Note: This post is a prelude to our daily re-created coverage of the Six Day War. Starting Monday, June 5, we will cover each night the war as the events happened in 1967.
The Six-Day War, the fiftieth anniversary of which takes places tomorrow on June 5, 2017, is “one of history’s most brilliant—and controversial campaigns.” In a mere six days, from June 5 through June 10, 1967, the state of Israel routed a numerically and materially superior Arab war coalition, decisively defeating the surrounding Arab armies in a pre-emptive act of self-defense.
As the editors of a special Summer 2017 issue of Middle East Quarterly put it:
On June 4, 1967, the ecstatic Arab leaders were prophesying Israel’s imminent destruction and promising their subjects the spoils of victory; a week later, they were reconciling themselves to a staggering military defeat, the loss of vast territories, and sharp international humiliation.”
To commemorate this significant moment in Jewish history and Israel’s “monumental victory” a half-century ago, in the upcoming week we’ll be running a series of posts covering Israel’s stunning 1967 feat of arms.The posts will provide a day-by-day review of the action on the battlefields, the decision-making in the war room, and the ways in which Israelis coped on the home front. We’ll be referencing and hyperlinking to seminal studies, newly published analyses and opinion editorials, and recently unsealed secret transcripts of the highly classified Israeli government committee that managed the country’s military affairs and basically “ran the Six-Day War.”
In our upcoming daily posts from June 5 through June 10 we’ll also include footage from the hard-fought battles along three fronts.
Iconic images will also be featured in each post, as dread and fear turned into celebration and euphoria for Israel and the Jewish people (especially when on June 7, 1967—after a short battle for the Old City which was conducted without tanks, artillery or aircraft for fear of doing damage to the holy sites—the Israeli commander Mordechai “Motta” Gur announced from Jerusalem’s Old City that “The Temple Mount is in our hands”).
— Levi Eshkol on TW (@EshkolTweets) May 24, 2017
New never-before-seen photographs that have been released in recent weeks in advance of the semi-centennial of the Six-Day War and Jerusalem’s reunification will also be included in the posts, along with videos from a special 12-part 50-Year Anniversary Series on the Six-Day War produced by Jerusalem U in partnership with The Jerusalem Post and other agencies in Israel and the U.S. (for the initial three videos released thus far, see embeds below).
We’ll also add some social media from a special Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiative (@Tweeting67) which offers a unique perspective on the Arab build-up for an all-out war, and how IDF reservists, conscripts and their loved ones at home coped—both during the run-up to war and during the six transformative days fifty years ago:
— Theodor Herzl on TW (@HerzlTweets) June 1, 2017
What follows in the remainder of this introductory post is a brief overview of the regional atmosphere in the months and days leading up to the start of the war on June 5, 1967.
The Countdown to War
The 1967 Six-Day War transformed Israel, the Jewish people, and the modern Middle East. But it’s impossible to really understand its repercussions and ramifications without knowing about the events of May that led up to the war.
This includes an escalatory Arab state belligerence which made war inevitable; Israel’s persistent backchannel diplomatic efforts to get Arab rulers not to engage in war; and its many entreaties to the US and the international community for help.
— Moshe Dayan on TW (@MosheDayan67) May 29, 2017
Yesterday's cabinet meeting authorized more time for the American plan to remove the blockade. Have we maybe averted war? pic.twitter.com/wZ3vh8mVnv
— Levi Eshkol on TW (@EshkolTweets) May 29, 2017
As historian and former Israel Ambassador to the US Michael Oren has noted:
Israel wanted to prevent a war with all its might…up to the eve of the battles it tried to stop the war in every possible way—even at a heavy strategic and economic cost for the state.”
Basically, Israel was forced into a war against its enemies.
In this regard, it’s important to note that in May of 1967 a vulnerable Israel was only 19 years old and a nation of a mere 2.7 million, many of them Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands.
At its narrowest, Israel was just 9 miles wide with Arab armies surrounding it on all its borders and with “its back to the sea.”
From the Golan Heights, Syria shelled farms and villages below in northern Israel on a routine basis.
In the South and from the East, Arab terrorists from the Egyptian-controlled Gaza and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank (both illegal occupations) infiltrated Israel, perpetrating constant attacks on Israeli civilians (some 400 innocent men, women, and children were murdered from 1949-1967).
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), created by the Arab League in 1964, conducted non-stop terrorist raids: in 1965, the PLO carried out 35 raids; in 1966 the number increased to 41 and in the first few months of 1967 another 37 terror attacks were launched against innocent Israeli civilians.
Israel also stood alone:
China, India, Soviet Russia and its 12 satellite nations were all hostile. The United States, though friendly, was not allied militarily with Israel. Most of its arms came from France which, just days before the war, switched sides.”
So Israel was already in a precarious situation when Arab hostility toward Israel took a turn for the worse:
- May 14: Soviet-backed and lavishly-armed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser begins moving troops and military equipment into the demilitarized zone in the Sinai Peninsula between Israel and Egypt;
- May 18: Nasser expels 3,500 United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai, leaving the buffer zone under total Egyptian control;
- May 22: Nasser blockades Eilat—Israel’s lone port on the Red Sea—by closing the Straits of Tiran to all Israel ships, thus cutting off the Jewish state’s route to Asia.
By the end of the month, approximately 250,000 Arab troops; 2,800 tanks; and 800 aircraft were ringed around Israel (Egypt alone had amassed 80,000 troops, 550 tanks, and 1,000 artillery pieces on the Israeli border). Nasser had also managed to unify the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian militaries under the United Arab Command; many other Arab countries also ended up pledging support for the war effort.Mobs gathered in Arab capitals shouting “Death to the Jews!” and cartoons with antisemitic tropes inundated the Arab press. The entire Arab world was prepared to go to war with the basic objective of liquidating and “wiping Israel off the map”.
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) May 20, 2017
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) May 18, 2017
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) May 26, 2017
"We want a full-scale, popular war of liberation… to destroy the Zionist enemy" -Syrian President Dr. Nureddin al-Attasi pic.twitter.com/4iLuzKOgVc
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) May 22, 2017
Because they categorically rejected Israel’s right to exist, they were prepared to resume the war that had been halted 19 years earlier. That is, for Israel’s Arab neighbors the ultimate goal was to rectify the “unfinished business” of 1948:
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) June 1, 2017
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) May 31, 2017
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) May 28, 2017
Here’s several short video clips that offer a good overview of the military provocations and threats in the run-up to the war in May of 1967:
The Arab States Really Did Plan on Destroying the Jewish State and Israel Took Them at Their Word
It’s hard to believe that with all this evidence of Arab aggression there are still those who insist that Israel “overreacted” to what was merely Egyptian “grandstanding” and that the Arab military coalition never really posed a serious threat to Israel’s security—at least not one that was severe enough to provoke Israel’s territorial expansion.
Yet this argument is standard fare in the historiography of the war.
Much of it exaggerates the role that “Soviet disinformation tactics” played in instigating the war.
It’s true that in early May the Soviets fed its Syrian and Egyptian clients bogus warnings about Israeli troop build-ups on the Syrian border and its supposed intention to attack. The problem though is that Nasser was totally aware that the Soviet reports were false—Egypt continued its reckless escalation even though Nasser knew full well that there wasn’t going to be any imminent Israeli attack against Syria.
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) June 1, 2017
The reality, as Bar-Ilan University Professor Efraim Karsh persuasively writes in a new journal article, is that Nasser wasn’t a hapless victim of Soviet manipulations. Rather, he was convinced that Egypt would win the war:
Nasser believed the Egyptian air force might only incur a small loss before dealing a devastating blow to Israel…the Egyptian president did not stumble into war but orchestrated it with open eyes.”
Basically, the Egyptian president was gunning for war—and for Israel to attack first—because he firmly believed that Egypt could absorb an Israeli first strike and still win. His escalatory behavior during the May crisis is evidence of that (but for those who still have trouble accepting it, there are also military documents captured during the war which reveal elaborate plans for an invasion of Israel).
The notion that Israel was trying to “lure the Arab states into war” in order to expand its territory is also ludicrous—even though this claim too is commonly found in the literature.
If anything, Israel’s multiple appeals to Jordan to stay out of the war is solid proof that had King Hussein not made the mistake of joining Nasser’s bandwagon, the West Bank and Jerusalem’s Old City would have remained under Jordanian control.
— Six Day War Quotes (@SixDayWarQuotes) June 3, 2017
So Israel’s leaders and people expected the worst, and for good reason.
Yitzhak Rabin, who served as IDF chief of staff (and suffered a brief nervous breakdown in the run-up to the war) estimated that some 50,000 Jews would be killed. At the IDF’s direction, municipal Rabbis designated fields and parks to be repurposed as Jewish cemeteries and over 10,000 graves were dug in preparation for the mass slaughter. Children dug trenches, filled sandbags and taped their windows.
There is a profound sense of impending catastrophe in the country. Like lambs to the slaughter, once again.
— Menachem Begin on TW (@BeginTweets) May 29, 2017
This waiting and the worrying is really getting us all down. Everyone is nervous and on edge. Is this how we have to live? For how long?
— Jerusalem Homemaker (@RikkiSadon67) May 29, 2017
It’s possible—based on an interview published today in the New York Times which Israel has so far declined to comment on—that Israeli leaders were so “deeply fearful ahead of the war” that they even allegedly prepped a “doomsday plan” to detonate an atomic bomb in the Sinai so as to get Egypt to stand down (due to Israel’s rapid success in defeating the Egyptian army, the alleged operation reportedly became redundant and was aborted):There’s no reason to think that this operation ever existed. But if it did, it would go a long way toward discrediting the prevailing wisdom that Israel wanted a war.
The fact is that Israelis were thinking in terms of worst case scenarios. And they weren’t the only ones. In the U.S. and around the world, Jews also anticipated the possibility of a second Holocaust.
They donated money to the embattled Jewish state—and they prayed.
In a powerful op-ed published last week in the Israeli news site Ynet, scholar Ben-Dror Yemini notes that, in documents seized by Israel, both the Egyptian and Jordanian armies had operational orders to exterminate the civilian populations in the areas occupied during their victorious June 1967 war against the Jewish state.
It’s a sobering reminder of what Israel was up against at the time.
But it’s Yemini’s personal reflections and righteous indignation that really hit home:
I was a child, an elementary school student. I remember fear, a lot of fear. There were no shelters in the house I lived in. It was clear that there would be bombings, so we dug pits in the yard.
Occasionally, we are reminded of the sound of thunder from Cairo to remind us of the annihilation threats. But in fact, they were much more serious. Both the Arab League and the leaders of all neighboring states announced in an unequivocal manner that the plan was annihilation. I repeat: Annihilation. Arrogant talk? Considering the fact that the Arab and Muslim world was engaged in endless self and mutual massacres, it was pretty clear that what they were doing to themselves—and it’s still going on—they would also do to Israel.
We must remember one thing, therefore: The alternative to victory was annihilation. So excuse us for winning.”
Bottom line: In the spring of 1967, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Arab allies did “everything in their power to deteriorate the situation.” Isolated and surrounded, Israel believed that it faced an existential threat. So after hesitating and agonizingly waiting for help from overseas which never came, Israel finally decided to preemptively strike. Even then its war goals were initially limited—to neutralize Egypt’s air force and its tank divisions in the Sinai (Jerusalem’s Old City “was on no one’s agenda”). But Israel ultimately was compelled to expand its war aims on account of Jordanian and Syrian aggressive moves during the war. It’s something we’ll be highlighting in the next posts for this series.
[Featured Image source: Jerusalem U Video]
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElmanDONATE
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