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IN 1965 while I was looking after the United Nations Observer Mission in the Dominican Republic, I returned to New York for the Christmas holidays. U Thant informed me at that time that he wanted me to take over the command of UNEF, replacing Major General Syseto Sarmento of Brazil who was completing his tour of duty during February, 1966. I was delighted to be given an independent mission, especially Gaza, where I had already served as the Commander of the Indian contingent and Chief of Staff from October, 1957 to February, 1960.
UNEF, the first experiment by the United Nations in the use of military forces for peacekeeping was established during the first week of November, 1956, following the Suez War, by a resolution of the first Emergency Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly. The introduction of this Force had become essential as a condition to establish a cease-fire and arrange withdrawal of the Anglo-French forces from the Suez Canal area (Map 1) and the Israeli forces from the Sinai. In the initial phase UNEF was interposed between the Anglo-French and Egyptian troops in the Canal area and between the Israeli and Egyptian troops in the Sinai east of the Canal. Once the Anglo-French troops withdrew, UNEF secured the Suez Canal to ensure smooth clearance operations.
When the Israelis agreed to withdraw from the Sinai, UNEF cleared the mines and repaired the roads to the International Frontier. The Israelis agreed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and on 7th March, 1957, UNEF entered the territory and was deployed around the perimeter to patrol the Armistice Demarcation Line. Later the Israelis agreed to withdraw from Sharm el Sheikh on 8th March, 1957, when UNEF established a post there to ensure freedom of shipping through the Straits of Tiran.
The Force under command of Major General (later Lieutenant General) E. L. M. Burns of Canada comprising some 8,000 troops from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, India, Indonesia, Norway, Sweden and Yugoslavia manned posts and patrolled the Armistice Demarcation Line along the Gaza Strip, the International Frontier between Egypt and Israel and maintained a post at Sharm el Sheikh, keeping peace and quiet in the area for the coming years. UNEF proved highly useful in providing a buffer between the Arabs and Israelis which led the United Nations General Assembly to renew its mandate without debate each subsequent year. When I assumed command of the Force with its task having become routine, its size had been reduced to some 4,500 officers and men, and the Colombian, Danish, Finnish and Indonesian contingents had departed.
I took over command of UNEF on 24th February, 1966, and found that though the political impasse continued and the countries involved displayed an aggressive military posture, the situation had stabilised a good deal in the UNEF area. This stemmed from the need of Egypt and Israel to achieve normalcy of life and economy. It had therefore become possible to reduce the size of UNEF operations without jeopardising its ability to carry out its mandate, but the political and other developments still had to go a long way before UNEF’s replacement by an observer operation could be considered.
Recent reorganisation had but slightly altered the pattern of UFEF operations. Along the Armistice Demarcation Line units occupied only half of the eighty-two observation posts initially established (Maps 2 and 3). The actual selection of observation posts to be occupied on any one day was varied at the discretion of the commanding officers of the units depending on the prevailing situation at the time. On the International Frontier all five observation towers were occupied during the hours of daylight, but the scale of patrolling was less frequent than before. The pattern of air reconnaissance had been reduced to coordinate with supply schedules on the International Frontier.
The most noticeable change since my previous service with UNEF was the establishment of an increased and effective control of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip by its U.A.R.1 administration and along the international Frontier by the U.A.R. authorities. In the Gaza Strip a police force of 5,000 had established complete control over the activities of the local population and maintained a satisfactory law and order situation. Along the International Frontier the U.A.R. authorities appeared to have gained greater control over tribal movement.
The Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) of about 8,000 men was organised in about eight battalions in the Gaza Strip. They were deployed on the basis of one battalion to each of the five administrative districts with reserve units in the Gaza and Khan Yunis areas. The interesting fact was that the detachments of the PLA were now located all along and just outside the five hundred metre restricted zone on the Gaza Strip, thus in a way assuming of their own accord a major part of UNEF’s responsibilities in the Gaza Strip. UNEF stood between the PLA and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and in the main looked after Arab farmers and goats herds in the five hundred metre zone. More PLA soldiers were reported to be under training in Egypt and were likely to be sent up to the UNEF area of operations when they were ready. Basically the PLA was still only a political force; however, their improved standards of training and military capability had become apparent. The force was armed with light weapons, machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns; it seemed potentially stronger than UNEF.
In the Sinai the U.A.R. forces had made progressive improvements. This included concentrations of their forces opposite Ras el Naqb and El Auja where the pattern of Israeli activity was that of continuous active patrolling along the armistice lines.
Consequent upon the improvement in control of the local population on both sides of the Armistice Demarcation Line and International Frontier, the number of crossings had been reduced, and those that occurred were not very significant from either the political or military point of view. The air and sea violations continued, with Israel overflying U.A.R. territory unhampered, apparently for purposes of reconnaissance. There were few air violations by the U.A.R. Violations at sea were mainly connected with fishing and were therefore unimportant.
The increased cultivation in the Gaza Strip had necessitated a change in the operation of patrols in the five hundred metre zone along the Armistice Demarcation Line. UNEF, with the approval of Headquarters, had permitted cultivation up to within one metre of the Armistice Demarcation Line although a limit of fifty metres had originally been established. With the exception of the sand dunes in the northern part of the Gaza Strip and a few kilometres of desert in the area close to Rafah, the entire length of the Armistice Line was under intense cultivation, including the development of several new orchards.
By 1965, Palestinian Arabs were beginning to take part in activities against Israel on a wide scale and in several different organisations. The new Palestinian leadership, recognising the failure and probable inability of the Arab States to achieve a realistic sense of unity that was a prerequisite for solving the Palestinian problem, encouraged clandestine Palestinian guerrilla organisations to plan commando type operations into Israel. The most active of these guerrilla groups was Al-Fatah and it began its military action against Israel on 1st January, 1965.
These guerrilla groups had one primary goal, that of bringing about a war between Israel and the Arab world. There were two reasons why these groups wanted war. In 1965, the Arab States, aside from perhaps Syria, did not want an immediate war with Israel. Nasser felt he was not yet ready for war and would rather fight at a time and place of his own choosing so that he could be ensured of a total victory. However, the Syrian coup of February, 1966 which brought the extremist group of the Ba’ath party into power adopted the doctrine of Popular War of Liberation advocated by the Palestinian fedayeen. Hereafter the Al-Fatah group in Syria known as Es Saqa was given the backing of the Syrian army, including supply of arms, sabotage equipment and training facilities. While the PLA followed Arab summit policies, Es Saqa came increasingly under Syrian control.
The radical Palestinian groups such as Al-Fatah believed that there was a military gap with Israel but that time would increase that gap in favour of Israel. It was therefore necessary to have a military confrontation with Israel as early as possible.
Secondly, the plight of the Palestinian refugee was being publicised less and less both in the outside world and in the Arab media. Arabs were becoming more and more accustomed to looking at the Palestinian problem as one that was insoluble. A military confrontation between Israel and the Arab States would reawaken the Palestinians, the Arabs and the entire world. According to radical Palestinians it was essential to conduct guerrilla raids against Israel. Although it would be impossible for these raids by themselves to destroy Israel it was hoped that they would weaken Israel militarily, economically and socially. They were intended to create problems in maintaining border security, to discourage foreign investments and possibly encourage emigration from Israel. It was felt that continuous guerrilla activity would force Israel into conducting reprisal or punitive actions of some kind. It was hoped that these reprisal actions against the Arab States and their responses to them would eventually escalate into a full-scale war between Israel and the Arab world. To this end, the Palestinians stepped up their raids into Israel in early 1966.
On the night of 25th April, 1966, a man and a woman were injured by explosions in a border village in the Galilee section of Israel. Several buildings were also damaged. Three days later a mine was set off by a truck travelling on the road to Masada. There were no injuries. In the past, whenever Israeli lives were jeopardised by guerrilla activity, Israel usually responded with some kind of military action. On this occasion on 29th April, Syria complained to the Security Council that Israel’s Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol had issued warlike statements threatening Syria and the neighbouring Arab States and that their threats had been followed by an attack on Jordan on 29th and 30th April. In a reply on 16th May at the Security Council meeting, Israel charged that Syria was the main support of Al-Fatah.
As the Council met, Eshkol warned Syria that the present state of affairs could not continue and condemned Syrian support and encouragement of Al-Fatah activity against Israel. In response, Ahmed Shukairy ‘the head of the PLO’ placed the PLA’s six thousand strong force in Syria at the disposal of the Syrian government. Thereafter, Palestinian guerrilla attacks continued without cessation. On 13th July, an Israeli soldier and civilian were killed by a land mine explosion near the Syrian border. The next day the Israeli air force carried out operations against construction at the Syrian Banyas River diversion canal project eight miles inside Syria. On the following day Syria called for a War of Popular Liberation against Israel. Both sides took the problem to the UN Security Council, but this did not result in any effective measures being taken. During the remaining summer of 1966 the situation on the Israeli-Jordan and Israeli-Lebanon borders remained tense.
Guerrilla attacks from bases in Syria into the Upper Galilee intensified during the third quarter of 1966. This resulted from the controversy over cultivation rights in the Demilitarised Zone between Israel and Syria.
Night after night Palestinian infiltrators would cross into Israeli-held territory and inflict casualties or damage before withdrawing back across the Line of Demarcation into Syria. Though Syria disclaimed any responsibility for incursions into Israel by Palestinian guerrillas, the Israeli Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, responded to the renewed guerrilla activity by declaring that “Israel’s reaction against Syrian activities must be directed against those who carry out sabotage, and against the rulers who support those acts. Hence the problem with Syria is basically one of clash with the rulers.” Guerrilla activity, however, continued at a high level. A pipeline between Arad and Masada was blown up twice in six weeks; at the end of September. Arab guerrillas, infiltrating through Jordan, blew up an Israeli electric transformer that fed power to a pumping station. Al-Fatah was believed to be responsible for the incident.
An increasing number of Israeli soldiers were being injured while on border patrols. On the night of 7th October, four Israelis were injured by three explosions in the Jerusalem area. Apartments were damaged in the Romema quarter of the city. On the following night four soldiers were killed and two injured when their jeep ran over a mine near the Syrian border. Eshkol declared that Syria was responsible for all terrorist activity and Israel laid a formal complaint with the UN Security Council concerning the Syrian border. Syria repeated that it would not accept responsibility for the activities of Palestinian guerrilla groups, insisting that it would not act as a force to protect Israeli security by limiting operations of Al-Fatah. A day later Al-Fatah’s reply was an announcement that it had been increasing and would continue to increase the number of border incidents.
So the raiding went on with increasing and more punitive reprisals being staged by the Israelis. On 13th October, three Israeli soldiers were wounded when the vehicle they were travelling in came under fire near the border village of Nehusa. Five days later an Israeli patrol vehicle was blown up by a land mine. The incident occurred in northeast Galilee near the Syrian border. Israel complained that ISMAC2 was unable to act and requested Security Council action, but to no avail; instead on 19th October three Arab infiltrators and an Israeli border policeman died in a clash south of Ramat Naftali. One Arab was wounded and captured. His interrogation strengthened Israel’s belief that the group had been operative under orders of Syrian intelligence.
Guerrilla activity was not only confined to Israel’s borders with Syria. Just as serious incidents were occurring along its border with Jordan. On 23rd October an Israeli army command car was blown up by a mine in the Dan area. Four days later an Israeli freight train was derailed by an explosion southwest of Jerusalem near the Jordanian village of Battir. On 12th November, three Israelis were killed and six wounded six miles north of Arad. This extension and mounting increase in the intensity of the guerrilla warfare decided the Israeli government to take decisive retaliatory measures to put a stop to it.
On 13th November, Israel carried out its largest military action since the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Israeli armoured columns attacked the Jordanian town of Es Samu. It was Israel’s first daylight reprisal action and the first to use a large number of tanks. Initial reports stated that six Jordanian Legionaires were killed in the action and eleven were wounded. A UN Committee under General Odd Bull, Chief of Staff, UNTSO3 inspected Es Samu after the reprisal assault and reported 125 structures in the town destroyed including a clinic and a school, and a further fifteen huts in the nearby village of Jimba. The Committee reported that fifteen Jordanian soldiers and three civilians had been killed and that thirty-seven soldiers and seventeen civilians had been wounded. On the following day, the Security Council considered Jordan’s complaint concerning Israel’s attack on Es Samu and censured Israel emphasising to her that military reprisals would not be tolerated and if repeated, the Council would consider more effective steps.4
The Es Samu raid was a serious turning point in the deteriorating situation between Israel and her Arab neighbours. Repercussions from the raid also had the effect of further fracturing the already weakened ties between Jordan and the other Arab States. Jordan was in the forefront of those Arab countries (i.e. Gulf States and Saudi Arabia) who disavowed Al-Fatah. Jordan like Lebanon was not allowing elements of the PLA to train on their territory. Jordan felt that any Palestinian Arab living in its territory could obtain military training by joining the Jordanian army. Jordan was unwilling to allow a military force that was not under the King’s control to operate in its territory. Like Lebanon, Jordan feared Israeli reprisals in response to Palestinian Arab guerrilla activity. In fact, a number of Palestinian Arabs were jailed in Jordan during the first week of 1966 because of conflict between the government and the PLO. Thus Israeli retaliation was felt to be an undeserved punishment on Jordan. During an Arab League meeting before the end of the year, Jordan was accused for its failure to defend its populace from Israeli retaliation. Jordan in turn insisted that Egypt too should participate in the confrontation with Israel by removing UNEF, instead of sheltering behind it. But no one, least of all the United Nations, took seriously these acrimonious exchanges.
Of all the armistice and demarcation lines those supervised by UNEF between Israel and Egypt remained the quietest during these difficult months. After much hard work in adjusting to the inevitable difficulties arising out of recent reductions in the size of the Force, UNEF had, by the beginning of 1967, settled down and had acquired a high state of efficiency and morale. It was a knife-edge situation in the Middle East at this time, so while an atmosphere of calm prevailed in UNEF area of operations, I maintained a close watch on the shifting of political developments. The Arabs remained committed to a Palestine War of Liberation and to “driving” Israel into the sea. The Israelis were adamant that only force through retaliation would provide peace and that given enough time the Arabs might eventually accept a de facto existence of their State. The great powers with their conflicting interests were further contributing towards the heightening crisis by their inaction to deal with the developing crisis.
1967 started with an intensification of incidents between Israel and Syria. Israel complained to the Security Council that Syrian forces had shelled and fired at Israelis, acts of aggression which resulted from the land disputes in the Lake Tiberias area and the Demilitarised Zone. Syrians complained of illegal occupation of the Demilitarised Zone by Israel. Israel told the Council that these violations of the General Armistice Agreement endangered peace of the whole area and could not be tolerated. At the same time, Syria complained that the grave deterioration of the situation along the armistice lines resulted from Israel’s intention to increase tension so as to justify aggression against Syria and expand its illegal occupation of cultivatable land in the Demilitarised Zone. ...
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APA 6 Citation
Rikhye, M. I. J. (2013). The Sinai Blunder (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1623894/the-sinai-blunder-withdrawal-of-the-united-nations-emergency-force-leading-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Rikhye, Major Indar Jit. (2013) 2013. The Sinai Blunder. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1623894/the-sinai-blunder-withdrawal-of-the-united-nations-emergency-force-leading-pdf.
Rikhye, M. I. J. (2013) The Sinai Blunder. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1623894/the-sinai-blunder-withdrawal-of-the-united-nations-emergency-force-leading-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Rikhye, Major Indar Jit. The Sinai Blunder. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.