By 20 May 1967 it was estimated that some 60,000 Egyptian troops had crossed into Sinai. Their numbers had grown to 85,000 two days later. On 21 May, Egypt mobilized 100,000 additional reservists. Syria had massed troops along the Israel border and announced maximum preparedness. Iraqi forces were placed on war alert. Egypt's military moves were approved by the Arab League States on 20 May. Two days earlier, Israel began a partial mobilization. On 22 May, Prime Minister Eshkol, in an address to the Knesset, appealed for mutual troop reductions and an end to the crisis. Please find the full text of Eshkol's address to the Knesset below.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Knesset:
This session of the Knesset opens against the background of grave developments which took place during the past week on Egypt's border with Israel. I shall briefly review the chain of events.
During the night of May 15, 1967, news of the movement of Egyptian military forces into Sinai reached us from various sources. Military forces had been openly and demonstratively transferred, in broad daylight. Cairo explained that this step was taken in response to Israel's alleged preparations to attack Syria, and concentration of military forces on the northern frontier.
Upon learning of the Egyptian troop movements and the pretext offered to explain them, and before Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal, we informed the UN that the allegations of Israeli troop concentrations in northern Israel were baseless. This statement was released for publication in the world press. Indeed, our statement was transmitted by the UN to Middle Eastern capitals, including Cairo. In his report to the Security Council on May 19, 1967, the UN Secretary-General states that UN observers verified the absence of Israeli troop concentrations and Israeli military movements on the northern frontier.
Nevertheless, Egyptian troop movements continued in the direction of Sinai, while mendacious propaganda continued to proceed from Cairo and Damascus concerning Israeli concentrations which had never taken place.
During the first days of Egyptian troop movements towards Sinai, authoritative political circles in the world capitals expressed the view that this was merely a propaganda move, devoid of any particular military significance.
The movement of Egyptian forces into Sinai gathered strength during the second half of last week, and today they are almost fully deployed in Eastern Sinai and various positions throughout the Peninsula. Before May 14, the Egyptian force in Sinai consisted of less than two divisions, based mainly on infantry and some armour. Today, after reinforcements, Egyptian forces there are of a strength of close to four divisions of armoured infantry. Furthermore, numerous artillery units have been brought up, and the Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip have been strengthened. Moreover, the Egyptian air force in the Sinai Peninsula has also been reinforced.
All in all, the strength of Egyptian forces in Sinai has grown, according to our estimate, from 35,000 to 80,000 men. This is the first time that Egypt has brought forces of such dimensions into Sinai. With the increase of the Egyptian force and its advance into east Sinai, a graver international view is also being taken of Egypt's likely intentions and possible moves.
Members of the House:
While Egyptian forces advanced into east Sinai, the Chief of Staff of Egypt's armed forces informed the Commander of the UN Emergency Force on Tuesday, 16 May, as follows:
"I have instructed all the armed forces of the United Arab Republic to be ready for action against Israel, as soon as Israel carries out any aggressive action against any Arab State. In the light of these instructions, our forces have already been concentrated in Sinai on our eastern border. In order to ensure the full safety of all UN forces deployed in observation posts along our borders, we request that the removal of these forces be ordered at once."
The Commander of the UN Emergency Force replied that he would at once report accordingly to the UN Secretary-General since he had no authority to withdraw any parts of the UN Emergency Force or to alter their deployment in any manner, unless instructed to do so by the Secretary-General.
From then on matters were dealt with by the UN Secretary-General. U Thant at once requested clarifications from the Egyptian representative at the UN, but at the same time he saw fit, for some reason, to announce on his own initiative that any request for the temporary removal of the UN Emergency Force from the border would be regarded as a demand for the complete evacuation of the force from the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
The UN Secretary-General's announcement was soon followed, on the very same day, by Egypt's official request for the complete evacuation of the UN Force from Egyptian territory and from the Gaza Strip.
The Secretary-General pointed out, it is true, in his reply on the same day, that the evacuation of the force was liable to be of grave significance for the peace of the region, but, to general surprise, on the other hand, he complied at once with the request for evacuation.
On Friday, May 19, the Commander of the UN Force, General Rikhye, informed the Israeli authorities that, as from 4: 00 P.M. of the same day, the force had ceased to carry out its functions and that it would remain in its bases and act only to ensure its own safety. This is the only official communication on this subject which Israel has received from the UN. Here I must point out that Israel was a party to this international arrangement, reached in 1957, but the Secretary-General did not see fit to consult Israel before he adopted his hasty decision.
Members of the House:
The UN Emergency Force was established by virtue of the General Assembly Resolution of November 5, 1956. For more than ten years this force, consisting of soldiers of many countries, was deployed in Sinai - at Kuntila and Sharm el-Sheikh and in the Gaza Strip.
The function of this force, according to the UN General Assembly Resolution of February 8, 1957, was to contribute to the maintenance of peaceful conditions in the region. In other words, its establishment was based upon the aspiration to prevent hostilities and promote the transition from belligerency to peace. The UN Force was not intended, it is true, nor was it physically able, to prevent a clash between the parties. The very fact of its presence in certain areas - and the tasks which it actually fulfilled - constituted, no doubt, a positive factor.
The UN Force was deployed in its positions in our region for more than ten years. The demand for its evacuation, and the compliance with it, undoubtedly involve a weakening of the UN's position in its functions of keeping the peace.
It is noteworthy that even at the time when UNEF was established, the question of how the UN would act and react in case of an Egyptian demand for its evacuation was raised. In his memorandum of February 26, 1957, the then Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, reported to the General Assembly on a statement which he had transmitted to the Government of Israel, in which he said that suitable procedure would be for the Secretary-General to inform the Advisory Committee of UNEF (of the demand for evacuation), while the Committee would decide whether to bring the demand to the attention of the General Assembly. As far as we know, the present Secretary-General, U Thant, did not submit the demand for a decision by the Advisory Committee prior to adopting his decision and, of course, the General Assembly was not enabled to consider the request for evacuation.
It is known that several member-States of the Advisory Committee have expressed objections to the step taken by the Secretary-General in this matter. Israel had every reason to believe that any demand for the withdrawal of this force would be considered at length and in good time, so as to clarify all the consequences that the evacuation demand would entail.
Mr. Speaker, Members of the House:
The latest development is a link in a chain of tension, the source of which lies in Damascus. From this rostrum I have already dwelt upon the fact that Syria has been alone in its demands to wage war at once against Israel, and in this connection has initiated the organization of bands of saboteurs and assassins to operate on Israeli territory.
From 1965 up to May 1967, 113 minelaying and sabotage attempts and operations have been perpetrated on Israeli soil for which Syria is responsible - whether they came directly from its territory or through the territory of other countries. In addition, scores of shooting and shelling outrages against Israeli farmers have been initiated from Syrian territory, including the shelling of villages.
Since July 1966, we have complained to the UN of such Syrian operations in thirty-four Notes to the Security Council, as well as maintaining constant contact on the subject with the UN Secretariat and the Chief of the UN observers in the region.
These sabotage operations were accompanied by announcements, threats, and bellicose statements made by Syrian leaders. Hand in hand with this activity, Syria has made the foolish claim that it was Israel, as it were, which was about to attack it. This past week was not the first time that Syrian sources spread lying reports of large-scale Israeli troop concentrations on the northern border for the purpose of attacking Syria.
Four times during the past two years the Chief of the UN observers suggested a check on both sides of the border in connection with the allegations of threatening troop concentrations.
On March 17, 1965, the Chief of UN observers proposed a review on the borders. Next day, Israel replied in the affirmative, while Syria failed to reply at all, and no check took place.
On June 3, 1966, the UN made a similar request. Both sides agreed and the check was carried out.
On October 19, 1966, when the Syrians repeated their allegations, Israel, on its own initiative, proposed that the Chief of UN observers should again carry out a similar check, which, indeed, took place.
On April 15 of this year, when Arab elements and others spread rumors of heavy Israeli troop concentrations, deployed for attack, the Chief of the UN observers suggested to both parties that another check be carried out by him. On April 18, Israel expressed its consent. The check was not carried out owing to the attitude of Syria.
Furthermore, after Syria had prevented the implementation of such a check during the first week of May, it also failed to respond to the suggestion of the Chairman of the Israel-Syria Mixed Armistice Commission to obtain confirmation of the absence of Israeli troop concentrations on Syria's border. Israel replied affirmatively to this request on the very same day.
To sum up: on May 15, the Egyptians explained that they had introduced their forces into Sinai on the strength of Syria's claim of alleged Israeli troop concentrations, deployed for an attack on Syria. In reality, however, Syria did all it possibly could in previous weeks to frustrate every UN endeavor to verify the true state of affairs, lest the spuriousness of its claims be revealed.
Indeed, the Secretary-General in his report to the Security Council on May 19, said:
"The Government of Israel has confirmed to me a few days ago that no unusual concentrations of Israeli forces or unusual military movements have taken place on the Syrian armistice line."
The Secretary-General goes on to say:
"The reports of UN observers have verified the absence of troop concentrations and the absence of noteworthy military movements on both sides of the line."
Thus it transpires beyond any doubt that the Syrians have spread mendacious rumors which the Egyptians have clutched at and relied upon.
In the face of Syrian aggression we have tried, in vain, to exhaust all political measures of restraint. When acts of aggression continued and increased in gravity, we considered it necessary in certain cases to exercise our right of self-defense.
Nineteen incursions into Israel have taken place during the past six weeks. The UN Secretary-General himself, in his report to the Security Council of May 19, points out that these acts of terrorism and sabotage by El Fatah are a major factor in the deterioration of the situation to an unusual degree of tension and danger. "These acts provoke strong reactions in Israel by Government and people alike," he said.
This appraisal is of great value for the comprehension of the basic causes of the growing tension in our region of late.
The Secretary-General goes on to state that several incidents have of late apparently indicated a new level of organization and training by those perpetrating sabotage and terrorist activities.
Members of the House:
The tension prevailing between Israel and the Arab countries has been influenced throughout the years by the state of inter-Arab relations and the relationship between the Powers - against the background of their global and regional policies. All these factors are inextricably linked with each other.
In view of the mounting tension of late, the Big Powers ought to exercise their full influence in order to remove the danger of a conflagration in the Middle East.
Particular responsibility rests with the Soviet Union, which has friendly relations in Damascus and in Cairo, and which has not yet clearly dissociated itself from the policy of Damascus vis-à-vis Israel. It is only fitting that the declared policy of Soviet Russia - which advocates the settlement of controversies by negotiation, and not by violence - should also find expression in our region, without discrimination. This would further the maintenance of peace.
The concentrations of Egyptian forces in Sinai have reached proportions which increase the tension in our region and arouse world concern. The status quo must be restored on both sides of the border.
In the wake of the statements made by the UN Secretary-General, it is incumbent on UN members, and the Big Powers in particular, to declare in unmistakable terms their strongest opposition to the acts of sabotage carried out against a member state of the UN and to demand the complete cessation of such acts, which are contrary to international law and to the principles of the UN Charter.
International influence should be exerted to its utmost to ensure continuation of the quiet which prevailed on the Egyptian-Israeli border since March 1957, by respecting the vital national and international rights of all states, including Israel.
The, Secretary-General of the United Nations is leaving tonight for the Middle East, in order to contribute to the relaxation of tension and the consolidation of peace. We shall follow this visit, and its results, with interest.
I would like to say again to the Arab countries from this rostrum, particularly to Egypt and Syria, that we harbor no aggressive designs. We have no possible interest in violating either their security, their territory, or their legitimate rights. Nor shall we interfere in any way in their internal affairs, their regimes, or their regional or international relations. We expect of them, according to the principles of reciprocity, the application of the same principles towards us.
Members of the Knesset:
During the early days of the movement of Egyptian forces towards Sinai, the view was expressed in various world capitals that it was a question of a purely demonstrative operation of no military significance. Others, of course, can adopt one interpretation or another, but we, whose frontiers this force has approached, took the view that it was our duty to adopt all necessary steps to meet any possible development.
In view of the Egyptian concentrations on our borders and the evacuation of the UN force, I ordered a limited mobilization of reserves, which has been carried out according to plan.
On the completion of the limited mobilization, I visited the Israel Defense Forces units. The remarkable capacity of our Army, which has been fostered and perfected over the years, has reached a high level today. The Israel Defense Forces are capable today of meeting any test, with the same devotion, skill and capacity that they have demonstrated more than once in the past - and, knowing the facts as I do, I could say even more.
In conclusion, I call upon all the peoples of the Middle East for reciprocal respect for the sovereignty, integrity, and international rights of each of our countries. Israel, with complete confidence in its defensive capacity and its steadfastness of strength and spirit, expresses at this hour its readiness to participate in an effort to reinforce stability and advance peace in our region.
And indeed, what is at stake is a clear and formal international undertaking, on compliance with which the maintenance of international law and order depends. Hence, we are confronted with a fateful hour not only for Israel, but for the whole world. In view of this situation, I call upon the Powers once again to act without delay for the maintenance of the right to free passage to our southernmost port, a right which applies to every state without distinction. The Government of Israel will adhere to the policy which it announced in the UN Assembly on March 1, 1957. Since this statement was made, free passage in the Straits and the Gulf has taken shape during the past ten years as a well-rooted international reality, expressed in the form of hundreds of sailings under dozens of flags and the creation of a variegated and developing network of commerce and communications.
The illegal statement of the Egyptian President is another link in the violation of law that Egypt has been committing for many years by imposing a blockade in the Suez Canal, in violation of its undertakings to permit free passage through the Canal to all ships of all nations.
Members of the Knesset:
In my statement yesterday I called upon the nations of the Middle East for reciprocal respect of the territorial integrity, political sovereignty and rights of all states in the area. I announced Israel's readiness to participate in an effort for the relaxation of tension and the consolidation of peace in our area.
If a criminal attempt is made to impose a blockade on the shipping of a memberstate of the United Nations, that will be a dangerous precedent, with grave consequences for international relations and the freedom of these seas. The latest development clearly demonstrates the dangerous significance of Egypt's moves. I call upon international factors to demonstrate practical and effective responsibility for the preservation of peace.
I shall give further details to the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee and we shall continue to consider them. The debate in the Knesset has demonstrated the unity of the nation in meeting the future, with unity and a spirit of alertness and confidence in our midst, we shall meet the days to come.