Nearly a century ago, between 1915 and 1923, most of the original borders of the modern Middle East were drawn. Before 1914, with the exception of Persia and Egypt, few modern Middle Eastern countries existed; most were provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Sheikdoms existed in the Arabian Peninsula, with major tribal families holding sway over particular geographic zones, their right to control regions often reaffirmed by an agreement with a foreign power. Under the Ottomans who ruled much of the Middle East until the collapse of the Turkish government during WWI, borders of states did not exist, because the states were not yet formed. [The Middle East Circa 1914] And when the states were formed after WWI, border demarcations were rarely observed. The area of Palestine was comprised of several sanjaqs. [Future Area of Palestine as Administered by the Ottoman Empire, 1890s] Since the end of WWI to the present, the most significant changes in borders occurred in the area which became designated as Palestine during World War I. It was a British and French geographic creation emerging from the secretly negotiated May 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and ratified by the European Powers in San Remo in 1920. [The San Remo Agreement, 1920] Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon were created after WWI to meet the needs of imperial France and Great Britain.
Palestine originally included the region north of al-Arish to Lebanon and Syria, and from the Mediterranean to the borders of Iraq. In 1921, just as Palestine was created as a geographic entity, so was the Emirate of Transjordan, later called the Kingdom of Jordan. Eighty percent of the original area of Palestine was allocated to the Emirate of Transjordan, with the remaining twenty percent (the area west of the Jordan River) designated to include the Jewish national home. This was the British Mandate for Palestine, similar to the mandates that the French had over Syria and Lebanon, and the British over Iraq. By a majority vote in November 1947, the United Nations decided to create an “Arab” and a “Jewish” state in Palestine, not a bi-national or federal state. [United Nations Partition Plan, 1947] The two states were to have separate governments and constitutions. Jerusalem was to be a separate entity administered by an independent body. After Israel’s 1948-1949 War of Independence, Israel controlled 77% (20,000sq km) of the area of Palestine, with 22% controlled by Jordan, in what came to be known as the West Bank (6000sq km), as in the “west bank” of the Jordan River. [Comparison of the 1947 Palestine Partition Plan and Israel’s 1949 Armistice Lines] Jordan controlled the West Bank until the end of the June War, but made no effort, nor was it asked to do so by the rest of the Arab world, to create a Palestinian state or autonomous Palestinian entity, associated to Jordan or free of Jordanian rule. From 1949-June 1967, the remaining 1% of the former was the Gaza Strip, administered by Egypt.
The end of the 1948-1949 war did not result in the signing of peace treaties between Israel and her Arab neighbors, thus officially recognized international borders between Israel and Arab states were not created. Instead, lines were drawn “unofficially” where the fighting ended. The 1949 lines between Lebanon and Israel and between Syria and Israel were the lines created by the end of those hostilities, but not the same lines created by the League of Nations Mandate in 1923. The Syrian-Israeli armistice agreements specifically stated that the 1949 lines did not have a connection to “ultimate territorial arrangements.”
As a result of the June 1967 Arab-Israel War, Israel gained the Gaza Strip, all of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. [Israel and the Occupied Territories, 1967] After the June 1967 War, Israel frequently referred to the West Bank with the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. By the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Sinai was eventually returned to Egyptian sovereignty, but Israel still controlled the remainder of the lands gained from the June 1967 War. Immediately after the June 1967 War, Israel unilaterally annexed portions of Jerusalem and on several occasions since has redrawn Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to expand the size of the Israeli-administered part of city.
No major territorial modifications occurred as a result of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Treaty. Elsewhere in the Middle East, in the second half of the 20th century, some minor border changes took place in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the 1980s with the unification of North and South Yemen. With few but significant exceptions, among some of those noted here, the borders in 2013 remain remarkably similar to what was drawn during and after World War I.
A key point in Arab-Israeli negotiations since 1967 has been the discussion and delineation of final borders. United Nations Resolution 242 of November 1967, which became the central framework for negotiated settlements between Israel and her neighbors, called for the establishment of “secure and recognized borders” between the contracting parties. Likewise, from the early 2000s forward, in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, itself established in 1993, the delineation of borders between a would-be Palestinian and existing Israeli state remained one of the major final issues under mediation and international review. In the discussions about borders and sovereignty, the concept of land swaps in a two-state delineation of borders were often discussed.
As far as the rest of the region’s borders, border clashes erupted periodically throughout the 1950s between the countries of the Persian Gulf. Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, primarily from the 1960s forward, many Arab states periodically, sent their armies or surrogate fighters to neighboring countries, or weapons and materials to countries in proximity, in order to promote an ideology, destabilize a neighboring country, or occupy it for a period of time, but borders did not change.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq and Iran battled for control and access to areas at the northern end of Persian/Arabian Gulf and several strategically located islands in the Gulf. However, major border changes did not take place. In 1990, Saddam Hussein tried to eradicate Kuwait and make it part of Iraq, but his effort was thwarted by the international community. Thus the border between Kuwait and Iraq was restored, as was Kuwaiti sovereignty in 1991. Most frequently, since WWI, populations migrated and shifted across borders, rather than borders changing virtually at all.
Ken Stein, May 2013