'The Ongoing Dispute over the Line of 4 June 1967,'
by Frederic C. Hof
29 March 2000'The phrase, 'the line of 4 June 1967' has been part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years. It encapsulates the extent of the withdrawal demanded of Israel by Syria in the context of a peace treaty. Conceptually, the line of 4 June 1967 was the confrontation line before the outbreak of the June 1967 war.
Only along one 15-kilometer stretch did it correspond with the international boundary between Palestine and Syria instituted by Great Britain and France in 1923. Neither did it correspond to the Armistice Demarcation Line agreed to by the parties in 1949.
The boundary itself was a product of the post-World War I Anglo-French partition of Ottoman Syria. It was demarcated so that all of Lake Tiberias, including a ten-meter wide strip of beach along its northeastern shore, would stay inside Palestine.
From Lake Tiberias north to Lake Hula, the boundary was drawn between 50 and 400 meters east of the Jordan River, keeping that stream entirely within Palestine. This 1923 boundary was not, however, drawn to facilitate the military defense of northeastern Palestine. The task of successfully defending the boundary against virtually any sort of enemy presented insurmountable problems.
The Armistice Line:
During armistice talks in the spring and summer of 1949, Israel sought the removal of all Syrian forces from Palestine/Israel. Syria demurred, insisting on an armistice line based not on an international border, which Syria insisted did not exist, but on the military status quo.
The result was a compromise. Under the terms of an armistice signed on 20 July 1949, Syrian forces were to withdraw east of the old Palestine-Syria boundary. Israeli forces were to refrain from entering the evacuated areas, which would become a demilitarized zone. In essence, major parts of the armistice line departed from the 1923 boundary and protruded into Palestine/Israel.
There were three distinct, noncontiguous enclaves within Palestine/Israel'in the extreme northeast between Banias and Dan, on the west bank of the Jordan River near Lake Hula, and the eastern-southeastern shores of Lake Tiberias extending out to Al Hamma'consisting of 66.5 square kilometers of land lying between the 1949 armistice line and the 1923 boundary.
These were the three sectors'north, central, and south'of the demilitarized zone. The 1923 boundary prevailed as the armistice line in only two places: where it connected the northern and central sectors of the demilitarized zone; and along the ten-meter strip of Lake Tiberias, connecting the central and southern sectors of the demilitarized zone.
From 1949 Armistice to 4 June 1967: As it became increasingly clear that peace was not on the horizon, Israel and Syria both sought to take maximum advantage of the territorial ambiguities left in place by their armistice. In 1966, an exasperated UN secretary-general reported that Israel and Syria together had produced some 66,000 official complaints about the conduct of the other, the vast majority of which pertained to alleged violations in the demilitarized zone.
There were numerous Israeli complaints of infiltration, murder, mayhem, and shelling from the Syrian side. Syrian complaints most often centered on a theme which Israel was pleased to acknowledge: that Israel acted as if the demilitarized zone were part of Israel-proper.
The upshot of armed clashes in the spring of 1951 was the informal partition of the demilitarized zone. In 1952 and 1953, Israel and Syria held secret military talks to explore the possibility of formalizing the partition of the demilitarized zone. Although the talks achieved consensus on some major points, they failed. Syria essentially wanted a new armistice line in order to halt more creeping Israeli annexation of the demilitarized zone but was not interested in conveying formal recognition to Israel.
From 1953 until June 1967, Israel's struggle to assert its sovereignty all the way to the 1923 boundary became a game of inches, punctuated by serious armed clashes. In words attributed to the late Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, 'more than 80 percent' of the incidents resulted from Israeli provocation involving aggressive agricultural activities. These incidents, combined with an escalating war of words between Syria and Israel and a general breakdown in Arab-Israeli relations, led to war in June 1967.
Implications for a Settlement:
In an interview with the author, former Syrian ambassador to the U.S. Walid al-Moualem stated that Syria has never recognized the 1923 international boundary, that it will indeed make a claim to lands west of that boundary, and that its claims will be consistent with the line of 4 June 1967.
He declined, however, to be specific, asserting only that Syria and the UN possess identical maps of the status of the Syrian and Israeli forces just before the outbreak of war in June 1967. He did say, however, that:
'Sometimes people equate the line of June 4 with the town of Al Hamma. It is true that this is a place held dear by the Syrian people, and I myself camped there as a Boy Scout. It involves water issues for which I believe fair and equitable solutions can be found.'
Water concerns would arise because drawing a line representing the status quo of 4 June 1967 would place Syria on the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias and along the east bank of the Jordan River between Lake Tiberias and the former Lake Hula. According to Professor Moshe Brawer, the foremost Israeli expert on the geographical aspects of this matter, Syria held some 18 of the 66.5 kilometers of the demilitarized zone on the eve of war in June 1967.
A boundary settlement exactly reflecting the line of 4 June 1967 would raise, within Israel, water-related concerns first surfaced by Zionist leaders and their British allies during and immediately after World War I. It may be fairly asked, however, whether the addition of perhaps 20 square kilometers to the Syria of 1923-48 would raise hydrological issues far transcending those implicit in a settlement based on the 1923 boundary itself.
In both cases, Israel will be concerned with Syrian water management practices in the Golan. In both cases, it will want assurances concerning Syrian control of the Banias Spring. In both cases'unless Syrian citizens can be kept a tantalizing ten meters away from Lake Tiberias and 50 meters away from the Jordan River'there would appear to be an issue of Syrian access to, and use of water from, those bodies.
The sine qua non of any Israeli-Syrian settlement rests on mutually acceptable military security provisions. Security assurances that would permit Israel to return the Golan Heights and retire to the 1923 boundary would surely apply with equal effect to an additional 20 square kilometers.
If the problem comes down to water, the solution, under either boundary scenario, might involve'as it did during the British Mandate period and during the secret talks of 1952-53'Israeli ownership of this water combined with access and use provisions for Syrian nationals. Another approach to the issue might involve the following formulation: withdrawal to the line of June 4 by Israel without advance to the line of June 4 by Syria.
Under this scenario, Syria might receive Al Hamma, and the new boundary would keep the Banias Spring inside Israel and maintain plenty of space between Syria and the Jordan Valley, including Lake Tiberias. Yet the Israeli side of the new boundary would be completely demilitarized, thus fulfilling the Syrian demand for total Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in June 1967.
If Syria and Israel are prepared to reach the 'ultimate territorial arrangement,' there is nothing about the line of 4 June 1967, per se, that would obstruct matters. This brief has sought to define the line in historical and geographical terms. It is up to Israel and Syria to determine its political meaning and, assuming agreement in principle, draw a line on the ground.
Frederic C. Hof, a partner in Armitage Associates L.C., published a longer version of this article in the September-October 1999 issue of Middle East Insight, which can be found at www.mideastinsight.org. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author, to Middle East Insight, and to the Palestine Center. This brief does not necessarily reflect the views of Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.
This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 30, 29 March 2000.