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The Arab-Israeli War of 1967, also known as the Six-Day War, erupted between Israel and several of its neighbors on June 5, 1967, lasting until June 10. When the war was over, Israel had soundly defeated the militaries of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and seized large amounts of territory, including the Old City of Jerusalem and its attendant holy sites, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. The war transformed the political landscape of the Middle East from a military contest between Israel and its neighbors into (the 1973 ArabIsraeli War notwithstanding) what was primarily a political struggle between Israel and the more than a million Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
The Political Background
The Six-Day War had its roots in the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by the Arab League in 1964. While Arab national armies had already been defeated twice by Israel (in 1948 and 1956), the creation of the PLO allowed Palestinian nationals to attack Israel directly and without support from the weakened Arab states in their quest to destroy the Jewish state and create a Palestinian homeland. In 1965 the PLO began attacking Israel from bases in Egypt and Jordan. Despite the fears of Egypt and Jordan that the aggression might lead to a general war, the PLO attacks increased in number and scale, from 35 in 1965 to 41 in 1966 and 37 in the first four months of 1967.
Furthermore, tensions had been steadily rising between Israel and Syria over Israel’s National Water Carrier irrigation project, which channeled water through the Jordan River for use in Israel. A Syrian project begun in 1964 attempted to divert the flow of water; Israel responded in 1965 by bombing the Syrian diversionary project. In retaliation, Syria bombarded Israeli villages and farms in the northern part of the country. A particularly deadly attack on April 7, 1967, provoked Israeli retaliation and six Syrian MiG fighters were shot down.
The Soviet Union, a major patron and ally of both Egypt and Syria, issued warnings on May 13 (now known to be false) that Israel was preparing for an invasion of Syria, prompting Syria to invoke its mutual defense pact with Egypt. The reasons for the Soviet deception are still unclear. Some believe that the Soviets hoped the increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam would prevent their assisting Israel, creating an opportunity to seriously damage Israel and bolster Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s power and prestige. It is also possible that the Soviets hoped Israel would prevail and remove Nasser from the scene, to be replaced by a more stable and predictable leader. Either way, despite assurances from UN observers that there were no signs of Israeli troop buildups or preparations for invasion on the Israeli-Syrian border, both Syria and Egypt accepted the Soviet warnings and initiated plans for an invasion of Israel.
Prelude to War
On May 15, 1967, Egypt began moving troops into the Sinai Peninsula and massing them near the Israeli border. This was followed on May 18 by a Syrian mobilization that moved forces into position along the Golan Heights. On the same day President Nasser demanded that the United Nations Emergency Force, which had been stationed in the Sinai as a buffer between Israel and Egypt since the 1956 war, be withdrawn. United Nations Secretary-General U Thant complied with the demand, in spite of a prior promise to take any such request before the UN General Assembly.
The withdrawal of the UN troops was quickly followed by an Egyptian blockade of the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s only supply route to Asia and the main shipping lane for oil from Israel’s largest supplier. Israel had made it clear that any attempt to close the strait would be considered cause for war and, following the 1956 Suez Crisis, had been given assurances by the United States and the United Nations that Israel had right of access to the Strait of Tiran. However, when Israel asked the major world powers to enforce those assurances, Great Britain and France reneged. The United States offered to form an international armada to break the Egyptian blockade, a proposal Israel accepted, although it was expected to take several weeks to assemble the armada and despite the worsening situation in the Sinai and Golan Heights.
On May 30, responding to pressure for Arab unity, Jordan joined the military alliance between Egypt and Syria. This, along with the entrance of Iraq into the alliance on June 4, brought the combined size of the Arab armies to approximately 465,000 troops, 2,880 tanks, and 810 aircraft. Against that force the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) mustered 275,000 troops (including reservists), 1,100 tanks, and 200 planes. Israel’s demographics (a relatively small population of around 2.3 million in 1967) and military structure (a small standing army backed by large numbers of reservists who could be called into duty when needed) made it difficult for the army to stay mobilized for long periods of time without doing massive damage to the domestic economy. Faced with hostile armies seemingly gearing up for war on all sides, the closure of a major shipping route, and the prospect of a troop mobilization with no immediate end in sight, Israel chose to launch a preemptive strike.
The Six-Day War officially began on June 5 when Israel launched a surprise attack on the Egyptian air force. The Israeli air force caught the vast majority of Egyptian planes on the ground and destroyed more than three hundred fighters, bombers, and helicopters in less than two hours. After decimating the Egyptian air force, Israel turned its air power against Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, destroying another 107 planes. Israeli losses totaled twenty aircraft, twelve pilots killed, five wounded, and four captured. The preemptive Israeli raids essentially decided the course of the war, leaving Israel with total air superiority. Israeli ground forces could operate without fear of air attack and enjoyed unchallenged air support.
Following the air assaults, Israeli ground forces began moving against Egyptian forces in the Sinai. Relying on its tank divisions to push the assault forward, Israeli forces moved deeply and quickly into the Sinai, without slowing to secure supply lines or transportation routes. By the end of June 6, Israel had seized the Gaza Strip and was moving quickly toward the Suez Canal. As Israeli forces drove to the canal, any Egyptian forces not retreating at top speed were encircled and destroyed. Meanwhile, in a selfproclaimed effort to spare the army total annihilation, the Egyptian commander in chief ordered the entire Egyptian army to retreat across the Suez Canal. Such an order issued so early in the conflict broke the morale of the soldiers and effectively finished the Israeli task of destroying the Egyptian army. Forty-eight hours after the beginning of the war, Israeli forces reached the Suez Canal, and by the end of June 8, the entire Sinai Peninsula was under Israeli control.
On June 9, the UN Security Council enacted a ceasefire that left Israel in control of the Sinai; Israel accepted the cease-fire immediately, and Egypt followed suit on June 10.
While Israeli tanks were driving through the Sinai, Israel was trying to keep the other major fronts in Jordan and Syria quiet, in accordance with the preferred Israeli strategy of fighting on only one front while holding the others. Israel had warned Jordan’s King Hussein to stay out of the conflict, claiming that Israel had no intention of attacking Jordan, Jerusalem, or the West Bank. Israel also indicated its willingness to absorb a so-called barrage of honor, whereby Jordan could shell certain Israeli positions to fulfill its alliance commitments without provoking an Israeli response. However, when the Jordanian artillery barrage expanded and the Jordanian army moved to occupy a UN observation post in Jerusalem, Israel seized the opportunity to reunify Jerusalem and eliminate the Jordanian presence on the west bank of the Jordan River.
Israeli soldiers and paratroopers began moving toward the Old City of Jerusalem on June 5 and by June 6 had encircled the walled city. Israeli tanks also began sweeping through the West Bank, seizing the towns of Ramallah, Latrun, Jenin, and Nábulus, in the process opening the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road for the first time since 1947. Early on the morning of June 7, Israeli paratroopers broke through Jordanian resistance, entered the Old City of Jerusalem, and seized the Temple Mount, home of holy sites for both Jews (the Western Wall, the last remaining structure from the Second Temple of King Solomon) and Muslims (the Dome of the Rock and alAqsa mosques), reuniting the divided city of Jerusalem. Later the same day, Israeli forces occupied Bethlehem and Hebron, placing the entire West Bank under Israeli control. Fighting between Israel and Jordan ended on June 7 as both sides accepted a UN Security Council call for a cease-fire.
On the northern front, Israel and Syria limited their exchange to artillery barrages for the first four days of the war. Israel was content to postpone an invasion of Syria until after Egypt and Jordan had been dealt with, while Syria, despite all the prewar bluster and alliances, seemed satisfied to hang back and leave Egypt to the Israelis. However, Israel began to fear that a cease-fire might take effect before Israel had the opportunity to seize the Golan Heights. On June 9 Israel began an offensive to push the Syrians away from the Syrian-Israeli border and Israel’s northern villages and farms. Israeli armored units quickly punched holes in the Syrian defenses and pushed deep into the Golan. By the end of June 10, Israel had occupied the entire Golan Heights. The acquisition of the Golan Heights, along with the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Sinai Peninsula, more than tripled Israel’s previous size. The new territory gained the country important strategic positions, but also created a perennial political problem: Israel now occupied territories inhabited by more than a million Palestinians.
Over the course of the Six-Day War, Israel defeated the combined armies of three Arab nations at a relatively low cost to its own troops. All told, Israel lost approximately 800 soldiers, with about 2,500 wounded and 18 taken prisoner or missing. Egyptian losses were the heaviest: between 10,000 and 15,000 dead, 15,000 wounded, and 5,500 taken prisoner. Jordan had about 2,000 soldiers killed and 5,000 wounded, while Syria had 700 dead, 3,500 wounded, and 500 taken prisoner.
The Political Aftermath
The Six-Day War is, unquestionably, one of the seminal events in the modern Middle East. The Israeli victory redrew the political map of the region and created an intractable problem that would remain unresolved for decades.
Israel initially hoped that the destruction and humiliation of the Arab armies would pave the way for diplomatic initiatives, and on June 19 the Israeli cabinet voted to restore the prewar boundaries with Egypt and Syria and to offer the newly occupied Sinai and Golan territories back to their former owners in exchange for peace. The offers were, however, rejected by both Egypt and Syria within days. The Gaza Strip and West Bank proved even more difficult to deal with, as neither Egypt nor Jordan wanted the territories, and their Palestinian populations, back. Furthermore Israel, for security reasons, did not want to return the entire West Bank, as doing so would again put Jordan within miles of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. Israel held out hopes that the occupied land could be used to exchange for peace; nonetheless, Israel began settling religious Jews in the newly acquired lands. These settlements would prove to be a major obstacle to peace during negotiations between Israel and the PLO in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The major problem resulting from the Six-Day War was that Israel now occupied the land of more than a million Palestinians: 600,000 living in the West Bank, 70,000 in East Jerusalem, and 350,000 in Gaza (210,000 of whom were refugees, of which 170,000 were living in refugee camps). The occupation awakened Palestinian nationalism and led to protests, graffiti, strikes, and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Such displays remained relatively rare, however, until the outbreak of the first intifada, or uprising, in 1987. The PLO, founded before the war, became the de facto representative of the Palestinian people and formed the vanguard for a new guerrilla war against Israel, hoping to succeed where the conventional armies of the Arab nations had failed.
At a meeting of the Arab League in September 1967, the Arab states reacted to the war and subsequent occupation by issuing the Khartoum Resolution, whose third paragraph became known as the Three No’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. In response to the Arab declaration, Israel publicly backed away from the offer to restore prewar boundaries and instead adopted policies of annexation and settlement. The international community stepped into the dispute by passing United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which became the starting point for all future negotiations surrounding the occupied territories. Resolution 242 required that Israel withdraw from land occupied in 1967 and that the Arab nations end the war against Israel and acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. However, with the exception of Egypt, little progress was made by any side in moving toward peace or resolving the problems of the occupied territories and the Palestinians until the early 1990s.
- Dupuy, R. Ernest, and Trevor Dupuy. 1993. The Arab-Israeli Wars 1945–1975: The Six-Day War. In The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins.
- Israel Defense Forces: The Official Website. The Six-Day War. http://www1.idf.il/DOVER/site/mainpage.asp?sl=EN&id=5 &docid=18924&year=2&Pos=3.
- Morris, Benny. 2001. Righteous Victims: A History of the ZionistArab Conflict, 1881–2001. New York: Vintage.
- Oren, Michael. 2003. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Ballantine.
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