JERUSALEM (May. 18)
Authoritative Israeli sources here today challenged United Nations Secretary-General U Thant’s position that U.N. Emergency Force units were subject to removal at Egypt’s demand. Mr. Thant said in a statement yesterday that UNEF could not remain on Egyptian territory if “consent was withdrawn.”
The sources said that only the U.N. General Assembly, which voted establishment of UNEF, had authority to decide on its withdrawal. The sources indicated that Israel considered any withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Sharm-El-Sheikh a grave breach of the status quo and would act diplomatically and politically to prevent such a withdrawal. Sharm-El-Sheikh commands a transit between the Gulf of Akaba and the Red Sea and is vital to Israeli shipping from its Eilat port to Asia.
The Israeli views were this afternoon conveyed by Foreign Minister Abba Eban to the Ambassadors of the United States, Britain and France who met Mr. Eban at his invitation. He also told the envoys that Syria must bear full responsibility for the current tension and all of its implications.
According to Israeli officials, the stationing of UNEF units was not undertaken at Egypt’s invitation but was a compromise to obtain Israel’s withdrawal from territory it occupied in the 1956 Sinai campaign. The stationing of UNEF troops was described by then President Eisenhower as a “two way contract.” Israelis then felt that the opening of the sealanes at Sharm-El-Sheikh to Israeli navigation was practically the only benefit of their victorious Sinai campaign. It was made plain that Israel could not and would not tolerate the cutting off of this lifeline to Asia and Africa by replacement of UNEF troops with Egyptian units.
It was reported here today that the Egyptian troop concentration in Sinai was the largest in Egyptian-Israeli history, even larger than the concentration during the Sinai campaign. However, the feeling prevailed here that the massing of troops was not an immediate danger to Israel on the premise that for a war against Israel, Egypt would need all of its armed forces, including those now based in Yemen in the undeclared war there. Mr. Eban told the ambassadors also that the Egyptian troop concentration had launched an escalation “which we know where it starts but cannot know where it will end.”