War has returned to Israel and Palestine. At least every few years, Israel is involved in active, intense warfare on its northern or southern borders. And since Hamas gained control over the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel’s southern flank has been particularly active. Now that anti-Israel elements in Gaza have acquired more sophisticated weaponry, and given wider political changes in the region, Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation has become even more perilous.
Given its out-sized importance in the Middle East, Israel is often perceived to be much larger than it is. Admittedly, the size of Israel depends on the definition of its boundaries, which are disputed. Any “fact” about Israel’s size is therefore dependent upon what boundaries are assumed (see, for example, this pro-Israel site). If the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (roughly along the lines of the 1967 ceasefire) are excluded, Israel’s physical area is about 21,000 square kilometers (or 8,000 square miles). (The estimated population for this area is about 8 million.) That area is about one-third less than that of Belgium. Or, to use an American reference point, Israel is about the size of a smaller New England state (such as Vermont or New Hampshire).
So what does Israel’s size have to do with the current war raging in and around the dense urban cluster that is Gaza? Simply put, Israel’s small size makes it exceedingly vulnerable to attack. That is nothing new. What is new is Gaza militants’ acquisition of longer-ranged rockets, which are capable of targeting Israel’s core population and economic centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Iran seems to be a key link in Hamas’ acquisition of these rockets.
One need not be pro-Israeli to recognize the increasingly precarious geopolitical context for the majority Jewish state. Whatever Israel’s past collective sins against the Arabs, the country now exists in a much more difficult regional situation, not least due to political upheaval in Egypt. Israelis persist in a heightened state of war readiness because they must. The United Nations cannot ensure Israel’s survival. Only hard-nosed realism can.