By Victor Sharpe
From the earliest Biblical days the boundaries of the ancestral Jewish homeland expanded and shrank time and time again. But even during periods when the homeland was under alien occupation, the Jews managed to sustain, in whatever numbers they could, a physical presence. For Jews in the Diaspora the land remained forever with them as an unbroken bond.
The first Jew, Abraham, was called by God to leave Haran and travel to the Promised Land around 2000 BC. His journey began when he first left Ur (situated in today’s Iraq) and traveled to Haran and thence to Biblical Shechem in today’s Nablus, now a center of Arab terrorism in the Palestinian Authority territories.
Abraham journeyed onto Egypt because of famine throughout the land then known as Canaan. But before he left, he purchased a plot of land in Hebron from a Hittite where today the Cave of Machpela exists as the traditional burial ground of Abraham, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob along with their wives, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. These are the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Bible.
Concurrent draughts and famine forced Abraham’s descendants to find sanctuary and relief in Egypt. The Biblical story tells us of the Jewish nation’s eventual slavery by successive Pharaohs and the miraculous Exodus under the leader and lawgiver, Moses, who brought them back to the Promised Land around 1,225 BC. From this time onwards we see how many times the boundaries of the Jewish homeland have waxed and waned up unto the present day.
We should start at the borders of the land after its conquest by the Children of Israel under their general, Joshua, and its distribution amongst the Twelve Tribes.
The tribes, which traced their individual history back to the sons of Jacob, were Manasseh, Ephraim, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Benjamin, Judah and Simeon. They received territory in what consists today of Israel along with Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). In addition, the tribes of Manasseh, Gad and Reuben also received vast areas of land east of the River Jordan, which today form part of the Hashemite Arab Kingdom of Jordan in which no Jews are permitted to live. Much of the territory adjoining the coastline was occupied in the south by the Philistines, known as the Sea Peoples, who it is believed originated in Crete. In the north the Phoenicians occupied the maritime lands.
Around 1000-925 BC, the subsequent Kingdoms of David and his son, Solomon, expanded their borders to encompass the Mediterranean (the Great Sea) coastline from central Sinai as far north as present day Akko, (Acre). In the east, the borders extended to include present day Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Damascus in Syria. Indeed much of present day Syria was included within the borders of the Biblical Jewish kingdom.
In the south, the territory reached as far as today’s Eilat at the head of the modern day Gulf of Aqaba, but around 850 BC civil war broke out and the land was divided into two separate kingdoms, with Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The concomitant weakness allowed Moab and Edom to break away and a powerful new Empire, Assyria, in what is present day Iraq, began to threaten Israel from the north and east.
I will bring a nation upon you from afar…it is a mighty nation, it is an ancient nation; a nation whose language you know not nor what they say. And they will eat up your harvest and your bread, which your sons and daughters should eat; they will eat your flocks and your herds; they will eat up your vines and your fig trees; they will impoverish your walled cities, in which you trust, with the sword. Nevertheless, I will not make a full end with you. Jeremiah 6, 17-18
Both Israel and Judah had shrunk to mere shadows of the glory they once were. As the Bible recounts, Israel finally succumbed to the awesome power of Assyria in 722 BC and her people were lost to history and passed into legend as the ten lost tribes of Israel.
Judah held on for over a hundred years but a new Empire arose, Babylon, which defeated its Assyrian rival and eventually moved against Judah. After a long siege, the Babylonians broke into Jerusalem, sacked the Temple and carried off the Jews to Babylon in 586 BC.
In turn, Babylon, the greatest city of the ancient world, was conquered by the rising empire of Persia. Its king, Cyrus, proclaimed in 539 BC that the Jewish exiles could return to their ancient land and the cry was heard, “Return to Zion! Rebuild the Land of Israel.”
Not all the Jews returned. Many remained in Babylon and their descendants lived there for 2,500 years until the middle of the twentieth century, when they escaped from the cruel oppression of the Iraqi Arab government during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah – after the reconstituted State of Israel came into existence in 1948. But let us return to what the earlier Zionists of their day achieved when some 50,000 Jews left Babylon to restore their homeland.
In time, the Second Temple was built in Jerusalem and the land, now again named Judah, prospered. Unlike the early Persian kings, the later ones became more and more dictatorial. Persia was finally conquered by Greece.
Alexander the Great was particularly kind to his Jewish subjects and many Jews fought under his banner as he carved out his Greek empire. But, again, after his death, Alexander’s Ptolemaic Egyptian and Seleucid Syrian successors became increasingly difficult to live under. The Jewish homeland fell under the control of the Hellenized King of Syria, Antiochus IV. He thought he was a god and called himself Epiphanes, which means “the manifest of God.” Antiochus demanded that the Jews worship him, give up their religion, and cease to keep the Sabbath holy. His cruelty and madness eventually forced the revolt of the heroic Jewish priest, Mattathias, and his five sons who are enshrined in history as the Maccabees.
Against overwhelming odds, the revolt began in 167 BC and fierce battles were fought throughout Israel, Judea and Samaria. During the war, Syrian/Greek armies were thrown against the Jewish rebels but were defeated by the third son of Mattathias, Judah, who emerged as an extraordinary military leader and who went on to victories at Emmaus, Beth-Horon, and Beth-Zur. On the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, 165 BC, which usually falls in the month of December, the Maccabees, which means “hammerers,” liberated and restored the Temple – an act celebrated to this day during the Jewish festival of lights – Hanukah.
The successor to the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty extended the boundaries of Israel again to include territory almost reaching Damascus in the north and including large areas again of modern day Jordan in the east and as far southwest as Gaza and much of the northern coastline of Sinai.
In 63 BC, during rival claims to the Hasmonean throne, one of the claimants foolishly invited the looming empire of Rome to intercede on his behalf. Rome, ever anxious to spread its influence, sent its general, Pompey, with an army to besiege Jerusalem and after three months the city fell. Rome now effectively occupied the Jewish homeland, which in time became the Roman Province of Judea.
It is instructive to note that at the time of Pompey’s invasion there were three million Jews in Judea. Another four million lived in other parts of the Roman Empire and since the total population of the entire empire was no more than 70,000,000, one out of every ten Romans was of the Jewish faith. Jews today now number a mere thirteen million people out of a world population rapidly exceeding six billion. Over half of the world Jewish population now live in Israel.
Like the earlier Persian and Greek kings, the Roman procurators and governors inflicted onerous taxes on the people and began to dictate how their religion was to be practiced. The Jews finally rose up against the Roman legions in 66-73 AD.
The Roman emperor Vespasian ordered his son, Titus, to finally re-conquer Judea and besiege its capital, Jerusalem. After an epic struggle with the defenders, Titus and his legions destroyed the Temple. The revolt continued until the Jewish defenders on the mountaintop fortress of Masada committed mass suicide rather than be taken as captive slaves to Rome.
Despite enormous casualties (estimates of 1,000,000 Jews killed) and countless numbers sent into slavery, the Jewish presence still remained strong in the homeland and a Second Revolt broke out against Roman occupation in 135 AD. The Jews fought under their charismatic leader, Shimon Bar-Kochba and defeated successive Roman legions sent against them. They restored their independence for three short years.
The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, finally crushed Judea and renamed the land Philistia, later Syria-Palaestina, finally known as Palestine, after the Philistines who had dominated parts of the Mediterranean coastline. This was a calculated insult to the Jews whose ancient enemy had been the Philistines. Palestine remained the geographical name of the area until modern times though it was never an independent state; certainly never an independent Arab state.
However, even after Jewish independence in its Biblical and ancestral homeland was obliterated in name and deed, the Jews still managed to remain throughout much of the territories. Jerusalem had been converted into a pagan city named Aeolia Capitolina in which was erected a giant statue of the pagan god, Jupiter, in place of the Temple to the One God.
Though the land was lost to Jewish independence for the next two thousand years, Jews continued to yearn for a return to the Promised Land and “Zion” the mountain that became a symbol for Jerusalem.
In the seventh century, the Arabs invaded the homeland under the new banner of Islam. For successive periods after Hadrian’s bloody conquest, different alien invaders occupied the land including Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Seljuks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks, and the British.
Though Jews remained in whatever numbers they could maintain, there was always a steady, albeit limited, infusion of Jews into the homeland fleeing persecution in Europe or from the Islamic world. For instance, during the Middle Ages, many Jewish rabbis and their disciples re-entered the land. Larger numbers began to return in the mid-nineteenth century. Neglected and barren land was purchased at great cost from absentee landlords and agricultural schools and communities began to form under the Ottoman occupation.
On November 2, 1917, Jewish hopes for a restored and independent homeland were raised by the British Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour, in what became known as the Balfour Declaration. Great Britain soon conquered all of Ottoman occupied Palestine and, after the First World War, the League of Nations gave Britain control of the Holy Land with a mandate to effect Jewish self-government and a national homeland. Shortly after Britain obtained the Mandate, she tore away all of the land east of the River Jordan and gave it to the Arab Hashemite tribe; thus denying Jewish rights in four fifths of the territory.
Most Arab leaders, at that time, acknowledged that they had no historical claims upon the Land of Israel. The area had never been home to an independent Arab state called “Palestine,” and even when it had come under the control of the invading Arab Empire in the seventh century, it had always remained an unimportant backwater. Since 1517, the land had been occupied by the non-Arab Turks.
In 1936, the British Peel Commission stated clearly that “if the Arabs were given independence in the enormous territories of the Middle East, they were willing to give “little Palestine” to the Jews.” Little Palestine was now reduced to the one fifth of the Mandate or the tiny territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan – a mere 50 miles at its widest.
Arab intransigence grew as the years went by. In the end, the British gave up the struggle to keep the peace and in 1947 referred the matter to the United Nations, which voted to divide the much reduced area yet again into two states: one Arab, one Jewish.
It would be wise for readers to purchase or obtain from their local libraries the remarkably clear and graphic books published by Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill and now a Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. The two books are The Arab-Israel Conflict, Its History in Maps, and the Jewish History Atlas.
From 1917 to 1947, many different suggestions were offered for the boundaries of the geographical entity known as Palestine. Britain’s Colonial Office suggested plans that were to become inimical to the hoped for borders proposed by the Zionist Organization representing the aspirations of the Jews in the Diaspora.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Arabs rioted against the British Mandatory Authorities and, in the ensuing violence, many Jews were murdered. In 1929, the ancient Jewish community in Hebron was slaughtered by their Arab neighbors and twenty three defenseless Jews were slaughtered and dismembered in one house alone.
In 1936, an organized Arab campaign broke out and bands of armed Arabs inflicted heavy casualties on the British forces. Eighty Jews, mostly civilians, had been killed by the time the Arabs called off their “intifada” on October 12, 1936.
Britain tried to appease the Arabs by appointing a Royal Commission to look into the Mandate. The Peel Commission recommended a Jewish state and an Arab state with a British controlled corridor from Jaffa to Jerusalem. The Jews reluctantly accepted; the Arabs totally rejected.
In 1937 more Arab rioting took place with yet more Jewish and Arab casualties. Many of the Arabs who sought peace and coexistence were murdered by their fellow Arabs because they were considered “collaborators” with the Jews. This same murderous activity continues in today’s Palestinian Authority and in Hamas occupied Gaza.
The Second World War broke out on September 3, 1939 and Britain, more than ever, needed the oil from the Arab Middle East to survive. Again, it chose to appease the Arabs and in 1940 began restricting Jewish land purchases. Before that, the infamous 1939 British Government’s White Paper drastically limited Jewish immigration into Palestine for the next five years just as the Jews in Europe were falling into the genocidal clutches of Nazi Germany.
In 1947, after one third of world Jewry had been wiped out, the United Nations voted to divide the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Again, the Jews reluctantly accepted; the Arabs rejected.
The immediate response to the U.N. Partition Plan was the outbreak of yet more Arab aggression throughout Mandatory Palestine. The British still were responsible for law and order but behaved in ambivalent ways. Some police even sided with the Arabs against the Jews. The Arab violence continued with ever greater ferocity but the Jewish defense organizations became better organized and resisted the attacks until they were able to take the battle to the Arab forces. Meanwhile, British troops left and the Mandate came to an end.
We now come to the period from 1948 when Israel was re-born as a Jewish State in its old homeland. And it is from this time that her borders again expanded and shrank, waxed and waned, according to relentless Arab aggression and decisions – some wise and some not so wise – made by successive Israeli leaders and their governments.
In May 1948, Israel’s independence was proclaimed and six Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia invaded the new state with the intention of driving the Jews into the sea. During the War of Independence, the territory of the nascent Jewish state expanded as a direct consequence of the combined Arab assault. The coastal plain was secured, as was Upper Galilee. The Egyptians were driven out of the Negev desert in Israel’s south but the Jews were driven out of the ancient Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Jordanians occupied all of Judea and Samaria. They occupied East Jerusalem where they desecrated and destroyed the ancient synagogues and homes, using the Jewish tombstones from the Mount of Olives as latrines for the Arab Legion. The Egyptians, in turn, occupied the Gaza Strip.
In 1956, Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the Egyptian government under General Neguib and fomented aggression against Israel in the form of terror attacks into Israel as far north as Rehovot from the Gaza Strip, and by blockading Israel’s maritime lifeline in the Gulf of Aqaba. Israeli forces finally retaliated by entering Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula as far as the Suez Canal.
This campaign to drive out the terrorists, deliver a blow to the Egyptian army, and raise the blockade, is known as the Sinai Campaign or the Hundred Hours War. British and French forces also invaded the Canal Zone in the hope of overthrowing Nasser who had nationalized the Suez Canal, which threatened their oil supplies.
However, Nasser was saved by President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, Foster Dulles, who forced Israel to pull back from Sinai in March, 1957 leaving Nasser still in power. The French and British were also pressured to leave the Canal Zone and Nasser was able to create more mischief in the subsequent years. Indeed, Eisenhower stated many years later that forcing Israel to withdraw was a personal mistake he greatly regretted.
In May, 1967, Nasser again began proclaiming that he would lead the Arab world in a bid to destroy the Jewish State. He again blockaded the strategic Gulf of Aqaba – thus crippling Israel’s maritime trade with Asia – and ordered U-Thant, the U.N. Secretary General, to withdraw his buffer forces between Israel and Egypt from Sinai. He then moved Egyptian military forces into Sinai in clear contravention of earlier United Nations resolutions. At the same time, frenzied Arab mobs took to the streets of the Arab capitals calling for Israel’s destruction.
Jordan’s King Hussein fell for the Egyptian dictator’s false assurances that his forces were already nearing Tel Aviv in hot pursuit of the retreating Israeli army. He foolishly ordered an attack along his long eastern frontier with Israel even though the Israeli Government assured him that they had no wish to go to war with Jordan.
Syria too increased its relentless and unprovoked bombardment and aggression on Israeli farms and villages in northern Galilee from the Golan Heights. Military units from many Arab states, as far away as Sudan, eagerly announced their participation.
On June 5, 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, destroying most of their squadrons on the ground. Egypt lost its air cover and was defeated again in Sinai; Syrian forces were driven off the strategic Golan Heights, and all of Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem were liberated. This was known as the Six-Day War and Israel had now expanded as a consequence of Arab aggression to its greatest size since the time of David and Solomon.
Anwar Sadat replaced Nasser, upon the death of the dictator, and launched what became known as the War of Attrition against Israel from 1969 to 1970. In time, however, the Egyptian forces were ground down after spectacular Israeli raids crippled the Egyptian army’s effectiveness.
But Israel now had to grapple with growing PLO terror outside as well as within Israel. Yasser Arafat, who had launched his Soviet supported Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, three years before Israel liberated Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Gaza and the Golan Heights, fled with his PLO from Jordan after trying to set up a “state within a state.”
King Hussein launched a violent crackdown on the PLO killing many thousands of Arabs who called themselves Palestinians. Arafat then occupied the Lebanese border with Israel and, again, set up a “state within a state.” He began launching horrific attacks against Israeli schoolchildren in northern Galilee from Lebanese territory. Meantime, Sadat secretly planned a joint attack by Egypt and Syria upon Israel on the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar. It’s still debatable if the Israeli leaders knew of the pending attack but they decided to seek international favor by holding fire.
If they did have intelligence of a coming attack, it proved costly for on October 8, 1973, during Yom Kippur, the Egyptians and Syrians struck. The Egyptians initially drove the Israelis back in Sinai with great Israeli losses, and the Syrians poured across the Golan Heights to threaten northern Israel.
Eventually, the tide of battle turned. The Syrians were held on the Heights after heroic resistance from a small Israeli tank force. Israel pushed back the Syrians and came to within sight of the Syrian capital, Damascus. The Egyptian Third Army was surrounded by Israeli forces and Israeli units crossed the canal into Egypt and headed for the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
This was the greatest extent of Israeli territorial expansion and, again, was as a direct consequence of continuing Arab aggression.
In 1973, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty and Israel withdrew from the entire Sinai Peninsula. Syria still remains obdurate and facilitates and aids the Hezbollah Islamist terrorists who now infest the Lebanese border adjoining northern Israel and have become a major threat to Israel.
Hezbollah filled this vacuum after Israel – again taking enormous risks for peace – arbitrarily withdrew from its ten kilometer wide buffer zone that had kept terrorists from infiltrating Israeli territory.
Jordan too signed a peace treaty with Israel and relinquished territorial claims to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Despite ceaseless terror attacks, however, Israel has given the Arabs, who call themselves Palestinians, autonomy in large parts of the disputed territory.
Israel is under intense pressure to give away the entire “West Bank” which will again reduce the width of its most heavily populated territory to a mere nine miles.
President Bush once remarked, as he flew with Ariel Sharon over the territory in a helicopter, “… why, in Texas we have driveways longer than that.”
It is clear that Israel must retain as much of her ancestral land as possible, whether it be in Judea, Samaria, or the Golan Heights, (Gaza is already lost) otherwise Israel will have insufficient strategic depth to absorb future Arab aggression. This is apart from the vital spiritual and historical importance and links of the territories to the reborn Jewish state and to Jewish history and patrimony.
With Iran and its Islamist allies encircling the Jewish state, it most certainly cannot survive in the pre-1967 boundaries that Israel’s earlier Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, once described as the “Auschwitz borders.”
Victor Sharpe is a writer on Jewish history and the Islamist-Israel conflict. He is the author of Volumes One and Two of Politicide: The attempted murder of the Jewish state. This article first appeared as a chapter in Volume One.