontiers had hardened into long-term enmity, Rabin recorded in his memoirs, he believed that first agreement meant "we were moving toward peace."

"We all believed it," he wrote.