Thursday, July 14, 2016

55 - Excerpts of PM Sharett’s report to the Cabinet meeting of June 5, 1955

            After the last incident on the border of the Gaza Strip, in which the Egyptians opened fire with the result of one IDF soldier and a member of Kibbutz Nirim were killed, a communiqué by Egyptian sources reported that it had all begun with our intrusion into the Strip. General Burns, who was summoned to the MFA,  said that that communiqué was incorrect; the report he received established that it was the Egyptians who opened fire. We demanded that he publish a communiqué and he did, establishing the Egyptians’ responsibility for the incident. We demanded that he immediately fly over to Egypt and see Nasser himself and make it clear to him that he would be held responsible for anything which might occur in the Strip. The Egyptians should be aware that if a serious conflagration erupts, they will pay the consequences.
            On the same day and the following day I met with both the American and British ambassadors. This was not publicized intentionally, since I told them that we wanted them to have a free hand to act in Egypt – if they choose so – so that it would not appear that they acted on our initiative.
            General Burns saw Nasser and upon his return asked to see me, which I will do today or tomorrow. He has already told our people at the FM that he saw Nasser and their meeting took more than an hour. Foreign Minister [Mahmud] Fawzi was also present. Burns said he told Nasser that his impression was that Nasser’s policy of keeping the borders quiet, about which he told him at the end of December, still held. Everything that is happening now, especially the mining and shooting which have been going on since March, is clearly in contradiction to that policy, and it was his opinion that the Egyptian government should make much more strenuous efforts to put an end to all that. He informed Nasser of Israel’s views regarding the situation and said that he believed that future incidents may well bring about even bigger Israeli retaliations than before. In reply Nasser said that he reads Israeli newspapers and is aware of the views expressed in them; however, what Burns had told him just now meant that Israel might launch an act of war. If so, Egypt would face up to the attack; Egypt is not prepared to retreat under pressure.
            Here Burns added his own observation, saying that according to his impression the Egyptian government was seriously considering the possibility of a renewal of hostilities and was prepared to withstand such eventuality. Nasser was not being bombastic. He did not express any aggressive intentions. He only made it clear that he was determined to use force as far as Egypt is able if he is attacked. Nasser went on and explained that at the end of December, when he last saw Burns, there was a feeling of hope that it would be possible to keep peace and quiet along the borders of the Gaza Strip, and that the exchange of messages [between him and Sharett via Burns] had raised his hopes for uninterrupted tranquility. But then Israel attacked Gaza on February 28 and prompted him to conclude that there were no more viable conditions buttressing peace and quiet. The trust he felt [in Israel’s good intentions] was destroyed. He thinks that Ben-Gurion’s return [to the government] has led to an Israeli decision to follow a more aggressive policy.
            As to the recent incidents, Nasser claimed that they were all a result of the retaliatory operations carried out by Israel in February. Nasser hinted that he has found it difficult to follow restraint. Mining activity is done by individuals and one cannot say that the Egyptian authorities are shutting their eyes.
            General Burns replied that, except for one or two incidents, it was ascertained that all opening of fire was initiated by the Egyptians. Nasser replied that these incidents stemmed from fears of an imminent Israeli attack, a result of the heavy casualties the Egypt army suffered when surprised by the February 28 attack. The soldiers manning the Egyptian positions are never sure that they are not going to be attacked, and thus he is unable to issue stricter orders to refrain from opening fire lest he destroy his army’s morale. He hinted that all incidents along the Gaza borders are a result of the tension, and this would go on as long as the two armies are positioned so close to each other. He said the Egyptians have already agreed to prevent such incidents by organizing joint military patrols along the borders. He is now prepared to suggest an additional proposal in this direction – to move all units of both armies to an agreed distance from the border line, say, one or half a kilometer. If this proposal is accepted in principle, he would readily appoint an officer higher in rank than Gohar to meet with an Israeli representative in order to agree on details of implementation.
            Burns summed up by saying that the Egyptians are not interested in a conflagration. They are in favor of keeping peace and tranquility along the Gaza borders and to this end they are advancing this new proposal. Burns expressed his hope that Israel would not refuse to seriously consider Egypt’s proposal.
            In the following discussion that our FM people held with Burns he told them that the Chairman of the EIMAC is under the impression that the  authorities in Cairo do not have a true picture of what is going on in Gaza, and that Nasser is exaggerating Israel’s aggressiveness. Our people asked Burns what Nasser’s policy was exactly: is he really interested in preventing incidents and in keeping peace along the Gaza borders? Burns had no clear answer to this question. Nasser told Burns that he maintained contact with us through a British MP [presumably, Maurice Orbach; see above, entry for February 8 and 22, 1955] and that he agreed to make concessions to us regarding shipping in the Suez canal, but then came the shock of February 28 which convinced him that Israel policy has changed. As for Nasser’s new proposal, Burns said it came under the pressure of the [Western] powers. Our people told Burns that Nasser painted an incorrect picture of his contacts with me. These were all concerned with my efforts to prevent the hangings [on January 31 1955 of Egyptian Jews caught spying for Israel], but he reneged on his promise and ignores all that.
            Off the record, Burns said that his impression is that by no means is Nasser an absolute ruler. He is surrounded by army officers whom he must listen to. The whole regime is dependent on the army and therefore he finds it difficult to do anything which is against the wishes of local army commanders. 
            To sum it all up, the current situation is that we the should be prepared for further acts of Egyptian mining and shooting, and draw our conclusions.
            Regarding my conversations with the American and British ambassadors, I told the former that our public is more and more of the opinion that Egypt is losing what’s left of her right to stay on in the Gaza Strip. Here it is not a question of Egyptian sovereignty. It is based on the Armistice Agreement. If she violates this agreement, then she loses her right, and this leads to certain consequences. He very well understood the issue. He asked: “What about the Gaza refugees?” I said I could not answer this question because we had not been planning in this direction [i.e., occupying the strip]. He then asked if an invasion into Gaza might not lead to a conflagration along all our borders. I said: “Everything is possible”. He said he understood the seriousness of the situation and would put pressure on Washington to act. I said that if they take any step in Cairo, they should publicize it.
            Nicholls, the British Ambassador, claimed that they were constantly active in Cairo. However, as to Nasser’s intentions he admitted that they were confused. He suggested that we take a demonstrative step aimed at bettering our standing in world public opinion by agreeing to joint patrolling. I replied that the problem is to improve the security situation along the Gaza Strip borders, not to improve our standing in the eyes of world public opinion.

[Following Sharett’s report, Minister of Defense Ben-Gurion took the floor and very emotionally described his visit to the wounded of the last incident, among them a young woman who had immigrated from Australia and who had lost both her legs. He then said: “I don’t believe all that was necessary, and as one of the 16 people [i.e., Cabinet ministers] responsible for governing the state I felt that I was not free from responsibility for what has happened to these people. I asked myself whether I could continue to call upon Jews to settle in these dangerous places, and my answer was positive. But I left the place stricken with a personal feeling of guilt.” Then Prime Minister Sharett added:]

I too am one of the 16. There is no doubt that I bear responsibility, perhaps more than any other colleague, for the present situation. However, I would like to say: Gaza Strip or no Gaza Strip, there are borders between us and the Arab states, between us and areas held by the Arabs – hostile Arabs – and we are settling and will continue to settle our border areas. Be they of whatever character, wherever we shall settle along a border, we will have an enemy force opposite us . I have no idea how long this situation will go on, and such terrible tragedies may occur [again].