The Beginnings of the Territorial Conflict

An overview of Israel's relationship to the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, 1948-67.

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The city of Jerusalem, which was to have been internationalized­ according to the United Nations plan, was divided between Israel and Jordan along the cease‑fire lines. [Jewish access to holy places in the old city of Jerusalem between 1949 and 1967 was denied.] This situation continued essentially unchanged until June 1967.

The Six Day War

While a detailed analysis of the developments leading up to the Six Day War lies beyond the scope of this [article], several key facts should be noted. The concentration of Arab forces near Israeli borders, the Egyptian expulsion of the United Nations peace‑keeping troops from Gaza and the Sinai, the closure of the Straits of Tiran (blockading the Israeli port of Eilat), and the formation of a military pact by the surrounding Arab states prompted Israel in May 1967 to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

When this was not forthcoming, the Israeli government debated whether to take pre‑emptive military action, or to wait for the first blow of an Arab attack, which would exact a greater price in Israeli lives. The government decided on the former option.

After a surprise air attack on June 5--which destroyed the Arab air forces--Israel decided upon its main objective: the Sinai and the Egyptian positions, which commanded the Straits of Tiran. Jordan was notified that if it abstained from fighting, Israel would refrain from any further action against it. When Jordan entered the war, Israeli forces responded and took the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the ensuing battles. During the last two days of the war, the Israeli army conquered the Golan Heights, from which the Syrians had sniped and shelled Israel settlements below.

By the end of the fighting on June 10, Israel was in possession of the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. These areas were given various designations [by different people], most of which reveal a political view: the liberated territories, the administered territories, the occupied territories, or the conquered territories. The areas which had been ruled by Jordan were either referred to as "Judea and Samaria"--in order to emphasize the historical Jewish link with the region--or continued to be known as the "West Bank," suggesting a connection with Jordan or a semi‑independent status.

Initial Policies

Israeli policy after the war distinguished between the Sinai and the Golan Heights, which had been recognized possessions of Egypt and Syria respectively, and other areas in which there was no recognized ruler and which were strategically and ideologically important to Israel.

On June 27, East Jerusalem--expanded to include Rachel's Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem and the Kalandia airport close to Ramallah--was formally incorporated into the West Jerusalem municipality. Israeli law and administration were extended to these areas. In August, the Israeli national unity government (which at the time included former opposition leader Menachem Begin) made Egypt an offer to withdraw from the Sinai in return for a solution to the problems of the Straits of Tiran, free navigation in the Suez Canal, the demilitarization of the Sinai, and a peace agreement. A similar proposal regarding the Golan was made to Syria in exchange for demilitarization of the Golan, guarantees of water supply from sources of the Jordan River to Israel, and peace.

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Jonathan Kaplan is administrative director at the Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.