Arab–Israeli General Armistice Agreements (1949)

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United Nationssponsored armistice agreements concluded in 1949 between the state of Israel and four Arab states.

Between February and July 1949, General Armistice Agreements (GAAs) were signed between the state of Israel and four Arab states: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Iraq, which had participated in the war with an expeditionary force, did not conclude an agreement since it did not have a common border with Israel; its forces just left the arena. All negotiations were mediated on behalf of the United Nations (UN) by Ralph Bunche, whose achievement earned him the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize. These agreements put an end to the ArabIsrael War of 1948. The failure of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine to achieve more comprehensive peace treaties created a de facto situation that made the General Armistice Agreements into quasi-permanent arrangements that regulated the relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors until the 1967 war.

The first GAA was signed by Col. Mohammad Ibrahim Sayf el-Din for Egypt and Walter Eytan for Israel on the Greek island of Rhodes on 24 February 1949. It provided, among other stipulations, for large demilitarized zones in the Nitzana-AbuAgayla sector. On the other hand, it did not specify the rights of Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran. Israel considered the blocking of these waterways incompatible with international law and the armistice provisions and brought the Suez blockade to the attention of the UN Security Council on several occasions. But neither the support received in the form of UN Security Council resolution 95 (1951) nor the military achievements of the Sinai campaign of 1956 were successful in changing Egypt's view, and the blockade in the Canal persisted for thirty years.

The controversy over the demilitarized zones caused much irritation and warfare, especially after Israel decided to establish, on its side of the Nitzana zone, settlements that the Egyptians considered military strongholds. In the aftermath of the 1956 SuezSinai War, Israel considered annulling its GAA with Egypt, but this failed to receive international recognition. The positioning of the UN Emergency Force along the demarcation lines after 1957 introduced a new factor into EgyptIsrael relations, in effect superseding application of the EgyptIsrael GAA. Israel's conquest of the Sinai Peninsula in June 1967 rendered the GAA inoperative,

while the return of Sinai to Egypt in 1982 in accordance with the 1979 EgyptIsrael peace treaty resulted in its final, legal termination.

The IsraelLebanon GAA was signed by Lt. Col. Mordekhai Makleff for Israel and Lt. Col. Tawfiq Salim for Lebanon in Raʾs Naqura on 23 March 1949. Israel's forces, having retreated from parts of southern Lebanon that they had occupied in the summer of 1948, agreed to fix the armistice demarcation lines along the old international borders and thus introduced greater stability to IsraeliLebanese relations for more than twenty years. However, after "Black September" of 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the different Palestinian guerrilla groups transferred the locus of their operations from Jordan to the refugee camps in Lebanon, causing the IsraelLebanon frontier to become a recurrent battlefield. Israel attacked and briefly occupied southern Lebanon in March 1978, and again in June 1982. Israel failed, in the wake of the 1982 invasion, to push Lebanon into a peace agreement, and the border region remained one of aggravated instability for almost two decades; the presence of a special UN force (UNIFIL) did little to change the situation. The final retreat of Israel's forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 marked the return of relative tranquillity to this zone. In the absence of an alternative binding arrangement, the 1949 IsraelLebanon GAA remains the only legal instrument regulating relations between the two countries.

The IsraelJordanian GAA was formally signed in Rhodes on 3 April 1949 by Col. Ahmad Sidqi Bey al-Jundi for the Hashimite kingdom of Jordan and by Reuven Shiloah and Col. Moshe Dayan on behalf of Israel. The real breakthrough and terms of agreement were actually concluded in secret talks between king Abdullah and Israeli representatives in the king's palace in Shuna. The IsraelJordan GAA left a number of issues, such as the access of Jews to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem's Old City and the access of Jordanians to the south through the Bethlehem road, to be resolved in later negotiations. But the failure of the secret peace negotiations between Israeli officials and Abdullah during 1949 and 1951, the assassination of the king in July 1951, and the ensuing rapid deterioration of IsraeliJordanian relations served to block the resolution of those outstanding issues. Nevertheless, with many ups and downs, this agreement was maintained for almost twenty years as a more or less effective framework regulating relations between the two states.

The most difficult issue, one that triggered occasional violence, was the widespread infiltration of Palestinians (mostly 1948 refugees) across the armistice demarcation lines. These actions provoked Israeli retaliatory assaults and brought into question the viability of Article II of the agreement. Nevertheless, both sides were loath to destroy the foundations of their GAA and kept using its mechanisms for the exchange of mutual complaints and also for keeping the tenuous status quo alive. No-man's-lands designated by the GAA were divided by consent; the biweekly convoy to the Israeli enclave at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was permitted to supply the Israeli police force stationed there and replace the policemen regularly; the mutual vulnerability of citizens in Jerusalem induced both sides to keep the city's division lines quiet most of the time. The conquest of Jerusalem and the West Bank of Jordan in June 1967 by Israeli forces brought an end to the applicability of the JordanIsrael GAA, since neither Jordanian civil government nor the Jordanian army ever returned to these areas. The peace treaty concluded between Jordan and Israel in 1994 brought about the termination of the JordanIsrael GAA.

The last agreement, the SyriaIsrael GAA, was concluded after prolonged bickering and many delays. It was signed on 20 July 1949 near the Banat Yaʿqub bridge on the Jordan River by Lt. Col. Makleff on behalf of Israel and Col. Fawzi Silo for the Syrians. Two main issues continued to obstruct the full implementation of this GAA: the status of the demilitarized zones and the use of the waters of the river Jordan and its tributaries. These issues eventually contributed to the main causes of the June 1967 ArabIsrael War and the conquest of the Golan Heights by Israeli forces. The SyriaIsrael GAA provided for a number of stretches of land, previously held by the Syrian army, to be declared demilitarized zones. Sharp disagreement, often leading to violent measures, erupted from the outset regarding the status and disposition of these areas. Israel implemented several civilian projects in these zones without paying attention to the rights of the Arab landowners, while Syrian gunners shot at the operators of such projects, which they considered to be in violation of the GAA. Some of these clashes, especially in the 1960s, escalated into major flare-ups, including the engagement of artillery, armor, and air force.

Negotiations on the sharing of the Jordan's waters in the early 1950s failed to achieve results, leaving Israel to press ahead to execute its own plan to divert a big part of these waters to the south of the country. The attempt of Syria to divert the head-waters of the Banyas River in 1965 provoked Israeli threats and attacks that stopped the Syrian diversion efforts. These tensions climaxed in May 1967 when Egypt responded to a call from Syria for help and moved its army into positions along the Israel border in the Sinai, removing the UN Emergency Force from the frontier. Israel's response was a successful offensive that resulted in the total conquest of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of Jordan, and the Syrian Golan Heights. This development rendered the 1949 IsraelSyria GAA irrelevant. The legal vacuum was eventually filled following the October 1973 war. The May 1974 "Separation of Forces" agreement mediated by U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger resulted in a new demarcation line, which returned the town of Qunaytra to Syrian control, and has since then been supervised by UNDOF, a special UN disengagement observer force.

The text of all four GAAs includes some similarly worded clauses. Article I, clause 2, for example, reads: "No aggressive action by the armed forcesland, sea, or airof either party shall be undertaken, planned, or threatened against the people or the armed forces of the other." Article II, clause 2, declares that: "No element of the land, sea or air military or para-military forces of either Party, including non-regular forces, shall commit any warlike or hostile act against the military or paramilitary force of the other Party, or against civilians in territory under the control of that Party." Other clauses specify the settlement of problems specific to the terrain and military situation of each of the different frontiers.

All four agreements also provided for a mechanism of supervision and settling of disputes. The UN operated a Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO), staffed by a corps of officers from different countries, headquartered in a piece of no-man's-land in Jerusalem, and empowered to investigate complaints of violations of the GAAs. Such complaints were also adjudicated by Mixed Armistice Commissions, each chaired by a senior UN officer. Complaints of major violations were referred by the parties to the UN Security Council, which based its discussions on reports prepared by the UNTSO chief of staff.

From the outset, the ArabIsraeli GAAs were plagued by discord and disagreement. One basic disagreement concerned the level of responsibility the contracting states had to shoulder for criminal and often violent activities of irregulars who crossed the demarcation lines. The scope of such infiltration during the early 1950s worried the Israelis, and the inability of the UNTSO and several Arab states to effectively curb them triggered severe Israel Defense Force (IDF) reprisal actions, which were themselves equally in breach of the GAAs. Perhaps the most serious disagreement was over the very nature of the agreements that had been signed. While Israel took them as giving permanence to the demarcation lines as finite borders, awaiting only the final stage of signing full peace treaties, the Arab states interpreted them only as long-term cease-fire arrangements that did not end their status as belligerents and did not give any permanence to their different provisions.

see also arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1967); suez crisis (19561957); united nations truce supervision organization (untso).


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Mordechai Bar-On