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Prelude to the June War

Israel's Aggression Against Syria 1949-1967:

by David Paul


In 1948 the Zionists emerged from their war with the Arabs the big winners. They had seized a state which was recognized by both East and West; they had driven off about two thirds of the original population of 1.2 million; and they had conquered 77% of Palestine-- some 21% more than had been allocated to it by the UN partition plan of 1947.

However, the victory was not complete for in the northern sector parts of what had been Mandate Palestine were not occupied by Israel. These were areas along the Jordan River captured by the Syrian forces. Israel insisted that all territory it held that had been designated as belonging to the Arab state it would continue to hold. At the same time it insisted that Syria not be allowed to remain in the areas it occupied.

The UN Acting Mediator Ralph Bunche brokered the Israeli-Syrian Armistice Agreement of 20 July 1949 which required Syria to withdraw its troops. It did this in return for a pledge that sovereignty of the disputed areas would remain undetermined until a peace settlement.

This agreement created 3 DMZs totaling 66.5 square miles:

1. In the north, the smallest-- at the northeast corner of Israel's border with Syria near Baniyas Spring. Though uninhabited it was used for farming and grazing land.

2. Central DMZ-- from the southern edge of Lake Huleh to the northern tip of Lake Tiberias it is a narrow strip straddling the Jordan River with a kind of triangular shaped bulge in the middle. It had one Jewish settlement (Mishmar Ha Yarden) and four Palestinian villages (Kirad al-Baqqara, Kirad al-Ghannama, Mansura al-Khayt, and Yarda).

3. In the south, the biggest-- started about the halfway point on the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias and ran south to the tip of the lake then jutted to the east to meet with the Yarmak River at the borders between Israel, Jordan and Syria. It had one Jewish settlement (Ein Gev) and three Palestinian villages (al-Hamma, Nuqayb, and al-Samra.)

Under the armistice life was to proceed as normal, and neither side was to gain militarily from new projects. The armistice also created defensive zones surrounding the DMZs which were designed to keep the two sides from introducing any forces other than defensive. Mixed Armistice Commissions were established to ensure the full implementation of the agreements.

At first all seemed to go well, but soon Arab rage at Israeli practices became obvious. Major General Carl von Horn of Sweden, the 4th United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) Chief of Staff:

"In 1950, the Israelis had established a new kibbutz at Beit Katzir in the [southern] demilitarized zone. Like most of their kibbutzim in troubled areas, it was fortified with trenches and a double-apron barbed-wire fence from behind which the settlers sallied out to cultivate the surrounding land, digging irrigation canals to channel the water from Lake Tiberias with such vigor that before long no Arab farmer in the area was allowed into the stretch of land between the kibbutz and the lake. From here they soon extended their activities so that the inhabitants of two neighboring Arab villages, Lower and Upper Tawafiq [ a Syrian village east of the southern DMZ], observed the kibbutznik tractor-drivers with alarm as they speeded up to each turn at the eastern boundaries of their fields, making the ploughs swerve out, thus slowly but surely extending their 'previous' cultivation eastward into Arab [Palestinian] land. This was of course, part of a premeditated Israeli policy to edge east through the demilitarized zone towards the old Palestine border (as shown on their maps) and to get all Arabs out of the way by fair means of foul."

"Gradually, beneath the glowering eyes of the Syrians, who held the high ground overlooking the zone, the area had become a network of Israeli canals and irrigation channels edging up against and always encroaching on Arab-owned property . . . For the ground was so fertile that every square foot was a gold mine in grain."


Major Confrontations:

21 January 1951

The World Zionist Organization's Jewish National Fund agreed to help finance a $250 million development project which included drainage of the Huleh marshes which is an integral part of the Jordan River system and irrigation of the Negev and the Jerusalem corridor.

12 February 1951

Israel begins work on the drainage project-- it being clear that the drainage channels will impinge on Syrian territory within the central DMZ.

13 March 1951

Israel, ignoring Syria's complaint to the MAC sends earthmoving tractors into the DMZ east of the Jordan River and begins digging a drainage ditch.

24 March 1951

Israel, defying the MAC ruling that the Israeli project "constitutes a flagrant violation" of the armistice, declares for the first time that it holds sovereignty over the zone and thus has the right to proceed. This despite the fact that the armistice agreement specifically left the issue of sovereignty to peace negotiations.

25 March 1951

Israel continues its digging. Its workers are sniped at and clashes break out between Israeli forces and Syrian troops and irregulars. No casualties are reported.

30 March 1951

Israel attacks expelling 785 Palestinians from the villages of Kirad al-Baqqara and Kirad al-Ghannama. Israel also launches an air raid inside the al-Hamma district of the southern DMZ. Two Palestinian women are killed, six civilians are wounded and around 1200 Palestinians in the central and southern DMZs were driven out. The US protested the air raid stating that it was "in no way justified."

2 May 1951

Syria, seeking to protect the Bedouin area of Shamalina from a fate similar to that of Kirad al-Baqqara and Kirad al-Ghannama, sent a force dressed as irregulars into the central DMZ at the northern tip of Lake Tiberias. After a five day fight which claimed 40 Israeli soldiers, the Syrians were repulsed. The Bedouins were driven off in the next year.

18 May 1951

The UN Security Council passes resolution 92 calling on Israel to stop draining the marshes and allow the return of the Palestinians to their homes in the DMZs. Only some 350 Palestinians were ever allowed to return. Lt. General William E. Riley of the US, then the UNTSO Chief of Staff, reported to the UN Security Council that efforts to return others were prevented by the Israelis.

General E.L.M. Burns of Canada, UNTSO Chief of Staff 1954-6: "The Israeli's claimed sovereignty over the territory covered by the DMZ . . . They then proceeded, as opportunity offered, to encroach on the specific restrictions and so eventually to free themselves, on various pretexts, of all of them."

6 June 1951

Israel stops work but then is allowed to proceed a month later when it redesigned the project so as not to trespass on the DMZ.

20 June 1951

Israel informs the UNTSO that it will no longer attend meetings of the Israel-Syria MAC as long as complaints involving the DMZs are on the agenda. In plain words, Syria must recognize Israel's sovereignty over the DMZs. Syria responded by announcing that it would not attend any meetings with an agenda that did not include DMZ items. Thus, the regular meetings of the MAC were killed.

20 August 1951

UNTSO Chief of Staff Riley reported to the Security Council that the following Israeli practices were hindering UN efforts to resolve Israeli-Syrian tensions:

1. Israel's continued occupation of the large Palestinian-owned Khuri farm in the central DMZ

2. Israeli restrictions of Palestinian movements in the central DMZ

3. Israel's refusal to allow the return of those Palestinians forcibly evicted in March

4. Israel's plans to create an Israeli-paid police force in the occupied villages of Kirad al-Baqqara and Kirad al-Ghannama

5. Israel's refusal to allow villagers to buy food in Syria

6. Israel's refusal to allow farmers to return to the Khuri farm to water the orange groves

7. Restrictions placed by Israel on the movements of UN observers

September 1953

Israel launches on a crash basis a water diversion project in the central DMZ. Israel claims it is just a small diversion to a hydroelectric station. UN observers put the lie to that noting that it would in fact control the Jordan River. In effect it would kill Eisenhower's scheme to bring peace to the area by a sharing of the region's water resources. Eventually Israeli did admit that the real plan was to divert enough water to help irrigate the coastal Sharon Plain and then the Negev desert.

18 September 1953

US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles informs Israel that if it did not stop the diversion project the US would cancel the $26 million aid pending. Israel ignored the threat.

23 September 1953

Major General Bemnike of Denmark, UNTSO Chief of Staff, called on Israel to stop work on the diversion project. His report to the Secretary-General noted that the Israeli project was already denying water to two Palestinian mills, causing then to cease work, and drying up some Palestinian farmland. He also went on to describe in some detail the military advantages Israel would gain should she control the Jordan as she planed. Israel's response was to increase work.

20 October 1953

Dulles announces publicly the US decision to withhold aid to Israel.

27 October 1953

Israel announces that it is suspending work.

28 October 1953

Eisenhower announces resumption of US aid to Israel for a six month period. Through 1956 Eisenhower tied US aid to Israeli behavior. The Eisenhower attempt to bring peace to the area through water sharing came to naught.

11 December 1955

Israel sends 2 paratroop battalions, backed by artillery and mortar batteries, under the command of Ariel Sharon, against Syrian posts at Butayha farm and the Syrian village of Kursi outside of the DMZ, near the northeast shore of Lake Tiberias. Casualties: 56 Syrians including 3 women killed, 9 wounded, 30 taken prisoner; 6 Israelis killed, and 14 wounded.

The US expressed "shock" at the raid and the UN Security Council resolution unanimously condemned Israel for its "flagrant violation" of the armistice agreement.

The object of the attack, according to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, was to provoke Egypt into honoring its 20 October mutual defense pact with Syria by attacking Israel. Thereby this would ignite the war Israel sought with Egypt. The non-belligerent response by Egypt forced Israel to wait almost a year to attack Egypt.

Israel completed the expulsion of those Palestinians still living in the DMZ during the "Suez Crisis" of 1956. The DMZs now under Israeli control the point of attack became control of the Jordan River. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria attempted diversion projects to gain a share of the Jordan's waters. This led to Israeli attacks all along the frontiers of the DMZs and even inside Syria itself. Infiltration and even acts of terror remained minor until 1965, when Fateh guerrillas began to operate.

16 March 1962

Israel's long term policy had been for some time the establishment of exclusive Israeli control over Lake Tiberias-- despite several treaties that gave Syrian fishing and navigation rights on the lake as well as grazing, water and cultivation rights and the right to cross the frontier freely. Israel did its utmost to prevent Syrian and Palestinian use of the lake. Several shooting incidents between Syrian troops on shore and Israeli armed patrol boats had occurred. On the 16th Israel raided the village of Nuqayb in the central DMZ. At least 30 Syrians and 5 Israelis were killed. The UN "deplored" the fighting between the two sides and found Israel in "flagrant violation" of the armistice agreement.

Meanwhile, since late 1956 Israel had resumed work on its National Water Carrier. Avoiding the DMZs (and thus US objections) Israel diverted water directly from Lake Tiberias and sent it 155 miles south to irrigate the northern part of the Negev desert. Israel did this without consulting the riparian states of Syria and Jordan which had a right to be consulted on the use of joint waters. Israel ignored all Arab complaints and finished the project on 28 May 1964.

The headwaters of the Jordan became the focus of Israeli attacks at the end of 1964. Israel claimed the River Dan, a reservoir, and all the springs in the area as its own. Syria clamed several of the springs and part of the reservoir and complained that Israel had built a patrol road on Syrian territory. On 13 November Syria fired on an Israeli patrol using the road. Israel sent jets to napalm, strafe and rocket Syrian positions in the DMZ and as far as 6 miles inside Syria, killing at least 7 Syrians and wounding around 26. Israel lost 3 killed and 9 wounded.

As retaliation for Israel's theft of the waters of Lake Tiberias the Arabs vowed to drain off water from two Jordan tributaries-- the Hasbani in Lebanon and the Baniyas in Syria. The idea was to funnel the water through Syrian and Jordanian territory to south of Lake Tiberias. Lebanon and Syria began digging in February 1964 but the Israelis destroyed their bulldozers with artillery fire.

Syria tried to resume work the summer of 1966 by moving its heavy earthmoving equipment into the area north of the Israeli frontier around the Baniyas River. On 14 July Israeli warplanes flying 8 miles inside Syrian territory destroyed the engineering works and the earthmoving equipment, thus killing the Syrian project.

In this era of ever increasing acts of violence and total distrust the Israelis struck out with full force against their neighbors on 5 June 1967. With victory over Egypt and Jordan quickly accomplished Israel broke the cease fire then in effect and on June 9 seized the Golan Heights.

Around a quarter of the 139,000 Syrians living in the area fled during the war. According to the historian Tabitha Petran: "In the next six months Israel expelled another 95,000 people by demolishing villages, cutting off water and food supplies, and by threats reinforced by torture and execution of those who refused to leave. Expellees were compelled to leave behind everything they owned-- shops full of goods, sheep and goats, clothes and household possessions, as well as lands, homes vineyards and apple trees."

UNTSO Chief of Staff von Horn on the threat posed by Syrian artillery on the Golan Heights: "It is unlikely that these would ever had come into action had it not been for Israeli provocation."

As the American historian Donald Neff notes: "The threat posed to Israel by Syrian heavy artillery on the Golan before 1967 does not appear to have the prominence at the time that it subsequently acquired in Israeli pronouncements. None of the UNTSO chiefs of staff in their memoirs considered as especially menacing the Golan gun emplacements. In fact, the heights themselves are seldom mentioned." And, ". . . not a single Israeli civilian is reported to have been killed by Syrian artillery in the six months before the 1967 war, a period of intense skirmishes between the two sides."

Moshe Dayan, Minister of Defense at the time, had this to say about the shelling from the Golan by Syria: "Eighty percent of the incidents worked like this: We would send tractors to plow in an area of little use, in a demilitarized zone, knowing ahead of time that the Syrians would shoot. If they didn't start shooting, we would tell the tractors to advance until the Syrians would get aggravated and start shooting. We used artillery and later the air force became involved." He went on to say that this was the policy for years and that all northern military commanders including Rabin used this tactic.


Based on:

Neff, Donald. "Israel-Syria: Conflict at the Jordan River, 1949-1967" Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 23, no. 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 26-40


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