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David Ben-Gurion:
Speech to Knesset on Situation in Sinai

(February 21, 1957)


Ben-Gurion: Table of Contents | Biography | Select Quotations


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On February 21, 1957, Ben-Gurion informed President Eisenhower that Ambassador Eban would return to the United States on February 22 and bring with him the decision of the Israeli Government. Israel had, in early February, sought to separate the future of Gaza from the issue of freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran. While there was agreement between Israel and the United States over the latter point, there was none over the fate of the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israel had tried to postpone the debate in the United Nations to the end of February but postponement was opposed by Secretary-General Hammarskjold.

Mr. Chairman, honoured Knesset members, fate has decreed that our small and young State should become involved in a grave controversy with two world factors which perhaps no State in the world appreciates more than Israel, namely, the United Nations and the United States.

The controversy is over a decisive moral question in international relations whether the United Nations, with the aid of the United States, shall apply different standards of justice, one for dictatorial Egypt and one for democratic Israel; whether those who desire to destroy us shall be allowed to disregard every international undertaking and promise, violate the U.N. Charter and the resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council, send murderers and saboteurs into our country, and impose an economic siege, boycott, and blockade on us while Israel is not allowed to defend itself or to protect its rights, sovereign equality, and security; whether the United Nations with the aid of the United States shall impose sanctions on us because we do not accept the double moral standard of the Egyptian dictator who demands that others fulfil everything that benefits him while he violates every bilateral agreement and international obligation which benefits others.

Will the United Nations and the United States give their blessing to this regime of outrageous and flagrant discrimination in international relations? This is the bitter question which is now being asked not only in our country but throughout the entire world, which, like us, is not willing to accept the rule that might is right. Every attempt to impose on us perverted justice and a regime of discrimination will encounter unshrinking opposition from the Israeli people. If there is not one law and one standard of justice for all nations in the United Nations, then its moral basis will be destroyed.

Even in this tragic dispute, we do not resort to a totalitarian attitude in our judgment of others. Everything has lights and shadows and we must not be rash in condemning others on account of the shadows while disregarding the lights and vice versa. We have to observe this great rule also with regard to the United Nations and the United States.

The United Nations is certainly still far from perfection. We have bitter and strong objections against it and not only during recent times. But we shall not reject this international institution. The vision embodied in the United Nations is the vision of our prophets. The principles on which it is founded are the principles of peace, justice, and equality among nations. These principles are not less dear to us than to any other nation. In accordance with their heritage, faith, needs, and position in the world, the people of Israel have to adhere to these principles and assist with all their modest strength in preserving them and making them effective in international relations. The fact that the United Nations includes member-States which do not respect human rights and freedom and some which maintain slavery and slave traffic does not detract from the value and importance of the principles of the United Nations.

We have to realize that implementation of the vision of the United Nations is a historic process which will not be completed within one day or one year. To the extent that we are able, we have to assist in speeding up and implementing this vision. We must on no account despair of the hopes which the majority of the nations of the world place in this organization. In our regrettable dispute with the United States, as well, we must not forget for a single moment that this nation achieved on a huge scale in a great and rich country during a few centuries the same pioneer and redeeming work which we have to carry out in a small and poor country within a few years absorption of immigrants from all countries and turning them into a united nation; formation of a democratic regime based on human freedom and dignity and creative initiative without compulsion and force.

There is a large measure of common approach between us and the American people to the heritage of the Bible. We need not and have no right to approve everything done by the U.S. Government, but our opposition to any injurious proposals by the American Government cannot weaken in any manner our feelings of appreciation of and friendship for the American people, our feelings of gratitude for the moral and material aid which this people and their Government extended to us. We shall not spare any efforts to present to the Government and people of the United States our just cause.

We already have had one such tragic dispute with the Government of another great nation, the British Government, which since 1939 had openly disregarded its obligations and promises to the Jewish people. We did not accept this injustice, and organized in opposition to the White Book a so-called illegal immigration with the intention of saving the maximum number of Jews from the Nazi sword and of building the ancient homeland of a nation.

This difficult and bitter resistance against the policy of the Government of the Mandate did not prevent us from acknowledging the moral greatness of the British people which alone stood up with supreme valour to the Nazi hangman.

Tens of thousands of our sons and daughters volunteered to fight in Jewish units in the ranks of the British Army in the African desert and in Europe although we did at the same time everything we could to foil the policy of the White Book.

If the calamity should happen that world Powers, directly or indirectly, should assist in the evil design which the Arab rulers with the aid of their allies are planning against Israel, then we shall not accept this decision but resist it with all our moral strength. I believe that we shall not be alone in the struggle. In every country and nation there are people of conscience who would not tolerate such partiality and will not put up with an international discrimination against a small nation which with superhuman efforts is building its ancient destroyed homeland, which is accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees expelled from all parts of the globe, and is building a society founded on freedom, justice, and peace in the spirit of the vision of Israel's prophets, and the fostering of science and human values in our time and the future.

What is the quarrel between us and our neighbours about? It did not begin on 3 February 1957, and not on 2 November 1956, and also not on 29 October of that year. The quarrel is as old as the renewed State of Israel. When, at the end of November 1947, the U.N. General Assembly decided to set up a Jewish State in Palestine, the Arab rulers led by Egypt announced that they would oppose the implementation of this resolution by force.

In the middle of May the State was established, and immediately, on the same day, six Arab States under Egypt's leadership invaded the territory of the State. In the 309th session of the Security Council, Gromyko, the Soviet delegate, declared that the States whose armies had invaded Israel had violated the resolution of the Security Council. However, neither the U.N. General Assembly nor the Security Council demanded that the invaders withdraw and only the self-sacrifice of our sons and daughters enabled us to expel the enemies from our country.

The armistice agreement signed between Israel and Egypt in 1949 stipulates in the first article that the armistice between the armed forces of the two sides is regarded as a necessary step toward the abolition of the armed conflict and restoration of peace in Palestine. For eight years Israel has demanded the restoration of peace as laid down by the armistice agreement and in accordance with the obligation imposed by the U.N. Charter on all member-States. But Egypt refused and the United Nations did nothing about this twofold violation of the armistice agreement and the U.N. Charter.

Egypt announced, in contravention of the armistice agreement, that a state of war existed between it and Israel and organized a series of acts of hostility, economic boycott, and blockade in the Suez Canal and the Straits of Eilat. But the United Nations again did nothing.

In 1951 Israel complained to the Security Council about the exclusion of Israeli shipping from the Suez Canal. Egypt claims that it was doing this on the basis of a state of war existing between it and Israel, although the Convention of Constantinople of 1888 says explicitly that freedom of navigation in the Canal is assured to all nations in times of peace and war.

The Security Council ruled out Egypt's claim and declared that a state of war is incompatible with the armistice agreement and Egypt has no right to interfere with Israel's freedom of shipping in the canal. Egypt disobeyed the Security Council in disregard of Article 25 of the U.N. Charter and nothing was done during all these years by the United Nations with respect to Egypt's disobedience of the resolutions of the Security Council.

We must ask the question: Does the duty of obedience fall only on a small and democratic State while a dictatorial regime is free to do whatever it likes in contravention of international law, the U.N. Charter, and the resolutions of the Security Council? On 13 October 1956, the Security Council again unanimously opposed any discrimination, whether overt or covert, against any country in the Suez Canal. Whereupon Egypt declared that Israeli ships would not be allowed to pass through the Canal. Once again nothing was done by the United Nations to redress the evil. In 1956 Egypt occupied two deserted islands in the Straits of Eilat that never before had belonged to Egypt.

In its approach to the U.S. Government on 28 January 1950, the Egyptian Government declared that the occupation of these islands was in no way intended to interfere with shipping in the waters of the straits between the two islands and the Egyptian coast in Sinai. Navigation was to remain open in accordance with international justice. The Egyptian dictator has disregarded even this pledge. He stationed in Mifrats Shelomo an armed force which interfered with Israeli shipping in the straits.

Neither the United States, which was given this clear assurance by Egypt, nor the United Nations, whose duty it is to preserve the principles of the Charter, have done anything all these years to prevent the violation of international law and to ensure for Israel freedom of shipping in the straits. Now eight years later we have for the first time restored freedom of shipping for Israel and in general in the Straits of Eilat.

The Israeli Government has declared its readiness to withdraw Israeli troops immediately from the shores of the straits if only freedom of shipping in this international waterway is assured, either by the stationing of a U.N. force on the shores of the straits, by the conclusion of peace between Israel and Egypt, or by any other way. The Egyptian Government has declared time and again that it will forbid the passage of Israeli ships either in the Suez Canal or in the Straits of Eilat as soon as it can do so. Israel has no right to surrender its prerogatives and security in the straits.

The Security Council's resolution that the Egyptian blockade is illegal preceded by six years the U.N. General Assembly's resolution of 1957. Why did the United Nations do nothing to implement a resolution which has been pending for six years? They only recognize the Assembly's resolution taken this month. Why is it that Egypt was not called upon in the past to observe a resolution which preceded by six years the month of February 1957? Why is it that only now Egypt is being asked to observe this resolution?

Is there one law for the Egyptian dictator and another for democratic Israel? Israel is entitled to freedom of shipping in the Suez [Canal] in accordance with the Constantinople agreement and the Security Council's resolution. Israel also is entitled to freedom of shipping in the Straits of Eilat according to international law. The ships of Israel had sailed through these straits 3,000 years ago in the days of King Solomon.

In its Note to the United States, the Egyptian Government clearly declared that passage through the straits will be free to all nations. This right was violated for many years through the lawless force of the Egyptian ruler. This ruler announced that he will continue in the future to prevent our ships passing through the Canal and the straits. There is not the slightest doubt that the moment the Egyptian dictator is allowed to return to the straits, he will stop Israeli shipping as he has been doing all along in the Suez [Canal]. Israel, therefore, is entitled to ensure effective guarantees from the United States for freedom of passage.

Israel has no need and no desire to occupy the desolate coastal strip of the straits, but it cannot withdraw from the area without the assurance that the Egyptian dictator's acts of violence against its shipping, which the United Nations tolerated for years, will not be repeated. It is well known that the Gaza Strip has never been Egyptian territory. Its life and economy will always be bound to Israel. When the Egyptians invaded Israel in 1948, they occupied the Strip. At that time the Gaza Strip became a temporarily occupied area by virtue of that invasion, in other words by virtue of a violation of the Assembly's decision and the U.N. Charter. None of the delegates to the United Nations contended then that Egypt must not be rewarded even temporarily for its aggression a contention which is now brought against Israel, although, in the Sinai campaign, Israel did not attack Egypt, but acted in self-defence.

What has Egypt done in the Gaza Strip during these eight years? It suppressed and ruined the population, obstructed every attempt to resettle the refugees, and turned the Strip into a base for military aggression against Israel and a centre for gangs of murderers and saboteurs used against Israel's population. The documents which fell into our hands when the Egyptian Army was expelled from Gaza at the beginning of November 1956 revealed all the destructive designs and aggressive plans of the Egyptian dictator and his subordinates against Israel several years before the Sinai campaign.

The Egyptian dictator treated the armistice agreement as he did all his other international obligations. He treated it as a scrap of paper. In fact, he abolished it for all practical purposes. We cannot be asked to permit the return of the Egyptian invaders to the Strip by virtue of the agreement which Egypt has made null and void. Egypt cannot enjoy the benefits of the agreement which for years it has been trampling underfoot for the purpose of reestablishing in the Gaza Strip a base for aggression, murder, and sabotage against Israel. No matter what may happen, Israel will not submit to the restoration of the status quo in the Strip.

As we see it, there are three main problems in the Strip: 1 - Security for Israel's settlements in the southern Negev; 2 - The economic rehabilitation of the residents of the area; 3 - A solution for the problem of the refugees living in the Strip. Israel desires basic discussions with the United Nations and cooperation with it in order to find a solution for these three problems.

Israel is prepared to withdraw its military forces from the area. The unfortunate deadlock of recent weeks in the settlement of the affairs of the Straits of Eilat and the Gaza Strip has been broken to some extent in the last few days by the initiative of the United States Administration. The Secretary of State, Mr. John Foster Dulles, has published, by the authority of the President, the document which was handed to our Ambassador in Washington on 11 February. The Government of Israel has given most serious consideration to this important document and has expressed its sincere appreciation of the efforts of the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to seek a solution for the two problems of the straits and Gaza.

The Government has welcomed the U.S. declaration recognizing the character of the Gulf of Aqaba as an international waterway and the reference to the Egyptian Government's undertaking of 1950 on this subject. The Government also saw an important step forward in the willingness of the United States to dispatch its ships to the gulf and invite other Governments to do likewise. The Government could not, however, ignore the grave and certain danger that Egypt will again interfere with Israel's navigation as it openly proclaims its intention to do.

The fact that American and other ships will be passing through the straits does not in the slightest degree detract from this danger.

This is clearly demonstrated by the situation in the Suez Canal. Ships of all nations passed through the Suez Canal as decreed in the Constantinople Convention of 1888. There is an express decision of the Security Council of 1951 which stated that Egypt is not entitled to interfere with the passage of Israeli ships in the Suez [Canal], and yet Israel was robbed of this recognized right. The Egyptian dictator violated the Constantinople Convention and the Security Council decision, and throughout these years not a single step was taken against this deliberate violation of international law and the U.N. Charter.

For these reasons, the Government of Israel considers it essential that the U.N. Emergency Force should be stationed on the coast of the straits to safeguard freedom of navigation of Israel's shipping until peace is concluded with Egypt or until some other reliable and effective arrangement is made to this end. In the last debate in the General Assembly, the representatives of the United States said that it was essential that units of the U.N. Emergency Force should be stationed in the straits until peaceful conditions necessary for freedom of navigation in this international waterway could be achieved.

As for the Gaza Strip, it should be made certain that Egypt will not return to that area either directly or indirectly, and the United Nations and Israel should arrive at a settlement which will guarantee security for Israel and its settlements in the South and the Negev and provide for the rehabilitation of the permanent residents impoverished during the period of Egyptian occupation, and pave the way for the solution of the problem of refugees by the United Nations. Israel is prepared to help in the rehabilitation of the local inhabitants and to contribute to the maximum of its ability to the solution of the refugee problem. The Government of Israel has declared that Israel does not consider itself in. a state of war with Egypt and is prepared to sign a treaty of non-aggression which will prohibit all acts of hostility on the basis of mutuality.

The Government has decided to make a further effort to reach an understanding with the U.S. Government - Ambassador Eban, who is returning to Washington tomorrow, will convey to the American Government the position of the Government of Israel. We hope that the door is not closed to further discussions. Yesterday the President of the United States told the American people that the United Nations should exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba.

In spite of the painful feelings aroused by some of the President's words, I cannot forget for a moment that President Eisenhower is not only the elected leader of the American nation, but one of the most illustrious men of our generation, who had personally been responsible for the destruction of what was perhaps the most monstrous and terrible regime in human history.

President Eisenhower's letter a fortnight ago contained the same demand which he uttered yesterday in his message to his people. This constituted for me a great moral pressure, for I was keenly conscious of the personality and the standing of the writer. If I was compelled to reply as I did, I did so only under a still stronger compulsion: the pressure of my conscience as a man and a Jew, the pressure of the justice for which my people were fighting and the absolute certainty that justice is the source of the strength and survival of my people a small and poor member of the family of nations, a people which suffered ignominy and persecution for centuries because it stubbornly refused to deny its faith, past, and the vision of its future.

It was not with a light heart that I gave the answer I gave to the President of the United States. It was out of a deep sense of responsibility, the crushing historic responsibility that rests on the representatives of this small nation in its hard and bitter struggle for survival against the many who seek to destroy it. In my reply I tried to explain to the President that we have no intention of holding on to the coastal strip of the straits for a single unnecessary moment and that all we are asking is security for our freedom of navigation in the straits of which we were robbed by the piratical action of the Egyptian dictator without the United Nations lifting a finger.

I also informed him that we are ready to withdraw our military forces from Gaza without delay, and that we are interested in appropriate arrangements with the United Nations to safeguard peace and stability in the area, economic rehabilitation for the residents, and a better hope for the refugees so that they will no longer be a prey to the incitement of the Egyptian dictator.

I am confident that every single member of the Knesset fully understands the grave meaning of the pressure against Israel referred to by the President of the United States. The reason given to justify that pressure is the need to fortify the authority of the U.N. Charter. With all the modesty incumbent on the representative of a small nation, I venture to claim that nothing stands in greater conflict with the U.N. Charter than injustice and discrimination practised against us, because we are few, weak, and perhaps isolated.

The discrimination which we condemn is not the discrimination between Israel and the Soviet Union, but the discrimination between ourselves and Egypt.

In his speech, the President rightly declared that the United Nations and its member-States must from now on make a great effort to safeguard international law and justice. These words clearly imply that up till now the United Nations has not adequately done its duty in this respect and the main victim has been Israel.

For eight years the United Nations has permitted acts of hostility, boycott, blockade, and murder by the Egyptian Government against Israel. Does it not follow, from what the President said, that this wrong should now be put right and without delay by the U.N. Assembly, and that Israel should be assured of peace and security and the observance of its rights on land, at sea, and in the air? If the United Nations rights this wrong, that will immediately solve all the problems that trouble the President and ourselves in connection with the straits and the Gaza Strip and the question of compliance or non-compliance on Israel's part will not arise at all.

Israel's right to peace and security is no less valid than Egypt's right to war and destruction. Ever since our State was formed, we have called for peace and cooperation with our neighbours on a basis of equality and mutual respect. The people of Israel cannot submit to discrimination in international relations. We have believed and we shall continue to believe in the conscience of humanity. We appeal to the American Government and to all friends of peace and justice in the world to stand by our side and to help to secure for the people of Israel its international rights, sovereign equality, peace, and security.


Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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