In the space of a week in June 1967, Israel confronted and defeated three neighbouring Arab states – Egypt, Jordan and Syria – in a war that would change the map of the Middle East and create a new strategic reality.
It was an avoidable war that became inevitable once the Arab states began to believe their own competing rhetoric about their ability to annihilate the Jewish state – and Israel resolved to strike first rather than risk the prospect of such annihilation.
International diplomacy, hamstrung by rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US, failed to bring the two sides back from the brink in the final tense weeks.
The Arab states wanted to reverse the defeats of two previous wars that followed the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In the event, the June 1967 conflict was decided in the first hours as Israel destroyed its enemies’ warplanes on the ground.
In the Arab rout that followed, Israeli forces seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Today, all but Sinai remain under Israeli control – the Golan annexed, the West Bank occupied and Gaza fenced off in what its people call a giant prison, even after Israel’s withdrawal of its settlers.
The war confirmed Israel as the region’s superpower, spelled the end of pan-Arab nationalism as the focus of Arab aspirations, and prompted the rise of a specific Palestinian nationalism.
Forty years on, a comprehensive peace settlement in the region, which all sides now agree should be anchored in the creation of a Palestinian state on territory Israel conquered in 1967, is yet to be secured.
David becomes Goliath
On March 26 1967, the eminent Jewish philosopher and concentration camp survivor Emil Fackenheim, addressing a Sunday symposium in his adopted Canada, proposed a new commandment to add to the 613 that the Torah imposes on devout Jews.
With tensions already brewing in the Middle East that would lead to war within three months, he formulated a 614th law- ”Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories.”
Fackenheim’s commandment was in part a rallying cry for Jews in Israel and the diaspora whom he feared would stand alone in the face of a second Holocaust, this time in the Middle East and little more than two decades after the near-destruction of European Jewry. Today it is cited by Jewish settlers determined to hold on to the conquests of what the world came to know as the six day war.
With hindsight, it is easy to dismiss the anxiety among Israelis and their supporters that accompanied the build-up to war. The Jewish state was popularly viewed as plucky little Israel, a heroic yet vulnerable David threatened by a bloodthirsty Arab Goliath. Few in Israel or outside understood how weak the self-deceiving and brittle Arab alliance ranged against Israel really was. Certainly, that weakness was little understood among those subjected to its apocalyptic rhetoric.
Asked what would happen to the Jews if Arab armies invaded, Ahmed Shukeiry, a pawn of Egypt who headed the nascent Palestine Liberation Organisation, declared- ”Those who survive will remain in Palestine. I estimate that none of them will survive.”
A panicked but hawkish Israeli public railed against a government it accused of seeking peace at any price. The strain began to tell, even in the highest ranks of the leadership- the chain-smoking and insomniac Yitzhak Rabin, chief of staff and a future prime minister, suffered a temporary nervous breakdown (recovering in time to command his forces in one of the most stunning victories in the history of warfare).
The paranoia infected even distant outposts of the diaspora. In Britain, my teenaged Jewish neighbour, conflating her family’s all-too-recent memories of the Holocaust and the Blitz, imagined she would be slaughtered in her bed once Egyptian president Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Soviet-equipped air force levelled its sights on London.
More informed minds rushed to support the Israeli cause. Icons of the left such as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre issued impassioned pleas in favour of Israel’s right to survive. In the US, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. announced his intention to make a solidarity pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And opponents of the Vietnam war took time off from what they had declared to be a ”Vietnam summer” of protest to demand their government stand by Israel in its hour of need. (The Pentagon, desperate to avoid being dragged into another foreign quagmire, dubbed them ”doves for war”.)
In the event, it took Israel just six days – a span of time, as even the most secular Jew could not fail to note, in which the God of Abraham had created the world – to crush its enemies and expand the subject lands of Zion threefold.
Triumph or hubris? Within weeks of the conclusion of hostilities, as Israel pondered how to deal with its conquests, the historian Walter Laqueur predicted how Israel would now appear to many who were once its sympathisers. “Israel now faces hard times. There is a massive propaganda onslaught… about the new Hitlerites and their barbarous atrocities. Already we have heard about Israeli Gauleiters and Lebensraum, and next, no doubt, there will be talk of an Israeli Gestapo and Israeli extermination camps.”
Eastwards to the Jordan
The war began at 7.10am on June 5, when Israel launched its third Middle East war with a pre-emptive airborne assault that destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground – and settled the outcome. By the morning of June 6, Israeli ground forces were deep into Sinai on their way to the Suez Canal.
Nasser hid the extent of the debacle from his people and from his allies, including Jordan’s King Hussein. ”The battle has begun,” Cairo Radio declared on the first night. ”We have defeated Israel on the first day of the battle. We will conquer it in the air and on land and destroy it forever. Bid farewell, Israel.”
Jordan entered the fray in the early hours of a war that was already lost, unleashing shellfire on central Israel. The Israelis responded by moving troops into the battleground of the Jordanian-ruled West Bank.
Israel had assured King Hussein it had no designs on the West Bank and would not involve him if he stayed out of the coming war. But the previous November it had mounted a tank-led assault into Jordan to attack a Palestinian guerrilla outpost, killing 18 people and wounding 150, most of them Jordanian regular soldiers and civilians. The raid inflamed the Arab street, fuelling a popular groundswell in favour of war. King Hussein feared he risked his throne unless he joined the pan-Arab front.
The West Bank owes its name to the Jordan River to its east. In a 1947 plan, the UN had designated it as part of a new Palestinian state that would live alongside a new Jewish state in a partition of the territory that Britain, the occupying UN-mandated power, was shortly to relinquish. The Arab states rejected the plan and, when Israel declared its independence in May 1948, opted for a war in which they intended to strangle the new nation at its birth.
But in that conflict, Israel expanded beyond the area allocated it under the UN partition plan, seizing much of the arable land below the foothills of the West Bank. Its forces stopped short of seizing towns further east to avoid bringing unwanted concentrations of Arab civilians under their control. Jordan annexed the West Bank territories that remained in Arab hands.
At the time, ministers and army officers of the socialist Mapam party were among those who urged David Ben Gurion, provisional prime minister of the new Israeli state, to capture the West Bank in order to ”liberate” the Palestinians after the Arab countries rejected the partition plan. He refused. ”We are not contractors for the construction of an independent Arab state,” he told them.
The 1967 war sealed the West Bank’s fate for decades to come. On June 6, the first Israeli soldiers entered the West Bank border town of Qalqilya at about 10am – first in a feint from the west and then a full thrust from the east that sent inhabitants scurrying for the safety of their surrounding fields.
The town, on the westernmost salient of the West Bank and barely 10 miles from Israel’s Mediterranean coast, fell at 5.20pm. The rest of the territory was to follow within two days.
Qalqilya’s inhabitants feared they would suffer the same fate as 750,000 fellow Palestinians who had been driven from or fled their homeland in 1948. ”By midday on the first day, the Israelis began dynamiting all the buildings,” said Abu Jihad, who was a municipal employee at the time. Of 2,000 houses, the Israeli army under the command of General Uzi Narkis destroyed 850, according to a UN report at the time.
Narkis was later to assert- ”The Israeli government had no intention of capturing the West Bank… The end result was something that no one had planned.”
By June 8, the Jordanian forces had crumbled away, retreating across the Jordan River and leaving in Israeli hands all the towns of the Palestinian heartland – Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem, Tulkarem, Jenin and Qalqilya and the territory’s more than one million people.
On the eve of victory, General Rabin asked his military commanders- ”How do we control a million Arabs?”
The Kremlin’s proxy war
It would be wrong to dismiss Egypt’s Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser as a Soviet puppet, although there were those in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 battle who labelled it Nasser’s and the Kremlin’s war.
In the decade between the 1956 Suez campaign and the six day war, Moscow rewarded Nasser’s anti-imperialism with unprecedented shipments of tanks, artillery and warplanes. They gave the Egyptians an illusion of superiority in the face of what CIA analysts regarded as Israel’s clear military advantage over its most powerful neighbour.
Having been forced to remove its missiles from Cuba by President John F. Kennedy’s brinkmanship in the crisis of October 1962, the Kremlin had sought to shift the focus of superpower rivalry elsewhere. By 1967, it had the satisfaction of seeing the US bogged down in Vietnam. It seized the opportunity to generate a proxy crisis in the Middle East that would fall short of all-out war.
After a decade of relative quiet, Palestinian guerrillas, some belonging to Yasser Arafat’s emergent Fatah movement, had intensified cross-border raids, sponsored by Syria’s new radical Ba’athist government. Syria, Moscow’s most promising regional client, preaching a ”people’s war” to liberate Palestine to cover its domestic inadequacies, castigated its Arab partners, including Nasser, for their fecklessness in the face of Israel.
The crisis escalated in April 1967 when Israel countered Syrian shelling of Israeli settlements in the demilitarised zone of the existing ceasefire line with an air battle that spread to the skies over Damascus and claimed six Syrian Soviet-made Mig-21s for no Israeli losses.
Rabin raised the temperature in May by threatening an overthrow of the Damascus regime, remarks for which he was reprimanded by Levi Eshkol, his prime minister.
Moscow, humbled by the losses of the air battle in April, goaded its Egyptian ally into greater hostility towards Israel as a way of easing the pressure on Damascus. Soviet officials conjured up imaginary Israeli troop concentrations on its borders, prompting Colonel Nasser to mass his own armies at the Egyptian frontline. But he exceeded his mandate from the Soviets when he dismissed the UN’s truce-monitoring force in the Sinai Peninsula and mounted a blockade of the Red Sea’s Straits of Tiran.
Red Sea access to the southern Israel port of Eilat had been Israel’s principal gain from what it termed the Sinai Campaign of 1956 and the west knew as the Anglo-French Suez invasion. To let the blockade stand would have damaged Israel’s doctrine of deterrence, a concern still evident 40 years later in its conduct of the 2006 Lebanon war.
The US-Israeli strategic alliance is a fact of diplomatic life today, but in 1967, the US tried to stay above the fray, obliged to fend off the threat of Soviet intervention but desperate not to be drawn into a looming war.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, preoccupied with events in Vietnam, said- ”I must emphasise the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.”
Jerusalem- eternal but still divided
The Turjeman House on the old prewar dividing line between Israeli west Jerusalem and the formerly Jordanian-ruled east is now the Museum on the Seam, a self-styled socio-political institution promoting peace between communities and their mutual respect.
Until 1967, it was the frontline Israeli military outpost on the western side of the Mandelbaum Gate, which was neither a gate nor Mandelbaum’s since the eponymous owner of a nearby residence had fled long before the ceasefire line in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence congealed into the tangle of barbed wire, abandoned buildings and earthen ramparts that was Jerusalem’s dividing no-man’s-land.
Before the six day war, foreign visitors could pass from east to west through the gate, the only passageway between the two sides, while the dusty, 50-yard trudge in the opposite direction was only permitted to diplomats and other international officials. Jordan had annexed east Jerusalem after Arab armies failed to crush the nascent Israeli state in 1948, But the Jordanians failed to live up to an agreement to allow Jews access to their holy sites in the east, including the Western Wall, last vestige of their ancient temple.
On the morning of June 6, Israeli paratroopers captured the Jordanian police school at Ammunition Hill after a night of fierce hand-to-hand fighting following the seizure of the UN governor’s headquarters at the Hill of Evil Counsel the previous afternoon. The road to Jerusalem’s Old City lay open.
The founders of the Israeli state had never cared much for Jerusalem, preferring the secular modernity of Tel Aviv. In 1949, some ministers had balked at moving the government to west Jerusalem – and not only for fear of antagonising the UN that had decreed it should be an international city. Yosef Shprintsak, the Knesset speaker, complained of the uncomfortable ride from the coast and of Jerusalem’s cold, and favoured the more ”suitable climate”, both physical and political, of the Mediterranean. Many modern-day Shprintsaks take a perverse pride in never visiting a Holy City they regard as a hotbed of religious fanaticism and ethnic divisions.
The capture of the Old City, location of the last Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 AD, came at 10am on June 7 as a small Israeli squadron blasted its way through Lion’s Gate, with little more than Jordanian sniper fire to deter it, and ascended Temple Mount.
Even the secular soldiers who accompanied General Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the armed forces, wept as he sounded a ram’s horn at the Western Wall to mark the fulfilment of the millennial Jewish dream- ”Next year in Jerusalem.”
Israel quickly annexed east Jerusalem, declaring the united city Israel’s eternal and undivided capital. But invisible barriers persisted. The Israelis encircled the city with Jewish settlements, an enterprise that continues to expand, but the Jerusalem Palestinians remained as foreigners in their own home.
Much has changed and much stayed the same. The physical barriers that divided the city disappeared decades ago. But, through the redundant gun slits of the Turjeman House on the fringe of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood, you look across the dual carriageway running north at a separate Jerusalem that is still Arab in language and Palestinian in spirit.
Israel the occupier
Trawling through the Israeli state archives in the autumn of 2003, the Israeli writer Gershon Gorenberg stumbled on a top-secret memorandum, dated September 18 1967, from Theodor Meron, the foreign ministry’s senior legal counsel. Addressed to Prime Minister Eshkol, it stated in part- ”My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Meron, who much later was to preside over the international tribunal that judged war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, was responding to reports that the government was considering settling the West Bank, starting with the Etzion Bloc from which Jewish settlers had been driven out in the 1948 war. Etzion survivors had begun trickling back to their former home to plan a more permanent return.
It was the start of what Gorenberg, in a recent book, has described as Israel’s ”accidental empire”, an ad hoc enterprise – part secular, part religiously inspired – that led to Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian land. Four decades on, a quarter of a million Jews inhabit the West Bank, not counting an almost equal number in conquered east Jerusalem.
Israel’s leaders in 1967 were determined not to return to what they regarded as the fragile ceasefire line of 1949. But there were divisions that persist today over the fate of the conquered territories.
Meron said Israel’s argument that the West Bank was not occupied territory, since Palestinian sovereignty had never been established or defined, would not stand up in the court of world opinion. Better, he said, to obey the Geneva Conventions that barred an occupying power from transferring its civilians to occupied territory.
A solution was found by creating Israeli military outposts that soon turned into civilian settlements. Younger Israelis seized the chance to relive the heroic era of the early Zionists and reclaim, through sweat and toil, the barren slopes of the Land of Israel.
As diaspora Jews hastened to Israel as 1967 war broke out, even the secular among them divined the hand of God in Israel’s redemption. Religious Jews did not always feel the same. On the eve of hostilities, ministers of the National Religious Party were among the most dovish in wanting to avoid war. The 1967 war began to change that. Spurred by a youthful postwar Messianic wing, the party was to become the aggressive vanguard of settlement, particularly after elections in 1977 brought expansionist, if secular, rightwingers to power.
Nevertheless, other Orthodox Jews continued to shun the equation between territory and redemption, regarding the yearning for the New Jerusalem as more of a spiritual than a territorial quest. ”If there exist Jews willing to join the national-occupationist trend,” thundered the Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ”and go so far as to make a Greater Israel the essential element of their faith… then these people have become the heirs of worshippers of the Golden Calf who also proclaimed- ’Behold your God, O Israel.’”
I was sitting in the lounge at London’s Heathrow airport one evening in late April this year, snatching a last pre-flight cigarette, my only companions a European youth of indeterminate origins and an equally young Orthodox Jew with sidelocks, frock coat, kippa and black felt hat.
”Palestina, Palestina!” the youth began to drone, and then, more loudly- ”I hate your government’s policies. You are disgusting!” An Israeli Zionist would have punched him in the eye but the young Jewish traveller, probably neither Israeli nor a Zionist but a product nonetheless of generations of discrimination, calmly extinguished his stub and left.
How times have changed. As a student in 1967, when on the slender basis of a fortnight’s visit to the Middle East I tentatively suggested the Arabs might also have some justice to their cause, I was treated with derision by my peers. In those days, the parents or grandparents of the indignant youth at Heathrow might have been setting off to Israel to experience the kibbutznik delights of Israel’s proto-hippy communalism.
By July 1967, we were heading into the fabled Summer of Love, to be followed the next year by the Summer of Revolution. There was barely time to mourn the passing of Ernesto ”Che” Guevara, who was killed in the jungles of Bolivia but survived as a fashion icon for western youth. Soon they were to add Yasser Arafat’s black-and-white keffiyeh to their wardrobe as the symbol of the dispossessed.
The emergence of a distinct Palestinian nationalism under Arafat’s leadership – he quickly overthrew the unlamented Ahmed Shukeiry – was one of the most important legacies of the 1967 war. Palestinians recovered an identity they had almost lost and the wider world had previously ignored.
Other wars were to follow, including in 1973 when Israel was taken by surprise in a conflict that would eventually lead to a land-for-peace agreement with Egypt and restitution of the captured Sinai.
Israeli governments frequently advanced the principle of land for peace but just as frequently complained it had no Arab partners. Even after the Palestinian leadership signalled from the early 1980s that it was prepared to settle for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, 22 per cent of pre-1948 Palestine, the Israeli side was adamant about not handing over all its 1967 conquests.
The philosopher Leibowitz, writing soon after the war, warned that occupation would destroy the conqueror. It would lead to oppression of the Palestinians and spur a terrorist response. He spurned a barter of land for peace and said peace was only possible once Israel relinquished the captured territories without conditions. He urged young Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve there.
In 1993, Leibowitz was offered the prestigious Israel Prize. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, unable to forgive the philosopher’s branding of the occupying army as ”Judeo-Nazis”, said he would refuse to attend the award ceremony.
Rabin had overseen the 1967 conquests only to be assassinated 28 years later by a young religious settler who believed the prime minister’s proposed surrender of even some of them meant undoing God’s work. The equally pious Leibowitz had died three months earlier, having graciously declined Israel’s highest honour.