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At that time the Haganah, the largest Jewish underground military organization, consisted of some 35,000 armed men and women. There were also several thousand fighters belonging to other groups that had been operating in the shadows. This Jewish ‘army’ was only lightly armed and barely trained, but was shored up by men who had previously fought with the British army. They lacked heavy weapons and the air force had an inventory of only nine obsolete planes. This hiatus was largely filled by a deal with Czechoslovakia that provided for tens of thousands of light weapons and even two dozen Avia S-199 fighter aircraft – a Czech version of the wartime German Messerschmitt Me-109.
The Palestinians and Arabs
The opposing Arab and Palestinian forces consisted of loosely organized militia in Palestine itself, with an estimated strength of some 10,000 men, backed by regular armies of the neighbouring states of Syria, Egypt and Jordan. These had several tens of thousands of soldiers equipped with heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks – mostly pre-World War II models. The British forces in the Middle East had also handed over considerable numbers of fighter aircraft such as Spitfires and Hurricanes and transport planes. Sizable contingencies from Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen would play a role in the hostilities that followed.
14 May 1948
When on 14 May 1948 Israel declared its independence the regular Arab armies moved in. The day before the Arab League had already decided to send regular troops to the conflict zone that would officially be handed over by the British authorities to end the Mandate. The UN denounced the intention stated by the Arab League to protect the lives of civilians in the absence of any legal authorities.
The Arab offensive was not well coordinated, mostly because the national Arab commands did not cooperate. The attacks were blunted, stopped and repelled by prepared positions of the Jewish forces in kibbutzim and towns. However, especially in and around Jerusalem, fighting between Israeli forces and the Arab Legion, led by former British general John Glubb (Pasha), raged fiercely.
Gradually, within weeks, the first outnumbered – at least on paper – Israeli forces grew in quantity and quality and gained the upper hand. The net result was that after the fighting had died down, Israeli forces held more land than before the Arab offensive. The United Nations declared a ceasefire on 29 May 1948 and presented a new partition plan that both sides rejected.
At the beginning of July 1948 hostilities broke out again on the southern front. This time Israeli offensives led to consolidation of earlier gains and to new gains on the northern, central and southern fronts. There was also a large exodus of Palestinians fleeing the conflict zones, evicted by Jewish forces or told by their leaders to leave. Again, in September 1948 a new proposal of the UN that would settle territorial matters and compensation for refugees was rejected by both sides.
In October 1948, Israeli armed forces clashed again with the Egyptian army and succeeded in driving a wedge between the Palestinian forces and the Egyptians. At the beginning of 1949, the Israeli borders were defined by armistices negotiated separately with its neighbouring countries.
Armistice Agreements of 1949
In those years, the UN still played a central role in negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. In the early part of 1949, efforts focused in the first place on bringing about a permanent ceasefire between the warring parties. Armistice agreements, concerning armistice lines, exchange of prisoners of war and so forth, were signed between Israel and Egypt (24 February 1949), Israel and Lebanon (23 March), Israel and Jordan (3 April), and finally between Israel and Syria (20 July).
The agreements defined Israeli borders, which now encompassed 78 percent of the territory of the former Mandate of Palestine, 22 percent more than what the UN’s Partition Plan had initially established. In addition, Transjordan (from then on called Jordan) retained the West Bank of the Jordan River and the eastern part of Jerusalem, while Egypt took control of the small strip of land around the city of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast.
Furthermore, on the basis of the UNGA Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948, a Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was set up, which consisted of the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon on one side, Israel on the other side, plus France, Turkey, and the United States. A document the commission produced, the Lausanne Protocol (12 May 1949), showed fundamental disagreement between Israel and the Arab states: Israel preferred to deal on a bilateral basis with the Arab states (to counter their combined weight) and disputed the newly created borders (Israel still had its eye on the Gaza Strip that was now under the control of Egypt, and wanted some form of shared control in the West Bank, which had been conquered by Jordan).
The Arab states on the other hand focused on a multilateral approach and on the return of the Palestinian refugees who were hosted by them. Within a few years it became clear that the UNCCP would not succeed in its mission. Formally it still exists but now dormant, without budget or staff.
Israel Becomes UN Member
On the basis of the armistice agreements and its participation in the UNCCP, Israel was – after first being rejected in December – admitted as a member of the UN in May 1949 under the condition that it would accept UNGA Resolution 194 (UNGA Resolution 273 of May 11, 1949). Under UN pressure it declared that it ‘unreservedly accepts the obligations of the United Nations Charter and undertakes to honour them from the day when it becomes a Member of the United Nations’.
After the armistice agreements of 1949, the armistice lines with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria became the borders of the State of Israel. Israel’s territory included land conquered in the war of 1948-1949. The special status of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as mentioned in the UN Partition Plan, seemed to be absent from the agenda (although on December 9, 1949 in Resolution 303, the General Assembly would again stress the importance of an international regime for the Jerusalem area and the protection of the Holy Places). By failing to implement the above mentioned UNGA Resolution 194 of December 1948 concerning the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland and to receive compensation, Israel did not honour the obligations it had accepted on upon its admission to the UN.
On 12 August 1949, the Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted, which dealt with the protection of civilians in times of war and occupation. This document would turn out to be – theoretically at least – a very important judicial tool of international law for understanding the rights and obligations of all parties involved in this conflict.
Fatah and the PLO
In the next decade and a half, the Egiptian president Abd al-Nasser Nasser was the leader of a powerful Arab nationalist movement. In order to control the rise, in the same period, of a Palestinian nationalist movement (Fatah was created in January 1959, with Yasser Arafat as its chairman), the League of Arab States encouraged the formation on June 2, 1964 of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO was an umbrella organization for Palestinian groupings. The League put their own man, Ahmad al-Shukeiri, a Palestinian diplomat, in charge.
The PLO Charter of 1964 (Palestine National Charter 1964) speaks of the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle, and says among other things that Palestine, ‘with the borders at the time of the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit’ (Article 2). ‘The partitioning of Palestine, which took place in 1947, and the establishment of Israel are illegal and null and void, regardless of the passage of time, because they were contrary to the will of the Palestinian people and their natural right to their homeland, and were in violation of the basic principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations, foremost among which is the right to self-determination’ (Article 17). ‘The Palestinian people believe in peaceful co-existence on the basis of legal existence, for there can be no co-existence with aggression, nor can there be peace with occupation and colonialism’ (Article 22).
The Suez Crisis of 1956
In May 1956, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser recognized the People’s Republic of China, thereby angering the United States. In response, on 19 July 1956 Washington decided to withdraw its financial aid for the realization of a large irrigation project in Egypt, the High Dam at Aswan. One week later, on 26 July 1956, Nasser announced the nationalization of the British-French owned Suez Canal Company, thereby obstructing Great Britain and France’s interests. Outright military intervention was not an option however, since it lacked diplomatic backing from the United States.
So the British and French governments turned to Israel, which was looking for ways to stop attacks by Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla fighters) from the Gaza Strip (since 1948 under the control of Egypt). The three parties signed a secret agreement, known as the Protocol of Sèvres, according to which Israel would attack the Gaza Strip to neutralize fedayeen and lure the Egyptian army into retaliating. Then, the Israeli army would quickly invade the Sinai, a perfect excuse for the British and French governments to intervene with a ‘peace enforcing’ mission. In the process the British and French forces would reclaim authority over the Canal.
On 29 October 1956, Israeli paratroopers dropped east of Suez at the southern entrance of the waterway. The next day, after more paratroopers had secured more important passes in the ‘hinterland’ of the Egyptian army in the Sinai, the Israeli army crossed into the northern part of the desert. The Israeli Air Force could pit the recently acquired French Mystère fighters against the new MiG-15 in air battles over the Sinai. Air superiority was soon established.
On 5 November 1956, British and French forces started their intervention with airborne landings near Port Said. On the same day Israeli forces stopped near the Canal Zone and, in the south of the peninsula, occupied Sharm el-Sheikh and lifted the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Under pressure from both the United States and the General Assembly of the United Nations, the three forces withdrew and a ceasefire was concluded on 6 November 1956. A UN Emergency Force (UNEF), the first peacekeeping force in the history of the UN, was placed between the warring sides. The Israeli forces left the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in March 1957. UNEF left the Sinai in May/June 1967 on the request of Egypt, shortly before the outbreak of the June War.
The presence of UN troops offered Israel increased security – the decade after the war was the most tranquil period in the nation’s history. It also obtained guarantees from the United States that the Suez Canal, as an international waterway, would remain open to Israeli shipping.
The June War of 1967
One of the major developments – with hindsight – in the relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, was the June War of 1967.
The outcome of the war that raged from the 5th to the 10th of June 1967 was as stunning a victory for Israel as they would get. It took the Israeli armed forces only four days to evict the larger Egyptian army from the Sinai, two and a half days to defeat the Jordanian army on the West Bank, and a day and a half to wrestle the Golan Heights from the Syrian armed forces. This was after an Israeli aerial blitz, Operation Moked, had destroyed most of the air forces of these countries.
The hostilities started after the rhetoric had been heating up for months, culminating on 18 May 1967 in the expulsion by the Egyptian president Nasser of the peace keeping force of United Nations’ ‘blue-helmets‘ from the Sinai. He also closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces were mobilized. The Israeli military leadership saw a long awaited chance to change the balance of forces in Israel’s advantage. They had become convinced they could defeat the opposing Arab armed forces, provided they started hostilities with a surprise attack on the Egyptian air force.
On 5 June the Israeli air force of some 230 mainly French combat aircraft displayed what one would nowadays call tactical ‘disruptive innovation’. Thorough intelligence had revealed the alert procedures of the opposing Arab air forces. When Arab, Soviet-made, early warning radars observed approaching aircraft, their MiGs and Sukhois on alert status left their hangars and started take-off procedures. These aircraft stayed on the tarmac for some time, warming up the engines and checking avionics and other systems.
The Israeli aircraft, practically the whole inventory, flew under the radar and had timed their appearance on the radar screens so that they would be on top of the taxiing Arab fighters before they could take off. The trick worked. Israeli heat seeking missiles and guns destroyed hundreds of aircraft, ranging from top-of-the-line MiG 21 air-superiority fighters to heavy Badger bombers, helicopters and transport planes – at a cost of only 19 aircraft on the Israeli side. The Arab air forces were numerically superior, and the Soviet equipment could also be considered more modern than the relatively old French equipment the Israeli air force had in its inventory.
The subsequent defeat of the Arab armies had as much to do with Israeli training, tactics and doctrine as with military incompetence. The Egyptian army, for example, was organized in the same manner as the French army in 1940: small armoured detachments were linked to infantry divisions that were positioned on the border with Israel, thus lacking depth. The ‘masse de manoeuvre’ consisted of a meagre armoured force.
In the night of the first day of the war Israeli formations, with the deployment of paratroopers to provide deep penetration, attacked the Egyptian fortifications in the desert. A counter-attack came to nothing. Retreating Egyptian troops were surprised by Israeli armour that had overtaken them. After the Egyptian army had been defeated, Israeli troops fanned out over the Sinai Peninsula and dug in.
The Syrian Defeat
The Syrian front started to heat up later on 5 June. Here too, Israeli aircraft destroyed the bulk of the Syrian aircraft on the ground. The Syrian tactics were not effective: a few tanks rumbled into Israeli territory and artillery shells rained down from the Golan Heights on villages and farms below. After two days of debate the Israeli generals decided that the chaos within the ranks of their Arab counterparts resulting from the battering they had received, presented a window of opportunity to take the fortified heights. In the end, the poorly trained Syrian defenders proved inadequate to resist the Israeli formations. They fled in chaos.
The Jordanian Defeat
The scenes on the West Bank, on which the bulk of the Jordan armed forces were positioned, were no different from those in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Although much better trained and disciplined than the Syrian and Egyptian forces, the Jordanian army proved no match for Israeli armoured tactics and the rapid operations by paratroopers. On 10 June, a ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations. With the crushing defeat of the armed forces of three neighbouring countries, the June War drastically changed the balance of power, to Israel’s advantage.
Results of the 1967 War
In the course of the war, the last remnants of the former Mandate of Palestine were conquered by Israel: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. In addition, Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt) and the Golan Heights (from Syria).The shock that the defeat brought about in the Arab World was enormous. Deep feelings of humiliation help to explain why on 1 September 1967, at the following summit of the League of Arab States in Khartoum (Sudan), a resolution was passed (Khartoum Resolutions) in which the member states declared three No’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel (besides a common political and diplomatic effort to force Israel to withdraw from recently conquered Arab territory, and support for the rights of the Palestinian people).
The shock that the defeat brought about in the Arab World was enormous. Deep feelings of humiliation help to explain why on 1 September 1967, at the following summit of the League of Arab States in Khartoum (Sudan), a resolution was passed (Khartoum Resolutions) in which the member states declared three No’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel (besides a common political and diplomatic effort to force Israel to withdraw from recently conquered Arab territory, and support for the rights of the Palestinian people). Thus, the military results of the June War may indeed have been spectacular, but they did not lower the tensions in the region.
Furthermore, the June War would ultimately (on 3 February 1969) lead to a takeover of the PLO from within by the Palestinian member organizations, which had lost confidence in the policies of the Arab states with regard to Israel. As a result, the PLO could now be regarded as the true representative of the Palestinian people. Fatah leader Yasser Arafat became its new chairman. As early as 17 July 1968 – in the wake of the June War – the PLO had amended its 1964 Charter, presenting the rights of the Palestinian people in more explicit terms (Palestine National Charter 1968).
During the crisis, public opinion in the West had been solidly behind Israel. Because of its quick and devastating victory, Israel came to be seen by the United States as a great military/strategic asset. The increasing military co-operation after 1967 would ultimately – in November 1981 – result in a USA-Israel strategic cooperation agreement. Thus the Middle East became, more than ever before, one of the battlefields of the Cold War, with the United States and other Western powers supporting Israel, and the Arab states seeking military and diplomatic support from the Soviet block.
Israel now formulated its plans with respect to the newly conquered territory, first and foremost the West Bank (the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights were seen by many – but not all – Israeli politicians as bargaining chips in future peace agreements with Egypt and Syria respectively). On the basis of the Allon Plan of 26 July 1967, named after its architect, former general and cabinet member Yigal Allon, Israel aimed at annexing the Jordan Valley (the border with Jordan) and a large area around East Jerusalem, as well as a land corridor to connect both. The southern part of Gaza Strip would also stay under Israeli control. In order to strengthen its grip on these areas, Israel started to build a series of Israeli settlements (in addition to military bases). The plan offered the Palestinian inhabitants in the remaining parts of the West Bank (the main population centres) a form of limited self-government in association with Jordan (which had governed the West Bank between 1948 and 1967).
It took the UN Security Council several months to reach an agreement over the content and the exact wording of a resolution addressing the new situation. The final result was UNSC Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967. The significance of this resolution should not be underestimated. Most UN resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict refer in their preambles to ‘242’.
In its introduction, Resolution 242 emphasizes – in line with the UN Charter – ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’ and demands ‘withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict’. In return it demands ‘termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force’. Finally it affirms the necessity ‘for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem’.
Resolution 242 was conceived within the logic of a negotiated settlement between states. Non-state entities, like the (stateless) Palestinian people, fell outside this logic. The Palestinians were only indirectly referred to as being part of a refugee problem that had to be solved. Furthermore, it lacked a mechanism, based on international law, to ultimately force Israel to withdraw: all was left to the outcome of the negotiations between the parties involved. Moreover, the resolution was subject to interpretation. The wording in the resolution with respect to Israel’s obligation to withdraw from all territory occupied in 1967(‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’ as stated in the preamble) turned out to be a source of controversy.
The official French version stated: ‘retrait des forces armées israéliënnes des territoires occupés lors du récent conflit’, i.e. all territory, the interpretation of almost all other UN member states, which is in line with the UN Charter and ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’. The official English version, however, spoke of ‘withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict’, i.e. not (necessarily) all territory, which was a reading in line with Israel’s interpretation.
The Allon Plan
On the basis of its own interpretation of United Nations Resolution 242, Israel started to implement the Allon Plan by building settlements in Palestine – in violation of international law (Fourth Geneva Convention). Over the years both the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) have condemned this policy in a series of resolutions, but efforts to introduce punitive measures against Israel were repeatedly met with American vetoes in the UNSC and opposition from other Western member states.
With Resolution 242 the land-for-peace formula was introduced in future negotiations between Israel and the Arab States, as well as the implicit recognition of the State of Israel by Arab States. Israel, Egypt, and Jordan accepted ‘242’; Syria (and Lebanon) did so only years later. The PLO strongly opposed the resolution as it ignored the rights and political aspirations of the Palestinian people.
The UNSC designated a special representative, the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring, to work with all the states involved on the implementation of ‘242’. However, this was to no avail. From March 1969 until August 1970, along the 1967 ceasefire line, Egypt and Israel became caught up in a war of attrition, with artillery bombardments and air attacks by their air forces.
On December 9, 1969, aware of the dangers of further escalation in this war in which the Soviet Union and the United States were heavily involved, the American Secretary of State William Rogers presented a plan (the Rogers Plan). In the short term, the aim was to bring about a de-escalation in the military confrontation between Egypt and Israel. The plan called for demilitarized zones and free passage through the Suez Canal for all countries. In addition, the plan had all the ingredients for a bilateral peace agreement between the two states. Deserting the Arab front against Israel was, however, not an option for Egypt under Nasser. Similar efforts by Rogers involving Jordan were also to no avail.