Devin Sper

Victory and defeat will be measured in territory

Prime Minister Netanyahu has unequivocally asserted that Israel will not settle for anything less than victory in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. This begs the question: What constitutes victory in this war?  Israel’s enemies are not overly concerned with loss of life or property and acknowledge defeat only with the loss of territory, as witnessed in 1948 and 1967.  In the eyes of our adversaries, and of history, victory and defeat will be measured, in the gain or loss of territory.

Throughout history, wars have predominantly revolved around territorial control, with victory achieved through territorial dominance rather than the annihilation of the enemy.  At the end of WW II Germany still had millions of solders under arms when she unconditionally surrendered to the allies.   During the Vietnam war, the United States announced daily body counts of enemy dead to signal that she was winning the war.  While these ultimately totaled ten times the number of U.S. soldiers killed, North Vietnam ultimately controlled the territory and won the war.

Israel is the sole example of a victor ceding territory to the vanquished.  From the First Separation of Forces Agreement with Egypt in 1974 to the present day, Israel has made a long series of territorial concessions while her enemies steadfastly refuse to do so on principle.  As Hamas declares, “Palestine is one and indivisible from the River to the Sea … It is as fixed and nonnegotiable.” Indeed, the Palestinians have not compromised on a single square inch of territory since the beginning of the Oslo peace process, in stark contrast with Israel’s ineffective land-for-peace policy.

A critical historical example is the town of Yamit, established by Israel on the Sinai-Gaza border in response to multiple wars launched against her from those areas.  The intended buffer between Egypt and Gaza would have prevented the current conflict had Israel not ceded it in 1979 under the peace treaty with Egypt. Neither Hamas, nor anyone else, would have been able to import weapons through Yamit and all Israel’s subsequent wars with Hamas would have been avoided.

Under the 1994 Oslo agreements, Israel turned over Gaza and most of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority.  Less well publicized, territorial concessions were made to Jordan in 1970, 1975, and 1994 totaling over 375 square kilometers, an area larger than the Gaza Strip.  Israel also granted Jordan the right to draw an additional 50 million cubic meters of water from the Sea of Galilee.

After seeking compromise on her maritime border with Lebanon for over a decade, Israel accepted Lebanon’s original demand, known as line 23.  On October 27, 2022, Israel ceded 860 square kilometers of her territorial waters to Lebanon, including part of the Qana offshore gas field to which Lebanon was granted the prospecting rights.  Israeli Prime Minister Lapid signed this agreement without either a national referendum on territorial concessions or approval by the Knesset, as required by Israeli law.  Lapid believed this concession would stabilize Israel’s northern border in Lebanon by giving Hezbollah, her controlling power, a financial interest in maintaining the peace.  Only one year later, land-for-peace has failed yet again, and Israel is at war with Hezbollah.

Incredibly, despite all this, Israel is now considering further territorial concessions to Lebanon.  These concessions are being negotiated by Amos Hochstein, the same U.S. envoy who negotiated last year’s concessions at sea. The current proposal is for Israel to cede to Lebanon (i.e., Hezbollah) the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills areas on the Golan heights, and perhaps other areas unjustly claimed by Hezbollah as Lebanese territory.  This is what Nasrallah was referring to in his speech on January 5 when he said: “We are now faced with a historic opportunity to completely liberate every inch of our Lebanese land.”

In exchange, Hezbollah would undertake to remove some or all of its forces north to the Litani River, something they were supposed to have done years ago under UN resolution 1701. It is uncertain Hezbollah will ultimately agree, as these areas constitute Hezbollah’s sole justification for its claim to be a resistance movement, (i.e. resisting Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory).  In any case, Hezbollah forces could infiltrate to the Israeli border again, either gradually or within a few hours.

Such concessions would embolden Hezbollah, viewing it as a victory and escalating her aggression against Israel.  Likewise Hamas would view an Israeli return to the October 6 border with Gaza as having fought Israel to a standstill, not as defeat, and they will resume right where they left off.

Israel is a tiny country and it is past time she stopped giving away the little land and few precious resources she has.  Only loss of territory, and not more territorial concessions by Israel, will convince her enemies that their aggression against her does not pay.   Only this will ensure that the incredible sacrifices of Israeli citizens and soldiers will not have been in vain, and that neither they nor their children will find themselves fighting again to retake the same territory from which they have been attacked so many times.

To secure a decisive victory and pave the way for lasting peace, Israel must change its approach. One step in the right direction is the proposal of maintaining a buffer zone within Gaza post-war.  This would not only facilitate the return of displaced Israelis but also psychologically impose defeat on the enemy. Only Israeli annexation of territory in Gaza will convince its residents that their aggression may not have been worthwhile or worth repeating.   Contrary to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s declaration that Israel must not take territory from Gaza it is imperative that she does.  A similar policy could be applied to Judea and Samaria, where only the depopulation and annexation of terrorist controlled areas like Jenin can eliminate persistent threats and deter aggression elsewhere.

Israel’s enemies astutely recognize that unlike property and soldiers, territory is irreplaceable. To win a definitive victory, and for any chance at lasting peace, annexation, not concession, must be the guiding principle across all fronts.

About the Author
Devin Sper was born and raised in New York and lived in Israel for 10 years. He holds a degree in Jewish History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and served in the Israel Defense Forces. Devin Sper is the author of The Future of Israel, winner of a 2005 GLYPH award.