“Empty” the Gaza Strip, “thin out” the Galilee, rewrite textbooks and censor political cartoons in Haaretz: These are among the proposals discussed by cabinet ministers after the Six-Day War that will be available to the public in a major release of declassified government documents by the Israel State Archives on Thursday.
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The material being posted on the state archives’ website includes hundreds of pages of minutes from meetings of the security cabinet between August and December 1967. From reading them, it is clear that in the several months that followed the June 1967 war, members of the security cabinet were perplexed, confused and sometimes helpless in the face of the new challenges to the state.
Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula in under a week. It was not even remotely prepared for this scenario, and had to hit the ground running.
In December 1967, six months after the war, then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol speculated over how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Arabs newly under the state’s control. “At some point we will have to decide. There are 600,000 Arabs in these territories now. What will be the status of these 600,000 Arabs?” he asked.
Eshkol evidently felt no urgency in regard to the matter. “I suggest that we don’t come to a vote or a decision today; there’s time to deal with this joy, or better put, there’s time to deal with this trouble,” he said. “But for the record I’m prepared to say this: There’s no reason for the government to determine its position on the future of the West Bank right now. We’ve been through three wars in 20 years; we can go another 20 years without a decision.”
He got backing from Transportation Minister Moshe Carmel, who said, “If we sit 20 years, the world will get used to our being in those territories, in any case no less than they got used to [Jordan’s King] Hussein being there. We have more rights; we are more identified with these territories than he is.”
But an examination of other documents shows Eshkol was well aware Israel couldn’t ignore the problems posed by the occupation for long, particularly its rule over hundreds of thousands of Arabs. In one discussion he compared Israel to “a giraffe’s neck,” because it was so narrow. “The strip of this country is like a miserable, threatening neck for us, literally stretched out for slaughter,” he said. “I cannot imagine it – how we will organize life in this country when we have 1.4 million Arabs and we are 2.4 million, with 400,000 Arabs already in the country?”
One of the “solutions” to the new situation, according to Eshkol, was to encourage Arabs to emigrate. In this context, Eshkol told ministers he was “working on the establishment of a unit or office that will engage in encouraging Arab emigration.”
He added, “We should deal with this issue quietly, calmly and covertly, and we should work on finding a way for them to emigrate to other countries and not just over the Jordan [River].”
Eshkol expressed the hope that, “precisely because of the suffocation and imprisonment there, maybe the Arabs will move from the Gaza Strip,” adding there were ways to remove those who remained. “Perhaps if we don’t give them enough water they won’t have a choice, because the orchards will yellow and wither,” he said in this context. Another “solution,” he said, could be another war. “Perhaps we can expect another war and then this problem will be solved. But that’s a type of ‘luxury,’ an unexpected solution.”
“We are interested in emptying out Gaza first,” Eshkol summed up. To which Labor Minister Yigal Allon suggested “thinning the Galilee of Arabs,” while Religious Affairs Minister Zerah Warhaftig said, “We must increase [the number of] Jews and take all possible measures to reduce the number of Arabs.”
One idea raised by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was to give the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza permits to work abroad, in the hope that some would prefer to stay there. “By allowing these Arabs to seek and find work in foreign countries, there’s a greater chance they’ll want to migrate to those countries later,” Dayan said.
As for Gaza, Dayan was pretty optimistic. According to his calculations, of the 400,000 people who then lived in Gaza, only 100,000 would remain. The rest, whom he termed refugees, “must be removed from there under any arrangement that’s made.” Among his ideas was to resettle the Gazans in eastern Jordan.
Nor was Dayan particularly worried about Israeli military rule in the West Bank. “No soldier will have any interest in interfering in the lives of the inhabitants. I have no interest in the army sitting precisely in Nablus. It can sit on a hill outside Nablus.”
Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira took the opposite position, calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories and warning that Israel couldn’t exist as a Jewish state if it retained them. “We won’t be able to maintain the army, when there will such a large percentage of residents who [won’t serve] in the army. There won’t be a[n army] command without Arabs and certainly there won’t be a government or a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee without Arabs when they’re 40 percent,” he said.
Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir said that remaining in the territories would be “a disaster for the State of Israel,” which would become an Arab state. He warned that there was nothing to stop the West Bank from suddenly declaring independence, and that it was only a matter of time.
Education Minister Zalman Aranne felt similarly. “I do not for one minute accept the idea that the world outside will look at the fact we’re taking everything for ourselves and say, ‘Bon Appetit,’” he said. “After all, in another year or half a year the world will wake up; there’s a world out there and it will ask questions.”
Aranne objected to the argument, put forth by Dayan and others, that Israel must retain the territories for security reasons. “Suddenly, after all these victories, there’s no survival without these territories? Without all those things we never dreamed of before the six days of this war, like Jerusalem?” he asked.
Arab rights didn’t seem to be much of a concern for Aranne; he was more worried about the future of the Jewish state.
“The way I know the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora, after all the heroism, miracles and wonders, a Jewish state in which there are 40 percent Arabs is not a Jewish state. It is a fifth column that will destroy the Jewish state. It will be the kiss of death after a generation or a generation and a half,” he warned.
“I see the 2 million Jews before me differently when there will be 1.3 million Arabs – 1.3 million Arabs, with their high birth rate and their permanent pent-up hatred. ... We can overcome 60,000 Arabs, but not 600,000 and not a million,” Aranne concluded.
Within the inconclusive discussions of the future of the territories are the seeds of talk of establishing settlements, outposts and army bases. The minutes show that even half a year after the war, the government had not formulated an orderly policy on this issue, but discussed various ideas even as it chose to delay making these tough decisions as well.
So it was, for example, in the case of Hebron, when there were requests to renew the Jewish presence in the city. Eshkol showed the ministers a letter he received in November 1967 from associates of the dean of Hebron Yeshiva – which relocated to Jerusalem after the 1929 Hebron Massacre – asking the government to “make appropriate arrangements to let dozens of the yeshiva’s students, teachers and supervisors return and set up a branch in Hebron.”
Allon was all for it. “There is a benefit in finding the first nucleus of people willing to settle there. The desire of these yeshiva students is a great thing. There aren’t always candidates willing to go to such a difficult place.” No decision on the matter was made at that time, though.
There were also cabinet members who spoke of preparing for the next war. The minutes included pessimistic reports about the number of warplanes left to Israel after the war. It was argued that the Arab states had already acquired new planes and had more than Israel.
Ezer Weizman, deputy IDF chief of staff at the time, detailed the difficulty of trying to extract promises of military aid from Washington.
“Is there no hope of getting planes from any other country?” asked Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira. Weizman replied, “We checked in Sweden. Sweden isn’t prepared to talk about this. England has nothing to buy. I don’t think Australia will give us anything.”
Belgium was mentioned as a possibility: It was claimed that Brussels had offered to help Jerusalem circumvent the French embargo by procuring French planes and even German tanks for Israel.
Dayan warned, “The impression, as of now, is that not only are the Arabs not rushing to make peace, they are slowly starting to think again about war.” It was six years before the Yom Kippur War.