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Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in a press conference following the Six-Day War
Photo: AP
50 years and counting: Declassified docs show not much changed since Six-Day War
As the Six-Day War's 50th anniversary nears, declassified documents outlining the post-war debate in Israel reflect that very little about the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed.

Within days of capturing east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War, Israel was already examining options regarding the future, ranging from Jewish settlement-building to the creation of a Palestinian state.

 

 

As the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war nears on June 5, recently unearthed documents detailing the post-war legal and diplomatic debate have been declassified, and underline how little progress has been made toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 

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


Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in a press conference following the Six-Day War (Photo: AP)
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in a press conference following the Six-Day War (Photo: AP)
  

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 digitization project, is to ensure that primary sources of conflict decision-making remain accessible to researchers, diplomats, journalists and the wider public.

  

"One of the things we realized 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."

  

Over the duration of the Six-Day War, Israel took over 5,900 square km (2,280 square miles) of the West Bank, the walled Old City of Jerusalem and more than two dozen Arab villages on the city's eastern flank. It also conquered the Golan Heights from Syria, and Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

 

For the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, though, the thorniest questions in 1967 surrounded how to handle the unexpected seizure of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the 660,000 Palestinians living there.

 

'The war never ended'

A little over 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, demilitarized Palestinian state with its capital as close as possible to Jerusalem, to annexing the entire area to Israel and even 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".

 

IDF soldiers in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War (Photo: AP)
IDF soldiers in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War (Photo: AP)

 

While the document analyzes in detail the idea of an independent Palestinian state, it presents most positively the case for annexation, while also clearly stating 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 nations.

 

"The Six-Day War actually never ended," said Tom Segev, a leading Israeli historian and author of 1967—Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. "The seventh day has lasted ever since for the last 50 years. And it is affecting both us and the Palestinians ... every day, every minute."

 

The continued question of the settlements

Perhaps the trickiest and most legally nuanced discussions following the Six-Day War were around Israel's responsibilities under international law, and whether it could build Jewish settlements in the areas it had conquered.

 

Palestinians and many countries consider Israel's settlements on land they seek for a future Palestinian state as illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political links to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as well as security considerations.

 

After the Six-Day War, Israel annexed east Jerusalem and has considered ever since all of Jerusalem as its "indivisible and eternal capital," while Palestinians consider east Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

 

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel has consistently violated UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention in its actions in occupied territory, particularly in Jerusalem.

 

Paratroopers at the Western Wall during the Six-Day War (Photo: Bamahane)
Paratroopers at the Western Wall during the Six-Day War (Photo: Bamahane)

 

"All these measures ... can't change the fact that Jerusalem is an occupied city, just like the rest of Palestinian lands," he said.

 

Theodor Meron, one of the world's leading jurists who at the time was a legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, wrote several memos in late 1967 and early 1968 laying out his position on vis-à-vis settlements.

 

In a letter 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 favor 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 the hallmarks of permanence.

 

L to R: Def. Min. Dayan and IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin following the Six-Day War (Photo: David Rubinger)
L to R: Def. Min. Dayan and IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin following the Six-Day War (Photo: David Rubinger)

 

Meron declined to respond to specific questions from Reuters.

 

But in an article this month in the American Journal of International Law, he expressed concern about "the continued march toward an inexorable demographic change in the West Bank" and US President Trump's appointment of David Friedman—a man who has raised funds for settlements—to be the US ambassador to Israel.

 

There is, Meron wrote in the journal, a growing perception in the international community that "individual Palestinian human rights, as well as their rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention, are being violated."

 

What's in a name

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 government avoids talking about an occupation, suggesting instead that the West Bank is "disputed territory".

 

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