The Six-Day War’s Legacy in Sinai

The Six-Day War’s 50th anniversary will generate an overabundance of commentary about the war’s legacy on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Most scholarship will focus on the continued challenges of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Jerusalem, however there are valuable lessons that can be drawn from Israel’s experiences in the other territories seized during the war: the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

For the purpose of this blogpost I will only focus on the Sinai Peninsula, which was a major theatre of conflict between Israel and Egypt in ’56, ’67, and ’73. As Sara Yael Hirschhorn correctly points out in her excellent new book, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement, designs existed for Israeli settlement in the Sinai as early as 1961. However, after the stunning victory of 1967 Israel’s leadership was divided as to the merits of settling the 23,000 square mile territory. While the benefits of the peninsula as a strategic buffer between Israel and Egypt were well known, many believed that the territory should be viewed only as a bargaining chip. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and others felt otherwise, and managed to convince the government to invest in nineteen settlements.

The majority of these settlements were constructed around the Gulf of Aqaba (near Israel’s port city of Eilat) and the Rafah Plain (where the border of Israel, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip meet today). There were plans for developing enough space to hold a quarter million residents, but at its peak the Sinai’s Israeli population numbers some 4,300. Thousands of Bedouin were relocated in order to make room for these ambitious settlement plans.

In the end, Sinai was a bargaining chip. When Israel and Egypt began formal negotiations in 1977, Israeli negotiators were quick to leverage their position with a proposed withdrawal

Begin speaking in the Sinai settlement of Yamit.

Begin speaking in the Sinai settlement of Yamit.

from Sinai. Despite frequent promises of support by politicians during the negotiation period (including Prime Minister Menachem Begin), plans were already being drawn up for the Sinai’s inevitable evacuation. By 1978 the Sinai’s pioneering communities realized that their fate had already been determined by the state. Speaking before an audience in Yamit, Moshe Dayan (at that point, Foreign Minister) said, “If you stand in the way of peace, the country is not going to support you.”

At the conclusion of negotiations, Israel agree to a phased withdrawal from Sinai between 1979 and 1982.

The Sinai’s settlers saw themselves as pioneers. This pioneering mentality was endorsed by Israel’s leadership, many of who were only a generation removed from the original Zionist halutzim who drained the swamp and built the foundations for an eventual Jewish state. Much like settlers in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, those who moved voluntarily to Sinai settlements like Yamit or Sufa shared this spirit, and saw themselves as the vanguard of the Zionist dream. Many also sought a life in the periphery, far from the busy streets of Tel Aviv or Haifa. This documentary (in Hebrew), shot in the waning months before the evacuation of Yamit and re-aired on Israeli television prior to the 2005 Gaza disengagement, offers a rare glimpse into that forgotten world and the diversity of a small community that existed for only six years:

The decision to return the Sinai was not an easy one. Begin, a territorial maximalist, feared that dismantling settlements in Sinai would set a dangerous precedent for the West Bank and other Israeli territories. He tried to find alternatives outcomes for the Sinai settlers, suggesting to President Anwar Sadat and President Jimmy Carter that Jewish settlers be granted permission to remain in Sinai after it was returned to Egypt, with some light weapons for protection. This idea was rejected outright.

Next, Begin had to convince his coalition to both endorse a peace treaty with Israel’s most feared enemy and agree to the withdrawal and forced evacuation of Jews from their homes. The former challenge was solved by seeking the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, but the latter required a more tactful approach. Begin argued to colleagues while he was unwilling to give up a single inch of the Land of Israel (territory identified as part of a Jewish kingdom in the Bible), the Sinai – though strategic – was not as significant as the West Bank, Gaza, or Jerusalem. In other words, give up Sinai in order to maintain Israeli sovereignty in the places that really matter.

Not everyone was convinced by Begin’s argument. Shmuel Katz, a party member who served as the Irgun’s commander in Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence, told Begin that the Bible could be manipulated to create whatever territorial borders one saw fit and subsequently quit.

Because of the internal rifts caused by the prospect of withdrawing from Sinai, Begin took great care not to surprise his coalition. American and Egyptian negotiators perceived this as foot-dragging, and personal relationships between the negotiating parties suffered as a result. On September 28, 1978, the Knesset voted in favor of the Camp David agreement and the fate of Israel’s Sinai settlements was sealed.

As painful a decision it was for Begin and other Israeli officials to accept the terms of the peace treaty, the accord was viewed as a tragedy and a betrayal for many who chose to build a life in the Sinai’s rugged but idyllic terrain. The government sent mixed signals and didn’t keep many of its promises. Settler demands for compensation were not well received – many Israelis viewed them as an obstacle to peace, or worse, opportunists bleeding the state of its resources.

While many accepted government compensation to relocated, some refused, waiting instead for the army to forcibly remove them from their homes. Members of the nascent Gush Emunim movement arrived in the final weeks to protest Israeli

Protestors at Yamit resisting the evacuation efforts of the Israeli army, 1982.

policy. Only a handful of protestors were injured, but the images from Yamit’s final days would set the stage for future clashes between the settler movement and the state. Bulldozers later reduced the town to rubble.

As Israelis move further and further from 1967, they have become increasingly accustomed to the sight of soldiers and police officers dragging citizens from their homes. This in turn has hardened many to the proposition of giving up land for peace. Voices on the right will point to the the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip – a unilateral withdrawal that lacked a negotiated process on the transfer of authority to the Palestinians – as evidence that giving up territory only strengthens radical elements within Palestinians society who refuse to accept Israel’s existence and will continue to hold out for more Israeli concessions.

The story of Sinai – where despite the strategic and domestic risks, Israel managed to negotiate a lasting settlement with Egypt that has endured to this day – offers a different possible outcome. When negotiating slowly and methodically, Israel managed to achieve its first peace treaty with an Arab state, and received guarantees that the Sinai would be a demilitarized zone. This achievement would not have been possible without the Sinai’s capture in 1967, but it also would not have been possible without its return.

However, even with adequate time to prepare settlement communities for relocation, Israel’s government fell woefully short in communicating its intentions to Sinai residents, and addressing the economic, spiritual, and emotional heartache of relocation. This should serve as a reminder that contemporary debates about the Six-Day War’s legacy are rooted in the same discourse shaped by peace negotiations with Egypt and the Sinai’s evacuation. Ignoring these issues in the pursuit of a final status agreement with the Palestinians would be dangerously shortsighted, and likely plant the seeds for future grievances both within Israeli society and between Israel and her neighbors.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel