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Israel’s Occupation of Gaza in 1956–57

Many of the questions that have arisen since October 7 have been raised before.

· 12 min read
Israel’s Occupation of Gaza in 1956–57
Palestinians in an outdoor market in the Gaza Strip in 1956 via Wikimedia Commons

Thirty-two years before the founding of Hamas, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip for the first time. The occupation began on 2–3 November 1956, during the Sinai-Suez War, in which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) crushed the Egyptian Army and conquered the Sinai Peninsula, and British and French forces tried—but failed—to occupy the full length of the Suez Canal. Israel installed a military government to oversee the Strip, which was then populated by some 300,000 Palestinian Arabs, around three-quarters of whom were refugees from the earlier, 1948 War. The Israelis groomed local agencies and revived local institutions to care for the population’s needs. The military administration functioned for four months, until 8 March 1957, when, under international (mainly US) pressure, Israel withdrew from the Strip and completed its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

On 3 December 1956, there was an inauguration ceremony for the renewed municipal council in Khan Yunis. (Khan Younis is the Strip’s second-largest city and the main current battlefield between the IDF and Hamas, whose leaders are presumed to be hidden somewhere in the 160 km network of well-organized, concrete tunnels beneath the city.) During the ceremony, the newly installed 61-year-old mayor, ’Abdel Rahman Al-Farrah, greeted the Strip’s military governor, Lt. Col. Haim Gaon, with “God bless you,” and deputy mayor Hilmi Al-Arrah declared: “We hope that this Arab–Israeli cooperation will serve as an example in other places for establishing peace between Israel and the Arabs.”

The IDF conquest of the Strip had been anything but peaceful, however—and Khan Yunis had put up the toughest resistance. But after a protracted battle, the IDF’s 37th Armored Brigade finally forced their way past the 86th Palestinian Brigade (part of the Egyptian Army) and entered the city. According to the Palestinians and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—the agency that cares for the Palestinian Arab refugees—the conquest of the town was accompanied and immediately followed by a series of massacres, in which some 275 civilians and POWs were murdered. A further massacre occurred on 12 November, when IDF troops killed between 48 (according to Israel) and 111 (according to UNRWA) refugees, who had been rioting and looting in Rafah, at the southern end of the Strip. Dozens more were killed over the following weeks, most of them captured Fedayeen or Egyptian Army POWs. (The Fedayeen were a terrorist guerrilla unit, recruited from among the refugees and set up and run by Egyptian military intelligence. Throughout 1954–56, they conducted incessant, deadly raids on Israeli border villages and IDF outposts. The raiding was one of the reasons why Israel launched the Sinai War at the end of October 1956.)

Only the 12 November killings in Rafah were mentioned in the Gaza Bulletin, a bi-weekly newsletter produced by the Information Division of the Israel Foreign Ministry to chart developments in the Strip during the occupation. It was edited and largely written by my late father Ya’akov Morris, a Foreign Ministry official. Towards the end of 1956, the Bulletin reported that

the Gaza region… has returned to normal… emergency steps were immediately initiated to revive civilian life. All hospitals remained open… Medical and food supplies were sent to these institutions… Electricity and water supplies were activized [sic]. The municipalities of Gaza [City] and Khan Yunis… have been revived. The introduction of Israeli currency as legal tender, the inflow of vital food supplies… [and] the meeting of all fuel needs have all served to restore economic life.

The Bulletin granted, however, that “a number of security problems still face the authorities. For instance, some criminals released from prisons by the Egyptians are still at large, [some] Egyptian soldiers are still in hiding [and]… there are also Fedayeen and remnants of [the Egyptian] Palestine Army units in concealment in the region.” But by the end of December, the Strip was calm and four police stations, manned by Gaza locals, were functioning, albeit under Israel Police supervision.

On 4 December, the Bulletin quoted Major Warshavsky, the Israeli military governor of Khan Yunis, who reported that, “The population… is very satisfied to have got rid of the Egyptians who kept them in subjection and had treated them as third-rate citizens. Now that life is normal, they are relieved.” (In fact, although the Strip had been occupied by Egypt since the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the Egyptian government never provided the inhabitants with Egyptian citizenship.)

On 16 December 1956, the Bulletin cited Col. K.R. Nelson, who had been delegated by UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold to investigate conditions in the Strip. Nelson reported that the Israel military government was busy evacuating Arabs from

a 3-kilometer belt of sand dunes along the coast where a large number of Beduin were living. A proclamation was issued to evacuate these people from the area to an area southwest of Rafah (south of the international border [i.e., to Egypt]). The Beduin are moving out of the Gaza Strip along with other Beduin tribes.

One of the first, dramatic acts of the Israeli occupiers was to destroy the monuments honoring Col. Mustafa Hafiz, located in Gaza City, Khan Yunis, and two neighboring villages. Hafiz was the director of Egyptian military intelligence in the Strip, the man who organized and ran the Fedayeen. He was assassinated by a parcel bomb sent by Israeli agents on 11 July 1956, months before the IDF occupied the Strip. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, recorded Hafiz’s demise in his diary two days later: “Hafiz… died in an explosion. He used to send saboteurs and spies to [Israel]—and one of them put an end to his life.” This account is only half-true, however. In fact, Israel had tricked one of Hafiz’s Israeli Bedouin agents into delivering the bomb, which was hidden inside a book, to the colonel’s office. The agent had been unaware of the parcel’s contents. He was blinded by the explosion.

After Israel’s victory in the Sinai war, Ben-Gurion had hoped to retain permanent control of the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, which jutted threateningly northeastward toward Tel Aviv. On 19 December 1956, Ben-Gurion told the Knesset that Israel would never agree to allow Egypt to resume control of the Strip—implying that Israel would continue to rule over the area. As an Israeli government “Blueprint for Gaza” (reproduced in the Bulletin on 31 January 1957) put it: “Gaza is connected with Israel not only by historic ties… [It is only] forty miles from Tel Aviv … it is almost 200 miles from Cairo. Gaza and Egypt are separated by a large expanse of desert… whereas Gaza and its nearby Jewish settlements form a topographical and economic unit.”

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Although Egypt had just been defeated, it was still viewed as a threat. The Bulletin coverage of 9 January 1957 provided a graphic reminder of this. It quoted from an article that had appeared a week before in the Israeli daily ’Al Hamishmar. In the article, a reporter describes his visit to a villa in Gaza which had been abandoned by its owner, a high-ranking Egyptian official. He found copies of the Quran and Mein Kampf lying about, together with an Arabic-language book (the reporter did not identify the book) that sported a cover portraying “an almost naked girl, kneeling inside a wooden Shield of David, surrounded by blood. Her hands were manacled… She had been rendered helpless by an Egyptian soldier, [who was] about to cast her into the sea.” The reporter interprets this as an allegorical representation of “treacherous Israel… finally captured by [Egyptian president Gamal Abdul] Nasser.” (A contemporary reader might be forgiven for mentally associating this image with the reported rape of dozens of Israeli woman by Hamas terrorists on 7 October 2023.)

Within weeks of conquering the Strip, the Israeli military government oversaw the reopening of local schools—but took care to expunge any materials containing what it regarded as Egyptian propaganda. Of the 200 textbooks in use before 2 November, 30 were removed. The books “withdrawn from the schools,” explained the Bulletin, “were declared unfit as pedagogical material when it was found that their contents were derogatory to the State of Israel and the Jewish people and constituted propaganda for the Egyptian regime.”

On 23 January 1957, fearing international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Strip, Ben-Gurion told the Knesset that if the Strip were returned to Egypt or UN forces deployed there, it would threaten the safety of Israel’s border settlements, which had been incessantly targeted by the Fedayeen and the Egyptian Army.  “This Strip was never Egyptian,” Ben-Gurion argued,

and in the eight years [of Egypt’s rule, it] did nothing to develop the Strip… [On the contrary], from the Gaza Strip were sent out groups of Fedayeen [to murder Israelis]… Israel does not intend to maintain an army in the Strip. But the good of the Strip’s population and of their [Israeli] neighbors necessitates Israeli control of the Strip… The Israeli Administration will maintain the internal security of the Strip with police, will continue to develop self-administration by the inhabitants and will assure the Strip’s inhabitants of public services: health, education, electricity, irrigation, transportation, agriculture, commerce and industry, as has been done until now… For the first time in eight years, there is peace in the Strip and its surroundings, and peaceful relations and mutual aid exist between the [cross-border Israeli] settlements in the south and the Strip.

On 9 February 1957, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in support of the government’s stance on Gaza. At a gathering that day in Kibbutz Nahal-Oz—where dozens of Israelis were massacred, raped, or taken hostage by Hamas terrorists on 7 October 2023—the kibbutzim read the following resolution, cited in the Bulletin, aloud:

This meeting of the [Israeli] settlements of the Gaza border expresses its firm resolve not to permit the return of the Egyptian murderers to their doorstep. From the day on which we settled on this land until the expulsion of the Fedayeen our lives were exposed to the enemy by day and night. The establishment of peace in the Gaza area by the State of Israel delivered us from the nightmare of Egypt’s murderers… We shall stand united with the Government as one man against the strangulation policy of the United Nations’ majority.

The following day, the Bulletin reported, many of the Strip’s newly installed local councils passed resolutions—likely prompted by the military government—reinforcing Ben-Gurion’s arguments. The Rafah local council, headed by Haj Shihta Zu’urub, stated:

We wish to express our great appreciation of the Israel Administration for bringing to this township public order, peace and tranquility, and restoring normal life… We welcome the declaration by the P[rime] M[inister] B[en] G[urion] that the Israel Admin. of the Gaza area will continue. We see ourselves linked with the Israel Admin. and associated with the State of Israel.

The local council of Dir el Balah, headed by Muhammad Suleiman Abu Salem, went one better: “The council heard with great satisfaction that Israel will remain in the area and that she will strive… to bring about their [our?] integration into the economic life of the country [i.e., Israel] … The Council should like to regard itself as a part [of the country].” (However, the resolutions proffered by the municipal council of Khan Yunis and the local council of Jabalia-Nazle on 25 January 1957 were less enthusiastic about future Israeli control.)

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During the four months of occupation, Gaza’s population offered no resistance to the Israeli rulers—although a handful of local officials pointedly declined to serve under the new administration (among them the pre-3 November mayor of Gaza city, Munir Rayess). No acts of resistance were reported in the Bulletin. The wave of massacres that took place during the first weeks of the occupation was surely one reason for the ensuing calm, as was the short duration of the Israeli occupation. But the experience of life in the Strip’s refugee camps and of the brief Israeli occupation did produce some fanatical Israel haters, including such figures as Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the quadriplegic founder of Hamas, and Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf) and Abu Jihad (Khalil al Wazir), who later became major figures in the Palestinian Fatah Party and in the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

On 3 December 1956, UN investigator Col. Nelson reported that “some of the measures taken by the Israel authorities as part of their general plan for the administration of the Gaza area—especially in the economic, financial, postal and police fields—seem to indicate a trend towards facilitating permanency [i.e., a permanent occupation].”

Meanwhile, Israel strengthened its hold on the Strip. Postal services were renewed, and a civil court was reinstated on 31 December. At the reinstatement ceremony, Lt. Col. Gaon declared: “In the Bible it is stated: ‘Judges and officers shalt thou make in all thy gates… and they shall judge the people with just judgement.’”

In the weeks before the Gaza Magistrates’ Court was reinstated, justice was dispensed by an Israeli military court, presided over by Capt. Chaim Basok. In one case, Basok fined a “youngster” one Israel pound for “having cursed the Mayor of Gaza [during the occupation] publicly.” The mayor, Rushdi al Shawa, “withdrew his complaint and forgave the accused” but Basok “nevertheless issued the fine in order to teach the population to show proper respect for the Mayor,” recorded the Bulletin.

According to Lt. Col. Gaon, over the period 1948–56, the Egyptians repeatedly told the Strip’s inhabitants that if Israel took over they would suffer “certain massacre.” The inhabitants, Gaon told the incoming local council of Deir el Balah, now “breathed a sigh of relief” that this Egyptian propaganda “turned out to be false” and welcomed “the economic relief which followed the Israeli occupation.” According to the Bulletin of 26 December, UNRWA had been providing the Strip’s refugees—who constituted most of its population—with food, medical services, and education since 1949–1950, but the Israeli government now supplied the vital needs of the rest of Gaza’s Palestinian population, the 70–80,000 non-refugees: i.e., the pre-1948 inhabitants of the region and their children. The Israeli administration, noted the Bulletin, even supplied the Strip’s 1,200-strong Egyptian civilian contingent—composed of officials, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc.—with necessities such as medical services, housing, and food rations. (Many of the Egyptians, however, found much of the food “not according to their taste” and complained of having to “prepare [their meals] by themselves,” since the Palestinian servants they had previously relied on were not allowed access to the isolated compounds in which the Egyptians were temporarily housed.) In January 1957, the Egyptians were repatriated via Rafah-El Arish.

In his speech of 23 January 1957, Ben-Gurion briefly acknowledged the Palestinian refugee problem. The UN, he said, needed to work on a solution to the problem, “including the Gaza refugees.” In an aide mémoire to the UN secretary general, Israel’s UN ambassador Abba Eban added that “Israel will make its full contribution towards any UN plan of permanent settlement of the refugees, including those in Gaza. Israel urges such plans be formulated and implemented as soon as possible.” A week earlier, however, the Bulletin had cited an article in The Jerusalem Post that vaguely suggested an indefinite delay in implementing such a solution: “Many of the refugees in the Strip applied to return to their places of origin in Israel, but they, too, finally accepted the fact that some time must elapse before long-range programs regarding the Strip and its inhabitants can be carried out.”

On 12 February 1957, the Bulletin stated that the Fedayeen, now operating out of a base in El Arish,Sinai—an area that had just been handed back to Egyptian control—had renewed their attacks on Israel on 30 January. In one attack, two Israeli soldiers were injured when their vehicle drove over newly planted mines southeast of Rafah, the Bulletin reported.

In these historical events, we can see many of the same themes and questions that have been of central importance since Hamas’s 7 October assault and that influence current discussions in Israel regarding the future of the Gaza Strip. These themes include: the vulnerability of border settlements like Nahal-Oz; Israel’s stated intention to maintain security control over the Strip; the need to extirpate material promoting the hatred of Jews and Israel from the Strip’s educational system (including the UNRWA school network); the creation of a no-go, free-fire zone along the peripheries of the Strip; the nature of the Strip’s prospective administration; the possibility of a resurrected terrorist organization once again launching attacks on Israel from the Strip; and the proposal (currently popular among right-wing Israelis) to transfer some of Gaza’s inhabitants and refugees out of the Strip. All these ideas were prefigured in passages published in the Bulletin between November 1956 and March 1957.

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