Declassified Israeli documents outline post-war debate

Sunday 11/06/2017
The blueprint for occupation. An Israeli researcher scans declassified documents for Akevot NGO in Jerusalem on May 10. (Reuters)

Jerusalem - Within days of captur­ing East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, Israel was examining options about the areas’ future ranging from Jewish settle­ment-building to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Recently unearthed documents detailing the post-war legal and dip­lomatic debate have a familiar ring and stress how little progress has been made towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Akevot, an Israeli NGO research­ing the conflict, has spent thou­sands of hours gaining access to declassified, often dog-eared, docu­ments and building a digital record of them.

The group’s aim in obtaining the files, at a time when the Israel State Archives has restricted access to its resources as it conducts its own digitisation project, is to ensure that primary sources of conflict de­cision-making remain accessible to researchers, diplomats, journalists and the public.

“One of the things we realised early on was that so many of the policies related to current day Is­raeli government activities in the Occupied Territories have roots go­ing back to the very first year of oc­cupation,” said Lior Yavne, founder and director of Akevot.

“Policies that were envisaged very early on, 1967 or 1968, serve government policies to this day.”

In six days of war, Israel’s army seized 5,900 of the West Bank, the walled Old City of Jerusa­lem and more than two dozen Arab villages on the city’s eastern flank.

For the Israeli prime minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry and as­sorted legal advisers, the thorni­est questions surrounded how to handle the unexpected seizure of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the 660,000 Palestinians living there.

A little more than a month after the war ended on June 10, 1967, senior Foreign Ministry officials had drafted a set of seven possibilities of what to do with the West Bank and Gaza. They considered everything from establishing an independent, demilitarised Palestinian state with its capital as close as possible to Je­rusalem, to annexing the entire area to Israel or handing most of it over to Jordan.

The authors explained the need to move rapidly because “interna­tionally, the impression that Israel maintains colonial rule over these occupied territories may arise in the interim.”

While the document analyses in detail the idea of an independent Palestinian state, it presents most positively the case for annexation, while also making clear its “inher­ent dangers.”

Option four, listed as “the gradu­ated solution,” is the one perhaps closest to what exists to this day: A plan to establish a Palestinian state only once there is a peace agree­ment between Israel and Arab coun­tries.

Perhaps the trickiest and most legally nuanced discussions were considering Israel’s responsibilities under international law and wheth­er it could build settlements.

After the 1967 war, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and considered all of Jerusalem as its “indivisible and eternal capital,” a status that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

Theodor Meron, one of the world’s leading jurists who was then legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, wrote several memos in late 1967 and early 1968 laying out his position on settlements. In a covering letter to one secret memo sent to the prime minister’s political secretary, Meron said: “My conclu­sion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories con­travenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

Meron, who now lives in the United States, set his arguments out over several pages but they boiled down to the fact that Israel was a signatory to the Geneva Conven­tion, which prohibits transferring citizens of an occupying state onto occupied land.

“Any legal arguments that we shall try to find will not counteract the heavy international pressure that will be exerted upon us even by friendly countries which will base themselves on the Fourth Geneva Convention,” he wrote.

The only way he could see settle­ments being legally justified — and, even then, he made clear he did not favour the argument — was if they were in temporary camps and “car­ried out by military and not civilian entities.”

While in the early years settle­ments were militaristic and often temporary, the enterprise now has full government backing, houses some 350,000 civilians in the West Bank and has all the hallmarks of permanence.

Immediately after the war, almost no element of Israel’s land seizure went unexamined, whether by the military, the prime minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, naming com­mittees or religious authorities.

In a memo on June 22, 1967, Mi­chael Comay, political adviser to the Foreign Ministry, wrote to the min­istry’s deputy director-general say­ing they needed to be careful about using phrases like “occupied territo­ries” or “occupying power” because they supported the International Committee of the Red Cross’s view that the local population should have rights under the Fourth Ge­neva Convention.

“There are two alternatives: Us­ing the term TERRITORIES OF THE MILITARY GOVERNMENT or TER­RITORIES UNDER ISRAEL CON­TROL,” he wrote. “Externally, I pre­fer the second option.”

Even now, the Israeli government avoids talking about occupation, in­stead suggesting that the West Bank is “disputed territory.”