The Corner

Here in Israel, Words Matter

“1967 borders.”

I thought about that phrase as I hovered, just a few hundred feet above the ground, in a small helicopter piloted by an IDF general. I’m in Israel with my colleagues from the American Center for Law and Justice, fighting against the international community’s abuse and misuse of international law to deprive Israel of its inherent right of self-defense, and today was my geographic orientation.

From that aerial perch — no higher than a decent-sized skyscraper — I could see on one side of the aircraft the western edge of the West Bank. On the other side of the aircraft was the Mediterranean Sea. The distance was roughly nine miles.

I could see other things too, like the security fence hardening into a wall when it passed through areas where Palestinians would direct sniper fire against Israeli families driving their cars to work or school. (Imagine if you had to brave sniper fire during your morning commute). And then there was the city of Jerusalem, sprawling out the way cities do, except with some of that natural sprawl called “settlements” by the international community. “Settlements” is a loaded term, a word that conjures images of small outposts deep in Palestinian country but in Jerusalem and elsewhere describes suburban and urban communities not at all different from our own.

But no term is more loaded than the word “borders” to describe the conditions on the ground from 1949 to 1967, until the Six-Day War. In those days, Israel stood not on internationally recognized “borders” but instead along armistice lines, truce lines agreed to as part of a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, when the Arab armies realized they were losing the first of their wars of extermination against the young nation of Israel. Those truce lines represent the crazy-quilt patchwork of a war stopped in progress, not the rational borders of an independent state.

To understand the inherent instability of these armistice lines, one can either travel to Israel and see them for yourself or — lacking the plane fare — open a history book and read how the armies of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt menaced Israel in 1967, with the geographic advantage inflating the Arab armies’ sense of strength and the lack of defense in depth putting the IDF on a hair-trigger alert.

The 1967 borders are a recipe for war. But let’s not call them borders. And let’s be careful with the word “settlement” as well. After all, when was the last time that we described citizens living in their ancestral homeland as settlers? And have we ever called our own communities and subdivisions joined to the cities where we work, “settlements?”

In this debate, words matter, and our words must reflect the strategic realities that dominate Israeli life. Armistice lines are not “borders.” And communities produced as cities naturally grow and mature are not “settlements.”


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