An Objective Revisiting of the Six Day War

Israel’s patience with its enemies bordered on the foolhardy.

As we approach the 53rd anniversary of the start of what’s known as “The Six Day War”, it’s useful to revisit the events of that conflict and what led to it. There is much misinformation in the mainstream media – misinformation which mainly portrays Israel as the initiator of hostilities and which ignores prior acts of aggression by Arab forces.

For example, an opinion piece in the Irish Examiner makes the preposterous claim – based on an allegation on Al-Jazeera – that Israel went to war in 1967 to gain access to water resources. The Irish Times has made the equally ridiculous claim that it was “Israel’s devastating air strikes on Egypt, Jordan, and Syria [that] launched the Six Day War”. At least the BBC conceded that a similar claim made by one of its reporters that it was Israel that had launched strikes on Jordan and Syria was “not duly accurate”. 

For starters, the term “Six Day War” is a rather misleading expression since the first acts of aggression were on May 22nd 1967 when Gamal Abdel Nasser – the Egyptian dictator – implemented a blockade of the southern coast of Israel, the port of Eilat, the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba (1). This was a very significant action since Eilat was and is strategically of huge importance to Israel and the Israelis had stated on numerous occasions in the decade leading up to 1967 that closing this international waterway to Israeli vessels would be a cause for war (2). This was something the Egyptians had promised not to do ten years prior to this in 1957 (3).
Yet, remarkably, the Israelis played the waiting game, relying on weeks of ineffectual international diplomacy to resolve the crisis. In the end, this came to nothing (3). Indeed, far from trying to defuse the situation, Nasser ramped up the tension even more by ordering more and more troops to mass in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel’s southern border (4).
While this was going on, on Israel’s north-eastern border, 60,000 Syrian troops were massing on the Golan Heights (5). The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was also getting in on the action by signing a defense pact with Egypt on May 30th. King Hussein ordered troops to the West Bank even as Syria and Iraq were sending more troops into Jordan in the first few days of June to bolster the coming attack and to force the Israelis to divert troops from the southern border region where Egypt was assembling ever more military forces (5). The forces mustered by the Egyptians and their allies from other Arab nations were extraordinary in number, amounting to over half a million (1).
In Israel, the atmosphere had become ever more troubled and there was a growing feeling that the country couldn’t just wait around, trusting that international negotiations (in which Israel was not directly represented) would defuse the crisis, and hoping against hope that it wouldn’t simultaneously be attacked on three sides. Of course, there are those who now find it easy to dismiss such Israeli concerns but there is ample evidence that the Egyptians were planning an attack on May 27th and were only dissuaded by a stern warning from the USA (11).
The Israelis did not know of this at the time but what they were hearing was ever more bellicose and extremist rhetoric from Arab capitals such as Cairo and Baghdad calling for the Israeli nation to be exterminated off the map (12). And yet, the Israelis waited; showing a degree of patience with their Arab enemies that – in terms of international diplomacy – was not just unprecedented but bordered on the foolhardy.
Goliath versus David 1967.
Goliath vs David 1967
Finally in the early hours of June 5th, a full 15 days after the Egyptians had put their blockade in place, the Israelis struck. In a couple of hours, very early on the morning of that day, the Israelis wiped out almost the entire Egyptian air force. Assured of complete air superiority, the Israelis were subsequently able to take Gaza and push deep into the Sinai. Within three or four days, Egypt was crushingly defeated having sustained enormous losses of personnel and equipment (6).
What happened later on that fateful day of June 5th, 1967 was a farce, worthy of the most hilarious comedy. Readers in this third decade of the 21st century need to understand that in 1967, information did not zip around the world at the speed it does today. Thus, despite the disaster they had just suffered, the Egyptians informed the Jordanians later that morning that they had wiped out the Israeli air force (7). It does seem likely that it was these utterly falsified claims of victory by the Egyptians that ultimately brought Jordan into the war.
The Israelis had not wanted war with Jordan. They would have preferred to keep the conflict to the southern border and even when the Jordanians opened fire around 9:30am on the morning of June 5th, the Israelis held back, sending a message via UNTSO (the UN Truce Supervision Organisation) to assure King Hussein that they had no aggressive plans vis-a-vis Jordan. They also feared international reaction were they to enter east Jerusalem. However, by noon, since Jordanian planes were attacking the city of Netanya and the airfield at Kfar Syrkin, it was clear that King Hussein was hellbent on war. As the Israelis advanced into the West Bank, the Jordanians retreated across the Jordan River effectively ending the Jordanian presence in the West Bank (9).
Nasser’s fabricated lies about Egyptian victories also brought Syria into the war. On June 5, the Syrians bombed an Israeli oil refinery, an air base and Israeli positions on the Sea of Galilee. However, the tide quickly turned against them and by June 9th, they had lost the Golan Heights and the town of Kuneitra (10).
Israeli paratroopers beside Jerusalem's Western Wall in June 1967 © Getty Images.
Israeli paratroopers beside Jerusalem's Western Wall in June 1967 © Getty Images.
By the end of hostilities, Israel was in control of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. It had been an extraordinary victory and the humiliation felt by Arabs was to have long term effects. Nasser’s position was undermined both domestically and in the Arab world and he died in 1970. The defeat also had destabilising effects in Syria and in November 1970, Hafez al-Assad seized power. Of the Arab leaders involved, only King Hussein survived as leader, continuing as monarch for another three decades until 1999 when he passed away.

by Ciarán Ó Raghallaigh

Sources

1. Page 418 – Ground Warfare: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 1 – Stanley Sandler (ABC-CLIO, 2002)
2. Page 145 – The Right of Hot Pursuit in International Law – Nicholas M Polantzas (Kluwer Law International, Den Haag, 2002)
3. Page 79 – Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy – edited by Alan Baker (JCPOA, 2011)
4. Page 527 – The Middle East and North Africa 2004 – Taylor & Francis Group (Psychology Press, 2003)
5. Page 10 – The Albatross of Decisive Victory: War and Policy Between Egypt and Israel in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars – George W Gawrych (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000)
6. Page 47 – Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Essential Reference Guide, edited by Priscilla Roberts (ABC-CLIO, 2014)
7. Page 41 – Britain, the Six-Day War and Its Aftermath – Frank Brenchley (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2005)
8. Page 103 – Regional and Ethnic Conflicts: Perspectives from the Front Lines – Judy Carter, George Irani, Vamik D Volkan (Routledge, 2015)
9. Pages 44-46 – The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences edited by William Roger Louis, Avi Shlaim (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
10. Page 168 – The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology – Jeffrey T. Richelson (Westview Press, 2002)
11. Page 293 – The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War: Government, Armed Forces and Defence Policy 1963–67 – Ami Gluska (Routledge, 2007)
12. Page 457, A History of the World from the 20th to the 21st Century – John Ashley Soames-Grenville (Psychology Press, 2005)

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