How Israel Gave Up the Idea of Annexing Sinai and Gaza

Archival material revealed by Haaretz shows how close Israel came to annexing territory it captured in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Fearing world reaction, Ben-Gurion changed his mind at the last moment and ordered a pullout.

Yotam Berger
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A refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, 1956.
A refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, 1956.Credit: Moshe Friedan, GPO
Yotam Berger

Then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was in euphoria on November 6, 1956, immediately after the Sinai Campaign in which Israel quadrupled the territory under its control. In a letter to then-IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan, Ben-Gurion proclaimed the beginning of the “third kingdom of Israel.”

On November 7 Ben-Gurion told the Knesset that “the status of Sinai is being renewed these very days.” He also referred to Sinai in a speech stored in Army Radio archives, as “a focus of our security, our internal safety, and our external relations with the world and the Middle East.”

Classified documents from that era that were viewed by Haaretz show how close Israel was to applying Israeli law to the territories of Sinai and the Gaza Strip, which would have amounted to Israel’s de facto annexation of those territories, according to senior public figures at the time. The documents also expose the fears at the time regarding the potential diplomatic impact of Israel’s steps after that war.

The archived documents, which were uncovered by Akevot, the Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, indicate a clear intent to take over territories captured in the 1956 war, known as the Kadesh Operation. “The documents we have uncovered, wrinkled at the bottom of an archive, are about the beginning of a lengthy relationship of the state with international law regarding occupation,” said the institute’s director Lior Yavne.

According to the papers, the state attorney general at the time, Haim Cohen, compiled a draft declaration applying Israeli law to occupied territories for Ben-Gurion.

Military Commander of the Gaza Strip Lt. Col. Chaim Gaon with Deir Al-Balah Mayor Mohammad Abu Salim, 1956.
Military Commander of the Gaza Strip Lt. Col. Chaim Gaon with Deir Al-Balah Mayor Mohammad Abu Salim, 1956.Credit: Moshe Friedan, GPO

“I hereby attach drafts of the emergency regulations and a proclamation regarding administered territory, and ask that you sign them,” he wrote to Ben-Gurion on November 4, on the eve of victory.

“The need for regulations has arisen due to the fact that existing law recognizes occupied land only in territories that were once a part of the Land of Israel. The Finance Ministry wants to apply Israel’s foreign exchange laws in these occupied lands. The Justice Minister has asked that I draw your attention to the political implications of the legal, not only military, occupation of these territories, but for his part he is not against it.”

Also among the attached documents which Ben-Gurion never signed, is a declaration by the defense minister that “the Sinai Peninsula is territory held by the IDF” and that “every law in Israel shall be considered valid in all territory that the defense minister has declared as held by the IDF.”

The Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser at the time, Shabtai Rosen, cautioned that what these documents amounted to in effect was the annexation of the Gaza Strip and Sinai to Israel, in violation of international law.

“This morning at the Justice Minister’s office I saw the proclamation regarding IDF rule in the Sinai Peninsula and emergency regulations regarding occupied territory prepared yesterday by the attorney general and transferred for the defense minister’s signature. I explained to the Justice Minister and the state attorney general that in my opinion these documents are in violation of international law,” Rosen wrote in a letter to the defense, foreign and justice ministers, the next day, November 5.

Israeli military officials and Arab dignitaries in Gaza, 1956.
Israeli military officials and Arab dignitaries in Gaza, 1956.Credit: Moshe Friedan, GPO

“I fear that if we don’t follow international law, we shall create complicated political problems for ourselves,” he wrote.

The next day, November 6, 1956, Rosen sent a more detailed opinion, designated “classified”, in which he cautioned that signing the documents complied by Cohen would lead in effect to annexation of the occupied territories. He stressed that annexing Gaza would be legal, since it was a part of the Land of Israel in Mandatory times, but that annexing Sinai would lead to severe legal and international problems.

“There’s a rule in international law that you cannot impose sovereignty other than by diplomatic agreement. A clear sign of applying the sovereignty of a state over occupied land is when you apply the law of the occupier in occupied land, while cancelling the laws that existed beforehand,” he wrote.

“To apply Israeli law to the area would not be compliant with the clauses quoted from the Hague convention,” Rosen added.

With regard to the Gaza Strip, Rosen cautioned: “While I do not doubt the defense minister’s authority to define all the Gaza Strip through to the former international border as held by the IDF, it must be clear that by doing so he is bringing about the annexation of the strip by Israel.”

An Israeli soldier near Rafah in the Gaza Strip, 1956.
An Israeli soldier near Rafah in the Gaza Strip, 1956.Credit: David Friedan, GPO

On that same day, the head military prosecutor at the time, Dr. Meir Zohar, sent an opinion to the attorney general reviewing the various options for Gaza and Sinai. Zohar also determined that legally the strip could be annexed, or it could be declared as abandoned territory being restored. But with regard to Sinai, he determined that as opposed to the document drawn up by Cohen for Ben-Gurion, “it is not possible to declare the Sinai region as territory held by Israel in the event of annexation of the territory, Israeli law would be applied it appears that applying our law might be in violation of the Geneva conventions.”

“Ben-Gurion’s euphoria at the time could certainly have led him to order the preparation of such documents,” Professor Motti Golani of the Israeli history department at Tel Aviv University said. “On the other hand, staff work is staff work. I don’t know of any explicit order by Ben-Gurion or anyone on his behalf to prepare such papers.”

Dr. Yehuda Balanga, a historian of the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University said, he does not recall “any official documentation that was published about intent to annex the Sinai.”

Yavne said the documents have historic significance, not only because they shed light on what went on behind the scenes after the 1956 war, but because they paint a new picture of Israel’s relationship to today’s occupation.

“The error that nearly led to a by-the-way annexation of Sinai and the Gaza Strip by Israel in ‘56, laid the groundwork for an Israeli interpretation of occupation law that was part of the preparations for the occupation of ‘67, which exists to this day,” Yavne said.

David Ben-Gurion - Government Press Office - May 14, 1948
David Ben-Gurion, May 14, 1948.Credit: Government Press Office

Golani said that “this story is important because people think that in ‘56 it was all just one quick event and Ben-Gurion simply made a decision (regarding the withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza). But Ben-Gurion’s decision was significant in that he was a leader who knew to change his opinion, and very quickly adapted himself to reality.”

Balanga recalled the intensity of the moment in which Ben-Gurion acted. He was euphorically declaring a new kingdom of Israel, yet “at the same time he was under tremendous pressure from the United States and Britain to withdraw,” Balanga said.

“As he was making that speech, he had already given the Americans the okay for a withdrawal from Sinai. It all happened simultaneously. Eisenhower (then the U.S. president) was totally opposed. He saw the entire operation as a step that could lead Nasser (Egypt’s president at the time) into the arms of the Soviet Union, and therefore pressure was put on Israel to withdraw,” he said.

History has shown that Rosen’s warnings were accurate. The documents Cohen put together remained unsigned. On November 7 Ben-Gurion announced Israel would withdraw from the expanse of territory it had occupied. It took a little more than a decade for Israeli soldiers to return, during the Six-Day War.

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