In June 1967, I was 12 years old. I recall helping to fill sandbags to fortify the entrance to our home in Haifa in preparation for war. The army was already geared towards war and official Israel terrified its society and supporters around the world, as Zionist leaders did in 1948, with warnings of another Holocaust.
Just recently, I finished writing a book about this period, The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories.
Through the work on this book, I realized that the Israeli manipulation of Jewish fear in 1967 was even more cynical than it was in 1948, when the Jewish leadership genuinely could not foresee the results of its decision to ethnically cleanse Palestine.
The cabinet meetings reveal a group of politicians and generals, who ever since 1948 looked for a way of rectifying what they deemed was the gravest mistake of the otherwise triumphant “war of independence”: the decision not to occupy the West Bank.
In 1948, the West Bank had been left in Jordanian hands due to a tacit understanding between the Zionist leadership and the Hashemite Kingdom so eloquently described by historian Avi Shlaim in his book Collusion Across the Jordan.
The occupation lobby
There was a proper lobby in Israel pushing the government at various historical junctures to find a pretext to occupy and annex the West Bank. It was made of ideologues who deemed the West Bank as the heart of the ancient homeland without which it could not survive, and of strategists who firmly believed the Jordan River was a natural bulwark in the way of invading armies from the east.
They nearly had their way twice before 1967. In 1958, the pretext was the possible “radicalization” of Jordan. The US vetoed such an act. In 1960, Israeli threats against Syria and constant frictions in the north created a chain of events that provided another opportunity.
The plot unfolded in 1960, as it would in 1967. The tension in the north led Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to react by dispatching forces to the Sinai and closing the maritime route to Eilat, which runs up the narrow Gulf of Aqaba.
In 1960, it was Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who prevented that crisis from developing into a war or a pretext for occupying the West Bank; after masterminding the 1948 expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians, he had no desire to incorporate another million and a half into Israel.
A preventable war
Ben-Gurion was ousted from meaningful political life in 1963. In that year, the preparations for a possible occupation of both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were stepped up. Over the next four years, the army prepared detailed plans for the eventual takeover of these territories.
We have no access to the military plans, but we do have access to the legal plans that were drafted from 1963 onwards detailing how to rule the lives of millions of Palestinians: military judges in waiting, legal advisors, military governors and rulers and a firm legal infrastructure to run life from the very moment of occupation. Intelligence on possible resistance and its leaders were properly gathered so that a swift takeover would evolve from the outset of the occupation.
And the moment was not long in coming. The Israeli rhetoric and actions against Syria intensified in 1966 and 1967.
The inevitable next crisis unfolded in May 1967. The Greater Israel lobby, which included most of the army generals and the young Labor Party ministers, was determined not to let that opportunity slip. As with any escalating conflict, there are multiple exit points. Nasser followed in 1967 the same policy he pursued in 1960. He, as well as the Soviet Union, with which he was allied, took seriously the Israeli threats to attack Syria and he wished to reopen the Palestine question.
Alas, as in 1948, Egypt’s war rhetoric did not match its military capacity or preparations. Worse was the situation of King Hussein of Jordan. When Israel assaulted the Egyptian air force on the morning of 5 June 1967, he still hoped that a symbolic retaliation (to which he was committed under his defense agreements with Egypt and Syria) would exonerate him from the allegation of treason and save the West Bank. He was wrong on both counts.
The war was preventable. However, the Israeli military and political elite made sure that every exit point would be blocked and no one would stand in the way of fulfilling the Zionist vision of Judaizing the whole of historic Palestine.
A plan fulfilled
The total collapse of the Arab armies that enabled Israel to get as far as the Suez Canal and nearly occupy Damascus was a bonus the Israelis did not predict. But the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was a plan fulfilled: it was not the freak outcome of a very successful war.
The takeover plans of previous years enabled Israel to install its military rule over the West Bank and Gaza immediately after the war. The system was already successfully imposed on the Palestinian minority in Israel – those Palestinians who had survived the ethnic cleansing two decades earlier and remained inside the “Jewish state.”
Now the system and the people operating it were transferred to rule a new Palestinian group. The new version was even worse: it was built on the sheer power of the army to control every aspect of life, violating in the process basic human and civil rights.
The means of maintaining this rule have changed, but it is still intact and there is no intention to end its existence.
This year, yet another generation of this evil bureaucracy begins its term in office in operating the system. It has been resisted by the Palestinians, including in the form of the uprisings, or intifadas, that began in 1987 and 2000, and will still be resisted. But the international system has not condemned the occupation sufficiently to bring it to an end.
Joining in the occupation
Immediately after the war, Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, opened the West Bank to Israelis.
We joined in as a family. Our guides were from the “Israel Exploration Society,” founded in 1913 in an attempt to substantiate the Zionist claim for Palestine with archaeological finds.
With such tour guides, you see what allegedly had been there thousands of years ago, but you do not see the present. You gaze at ancient ruins while ignoring the humanity around them. The early Zionists, pre-state, were taken on a similar tour upon their arrival to the “land without people.”
The year 1967 became the closure for 1882, the date of the first Zionist colony in Palestine. But now it was colonization de luxe done by a rich and powerful Jewish state.
The destruction of Qalqilya, the expulsion of the refugees from destroyed camps near Jericho and the ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem were events I only read about later on, although they were visible to us when we marched through the West Bank as an army of tourists “redeeming” our ancient homeland.
The military and political elite in Israel already in June 1967, whether on the left or the right, regarded the West Bank – and some even the Gaza Strip – as an integral part of future Israel. The debate was how to achieve it without incurring international, and in particular American, rebuke, and without granting citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there.
This is why colonization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began very early on, allowing Israel to annex de facto any part of the territories it desired. This annexation was carried out through the confiscation of Palestinian land and, where necessary, expulsions.
Two charades unfolded which helped to mesmerize the world and overlook the Israeli strategy on the ground. As a teenager, I partook in the first one and as a young student played an active role in the second.
The first was the charade of an internal debate in Israel between so-called “redeemers” and “custodians,” otherwise known as the divide between the right and the left in Israeli society. The right asserted that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were “redeemed” and should be annexed, the left that they should be in custody until peace is concluded.
Until then, both camps agreed on the “unification of Jerusalem” – a city whose boundaries Israel expanded deep into the West Bank as it settled more territory – as well as on the need to settle the Jordan Valley and to keep the Palestinians under military rule.
As a youngster, like so many in the world who should have known better, I believed genuinely this was an ideological debate on war and peace.
I also bought into the second charade that was manipulated from above: the “peace process.” The main message from Israel was that its actions were temporary, even when it was settling vast areas of the occupied territories, and that its violations of basic human rights were short-term necessities that would stop once peace came.
The process moved nowhere, and when it moved as we saw in 1993 – with the “breakthrough” of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization – it really moved backwards.
However, it provided time and immunity to solidify the strategy of deepening the colonization with irreversible facts on the ground.
Naïve “custodians” like myself were the ones sent abroad to sell the “process.” I was even ready to represent Peace Now, the main extra-parliamentary custodian movement of the left, while pursuing my doctoral studies in the UK (although I was dismissed from the group very early on for meeting openly with PLO representatives in London at a time when it was forbidden).
In fact, these meetings helped me to wake up to the wider historical and ideological contexts of Israel’s actions in 1967 and after.
From abroad, ironically, it was much easier to look directly at the inhumanity and suffering Zionism caused in its century in Palestine. It was a farewell from me to the Israeli Zionist left.
Fifty years on, the Zionist left is unfortunately the force the official international community relies on to bring peace. However, most Israelis have stopped playing the first charade of left and right – each with their own excuse or explanation.
Many of them also believe there is no need anymore to play the second charade. Official Israel is no longer worried about how to avoid international rebuke.
Implementing incremental genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza did not move the powers that be, and the ongoing colonization of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza remain Israel’s best means of fulfilling the vision of a Greater Israel. As long as Israeli leaders face no consequences, they will continue to pursue their vision of a Greater Israel.
If this vision can be implemented through a partition of the West Bank into bantustans – apartheid South Africa-style enclaves where Palestinians are given nominal autonomy but no real control – this is also fine in the eyes of most of the Jewish electorate. (This is why optimistic two-staters can quote again and again the high figure for those in Israel who say they believe in a two-state solution and yet vote mainly for parties that oppose it.)
So why is the world still playing the charade? For regular readers of this publication, the answers are clear and there is no need to repeat them.
But at this moment of commemoration, let us approach those who we deem decent and knowledgeable as friends of ours – those friends and comrades who still talk about the two-state solution, the Israeli “peace camp” and the “peace of the brave” – and gently ask them how long will they play a charade, while the reality of colonization and oppression becomes harsher by the day and can only be stopped when as many people as possible give power to the truth.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.