65. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State1

858. Saw Prime Minister in Jerusalem at his urgent request afternoon April 4. Neither British nor French Ambassadors were called in. Almost immediately Sharett, more disturbed than I have ever seen him, spoke in substance as follows:

Situation has gone from bad to worse, is now completely untenable. Egyptians are employing two established tactics (1) placing mines inside Israel territory along Gaza border, when necessary under covering fire from positions on their side—Israelis had “surprised” mine-laying parties and on two occasions, ascertained that they were Egyptian soldiers (2) were opening fire on any Israel patrol that came within sight apparently on standing instructions to do so. Here Prime Minister digressed briefly to describe incident reported in Jerusalem 262 to Department.2 He denied categorically and with some heat the report that Israel had fired first and expressed displeasure over wording of UNTSO communiqué giving possible inference Israel forces started shooting. He emphasized the [Page 136]fact that Israeli forces were on completely open and exposed ground with no place for shelter that the patrol was completely surprised by the Egyptians and this accounted for the considerable number of casualties on the Israeli side. He stated that the Israelis returned the Egyptian fire and signaled for rear support which fired upon the Egyptians position to destroy it and at the same time permit the Israeli patrol to remove their injured and dead. Then, Egyptian support positions in rear of original Egyptian attack position directed artillery fire at Israel support positions, an action which he believed was the first of its kind between the Egyptian and Israeli forces. Finally Israel forces crossed the border to destroy the original source of attack but found that the attackers had retreated.

The chain of events is not going to “fizzle out”, but “will either continue or be immediately and sharply stopped.” “We are not going to withdraw our patrols. They are there to protect our settlers. If they were not there the settlers could not work in their fields and they could not harvest their crops. They would soon be overrun by people from the Gaza strip. Our patrols take their lives in their hands every time they go out. We cannot permit them to go out without protection and we are going to supply that protection.” As long as this situation remains “we shall have to hit back.” Nothing in UN charter precludes nation acting in self-defense. If present state of affairs goes on “then it is goodbye to the armistice agreement.” Such will be the inevitable outcome. We do not wish this to happen, you do not want this to happen.

I interrupted to inject question “with regard to the contemplated GOI action in the event provocative conditions continue on the border, I take it that such action would be purely defensive.” He replied “defensive action involves a reply to a provocative attack and often involves crossing of the line to destroy the source of attack, then the other side comes into our territory and the situation builds up to a major action.”

(He again briefly digressed to state Egyptians had in effect declared GAA void by their aggressive declarations, their Suez blockade, and their actions in present situation.)

Prime Minister then declared: “Nasser must be talked to as never before if he doesn’t want hopeless trouble. This must be stopped. The Egyptians must be ordered to cease firing on our patrols without provocation. Are they asking for trouble?”

Sharett continued: According GOI information Egyptians have brought special para-military unit about 1,000 strong to Gaza strip. This unit (“fidayun” Arabic for “self-sacrifices” a unit designed for offensive action people capable of carrying out attack such as Pattish, he stated) had been employed against British in Suez Canal Zone, now is being used for acts of terrorism from Gaza base.[Page 137]Egyptians must withdraw this unit. They are guilty of carrying out a deliberate aggressive plan as long as it remains there. I gave no other purpose.Sharett added that the Egyptians were being so “deliberate” that they were using “primitive” mines designed to disguise their army origin.

Sharett then said in substance: Having pondered your government’s message (my talk with him regarding Deptel 571,3 see Embtel 8484) I am going to take a leaf out of your own book. I am asking your government to seek to arrange a meeting between top level Egyptian and Israel representatives to consider means whereby the present state of affairs can be prevented from “deteriorating into disaster” to “bring under immediate control a situation pregnant with infinitely grave possibilities.”

I then asked directly “was this extraordinary meeting of the cabinet (Embtel 8555) called solely to discuss the Gaza border situation or for other purposes also?” He replied in substance as follows: Yes, solely to discuss the Gaza situation to review our position and “the conclusions to be drawn from the present situation.” To consider my approach to your government as I am now making it to point up the untenable situation existing, and the necessity for us to defend our patrols and settlers, and to request strong and emphatic action by your government with the purpose of influencing the Egyptians to stop their provocative actions. The cabinet fully approved of this action on my part as well as our specific request for the good offices of the US in promoting top level discussions between the Egyptian Government and the Israeli Government.

“We had already decided to request an urgent meeting of the Security Council to consider the deteriorating border relations between Israel and Egypt with special reference to the Pattish murder operation, the continuous mining of our territory by trained Egyptian mine layers and the firing on our patrols by Egyptian military forces. Instructions along these lines have been sent to Ambassador Eban.”

I then asked the Prime Minister if I could briefly summarize the points he had made which were as follows: (a) The persistent mining of Israel territory by Egyptian military personnel or others trained in [Page 138]mine laying must cease; (b) Egyptian military forces firing on Israel military patrols without provocation, which he emphasized was persistent, frequent and indicated definite instructions on the part of the Egyptian Government to do so must cease; and that he claimed that this was the pattern which the GOE apparently had decided to continue and if that were true it meant trouble; (c) The assignment by the GOE of the “suicide group” of irregulars to the Gaza strip for terrorist purposes was an action which in itself supports the GOI belief that the present pattern of provocative actions is organized and ordered by GOE, and that this body of irregulars must be withdrawn; (d)GOI agrees with USG opinion that the situation is ominous and that the problem should be handled by top-level officials of both governments and that the GOI was making the positive suggestion that the USG do what it could to bring about an immediate conference between Israeli and Egyptian high officials with the objective of removing current trouble making conditions on the border.

I then asked the question “is it your intention to limit these discussions to the problem of border trouble?” He replied “Yes [”] limited solely to that question no reference to be made to the overall peace settlement toBat Galim or other current problems with Egypt.

The Prime Minister confirmed the points of my summary.

Sharett concluded the interview by saying gravely and with apparent sincerity; “I would be the happiest of men if within 24 or 28 hours I am able to tell my colleagues this meeting will take place and there will be quiet on the Gaza border.”

I promised Sharett that I would convey this request to my government.

Reply niact would be appreciated.6

Lawson
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/4–555. Secret; Priority. Received at 4:38 p.m. Repeated priority to Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, London, and Paris.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 63.
  3. Same as telegram 1648 to Cairo; see footnote 4, Document 62.
  4. In this telegram, Ambassador Lawson reported on April 2 that he had conveyed the Department’s message contained in telegram 571 to Prime Minister Sharett, who indicated “Israel’s general willingness to cooperate with UNTSO.” (Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/4–255)
  5. The Embassy in Tel Aviv reported on April 4 that the Israeli Cabinet had met that morning for the second time within the week “to discuss Egyptian border problem … [which] indicates gravity with which GOI views situation and that issue further retaliation being seriously debated.” (Ibid., 674.84A/4–455)
  6. Document 68.