Why does Israel really want Jerusalem?
In recent days, the ancient holy city of Jerusalem has once more been in the news. Again violence and terror have become words that include themselves in the same sentences as include the Bait-ul-Muqaddas, the holy of holy cities. At the heart of all this is the continued illegal occupation of Jerusalem by Israel. In such a scenario, one has to ask: Why does Israel want Jerusalem so much? Or, what is so special about Jerusalem that Israel risks war, violence, international condemnation and a pariah-like status globally?
If you look into it, you are likely to find several answers. The sayers say that Jerusalem is the holiest of holy cities in Judaism. They point out that while the al-Aqsa compound is the ‘first Qibla’ of Muslims, it is the only ‘Qibla’ for Jews. The Jews still face toward al-Aqsa when they are praying (this is also true for Christians). They cite the Judaic tradition of Isaac (Jewish equivalent to Islam’s Hazrat Ishaq A.S.), who was nearly sacrificed by his father, Abraham (Jewish equivalent of Hazrat Ibrahim A.S.), at the place where the al-Aqsa compound stands. They claim that Jerusalem was the capital of the first-ever Jewish kingdom to have formed many thousand years ago and was consecrated as such by a man no less than David (Jewish equivalent of Hazrat Daoud A.S.). And so it goes, on and on. Some go so far as to say that the Jews want to build a ‘temple’ at the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque. To the Jewish mind, this theory goes, this ‘temple’ would be a reconstruction of an ancient ‘Temple of Solomon’ that was originally built by David’s son, Solomon (Jewish equivalent of Hazrat Suleiman A.S.). This, they believe, would ‘restore Zion’ and trigger the advent of a ‘messiah’ who would lead the Jewish people into eternal bliss.
But is this all? Does a modern-day, perfectly rational, thinking, scientifically-oriented state, risk it all for religious beliefs only? Does it not appear as odd that in a world of material reality, realpolitik and rational self-interest, a state is committed to a religious ideal only? The answer to that is, actually, that Israel does not merely want Jerusalem for its religious value. Israel wants Jerusalem for a conceptual reason that most Pakistanis will be familiar with: Strategic depth!
Look at the map of Israel. It is a tiny sliver of land along the Mediterranean Sea that is only 15 KM wide at its narrowest point. Even at its widest, it is only 115 KM – which is about the same as the distance between Lahore and Pindi Bhattian in Punjab. It is hemmed in by the sea to its west; a vast, featureless desert to its south (the Negev/Sinai desert); has mountains to its north that go into Syria and Lebanon; and, dry, tall hills and the Jordan River to its east. Squeezed by a sea, a river and hills, 60% of Israelis are concentrated into a tiny slip of coastal land along the Mediterranean. Here are concentrated all major Israeli cities, such as Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is here that they farm, partake in industry and export their IT services to the globe. Standing in the middle of the coastal strip, how far, do you think, does an Israeli see an enemy? Just over 20 kilometres!
In the south, the vast Negev/Sinai desert affords the state of Israel some measure of insulation from an enemy (say, Egypt). The Israeli military has invested heavily in its armour and air force to meet a challenge emanating from the south. In the north, the Israelis have, over the years, taken control of almost all commanding heights that they would need to defend against a potential northerly invasion. This explains why the state of Israel continues to occupy Syrian ‘Golan Heights’. By sitting perched atop, the Israelis can monitor activity on the Syrian side and can effectively counter any threats there. In the west stretches the Mediterranean Sea which is dominated by Israeli allies, such as the US and the UK. At once, no country that is hostile to Israel has a navy of note that can seriously imperil Israeli security.
This leaves Israel’s long east. Almost all of the Israeli eastern border is actually the north-to-south flowing Jordan River. Over millennia, the Jordan River has valleyed the land in the east, which was low anyway. Today, the land to the east of the Jordan River is hundreds of feet below sea level. To the west of the Jordan River and very much in Palestine, rise the Judean Hills which rise to more than 1,000 meters above sea level. Unto itself, this topography creates an ideal scenario for Israel. Any enemy force coming from the east would have to climb hundreds upon hundreds of meters from the lowest points east of the Jordan River and then go over the Judean Hills to reach Israeli coastal territories. Hauling tanks up a steeply inclined slope that stretches scores of formidable kilometres, for example, is hardly a general’s wish.
So? So this: There are several key passes or flatter corridors that cut the Judean Hills east-to-west. The most significant of these is an eponymously called “Jerusalem Corridor”. This is an east-to-west area of flatter terrain through which an invading army may come to strike Israeli coastal towns. The City of Jerusalem and several neighbouring towns and villages (together called the “Jerusalem Envelope”) sit astride the corridor and act as both gates to it as well as points of its defence. Indeed, this corridor was the site of some critical fighting in both the 1948 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli Wars. During both these conflicts, the Jordanian army had driven through this corridor and attacked the state of Israel. In both these conflicts, the Israeli military prevailed over the Jordanians and held the corridor. If, however, the Jordanians had made it past Jerusalem, they would have reached the heart of Israel. Then, driving on the city of Ashod, the Jordanians would have hoped to – quite literally – cut Israel in two.
It is this strategic consideration that motivates the continued Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. They continue to occupy broader Palestine for the same reason as well. Israel understands that it is a very narrow country, lacks any depth and has very little by way of a defensible border. Therefore, it intends to add more ground between itself and an eastern threat by occupying Jerusalem and greater Palestine. It also feels that if it can control the Judean Hills and maintain positions on high ground, it can hope to look down upon its Jordanian east and monitor any activities there.
One must understand at this point that the state of Israel, in effect, faces no real military threat from Jordan. Jordan is one of the few countries that have recognized Israel and that maintain diplomatic relations with the state. What Israel means by an ‘eastern threat’ in today’s world is Palestinian resistance groups coalescing together on Jordanian soil and attacking Israel. In addition, it fears that Islamist militant groups, that it believes are proxies of rival Iran, can use eastern spaces to launch attacks against it. Particularly, Israel wants to increase the distance between a militant base (from where they can fire rockets) and a Jewish settlement. This is because more space would allow Israeli air defence systems more time to respond effectively to incoming fire from the east. In a war-like scenario, this can mean the difference between a harmless mid-air interception and several dead and injured Jewish citizens. Finally, the state of Israel uses its footholds inside Palestine, including Jerusalem, to maintain complex intelligence operations that seek to monitor and undermine Palestinian resistance as well as keep an eye on the Arabs farther eastward.
Such Israelis who have a more vibrant imagination also see the monarchy in Jordan as unstable (it is not) and liable to collapse (also unlikely). Here, they imagine scenarios where internal strife or popular resentment leads to a change in government, with a new government looking to invade. More fantastically, they imagine a scenario where Iraq, farther to the east, is taken over by their nemesis, Iran, bringing Iran to their very doorstep.
Be that as it may, that is the Israeli strategic calculus. As a state that lives in a perpetual condition of paranoia of being wiped out by its larger neighbours or inundated by sub-national resistance groups, Israel views everything from a security lens. It continues to forward theological arguments for its occupation of Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine because it helps mask its deep and inherent sense of insecurity. In addition, politicians in Tel Aviv benefit by using religion to forward their interests in electoral politics. The theological arguments are not without a sense of the history of their own and do indeed hold real value in fully understanding Israeli commitment to the occupation of Jerusalem and Palestine. However, penultimately, all of it is underpinned by a clear, rational strategic interest and that is: To protect against all threats, real or imagined, and to ensure Israel’s survival.