on the World Today

THE return of David Ben-Gurion to Israeli public life as Minister of Defense on February 17 passed almost unnoticed in the West. But it was big news in Israel. It illuminated the urgency of Israel’s security problem, which is taxing the resources, energies, and nerves of the Jewish people. BenGurion occupies a unique place in the life of the Jewish state. He was the first Prime Minister of the new nation, which on May 14 celebrates its seventh anniversary. He is one of the three — the others were Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann — who led the Jews back to Zion.

A year ago last November, Ben-Gurion withdrew from the government, relinquishing both the Premiership and the Ministry of Defense. The Jews had disclosed a tendency to shun the hardships of the kibbutzim (communal settlements) for the comfort of the cities, a trend he knew had to be reversed if Israel was to survive. He became a shepherd in the toughest kibbutz of them all, Sde Boker, in the heart of the Negev desert. The gesture worked. At the end of 1954 there were 16.1 per cent fewer inhabitants in the cities and towns and 23.6 per cent more Jews in settlements and farms.

That Ben-Gurion — or King David as many call him — would return to the government in anything less than the top job was in itself important news. It was a lesson in humility to the politically ambitious. It also told the Israelis that Ben-Gurion shared their concern for their country’s safety.

No to hide

Israel’s isolation and vulnerability must be seen and felt to be appreciated. The entire country is a frontier, with 575 miles of land border exposed to Arab enemies — Egypt to the south, Jordan and Syria in the east, and Lebanon in the north. Three quarters of its 1.7 million people, of whom 180,000 are Arabs, live and work in the narrow coastal region between Haifa and Tel Aviv, a strip averaging less than 15 miles in width, with a slender salient to Jerusalem, where the Knesset, the Parliament, sits within 500 yards of Arab guns. Except in the heart of the Negev, no Israeli is ever really out of range of enemy rifles, mortars, or guns. There is no hinterland, no place to hide.

The Arabs were defeated in their first attempt to destroy Israel when it proclaimed its independence seven years ago. Israel’s leaders are convinced that the Arabs are preparing a second invasion. As evidence of Arab intentions, they cite the rising rhythm of border incidents, continuance of the blockade depriving Israel of the use of the Suez Canal and of the markets and products of its neighbors, and Arab refusal to negotiate a permanent peace.

Border incidents, according to Major General Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Chief of Staff, no longer have the character of mere harassment but appear to form part of a systematic campaign to train guerrillas and scouts for future outright military action. The statistics compiled by the Israeli General Staff indicate an average of 1000 cases of “infiltration” each year from 1949 through 1954, mostly along Israel’s long frontier with Jordan. “Clashes” with armed raiders have totaled 1200, and there have been nearly 4000 cases of burglary and armed robbery.

Arab marauders, the Israelis claim, have stolen livestock, seed, farm tools, fertilizers, telephone poles and wire, worth more than $2.5 million, and on the Jordan border alone have killed and wounded more than 500 Israeli citizens.

Last September, Premier Moshe Sharett adopted a policy of strict nonretaliation to avoid embarrassment abroad and to attempt to establish clearly Arab violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreements. The then Minister of Defense, Pinhas Lavon, was opposed to the policy, believing that unless Arab violence was violently punished, raids and robbery would multiply rather than diminish. Ben-Gurion, a known “activist” of Zionism, apparently shares Lavon’s views.

The Gaza incident

On February 28, only eleven days after BenGurion had returned to his Defense Ministry desk, Israeli and Egyptian troops clashed at Gaza. Thirtyeight Egyptians were killed and thirty-one wounded; eight Israelis were killed and thirteen wounded. Evidence pointed to a well-planned Israeli action to break up an espionage-sabotage organization being trained by the Egyptian army in the Gaza strip, a wilderness inhabited by some 250,000 Arab refugees from Palestine from whose numbers the force in question was being recruited.

The United Nations Armistice Commission on the spot had evidence — obtained from a captured saboteur— that the force existed. The Israelis had additional proof of another kind. In November, saboteurs from Egyptian or Egyptian-controlled territory had blown up four houses near the Gaza frontier and had ripped up several thousand yards of water pipeline. Nine Israelis were killed and fourteen wounded in the area between September 1 and March 1. Egypt was condemned on twentysix different occasions by the Armistice Commission for frontier violations and urged to “put an end to illegal penetrations and the killing of Israeli citizens.”

Israel claimed that the Gaza fighting began on Israeli territory. Egypt did not deny this. But upon investigation the Armistice Commission and the Security Council condemned Israel for having started the fighting.

The situation on the Egyptian frontier has created a state of insecurity throughout the Negev desert region, where Israelis are developing extensive deposits of potash and have built scores of agricultural settlements. The Israeli General Staff believes that many of the raids are prepared on military lines, with carefully chosen targets and well-planned tactics. It sees the accurate setting of mines and split-second timing of some of the operations as full-scale reconnaissance raids for gathering military information and familiarizing the raiders with the territory in preparation for the “second round.”

Arab intransigence

The increased frequency of border incidents underscores the necessity for hastening peace negotiations. The Armistice Agreements were to facilitate the transition from truce to peace. The dispositions contained in them were intended to cover a period of a few weeks or months, not more than six years. All attempts to replace the outdated agreements have met, however, with steadfast refusals on the part of the Arab nations.

Of all of Israel’s Arab neighbors, Jordan appears to be the most adamant about working out any kind of modus vivendi with Israel. Border conflicts arise partly out of the fact that frontiers are still undefined except on the Lebanese border. All efforts to survey the Israeli frontier with Jordan have failed. According to the report of the Chief of Staff of the UN Truce Supervision organization, “no effective system of frontier demarcation could be set up since the Jordan authorities have been unwilling to agree to any permanent scheme for marking the demarcation lines.” Survey teams engaged in trying to mark the border were fired on from Jordare-controlled territory.

Jordan’s reply to repeated Israeli protests has been that the Israelis must deal with such incidents in their country and not expect the Jordan military command to do so. British General J. B. Glubb, who commands the Arab Legion, in an interview with the New York Times on July 19, 1954, stated that “in international practice, every nation is responsible for the prevention of illegal entry into its frontiers.”

In July, 1954, the United States, Britain, and France proposed that the frontiers be clearly drawn and barriers erected to prevent infiltration and reprisals. Israel accepted the proposal; Jordan rejected it.

In support of their argument that the Arabs have never abandoned their intention to annihilate Israel, the Israeli leaders point to declarations of Arab chiefs clearly stating their objective. On July 1, 1954, the Egyptian Minister of National Guidance, Major Salah Salem, said: “The evacuation of the [British] occupation forces from our country will free essential forces of our own. We shall then be able ... to liberate Palestine.” A few weeks earlier, Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Nasser declared that “Israel is an artificial state which must disappear.”

The Arab agitation continues in spite of Israeli efforts to mediate such urgent problems as the fate of the Arab refugees. Israel has publicly declared its willingness to participate in any plan for the settlement of the 600,000 to 800,000 made homeless by the Israeli-Arab war and now living in distressing conditions in concentration camps in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria. Israel is willing to resettle substantial thousands of Arab refugees within its own limited territory. It has already resettled 90,000 under a program to reunite families divided by the Arab-Israeli war,

Israel, furthermore, unfroze nearly $8.5 million in Arab bank deposits despite considerable political opposition from those who felt such action should have awaited peace negotiations.

The Suez question

Israel’s economic development undoubtedly has been hampered by the Arab blockade and boycott which deprive it of natural Mediterranean markets and materials, but what irks Israel most is the Suez question. Under the Constantinople Convention of 1888, Egypt is bound to keep the Canal “free and open in time of war or peace for every vessel of commerce or of war without distinction of flag.” One of the clauses of the ArabIsraeli Armistice Agreement states that neither party may “designate itself an active belligerent” and exercise the “right of visit, search, and seizure.”

Yet, on September 28, the Egyptian government stopped, searched, and seized the 500-ton Israeli ship Bat Galim, Haifa-bound from Ethiopia with a cargo of meat. The crew was imprisoned for forty-eight days. The Egyptians claimed at first that the Bat Galim had fired on Egyptian fishermen, killing three. The story was changed, however, when no bodies were found and it was ascertained that the only weapon the ship carried was the skipper’s revolver.

The Western powers, anxious not to offend the Arab nations lest they align themselves with the Eastern bloc, so far have allowed Egypt to get away with its Suez tactics. They are aware, however, that a precedent is being established upon which the Cairo government may claim the right to stop, seize, or search ships of any flag. Until Suez is open to Israeli traffic, the Jewish state cannot expand its trade with Southeast Asia and reduce its dependency on foreign aid and Zionist “charity.”

Unable to buy oil in Arab ports, Israel must purchase it in Latin America or the United States. The added freight charges via Gibraltar cost Israel $12 million in one year alone — money that might better have been spent for capital goods for industrial development. Egypt could use the shoes, fertilizers, tires, and assembled (Kaiser-Frazer) cars which Israel is exporting. The Haifa refinery, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean, is working at only 30 per cent of capacity, whereas it could be refining fuels for the entire Levant.

Self-sufficiency in ten years?

In spite of the blockade, Israel is making progress. In less than seven years it has absorbed nearly 750,000 new immigrants, including 350,000 Jewish refugees from Arab territory, and has approximately doubled the number of farm settlements and more than trebled the amount of land under cultivation. It has halted the inflation that in 1951 and 1952 threatened to wreck its economy, and at the end of 1954 it had substantially reduced its trade deficit.

The outlook for 1955 is even brighter. Israel needs about $175 million a year for essential imports of fuels, foods, and raw materials. In 1954 its exports paid for approximately half that amount, or $87 million. The balance was covered by loans and by contributions from American Jews. This year Israel will export upwards of $110 million, cutting the deficit to $65 million or less.

The announced goal of “self-sufficiency in from seven to ten years” seems not so wild a dream. Israel has always hoped to become someday the Jewish Switzerland of an Arab Middle East, providing its neighbors with the shoes, tools, fertilizers, and medicines they so desperately need, and receiving, in exchange, food and oil and raw materials for its industries.

Tel Aviv has lost its frowzy, smalltown look and grown into a noisy, lively commercial metropolis of nearly 500,000 inhabitants. Haifa has blossomed into a major Mediterranean port, busier than Naples and considerably cleaner.

The Sharon Plain, once a swampland, is lush with orchards and plantations and brings to mind the greener parts of the Imperial Valley of California. Barren hillsides are being laboriously terraced and planted with fruit trees or vines. Cattle graze on the new grass flourishing on knolls once stripped bare by goats. Pine and cypress grow on what had been denuded mountainsides.

Up in the Hula, within rifle range of the Jordanian and Syrian frontiers, the Jews are draining the vast swamp where the river Jordan forms a delta before tumbling into the Sea of Galilee. A new course is being channeled for the river so that it may produce hydroelectric power.

The industrial development is no less astonishing than the agricultural progress. Cement production has risen from 380 million tons in 1950 to 600 million tons in 1954. A new tire factory, a chemical plant for processing Negev potash, a paper mill, and several food-processing plants are all producing enough to meet local needs and export some surpluses. In 1949 exports covered only 12 per cent of the cost of imports. In 1954 they accounted for 33 per cent.

Economically, therefore, Israel has not only survived war, blockade, and a well-organized boycott which obliges it to find customers and suppliers far from its natural commercial habitat — the Mediterranean — but it has grown progressively stronger.

The burden of defense

Israel is worried by the flow of tanks and guns from the United States to Iraq and Egypt, both members of the Arab League. The Arab League has its collective security pact, and Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq have separate military alliances with Britain. Turkey has concluded a mutual assistance pact with Iraq.

Iraq negotiated its alliance with Turkey in defiance of Egypt’s objections. But trouble within the League may hasten rather than retard Arab action against Israel. The only common purpose the League has, if its leaders’ public statements are to be credited, is the destruction of the Jewish state. It is feared in Jerusalem that its members might choose war against Israel as the alternative to disintegration. While this possibility exists, and while Israel is left out of Western plans for defense of the Middle East, security will be Israel’s paramount preoccupation and its heaviest burden.