Up until 1967, West Jerusalem was bordered by hostile Jordanian territory on three of its four sides. In the Six-Day War, Arab armies from Jordan, Syria, and Egypt advanced on the Jewish state, though Israel defeated them in less than a week. In the wake of the war, Israel expanded the borders of East Jerusalem to include areas deemed critical to national security, roughly tripling its size.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted last month that Israel retain “defensible borders” he presumably was alluding in part to East Jerusalem’s expanded borders, which serve as a buffer to key population centers.
However, Palestinians – backed up by the United Nations – argue that Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem constitutes an illegal occupation under international law. The expansion of Israeli building in greater East Jerusalem, they argue, undermines the viability and sovereignty of a future Palestinian state.
Palestinian sovereignty and Israeli security are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however; Israeli historian Martin van Crevels argues that from 1948 to 1967, those borders around Jerusalem were defensible. When Jordan launched its attack during the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel was able to repel Jordanian forces from territory it already held (West Jerusalem) and claim new territory (East Jerusalem and the Old City).