A general view shows the border between Israel and Lebanon as seen from the Israeli side on November 4, 2023.Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

I sat on the edge of Israel’s northern border with Lebanon in the tiny community of Margaliot with a young reserve officer, peering into Lebanon behind fortified bunkers. He pointed to where his family lived a few hundred meters away but are now among the 65,000 to 80,000 evacuees from Israel’s northern border communities, having turned cities, moshavim, and kibbutzim into ghost towns. It is difficult for Americans to comprehend that Israelis are literally fighting for their homes.

Over the many years, I have been with soldiers in the field, so it is not surprising that when I ask where the soldier lives, they point to some flickering lights within view. I saw this in live fire on Israel’s Gaza border, in the North, and in Samaria, where the distant glow of Israel’s Mediterranean cities is within sight.

To drive from Israel’s northern front with Hezbollah, to its southern front in Gaza with Hamas, took me less than four hours. Yet many Americans who read our nation’s papers conceive of the Jewish state as a regional power being more extensive than it is – in reality, the size of New Jersey.

Before October 7, Israel’s lack of strategic depth was considered manageable by many Israeli and American political and security experts. After that infamous Sabbath morning, the importance of strategic depth has emerged as a profound vulnerability whose solutions fly in the face of the American demand that Israel not create a buffer zone between Gaza and the Israeli communities that border it as part of an imagined version of a two-state for two-people solution.

In the North, Israel’s 18-year (1982-2000) buffer zone in southern Lebanon is being reconsidered to move away from a more dangerous terrorist enemy now within rifle shot of Israel’s northern communities in the Upper and Western Galilee. Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon under popular pressure and the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister, as Israeli soldiers were being routinely killed by Hezbollah fighters who declared victory in 2000 after the withdrawal. Many consider that withdrawal in the North as infamous as Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which allowed Hamas to grow into the formidable monster that it became.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said this month, “Israel once established a security zone in the south of Lebanon; today, the security zone is in northern Israel.” 

Israel cannot let Hezbollah have a buffer zone on the Israeli side of the border, with 80,000 citizens made homeless. Americans should understand and support Israel’s decision.

The reason it is essential to grasp Israel’s size is that so many Israeli critics and advocates demanding that Israel return to the indefensible 1967 lines (Green Line, or 1949 Armistice Line) like to portray Israel as a Goliath terrorizing the helpless Muslim world.

They choose to ignore how tiny Israel is when one looks at a map – less than 1% of the land mass of the greater Middle East. Even we in America, Israel’s only true friends, underestimate Israel’s security needs due to its small size because we think of Israel as powerful and impenetrable, in part due to its multi-layered anti-missile system, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow, and Patriot missiles.

President Joe Biden should be commended for standing by Israel during its Gaza war. But he needs to remember that Israel cannot take the risks that other nations ten times its size can take or other small countries that are not continually threatened by neighbors trying to exterminate them.

How does this directly lead to miscalculations, even from well-meaning allies?

When foreign policy and defense experts tell Israel it does not need strategic depth, they base that solely on its perceived military strength and qualitative military edge, and minimize its geographic extent. That is why Israeli officials like to take foreign visitors on helicopter rides over central Israel, highlighting the fact that Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists who hide in Kalkilya, Nablus, and Tulkarm are a Katyusha missile away from Israel’s Pentagon –the Kirya in central Tel Aviv – and the majority of Israel’s population surrounding Tel Aviv.

It does not resonate, even when I share maps of Israel in America, that if Hamas takes over the West Bank it is seven to nine miles from Israel’s largest city. When I say I can drive from Tel Aviv to the northern Gaza border in under an hour, explaining why Hamas does not need very long-range missiles to target Israel’s central region, I hear that it is no problem because Israel has an Iron Dome and David’s Sling anti-missile system. No nation should have to rely on an anti-missile system that is, at best,

90% effective and, as I have seen for myself, can be overwhelmed by numbers.

Yoav Tenembaum, a lecturer at the School of Political Science, Government, and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University, writing in the website The Hill, said, “Surrounded by enemies calling for its destruction, Israel is a tiny state with no defensible borders, having thus almost no margin of error. The dictum by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, that the Arabs can afford to lose as many wars as they want while Israel can’t afford to lose even one war, reflects this geopolitical reality….To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, Israel’s crucial battle is the first, not the last one.”

We in the United States may sympathize with Israelis fighting for their own homeland. Still, it is tough to empathize because for more than two generations, we in America have not served in the armed forces and are blessed with an expansive country bordered by two oceans and neighbors to the north and south that don’t have terrorists sending tens of thousands of missiles into our schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods for decades. In every city in Israel from north to south, alarms have sounded to warn residents to go into bomb shelters. Americans have never had to deal with this type of daily reality.

Everywhere I visited in Israel, fathers and mothers, often in uniform themselves, had their teenagers and young adult family members, brothers, and sisters fighting Hezbollah in the North or Hamas in the South. These were ordinary people among the over 350,000 reservists who overwhelmed their reserve units, wanting to serve and defend their nation. It was only one degree of separation from knowing someone who was wounded, killed, or taken hostage.

Israel is a small country that may be better described as a large family, a hevra (friend) network that causes ordinary people to do extraordinary things. These untold stories of quiet patriotism must be recognized to understand why almost all Israelis are fighting these wars with resilience and courage. So many returned from overseas to join their reserve units when the war began.

Israel is a one nuclear bomb nation because of its small size, Iran likes to think. One bomb can kill all the Jews, and even if Israel were to retaliate, the price to pay would be worth it to the leaders of the zealots of cataclysm if their defining mission to destroy the Jewish state was realized. As former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said, “the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam… This method of global arrogance (Zionism) would come to a dead end, “ according to MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute).

Israel does not want to be considered a victim, and advertising its small size makes it vulnerable in the eyes of hundreds of millions of hostile neighbors. To be seen as weak in the Middle East is an invitation to be attacked.

Being perceived as fighting above its weight both demographically and geographically has allowed lazy journalists to portray Israel as an invulnerable superpower persecuting its neighbors, and their readers come away with the impression that Israel can take the risks nations with a much larger land mass could. Israel has no strategic depth, and the US president and Congress must consider that before offering advice.

The US, Israel’s only faithful ally in the world, must not have a binary view of the Jewish state, perceiving it only as the power of the region. Yes, Israel is indeed, with American help, the regional power, in part why Saudi Arabia wanted to be on Israel’s side before October 7. But geography must be taken into consideration. Israel is the only democracy in a hostile region playing by Western rules.

As proof of the international prejudice against Israel, which didn’t begin on October 7, some 69% of worldwide protests in the first week after October 7 were against Israel, even before it started its ground operation. Three months later, according to the Institute for National Security Studies, there have been 7,557 protests against Israel since October 10, and only 602 protests in favor of Israel. Small nations that are hated have no margin for error.

Israel will ask America for more time to destroy Hamas, needing a munitions supply line to fight both Hamas and Hezbollah. It will need to attack Iran sooner or later, as it is now within weeks of a nuclear weapon whose purpose is to intimidate America’s regional allies and possibly eliminate Israel. We need Israel to survive for our interests. Our strategy must give Israel the benefit of the doubt that it knows what it needs to survive. The pro-Hamas protesters on American campuses and cities cannot undermine American resolve to support our indispensable ally. Most of those protesters are also anti-American.

The Jewish state was created in part so Jews would not be victims anymore, able to fight their own battles and not be at the mercy of hostile host nations as a vulnerable minority. But there is no running away from its precarious size, no matter how much technology, anti-missile systems, and firepower it has. Israel assumes the American administration understands this; in theory, it may. Still, the U.S. doesn’t act upon it in its strategic calculations because Israel doesn’t like to highlight its diminutive size.

I will still bring maps to Congress with comparisons to American geographical distances. Still, nothing is more critical than when Congress and administration officials go to Israel to see for themselves. Ask for the helicopter tour. It would go a long way toward strengthening the US-Israel relationship because most Americans and Congress are still pro-Israel. ■

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2024 issue of The Jerusalem Report (pg. 22-23).

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network) and regularly briefs members of Congress and its foreign policy aides.

By mepin