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David Ben-Gurion: Speech to the United Nations Demanding Security Guarantees

(January 23, 1957)

In a review of the political and military situation, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion explained why Israel was demanding real and effective guarantees from the United Nations for the safeguarding of Israel's rights to navigate in the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran. He also dealt with the special position of the Gaza Strip. Excerpts follow:

No loyal friend of the United Nations can or should ignore the faults in its leadership or its decisions, but the State of Israel, perhaps more than any other country, is interested in strengthening the authority of the U.N. to safeguard peace and international justice.

As sons of the Jewish people, and bearers of the prophetic heritage, and as citizens of a small State besieged by its enemies, it is our bounden duty to cooperate loyally with the United Nations to the limit of our ability - and I will suggest later what that limit is. I shall not, therefore, on this occasion set out the full case in regard to the Resolutions of 2 November and those which followed it, and the fact that there is no sign or undertaking that those which apply to Egypt will be carried out, while we are tinder constant pressure to implement with the utmost celerity those which are directed against us.

On 8 November, I replied to the President of the United States and the U.N. Secretary-General on the evacuation of Sinai. I stated that we were ready to withdraw from the Sinai area "when satisfactory arrangements are made with the U.N. Emergency Force." In our letter to the Secretary-General of 21 November 1956 we defined "satisfactory arrangements" as arrangements which would safeguard Israel against acts of hostility on land and at sea.

The task of the international force when it was established by the Assembly resolution of 4 November 1956 was defined as follows: "To secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities." We were entitled to expect that the U.N. force would refrain from restoring the status quo in the Sinai desert, namely, its transformation into a base for aggression against Israel. We still maintain this demand, but we do not hold up the withdrawal on this ground. We have now evacuated the whole of the desert, an area of more than 50,000 square kilometres, with the exception of the narrow coastal strip of the Straits of Tiran which today assures freedom of navigation in the Gulf to all vessels without discrimination, including Arab ships. We have no desire to remain in this strip, and it is our intention to evacuate it immediately upon receiving effective assurances against any interference with the freedom of Israeli and international shipping such as at present in fact obtains in this international waterway.

The principle of freedom of navigation in the seas and in the straits is among the basic principles of international law and is accepted as such by the family of nations. Nor does this principle fall short in importance of that, likewise basic and universally accepted, that there shall not be occupation by one country of the territory of another against the will of the latter.

The principle of free navigation both in the Straits of Tiran and in the Suez Canal has been wantonly trampled on by Egypt for eight years. Particularly has this been so in the last three years. And Egypt now publicly proclaims that it will continue thus to act in the future.

The coast of the straits, like the greater part of the Sinai area, is a desolate desert, waterless and uninhabited, and until the boycott and blockade was organized by the Arab League, no Egyptian force was stationed in the Sharm el-Sheikh bay. Military forces were sent to the spot by the Egyptian authorities to interfere with Israeli and international shipping to and from Eilat. This act of hostility was a violation of the U.N. Charter, the Security Council resolution and the General Armistice Agreement; but it continued for years without the United Nations taking any measures to stop it. Navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba is vital for Israel and of great importance for international trade.

As far back as 22 years ago, on 4 June 1935, 1 submitted to the late Justice Brandeis, of the U.S. Supreme Court, a memorandum on the importance of Eilat, which was the first Hebrew port in ancient times, in the days of Solomon, Jehoshaphat, and Uzziah, Kings of Judah. "The Gulf," I wrote then, "played an important part in olden days, in biblical times; in the near future Eilat will play a more important part, politically and economically, than it did in the period of the Bible. The Suez Canal, which has served as the central artery of the British Empire, can easily lose its importance. Sooner or later, Britain will leave Egypt. The Suez Canal is too narrow for large modern ships, and it can easily be blocked in time of war. It is enough to sink one ship to block the Canal. There is no other route to India except through the Red Sea, from Haifa by way of Eilat. These two points, accordingly, assume great importance."

In our own days all these things which I considered possible 22 years ago have come to pass. Since I wrote this memorandum the world has been transformed. Almost simultaneously with Israel's independence many Asian nations, including some of the greatest, have been released from their subordination to Europe, and several peoples on the African continent are also on the threshold of independence. And just as our ties with the European and American continents are important to us, both from the human and cultural points of view and from the point of view of our attachment to Diaspora Jewry, which is mainly concentrated in these two continents, so there is great importance in our ties with the African and Asian continents from the economic and political points of view. The Mediterranean is our route to Europe and America, and the Gulf of Eilat is our route to Asia and East Africa. The gulf is important, however, not only for Israel, but for the whole world, and first and foremost for the sake of uninterrupted contact between Asia and Europe.

When we demand effective and substantial guarantees from the United Nations to safeguard free passage for Israel and other nations in the Eilat Straits and the Red Sea, we do not abandon our right and our demand for freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal, and the United Nations will be tested by its capacity to implement its decisions to prevent all overt or covert discrimination in Suez [Canal] navigation.

Israel, however, has a particularly vital interest in the safeguarding of free passage for ships of all flags without discrimination in the Red Sea and Eilat Straits. Israel has no interest in the desolate strip of land on the shore of the Eilat Straits, but it is our right and we shall insist on this right with all our determination that the blockade of the Straits shall not be restored.

Navigation in the Eilat Straits and the Red Sea will be safeguarded if the four countries situated on the coast of the Straits Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt sign a treaty safeguarding freedom of navigation for all ships without exception and without any interference, or if this is not yet practicable if the United Nations Assembly will decide that the UNEF will assure freedom of passage and that it will not leave the coastal strip until a final settlement is arrived at between Israel and Egypt or until some special arrangement on freedom of navigation in the gulf is reached in agreement with Israel. And until then the Israel Defence Forces will continue to safeguard free navigation.

And now I turn to the Gaza problem. This Strip never belonged to Egypt, Egypt held it for eight years as a reward for its invasion of this country, and throughout that time it did nothing to develop the area. As for the armistice agreement with Egypt which was signed eight years ago (on 24 February 1949) as a transitional stage to a permanent peace, the Egyptian dictator has violated its principles and purposes, and by his repeated declarations that there is a state of war between Israel and Egypt he has distorted the essence and the aims of the agreement. He has exploited it as a smokescreen to cover up his murderous attacks against the people of Israel and his implacable blockade of Israel on land, at sea and in the air. It was from the Gaza Strip that the fidayun units were despatched to Israel, and bands of murderers and saboteurs were organized in other Arab countries as well. Thus the agreement was transformed into a harmful and dangerous fiction, which only assisted the Egyptian ruling junta in its malevolent designs. Any return to this agreement means a return to murder and sabotage.

Israel does not claim that the absence of an armistice agreement means the existence of a state of war with Egypt, even though Egypt had insisted on the existence of a state of war even when the agreement was in existence. Israel is prepared to confirm its position on this by signing immediately with Egypt an agreement of nonbelligerency and mutual non-aggression, but the armistice agreement, violated and broken, is beyond repair.

The position in the Gaza Strip is unique, and no United Nations force would by its very character be able to prevent the organization of fidayun by the Egyptian authorities in this area, and their employment on Israeli territory. The entry of the U.N. force into the Strip will result in a deterioration in the security position of the Israeli settlements along the Strip and, in fact, everywhere within Israel's limited area. At the same time the Strip would be cut off from all possibility of economic development, and the refugees would once again be abandoned to Egyptian incitement, which would be reintroduced directly or indirectly.

Out of consideration for the position taken by 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 of it Israel must remain in the Strip while a suitable relationship should be established between the Israeli administration and the United Nations. The administration will maintain the internal security of the Strip by means of police, will continue to develop self-government among the population in town and village and will continue to ensure public services in health, education, electricity, irrigation, communications, agriculture, trade and industry. Israel will make all possible and necessary efforts to lift the 60,000 destitute residents of the Gaza Strip from their present miserable condition and to help to secure for them decent conditions of existence and a reasonable standard of life.

The Israeli administration in Gaza will be a pilot plant of Israel-Arab cooperation in contact with the United Nations.

Israel is well aware of the problem of the refugees in Gaza, which is part of the problem of the Arab refugees in general. There is perhaps no sphere in which the moral failure of the Arab States has been so clear in the last eight years as this sphere of their attitude to the Arab refugees. While Israel has absorbed within a small, impoverished and devastated country hundreds of thousands of refugees, half of them remnants of the victims of the Nazis and half Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the Arab countries, including some possessing extensive and sparsely populated territories, have refused to settle the Arab refugees, so that they might exploit them as a political weapon against Israel.

The Gaza Strip was the critical point in regard to the matter of security, the continuing economic crisis of its inhabitants and the problem of the refugees. An Israeli administration with U.N. assistance would be in a position to solve all three problems. Instead of continuing the nightmare which had existed under Egyptian rule, the Gaza Strip could become a beacon of light for the entire region. For the first time in eight years there is peace in the Strip and its vicinity, and relations of mutual help exist between our southern villages and the Strip. For the first time in eight years economic projects for its development are being worked out; and now that the incitements and undermining activities of the Egyptian dictatorship within the Strip have been terminated, the U.N. can make a serious approach to a solution of the refugee problem in cooperation with the refugees and with Israel's assistance.

The restoration of Egyptian influence - directly by a return of the Egyptian army, or indirectly upon the entry of the UNEF - is likely to block and eliminate all constructive prospects, and the Strip would revert to lawlessness, to its own misfortune and that of all the adjacent areas.

The heavy security burden that rests upon Israel, and its deep interest in the development of the area and in a solution of the refugee problem, make it necessary for it, while maintaining a relationship with the U.N., to carry on with the administration of the Strip.

The Government of Israel appeals to the United Nations to prepare a plan for the permanent settlement of the refugee problem, including the Gaza refugees. The Government of Israel will contribute to the best of its ability to the solution of the problem. Now that we have practically evacuated the whole of the Sinai desert, we feel it our right and our duty to appeal to the United Nations not to permit the area to be transformed once again into a base and a springboard for aggression. Apart from two or three non-Egyptian centres (in EI-Arish, e-Tur, and the St. Catherine monastery), there was no centre of population in the Sinai desert. Even after the area was taken away from the Ottoman Empire by the British Government and handed over to Egypt, that country never considered the Sinai desert a place for settlement and has not accomplished in decades what Israel has done in a few years in the Negev desert. Egypt has not even attempted to settle a single Arab refugee in the, few oases of Sinai. The Government of Israel, therefore appeals to the United Nations to demilitarize this desert, so as to prevent for the future all hostilities between Israel and Egypt.

Israel's stand in this matter is dictated by conscience and by its right to existence, by its feeling of justice and its burning desire to assure real peace for the area. The Government of Israel is convinced that any Government that will examine in all its implications the complex of problems confronting us will give support to this stand.

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs