Topographical and Territorial Considerations in International Relations in the 21st Century
For thousands of years, places with a topographical advantage were of the utmost importance for security. Elevated points were easier to defend, enabling a greater visual range to confront a potential enemy. Attacking armies made special efforts to go around topographical obstacles: in 1940, the Germans bypassed the Maginot Line and attacked France via the Ardennes. In 1967, the IDF attacked the Golan Heights via the easier topographical route of Givat Em-Kfar Szold. In the distant past, there were difficult battles in Masada, Gamla and Jerusalem and, more recently, at Kalat Nimrod and Bufort.
Height is not the only topographical obstacle. Seas, lakes, deserts, thick forests and swamps are also obstacles to the movement of armies, and thus were traditionally chosen as "natural" boundaries between states (Brawer 1988; Gilbert, A. 2000). The strength of a state and its ability to defend itself has been measured, among other things, by the size of its territory. The desire to control broad expanses of land has been around since the dawn of history, and little has changed in this matter, even today. Territory means real or presumed strength, and the larger it is, the more powerful and important a leader feels himself to be. Human history is marked by territorial conquests: the conquest of Canaan; the wars of Israel; the conquests of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian empires; and later, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Roman, Byzantine and Mongolian empires, the Crusades, the Ottoman and British empires; the Nazis, the Russians, the Americans, etc. The conquered territories attracted the conquerors because of their holiness or because of their natural resources, whose importance varied according to circumstances - forest wood, coal, oil, water, wheat, salt, iron, spices and slaves (the latter have always been in high demand, currently under the guise of pretty words like "globalization"). The broader the territory, the easier it is to prepare passageways by land, sea or air and the more the ruler (king, kaiser, sultan, leader, government) feels secure and protected.
To these reasons must be added a system of frequently illogical emotional drives. No leadership has ever willingly given up on a piece of land under its control, no matter how large that county may be. (Russia and Chechnya, for example). This drive for territory also holds true at the individual and municipal level (struggles over real estate or constant demands by communities to expand).
During the modern age, we are witnessing dramatic changes in the goals and tools of war, and these changes appear to eliminate the importance of topographical, territorial advantages. Planes, satellites, missiles and electronic communications easily pass over seas, swamps, mountains, rivers, deserts or forests. Wars fought in the last decade of the twentieth century (in Iraq, the Balkans and the area of the Palestinian Authority) demonstrate, supposedly, that it is possible today to wage and win a war just from the air. Plus, the relationships and economic arrangements created between nations appear to eliminate the importance of territory.
In light of these changes, it is natural to ask: at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as we march towards local, regional and global peace agreements, does territory still have any meaning? In the age of the global village, is there still any value to a square kilometer on this or that side of a border? Is there any objective justification today to insist on retaining land with topographical advantages? Doesn't Japan gain via the yen what it tried to gain through the use of force?

The Importance of Topography to the Security of States

In an analysis of the importance of topography for the security of states, we should examine the types of weapons and intelligence in use at present and for the foreseeable future. All modern intelligence and communications tools need a direct-line connection from station to station, a fact that grants a great advantage to mountains and hills. If these are lacking, high towers have to be built for this purpose. In Israel, military installations have been built on every bit of high ground - on Mt Bental, Safed, Mt. Chatzor, Mitzpeh Ramon, Jerusalem, Mt Carmel, and tens of other locations. In the IDF Compound in Tel Aviv, a tower was built to compensate for the lack of a high topographical location.
A round-the-world trip will reveal that many mountain peaks are filled with civilian or military communications and listening installations. In places that lack high ground, balloons or planes are used to gain a height advantage. The latter are less effective, more expensive and more vulnerable than permanent installations. Satellites can photograph and eavesdrop on sites far from the home country, while intelligence planes deal with regional tasks and data. Towers on mountain peaks and individual scouts on high locations gather data at a more local level.
Topography has advantages not only for communications and intelligence, but also as means of defense against attack. Despite the availability of helicopters, planes and missiles, the ability to deploy large quantities of soldiers and equipment on the ground remains of decisive importance. During wartime, such transportation is done primarily over land, and a mountainous topography restricts this. In the Gulf War, although most of the Iraqi army was defeated from the air, it was necessary for large quantities of armored and infantry soldiers to enter Iraq, via Kuwait, to achieve the final victory. Because Iraq is flat, desert land, it was unable to create an effective line of defense.
When modern wars in Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan receive massive media coverage, it gives the impression that this is the style of contemporary warfare. This impression is reinforced by professional and commercial journals, which emphasize the futuristic tools of war. However, most contemporary wars are conventional, both in their characteristics and their weaponry. Most of the war in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 was fought conventionally, taking place in difficult mountainous conditions, where satellites and planes were frequently of no use (as was the case in Tora-Bora). Individual scouts therefore had a decisive impact. In Kosovo, a conventional war took place in a primarily mountainous area. The war between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and the Palestinians, has also been primarily conventional. Despite the fact that Russia is a nuclear power, it has been fighting a land war in Chechnya against local partisans for the past decade. There are tens of small and medium-size wars raging between states, and between tribes within states and, in all of them, the topographical conditions dictate the character and duration of the conflict.
In this respect, there are few differences between past and present. If we assume there will continue to be disputes based upon social, ethnic, religious or national differences, there will continue to be a need for intelligence, modern cellular communication and defense.

The Importance of Territory for the Security of States

Even in the twenty-first century, territory retains it security importance. Most of the international disputes today, which are being resolved either through violence or negotiations, relate to territorial demands. This is the case between Spain and the Basques, India and Pakistan, China and Tibet, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Mauritania and Senegal, Peru and Ecuador, Morocco and Spanish Sahara and how it was in Yugoslavia (Smith, 1997). Even when there is the potential to use missiles, the distance between the delivery installation of missiles and the target destination is important, and there is an inverse relationship between distance and accuracy. Distance also has an impact on the ability and effectiveness of air attacks, with a distant target requiring refueling, a greater number of supportive planes, etc. In a period characterized by threats of non-conventional warfare, states with a large to medium amount of territory, such as China, Canada, Russia, Argentina or Germany, have a better chance of survival, compared to small states such as Chechnya, Belgium, Switzerland or Israel. Small states are more vulnerable to both conventional and non-conventional attacks.
The history of the twentieth century shows that direct conquest is not the only way to increase territorial depth. One alternative is the creation of buffer zones via protectorate states. The USSR, for example, created a large buffer zone to confront NATO, via protectorate states (East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria). In the Middle East, it provided assistance to protectorates (Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq), while Mongolia served as a buffer zone opposite China. In the 80s, it also tried to convert Afghanistan into a protectorate. NATO is carrying out similar actions today to remove dangers from the East. It is holding expansion discussions to include Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The US is no different in this respect, as the alliances with Canada and Mexico, ongoing attempts to eliminate communism from Cuba, constant intervention in Latin American affairs or economic intervention in the other states, will testify.
Another aspect of the importance of territory is the question of infrastructure. A modern society requires large areas for transport (roads, bypasses, airports, seaports), for energy needs (power stations, energy storage, energy transport systems) for water and sewerage installations, for commercial centers, and for the expansion of suburbs resulting from inner city density. All these needs require substantial amounts of territory, a lack of which can cause strong and efficient states to deteriorate into weak, Third World states. This can have a fateful significance for their security and national strength.

The Case of Israel

Israel is a small country, one of the most densely populated in the world, and part of the Western world. It has characteristics of a developed country (including one of the most modern armies in the world), alongside characteristics of the developing world. Alongside Israel lives the Palestinian nation, an evolving political entity that, according to all criteria, belongs to the group of developing nations. The nature of the violent dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is a mixture of guerilla warfare, terrorism, and modern warfare. The Palestinians have a prominent topographical advantage in the mountains of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank. Israel needs high topography for intelligence and communications purposes. The "Alon Way" in the eastern West Bank provides a vantage point over the Jordan Valley and the Kingdom of Jordan, and serves as defensive area for Israel's eastern front. The rocky mountain cliffs of the Afro-Syrian Rift from the Gilboa north to the Golan Heights, and particularly Mt. Hermon, are strategically important sites, all of which have army and security installations. Both in war and in peacetime, planes and satellites would not be able to fulfill their strategic roles without these sites.
Israel needs mountain peaks as strategic locations, even if important ecological and historical values are damaged in the process. High topographical control is vital today for surveillance against terrorism or guerilla warfare, and also as an obstacle to a military attack. The Jordan River has no value as an obstacle on the Eastern Front, but the "Alon Way" has a great value in any defensive battle against an invasion from the East, particularly in the area of the Gilad, Moab and Edom mountains in the Kingdom of Jordan, which have a topographical advantage over the lower Jordan Rift area.
Territory is also important to the Palestinians, and not only for symbolic, religious and national reasons. To be able to run a Palestinian entity under reasonable conditions it is important to have territorial continuity between Judea and Samaria, and between both and the Gaza Strip. The demand for control over the Jordan Rift area as a major agricultural center for the future of the entity (and future state) is of equal importance.
Here, we can pose the question: wouldn't an honest, fair peace agreement make all the aforementioned considerations irrelevant? The answer is that every state, and Israel in particular, cannot agree to territorial concessions, nor concede defensible borders, based on the assumption that the other side is sincere in its commitment to peace. The history of humankind and inter-state relations is a tale of agreements and their repeated abrogation. In the Israeli case, the fear of the abrogation of treaties is even greater, given the strange configuration of the Green Line (and possibly an even more complex dividing line), the tremendous human density, which will be even greater in the future, the dimensions of poverty and the expectations for the future given the rate of population increase in hostile states in the region. To the degree possible, it is necessary to determine the borders in accordance with the most pessimistic scenario of relationships between states.
Territory is particularly important to the two parties in conflict over the Land of Israel due to the small size of the land, the large size of the population, and the forecast for a doubling of the population within 30 to 40 years.
Israel already lacks the land necessary to build physical infrastructures in the populated area north of the desert line (Be'er Sheva). The devouring of green areas in the heart of the country threatens to turn Israel into a black and white desert of stone and asphalt highways. The clogging of the transportation infrastructure in the heart of the country creates unhealthy urban processes, such as the breakup of major business centers and a general deterioration in all the important parameters of a developed country, which is gradually converting it into a Third World country (Sofer, 2001). Because of real estate pressures, army camps are being pushed to the periphery, and some are being transferred to sensitive security areas. The lack of land, particularly in the narrowest part of the state, causes strategic roads to be within the range of Palestinian small-arms fire.
Israel's dimensions create a situation almost unprecedented around the world, in which the centre of the country is also its security border. The heart of the state - the area from Tel Aviv to Petach Tikva-Rosh Ha'ayin-Cochav Ya'ir - is just a few meters from the borderline. The centers of Israeli power (the population centers, water, infrastructure, industry and army) are between 50 meters and 15 kilometers from the Green Line. This is a first-rate strategic-security weakness, and it would not be an exaggeration to argue that it is an existential threat (Steinetz, 1998).
And yet it is possible to see an alternative, based on an assumption of full peace as in the Franco-German model. Under such circumstances, would strong topographical and territorial demands remain? Using the European precedent, which includes the reduction of economic gaps and the cultivation of mutual trust, will there still be any importance for territory? And in Israel's case, we must remember it is not only a question of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, but also between Israel and the rest of the Arab states. When mountain peaks are only used for civilian communications, will territory still matter?
Because of rapid population increases (which may stabilize by 2020) and the rapid increase in standards of living, there will be increased pressures for territory even in peacetime. However, assuming there will be open borders and good neighborly relations, we can assume the Egyptians will agree to accept the population overflow from the Gaza Strip into Northern Sinai through the framework of joint economic ventures established with international and Israeli assistance, while the Kingdom of Jordan will accept the population overflow from the West Bank. In circumstances of full peace, there will be no justification for Israel to retain parts of the Jordan Rift area (which are necessary today to isolate the West Bank from the Arab world in the eventuality of a war), and those areas will be the basis for economic projects for the Palestinian population. Israel will be able to allocate significant financial resources (freed from security needs) for a more correct dispersal of population, i.e., an emphasis on attracting population, projects and infrastructure to the south of the country, or towards the sea (in the form of landfill projects or the construction of artificial islands for airports, power stations, fuel storage, enterprises which involve dangerous materials, etc). A full peace will also dramatically reduce the size of the IDF. Areas which are currently taken for security needs (40 percent of the territory of the State of Israel) will be freed for civilian uses. This will provide territorial solutions for all of Israel's needs for the next 20 to 40 years.


A full peace will eliminate the demand for topographical advantages and territorial needs that existed in the 20th century. But this will only be true under conditions of full peace between Israel and all its neighboring states, including a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, an examination of the wars being waged today and those we can foresee in the near future indicates that the geographical element retains an importance, for both traditional and new reasons. Intelligence, communications and defense authorities will continue to seek a topographical advantage.
As long as Israel faces threats of terrorism and guerilla warfare, as well as conventional and non-conventional attacks, it will require topographical advantages to ensure its security. Only under conditions of full peace, with open borders in accordance with the European model, can we assume that the importance of topographical advantages will be considerably reduced in Israel.

Sofer, A .2001. Israel, Demography 2000-2020, Dangers & Possibilities, Haifa: Research Center for National Security (Hebrew).
Sofer, A. 1996. Borders that Were, the Dynamics of Removing them from the Scene, Haifa, Chair for Geo-Strategy (Hebrew)
Sofer, A. 1998. Territory, Nation and State or: What's Wrong with the Basic Approach of the Israeli Jews. Studies in Law June 1998, p.747-769 (Hebrew)
Steinitz, Y. 1998. When the Palestinian Army will Invade the Center of the Country, Ntiv 6 p. 69-78 (Hebrew)
Beckett, I.F.W. 1999. Encyclopedia of Guerrilla Warfare, Oxford:Abc-Clio.
Dockrill, M. 1991. Atlas of Twentieth Century, N.Y.: Harper and Collins.
Gillbert, A. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Warfare, London: Fitzroy Daroarm Pub.
Hartman, T. 1984. A World Atlas of Military History 1945-1984, N.Y.: Hippocrene Books.
Natkiel, R. and J. Pimlott. 1988. Atlas of Warfare, N.Y.: Gallery Books.
Smith, D. 1997. The State of War and Peace, Oslo: International Peace Research Institute.