Among the most discussed long-term results of the war is Israel’s administration of territories it occupied during those six days of fighting — especially the West Bank and, until Israel withdrew in 2005, the Gaza Strip.
The Historical Context
Shortly after the war ended, on June 19, the Israeli cabinet secretly decided it would withdraw from the sovereign territories it had captured from Egypt and Syria — the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, respectively — in exchange for peace with those two countries. The Gaza Strip, which though previously occupied by Egypt did not belong to any sovereign, would remain under Israeli control. No decision was reached on the West Bank, which also did not belong to any sovereign. (Although Jordan annexed the West Bank shortly after it occupied the area in 1948, there was near unanimous consensus in the international community that the annexation would not be recognized.)
But Israel insisted that it should not, and would not, simply return to the pre-war situation — the dangerous combination of precarious armistice lines and aggressive neighbors that had prevailed for 19 years. Territory would only be returned as a result of direct negotiations leading to a peace agreement. And even then, Jerusalem and portions of the West Bank would, for reasons of national security as well as Jewish history and culture, remain under Israeli sovereignty.
The idea that Israeli security depended on continued control over parts of the West Bank was held not only by Israeli officials, but also by the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a June 29, 1967 memorandum to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, they argued that, from a strictly military point of view, “Israel would require the retention of some captured territories in order to provide militarily defensible borders.” Referring to the West Bank, they argued that Israel required a new boundary that would “widen the narrow portion of Israel” and help protect Tel Aviv.
While the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a definite idea of what territory Israel should retain, it was not clear what Israel itself had in mind — mostly because the country’s leaders were deeply divided on this question. In any case, they felt no need to specify precisely their desired borders before the Arab countries agreed to negotiate a peace settlement.
And it very quickly became evident that this desire was lacking. On Sept. 1, 1967, Arab leaders meeting in Khartoum, Sudan declared that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it.”
If this obstinate resolution allowed for a sliver hope — some point out that while the Khartoum resolutions clearly reject peace, they at least refrained from directly calling for an immediate return to war and the destruction of Israel — then even this was too much for some of the players. Syria, upset by even the slightest hint or pretense of “moderation,” boycotted the conference, while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made clear its strident opposition to the resolutions as they were worded.
In this atmosphere, and with the Soviets replenishing the militaries of Egypt and Syria, Israel shifted to a more cautious, less yielding stance on what territorial concessions it should make. Egyptian attacks beginning in June 1968, and the subsequent “War of Attrition” it launched against Israel in March 1969, further diminished the possibility of a quick withdrawal.
Anwar Sadat, who replaced Gamal Nasser as president of Egypt, would eventually announce his desire for peace with Israel. When the two countries signed a peace treaty, the entire Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt.
The Palestinian Context
Today, conversation about the occupation tends to focus less on its historical context — the Six-Day War and the continued refusal by Arab countries to recognize Israel’s right to exist — and more on what the occupation means for Palestinian statehood and Palestinians living in the West Bank.
For 20 years after the war, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were relatively quiet. While the PLO terror organization based in Jordan and later Lebanon represented the Palestinians internationally, inside the territories Israel permitted Palestinian “notables,” the social and economic elite, to retain the positions of local leadership they enjoyed during (and prior to) the Jordanian occupation. Israeli officials had on several occasions approached these leaders to offer them greater autonomy and self-rule, but with no success.
But during these years, Palestinian resentment grew. The economic and other advances in the territories did not change the fact that Palestinians did not want to be ruled by their historic enemies, Israel, whose popularity was not helped by the arrest and deportation of Palestinians and the growth of settlements. Palestinian frustration with the PLO, which seemed to do little to keep the “Palestinian cause” from fading to the background overseas and even less for Palestinians living in the territories, further contributed to a combustible situation. The spark came in December 1987, when, only a few days after an Israeli visiting Gaza was stabbed to death, an Israeli truck driver in the Gaza Strip lost control of his vehicle and killed four Palestinians. Palestinians, believing the driver intentionally killed the Palestinians as an act of revenge, rioted. The turbulence quickly spread across the Gaza Strip and West Bank, flaring into a full-scale rebellion. In the years that followed, with increasing involvement of the PLO, Palestinians would attack Israeli soldiers and civilians with rocks, knives, firebombs, grenades and other explosives. Israel, in turn, responded to the rioting with heavy military force. With hostilities being extensively covered by the media, the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the occupation became issues of much international attention.
From 1987 through 1993, when the violence now known as the “first intifada” finally ended, the occupied territories were dramatically changed. The free movement that Palestinians had enjoyed before the uprising was often curtailed; the Palestinian economy (and Israel’s) suffered; Palestinian universities, all of which were opened under Israeli rule, served as centers of protest and were often shut down. As a result of these Israeli countermeasures, the burden of the occupation increased for all Palestinians, violent and peaceful alike.
The pattern would repeat itself beginning in 2000, when Palestinians again turned to anti-Israel violence. This time, the level of violence went far beyond what was experienced in the first intifada; and to defend against the terrorists who were ravaging Israeli cities, the government set up an even more extensive network of checkpoints and roadblocks. Ordinary Israelis suffered greatly from the wave of suicide bombings, and ordinary Palestinians suffered from Israel’s attempts to stop the attacks.
The far-reaching Clinton proposals of 2000 that were accepted by Israel’s government under Ehud Barak would have ended the occupation and created an independent Palestinian state in more than 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza with eastern Jerusalem as a capital, but Yasir Arafat rejected the proposal without so much as a counter-offer. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 failed to end anti-Israel violence from that territory, raising questions about the wisdom of further unilateral pullouts.
Palestinian activists today often point to the occupation as a cause of anti-Israel violence, a claim often echoed by the media. The aggression against Israel that brought about the occupation is frequently ignored as is the most recent effort in 2000 to end it.