Ben-Gurion on the Results of Sinai Campaign
(March 5, 1957)
On March 2, 1957, after receipt of the letter from President Eisenhower, the Government of Israel approved the withdrawal of its forces from the Gaza Strip and orders to that effect were issued to the Israel Defence Forces. On March 5, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion addressed the Knesset and reviewed the Sinai campaign and its results:
On 1 March, with the Government's authorisation, the Foreign Minister announced in the United Nations Assembly the evacuation of Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip, in compliance with the Assembly Resolution of 2 February.
Before discussing the contents of this announcement, I must briefly deal with the motives which brought us to these two areas, how the thing happened, and how and why we continued to occupy them for over four months.
On the morning of 28 October I submitted to the Government the plan for the Sinai operation. As I have already stated elsewhere, this was not a campaign of conquest but a campaign of deliverance.
Like many others, I believed that the Czech-Egyptian arms transaction greatly intensified the danger to our security, and we made desperate efforts to acquire the minimum armament supplies required to deter the enemy, as well as other guarantees for our security. In the latter aim we were completely unsuccessful.
On 15 October 1956 I reviewed in the Knesset our efforts to obtain arms, but I pointed out that, although we were not so defenceless as we had been at the beginning of the year - "Egypt alone still has an enormous superiority over Israel both by sea and in the air, and even on land. It has destroyers and submarines, it has heavy tanks British, Czech and Soviet it has Soviet jet fighters and bombers superior in quality and quantity to anything we possess, and if we add the constantly increasing armament of the other Arab countries, we have still more cause for anxiety."
Directed at Our Heart
In these very days the tripartite military alliance between Egypt, Jordan and Syria was signed, the armies of these three countries were placed under Egyptian command, and their rulers openly declared that they could now choose the time to wipe out Israel. We realized that the enemy's sword was not only hanging over our head but directed straight at our heart.
A glance at the map of Israel is enough to show clearly the immediate danger that faced us in those days: sudden attack by these countries under Egyptian command could easily have cut the country in two at the narrow strip in the neighbourhood of Netanya; our airfields and our two coastal towns, Jaffa-Tel Aviv and Haifa, where most of our population is concentrated, could have been bombed, thus obstructing the mobilization of reserves, who are the sole foundation of our security in view of the smallness of our regular army.
Such interference with the mobilization of our reserves and the bombardment of our airfields would have left us helpless against the aggression unless we had struck out first at the aggression. And the Sinai campaign became a condition of our very survival, an action in self-defence in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. I am certain that any other people in our position would have acted likewise.
In the course of five days, we defeated three Egyptian divisions in Sinai and the Gaza Strip. We destroyed all the fidayun bases, and destroyed or captured large quantities of Egypt's military equipment, including land, sea and air armament.
Essential, Justified and Worthwhile
The Sinai operation was essential, justified and worthwhile, if for this reason alone, and I doubt if any army has achieved such great and important results with so few though such precious casualties: 170 killed and 1 prisoner - as the Israel Defence Forces achieved in the Sinai operation. This was a campaign of deliverance for it saved Israel from a direct and immediate danger, crippled the enemy's aggressive capacity for no short period, and, in my opinion, inflicted a heavy blow on the prestige of the Egyptian dictator, who aims at dominating all the peoples of the Middle East, as well, perhaps, as the entire African continent. And had the Sinai campaign given us no more than this it would have been enough. It would have been justified. And the atmosphere of tension in which we lived for a full year, as the military power of Egypt grew week by week, slackened after the Sinai operation, and we were relieved.
Before the Sinai campaign began, when I placed the matter before the Government, I was asked and perhaps rightly what would be the fate of the Gaza Strip, the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, the coasts of the Straits and Sinai as a whole. At that historic Cabinet session on the morning of 2 October, I told the Government that in addition to our physical security "We are interested in the coast of Eilat and in the Straits" "The essential is freedom of navigation" "That is the main thing, even if we are not stationed there (at the Straits) we should have free passage."
I said that the plan of operation included the expulsion of the Egyptian invader, but I added that the Gaza Strip was an embarrassing objective on that occasion I used the English word "embarrassing" because even then I had no illusions about the tremendous difficulties involved in view of the circumstances within the Strip itself.
I have no need to enlarge on the execution of the Sinai operation; it is recorded in the pages of history. It combined brilliant planning by the Staff and extraordinary performance by the officers and soldiers on the battlefield. The whole world, both friends and enemies, recognize the skill and the heroism of the Israel Defence Forces. The standing which those Forces enjoy today in the eyes of world opinion is, I believe, uniquely high; and this is another welcome result which should not be scoffed at.
Anxieties Not Unfounded
When I reviewed the Sinai operation in the Knesset on 7 November of last year, I ended with the following words:
"It may be that in the near future we shall have to face a difficult political struggle, and perhaps something even graver. We shall not give way to the futile arrogance of the Arab rulers, but on the other hand we shall not humble ourselves before the powerful forces of the world, when justice is not on their side.
"Let us meet the days ahead with courage, with wisdom in the consciousness of the justice of our cause and of our strength, without ignoring our natural and necessary bonds with the world family of nations."
These grave anxieties have proved not unfounded. While the campaign was still in progress the Security Council was summoned with a view to putting an end to the operation and imposing sanctions upon us. The Resolution was not adopted owing to a veto in the Security Council, and the UN Assembly was immediately summoned to an emergency session. The President of the United States turned to us in an urgent appeal, and, as you know, we were confronted with the demand to evacuate Egyptian territory and retire behind the armistice lines, and we informed the President and the Secretary-General of the UN, with the approval of all parties in the Knesset, with the exception of Herut and the Communists, that we would evacuate Sinai when suitable arrangements would have been made with the UN forces. In a communication to the Secretary-General of the UN we defined suitable arrangements as "arrangements that would safeguard Israel against acts of hostility on land and sea", and we had two things in mind: free passage in the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran and the Red Sea, and the ending of the danger of the fidayun and the Egyptian aggression bases.
From a formal point of view, we were in a difficult position at that time. There was an Assembly Resolution, several times repeated, demanding our immediate withdrawal behind the armistice lines. The British and the French, who had seized part of the Canal and Port Said, withdrew without further ado in compliance with the UN's demand. We needed time and no little time to explain to world public opinion: a) the fact that we had acted not as aggressors, but in self-defence, and that it was Egypt which had for eight years carried out belligerent operations against us; b) the fidayun danger and the Egyptian dictator's aggressive plans; c) the vital importance of free passage in the Gulf of Aqaba and the Tiran Straits. And I am happy to be able to say that in the course of the four months since the end of the Sinai operation we were largely successful in this task.
Four months ago only a few persons here and there in different countries were aware of the very existence of the Straits. Little by little public opinion throughout the world came to understand the importance of the Straits for the shipping not only of Israel but of the nations in general, and our right under international law to free passage in this international waterway.
This was one of the most successful information actions on a world scale carried out by the Government of Israel and its representatives during these months. Most of the people of the free democracies and the great organs of the press overwhelmingly recognized our rights to freedom of passage and the importance in general of shipping in the Gulf and in the Straits. Apart from the achievement of the Israel Defence Forces, I doubt if anything received greater publicity during these months than the question of navigation in the Gulf of Eilat. This is an asset of great value that we have won as a by-product of the Sinai operation, and is additional to the principal goal, the saving of Israel from the aggression of the Egyptian dictator and his allies.
A second point which we have succeeded in bringing before world public opinion in the course of these four months is the danger of the fidayun, who were organized, trained and sent into the field by the Egyptian authorities, not only in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai bases but also in the neighbouring Arab countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. What fidayun activities spread over seven years more than 3,000 raids on Israel between 1949 and the end of 1956 could not do (for daily acts of sabotage and individual acts of murder were no sensation for the world press) was done by our information work in the course of the past months, thanks to the tremendous repercussions of the Sinai operation.
We cannot congratulate ourselves on having won over the whole of world public opinion. Almost the whole Soviet bloc persevered in its hostility to Israel, without any attempt to take into account the actual facts.
The Indian Government, too, showed a strange and regrettable indifference to Israel's just claim. But in several Asian countries, including even a few Moslem countries, there was considerable understanding and sympathy for Israel's attitude, although for obvious reasons this understanding was not openly and publicly expressed.
Conflict Grew Sharper
After we had evacuated the whole of the Sinai desert apart from the coastal strip of the Straits, the conflict between ourselves and the United Nations and especially between ourselves and the US Government grew sharper. In my political review in the Knesset on 23 January, I said, speaking of the coastal strip: "We have no interest in occupying this strip, and we wish to evacuate it at the earliest opportunity, when we receive effective guarantees against any interference with Israeli and international free passage, such as prevails now in this international waterway."
On the Gaza Strip I said: "In compliance with the stand of the Assembly, Israel has no intention of maintaining armed forces in the Gaza Strip but, for the good of the inhabitants of the area and their neighbours outside it, the Strip must be occupied by Israel, appropriate relations being established between the Israeli administration and the United Nations."
Since then our political efforts have been concentrated on two objectives, the safeguarding of the free passage in the Straits and an Israeli administration in cooperation with the United Nations in the Gaza Strip for three purposes: 1) security for Israel in general and the settlements of the south and the Negev in particular, 2) the rehabilitation of the resident population of the area, 3) the solution of the problem of the Gaza refugees by the United Nations, to which Israel would make its contribution.
On 2 February, the UN Assembly again adopted two Resolutions: the first deplored Israel's failure to complete the withdrawal behind the armistice lines in spite of the Assembly's repeated demands, and insisted on the completion of Israel's withdrawal without further delay; and in the second Resolution the Assembly recognized, inter alia, that the Israeli withdrawal must be followed by measures to ensure progress towards the creation of peaceful conditions.
Reply to the President
On the following day, on 3 February, I received a letter from the President of the United States couched in friendly terms but containing a grave warning. The President stated that the Resolution of 2 February was submitted to the Assembly by the United States and other countries with a view to bringing about peaceful conditions in the Middle East, but that the first step must be the completion of the Israeli withdrawal behind the armistice line.
In my reply to the President I pointed out that to our great regret the UN organs were adopting a double standard, and discriminating between Israel and Egypt. For the last eight years the Egyptians had been violating the UN Charter and the armistice agreement, defying the Security Council, engaging in hostilities against Israel, denying our ships free passage in the Suez Canal, and breaking their pledged word given in 1950 to the U.S. Government in regard to free passage in the Gulf of Eilat.
All this had been done for the purpose of destroying Israel by force while those who had the power and the authority had done nothing to prevent these grave violations of international obligations. Though Israel was a small country, it was entitled to security, liberty and equality of rights in the family of nations. Like any other independent State, we were free as of right, and we asked whether the United Nations Organization was going to discriminate between one nation and another.
The main question was whether the Egyptian Government was prepared to put an end to its acts of hostility against us. Only in this way, and not by a return to the status quo ante, was it possible to ensure peace in our area. For these reasons we are unable to complete the withdrawal without prior satisfactory arrangements.
A Resolution demanding sanctions against Israel was submitted in the Assembly, but our contention against the imposition of a double standard met with considerable sympathy in the world, in almost all the free countries, including the United States. We declared that we would not be deterred by the threat of sanctions. On 10 February, Mr. John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State, made an attempt to break the deadlock. He informed our representative in Washington that the President had read my letter with attention and sympathy, and a reply was prepared in the form of a memorandum which was handed to our Ambassador and published a day or two later.
(The Prime Minister then briefly summarized the main points of Mr. Dulles' memorandum of 11 February.)
The talks with the American Secretary of State to clarify various points in his memorandum lasted several days, and we stated our attitude in a written memorandum that was handed to the Secretary of State and later published. In this memorandum we expressed our appreciation of the United States' positive approach to the problem of the Gulf of Eilat and the Straits as an international waterway, and the statement on American use of the free passage with the cooperation of other States; we also welcomed the Secretary's statement that the UN Force would be stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh.
We pointed out, however, that the recognition of the right to free passage in itself did not guarantee free passage for Israel, as had been seen in the case of the Suez Canal; therefore it was essential that the UN Force should remain in the area until a peace settlement had been arrived at.
As for Gaza, we emphasized that this strip of land had never been Egyptian territory, and that Egypt was not entitled to claim any rights under the armistice agreement after violating the agreement throughout the years, and maintaining a formal and actual state of war against us in violation of the Security Council's decision.
The Egyptians must, therefore, on no account be restored to the Strip, which they had transformed during the period of their occupation into a base for aggression against Israel.
In view of these talks the Assembly's sitting was postponed. On the other hand, the demand of the Arab and Soviet bloc for the imposition of sanctions grew in strength.
Arriving at an Agreed Settlement
On 18 February, I sent a Note, with the approval of the Government, to the Secretary of State, urgently asking for the postponement of further deliberations in the Assembly and the despatch of a committee, which should if necessary also visit the Straits, so as to arrive at an agreed settlement of the problems of Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip.
In this letter I stated that if the United Nations Organization, with the support of the United States, should impose sanctions upon us, it would be committing a historic injustice which would undermine the moral basis of the international organization.
In the light of the recent talks I felt that there were grounds for hope that an agreed solution might be arrived at after a thorough investigation on the spot, and that the delay involved was worthwhile in order to save Israel and the United States from a most tragic development.
I received no reply from Mr. Dulles to this appeal, but two days later, on 20 February, I received a long message from the President of the United States to the effect that, in response to my letter of 18 February, the United States delegation had supported the proposal to postpone the Assembly's sitting; a long-term postponement, however, was out of the question, and in the absence of an affirmative decision on the part of the Israel Government there was no certainty that the Assembly's deliberation would not involve grave consequences.
It was the President's hope that we would immediately announce our compliance with the demand for withdrawal, and rely on the resoluteness of all friends of justice to bring about a state of affairs which would conform to the principles of justice and international law and serve impartially the proper interests of all in the area. In this message the President stated that, after consultations with Congressional leaders, he intended to broadcast to the American people on these questions.
The President Broadcasts
I replied the same evening that I had no right to take any decisions on my own responsibility, but that I would submit his message to the Government the next day, and would immediately inform him of the Government's decisions.
I asked, however, for the postponement of the Assembly's sitting for a few days so that the discussions should take place in a quiet atmosphere.
On the same day the President broadcast to the American people.
(The Prime Minister then briefly summarized the main points of the President's broadcast.)
The next day, on 21 February, I replied to the President in the Knesset, and there is no need for me to repeat what I said on that occasion.
We instructed our Ambassador, who had come home for consultations with the Government, to endeavour to separate the problem of the Straits from that of the Gaza Strip, and to arrive at a settlement of one of these problems, even if the other could not yet be settled. He was to inform the United States and the other members of the United Nations that in accordance with the attitude we had adopted all the time we would withdraw from the Straits if freedom of passage for Israel was assured (whether by the stationing of the UN Force, by guarantees from various countries, by an agreement between the four littoral States, or by any other arrangement satisfactory to the Government of Israel).
As for Gaza, our attitude was that the Egyptians must on no account be restored to Gaza, and we proposed that a UN commission should be sent to discuss with us the three problems of the Strip: security, the rehabilitation of the residents, and the problem of the refugees. On the same day, 21 February, I informed the President that our Ambassador was returning to Washington with the instructions of the Government and it was our hope that we would reach mutual understanding.
It became clear in New York and Washington that the two problems could not be separated.
Faced with Deadlock
We were faced with total deadlock and both the Government and the nation were prepared to endure sanctions if the Arab and Soviet blocs with the support or the abstention of the United States succeeded in organizing a two-thirds majority for its imposition, although a vigorous and comprehensive and not unsuccessful effort was made in several European, American and other capitals, to secure effective opposition to such a decision, and a number of States undertook to vote against a sanctions Resolution or to abstain.
Two draft Resolutions emerged: one submitted by several Arab countries calling for sanctions, and another in the form of an ultimatum to Israel to evacuate its forces in the course of three to five days, failing which measures would be taken against it. In the meantime, the UN Assembly was postponed for a few days, and the discussions between ourselves and the U.S. Government continued. Friends of ours in various countries, as well as newspapers which had supported us, advised us to do whatever possible to reach a solution on the basis of the prospects held out to us in our talks with the United States.
Towards the end of last week, there was a turning point in the negotiations, thanks to the participation of representatives of Canada and France in the discussions and consultations. It became clear that there was practically no prospect of the adoption by the Assembly of any resolution requiring as it did a two-thirds majority even if the resolution was acceptable to all the countries friendly to us, including the United States.
After thorough deliberations that continued for days on end both here and in the United States, the Government authorized the Foreign Minister to make a statement in the Assembly on I March to the following effect:
Israel will withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh. In regard to Sharm el-Sheikh, we had stated all the time that we had no interest in the coastal strip, and our only aim was that after the withdrawal free passage should be assured in the Gulf of Eilat and the Straits of Tiran. Such free passage is vital to Israel, and is also of great importance to other countries which are interested in shipping and trade in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Gulf as International Waterway
There has been a growing conviction in the world recently that the Gulf of Aqaba is an international waterway. The Secretary of State's Memorandum of 11 February to the Israel Ambassador declares that the United States is ready to make use of freedom of passage in the Straits and cooperate with other countries to ensure universal recognition of the right of free passage. The Government of Israel was subsequently informed that other maritime countries are also prepared to undertake to support the principles laid down in the Memorandum of 11 February and also intend to make use in practice of the right of free and innocent passage in the Straits The Memorandum states that in accordance with the second Assembly Resolution of 2 February, the UN Emergency Force will occupy Sharm el-Sheikh after the Israeli withdrawal, and that it is universally recognized that the functions of the UNEF in the Straits includes prevention of acts of hostility. In this connection the Government of Israel recalls the statements of the U.S. delegates to the Assembly of 28 January and 2 February that it is the duty of the UN units stationed in the Straits to separate the land and sea forces of Israel and Egypt. This separation is essential until it is clear that no alleged belligerent rights are being exercised, and until the peaceful conditions which are essential in a waterway of international importance such as this one are established in practice.
No Hasty Withdrawal
The Government of Israel viewed with concern the possibility that the UN forces, whose function it is to prevent acts of hostility, might be withdrawn in conditions that would permit interference with free and innocent passage, and thus lead to the renewal of hostilities., Such a premature withdrawal of the UN's security measures for the prevention of belligerent acts could injuriously affect important international interests and endanger peace and security. For this reason the Government asked for and received an undertaking contained in the Secretary-General's memorandum of 26 February 1957, to the effect that any proposal for the withdrawal of the UN forces from the Straits must first come before the Advisory Committee that represents the Assembly in the implementation of the decision of 2 November 1956. This procedure will in my opinion enable the United Nations to ensure that no hasty step is taken which is liable to lead to hostilities, and we have reason to believe that many members of the UN will be guided by the policy expressed by the U.S. delegate on 2 February. namely, to maintain the UN Force in the Straits until peaceful conditions are established in practice.
In the light of the principles, policies and arrangements of the UN and of the maritime States, the Government believes that free and innocent passage for Israel and other ships will be fully maintained even after Israel's withdrawal. As a maritime State and as a country that will fully implement its rights to free passage in the Gulf and the Straits, Israel believes that no country has the right to interfere with free and innocent passage in the Gulf and the Straits as these terms are defined in maritime law.
As a littoral Gulf State, Israel will gladly offer facilities in Eilat to ships of all nations. We welcome the undertakings received from the principal maritime countries that they look forward to regular and constant traffic by their ships in the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel will not interfere in any way with the free and innocent passage of Arab ships.
Israel Will Defend its Ships
Israel will defend its shipping in the international waterways and the [high] seas. Any interference by armed force with ships of the Israel flag exercising free and innocent passage in the Gulf of Aqaba and through the Straits of Tiran will be regarded by Israel as an attack entitling it to use its inherent right to self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter and to take all such measures as are necessary to ensure the free passage of its ships through the Straits and in the Gulf This declaration has been made in accordance with the accepted principles of international law, although the Government hopes that this contingency will not occur.
President Eisenhower stated on 20 February that "we should not assume that if Israel withdraws, Egypt will prevent Israeli shipping from using the Suez Canal or the Gulf of Aqaba." This declaration played no small part in deciding Israel's attitude on this occasion.
As for Gaza, the Government of Israel announced that it will withdraw from the Gaza Strip on the following assumptions:
1) That the take-over from the military and civilian control of Israel will be exclusively by the UNEF.
2) That the UN forces will carry out functions enumerated by the Secretary-General, namely: to safeguard life and property in the area by providing effective and efficient police protection; to guarantee good civilian administration; to assure maximum assistance to the UN refugee problem; to foster the economic development of the territory and its people.
3) That the responsibility of the UN in the administration of