“Tales from the beginning of the Israeli Occupation” By Omri Shafer Raviv
Haaretz 4 June 2017. “We went in search of asses and found a kingdom,” [Samuel 9:1-10] declared Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, on his opening address to the government’s meeting, on 11 June 1967. Eshkol continued: “There was once talk, as though after the War of Independence some things were left in a way that is a shame for generations to come. Since then, generations have not yet come and gone… and that has all been repaired. All the flaws have been repaired.” In saying this, Eshkol was referring to criticism from both Left and Right towards Mapai [forerunner of today’s Labour Party] over David Ben-Gurion’s decision to avoid occupying the West Bank during the War of Independence. Eshkol tried to prove, so it seems, that he had realised what others had only hoped for. After he spoke, Eshkol gave way to the Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, to go over the war’s manoeuvres, but a moment before he managed to do so, National Religious Party Minister Zerach Warhaftig called out: “…who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion” [shehecheyanu…]. That war’s victory and its numerous conquests led to a wave of excitement in Israel etched in the collective memory as “euphoria”. Though these many territorial gains were possibly destined to create a deep political chasm in Israel between Left and Right, they received broad positive public consensus in the period immediately after the war. A June 1967 survey of Jewish public attitude to maintaining control of the territories indicated that 95 per cent felt that Israel should hold onto the [Jerusalem] Old City, 86 per cent felt the same about the West Bank and 77 per cent felt the same about the Gaza Strip. Another poll examining Israeli willingness to physically turn up to the Territories found that 95 per cent wished to visit the Old City, 88 per cent wanted to visit Bethlehem, 62 per cent wanted to visit Jenin and 49 per cent wanted to visit Gaza. Indeed, one of earliest post-war phenomena was thousands of Israeli tourists arriving at the Territories. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Dvora Zamir explained three months after the war what was so attractive to these travellers: “Everyone wants to see and know the Liberated Territories. Everyone wants to see how our neighbours are doing. Everyone’s travelling to grab a bargain and savour the flavours of the East.” In other words, this initial wave of visitors was not yet seeking new land to settle as ancestral land, but rather it was drawn by the sights, tastes and smells of the Oriental land. Many wanted to touch Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites with their own hands. The encounter between the Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs almost instantly transpired as a mercantile relationship between buyer and seller. The image of the Arab peddler became widespread in newspapers of the period as a sly but not particularly dangerous type. A cartoon in Davar from early October 1967 shows Arab peddlers selling utterly unnecessary items to Jews, including gold watches, brass dishes and IDF commemorative albums. “Has Gaza’s business ever been more prosperous than it has been lately?” asked Uri Porat on 28 July, adding that “The people that dwell in Zion” had been “suffocated like a prisoner in solitary confinement” and has now been given the chance to break free. Both Jews and Arabs benefitted from this reunion, according to Porat and many of his peers. Ironically, these moments were sometimes seen as the beginnings of peace. The Israeli idea that proper economic relations indicated imminent peace relied on remaining ignorant of the separate national aspirations of Israeli Arabs; this was not the first or last time this would happen. Liberated Territory But even then, the meeting was not entirely harmonious, even before residents of the territories organised a broad protest and a violent resistance. Interestingly it was Israeli women’s clothing that was the first subject Israeli media dealt with intensively as an instance of friction between Jews and Arabs. Images of young women in short skirts working their way in between groups of Arab men in the markets of Jerusalem, Nablus and Gaza, became more prevalent after the war. This trend concerned the military leadership (being entirely male), who perceived female attire as a threat to public safety. In July, the press reported fistfights in a Gazan market between Jewish and Arab men, after the former claimed that the latter had been pinching Jewish women’s bottoms. Arab eye-witnesses said the altercation began when a Jewish customer ran away a store without paying. The state’s leaders concluded that women’s clothing starts riots, and as one of them explained in an interview on 4 August, “If the daughters of Israel, without too much thought, display themselves in the Liberated Territories wearing such revealing mini-skirts, why shouldn’t they be pinched?” It is possible that in addition to their concern for public safety, the leadership’s men perceived their own masculine roles as protectors of Jewish women from Arab desire for their bodies. Either way, the military leadership announced it is considering “criminalising or otherwise preventing excessively revealing attire to be worn by Israeli women and girls in the West Bank.” If mini-skirts were the cause for the initial friction between Jews and Arabs, then the second prize goes to the dirty shoes, lit cigarettes and camera flashes of Israeli tourists in such places as the Al-Aksa Mosque, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Church of the Nativity. The safety of the holy sites was on the government’s daily agenda as part of its willingness to guarantee the legitimacy of the new Israeli rule in the territories. Knesset members feared that international Christian and Muslim pressure would coerce Israel into retreating from the Territories, if it seemed holy sites were being desecrated. This fear became real panic when the reports began appearing. A document from the Foreign Ministry now in the state archives, describes an irate Armenian priest in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem telling the Ministry’s rep that Israelis walk on the church’s carpets with dirty shoes, and that couples walk around arm in arm taking photos by the altar. “Is that how they behave in the synagogue as well?” he asked. Other reports landed on the government’s desk describing soldiers entering churches with helmets and wearing shoes in mosques. Moshe Dayan, who asserted to the newspapers after occupying the West Bank that “We haven’t come to Jerusalem to occupy others’ holy sites or to inconvenience people of other faiths,” announced to the government that Israeli travellers’ “barbarity must be stopped”. The attitude to Jewish holy sites wasn’t any better. Minister Menachem Begin complained in a government meeting that he saw Jews smoking cigarettes and taking photos by the Western Wall. As a counter measure, Uzi Narkiss, GOC Central Command, issued a military decree that anyone who defiles a holy site would face seven years in prison. Right of Return While most Israelis saw travelling to the territories as an exotic trip, there were also those for whom this was a return to a lost home. In July 1967, Menashe Meni, born into a family that had immigrated from Iraq to Hebron in the 19th century, had travelled to his city of birth, Hebron. In that visit, he looked for the house in which he’d grown up and from which his family was forced to relocate after the 1929 Arab riots. A picture in Yedioth Ahronoth captured him standing in his old house together with the Palestinian family living there. Initially the family refused to let him in, but after a short explanation and a promise that he would not take their home, they allowed him in. From there he kept on going into town, to his grandparents’ graves. Eventually he located a descendant of the family that saved his own family during the massacres. Menashe Meni was not alone; other Jews who’d lived across the Green Line before 1948, in the Old City and in Gush Etzion, hurried back to visit those places once more. During those weeks, it was not only Israelis that crossed the lines, heading towards the Territories. Palestinians also crossed the other way, into Israel. Many looked for homes and lands from which they’d been uprooted in 1948, and even reunited with family members they had not seen for 19 years, having hitherto been separated by the border. Early in September, concerned residents in Ashkelon, Yavneh and Beerseeba, complained of the increasing presence of Gazans in their cities, “illegaly”. Yedioth Aharonot reported: “Many refugees from the Gaza Strip have been seen lately walking around the towns in the south. According to them, they are looking for their homes and property, abandoned as they fled in 1948.” One Haaretz reporter said he’d seen the members of a Palestinian family standing in a street in the Old City in Beer-Sheba, staring at their former home. Out of the house came a woman, “who had immigrated with her family from Romania,” and offered them to come inside. The male head of the family replied that he preferred not to. A reporter for Yedioth Ahronoth had a “chance” encounter with several Palestinians who had come back to see their city, Jaffa. He said these Arabs know the alleyways “like their own backyard” and added, “From time to time they slow their pace and the leader points and says: here was Ahmed’s fabric shop, and this is Ibrahim’s furniture shop,” while another told his son, “Here, Muhammad, was the bathhouse, and here’s our mosque, still standing, thanks be to the prophet. But our house is no longer, it’s gone.” Many of these visitors were captured by police and sent back, since the government forbade their entry into Israel without a permit. Since the War of Independence, Palestinian refugee camps have been a central issue in the Jewish Arab conflict, since on one hand Israel claimed that the Arab countries should absorb the refugees into their countries, while the Arab states demanded Israel take back the refugees. In 1967, many camps were occupied by Israel, and so the refugee question became one of the main subjects on the government agenda. Ministers were nearly unanimous that this was a historically unique opportunity to resolve “the refugee problem” once and for all. They believed that Israel should dismantle the refugee camps and “resettle” the refugees elsewhere. “As they did with the transit camps [ma’abarot],” explained a team of experts with a plan prepared accordingly. It appears that there were as many propositions put forward to the governments as there were refugees: Levi Eshkol believed that Gaza’s refugees could be resettled in the West Bank, Ra’anan Weitz from the Jewish Agency proposed El Arish in the Sinai, some ministers naively thought refugees could be transferred to Arab states in exchange for a peace agreement, and the Foreign Ministry began examining the possibility of finding a new home for the refugees in Brazil and Canada. Over time, Israeli politicians discovered other countries were reluctant to absorb hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, just as much as the refugees themselves were disinclined to forego their demand to return to their original homes and lands. While government ministers debated the issue of the 1948 refugees, the 1967 refugee problem began emerging. Official reports from the time estimate around 200,000 people were uprooted from the West Bank during the war and in subsequent months. The reasons for this mass exodus were numerous. Among those that left were people who’d worked for the Jordanian government and feared for their wellbeing and livelihood under Israeli rule; some had family in the East Bank or in another Arab country and did not want contact severed; others had bank accounts in Amman and were now left without cash. Israel meanwhile did everything it could to assist those that wished to leave, whether by paying for a one-way bus ticket, or by offering departure cash per head. State and military documents use the neutral term, “emigration encouragement”. Some of those that had left the West Bank during or immediately after the war later tried to return, but to no avail. Israel prohibited the vast majority from returning. Out of about 200,000 new refugees, return permits were given to a token 20,000 or so, and that was due to international pressure. And so, some Palestinians that sought to return to the West Bank attempted crossing the Jordan River without Israeli permission. Many of those attempts failed. On 6 August 6, 1967, Dayan reported at a government meeting that in order to prevent to return of refugees to the West Bank the military shoot “over the heads” of people during the day, and that at night “they face open fire as well”. An internal report found in the IDF archives reveals that in the first three months after the war, 146 people were killed in such gunfire, most of them “refugees attempting to return”. The fate of those that successfully crossed back was not particularly bright either. They were usually captured and returned to Jordan. “This is a shocking thing”, Dayan determined at that meeting, as though the direct responsibility for this did not fall squarely on him. The rebellion and its suppression Not all those headed west across the Jordan River were 1967 refugees seeking to return. There were also 1948 refugees that arrived with the aim of starting an armed struggle against Israel. These were members of the Fatah movement and their leader, Yasser Arafat, who’d entered the West Bank on August 1967. Guerrilla fighters in Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba were their role models, while Mao Zedong’s writings were used as a guideline. In the subsequent months, they placed bombs around Israel, starting with Hotel Fast and the Zion Cinema in Jerusalem, all the way to small moshavim (townships) such as Ometz, Gil’am and Ma’oz Chaim. “What we’ve feared has happened,” wrote Major General Uzi Narkiss in his weekly “Commander’s Log”. But the military successfully and rapidly thwarted the attempt to start a guerrilla war, which soon enough turned out to be fairly amateur. People in the West Bank were not quick to collaborate with Fatah activists, whom they barely knew, while the latter failed the first test of any underground movement, that of unity among members. When the first Fatah members were caught by the General Security Services, they turned everyone else in. Members of the organisation that weren’t caught or killed, including Arafat, left the West Bank for Jordan where they continued paramilitary activity against Israel. In contrast to the attempted armed rebellion led by Palestinians from the outside, the resistance of Palestinians living in Palestine against Israeli rule manifested in mainly non-violent ways, such as strikes and leafleting. The annexation of East Jerusalem, along with Israeli intervention in educational and religious content, were the first catalysts for a wave of Palestinian strikes and protests. One leaflet distributed around East Jerusalem and currently in the IDF archive reads: “You are called upon to prove to these invaders that you are a free people and not an obedient herd of slaves, we are inviting you on a general and all-inclusive strike.” Almost all the leaflets focused on human rights and international law as the basis for resisting the Israeli occupation. Over the subsequent months, people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip managed to organise far-reaching business strikes and strikes across the educational system. Although these were quashed by Israeli authorities, just like the violent rebellion had been. Dayan believed in a policy that was lenient on most of the population living under Israeli occupation. The Israeli authorities were especially proud of the work of appointed agricultural experts, who travelled to villages in the West Bank to assist Arab farmers increase output. In contrast, dissidents suffered heavy penalties, including home demolitions, mass imprisonment, confiscation of property, loss of permits and the exile of group leaders. One of those exiled was Sheikh ‘Abd al Hamid al-Sa’ih, president of the Muslim Religious Court of Appeals in Jerusalem and a high ranking religious figure in the West Bank. On 30 July, al-Sa’ih sent the first petition of West Bank residents against the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Israeli Occupation to the Defence Minister, along with 19 other religious figures and political activists. The petition also declared the establishment of “a Committee of National Redirection,” and the appointment of al-Sa’ih as its chairman. On 23 September, Israeli police officers knocked on al-Sa’ih’s door in East Jerusalem and demanded he accompany them to the police station, where they presented him with a deportation order. Superintendent N. Bashami spoke with al-Sa’ih moments before his deportation, a conversation he later wrote his recollection of it, found in the IDF archive. According to his notes, al-Sa’ih said that the annexation of East Jerusalem was strongly objected to by West Bank Arabs, adding, “For hundreds of years the mosque has been in Jerusalem, and has been holy to 400 million Muslims and under their exclusive control – how can Rabbi Goren suddenly come here and declare that a synagogue shall be erected in the mosque’s courtyard, pushing Muslims aside, without their objection?” Al-Sa’ih was referring to the arrival of Rabbi Goren at the Al-Aksa Mosque’s courtyard along with a number of other officers from the military rabbinate in full military garb on the night of 10 August 10. As was later reported by the Defence Minister, the Rabbi walked around the courtyard with a tape measure to find the exact location of the Holy Temple. Dayan and Rabin responded with severity, since these actions were seen to undermine the government and the international legitimacy of the occupation. The Rabbi was consequently forbidden from going up to Temple Mount, by military order. Rabbi Goren in turn wrote to some Knesset members complaining that his feelings had been hurt and his religious rights violated. Another deportee was public figure and communist activist Ibrahim Bakr. Military forces arrived to arrest him at 1am in his home in Ramallah. According to the military report composed after the action, Bakr protested to the soldiers, “Why are you waking me in the middle of the night, you could have deported me in the morning,” while Ibrahim’s wife protested, “When will we finally be rid of you?” The soldiers forced Bakr into their vehicle and drove him to the Governor’s House in Jericho, where he was “treated to coffee and biscuits”. He was later taken to the Allenby Bridge. A moment before he was transferred East, Bakr turned to the soldiers and told them in English, “I’m leaving my country by force and against my will. I would resist if I had the means. Tell your authorities, although I know they’ll ignore it, that if you continue this policy, you will never gain peace, you will fight a fourth war, and a fifth and sixth, and you’ll never obtain peace, I’m leaving against my will and I will return because I cannot leave my country.” While Ibrahim Bakr protested deportation from his land, Israeli public figures objected to any possibility of retreat from “our land”. Peace, they believed, could be achieved without retreat. On 19 June, a government discussion took place regarding the political future of the West Bank. The arguments voiced at this meeting might sound familiar to a contemporary Israeli reader. On one hand, annexation of the West Bank was perceived as a demographic threat to the Jewish majority in Israel, while on the other, a retreat from the West Bank was untenable to most government members. The debate was undecided, and the government decided “not to decide.” In Contrast to the profound argument over the West Bank, broad consensus was held regarding the political fate of the Gaza Strip. At the same meeting, the government determined that the Gaza Strip shall be annexed after the dismantlement of its refugee camps is completed, and their inhabitants transferred elsewhere. Prime Minister Eshkol stated that “Gaza belongs to Israel since the days of Samson, not since 1919.” For the Socialist Labour Zionist Eshkol, legitimacy for the Gaza Strip’s annexation was drawn from before the Six Day War, the War of Independence and even the British occupation during WWI. The real title deed was to be found in the Book of Judges. What and how Gazans themselves thought about all this, or the hundreds of thousands of refugees forced to call Gaza home since 1948, never came up. Of all people, it was Dayan who explained in one of the government’s subsequent meetings that the attitude of the Gaza Strip’s Arab population to the Israeli occupation “is hostile and wild,” even more so than that in the West Bank. Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip encountered violent opposition from the outset. A Foreign Ministry report in the state archives documents the first incident in which force was used against IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip after the war’s conclusion. On 12 June, a landmine exploded near Israeli forces. The tracks led to several houses in one of the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip (the camp was unnamed). The soldiers asked locals to point them to those responsible for placing the mine. A short while later, 110 men appeared before them, declaring they were all responsible. The soldiers, unable to arrest all of them, gave them three hours to return with the specific men that carried out the operation. Three hours later, all 110 men reappeared. The soldiers had reached the end of their tether, and they decided to banish the entire group to the Sinai, where “they were left for dead”. The report does not mention whether the men later returned to the Gaza Strip or died of thirst in the desert. Either way, the IDF also blew up eight houses in the area to which the tracks led. The government was entirely serious in thinking it could deal with Palestinian hostility in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip using a system of Hasbara, headed by minister and former Haganah Chief of Staff, Yisrael Galili. The idea was to use Hasbara to present Palestinians with the benefits of being under Israeli rule. And so it was, that while the leader of one militia tried to recruit the Palestinian population to the rebellion against Israeli occupation, another retired militia leader tried to convince the same population of the Occupation’s benefits. They both operated in fairly improvised ways. Among the ideas presented by Galili to the government were broadcasting on the Voice of Israel in Arabic for people in the Territories, issuing a government newspaper in Arabic and Arabic television broadcasts. Israeli television, emerging before the war, suddenly took on a new role: broadcasting pro-Israeli propaganda to the Palestinian population. Since television sets were not common among Palestinians at the time, as was the case among their Israeli counterparts, Galili’s program included installing televisions in Arab cafes and schools in order to increase its exposure. In this way, Galili believed, Palestinian public opinion could be influenced to favour Israeli interests. In a meeting Galili held with military personnel and media experts in the matter, Shlomo Gazit, coordinator of activities in the territories, claimed that it would have been good if it was just a Hasbara policy, but since the population’s hostility was so severe one should be call it “psychological warfare.” One of the tactics the military attempted was broadcasting recordings from the interrogation of Fatah members to weaken their support. It seems there were Palestinians who saw right through this tactic, as a leaflet disseminated in East Jerusalem and now found in the IDF archives reads: “The enemy is conducting… a propaganda campaign that distorts the truth and aims to sow embarrassment, confusion and suspicion among Palestinians… If we don’t resist we will be surrounded by Jews… And the Arab will become a servant in the enemy’s café.” These events and stories are only a small part of all that took place in the first months of the Occupation. Looking back, after fifty years of Occupation and mutual violence, it is possible to identify the seeds of future developments: Jewish shoppers meeting Arab sellers, Jewish men worrying about Jewish women meeting Arab men, Jews and Arabs yearning for the other side of the Green Line, violent and non-violent resistance to the occupation and one religious figure banished from Palestine as another is banished from Temple Mount. Even if many of the actions of that time led to dead ends, fading in history’s wake – such as Israeli government interest in annexing the Gaza Strip and plans for dismantling refugee camps, and a minister whose role it is to explain the occupiers’ position to those they’ve occupied – it still seems that pivotal motives in the way Israel coped with the issue of the territories had already appeared in the first weeks and months after the Six Day War: the absence of an agreed upon vision for the political future of the West Bank, a yearning for annexing land without its Palestinian population, an aggressive policy towards any attempt at rebellion, and an infinite preoccupation with managing the Territories. The author is a doctoral student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Hebrew Original: http://www.haaretz.co.il/blogs/sadna/1.4141390. Translated by Keren Rubinstein for the Middle East News Service edited by Sol Salbe, Melbourne Australia. Read more from Just Voices #13, June 2017 – Israel/Palestine.