The UN experience in Gaza

By Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Editor of Foreign Affairs
Published on July 1, 1957

It would be wrong to call the United Nations experiment in administering the Gaza Strip a failure; the experiment was never made. Some preparations for it were made. Civilian experts were assembled and dispatched to Gaza on the heels of the United Nations Emergency Force. Before they could get their bearings, while they were still searching for beds and desks, Egypt had stepped in again. Everybody except the Egyptians professed to be surprised, and many were, for there had been wide hope that the enterprise in Gaza might, if successful, set a precedent for future police actions by the United Nations in troubled areas, a hope proved unjustified.

The commander of the United Nations Emergency Force retired more or less into the background soon after he had brought his troops into Gaza, and his team of civil administrators, unnoticed while they were there, faded unnoticed away. If the United Nations experiment in Gaza failed, it was a failure by default.

There had been strong support in the West for the view that the United Nations should administer the Gaza Strip for a considerable period of time, at least long enough to use it as a focus of international strength while an attempt was made to face up to the Israeli-Arab problem as a whole, specifically the fundamental questions of frontiers, refugees and the equitable use of the Jordan waters. For years the United Nations had been debating this complex of problems and passing resolutions about them; for years some of its members had been giving unselfish service and large sums of money to mitigate the human misery involved.

The United Nations was bound to see that Israel withdrew to the lines from which she had begun her aggression in October, 1956; it was not bound, many persons thought, to restore the precise situation which had produced the conflict. For although Israel had begun the actual aggression, responsibilities for the conflict had been divided. The United Nations shared in them. It had allowed its resolutions and warnings about frontiers and refugees to remain unheeded. Despite its admonitions, border incidents and fighting had continued. Its declaration that the prolonged state of technical belligerency between Egypt and Israel was unjustified had been outed. Only an exceedingly narrow concept of the functions of the United Nations could be satisfied with a simple return to the status quo ante.

Partly by decision, partly by indecision, this nevertheless was the result.

The General Assembly, properly concerned first as the restorer of emergency business to get a ceasefire, and second to secure the withdrawal of hostile troops from Egypt, neglected the opportunity to lay the basis, as the third stage of its action, for insisting on a settlement of the disputes which had produced the hostilities. The United States, leading the fight for the first two objectives, was entitled to demand that victory there must be only preliminary to efforts to win a more fundamental and permanent victory. It took half a step in that direction, hesitated, and backed down.

The Secretary-General showed great energy and efficiency in organising
the emergency force to supervise the cessation of hostilities. He did not solicit for it the wider rights and duties that might have made it a factor in promoting a general settlement; nor did he feel free to make use of the evasive and sometimes ambiguous resolutions of the General Assembly as a starting point from which to evolve a constructive policy of his own.
Specifically as regards the Gaza Strip, account had first of all to be taken of the circumstance that it had been the main centre for the organisation of fedhayeen raids into Israel and a main target of fierce Israeli reprisals, and that these activities must be prevented. In addition, there was the fact that it was not sovereign territory of either Egypt or Israel but simply a part of the former British mandated territory of Palestine which had been recognised as remaining under Egyptian control in the Egyptian-Israeli armistice of 1949.

The wishes of the population as to their future status were unknown. Of the approximately 300,000 persons living huddled in an area roughly 25 miles long by five miles wide, 213,000 were Palestinian refugees supported by the United Nations.[i] In every respect the problem clamoured for an international solution. Although the people were hostile to Israel, the refugees violently so, this did not necessarily mean that they would not have welcomed an interim period of international administration and perhaps even the eventual creation of a small Palestinian state, under international guarantees, as a buffer between Israel and Egypt.

One suggestion was that such a state might function in connection with (or as part of) a narrow demilitarised zone running down to the Gulf of Aqaba. Jews and Arabs would thereby be restrained from molesting each other along a dangerously troubled border; in addition, a secure pipeline route would be opened up for the Arab states beyond Suez to get their products to Western markets. The Gaza population might have found the scheme particularly attractive if it had included provisions for a free port and installations that would offer local employment.

An argument in favour of UN occupation and administration of Gaza was that this would have given UNRWA a chance to make a heroic effort to build permanent homes for the refugees congregated there. At one time Israel had offered to take back and resettle 100,000 Palestinian refugees; later she indicated that the offer had lapsed, but some observers thought that this was the moment to insist that she receive some such number from Gaza and that she compensate the remainder.

In 1953, Egypt had favoured a plan to make available a large tract in Sinai near the Suez Canal for settlement of Gaza refugees, the irrigation and other expenses to be financed through UNRWA. Deterioration of Egyptian-Israeli relations had caused the project to be dropped. Might it not be revived? UNRWA or a special UN commission like that which arranged the exchange of Greek and Turkish populations after the First World War might consult the refugees, supervise the movement of those who wished to go back to Israel and arrange that those who opted for Egypt were settled satisfactorily and enabled, by Israeli compensation and otherwise, to start a new life. All this would have taken planning, effort, time and money; but at least in the end about a quarter of the total Arab refugee question would have been solved, something not now in sight by any other means.It might be that none of these proposals, nor any combination or

variant of them, would have been accepted if formally proposed or, if accepted, would have worked. We do not know. There was not enough imaginative statesmanship either in the United Nations or in Washington (which at the moment seemed strategically situated to take a lead) to so much as explore the possibilities.

“The state of perpetual crisis threatened another world war”

The dispute over Gaza was of course only part of a much wider conflict involving far more fundamental questions than the fedhayeen raids and the Israeli reprisals. These were merely symptoms of the deep-seated disease. On the one side, the Arabs had refused from the start to recognise the right of Israel to exist as a nation and still maintained a technical state of belligerency toward her; Arab leaders had often proclaimed the intention of “pushing her into the sea,” and only a few days before the Israeli attack the three neighbouring nations of Egypt, Jordan and Syria had placed their troops under unified command as if about to try to carry that threat into execution. 

On the other side of the ledger, there were the 900,000 Palestinian refugees living on Western charity with no satisfactory offer from Israel to take them back or alternatively to compensate them for their lost homes and properties. When they infiltrated in small bands into their former homeland their depredations were often punished by large-scale Israeli reprisals, officially announced and officially justified. Many other matters were in controversy, but they have been frequently discussed and need not be reviewed here.

What must be stressed is that the state of perpetual crisis between Israel and the Arab states had produced one local war, followed by a series of violent border incidents, and a second local war which threatened to lead to another world war; and that an international organisation with the duty of establishing conditions of peace and security was amply justified, to say the least, in attempting to put an end to it. 

Any such attempt must begin with the refugees. As has recently been demonstrated once again in Jordan, where they form over a third of the population and are the core of revolutionary discontent, they add a sharp cutting edge to every international or domestic problem in the area. An opportunity to begin was provided in Gaza. The refugees aside, Gaza was an open wound that obviously demanded radical treatment. In addition, supposing there was to be a serious effort to enforce a comprehensive settlement, Gaza offered a pivotal position from which the United Nations action might be directed. In the tangle of cross-purposes at UN headquarters in New York these facts were disregarded or else the enterprise seemed hedged about with too many prickly controversies to be worth even a try.

Admittedly the United Nations was handicapped in undertaking a bold experiment at this particular time and in this particular area. Two of its leading members were accused of having just violated the Charter. Soviet Russia was not at all interested in finding a solution for the Arab-Israeli dispute but sought to prolong it, deepen it and utilise it to win Arab friendship. India might have been expected by both principle and material interest to play a constructive rôle; unfortunately her thoughts were all on Kashmir and she feared to lose Arab support for her claims there by touching the substance of the Palestine question. Perhaps the Indian delegation also had in mind to avoid any UN action in Gaza that might be a precedent for similar action in Kashmir. The American delegation, to which everyone looked for a lead, was engrossed with the immediate problem of securing the withdrawal of hostile troops from Egypt.

President Eisenhower’s first reaction to the Israeli and Anglo-French attacks on Egypt had been one of outrage. He decided instantly that the United Nations must make this an even clearer case than Korea had been that “aggression doesn’t pay;” and the importance of driving home this single simple moral seemed to him so over-riding that nothing else must be brought in that might distract from it. However, unswerving pursuit of the primary goal was not necessarily incompatible with a simultaneous effort to increase the prestige and efficacy of the United Nations by insisting that it carry out its peace-making functions under the Charter: the investigation, negotiation, mediation and settlement of disputes. 

In recognition of this the United States delegation was authorised to make such an effort, and on 3 Nov Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a resolution to set up a special committee of five to consult with the parties to the armistice agreements of 1949 “regarding a settlement of the major problems outstanding between the Arab States and Israel, with a view to establishing conditions of permanent peace and stability in the area,” and to submit recommendations to either the Security Council or the General Assembly as seemed appropriate. 

In this manner, while dealing sternly and at once with the Israeli attack the United Nations would also have laid the basis for dealing eventually with the long-standing faults on both sides about which it had so often and so long and so vainly complained. Unfortunately, in view of the urgency of getting agreement on a ceasefire, Ambassador Lodge delayed pressing for consideration of his project; and the hostility of the Arab, Indian, Soviet and certain other delegations to any programme that looked beyond chastising Israel eventually coalesced into such formidable opposition that it seemed inadvisable to provoke a showdown. “Let Dag do it” supplanted “Do it yourself.”

“The ’48 armistice lines were Hammarskjold’s basis for negotiations”


Mr. Hammarskjold had long believed that if any fresh start were ever to be undertaken toward settling outstanding questions between Israel and the Arab states it must be based on the armistice agreements which they had signed following the war of 1948. Whether the agreements were still intact had come into question, the rights which they were alleged to have conferred had long been in hot dispute and now that dispute had erupted into another war. It remained his conviction, however, that they furnished the only ground where any legal foothold could be found for negotiation, and when he was called on to suggest measures to deal with the 1956 crisis he turned naturally to the idea of re-establishing the armistice demarcation lines as rapidly as possible.

The Afro-Asian bloc, mobilised in effective collaboration with the Soviet bloc by the Indian delegate, Mr. Krishna Menon, demanded simply and solely that Israel withdraw to the armistice line and that sanctions be imposed against her if she refused. They would hear of no “reward” for the aggressor, even if it were to be only a discussion of whether President Nasser should not be required, in law, equity and the general interest, to terminate the state of belligerency which, he asserted, had existed between his country and Israel for the past eight years. This technical belligerency had been used by Egypt as justification for excluding Israeli ships from the Suez Canal and from the Gulf of Aqaba, the entrance to the Israeli port of Elath; and quite obviously if the practice were resumed it would risk inducing new hostilities. 

In a resolution of 1 Sept 1951, the Security Council had denied Egypt’s right to continue asserting active belligerent rights as a measure of self-defence at such a late date after the termination of actual hostilities.[ii] Presumably what had been true in 1951 was even more true five years later. The General Assembly could not make up its collective mind to say so, however, and the American delegation did not press it in that direction.

In these and other matters the United States undoubtedly was influenced by the desire to avoid any action that could be construed as contrary to the Arab interest. It feared that any more positive policy might increase Soviet influence in the area and prejudice the success of the Eisenhower Doctrine, the grande manœuvre which was counted on to stabilise the Middle East as a whole and provide a better atmosphere in which to discuss individual problems. Some felt that this was a miscalculation, that no permanent solutions could be achieved in the area so long as the poison of the central dispute over Palestine seeped into every negotiation and kept every controversy at fever height.

On 2 Feb 1957 the General Assembly adopted two resolutions. The first called on Israel to complete its withdrawal behind the 1949 armistice demarcation line “without further delay.” In the second, the General Assembly stated, among other things, that it “Considers that, after full withdrawal of Israel from the Sharm el-Sheikh and Gaza areas, the scrupulous maintenance of the Armistice Agreement [of 1949] requires the placing of the United Nations Emergency Force on the Egyptian-Israeli armistice demarcation line and the implementation of other measures as proposed in the Secretary-General’s report [of 24 Jan], with due regard to the considerations set forth therein with a view to assist in achieving situations conducive to the maintenance of peaceful conditions in the area.” It further “Requests the Secretary-General, in consultation with the parties concerned, to take steps to carry out these measures and to report, as appropriate, to the General Assembly.” These were substantive paragraphs. An introductory sentence contained the pious statement that “withdrawal by Israel must be followed by action which would assure progress toward the creation of peaceful conditions.” To the extent that it implied a promise, even a vague statement of this sort might have encouraged the Secretary-General to put his undoubted ingenuity and subtlety of mind at work to find ways of ensuring that when UNEF took over crucial areas from the Israeli forces it would remain in charge at least long enough for animosities to cool and mediation of underlying issues to become possible.

The Secretary-General’s report of 24 Jan, in which the General Assembly now took refuge instead of stating its own position in categorical terms, was a complicated document alike in reasoning and expression. There was wide disagreement as to the author’s meaning on many points. However, he was in general taken as saying: that the United Nations Emergency Force could be stationed on Egyptian territory only with Egypt’s consent; that if the General Assembly wished to widen “United Nations responsibilities” this would also require Egyptian agreement; that the legal status of Gaza could not be changed except by agreement between the parties; and that Israel could not ask for any guarantees in exchange for her withdrawal. 

In other words, the Secretary-General, and now the General Assembly to the extent that the phraseology of its resolution as quoted above endorsed his report, turned down Israel’s request that the offences of which she was accused be taken up together with the prior offenses of which she accused Egypt. The Secretary-General supported the view that the status juris existing immediately prior to Israel’s military action must be re-ëstablished, including Egyptian “control” of Gaza as provided in the armistice agreement of 1949. “Control in this case,” he added, “obviously must be considered as including administration and security.” He also suggested that the UN forces be deployed on both sides of the demarcation line instead of as previously provided only on the Egyptian side. The General Assembly resolution in effect endorsed these views, except that it stated that the troops should be stationed “on” the demarcation line, which, being too narrow a space for foothold, put another burden of interpretation on the Secretary-General.

“The vexed question of UNEF’s actual role in the Gaza Strip”

During the last week of January while the Secretary-General was preparing his report a number of delegations had been holding discussions regarding a possible resolution to broaden the rôle of the United Nations in the Gaza Strip and at Sharm el-Sheikh, on the Gulf of Aqaba. One objective was to make sure that UNEF would stay in those key places so long as there was any risk of their being used for hostile actions against Israel, whether raids from Gaza or the blockade of shipping to and from Elath. Another objective was political, to give the United Nations a secure base in the area while negotiations on larger issues continued. 

The Secretary-General’s report appeared to contend that such measures would probably be illegal and at any rate were unnecessary. They were illegal, he implied, because “although the United Nations General Assembly would be entitled to recommend the establishment of a United Nations administration and to request negotiations in order to implement such an arrangement, it would lack authority in that recommendation, unilaterally, to require compliance.” They were unnecessary in that once Israel had fully complied with the 1949 armistice agreement, in particular by withdrawing to the demarcation lines and evacuating the demilitarised zone of El Auja, Egypt’s claim to exercise belligerent rights (specifically the right of blockade) would fall to the ground. 

Many believed that such belligerent rights no longer existed in any case, and that the Security Council had ruled to that effect in its 1951 resolution, mentioned above. To make clear that UNEF should not be pressed to serve in any way except to prevent the renewal of fighting the Secretary-General stated that it was not to be employed “so as to prejudge the solution of the controversial questions involved;” or, as he put it in another place in the report, the use of it must be “impartial, in the sense that it does not serve as a means to force a settlement, in the interest of one party, of political conflicts or legal issues recognised as controversial.” 

The concept that United Nations forces could be stationed on Egyptian territory only with Egyptian consent was not in dispute in so far as it applied to their initial entry. Many authorities, however, including Lester B. Pearson of Canada, the author of the resolution creating UNEF, and at a later date US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, held that once Egypt had accepted their entry she could not insist on their withdrawal until the General Assembly decided that in its opinion their mission had been completed. Three of the nations which had supplied contingents disagreed: India, Indonesia and Jugoslavia gave notice that they would withdraw their troops whenever Egypt requested. What might be the opinion of the General Assembly if it ever were forced to formulate one remained uncertain.[iii]
The statement that UNEF should not be used to force a settlement of political or legal conflicts seemed valid, also, in so far as the concept depended on the words “in the interest of one party.” But did this preclude the use of UNEF to maintain an open situation in areas about which both parties entered claims and complaints and regarding which the United Nations had a function to perform in attempting to induce both of them to accept an impartial settlement in the interest of peace?
The General Assembly avoided taking a position of its own on this point; and the Secretary-General’s narrow interpretation stood. The major interested party was the community of nations which had been putting tremendous efforts into extricating Egypt from the consequences of her military defeat, and was now about to succeed in forcing Israel’s withdrawal. Was it to be foreclosed from any gain except the highly important but nevertheless abstract victory of having frustrated aggression? Was no use to be made of that victory to exact a negotiation of the underlying disputes which had menaced the world with war?

Before the vote was taken on 2 Feb various delegates spoke, among them the American, Indian and Egyptian. US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge referred to the need of preventing a return to the conditions prevailing before the recent hostilities and mentioned UNEF’s rôle “as a restraint against any attempt to exercise belligerent rights or to engage in hostile actions contrary to the armistice agreement, the decisions of the Security Council or the resolutions of the General Assembly.” Mahmoud Fawzi, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, did not let this pass unchallenged. UNEF, he said brusquely, “is not in Egypt as an occupation force, not as a replacement for the invaders, not to resolve any question or settle any problem, be that in relation to the Suez Canal, to Palestine or to the freedom of passage in territorial waters.” Mr. Krishna Menon remarked that he had tried to “say the same thing in my own way.”

A number of key questions remained unanswered, and obviously were intended to. One concerned the nature of the “other measures” which had been proposed in the Secretary-General’s report of 24 Jan and which had now been authorised in the second of the adopted resolutions. Another concerned the nature of the “considerations” governing the implementation of those measures. Another concerned the nature and duration of UNEF’s functions. On these and other matters opinion in the General Assembly was deeply divided. Neither of the two main groups felt sure of being able to secure a two-thirds majority for its viewpoint but each feared that the other might.

The Secretary-General was left to interpret what had been the General Assembly’s intent and to do his best to give it coherent execution. As he remarked somewhat later, however, his office is very different from a government. He did not have the status to plan the details of an operation of great magnitude, he did not have diplomatic and intelligence services to keep him informed, he did not have tradition to bolster his confidence, and he knew that in the end he would have to account for his actions to 81 discordant principals.

These were among the reasons, probably, why he felt constrained to conceive of his function as being that of an intermediary back-and-forth between two hostile and very vocal sovereign parties rather than as a mediator on behalf of a third party with interests certainly not inferior to those of either contestant and possessed of rights beyond those either stated in blurred terms in a specific resolution or left entirely unmentioned.

“Egypt’s readiness to make special and helpful arrangements”

In this stalemate, Secretary of State Dulles and Mrs. Golda Meir, the Israeli Foreign Minister, undertook discussions in Washington aimed at working out a procedure which would result in the establishment of a peaceable de facto situation at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and in the Gaza Strip, bypassing the juridical problems that would be involved in reaching a final settlement in either case. Although these discussions took place outside the UN, the Secretary-General told the General Assembly on 22 Feb that he had maintained close contact with them, that they were aimed at breaking an unfortunate impasse and that they were “deserving of warm appreciation.” 

He spoke also of Egypt’s “willingness and readiness to make special and helpful arrangements” in the Gaza area ” with the UN and some of its auxiliary bodies, such as UNEF and UNRWA;” and he referred to such “other arrangements” to be made with the UN “as will contribute towards safeguarding life and property in the area by providing efficient and effective policy protection; as will guarantee good civilian administration; as will assure maximum assistance to the UN refugee programme; and as will protect and foster the economic development of the territory and its people.” 

Evidently the de facto situation in view might be considerably different from a de jure one that simply brought back Egypt and left UNEF guarding the frontier. On 25 Feb, a note from the Secretary-General to the General Assembly refrained from expressing any opinion on details of the possible de facto development but did reiterate that for his part he could “neither detract from nor annul” any rights Egypt possessed under the armistice agreement.

The Secretary-General’s caution about the results of the Washington discussions did not prevent the impression from spreading that some form of interim UN administration was to be set up in Gaza. Speaking in the General Assembly on 25 Feb, Lester B. Pearson urged specifically that this should be done. The United Nations, he said, should “accept responsibility to the maximum possible extent for establishing and maintaining effective civil administration [in the Gaza Strip]; in fostering economic development and social welfare; in maintaining law and order.” He suggested that to co-ördinate and make effective the necessary arrangements the Secretary-General might decide to appoint a UN Commissioner for Gaza. After the Israeli civil administration had been replaced, the Commissioner would remain in Gaza, “where he would have chief responsibility for all UN activities there, including those of UNEF inside the Strip.

The fact that separate discussions were under way in Washington was criticised by delegates of the Afro-Asian and Soviet blocs, but not as violently as might have been expected. There seemed to be some relief that a modus vivendi was in sight and confidence, perhaps, that in operation it could be turned to Arab advantage.
On 1 March, Mrs. Meir rose in the General Assembly and announced Israel’s decision to withdraw fully and at once from Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip in compliance with the first, 2 Feb resolution. Because so many uncertainties had been created by the wording of the second resolution, she listed a number of understandings and expectations on Israel’s part regarding the policy which would be followed subsequently concerning those two areas. 

As regards Gaza, one of the Israeli assumptions as stated by Mrs. Meir was that “the take-over of Gaza from the military and civilian control of Israel will be exclusively by the United Nations Emergency Force.” Another was that the United Nations will be the agency for “safeguarding life and property in the area by providing effective and efficient police protection; as will guarantee good civilian administration; as will assure maximum assistance to the United Nations refugee program; and as will protect and foster the economic development of the territory and its people.” Another was that “the above-mentioned responsibility of the United Nations for the administration of Gaza will be maintained for a transitory period from the takeover until there is a peace settlement, to be sought as rapidly as possible, or a definitive agreement on the future of the Gaza Strip.”

In commenting on Mrs. Meir’s speech, Ambassador Lodge said that nothing in it was to be taken as making the Israeli withdrawal “conditional.” He added, however, that her declarations seemed to the United States to be “not unreasonable.” (the cautious double negative was reportedly substituted at the last moment for the more binding word “legitimate.”) As Mrs. Meir’s speech was understood to have been discussed word for word in Washington beforehand, and as she had expected full United States support for the Israeli “assumptions,” Ambassador Lodge’s remarks were taken in very bad grace in Tel Aviv, and for a day the decision to withdraw from the Gaza and Aqaba areas was put in abeyance.

President Eisenhower thereupon stepped in to reassure Premier Ben Gurion with a strongly-worded note urging that Israel withdraw “with the utmost speed” and saying that he believed that “Israel will have no cause to regret having thus conformed to the strong sentiment of the world community.” 

He went on: “It has always been the view of this Government that after the withdrawal there should be a united effort by all the nations to bring about conditions more stable, more tranquil and more conducive to the general welfare than those which existed heretofore. Already the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions which presage a better future.” And he added this pledge (weakened only, one must note in passing, by the reference to the General Assembly resolutions as a point of departure): “Hopes and expectations based thereon were voiced by your Foreign Minister and others. I believe that it is reasonable to entertain such hopes and expectations and I want you to know that the United States, as a friend of all the countries of the area and as a loyal member of the United Nations, will see that such hopes prove not in vain.”

“Maintaining quiet during and after the Israeli withdrawal”

In view of President Eisenhower’s recognition that Israeli “hopes and expectations” were reasonable–by which he was taken to mean the hopes and expectations expressed as “assumptions” in Mrs. Meir’s speech–the Israeli Government decided to go ahead with the withdrawal. This took place on the night of 6-7 March.
On 8 March, the Secretary-General reported again to the General Assembly.

Among other things he said: “On 7 March, the Commander of the United Nations Emergency Force notified the population of Gaza that ‘the United Nations Emergency Force, acting in fulfilment of its functions as determined by the General Assembly of the United Nations with the consent of the Government of Egypt, is being deployed in this area for the purpose of maintaining quiet during and after the withdrawal of the Israeli defence forces. Until further arrangements are made, the United Nations Emergency Force has assumed responsibility for civilian affairs in the Gaza Strip. . . .'”

He noted that in its second resolution of 2 Feb the General Assembly had recognised “that withdrawal by Israel must be followed by action which would assure progress towards the creation of peaceful conditions” in the area; and he said that the completion of withdrawal put the operative paragraphs of this resolution into full effect.

In addition (the Secretary-General went on) the resolution had “requested the Secretary-General, in consultation with the parties concerned, to carry out measures referred to in the resolution and to report as appropriate to the General Assembly. The Secretary-General will now devote his attention to this task. . . .”
He added that the Assembly had further stated that “it considered that the maintenance of the Armistice Agreement requires the implementation of ‘other measures as proposed in the Secretary-General’s report,’ with due regard to the considerations set out therein, with a view to assist in achieving situations conducive to the maintenance of peaceful conditions in the area. This statement, as it was formulated, read together with the request to the Secretary-General to consult with the parties, indicates that the General Assembly wished to leave the choice of these ‘other measures’ to be decided in the light of further study and consultations.”

He continued: “Arrangements made by the Commander of the United
Nations Emergency Force provided for an initial take-over in Gaza by the Force. This was in accordance with the statement of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly on 22 Feb, that ‘the take-over of Gaza from the military and civilian control of Israel . . . in the first instance would be exclusively by UNEF’. . . .”

Carrying in mind these statements (among them the ambiguous phrase “in the first instance”), and also recalling the questions left in suspense in the second resolution of 2 Feb, we shall now see what the actual course of events was in Gaza in the days immediately following the Israeli withdrawal.

“A military organ without defined instructions as to its functions”

The military take-over of the Gaza Strip by the United Nations Emergency Force was admirably executed. Officials in New York had talked at first of leaving a gap of a few hours between the Israeli departure and the UN arrival. A suggested alternative was to send in merely a team of UN observers to replace the Israelis. Fortunately, both these unrealistic ideas were abandoned. During the night of 6-7 March the Israelis withdrew and simultaneously the UN troops came in; General Moshe Dayan, Israeli Chief of Staff, handed over authority without ceremony to Colonel Carl Engholm of Denmark, the deputy of Major General E. L. M. Burns, the Canadian commander of UNEF. There was no vacuum of authority and hence no murdering or looting. The rioting came later.

In preparation for the withdrawal the Israeli commander had ordered a 24-hour curfew. The population guessed what was coming and felt safe in ignoring it. This was a mistake; the Israelis meant to preserve order to the end and after there had been some shooting the population remained indoors. Matters had been worse when the Egyptians abandoned Gaza on 2 Nov, several hours before the appearance of the Israeli troops. In that hiatus there had been wild looting and a number of murders as Arab groups took vengeance against each other or settled personal debts.

On the same day, 7 March, there assembled at Lydda airport near Tel Aviv a group of the experts hastily recruited from UNEF personnel and from UN technical assistance missions in Cairo and elsewhere for the task of administering the Gaza Strip under international authority. The original intention was that in advance of the withdrawal these experts and some officials of UNRWA, the agency caring for Arab refugees, would meet Israeli authorities at El Arish, in Sinai, to arrange for a smooth transfer of powers; but that plan had been overtaken by events. 

The UN contingent contained legal, financial, railway and other experts qualified to operate a civil government; UNRWA personnel meanwhile would not only care for the refugees but would feed the 60,000 or more of the local population who had been on the Egyptian relief rolls. With little or no briefing on local problems except what they could learn from the Israelis who had just evacuated the Strip and from the UNRWA personnel who had been working there for the past eight years, the civilian experts went on to report at General Burns’s headquarters in the Sinai peninsula, while the UNRWA team, which also was technically under General Burns for the time being, proceeded direct to Gaza.

The absence of a specific programme of action for the civilian administrators would have mattered less if the military organ with which they were to serve had had clear instructions as to its own functions and authority. These seem to have been left largely undefined, however, with the result that since military men are not accustomed to making political decisions, especially decisions which their civilian superiors have been unable or unwilling to make, the local population soon felt that they had wide scope for independent action. Under Egyptian prompting they were not slow to make use of it. Neither in New York nor in Washington, and certainly not among UN representatives in the field, was there expectation that President Nasser would move at once to take over control of the Strip.

This, however, was what he had decided to do; and his action may have been speeded by the stress which Israeli propaganda was putting on Mrs. Meir’s “assumption” that UN would stay in Gaza until there had been an over-all settlement and that meanwhile Egypt’s return was excluded (a word attributed to Secretary Dulles). As a first step he sent agents into the Strip to organise demonstrations in favour of a prompt return of Egyptian control and began whipping up support for the demand by attacks on UNEF and passionate appeals over the Cairo radio.

On 8 March, the day following the UNEF takeover, a group of journalists arrived from Cairo. Among them were three who seemed to have no professional responsibilities but instead very precise instructions as to how to organise the local population in “peaceful demonstrations” for the return of the Strip to Egyptian rule. The demonstrators were provided with thousands of small Egyptian flags and banners with slogans (a photograph shows children carrying one reading, “Hell to Criminal’s Colonials”). This elaborate paraphernalia was obviously not of local manufacture any more than were the tommy-guns and hand grenades which now made their appearance in the hands of the squad leaders.

“The Egyptians take control as the UNEF force faces trouble”

UNEF, which had counted on being welcomed to Gaza as friends, found that the population was being organised against them. They had guns, but they had not been told that they could use them. Specifically, could they use them to impose order? Sights like that of a Danish soldier surrounded by a crowd of Arabs clawing at his rifle, while he fired it aimlessly into the air over their heads, did not improve the morale of UNEF as a whole. With or without authority from New York, Colonel Engholm issued an order on 9 March forbidding the possession of arms by unauthorised persons.

What should or could be done with violators, however, remained undecided.  There was no authority from New York to put trouble-makers in jail and there was no provision of courts, military or civil, to try them once they had been jailed.

On Sunday, 10 March, General Burns moved his headquarters from Sinai to the old Police Station in Gaza City, the seat of civil administration for the Strip, built in the days of the British Mandate. Colonel Engholm was appointed Military Governor of the city. Hardly was General Burns installed in his new headquarters before it was surrounded by rioters trying to storm it and raise the Egyptian flag. UNEF soldiers used tear gas to disperse them and also fired over their heads; a bullet ricochetted and killed one of the demonstrators. What would have happened if the mob had persisted is hard to say. UNEF had no instructions explicitly authorising the use of arms; the concept had been that its simple presence would be sufficient to guarantee order regardless of whether it was known to be able and willing to enforce it.

The 10th of March marked the turning point. The mob was not in control of Gaza but it knew that the United Nations was not in control either. The UN civil administrators had been trickling in and had begun by now to get their bearings. It was too late. When the old municipal council was re-instated it had not been required to recognise their functions. The next day President Nasser felt safe in naming General Hassan Abdel Latif of the Egyptian Army as Administrative Governor of Gaza. His timing was perfect. He had organised pressure in the streets of Gaza, waited until the mob had produced a shooting incident, and now on 11March took the decisive step.

On this day Secretary-General Hammarskjold’s representative, Under Secretary Ralph J. Bunche, flew from Cairo to Gaza to visit General Burns. He received the news of the Abdel-Latif appointment on his return to Cairo that evening. General Burns heard of it at the same time. The next morning Moscow radio announced warm Soviet approval. Secretary Dulles was in Canberra, the Australian capital, out of Mrs. Meir’s reach. Whatever may have been the aim of the Dulles-Meir negotiations in Washington, the Nasser fait accompli had frustrated it.

On the evening of 14 March, General Abdel-Latif arrived in Gaza accompanied by staff officers and (by the count of an American observer) about 150 military police in red-topped hats, “armed with tommy-guns and swaggering as though they had just won a victory in battle.” An authoritative UNEF estimate given to this writer in Gaza a few days later was that there were “about 100” of them. Cairo reported the number as 50. The precise number does not matter. Th      ey were soon supplemented by a group of Egyptian officers who quickly organised a Palestinian police force. General Burns was invited to move out of his headquarters to make way for General Abdel-Latif. He left the Police Station, always the recognised centre of local authority in Gaza, and installed himself in an unfinished hospital across the street. His troops henceforth were concentrated on patrol duties along the Israeli border.[iv]

The United Nations experiment in administering an area of danger to world peace had ended before it had begun.

The dénouement can be traced to many errors of commission and of omission, but to the latter more than the former. The first and probably decisive omission, we see in retrospect, was the General Assembly’s failure to relate the measures taken to force the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egyptian territory with measures to deal with the circumstances out of which the attack had arisen.


Without attempting to set up a balance sheet between current wrongdoings and those of the past about which it had heard complaints and counter-complaints ad nauseam, the United Nations should have given plain notice that it was not going to tolerate any longer a situation which besides being a local shame was an outrageous offence to the whole international community and a perpetual (and at this moment imminent) danger to world peace. Had Ambassador Lodge’s draft resolution of 3 Nov been pressed and adopted, perhaps in more carefully thought-out form, it would have set the General Assembly on the right course. Th en was the moment to initiate constructive international action, before Arab, Indian and Soviet opposition congealed.


There still was a chance even later of saving a basis for an important United Nations role in the area if preparations to maintain the de facto situation in Gaza had been undertaken with more care and foresight and if the UN agencies on the spot had been better instructed as to their functions.

The Cabot Lodge resolution, or something like it, would have been in the same current of thought and policy as had prompted the three-pronged proposals regarding refugees, boundaries and regional security made by Secretary Dulles in his speech before the Council on Foreign Relations on 26 Aug, 1955. It was not in any sense an anti-Arab proposal.

The Arab states had felt themselves the most injured party in the long dispute with Israel and their fundamental interests would have been well served if they had welcomed a move to settle it while Israel was on the defensive in the court of world public opinion. Unfortunately, they did not see it in that light, and the suggestions and warnings from various delegations that the upshot would be a return to the same threatening situation which had preceded the war of last autumn did not persuade the American delegation to risk a determined effort to deal with fundamental issues or encourage the Secretary-General to initiate such a trial on his own. So far as is known, President Eisenhower has not as yet moved to initiate the “united effort” promised in his urgent message to Israel’s Prime Minister Ben-Gurion on 13 March.

The General Assembly was labouring under the handicap, of course, that it was attempting to fulfill some of the thwarted functions of the Security Council but without that body’s legal powers of enforcement. The early days of the crisis, however, had proved how effective its recommendations could be when they were clear, when the United States gave them all-out support and when the Secretary-General translated them into vigorous action.

Within 48 hours after the General Assembly had asked Mr. Hammarskjold to bring in a plan for a United Nations Emergency Force he had done it. The subsequent experience with UNEF–both in Egypt and in Gaza–should be turned to account. The Secretariat should be enlarged and strengthened by the addition of a military advisor to the Secretary-General and a skeleton organisation capable of being promptly expanded to undertake tasks in the field in case of need. The Peace Observation Commission provided for under the “Uniting for Peace” Resolution of 1950 should be put on a ready footing, prepared to report to the General Assembly at any time on situations threatening the peace and giving signs of requiring international action. Finally, the military forces which the 1950 Resolution recommended that member nations earmark for police operations should in fact be made ready for that service.

The United Nations came into existence because the international community believed that it had interests above and beyond those of particular disputants; it accepted the duty of defeating and rectifying acts of aggression and it established norms for action to remove causes of dispute. Sometimes the nature of a crisis makes members or groups of members incline to emphasise one duty or the other. A nation with universal interests and a constant concern for peace should not neglect either.


[i] The funds which finance the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) come 70 per cent from the United States, 24 per cent from Great Britain, 6 per cent from other members. The fact that the Soviet Union contributes nothing has not kept it from becoming popular in the region. The refugees look on the relief received through UNRWA as a right, less than what is due them because of the West’s responsibility in creating Israel.

[ii] During the discussion of the resolution in 1951 the point was made that the Security Council’s acceptance of the Egyptian thesis that a continued state of war justified hostile acts against Israel would force it to recognise the legitimacy of reprisals by Israel. The Security Council did not accept the Egyptian thesis, but Egypt maintained it in defiance of the Security Council finding. (“Yearbook of the United Nations, 1951.” New York: Columbia University Press, p. 297.)

[iii] During his subsequent negotiations in Cairo, in March, the Secretary-General indicated that he would not press the right of UNEF to remain in Gaza beyond the time when President Nasser felt that it would be to Egypt’s advantage to have them withdraw. The problem is not likely to arise immediately. Egypt is too weak militarily for the time being to want to send troops into such an exposed position.

[iv] It was later reported that UNEF patrols were being made in company with Palestinian police. General Burns told the writer that this was not true “as a regular procedure” but pointed out that there was no reason under the armistice terms not to use joint patrols if it seemed advisable.

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