Discover more from Uncharted Territories
Will Israel Be at War?
Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians have been repulsive. Now Israel is retaliating. It has been bombing Gaza and prepares for a broader intervention. It’s unclear yet how aggressive it will be, but we know that thousands of Palestinians will die, members of Hamas might be decimated, and the Gaza Strip’s economy will slide further into poverty.
How did we get here? How can we get away from it? Who is right? Who is wrong? Every question in this situation requires a lot of depth. For example, what about the two-state solution? Does each side actually want the other to have one? What borders should they use? The current ones? Those from before 1967? From before 1947? Who has a stronger claim? Can those displaced come back to where they used to live? What do we do with those who live there now? Who gets to vote where?
I’ve been meaning to tackle this for some time. Now is the time. I will cover all these topics in the coming articles, most of which I will make free given the circumstances. And to start, we need to ask the biggest question: Will there be a broader war in Israel? Is there an existential threat to Israel today? To answer that, we need to understand the geopolitics of the region. What makes it valuable? Who covets it? Who threatens whom? How? How defensible is each area? Let’s go.
Why Is This Land Valuable?
You might have heard about the Fertile Crescent.
It’s one of the regions where agriculture first emerged. Why here?
From a satellite map, you can see that, even today, Egypt and the Fertile Crescent are the greenest—that is, the most fertile, with the highest agricultural yield. More food means more people means more power. Unsurprisingly, the big powers of the region were always from around these places.
The Sahara, the Arabian Peninsula, the North-American deserts, the Kalahari, and the Australian desert all fall in those latitudes. Within these bands, the areas that are fertile have some way of attracting water. Regions like India or Indochina attract monsoons. The Levant gets wind from the Mediterranean:
These winds carry some moisture, and the mountains in the Levantine coast catch it.
Let’s zoom in and look at a map of altitude:
As the coastal mountains catch the moisture, it falls in the form of rain.
And as we said, where there’s water, there’s agriculture, there’s food, and there are people.
This map tells you a lot about the region’s power dynamics.
The Regional Superpowers
The Levant is in the middle of four regional superpowers. The moment anyone of them wants to expand, the Levant is on the way.
This is not just a theory.
No land in history has suffered more layers of control and genocide than the Levant: Canaanites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Hittites, Babylonians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Ptolemaics, Seleucids, Hebrews, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Palestinians, Zionists… This video makes a compelling case.—Assholes All the Way Down.
For the last 2,500 years (since 500 BC), the region has been occupied by different empires. It was first conquered by Assyrians from the northeast, Babylonians from the east, and Egyptians from the south. Later, they were conquered by Arabs and Mamluks (Egyptians) from the south, Safavids from the east, and Ottomans (Turks) from the north.
But the region was also conquered by other empires that were not from the region: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and the UK. These were maritime powers1, trying to control the Mediterranean. Indeed, pirates from the Levant could threaten the safety of trade. Conquering the area prevented it. Also, connecting the north and south of the Mediterranean allowed for armies to move by land, not just by sea.
Furthermore, controlling these lands was very lucrative, because they’re the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa, so connected to all the trading routes. The empires that wanted to control this trade had to control this area.2
Knowing this, regional superpowers had to conquer the Levant to prevent sea powers from landing. This is perfectly illustrated by the Mamluks, a land-based empire that had to contend with the Crusaders. As such, they saw the sea as a threat, not an opportunity. The Mamluks destroyed coastal ports and their surrounding regions, depressing the region’s economy and population for centuries to come.
All of this means that this region will either be controlled by an imperial power, or paying attention to them.
This was not always the case.
Why Is Israel Here?
The very first culture to appear in the region were the Canaanites, an ancient people who lived broadly across the Levant around 1300 BC. From the Canaanites descended peoples like the Phoenicians, who would settle places like Carthage, or the Israelites.
If it happened, it was probably around 1000-900 BC. What is certain is the existence of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which formed a bit later.4
When the Persians conquered Babylon—with Jewish support—in exchange they were given the right to return to Israel, where they established a client state. For nearly a century in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, the Hasmonean Dynasty ruled as a semi-autonomous Jewish country before the Romans arrived.
This means that precursors of the current state of Israel existed between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. How is this possible? This is the population of the Levant today:
You can see that the population gathers on two ranges along the coast, which correspond to low-lying mountain ranges.
Here’s another take:
You can start figuring out the defining features of the region:
First, there are the fertile coastal plains, especially in Israel, but also some in Lebanon. The coast along Egypt is usually too dry for agriculture, and populations can’t easily be sustained. Notice the greenery here:
Then, just behind the coast, there are mountain ranges that catch the moisture, which means they are elevated but fertile.
Just past these mountains, we find the massive fault of the Dead Sea, which reaches near 500 m below sea level, and breaks the mountain ranges into two, one west and the other east of it. The air dropped its moisture before reaching this area, and now that it dives to a much lower altitude, it’s warmer and more dense, and the remaining moisture can’t condense into rain. This area is extremely dry, so very poorly inhabited.
On the other side of the Dead Sea, in Syria and Jordan, there is another range of mountains, even higher than those on the Israeli side today. This allows them to catch most of the moisture left in the air, which allows for agriculture, and hence population.
But it’s pretty secluded from the other side of the valley, meaning that historically these were frequently separate polities.
Beyond that, there’s nothing to catch more moisture, and it’s just desert.
Unsurprisingly, most people in Jordan and the southwest of Syria live quite close to Israel.
Here are the three maps combined into one:
If you look further north, you can see something similar in Lebanon and Syria, except that the coastal plains are narrower and the mountains higher, but you still have a viable region on the coast (Lebanon and Northern Syria today) and behind the mountains (the other center of Syrian population).
As we mentioned before, Israel is exposed to maritime empires, so it must be aligned with the superpower of its time—voluntarily or involuntarily.
At the end of WWII, it wasn’t as clear who would be the main maritime power in the Mediterranean. As a result, Egypt was aligned with the USSR and Israel played both powers. Only when it became clear that the US would prevail on the sea did both of these countries seriously pivot toward the US.
So today, Israel is an ally of the US, and as such is protected from the sea.
It’s also reasonably well protected from the east.
Israel and Jordan are split by the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and its valley, and mountain ridges on both sides. They create big natural barriers for countries from either side. It’s hard for Israel to invade Jordan to the east, and vice-versa, which is one of the reasons why Jordan abandoned the West Bank in the 1967 war: Maintaining military control of both sides of the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley while having an enemy on the coast is very hard.
I assume this is one of the reasons why Israel is reluctant to give up the West Bank: It’s easy to defend, hard to conquer, and is a good base from which to launch attacks against the plains surrounding it.
Another aspect to consider is that Jordan doesn’t have access to the Mediterranean Sea, which is beneficial for international trade.6 It needs to either conquer Israel or be at peace with it. As we just saw, it’s hard to conquer it, so Jordan is at peace with it.
It’s not just for access to the sea: As we saw, the mountain ranges on both banks of the Jordan River have a sizeable population, and beyond that point there’s just desert. As such, Jordan’s economy is by force tied to that of the West Bank and Israel. Peace is much more useful for economic integration than war.
The border between Israel and Syria is narrow, but it’s the one easy entry point between the sea and the mountains.
It used to be narrower before the 1967 war, when Israel took over the Golan Heights. But now that Israel controls this area, it has access to the mountains overlooking this pass and the Syrian plain. I assume this is one of the reasons why Israel took it at the 11th hour of that war.
So now Syria needs to prepare militarily in the area undetected and attack the mountains and the valley at the same time. If it does succeed, it then faces a second set of hills, with its own set of defences, to which its army would be fully exposed.7 Even if it succeeds, it then needs to extend its logistics to take over the coast, and fight in the hills of Galilee, Samaria, and Judah, while Israel can easily move its forces around. This is awfully hard.
Meanwhile, Syria’s capital—Damascus—is a stone throw’s away from the Golan Heights.
Also, unlike Jordan, Syria does have access to the sea.
Syria has a big population in this northern coastal region.8
Since Syria has alternate centers of population and its own access to the Mediterranean, it doesn’t need a good relationship with Israel. It doesn’t have one. But given the difficulties that Syria would have invading Israel, and how much Israel can keep control of its approach, it’s very unlikely that Syria would repeat an attack on Israel, and if it did, it would probably not be an existential threat.
The coastal plain narrows down in the north of Israel, creating a weak but natural separation between what are today Israel and Lebanon. There is still a path, though, so theoretically Lebanon could invade, but because the coast is so much narrower and the mountain ridges taller, the invasion path is pretty limited, and defenses can be focused there.
Given its narrow plain stuck between the sea and the mountains, it can only hold a smaller population, making it weaker than Israel.
Lebanon can’t be a maritime threat to Israel because it would then be a maritime threat to the US, who wouldn’t allow it.
Finally, given its narrow coastal plain, it can’t be an agricultural superpower, and must instead focus on international services. Lebanon was famous for trade (Phoenicians), as a tourist destination, and a services center. Countries focused on international services can’t be militarily aggressive, or they scare away their business.
As a result of all these factors, Lebanon is not a big threat either.
Defensibility in the South
To the south of Palestine, there’s just desert: the Negev, the Arabian Desert, and the Sinai.
This massive desert buffer means that, in general, the Levant and Egypt are both protected from each other’s overland threats.9 Egypt tried to attack this way a couple of times, but was unsuccessful. Israel also tried and succeeded, for special circumstances we’ll cover in the next article. In general, this is a pretty huge buffer, and it’s especially so in the east and southeast.
This is a look at these regions, to give you a feel for them:
Given all of this, how safe is Israel?
Why is the land of Palestine valuable? Locally, it’s valuable because it’s a fertile region with easy access to the sea and reasonably defensible from most of its immediate neighbors. Geopolitically, it’s valuable because it’s a weak region in the middle of regional behemoths and along the core trade routes of humanity. This means that Israel’s immediate threats might be with its immediate neighbors, but its existential threats are usually international. Israel must pay more attention to international politics than local ones.
Big Regional Powers
The Levant is a strategic piece of land located between four regional powers that covet it if they want to expand. It must be cautious about them. Today, these are Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.
Egypt tried to expand there but failed. We’ll talk more about it in the next article.
Turkey is not in geographic expansion mode.
Iraq is in no position to expand.
Only Iran interferes in the region, but before it could reach Israel, it would need to gobble up Iraq and Turkey, which is not viable. As a result, it plays in the region by supporting the governments of Lebanon and Syria, as well as Hamas in Palestine. Nuclear weapons are always on the table, but Israel’s and the US’s ability to retaliate make this very unlikely.
All of this means that there is not an existential threat to Israel today from regional superpowers.
Israel is also located on the sea, which exposes it to empires from there. The coastal parts of the region (today Israel, Lebanon, and Gaza) must be friends with (or harmless towards) whoever controls the Mediterranean. When the main maritime power was the Ottomans, the region was Ottoman. When it was the UK, the Levant was a British colony. Now that the US is the main maritime power, Israel must be friends with it. The same is true for Egypt. Both are US allies.
Meanwhile, Lebanon and Gaza are not maritime threats to the US. Gaza is controlled by Israel.
Having the US as an ally nowadays is pretty convenient. It makes Israel’s survival much more likely. In other words, Israel is currently on the right side of global superpowers, which supports it against any big regional power.
The local geography of Israel includes a desertic border between Egypt and the Levant, which is a great buffer between the two. It can be crossed, but it’s quite hard. In the southeast, the desert is so large that no threat can come from there.
The massive Dead Sea fault forms another huge physical barrier, keeping Israel safe from Jordan.
The mountain ridges to the east split the Levant in two, encouraging countries to appear on each side—today, Israel, Lebanon, and Gaza10 on the coast, Jordan and Syria in the interior. This ridge is a good defense barrier between the countries on each side, making it nearly impossible for Jordan to invade, and quite hard for Syria, except for a small gap. Even then, Syria would need a massive amount of power to overwhelm Israeli defenses, and the cost-benefit isn’t there.
These countries coordinated attacks on Israel in the past, but failed. Aside from the reasons mentioned above, two other factors contribute to Israel’s safety.
First, the morale is usually higher on the Israeli side. As the Israelis say: “If the Arabs lose, they lose their pride. If we lose, we lose our existence.” When they fight, the neighboring Arab countries are not even fighting for themselves, but for the Palestinians.
Second, it’s not easy to coordinate an attack between four countries. Even if they succeed, Israel operates in internal lines and can easily redistribute forces across fronts, whereas its Arab neighbors can’t, wedged as they are between seas, mountains, and deserts.
All of this makes Israel pretty safe from its immediate neighbors. This has allowed it to focus on the more threatening international sphere, in which Israel has been working for decades to improve its standing.
Despite its long history, full of invasions and occupation, ands its short history full of wars with its neighbors, Israel is reasonably safe today.
All of this is why Israel’s conflicts are mainly in areas it currently controls—with Palestine. This is what we’re going to focus on from now on. In the coming days, I’m going to cover:
What are the geopolitics of Palestinian Territories?
Who should own the land of Palestine?
What solutions would be viable for Israel and Palestine?
What needs to change for that to happen?
What are the official and hidden agendas of Palestine and Israel?
Except for the crusaders.
Except for the Mongols, who used the path north of the Caspian Sea. They tried to control the Levant, but this turned out to be too distant for them (and a climate they couldn’t cope with?), and they were pushed back.
It was originally not monotheistic, but it already had cultural markers, such as pork avoidance and circumcision.
The Kingdom of Israel might have appeared around 900 BC and disappeared when it was conquered in 722 BC by the Assyrians, who deported the Israelites to Babylon. The Kingdom of Judah might have emerged around 850 BC and disappeared around 580 BC in the war between Egyptians and Babylonians.
How many there were of each is disputed.
It does have access to the Red Sea in the south, so Jordan is not landlocked.
You can see them in the topographic map above, in yellow, just west of the pass.
As the previous existence of Homs illustrated.
We will see in the next article that this can be challenged, and was during the wars of 1967 and Yom Kippur, but in general the buffer is substantial.
Not a country yet etc.