Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Israel / Palestine Map: Who Controlled What Before the 2023 Hamas Invasion?

This article was originally published in July 2020, but has been revised and updated to October 2023. The design of the accompanying map has also been slightly revised, but there were no changes to territorial control between the previous edition and this one except for the reopening of the Gaza fishing zone.

This map shows the situation just before the current war began. For the war itself, check out our new map showing control at the height of the October 2023 Hamas invasion the next day.

Map of who controlled Palestine and Israel's claimed territories on October 6, 2023, just before Hamas's invasion and the start of the current war. Shows both Israeli and Palestinian Authority administration (Fatah and Hamas factions indicated separately). Includes bigger West Bank map (Area A, Area B, and Area C). Map also includes Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, major cities and Israeli settlements, UN peacekeeper deployments (UNIFIL in Lebanon and UNDOF in Syria), no man's land, Golan Heights buffer zone (area of separation, AOS), and Shebaa Farms. Colorblind accessible. Also file under: Palestine controlled area map, How much of Israel is Palestinian land?
Click to enlarge. Map by Evan Centanni, incorporating base map by Koen Adams of and data from B'Tselem's interactive mapping project. (Contact us for permission to use this map.)

Israel and Palestine Controlled Areas: Before the War

October 2023's surprise invasion of Israel by Palestinian fighters from the Gaza Strip has catapulted the area back to the top of world headlines, and the situation on the ground is now in flux. But what exactly was the situation just before this new chapter of the conflict started? This newly-revised version of PolGeoNow's Israel/Palestine explainer article answers all your questions about who's who and what the significance of each disputed zone is. 

The accompanying map has also been slightly revised and newly fact-checked to ensure that it shows the situation accurately as of October 6, 2023, the night before the Hamas-led invasion of Israel (the only change to control is that the Gaza Strip fishing zone was apparently open for most of this year, rather than closed as it was at the time of our 2021 update).

Note that this is a map of who actually controls what, not of who claims which areas. And it's definitely not supposed to imply that any particular party should or shouldn't control any particular area. As always, PolGeoNow takes no side in these disputes, and we have done our best to report only the facts.

Flag of Israel Country Name:  
• Israel (English)
Yisra'el (Hebrew)
ʼIsrāʼīl (Arabic)
Full Declared Name:  
• State of Israel (English) 
• Medinat Yisra'el (Hebrew)
Dawlat ʼIsrāʼīl (Arabic)
• Jerusalem (functioning but disputed)

Who's Who in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

The State of Israel

Israel is a United Nations (UN) member country, officially recognized as independent by at least about 167 of the 195 UN member and observer countries (86%) - the word "state" in its official name is just a formal word for what most people call a "country". 

Israel was founded by Jewish people in 1948 to reclaim their historic homeland and defend themselves against any future replay of the holocaust, which had ended just three years earlier. Israel's own law defines it as a "Jewish and democratic" country, but doesn't specify any official government religion.

Israel has been part of several wars since its foundation, first against neighboring Arab countries and later against groups representing the non-Jewish Arab people of the areas it controls, who have lived in the region since before Israel was founded, and describe their nationality as "Palestinian" (for more on the meanings of the words Arab and Palestinian, see the "Territorial Zones" section below).

Much of Israel's current territory has been under its control ever since the 1947-1949 war surrounding its declaration of independence. Since another war with Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in 1967, Israel has also controlled the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, all of which are still claimed by other governments today.

The Palestinian Authority and the State of Palestine

Arabs trying to form their own independent country in the area founded the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, and in 1988 they declared independence as the State of Palestine, even though they didn't control any territory at the time. The State of Palestine now claims only the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and is recognized as independent by 139 of the 195 UN member and observer countries (71%). It's not a UN member itself, but the UN does treat it as an observer country just like Vatican City. The people the State of Palestine claims as its population are mostly Muslims and Christians, but it has no official religion.

Flag of Palestine Claimed Country Name:  
• Palestine (English)
Filasṭīn (Arabic)
Full Declared Name:  
• State of Palestine (English)
• Dawlat Filasṭin (Arabic)
• Jerusalem (claimed; not controlled)
Ramallah (administrative; Fatah faction)
• Gaza City (administrative; Hamas faction)
Since the Oslo Accords of 1995, parts of the West Bank (including most cities) and the Gaza Strip have been governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), a government created for them by agreement with Israel. The PA is officially separate from the PLO, but has historically been led by the same people. The PA is responsible for internal governance of the territories and relations with Israel, while the PLO is responsible for most foreign relations.

However, since a 2007 civil war, the PA's legislature has been non-functioning and its leadership has divided into two factions that control separate territories:

The political party and former rebel group known as Fatah has held the chair of the PLO since 1969, dominating representation of the Palestinians internationally. Fatah officially believes in social democracy and secularism (the idea that government should be separate from religion). It supports the idea that Israel and Palestine should exist alongside each other as equal independent countries, in what's known as a "two-state solution".

Formed as an anti-Israel rebel group in 1987, Hamas is known for its hardline stance against Israel, claiming the whole region for Arab Palestinians and refusing to even consider Israel a real country. Unlike Fatah, Hamas's ideology is based around Islam, the most common religion among Palestinians, and promotes a relatively more conservative version of it. Hamas has not accepted the Oslo Accords, and because of its continued attacks on civilian targets in Israel, it's categorized as a terrorist group by Israel, the US, the European Union, and several more countries. However, this designation is controversial, and other countries have rejected it.

Despite Fatah's historical dominance of the PLO, it lost its majority in the PA legislature to members of Hamas in a 2006 election. Fatah then mostly refused to cooperate with the new Hamas-led government, which was cut off from international aid for refusing to accept Israel's existence or previous agreements. In 2007 the rift between the two parties led to an all-out civil war between them. Since the end of that war, Fatah's leadership has governed the PA's West Bank territories by decree, and been mostly shut out of the Gaza Strip. Hamas, on the other hand, became the Gaza Strip's sole government and was shut out of politics in the West Bank.

United Nations Peacekeeping Forces

UN peacekeepers aren't directly involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but they have been deployed to help preserve ceasefires between Israel and the neighboring countries of Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has patrolled southern Lebanon for one reason or another since 1978, and now does so in cooperation with the Lebanese military.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has maintained a buffer zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights since 1974, though it now reluctantly shares the zone with the Syrian military, which entered three years ago to drive out Syrian rebels who occupied parts of it during the Syrian Civil War.

Neither of these two UN forces patrols any areas claimed as part of Israel or Palestine, except maybe some tiny disputed areas along the unofficially-marked border with Lebanon.

Territorial Zones

The justifications for creating Israel and Palestine as modern countries both go back to a 1947 UN plan to divide the area into a Jewish country and an Arab country. At that time, the whole area was known by the mostly-neutral ancient name of "Palestine", and had been under temporary UK control since the Ottoman Empire gave it up at the end of World War I.
What is an "Arab"?

Though the word originally referred to members of the historical tribes of Arabia, in modern times "Arab" means almost anyone whose native language is Arabic.

Unlike the Jewish people, who are united more by shared religious heritage than by everyday language, Arabs can be of any religion. That said, a large majority of them are Muslims, with Christians coming in second.

Though Arabs dominate the Muslim heartland of the Middle East, today more than half the world's Muslims are not Arabs, with over a billion speaking other languages - such as Malay, Urdu, Bengali, Persian, Hausa, and Turkish - rather than Arabic.

On the other hand, some Arabic-speaking minority groups with distinct cultures prefer not to call themselves Arabs, since they don't fit as easily into mainstream Arab society. That's especially the case for Arabic-speaking Jewish people, who have been largely cut off from an Arab world that's tended against Israel - and often against Jews in general - to support the Palestinian independence cause.

However, the UN plan was never officially carried out, and the proposed borders ended up being replaced with a somewhat different set of ceasefire lines after a 1947-1949 war between supporters of Jewish independence and neighboring Arab countries that opposed the idea. Another war in 1967 left Israel in control of the whole area, as well as the Golan Heights, which up to then had been an undisputed part of Syria.

Since the Jewish country named itself "Israel", the previous name "Palestine" fell out of use except by people who thought something other than Israel should still exist there. It was then adopted by the region's Arab population as a name for their own proposed independent country, and today it usually only means that.

Waters and Airspace

When we said the above map shows territorial control "on the ground", we meant that literally. All airspace that could be claimed by either Israel or Palestine is currently controlled by Israel, including the skies over the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Similarly, Israel exercises authority in all Israeli/Palestinian waters. That includes both the West Bank's chunk of the Dead Sea and the parts of the Mediterranean Sea that could be considered the territorial waters and exclusive economic zone of the Gaza Strip.

The one partial exception is the Gaza Strip "fishing zone", which Israeli forces mostly stay out of except for occasional raids and pursuits. The catch is that Israel's military decides where the edges of the zone are, and changes them at will - sometimes shrinking the zone or closing it altogether as retaliation for Hamas attacks elsewhere.

While the fishing zone was completely closed when we last updated our map in May 2021, all previously-established parts of it were reopened in September of that year, and have mostly stayed that way recently.

The Hamas government of the Gaza Strip, for its part, maintains a military presence along the coastline, but apparently doesn't routinely venture out into the waters of the zone - making the sea area a bit of a military "no man's land" used only by civilian fishermen. 

(Some of the above details were confirmed by communications with representatives of Palestinian activist groups Gisha and Al Mezan. PolGeoNow does not take a side in the Gaza Strip situation or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but our research requires us to incorporate carefully-vetted information from whichever sources are available.)

Israel Proper

The area on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 ceasefire lines (shown as dotted white lines on our map) is considered part of Israel by almost everyone who accepts that Israel should exist at all. In other words, that means the part of the Israel/Palestine area excluding the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.

In Israeli law, the country of Israel technically only includes this part plus the East Jerusalem zone, which was controversially absorbed into Israel after being capturing from Jordan in 1967 (see "East Jerusalem" below). Israel also applies all its laws to the part of the Golan Heights it controls (see "The Golan Heights" below), but the 1981 law that established that situation technically avoided saying that the Golan Heights was "part of Israel".

In general, anyone born in the undisputed parts of Israel, in East Jerusalem, or in the Golan Heights is an Israeli citizen, whether or not they're Jewish. In fact there are many Arabs - who may or may not call themselves "Palestinians" - who are citizens of Israel because their families remained within these areas after Israel's government assumed control there.

The Palestinian Territories

The areas Israel captured from Jordan and Egypt during the 1967 war - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - are no longer claimed by those countries. However, they are now claimed by the self-declared State of Palestine, which calls them the "occupied Palestinian territories", a label also used by the UN. Israel officially considers their status to be unresolved, arguing that it has just as much right to claim them as the Palestinians do. But except for East Jerusalem, Israeli law doesn't consider the Palestinian territories to be technically part of Israel so far.

People born in these territories don't get Israeli citizenship unless they're eligible for some other reason, like having an Israeli parent. Controversially, that means Jewish settlers in the territories generally have Israeli citizenship, while Palestinians living there can't get it - even if they live in a fully Israeli-controlled zone.

The West Bank

The "West Bank", named for being on the west side of the Jordan River, refers to the area east of the 1949 ceasefire lines between Israel and Jordan (with some small modifications that were agreed to between 1949 and 1967). Jordan controlled the area up until losing it in the 1967 war, and continued to claim it after that, but eventually gave up its claim after making peace with Israel.

The PLO, the UN, and many of the world's countries consider East Jerusalem to be part of the West Bank, but Israel doesn't (see "East Jerusalem" below). The Israeli government sometimes uses the term "Judea and Samaria Area" to refer to the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem.

Starting from 1995, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three main control zones, designed to be temporary but still basically in place today:

Area A
In this zone, which includes almost all Arab-populated cities in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority was - in theory - given full control over both civilian governance and security. Originally, Israeli military forces weren't allowed to enter, but since a surge of violence in the early 2000s, Israel has sometimes launched military missions into Area A. The Israeli military doesn't seem to continually occupy any part of Area A, but some observers argue that Palestinian forces there still can't do much without Israeli approval. (Area A is marked on the above map in dark blue, as "Palestinian Authority: Fatah faction".)

Area B
In this zone, the Palestinian Authority is still the main civilian government, but the Israeli military is allowed to stay there alongside Palestinian forces. (Area B is marked on the above map in light blue-green, as "Israeli military and Fatah".)

Area C
In the rest of the West Bank, the Oslo Accords specified that the Israeli military would continue ruling by decree as it previously had in the whole territory (excluding East Jerusalem). The idea was for this to be a short-term solution, until details could be hammered out for Israel to accept the State of Palestine as a country and hand over control of the whole West Bank.

However, negotiations have repeatedly failed, and Israeli administrations have allowed Jewish-Israeli settlers to set up more and more new towns within Area C. Many of these towns have exactly the same laws as Israel proper, though technically the laws are applied by decree of Israel's Defense Ministry, without officially calling them part of Israel. The towns labeled on our map as under Israeli military control are all "settlements" of this kind. There are Palestinian villages in Area C too, but none of them are as big as the biggest Jewish settlements, and they're shrinking: Israel frequently demolishes Palestinian houses and other buildings in Area C, and mostly doesn't allow Palestinians to build anything new. (Area C is shown on the above map in light green, as "Israel - Exclusive Control: Military government".)

Areas H1 and H2
The city of Hebron was originally intended to be part of Area A, but because there were a lot of Jewish settlers living in the eastern part of the city, the Israeli government refused to leave that part under full Palestinian control. An agreement was eventually reached to divide the city into two zones: H1 would be under Palestinian control (similar to Area A), while H2 would be patrolled by Israeli security forces, with the PA only allowed civilian governance, and only for Palestinians (a situation in between Area B and Area C status).

The Gaza Strip

A small but densely-populated coastal territory - captured by Israel from Egypt in 1967 - is known as the Gaza Strip, after the name of its largest city, Gaza. Egypt no longer claims the strip as its own, but the PLO does consider it part of the State of Palestine, since it has a large Arab population and was never part of Israel proper. While the Gaza Strip was once divided between Palestinian and Israeli control like the West Bank, Israel pulled out completely in 2005, leaving its land under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction.

The 2007 civil war between Palestinian factions was fought in the Gaza Strip, with the Hamas faction seizing the whole territory from Fatah's forces by the end. Because Hamas refuses to accept Israel's existence or end attacks against Israeli targets, and Israel considers it to be a terrorist group, Israel and now-ally Egypt have kept up a blockade of the Gaza Strip ever since, strictly controlling who and what crosses its boundaries, and sometimes even closing all entries and exits completely.

Although the Gaza Strip is under Hamas governance on the ground, the Israeli military actually does control a narrow 100-300 meter (300-1000 foot) buffer zone just inside the territory's border with Israel proper.

Learn More: Detailed map of the Gaza Strip, including buffer zone and border crossings

East Jerusalem

Israel and the PLO each consider Jerusalem to be their own national capital, though with the city under full Israeli control since 1967, the Palestinian Authority government is currently based in Ramallah. After capturing the West Bank from Jordan, Israel expanded the city limits of its Jerusalem municipality to include not only the eastern part of the city center (including the historic Old City), but also a large area of the city's eastern suburbs.

Israel has treated this area, now all known as "East Jerusalem", as being within its borders ever since then. Though no law was ever passed explicitly saying the territory was being added to Israel, Israeli courts have ruled that it is indeed considered part of the country (that is, it's been "annexed" to Israel). However, the PLO still considers East Jerusalem to be rightfully part of Palestine, and most of the world's countries agree in principle that it's part of the disputed West Bank.

See Also: Is Jerusalem the Capital of Israel or Not?

"No Man's Land"

There's a strip of territory along the western edge of the West Bank that was controlled by neither Israel nor Jordan from 1949 to 1967, giving it the nickname "no man's land" - or more specifically, the "no man's land in the Latrun area (NML)", after the name of a historic hilltop along the edge of it. After 1967, the "no man's land" was taken over by Israel, which doesn't consider it part of the West Bank. The Israeli town of Maccabim was later established within it.

This has led to accusations that Israel has basically "annexed" the territory (fully absorbed it into the country). However, Israeli courts have ruled that it's still not technically part of Israel, and that only some Israeli laws apply there. Many other countries also consider it to be Israeli-occupied territory of unresolved status, just like the West Bank, or even just call it Palestinian territory.

There are also some small pieces of former "no man's land" within Jerusalem (not clearly pictured on map), but they're now treated as part of East Jerusalem, making them fully part of Israel according to Israeli law - and just a footnote within the bigger East Jerusalem dispute.

The Golan Heights

The third major disputed territory controlled by Israel, the Golan Heights, is not claimed as part of Palestine and not considered part of the Palestinian territories. Instead, the Syrian government claims the Golan Heights as part of Syria, since that's undisputedly what it was until Israel captured it in the 1967 war. And unlike Jordan and Egypt, Syria has still never signed any peace agreement with Israel since that war.

A buffer zone patrolled by UN peacekeepers (UNDOF) separates the Syrian- and Israeli-controlled sides of the Golan, though the Syrian army is now operating within the zone too as part of the Syrian Civil War. But everything west of the buffer zone has been essentially absorbed into Israel since 1981 legislation extended all Israeli laws into the territory. That said, the law didn't actually say the area was becoming part of Israel, so some argue that it's technically outside the country ("not annexed").

Some areas at the western edge of the Golan Heights were designated as demilitarized zones along the hostile Israeli-Syrian border from 1949 to 1967, leaving their current status a bit unclear. The map attached to the 1981 law, for its part, seems to imply they were already part of Israel by that time.

Shebaa Farms

A small slice of land on the northern side of the Golan Heights, known as Shebaa Farms, is sometimes claimed to be part of Lebanon. But Israel and Syria each treat it as part of their own claimed territory in the Golan Heights, and it's controlled by Israel.

Revision: This article was revised again on October 24, 2023 based on reader feedback. The previous wording might have implied that Arab people in the area didn't call themselves "Palestinians" before the founding of Israel in 1948. Though the idea that "Palestinians" only means Arab, non-Jewish people has probably arisen mostly since the 1940s, the word definitely would already have included Arab residents of the region before that. There's also evidence that "Palestinian" might have already implied a distinct, generally Arab, cultural identity as far back as 100-200 years ago.

Interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict? To see more coverage, view all Israel or Palestine articles on PolGeoNow.