Middle East History -- It Happened in July: With First Settlement in Golan, Israel Chose Land over Peace

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Middle East History--It Happened in July: With First Settlement in Golan, Israel Chose Land Over Peace

It was on July 15, 1967--just five weeks after the end of the Six-Day War- -that Israel quietly established its first settlement in the occupied territories, despite promises to Washington that it had no intention to do so. The settlement was Kibbutz Merom Hagolan near Quneitra on the Golan Heights.(1) Although Israel continued to indicate it wanted peace more than land, its aggressive actions became suspect in Washington. A secret cable drafted in the State Department for transmission to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Sept. 14 noted that Israeli policy seemed to be hardening toward retention of the occupied territories: "Israeli objectives may be shifting from original position seeking peace with no repeat no territorial gains toward one of territorial expansionism," said the cable.

Israel's aggressive actions became suspect in Washington.

It continued: "Israel's refusal to authorize the return of all refugees desiring to resume residence on West Bank . . . and statements by senior Israeli officials quoted in American press give rise to impression that Israeli government may be moving toward policy of seeking security simply by retaining occupied areas rather than by achieving peaceful settlement with Arabs." The cable noted Israel now seemed to be putting more emphasis on "form of settlement (direct negotiations and formal peace treaties) rather than substance . . . . There is concern [this stance] could in fact become rationale for territorial acquisitions." The cable concluded that it was important for Israel to demonstrate "that Israel sincerely wishes peaceful settlement above all."(2)

Despite protests from the United Nations and the United States that settlements were a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel continued establishing Jewish settlements. Within six months, Israel had expropriated 838 acres for new settlements, expelled hundreds of Arabs from the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, razed Palestinian refugee towns at Tiflig and near Jericho as well as 144 homes in Gaza, and secretly embarked on a major plan for founding four large settlements in Arab Jerusalem.(3) By the beginning of 1968, Israel had placed settlements in all the occupied lands of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.(4)

Under its Labor governments Israel pursued a steady but deliberately quiet policy of establishing settlements, disguising them as "nahals," paramilitary outposts manned by youths. The subterfuge served the purpose of muting international criticism. However, by mid-1976 the number of settlements had grown to 68 and no longer could be ignored. Finally, on March 23, 1976, the United States went public with its concerns about Israel's actions. On that date, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations William W. Scranton declared in the Security Council that Israel's settlements in the occupied territories were illegal and that its claim to all of Jerusalem was void.

Scranton said: "The United States position on the status of Jerusalem has been stated here on numerous occasions since the Arab portion of that city was occupied by Israel in 1967 . . . . [T]he future of Jerusalem will be determined only through the instruments and processes of negotiation, agreement and accommodation. Unilateral attempts to predetermine the future have no standing.

"Next, I turn to the question of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Again, my government believes that international law sets the appropriate standards. An occupier must maintain the occupied areas as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation and be consistent with international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention speaks directly to the issue of population transfer in Article 49: `The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. …