Statement to the Security Council by Ambassador Eban on the Gaza Incident
(March 23, 1955)
In the first two months of 1955, there were 27 incursions from the Gaza Strip into Israel. After an Egyptian raid deep into Israel territory, the Israel Defence Forces retaliated on 28 February, in an attack on military installations in Gaza. In his address to the Security Council Ambassador Eban explained the background for the operation and dwelt at length on the nature of Egyptian belligerency. Excerpts:
1. The tensions on the frontier between Egypt and Israel are revealed with deep gravity in the report presented to the Security Council by General Burns [S/3373]. The armed clash on 28 February 1955 illustrates the dangers arising from these tensions. On that date a series of long-standing antagonisms and immediate provocations exploded into a conflict, with regrettably serious loss of life.
2. Such clashes do not spring from the empty air. They arise from morbid conditions of international relations. In this case, they show a profound weakness in the current operation of the armistice system which Egypt and Israel established six years ago, on the solemn understanding that they would move forward on its basis towards permanent peace.
3. The relations between Egypt and Israel are always sensitively reflected at the point where the territories of the two countries meet near Gaza. There are 166 miles of frontiers between Egypt and Israel, but our populated areas confront each other only opposite the Gaza strip. In one belt of territory 10 miles in width, east of Gaza, there are 70 Israel settlements, mainly pioneering communities engaged in an arduous effort to bring water and fertility to the northern Negev.
4. The Gaza strip is an Egyptian-controlled salient pointing as a sharp finger into Israel's coastal plain. In terms of history, it is a relic of the aggression of 1948, in which Egyptian forces crossed the established international frontier, in defiance of Security Council resolutions, and came within 9 miles of Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel is a frontier area, with practically no hinterland, for nowhere in the country can a man live and work many miles from the shadow of hostile Arab guns. But this fact, and the consequences that flow from it, are especially marked near Gaza, where a frontier created by recent war divides two closely settled regions.
5. Against this complex geographical background, the Security Council will recall the political relationships between the two States whose armed forces clashed at Gaza on 28 February 1955. The unusual character of these relationships has been revealed to the Security Council in its previous debates on disputes between Egypt and Israel.
6. At the root of these tensions lie a theory and practice of belligerency. Egypt considers and proclaims that there is "a state of war". In the name of that "state of war", Egypt asserts a "right" to perform hostile acts of its choice against Israel. On the other hand, Egypt claims immunity from any hostile response emanating from Israel. This is the doctrine of unilateral belligerency, and it has no parallel or precedent in the jurisprudence of nations.
7. It is another principle of the Egyptian position, and has been so stated at this table, that decisions of the Security Council relating to Israel have no binding force upon Egypt. On the other hand, the Security Council's authority is today invoked to protect Egypt against any reaction which its active prosecution of the "state of war" may elicit.
8. It would be strictly and scientifically accurate to describe the essence of the Egyptian position in two sentences: Egypt may behave towards Israel as though there were war. Israel must behave towards Egypt as though there were peace.
9. Now this doctrine of a state of war is not a mere juridical theory. It is carried out in practice by relentless hostility on land and sea; by military incursions; by organised murder, sabotage and theft; by maritime blockade; and by open threats against Israel's territory, integrity and political independence. These policies, which have been maintained by Egypt in varying measure since 1949, have been aggravated in the past six months to a degree previously unknown. I shall show that at no time since the signature of the armistice has the pressure of Egyptian hostility been exerted upon Israel with such provocative intensity as during this period. One index of this increased hostility can be found in the fact that, while in 1953 there were five armed clashes involving regular armed forces between Egypt and Israel, in 1954 there were 71 such clashes. The source of this hostility, the centre from which the violence is organised and directed, is the Egyptian military headquarters at Gaza.
10. The Egyptian representative has spoken as if the Gaza clash erupted suddenly out of a serene and peaceful background, without origin or cause. The situation now before the Council cannot be remotely understood, still less fairly judged, unless this misrepresentation is corrected. For its correction we have recourse, not to the subjective claims of interested parties, but to the records of the Mixed Armistice Commission and the reports of the Chief of Staff of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation.
11. The reports submitted by General Burns to the Security Council on 16 November 1954 [S/3319 and Corr. 1] 1 and 17 March 1955 [S/3373] tabulate the complaints investigated by the Mixed Armistice Commission during the two periods of review. The final columns of these tables specify fourteen decisions of the Mixed Armistice Commission condemning Egypt - more than twice the number of decisions recorded against Israel during those periods. This fact is impressive enough in itself. It becomes all the more significant when it is observed that the few violations ascribed in those tables to Israel arose mostly from immediate response to Egyptian firing. For, in the application of the General Armistice Agreement, differentiation between firing in aggression and firing in response to aggression is not always considered possible. General Burns refers in paragraph 23 of the 17 March report [S/3373] to this anomaly, which my Government has often criticised. The result is that the ratio of violations in Egypt's disfavour, serious as it is in the reports and the tables, actually underestimates Egypt's responsibility.
12. To illustrate this point, I take the conclusions of the Mixed Armistice Commission at a recent meeting on 7 March 1955.
13. On that date, the Commission adopted a gravely worded resolution against Egypt for the outrageous and unprovoked attack in Rehovot, to which I shall refer later. But it also had under discussion a complaint of firing by the Egyptian army at an Israel patrol which managed, by returning the fire, to save itself from destruction. The Mixed Armistice Commission resolution duly recorded a second verdict against Egypt, on the grounds that the "Egyptian army position fired at the Israel security patrol with automatic weapons, rifles and 3-inch mortars at 0830 local time."
So that the Commission certified the time of the firing.
14. But another resolution found, quite accurately, that "the Israel patrol opened fire at 0845 local time" Thus the refusal of the Israel patrol to perish was recorded as a violation of the General Armistice Agreement, even though the Mixed Armistice Commission itself had determined clearly where the original initiative for firing lay.
15. If we were to follow up all such cases, the preponderance of Egyptian violations would be greater than the 3 to I ratio in Egypt's disfavour appearing in the Mixed Armistice Commission records over recent months - over the period between August 1954 and March 1955.
16. As it is, however, in the cases examined and adjudicated between August 1954 and 7 March 1955, the Mixed Armistice Commission, under United Nations chairman ship, has found Egypt guilty of violating the armistice on no less than 40 occasions, including the 14 recorded in the two reports before the Security Council, which cover incidents occurring between I September 1954 and I March 1955, mainly incidents which were discussed at emergency meetings rather than at regular meetings of the Mixed Armistice Commission.
17. But even these statistics do not give an adequately vivid picture of the murderous harassment launched from Gaza against Israel in the period leading up to 28 February 1955. 1 therefore invite the Security Council to examine the more serious Egyptian violations organised from Gaza during the past six months, and to do so with a clear perception of the effects created by this torrent of assault on the lives of pioneering men and women striving to establish and maintain their lives in the regions east of the Gaza zone. I have circulated a map' to enable the examination to be carried forward more graphically...
75. Is there a single precedent in contemporary international life for a State openly to assert a claim to half the territory of its neighbour, to launch dozens of assaults upon that territory against severe international condemnation and, on the first occasion when it provokes resistance, to run for protection to the Security Council the very Security Council whose authority it had repudiated a few weeks before?
76. My Government, as it listens to Egyptian leaders constantly urging Israel's destruction, often faces the question whether it can possibly owe obligations to a government which envisages its relationship with us in those terms. No other State in the world - I repeat: no other State in the world -has our experience of hearing its extinction or mutilation threatened and promised from neighbouring territory but a few miles away. These statements and territorial claims represent the political motive of the violent incursions by Egyptian forces and armed groups. The reverberations of these statements, which are very wide and deep in Israel and the Middle East, evoke in our mind, within every specific armed assault by Egypt, the basic questions of Israel's survival and territorial integrity.
77. There is indeed something so unique in Israel's position, surrounded on four sides by hostile neighbours whose converging assaults take a toll of Israel's citizens and the fruits of its soil, that it may require a special effort of the imagination for other countries with more normal security attributes to envisage themselves in Israel's position.
78. To do so, you must imagine that the headquarters of a hostile army is situated a few miles away from your most populous centres; that the government which holds sway over this army frankly aspires to the extinction of your statehood and the annexation of your territory; that from this headquarters, and at its behest, armed assaults are carried out against your territory - sometimes into the very heart of your country - of a kind which a neutral body describes as "aggression", "well-planned military assaults" and "sabotage"; that groups sally forth at the behest of this headquarters a few miles away and blow up the central water supplies on which your sustenance and very survival depend; that this military harassment is accompanied by a maritime blockade, also denounced by international authority; and that the pace and intensity of these hostile pressures mount week by week, while all diplomatic efforts to halt them prove unavailing.
79. What would you do? How would you respond? Would the answer be to allow the offending army the indefinite use of its privileged sanctuary?
80. This brings me to the considerations of policy which legitimately arise in the context of this discussion. We are talking of two countries, Egypt and Israel, which have no objective causes for conflict between them; two countries whose co-operation should form the keystone of peace and progress throughout the Middle East. No advantage to either people is served by the sterile doctrines and practices of belligerency, hostility and non-recognition which now prevail between them. Everybody knows that the answer to the problem before us lies in the replacement of hostility by normal relations based on mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State.
81. It is therefore disquieting to observe the Egyptian Government's refusal to apply those provisions of the General Armistice Agreement and of the Security Council resolutions which call for an early transition from armistice to permanent peace. We were similarly disappointed when the Israel proposal for the conclusion of non-aggression pacts - a proposal made in full responsibility and formality last October from the rostrum of the United Nations - was Summarily rejected by Egypt's representatives.
82. But, until such time as progress is made towards peace, it becomes increasingly urgent to correct the defects and imperfections of the armistice system. The main breach in this system is the proclamation of a state of belligerency and the application of that doctrine in acts of war by sea and land.
83. My Government is prepared to give an assurance that, if no hostile act is carried out by Egypt against Israel, then no hostile act of any kind will be carried out by Israel against Egypt. Indeed, this is our minimal plea to Egypt: prevent your armed forces and armed groups from crossing our frontiers; stop firing on our patrols and villages; cease blowing Lip our water supplies; abolish these activities of sabotage, demolition and murder- do not send people either into the heart of our country or into the border areas for the purpose of destruction and pillage; refrain from threatening our violent extinction or laying claim to our territory; renounce the blockade to which your right has been internationally denied; stop making the harassment and provocation of Israel a theme of your national policy. By such simple renunciation of a useless hostility, Egypt can ensure on our part a profound, unvarying and universal respect for its peace and integrity...
89. We urge a reassertion by the parties of their obligations to each other in terms of non-belligerency, pacific settlement and respect for political independence and territorial integrity, and we await the Egyptian reply to this proposal.
90. We advocate, after six years of armistice, a serious effort to make a transition towards permanent peace.