The story of Israel’s ambitious plan to grab the Sinai Peninsula, or at least part of it, from Egypt, goes back to around 57 years ago. It involved pro-Israel lobbyists in the West, and started to raise questions about the legitimacy of Egypt’s sovereignty over the strategic territory after the June 1967 Six Day War, British documents unearthed at the National Archives in Kew reveal.
During the war, Israel occupied Sinai, along with the West Bank and Gaza in Palestine, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights. The Sinai Peninsula covers an area of about 61,000 square km, approximately six per cent of Egypt’s total area, and is equivalent to nearly a quarter of the area of Israel.
The documents show that although Britain’s position was that Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai was evident, it considered the judicial status of this sovereignty a “card” to use when it served British interests. Ever since the 1967 war, they reveal, the Israelis “have from time to time flown a number of exploratory kites on the future of Sinai.”Pro-Israel British and Western lobbies asked questions about the legitimacy of Egypt’s claim to the territory. Two years after the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review, the then official publication of the Zionist Federation of Britain, published an article with a front-cover caption of “Sinai without the Egyptians — a new look at the past, present and future”.
This campaign prompted a discussion in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (the FCO, now called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) about the issue. What the British understood from the campaign was that the Israelis wanted to promote their case as follows: “Since the greater part of the [British] Mandated Territory is now incorporated in the State of Israel, Sinai should of right be regarded as Israeli territory.”
Israel and its lobbies argued that since Sinai properly belonged to Turkiye up to 1923, it should have become part of the Mandated Territory of Palestine at the end of the First World War and shouldn’t have been left under Egyptian control. The FCO didn’t accept this claim.
In a commissioned paper, the Middle East Section of the FCO Research Department refuted all five arguments of Israel and its supporters, which were:
- Sovereignty over Sinai remained with the Turks up to 1923, and Sinai was at no time an integral part of the Khedivate [of Egypt].
- The frontier was drawn as the result of force majeure exercised by Great Britain as the occupying power.
- GB refused all Turkish offers of compromise, and the frontier was pushed even further east than the Egyptians themselves would have accepted.
- Sinai belongs properly to Asia and the Arabian Peninsula and the United Arab Republic [Egypt], as an African power, has no place in it.
- Sinai is of importance to Israel as the scene of liberation from Egyptian tyranny in the 13th century BC and forms a similar threat of destruction in the present era.
Based on these arguments, the Israelis wanted to convince the British that “[Egypt’s] claims to possess Sinai must be regarded as doubtful and indeed as less enduring than that of Israel.”
After a detailed review of the history and legal agreements, the paper stressed that in 1906 an “administrative line” was agreed as an established boundary, so the Turks “could be said to have preserved their sovereign rights over Sinai.”
In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed under which the boundaries of the modern Republic of Turkiye were recognised. The state extinguished all of its titles to its former Arab provinces, including Sinai.
Based on this treaty, “Egypt having been in de facto occupation of Sinai since 1841, the question of her [sic] right so to continue was never raised”, the FCO paper concluded.
Two years later, in 1971, the assistant legal adviser of the FCO, F. D. Berman, reiterated the same conclusions. In a requested advice classified as “restricted”, which means very few officials had access to it, Berman legally invalidated all five Israeli arguments. “In consequence, either Sinai was already part of Egypt, or else 1923 would be the date for considering title to the area,” he concluded.
The future of the Israeli occupation of Sinai post-1967 war was discussed in the FCO. The discussion was launched after Israel opened a huge new detention camp in Sinai to transfer Palestinian detainees from Gaza, due to a shortage of detention places in the Palestinian territory.
Other actions by the Israeli occupying power in Sinai raised serious questions in Westminster. These actions included communication projects, military infrastructure and other forms of development plans, as well as the exploration and development of oil and natural gas fields, Sinai’s most valuable natural assets.
The assessment of the British Embassy in Tel Aviv was that, “The longer Israel remains in the occupied territories, the deeper she [sic] is bound to dig in.” It added, in a dispatch to the FCO’s Near Eastern Department: “This is inventible and the Israelis make no secret of it.” Nevertheless, the view of the embassy was that the Israeli government didn’t “regard the economic potential of Sinai as a major factor tipping the scales against withdrawal.”
However, the department disagreed with this assessment. “I don’t agree,” said department head M. E. Pike. “I think this factor [permanent presence] is in the minds of many, if not all, the Israelis.”
In late February 1971, the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review published an editorial defending the Israeli claim to Sinai and doubting Egypt’s sovereignty. The parliamentary unit in the FCO followed many articles in the Israeli press which suggested that Egypt’s title to Sinai was “shaky” and that Israel “could have a legitimate claim to at least part of it.”
A few weeks later, Israel’s supporters in the House of Commons started lobbying for the claims of the occupation state. The campaign was led by John Biggs-Davison MP, who asked the Foreign Secretary whether the government “will move to obtain an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the judicial status of the ex-Turkish territory in the Sinai Peninsula.”
The FCO ruled this out. “We don’t consider that the judicial status of this territory is in doubt,” it said.
The argument of Israel and its lobbyists was based on a claim that the boundary between the Khedivate of Egypt and the Turkish provinces which became Palestine “moved steadily eastward during the 19th century”. Subsequently, Sinai was part of Palestine, which was put under the British mandate, and so it should be part of Israel.
However, the FCO documents show that after internal legal consultation, the British concluded that “no Israeli claim to sovereignty over any part of Sinai would be tenable.”
According to a minute by P. M Laver, the head of the FCO Near East Department, an “administrative separating line was demarcated in an agreement between [Turkiye] and Egypt in 1906.” Subsequently, he added, this line “became the internationally recognised boundary between Egypt and the mandated territory of Palestine [and] Turkiye formally relinquishing her sovereignty to Sinai, inter alia, by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.”
The minute concluded that except for the Israeli occupation from 1956 to 1957, Egypt was in physical occupation of Sinai up to the 1967 war. Therefore, “There is no legal doubt about [Egypt’s] title to the area.”
In May 1971, British diplomat P.G Wallis visited Sinai as a tourist, a trip which he described as “useful”. In a long report to the FCO, he described in detail the Israeli development and military infrastructure projects in the peninsula. His report reflected how important Sinai is to the Israelis. “Our guides in Sinai inflicted us with a great deal of propaganda including much emphasis on the place of Sinai in Jewish history,” said Wallis.
In another Israeli military-organised trip to the Sinai Peninsula, F.G. Colen, the British military attaché, visited the southern sector of the Suez Canal in Sinai alongside his counterparts from many countries, including the US, Canada and Turkiye. In his report, Colen focused on the Israeli airfields and other military facilities.
Commenting on both reports, D. E. Tatham from the Near East Department said, “It is natural that the Israelis should match their military infrastructure in Sinai with an ideological back-up on Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and the wandering tribes of Israel.” For this reason, he did not expect that Israel would give up Sinai easily. “It does rather make me despair of ever living to see a negotiated settlement.”
The issue of Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai was also raised in Canada by a group of Israel’s supporters. Henry S. Rosenberg, a well-known retired lawyer, used an article in the Toronto Star to ask, “Has [Egypt] ever had title to the Sinai Peninsula?”
His article was based on “facts uncovered by the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East,” a group of over 50 top American scholars who were teaching at universities such as Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and Colombia.
The argument which Rosenberg promoted was that the 1906 agreement “specifically provided that Turkiye would retain the right of sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula.” When the British withdrew from Egypt in 1954, the republic “merely took over this area, formally administered by Britain.” The argument concluded that Sinai “was made administratively part of Egypt but was never formally annexed to Egypt.”
At the end of his article, the Canadian lawyer called on “the nations of the world” to ask President Anwar Sadat of Egypt “why he is causing so much of a tempest in a teapot about a sparsely inhabited wilderness and desert which Egypt never did own.”
Based on this claim, the British High Commission in Canada received a letter from one of Israel’s Canadian supporters asking about the “official British view on the problem” and “why the British government has never referred to this matter during the many United Nations debates on the Arab-Israel conflict.”
When the High Commission asked the FCO for information to reply to the letter, the Middle East Section of the Research Department described the article by Rosenberg as “a masterly piece of misinformation and misinterpretation”. The commission was sent the FCO legal adviser’s minute which dismissed the view of the pro-Israel supporters in Canada.
“The main fallacy in this [pro-Israel argument] is the assumption that Britain ever had sovereignty in Egypt,” explained the minute. “Britain at no time annexed Egypt and it was never a colony [so] it was not necessary for the UK to cede Sinai on her withdrawal in 1954 for the territory to remain under the Egyptian sovereignty.”
While the minute admitted that there was a territorial dispute between Egypt and Turkiye about Sinai throughout the nineteenth century, it stressed that the dispute “was finally resolved by the Treaty of Lausanne”.
Historically, the status of Sinai wasn’t discussed at the conference which drew up the treaty that stated that Turkiye renounced title to territories outside its new boundaries. Nevertheless, the British legal minute said that any claim to sovereignty over Sinai “disappeared”. Accordingly, “sovereignty vested without challenge in Egypt as the only other contender for the title of the territory.”
This, however, didn’t mean that the file was closed. In a 13-page report, the British Ambassador to Israel, Ernest John Ward Barnes, explained that Israelis “have a different view” of the issue. He also elaborated on why the Israelis insisted on their claim to Sinai, or at least part of it. The basis of this was that the Sinai Peninsula was under the British Mandate. The Israelis argued that until 1923, Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire although the Khedive [of Egypt] had autonomous rights which were in practice exercised by the British High Commissioner.
“For four centuries, the administrative boundary ran from El Arish to Suez” and the rest of Sinai “was a part of Hejaz,” claimed Israel. The British wanted, according to the Israeli argument, a “cordon sanitaire as far east of the Canal as possible and therefore pressed for an extension of Egypt’s administrative competence.”
In 1906, the Sublime [Ottoman] Porte allowed Egypt rights of administration up to a line from El Arish to what is now Eilat with the aim to “reserve its own suzerainty”, as the Israelis understood it.
Given the Israeli view, Barnes wrote that Turkiye’s cession of the disputed area after the First World War “was not specifically to anyone” so that “it could have been part of the British-mandated area.”
The British Mandate in Palestine ended in 1948. In May of that year, the State of Israel announced its independence in Palestine, with British support. A few weeks later, a dispatch from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv doubted Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai.
The dispatch, classified as restricted, said that it appears from the articles of the Treaty of Lausanne that, “Sinai was not specifically renounced in favour of Egypt.” It added that, “The future of the Asian territories (of which Sinai is a part) renounced by Turkiye seems to have been left for settlement by the party concerned.”
The diplomat Peter Gregory-Hood, the author of the dispatch, pointed out the absence of any map in the Common Paper of the treaty, meaning that it “might suggest that the Israelis have some justification for their contention” with the common understanding of the Lausanne treaty. He concluded that, “The legal status of Sinai is more open to question than is generally held.”
A few months later, a report by the embassy informed the FCO that Israelis are “probably more interested in the current reality of their security needs as they see them than on the historical or legal niceties” of the judicial status of Sinai. The report came in response to the legal documents and research results which were sent to the embassy to use to reply to Israelis if they raise the issue with British diplomats.
While Wallis, the author of the report, acknowledged that his country “has long ago taken a political decision to regard the judicial status of Sinai as settled,” he thought that the documents sent “allow us to take a different view if we found it expedient to do so.” He explained further that, “Nothing in the legal background of the issue prevents the British from regarding eastern Sinai as terra nullius [land of no one].”
However, Wallis warned that if Britain adopted this view, “We should then face the awkward question of the frontier which suited our current interests best.” The diplomat concluded that if Sinai is terra nullius, “Egypt’s claim is based on occupation and the Israelis might use that argument too.”
In early 1973, Minister of State at the FCO Julian Amery considered Sinai as a card that could be used when British interests required it.
In a minute about the issue, M. I. Goulding, head of the Arabian Department, wrote to other departments: “You should know that Amery does not think the Sinai card is one that we should play at this stage.”
However, Amery added that “We ought now to do the research necessary to establish whether it is a card at all, in case an opportunity should occur in future when it would serve or interests to play it.” The minister triggered an in-depth internal debate about the “present thinking on the international status of Sinai.”
After he studied all contributions, including that of the head of the FCO’s legal advisers, Amery concluded the following:
- There is a basis for doubting the Egyptian title to Sinai.
- There were certain papers which purported to show that sovereignty over Sinai, or most of it, still rested with Britain.
- In 1923, Turkiye surrendered sovereignty over all of its “colonial” territories to “the Principal Allied powers”. The Allies thus became the heirs of the Ottoman Empire. When they recognised the independence of Egypt they were recognising the independence of the “privileged” territory. In allowing Cairo to administer Sinai, they were simply continuing what their predecessors the Ottoman government had done.
- The Mandate was an administrative concept only. It would seem to follow from this that when Britain gave up its administrative responsibility for Palestine the sovereignty over the whole area including Sinai remained with the allied powers collectively.
- In 1953, the matter was taken up with the Foreign Office both in parliamentary questions and privately by Fitzroy Maclean, a member of the Suez group (a group of Conservative MPs who opposed their party’s leadership to resist Britain’s withdrawal from the Suez Canal base in 1954). He was told that there was a tenable legal case (that Britain had the title of Sinai), but that in view of the government’s decision to withdraw from the Canal Zone, it was not expedient to advance it.
- The Israelis since then raised the matter in their newspapers to show that Sinai is not Egypt’s sovereign territory.
- I [Amery] don’t believe that the Israelis will ever agree to give up more than a part of Sinai or that in the present political climate, the Egyptians can agree to any settlement that does not restore virtually all of Sinai.
- The situation might, however, be different if the allied powers (Britain, France and Italy) were to say that in international law, Sinai belonged to them, that the Israelis were in occupation of our territory, and that the Egyptians’ claim to sovereignty over it was unfounded.
The minister suggested that the British could say that, “We had no wish to retain the territory but would call a conference to apportion it between the contenders.”
However, eight months later, the Egyptians and the Syrians launched the 6 October War. The Egyptian army pushed the Israeli occupying forces back from the east bank of the Suez Canal bank into Sinai.
Following the peace treaty reached between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt and demilitarised under the terms of the agreement with the aim of thwarting any threat to Israel arising from the territory.
Despite their withdrawal, the Israelis were still looking at Sinai, according to the British assessment, as a strategic area with no alternative.
Days before the return of El Arish, Sinai’s largest town, to Egypt on 25 May 1979, the British Embassy in Tel Aviv assessed that Sinai’s importance to Israel “was, and remains, strategic”. In a detailed report about the area, the embassy explained that Sinai “has been many things” to Israelis during 12 years of occupation: “It was a cruel battlefield but at other times an enormous playground for the IDF [the Israel Defence Forces]; a tourist dream; a nature reserve; an experimental agriculture project; a romantic encounter with nomads and camels; and beyond these things, an extension to the narrow confines of Israel which offered an almost spiritual release from the pressure of life.”
After it agreed to withdraw from Sinai, Israel launched a huge project in the southern Negev desert to house the installations withdrawn from the peninsula. However, the British Embassy in Tel Aviv judged that the Negev “will be no substitute” for Sinai.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.