Professor studies border dispute
Tori Roeck | Thursday, February 6, 2014
In his new book titled “Contested Frontiers in the Syria-Lebanon-Israel Region: Cartography, Sovereignty and Conflict,” history and peace studies professor Asher Kaufman uses maps to illustrate the complexity of the border dispute among Israel, Syria and Lebanon, using this border area as a microcosm of Middle Eastern history for the past 100 years.
Kaufman said his case study reveals a flaw in the way we view international borders.
“There is always a gap between how we perceive political borders as impregnable, impenetrable lines that are controlled by the states and the reality that consistently defeats that,” he said. “This is even more so in areas of conflict zones, where we think of borders as lines of defense where the military stands behind one side, the other military behind the other side, and the border line is simply a war zone.
“This has been the image of the Israeli borders with its Arab neighbors. When you zoom in, you see that the situation is far more complex.”
To better understand the complexity of these borders, Kaufman said he pored through French diplomatic archives that were disorganized but held the key to unlocking the border dispute.
“I knew that if I would find anything about the Lebanese and Syrian borders it would be there, because the French demarcated these borders, in theory, during the days of the French mandate,” he said.
Kaufman said this border dispute is especially relevant to the current Syrian political climate and its resulting refugee crisis.
“In light of the unrest that has engulfed the Middle East since 2011, if you look at the Syrian civil war, and you look at the situation at Syria’s borders, you get a sense … that the conflicts in the region, even the Syrian civil war, cannot be circumscribed within the boundaries of Syria,” he said. “There is actually great leakage.
“The civil war in Syria has become a regional issue. Lebanon is affected by it. Israel is affected by it. And the tri-border region has become another arena where the civil war is being manifested.”
This conflict and those involved in it has made the region he writes about dangerous, Kaufman said.
“Because of the topography of this region, it has become an area for arms smuggling, for combatants to go back and forth from Lebanon to Syria and vice versa,” he said.
“Because of the sensitivity of this region, Israel has now fortified its military presence and has also began treating Syrian citizens arriving now at the Israeli borders asking for medical assistance. It all takes place there in this very small piece of land that, despite its small size, can tell us the big stories of the Middle East.”
Kaufman said using cartography to examine the conflict in this region – the first third of his book is all about maps – is “innovative.”
“Something that has not been done by I don’t think anybody is the connection I make between cartography and the social and political reality, colonial cartography of the 19th century, its impact on boundary demarcation in the 20th century and the way this colonial cartography eventually plays a decisive role in how border populations behave on a day- to-day basis,” he said.