Gaza- original sin

The path of history is often changed by one deed, and in the case of Gaza, it was Yigal Allon's hesitance.

Daniel Pinner, | updated: 23:38

OpEds Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

Since Israeli independence more than 70 years ago, the Gaza region has been a consistent point 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 exactly 70 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 in the area allotted to it. The Arab community, however, 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 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. 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 Gaza region.

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 it 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.

One of the last offensives of the War of Independence was Operation Horev, launched on 22nd December 1948 in the Negev Desert in the south of Israel. Its purpose was to clear the Egyptian Army out of the Negev Desert.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force in the Negev comprised five brigades. One brigade (approximately 4,000 troops) was in the Faluja pocket (in what is today the north-west segment of Kiryat Gat); two reinforced brigades were in the Gaza region; one brigade in the region of 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 one brigade (approximately 2,000 troops) of Moslem Brotherhood battalions in the Hevron-Bethlehem area, in the eastern Negev.

Thus the Egyptian Army had the Negev Desert caught between its main concentration to the west (Faluja-Gaza-Abu Ageila-El-Arish) and a smaller force to the east (Hebron-Bethlehem).

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 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.

The purpose of Operation Horev was to capture the entire Negev Desert, and thus to establish Israeli sovereignty as a fact on the ground.

Commanding Operation Horev was Aluf Yigal Allon (Aluf being a rank approximately equivalent to Colonel; today, Aluf corresponds to Major-General in the British and US Armies).

Operation Horev commenced on 22nd December 1948 with a battalion of the Golani Brigade capturing Hill 86, which controlled the Gaza-Rafiah road. 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.

As they concentrated their forces in the Gaza-Rafiah region, and fierce battles ensued between the two sides, commando units of the 7th and 9th Battalions of the Negev Brigade moved further east into the Negev Desert, capturing the Mishrefe fortress, some 80 km (50 miles) south of Gaza 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
Allon finally located Ben-Gurion in Tiberias, explained the situation to him, and again requested permission to capture Gaza.
Auja (the present-day Nitzana) to Bir Asluj (the present-day Be’er Mashabim, half-way between Beer Sheva and Sde Boker). The entire Egyptian eastern front collapsed, leaving the entire northern Negev in Israeli hands.

Egyptian war propaganda broadcast heroic stories of Egyptian victories and Israeli defeat. Those stories were precisely that – stories, no more. The reality was that Egyptian troops were in headlong retreat, and Jewish forces were capturing position after position.

But the result 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 Moshe 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 Gaza 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 had never been seriously challenged since.

And we can but speculate: If only Aluf Yigal Allon would have seized the initiative back in December 1948, or early January 1949, instead of requesting permission which was denied; 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, Sde 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.

70 years of terrorism and bloodshed and conflict, with no end yet in sight, would have been avoided.

Is it too late, almost three-quarters of a century on, to expunge that original evil?





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