Gaza: Rectifying the original evil

Author: Daniel Pinner

25 MarHeshwan 5784  |  9 November 2023

Since Israeli independence just over 75 years ago, the Gaza region has been a consistent source of conflict.

Why has Gaza remained disputed? Why has it never become part of Israel?

The answer goes back to a massive strategic blunder committed by Israel 75 years ago, towards the end of the War of Independence.

When the UN partitioned Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab (Resolution 181 of 29th November 1947), Gaza was included in the Arab state.

But as soon as the British Mandate expired on 14th May 1948, those UN borders became irrelevant.

The Jewish community, led by David Ben-Gurion, declared independence and established a sovereign State. The Arab community made no such declaration of independence, and did not even aspire to national sovereignty, because the Arabs of Palestine had no Palestinian identity. They were rather an organic and inseparable part of the wider Arab world.

The seven Arab states which were independent at the time (Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia) immediately invaded Israel, all of them intent on capturing as much land for themselves as they could possibly grab.

These seven Arab countries launched a war of aggression and attempted genocide against Israel – which instead became Israel’s War of Independence. None of these countries was interested in “Palestinian independence”: after all, the Palestinian nation hadn’t yet been invented. Rather, each of these countries simply grabbed as much land for themselves as they could.

Hence Trans-Jordan seized Judea and Samaria (which they renamed “the West Bank”), including east Jerusalem; Syria seized the Golan Heights; and Egypt seized the Negev Desert, including the Gaza region.

One of the last offensives of the War of Independence was Operation Horev. Commanded by Aluf Yigal Allon (Aluf being a rank approximately equivalent to Colonel), it was launched on 22nd December 1948 and its objective was to clear the Egyptian Army out of the Negev Desert.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force in the Negev comprised five brigades, based in the Faluja pocket (in what is today the north-west segment of Kiryat Gat), the Gaza region, Abu Ageila and El-Arish (in northern Sinai about 40 km/25 miles on the Egyptian side of what became the Egypt/Israel border), and in the Hebron-Bethlehem area, in the eastern Negev.

Confronting these were five Israeli brigades: the Negev, Golani, Harel, and Alexandroni Brigades, and the 8th Armoured Brigade.

The UN was mounting an aggressive campaign to force Israel to withdraw to the lines from before the second truce had come into effect, meaning returning to the lines from before 14th October 1948, meaning handing over most of the Negev Desert (including Gaza) to Egypt.

Britain was leading this diplomatic offensive; indeed Britain did not recognise the Negev as part of Israel at all. The plan of Count Folke Bernadotte (who had been assassinated on 17th September by the Fatherland Front, a splinter group of the Etzel), to award the Negev Desert to the Arabs, was still a powerful factor in the international community.

Operation Horev’s objective was to establish Israeli sovereignty over the Negev Desert as a fact on the ground.

It commenced on 22nd December 1948 with a battalion of the Golani Brigade capturing Hill 86, controlling the Gaza-Rafiah road, on the coast half-way along the Gaza Strip. A heavy rainstorm in the coastal plain and a heavy sandstorm further inland in the desert provided cover for the Israeli forces, and the Egyptians were taken by surprise.

Fierce battles ensued between the two sides, during which commando units of the Negev Brigade moved further south into the Negev Desert, capturing the Mishrefe fortress, some 70 km (45 miles) south-west of Hill 86 on 25th December, cutting off the Egyptian lines of communication.

Immediately following, other units of the 7th and 9th Battalions captured Bir E-Tamile, 15 km (9 miles) north of Mishrefe.

Heavy fighting continued until, on 27th December, the Negev Brigade defeated the Egyptian positions from Auja (the present-day Nitzana) to Bir Asluj (the present-day Be’er Mashabim, half-way between Beer Sheva and Kibbutz S’deh Boker). The entire Egyptian eastern front collapsed, leaving the entire northern Negev in Israeli hands.

A small Egyptian enclave remained in the Faluja pocket, what is today the north-west segment of Kiryat Gat.

While this was happening, Egyptian war propaganda broadcast heroic stories of Egyptian victories and Israeli defeat. The reality was that Egyptian troops were in headlong retreat, and Jewish forces were capturing position after position.

But the result of these Egyptian war-propaganda stories was that there was no international pressure (yet) on Israel to cease-fire or to retreat, and so the Israeli advance southward continued.

Aluf Yigal Allon, having secured the primary objectives of Operation Horev, now turned northwards. He saw that Gaza was within his grasp – the Egyptian Army defeated and demoralised, Jewish troops advancing, international pressure still absent. But because his orders had not included the capture of Gaza, he travelled with all speed to Jerusalem to ask for permission from Acting Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion however was in Tiberias at the time, so Allon requested permission instead from Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok (later Sharett, who went on to become the second Prime Minister). Shertok was in favour of capturing Gaza, but insisted that the final decision had to be made by Ben-Gurion.

Allon finally located Ben-Gurion in Tiberias, explained the situation to him, and again requested permission to capture Gaza.

Ben-Gurion refused, giving two reasons: US pressure, and fear of provoking the British, who were still fighting for Egypt against Israel in accordance with the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.

As a result, Gaza remained under Egyptian occupation.

(Ben-Gurion’s attempt at appeasing the British failed: in the late morning of 7th January 1949, five Royal Air Force Spitfires, flying in support of Egypt, invaded Israeli airspace above the Negev Desert and strafed Israeli military vehicles. Israeli Air Force Spitfires confronted them and shot four of them down, with no losses to Israel; the fifth was shot down by ground fire. Two of the British pilots were killed, two were taken prisoner-of-war and quietly released a few weeks later, and one parachuted to safety behind Egyptian lines.)

By the end of Operation Horev on 8th January 1949, the northern Negev was in Israeli hands, the southern Negev in Jordanian hands, and the Gaza region in Egyptian hands. And several weeks later, on 24th February, Israel and Egypt signed an armistice agreement on the island of Rhodes.

A week and a half later, on the 6th March, the IDF launched Operation Uvda (“Fact”, because its purpose was to create facts on the ground), and in five days conquered the rest of the Negev Desert, driving out the occupying Arab Legion (the Jordanian Army).

This was the very last operation of the War of Independence. At 3:00 on the afternoon of 10th March 1949, the 8th Battalion of the Negev Brigade took control of Umm Rashrash (present-day Eilat), and Captain Avraham (“Bren”) Adan, a Company Commander, hoisted the famous – indeed, iconic – ink-drawn Israeli flag on a makeshift flagpole on the southern-most tip of Israel, on the shores of the Red Sea.

Israeli sovereignty over the entire Negev Desert was complete, and has never been seriously challenged since.

As a result, the Arabs of Judea and Samaria became Jordanians, the Arabs of the Golan became Syrians, and the Arabs of Gaza became Egyptians. The “Palestinian” identity, which is ostensibly the reason for all the conflicts in the Middle East, was only invented twenty years later (and took another generation for the “Palestinians” themselves to redefine themselves accordingly).

The armistice lines as delineated between Israel and the four bordering Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan) became Israel’s de facto borders. And those armistice lines were completely arbitrary: they were simply the geographical location of where the soldiers on all fronts stood at the moment that the armistices were declared.

The Arab world, however, was still not reconciled to the existence of Israel, and continued its war of attempted genocide by terrorism. As soon as the War of Independence was over, the Arab countries began sending terrorists across the borders to attack Israelis.

From 1951 to 1955, Egyptian Fedayeen terrorists infiltrating from Gaza murdered 403 Israelis. And so, in 1956, Israel launched the Kadesh Campaign (also known as the Sinai War or Suez War), whose purpose was to capture the entire Sinai Peninsula, including the Gaza region, from Egypt in order to prevent further terrorism.

It began at 5:00 in the afternoon of 29th October, with a paratrooper-drop into the Mitla Pass, 250 km (156 miles) from Israel, and just 70 km (45 miles) from the Suez Canal, and a simultaneous ground incursion into the desert terrain, using combined paratroopers, armoured troops, and artillery.

There were some 10,000 Egyptian troops stationed in Gaza, and Israel committed a combined force of infantry and armoured brigades to the region, entering from the south shortly before midnight of 30th October.

Around noon on 2nd November the Israeli forces captured Gaza City, and the Egyptian Governor, General Fuad al-Dijani, surrendered.

By 9:30 on the 5th of November the war was effectively over, and the following day a UN-brokered cease-fire came into force.

The war had cost Israel 231 soldiers killed in combat, and zero civilian casualties. The entire Sinai Peninsula including the Gaza Strip was under complete Israeli military control, Israel controlled all the land up to the Suez Canal, and Arab terrorism out of Gaza ceased.

However, under intense pressure from the USA (including direct threats of military aggression), Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to withdraw from the entire Sinai Desert and Gaza. And so the Israeli withdrawal began on 22nd January 1957.

On 8th March Israel completed the withdrawal, and Egypt returned to the Gaza Strip.

The agreement between Israel and Egypt stipulated that Gaza would remain demilitarised. This demilitarisation was guaranteed by Britain, France, the USA, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations.

In Israel the mood was optimistic: the Gaza Strip, source of so much terrorism for years, was now demilitarised. The UN placed the UN Emergency Force along the Egypt-Israel border to keep the peace and to guarantee that Gaza would remain demilitarised. Israel was at last safe.

Alas the optimism was misplaced: Gaza remained demilitarised for all of a day-and-a-half, as Egyptian forces returned there on 10th March, with nary a word of protest from Britain, France, the USA, the Soviet Union, or the United Nations.

Nevertheless Israel was safer after the war than she had been before, and Lester Pearson, the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1957 for having established the UNEF along the Israel-Egypt border.

But all good things come to an end, and in the summer of 1967 the Arab and Muslim world began preparing for another war of aggression and genocide against Israel.

On 16th May 1967 the Egyptian Government ordered the UNEF to evacuate, and UN Secretary General U Thant conceded immediately.

By 1st June, 13 countries had joined this genocidal coalition: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Kuwait, Tunisia, Sudan, and Pakistan were building up troops and matériel on Israel’s borders, their stated war-aim being the extermination of Israel and the Jews therein.

On paper, this vast coalition had everything in its favour: numbers, weaponry, supply-lines, strategic depth – everything.

And Israel had everything against it: outnumbered, outgunned on land, at sea, and in the air, weapons 10 years or more less advanced than the Arab and Muslim arsenal. And – maybe most important of all – Israel was facing a four-front war.

A two-front war is bad enough: being forced to split the armed forces has been the downfall of countless seemingly invincible armies, from Assyria which lost a two-front war in 612 B.C.E. to a Babylonian/Median alliance, to the Athenian-Spartan army which succumbed to a Persian/Roman alliance in 480 B.C.E., to Germany which lost two world wars when battling Russia in the east and an Anglo-French alliance in the west.

In June 1967, Israel was faced with a four-front war along the borders with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.

But when the G-d of Israel decrees that His children come home, then no human force can subvert that, and what should have been a swift victory for the Arabs became instead an even swifter victory for Israel, in what we now know as the Six Day War.

On the southern front, the confrontation with Egypt, the Israeli thrust into Gaza began at 8:00 in the morning of Monday 5th June, along three axes:

From Nahal Oz to El Kuba, 3 km (2 miles) south of Gaza City, near the north of the Gaza Strip; from slightly east of Re’im to Dir el-Balah, half-way along the Strip; and from east of Nir Oz to Khan Yunis, near the south of the Strip.

Egyptian resistance was fierce, but by Tuesday afternoon most of the open spaces of the Strip were under Israeli control. Gaza City and Khan Yunis surrendered the next day, and the fighting in the Gaza Strip was over.

On the 10th of June the Six Day War was over; Egypt had lost the entire Sinai Desert, including the Gaza Strip, to Israel; Jordan had lost all the land it had [illegally] occupied and annexed west of the River Jordan; and Syria had lost the Golan Heights.

Israel remained in control of Sinai until Prime Minister Menachem Begin handed it all back to Egypt in return for a peace treaty in 1979; Israeli withdrawal was completed in 1982.

But Gaza remained under Israeli control until 2005, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon committed the unilateral withdrawal, handing over Gaza to complete Hamas control.

We can but speculate: If only Aluf Yigal Allon would have seized the initiative back in December 1948 or early January 1949; if only he would have advanced through Gaza and conquered it instead of bypassing it; if only he would have forced the Egyptian Army to retreat from Gaza as he forced it to retreat from the rest of the northern Negev –

– then Gaza would have become part of Israel, as integral a part of the State as Kiryat Gat, Nitzana, Be’er Mashabim, Beer Sheva, Kibbutz S’deh Boker, and Eilat are today. The Arabs of Gaza, who were in those days Egyptians (the “Palestinian Arab” nation had not yet been invented) would have retreated with their Army across the Sinai Desert and into Egypt.

75 years of terrorism and bloodshed and conflict might have been avoided.

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proclaimed on motza’ei Shabbat (Saturday night) that “this is our second War of Independence”, he might – just might – have given us hope that maybe now, three-quarters of a century on, Israel has the opportunity to expunge that original evil.

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