Six days that changed the world

On June 5th 1967, Israel's devastating air strikes on Egypt, Jordan and Syria launched the Six Day War, precipitating 40 years…

On June 5th 1967, Israel's devastating air strikes on Egypt, Jordan and Syria launched the Six Day War, precipitating 40 years of upheaval which have defined the Middle East ever since, writes Michael Jansenin Jerusalem

The sparks which ignited the conflagration were struck by the barrels of Israeli and Syrian guns over the waters of the River Jordan. In early April of 1967 there had been clashes on the Syrian-Israeli border along the edge of the Golan Heights. Moshe Dayan, the iconic one-eyed general who became Israel's defence minister and the hero of the war, admitted later that Israel had deliberately provoked the Syrians. "Along the Syrian border there were no farms and no [ Palestinian] refugee camps - there was only the Syrian army," he said. "The kibbutzim [ Israeli collective farms] saw the good agricultural land and would send a tractor out to plough some area and we knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn't shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end, the Syrians would get very annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and, later, the air force."

Israeli chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin escalated the confrontation by deploying an armoured bulldozer and calling in air support when the Syrians responded. The Israelis threatened to topple the Syrian regime and, according to the Soviets, mobilised along the frontier. Damascus, which had a defence pact with Cairo, appealed for aid. To relieve pressure on Syria, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered UN peacekeepers out of Gaza and Sinai, dispatched troops to the Sinai peninsula, and closed the Red Sea to Israeli shipping. But Nasser told a Palestinian delegation that he had "no plan to liberate Palestine", making it clear he did not want war. Although expecting conflict, and convinced that the Arabs would lose, Jordan's King Hussein was more afraid of a violent popular reaction if he failed to join the Egyptian-Syrian front than of defeat. He signed a defence pact with Egypt on May 30th.

In a bid to ease tension and avert hostilities, Nasser announced that his vice president would hold talks in Washington on June 7th. But Israel pre-empted that encounter by destroying 90 per cent of Egypt's war planes in dawn raids on June 5th, winning the war in a masterly strategic stroke. After dealing with the Jordanian and Syrian airforces, Israel used its dominance of the sky to win the ground campaign, beginning with an armoured thrust into Sinai, where Egypt's forces had massed. Its tanks were sitting ducks for Israel's planes and its poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers put up only localised resistance.


On June 5th, civilians on both sides of Jerusalem cowered as artillery shells rained down. The top floor of the turn of the century Augusta Victoria hospital was burnt by napalm shells fired from Israel's Hadassah hospital complex. The next day, Israeli units attacked Jordanian troops deployed in and around East Jerusalem, which the Jordanians had captured during 1948, along with the West Bank. By the afternoon, Israeli troops had encircled the holy city. They broke through barriers which had separated the Arab eastern sector from the Jewish western sector, walked into the historic and holy Old City, and reached the Western Wall, regarded by the Jews as the only remnant of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century after Christ. Dayan paid an emotional and well publicised visit to the wall, surrounded by weeping young Israeli soldiers. His forces fanned out into the West Bank, meeting only sporadic resistance from the outgunned and outmanned Jordanians. He dealt with the Syrians only after his forces had secured the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts. Israel attacked into the Golan Heights on June 9th, and completed its conquest on the 10th.

FOR MANY ISRAELIS, the Six Day War mirrored the Bibilical story of the Creation, when God made the earth and all upon it in six days and rested on the seventh. This comparison inspired Israel and its friends to argue that the conflict - which they regarded as a "war for survival" - was a "miraculous" victory for Israel's citizen soldiers over three Arab armies. But Israeli politicians, generals and historians dismiss this line. In February 1968, Rabin told Le Monde, "I do not believe Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent to Sinai on May 14th would have not been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it."

Dayan adopted a similar view about the conflict with Syria. "I should have stopped it because the Syrians were not threatening us at the time." This being the case, Israeli chief of staff Haim Barlev told the mass circulation daily Ma'ariv in April 1972: "We were not threatened with genocide on the eve of the six-day war, and we had never thought of such a possibility." In 1978, General Mordechai Hod, commander of the Israeli airforce in 1967, stated: "Sixteen years of planning had gone into those initial 80 minutes [ the crucial air raids]. We lived the plan, we slept on the plan, we ate the plan. Constantly we perfected it." By the time the war ended, Israel had occupied most of the land Zionist ideologues had claimed as part of Erez Israel in 1919. Eight hundred Israelis and 16,000 Arabs, mainly Egyptians, had lost their lives.

Professor Eli Podeh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem summed up initial Israeli and Arab views of the war in a recent article for the Israeli daily, Haaretz: "To the Israeli way of thinking, the 1967 war was the "Six Day War," a term designed to indicate the extent of the Israeli military achievement . . . from an Arab point of view, the results of the war seemed to be a continuation of the disasters that had befallen the Arabs since the establishment of the state of Israel."

IN 1948, THE Arab world had been dramatically transformed by the emergence of Israel in 78 per cent of Palestine. Nearly 1 million Palestinians had been driven from their homes in what became Israel and had taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. British-backed monarchies in Egypt and Iraq, whose armies were defeated by the Israelis, were ousted and nationalist republican regimes installed. Syria became prone to coups d'etat. Torn between Western and Arab influences, Lebanon suffered its first civil war in 1958.

But by the late 1950s, the Arabs had largely recovered from the 1948 defeat and some countries were approaching the "take-off stage" of economic development. The Palestinians formed their own armed groups and began to mount raids on Israeli infrastructure and military targets. Israel developed its economy along socialist lines, built its armed forces, and slowly ingested the lands conquered in 1948.

But after June 1967, with Israeli troops and tanks on the Suez Canal, on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and occupying the Syrian town of Kuneitra, new dynamics shaped the region. Arab advancement stalled and Israel became the major military power. Prof Podeh says that, while the Arabs could blame 1948 "on the corrupt regimes that had been the allies of colonialism, the 1967 defeat was identified with Gamal Abdel Nasser, an authentic Arab leader who wanted to change Arab society". While Nasser was, in the view of many Arabs, the greatest Arab leader of the 20th century, Israel, the Western powers and some Arab rulers felt threatened by him. Jordanian senator and historian Dr Abdel Kareem Gharaibi observes: "Everybody wanted to destroy Nasser," who was the only "honest Arab ruler".

On June 27th, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and commenced construction of settler housing on the hills surrounding the city. A quarter of a million Palestinians were driven across the River Jordan into the Hashemite Kingdom and 80,000 Syrians fled the Golan Heights into Syria. Israeli youth, imbued with religious and secular Zionism, set up ad hoc settlements in the West Bank, imitating Zionist pioneers of the 19th century. Theodor Meron, the Israeli foreign ministry's legal adviser, warned the government in September 1967 that it was illegal to plant settlements in occupied territory, citing the Fourth Geneva Convention. The government ignored Meron's advice and went ahead with the colonisation drive, flouting international law and creating obstacles to an eventual land-for-peace deal with the Arabs.

A POSITIVE LONG-TERM result of the war was defined by Gen Shlomo Gazit, former head of Israeli military intelligence. "The Six Day War prepared the ground for Arab acceptance of Israel's existence and of the need to reach political agreements with it," he said. But negativism and rejectionism overtook this development.

When the Arabs met at a summit at Khartoum in September, they proclaimed there would be no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel, and no recognition of Israel. By the time Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, offered to negotiate in 1971, Israel did not trust his overture.

On the Israeli side, rejectionism led to occupation and settlement of conquered territory. Dr Yossi Alpher, formerly a senior officer in Israel's internal intelligence agency, Mossad, revealed that the Israeli leadership expected the great powers would not allow Israel to retain its "conquests - whether as vital parts of the Land of Israel, bargaining chips for peace or what used to be called the legitimate spoils of war". But the powers did not exert pressure on Israel to withdraw, as they had done when Israel captured Sinai in 1956.

In November, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 242, which called for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory in exchange for peace, but no effort was made to implement this resolution.

In 1979, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and gradually withdrew from Sinai. In 1993, Israel and the Palestinians reached the Oslo Accord, which its authors believed would involve the ultimate handover to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. And in 1994, Jordan, thinking the Palestinian-Israeli dispute was on the way to resolution, signed a peace treaty with Israel. But the Palestinian-Israeli peace track faltered and failed, leaving Israel in occupation of the Palestinian territories. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, but its forces remain in control of the Strip.

Today, Israeli settlements housing 450,000 people have appropriated 40 per cent of the land of the West Bank, and large enclaves in East Jerusalem. In 1981, Israeli law was extended to the Golan Heights, where 18,000 settlers dwell.

Many Israeli strategists, including Dr Alpher, believe the retention and settlement of the territories is misconceived because it threatens Israel's existence as a democratic Jewish state. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has written that, once settlement activity had attained momentum, limitation became almost impossible for Israeli governments. As their numbers increased, settlers became major players on the Israeli political scene, making it all the more difficult for Israel to withdraw.

On the Arab side, rejectionism has produced constant conflict which has prevented the Arabs from building modern, secular, democratic societies. Dr Ahmad Khalidi, military historian, senior fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and former Palestinian negotiator, says that the war "brought the Palestinians on to the political scene more than ever before and demarcated the potential boundaries of any solution." But, he observes, these boundaries (the lines of June 4th, 1967), were "incompatible" with Israel's agenda.

IN THE ABSENCE of an accommodation between Arabs and Israelis, there have been a dozen conflicts since 1967, all far more damaging to Arab frontline states than to Israel. In addition, Palestinians in the occupied territories have risen twice; Lebanon was devastated by a second civil war (1975-90); and Iraq was brought low by a war with Iran (1980-88) and destroyed by two wars prosecuted by the US.

According to Dr Khalidi, protracted warfare brought about the "militarisation of major Arab states and gave legitimacy to military regimes in Egypt, Syria and Libya. Money poured into military establishments and the acquisition of arms. The sheer weight of this investment has eaten up resources." While militarisation of Israeli society and erosion of professionalism in the Israeli armed forces has also taken place, Dr Khalidi points out that Israel has "developed and sustained a very vibrant economy and attained a higher GDP than the main Arab countries, where there has been incredible political deterioration".

In populous Arab countries the rich thrive, the middle class is pinched by the rising cost of living, and the poor are desperate. Secular leaderships have been discredited and the social fabric of Arab society has deteriorated, to the benefit of mainstream Muslim fundamentalist movements and their radical offshoots, some espousing al-Qaeda's call for the unification of the worldwide Muslim community and war with Western Christendom. Dr Alpher says that "the existential threat to Israel posed today by Iran and militant Islam derives far more from our very existence than from our misguided occupation of the West Bank". This is not, however, true for the Arab governments and Palestinians, who are desperate for an end to the conflict. The majority of the world's Palestinians, who number between 9.3 million and 10.1 million, remain in limbo. Although considered a burden and a threat by Arab host countries and disliked by other Arabs, the Palestinians' cause is still sacrosanct for a majority of Arabs. "Like Jews, Irish, Armenians and Poles, Palestinians retain their identity wherever they are," says Dr Gharaibi. "This means Palestinians cannot simply be erased from the map, as were so many other peoples."

Settlements and military bases have absorbed 50 per cent of the West Bank and large areas of East Jerusalem. Israel now speaks of annexing settlement blocs and achieving demographic "separation" from the Palestinians, but prefers to effect that separation by building walls and fences and unilaterally redeploying its troops.

Negotiating with the Palestinians would necessitate the removal of settlements, re-division of Jerusalem, sharing of resources, and addressing the refugee problem, but the current Israeli government is too weak and dependent on right-wingers and settlers to follow such a course. In the absence of negotiations, Israel has imposed its policy of creating facts on the ground on the Palestinians and the international community, while ignoring the Arab League peace plan, the only proposal on the table, which calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land occupied in 1967 in exchange for full normalisation. But most Israelis consider this offer has come 40 years too late.