On June 11, 1967, Israel suddenly became an empire, ruling over large swaths of territory in the West Bank, Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. The government slowly began to realize that, following its victory in the Six-Day War, it now needed to deal with a large Arab population whose exact numbers were unknown. In order to tackle the issue, a committee of senior officials and directors general from government ministries convened on June 15, 1967, to understand how to maintain an occupation.
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Hundreds of thousands of people lived in the newly occupied territories. Until then, they had received education, welfare, health and other services from the Jordanians, Egyptians and Syrians. Now the responsibility for providing these services fell on the committee of director generals and officials.
The committee functioned for at least a decade. The minutes of its meetings – which the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research extracted from the Israel State Archives – reveal the jobs and difficulties the officials faced: They needed to build factories and manage agricultural produce; they determined how the educational system would work and how new textbooks would be written, printed and distributed.
This is how, with painstaking work, the practical details of the occupation were established.
During the committee’s 10th meeting, for example, they discussed the procedure for Palestinians going abroad. “The preference is to give permits to those requesting to leave the country in order not to return,” state the minutes. “Purchasing tickets will be done through Zim [the Israeli shipping company] or El Al [the national airline]. The exit permit will be granted by the Interior Ministry.” The cost of a one-way ticket was minimal.
The minutes are written in a terse, dry manner. But Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Gazit, a former Military Intelligence head who was appointed as coordinator of the committee after a few months, told Haaretz, “There was a feeling from all involved that we were making history.”
Initially, the committee members tried to determine the size of the population they were now responsible for. Committee Chairman Ya’akov Arnon, the director general of the Finance Ministry at the time, considered holding a census but ultimately “it was decided not to make a decision at this time about carrying out the census.”
One important decision that was quickly implemented was the issuance of an emergency currency for the territories, since Egyptian currency had been used in Gaza and Sinai, Jordanian money in the West Bank and Syrian currency in the Golan Heights. It took a few months before the Israeli pound [lira] began being distributed in these areas, turning them, for all practical purposes, into part of the Israeli economic system.
From a very early stage, it is clear the committee related to East Jerusalem differently than to the other areas that had been occupied.
It seems that even in the very first meeting, the committee considered East Jerusalem to be something that would be an integral part of Israel. During that committee meeting, it was decided to conduct a census of Jerusalem residents, even though no census was to be conducted in the rest of the territories. It was also decided to keep the committee’s deliberations secret.
At the next meeting, it was decided to determine the status of the (now defunct) airport at Atarot, northern Jerusalem, “in light of the planned division of the Jerusalem area and the rest of the territories,” state the minutes.
Gazit admits that, from the beginning, the attitude toward East Jerusalem was that it was part of the State of Israel, and this was not a matter for discussion. The Golan Heights were not discussed in the meetings, either, “because there was almost no local population there,” adds Gazit.
At its fifth meeting, the committee devoted a special discussion to Jerusalem, with Mayor Teddy Kollek present. The committee decided that the municipality would be responsible for all matters in the city, with city hall receiving a special budget for this purpose. It was also decided that all currency in the eastern part of the city would be exchanged for Israeli lira within a few days. After that, Jerusalem was rarely discussed by the committee.
Only at its third meeting did the committee consider refugees, a problem that was particularly severe in the West Bank. The committee estimated that some 15,000 to 20,000 Palestinians “had left their places of residence and are now in the occupied territories.” The minutes reported “concentrations of such types of residents in the Nablus and Ramallah areas, some of whom remain without food.” The committee instructed the Trade and Industry Ministry to allocate funds to deal with the matter immediately.
This was the first committee decision that included a direct allocation of government funds to the territories – in this case, to deal with welfare problems in the West Bank. In the hundreds of discussions that followed, it is hard to find a single one without a decision to allocate budgets – whether as loans or grants to bodies such as the UN Relief and Works Agency and local governments in order to allow life to continue as normal, as well as to buy calm and support.
Bribes and burgers
At a certain point, funds were approved for salaries (which could be considered bribes) for local community leaders (mukhtars) in the West Bank and the heads of Bedouin tribes in Sinai. Payments to Palestinians who wanted to leave were also approved, on the condition that they made a commitment not to return.
The committee members, it seems, quickly realized that the occupation was not temporary. In June 1968, a year after the Six-Day War, the committee approved prospecting for oil in the territories. Later that year, the minutes report, “It was agreed to freeze a number of sites in the occupied territories for the purpose of establishing nuclear reactors in the future, in case of need.” The minutes add: “This announcement should not be made public.”
At the committee’s 114th meeting, held in July 1969, the committee discussed several families who had been expelled from the Golan Heights. Most were sent to Syria, the minutes state. The committee discussed how to treat one family that refused to be evacuated: “At the time, a few hundred residents of the Golan were gathered together as refugees in the area of Quneitra. ... Most were moved to Syrian territory, and in some cases they even received a one-time grant.”
Because of the “necessity to completely evacuate Quneitra of its ‘Syrian remnants,’ negotiations were held in an attempt to relocate them to their Israeli-Arab relatives. This is a family that is asking for a grant in the sum of 6,500 lira ($1,860 at the time) in order to leave Quneitra. This is the first family and it seems there will be a number of other cases. In light of the urgency of evacuating Quneitra, it was decided that in a small number of these cases the government will pay. This decision will not serve as a precedent for other cases.”
According to Gazit, in the early years the Palestinians were actually happy to cooperate with Israel. “Relations were on a one-to-one basis with the municipalities of Tul Karm, Nablus, Hebron – there was no central authority. To the best of my memory there were excellent relations,” he recalls. “Every visit was truly a positive experience. You must remember, I wasn’t the enemy – I was the father who needed to help them function.”
But it seems the Palestinians did not see Israel as such a “loving” entity: The minutes document complaints from Palestinian mayors about violence on the part of soldiers and Border Policemen against the civilian population, and complaints about vandalism of antiquities and holy sites by Israeli tourists.
For years, and from a very early stage, the committee was concerned about education in the territories. According to the minutes, students had not been studying since the war began and the committee decided to gradually have them return to school, starting in September and October 1967. The main problem was the curriculum and materials. “It turns out there will be no possibility of using the existing textbooks because of the hateful material included in them,” the minutes noted. The Education and Culture Ministry appointed a person to coordinate the study materials in the West Bank and Gaza, and he was responsible for deciding what was to be used and what banned, as well as for producing alternative materials.
The committee ruled out almost half the textbooks in the West Bank (55 of 120), and left over half that were without material it considered to be incitement. A large budget was allocated to provide free textbooks, or at cost, to preserve the Jordanian policy on the matter – as had been decided earlier.
The committee also spent time on the question of tourism to holy sites in the West Bank – one of the main resources that could be exploited to provide an immediate economic benefit. The committee promoted the building of hotels, looked for investors and maintained the existing hotels. It seems the decision paid off: Tourism in the territories blossomed (day visitors, at least, because of the curfew). In July 1967, it was reported that tourism companies wanted to bring in some 500 buses of tourists a day. American members of Congress also asked to come and visit the territories. The committee warned that the police thought these numbers were too big, but this warning was just perfunctory – over the years, efforts to encourage tourism continued, and not only in the West Bank.
The committee oversaw the minutiae of life in the territories. At the fifth meeting, it discussed a request by the Mifal Hapayis national lottery to begin operating in the territories, but the committee passed on making a decision, something it would continue to do on the matter. It was also required to approve the opening of every business, large or small, in the territories – for example, the establishment of a hamburger restaurant from the Wimpy chain at the Rafah junction in the Gaza Strip.
There seemed to be very little organized violent opposition in the territories in the early years of the occupation, according to the minutes. Most of the reports were about strikes and localized acts.
In the early 1970s, there were reports of more violent incidents – particularly in Gaza – but these did not seem to overly concern the committee. The minutes contain mentions of violent incidents, but they did not dominate the meetings. Indeed, when they were discussed, the committee members concentrated mainly on the economic effects of the attacks.
A terrorist attack in the Gaza Strip is mentioned in a meeting in 1970, but it seems it was only mentioned because it caused serious damage to an ice cream factory. In the end, the committee decided to allow the local company in Gaza to rebuild its damaged plant “that was blown up by terrorists.”
“There really weren’t a lot of problems, especially not in Judea and Samaria,” said Gazit, referring to the West Bank. “There was a difficult period in the [Gaza] Strip, and after a concerted effort it calmed down there, too. I am still proud of the fact that until the Yom Kippur War [in 1973], not one stone was thrown in my empire,” he added.
The minutes show that the committee did not know about Israel’s long-term plans for the territories. At one point, it set up a subcommittee for medium-term planning, but it is not clear whether the civil servants were supposed to develop the territories in the hope that they would become part of Israel, or whether they were only responsible for its daily operations.
Lior Yavne, executive director of the left-wing Akevot Institute, says the committee’s official role was mainly to coordinate the implementation of ministerial decisions. But the minutes reflect a situation written about by the late Haaretz journalist Reuven Pedatzur: “The failure of [Israeli] ministers to decide on many issues relating to the territories forced the committee to become increasingly involved in shaping Israeli policy there.”
It seems the committee faced the enormous pressure of tackling the day-to-day problems laid at its door without anyone telling it about Israel’s long-term intentions. No one can say whether the committee’s actions were intended to make the occupied territories part of Israel in preparation for annexation, or whether they related to the territories as areas that would eventually be returned. For example, the committee was forced to repeatedly reassure business owners who wanted to build factories in the territories that in the event Israel evacuated them, they would be compensated.