Just before Israel’s second lockdown began last week, I had the opportunity to take a trip up north for some peace and quiet before being confined to a one kilometre radius for the next three weeks.
Although it wasn’t the intended theme of the trip, while there I also got up to some ‘border spotting’ on the frontiers with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
I’m never quite sure how widespread being interested is in borders is — if at all. In fact, the only evidence I have to suggest that some other humans are interested in the subject is the /r/borderporn subreddit which has more than 50,000 subscribers.
My interest in borders probably dates back to visiting Nicosia, Cyprus as a child on vacation. Nicosia has an international border running right through it between the almost entirely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and southern Cyprus. The fences, fortifications and border markings are images that still stick with me. These days — not so far from Cyprus — I can see some border lines and crossings on my own terms.
Israel’s Four Land Borders
Israel has land borders with four countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.
Of these, Israel is legally and technically at war with both Lebanon and Syria. There are peace treaties — albeit cold ones — in place with both Egypt and Jordan.
Although in Israel’s early days the (then open) Jordanian border was a restive one, with cross-border fedayeen attacks from the Hashemite Kingdom into Israel, these days the most volatile borders are those on the north with Lebanon and the de facto border between Israel and the Gaza Strip (which was recently host to a protracted period of protests).
Although UN Security Council Resolution 1701 called for a disarmament of Southern Lebanon and the absence of armed elements other than the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to the south of the Litani River, Israel’s recent discovery and neutralization of a series of cross-border Hizbullah attack tunnels demonstrates what even the street cats in Israel knew. That Hizbullah is active in Southern Lebanon right under the noses of UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission which is supposed to monitor the implementation of the various UN resolutions affecting the territory.
The Northern Border: Lebanon / Blue Line
Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is — de facto and unless another one supersedes it if a peace agreement is reached — the same thing as the UN Blue Line which was originally drawn for the purpose of determining whether Israel had withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon in accordance with another UN resolution.
Part of UNIFIL’s mandate these days involves marking the Blue Line with centimetric precision in coordination with both the IDF and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
This job might seem noncontroversial but can, in fact, result in armed standoffs between the two sides as captured in this fascinating YouTube video.
For those interested in the kind of work which marking the Blue Line entails, this video provides more interesting information about how UNIFIL does it. The Blue is marked out — literally — with blue cylinders.
Because Israel and Lebanon are at war there is no civilian crossing accessible between the two territories. There is one crossing at Rosh HaNikra which leads to Naqoura on the other side, which is host to UNIFIL headquarters. This crossing is only used by UN personnel. Although on occasion Israel and Lebanon have exchanged POWs through it.
In terms of physical appearances: civilians are not able to access the border by Rosh HaNikra. Its fencing, which straddles a hilltop, is not visible from the popular grotto tourist site below. Like in Taba, Egypt, a series of buoys are used to designate the border’s extension into both countries’ territorial waters.
Tracing the Blue Line in Google Maps from Rosh HaNikra eastwards, one can find various Israeli border towns and nature reserves which directly abut the border — including the controversial Sheba Farms which can be driven through by taking Route 999 westwards towards Ghajar.
Among the most conspicuous of these is Ghajar which — judging by Google Maps — appears to run over the Blue Line.
Ghajar has its own fascinating history but unfortunately civilians are not generally allowed to enter without explicit permission from the army and an invitation from somebody in the town. In effect, the town itself is a closed military zone. The Jerusalem Post has an interesting write-up about the village, which houses Israel’s only Alawite community, here. The town’s mukhtars (village leaders) asked to be on the Israeli side of the border and so it has remained — although Israel has periodically come under pressure to pull out of the town altogether.
Among the most impressive and best-known places to see the Lebanese border is Metulla — which is Israel’s northermost town.
Geographically, Metulla protrudes as a finger into South Lebanon. It is surrounded on three sides by the rolling hills of Southern Lebanon and the border and Blue Line wraps around the town — sometimes at a distance of a kilometer and at other times at a distance of mere meters.
Immediately to the West of the village is the Lebanese town of Kfarkela where one of the discovered Hizbullah attack tunnels was located submerging.
These areas are more tense, from an operational standpoint, than they look.
The IDF is on record as stating that that town and Aadaysit Marjaayoun — which directly abuts Misgav Am and is located immediately south of Kfarkela— are meeting points for Hizbullah special forces.
The paramilitary group also boldly erects posters in territory facing the town in a crude form of psychological warfare. Large Palestinian flags, Hizbullah ones, and posters praising Hasan Nasrallah flutter conspicuously in areas where Hizullah is sure they can be seen from the Israeli site. As The Tower reported, one poster — facing Metullah — carried the message “we are coming” in Hebrew with a photo of Ayatollah Khomeini looking over the Dome of the Rock.
Hizbullah has made explicit, on many occassions, its plans to launch a ground invasion of Northern Israel from the restive northern border with Israel. It has even used environmental NGOs as fronts to conduct close-range reconnaissance on Northern Israel from this area.
Despite the fact that it is reasonable to assume that this part of the Lebanese border is under continual close observation from both sides to the conflict, the nature surrounding Metulla — where the border wraps and mere hundreds of meters from the hilltops Hizbullah flags flutter — is deceptively lush and peaceful. Despite the road signs warning of the danger of rocket attacks, the territory around the border with the Gaza Strip, where several Israeli kibbutsim are located, is similarly pastoral.
The border fence runs right along the northern half of the town and intersects it at a roundabout — where it is literally on the side of the road.
To the west, the fence runs along a Lebanese road running parallel to Kfarkela. To the east, the border — and the Blue Line markers — are within meters of the Nahal Ayun nature reserve with its breathtaking waterfall. The waterfall and nature reserve are popular hiking sites — although those visiting them are probably less interested in their relevance to the border than the author.
Around Metulla, Lebanon is so close that individual cars, houses, and even occasionally people can be clearly seen with the naked eye — as well as the aforementioned Hizbullah flags and posters. It’s a strange place. Beautiful. Deceptively quiet. And potentially explosive.
Syria: DMZ / Purple Line
Relative to the Lebanese border, and judging by media reports, Israel’s border with the Syrian DMZ has been quieter — although Israeli territory and civilians have occasionally been caught in errant crossfire between rebels and pro-government forces battling for control of the Syrian territory just across the fence past the DMZ.
Relative to Lebanon, there are less Israeli towns and sites from which to see the Syrian DMZ (Alpha Line) border up close. Perhaps the best site is in the Druze village of Majdal Shams. The road which skirts the town’s eastern edge runs right next to the border fence where the border fence is close enough to touch (note: don’t do this! — even if the fence is electrified it’s generally a good idea not to arouse unnecessary suspicions!) . If you’re curious, search for directions to Givat Htisaacott and you’ll soon see Israel’s characteristic smart fence snaking its way up the hilly territory that lies on Israel’s side of its DMZ with Syria.
It’s worth explaining for a moment what a typical border in Israel actually looks like — because it differs a little from the image that the media creates.
Except in places where they are fortified with concrete walls and additional fortifications (for a reason) Israel’s borders typically consist of a steel fence, a patrol road, sand to spot infiltration attempts (Bedouin soldiers, in particular, are expert at deciphering these), and another fence.
Unless you know it’s there — and minus a few sensors jutting out of it — it doesn’t look vastly different from the perimeter fence of an airport or a line of wire a farmer might use to demarcate the boundaries of his land.
Typically, a sliver of land before the border itself is fenced off and the land behind it (between it and the actual border) is declared a closed military zone (CMZ; Hebrew: שטח צבאי סגור).
Civilians can access up to the fence marking the start of the military zone — although many mistake that fence for the border itself, which it almost always isn’t.
The military zone abutting the border varies in its width. In less security-conscious times, some of Israel’s borders were open — or only marked by a single “offline” fence or a coil of barbed wire. Sometimes, the fence and the actual border are a few meters part. In other places, Israel has allowed quite a wide “no man’s land” which is effectively only open to the army. However the border is physically demarcated, it is generally understood that most true surveillance takes place through unseen electronic sensing means and — with friendly nations — through cooperation and the exchanging of human intelligence (HUMINT).
There is only one crossing between Israel and the DMZ with Syria at Quneitra. It is mostly used by clergy, UN personnel, and for special purposes by the Druze population of northern Israel — such as selling apples or sending brides to be married to Syrian Druze. The last of these uses was the subject of The Syrian Bride which should be required viewing for every Israeli border afficionado.
Unlike the Syrian and Lebanese borders, Israel’s border with Jordan is technically one between two nations at peace.
Therefore, unlike the Lebanese and Syrian borders there are three crossings open to civilians: near Beit Shean, at Allenby Bridge, and at Aqaba — the Jordanian city directly opposite Eilat.
Israel’s border with Jordan follows three main sections.
- In the north, it follows the course of the Jordan River. With the exception of pilgrimage sites, the fence on the Israeli side is generally set some meters before (West of) the river — sometimes, as mentioned, at a surprisingly wide berth.
- Then, the border follows through the center of the Dead Sea. The presence of the border — running through the center of the Dead Sea — is not typically noted or signed at some of the popular Dead Sea tourist beaches (perhaps intentionally as the signs are something of an eyesore). This is actually anomalous. Technically, to be consistent, Israel should erect “Stop border in front of you!” signs at Kalia Beach where tourists enter the sea. Because were it not for buoys, the presence of lifeguards, and observation, there is nothing stopping anybody from swimming into Jordan.
- Finally, it becomes a long land border — stretching all the way from the southeastern tip of the Dead Sea through to Eilat where the border fence separates Eilat from the Jordanian city of Aqaba which is immediately to its East.
There are a few sites on the Israeli side where one can get right up to the border (on the river) and see into Jordan — to the point of being able to see houses, people, and cars.
The ones I recommend visiting are: Gesher Adam (Damia Bridge) — which served as a goods transit point between Israel and Jordan up until the Second Intifada — and Qasr El Yahud.
The latter is a pilgrimage site by day and a closed military zone by night. Israel demarcates its border in the river with a series of buoys in places where tourists visit and not at all for the most part. At Qasr El Yahud, a Jordanian religious site is located ten meters across the river flanked by a Jordanian flag. In Israel, it’s harder to get much closer to neighboring countries than this (without visiting them!)
Israel’s long land border with Egypt meanders through the Negev Desert stretching all the way from Eilat to the Gaza Strip where, at Rafah, the border with Gaza is manned by Egypt.
This being arid desert country, there aren’t many Israeli communities or sights that abut the border so relative to the borders with Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria there’s less to see.
There is only one major crossing with Egypt. The Nitzana Border Crossing is used only for commercial trade between the two countries although on occasion people move through it. The border for tourists to cross into Sinai, and then the rest of Egypt, is located at Taba which is an Egyptian seaport directly south of Eilat.
Crossing the border involves passing through an Israeli terminal and then walking through a long tunnel that involves entering a territory that feels like a No Man’s Land but which is technically in Egypt. Egyptian soldiers sit immediately beyond a gate which bears a sign warning travelers that they are about to leave Israel.
After a short walk, one arrives at the Egyptian border control facility. An Egyptian sports center abuts the maritime part of the border as it stretches into the sea. I have no idea how access is controlled. Over land, the border is a commanding steel fence meandering between the mountains of the desert and can be seen from the hotel resorts of Taba itself.