The Six Day War (1967)

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Key Events

Background to the Six Day war of 1967

  • For 10 years after Suez, UN Emergency Force remained in Egypt and kept a relative peace between Egypt and Israel;
  • Border clashes nonetheless continued;
  • Israel continued to buy arms from US, UK, France and West Germany.
  • At Nasser’s invitation, Arab leaders met in Cairo in 1964 and set up the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) with the aim of removing Israel from the map.
  • The Arab summit also resolved to divert the waters of the River Jordan, which would deprive Israel of 2/3rds of her water – an action which Israel resisted with air strikes and artillery fire.
  • Fatah (a guerrilla arm of the PLO) carried out several raids from 1965 and planted bombs in Israeli government buildings and planted mines on Israeli roads.
  • 1 January 1965 Fatah laid explosives to destroy the canal that took water from the Sea of Galilee to Israeli farms in the South-West.  The mission failed, but Arafat became famous as a result of Israeli publicity.
  • The PLO had bases in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon; Lebanon and Jordan tried to restrict their actions; but Syria encouraged them.  The only state from which Israel was not attacked was Egypt – because of UN peace-keeping forces there.
  • Syria accused Nasser of doing nothing to help Fatah or the PLO; fearing a loss of prestige, Nasser signed a defence alliance with Syria in 1966.
  • The Samu incident on 13th November 1966, involving an Israeli attack of 600 soldiers, 60 military vehicles and 11 tanks on a Palestinian settlement inside Jordan (as retaliation for a previous incident) led to widespread criticism of King Hussein of Jordan who tried to divert attention from his own inability to protect Palestinians by accusing Nasser of cowardice.
  • The Dogfight over the Golan Heights of April 7th 1967 – in retaliation for Syrian attack on an Israeli farmer inside the Demilitarized Zone next to the sea of Galilee, Israel sent airplanes to hit Syrian villages on the Golan Heights.  When the Syrians sent planes up to defend them, the Israelis shot down six Syrian Jets.

Immediate causes of the Six Day War of 1967

  • On 13th May USSR informed Nasser that Israel was massing its troops on the Syrian border and was about to attack Syria – this was untrue but no one knows whether it was merely a mistake a or a deliberate lie.
    • In 16th May 1967 Nasser ordered the UN forces to leave the buffer zone in the Sinai; 
    • Nasser increased the aggressive tone of his speeches against Israel; 
    • late-May 1967 the Egyptians blockaded the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba (as they had in 1956) – this was taken as a declaration of war by Israel; 
    • 1st June the Israeli PM Eshkol (replaced David ben Gurion in 1963) re-appointed Moshe Dayan as Defence Minister (as in 1956) – he argued strongly for a pre-emptive strike against the Arab forces.
    • 3-4 June Arab forces mobilized along Israel’s border. 
    • Decision taken in Israel to launch pre-emptive strike – perhaps Israel was looking for an excuse to take the Golan Heights and increase its territory.  The US had agreed to Israeli action to re-open the straits of Tiran but did not know about other aims the Israeli’s might have.
    • 5th June 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against the Arabs. 
    • The first move was an all-out air assault on the air forces of the neighboring Arab states. 
    • The most important strike was against Egypt which lost over 90% of its air force within 6 hours. 
    • By the end of the day the Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi air forces had been almost completely destroyed. 
    • With this ‘air supremacy’ established the Israeli ground operations could now begin.

Events of the Six Day War –

It is not necessary to know these events in detail.

For a really neat infographic see Six Day War 50th Anniversary

  • 5th June – destruction of Arab air forces by Israeli air strikes; 
  • 6th-7th June  – Jordanian forces were expelled from East Jerusalem and the West Bank (King Hussein of Jordan agreed a ceasefire); 
    • 7th -9th June Egyptian forces pushed back to the Suez Canal (heavily defeated in the Sinai Desert); 
    • 9th – 10th June Syrian forces pushed back off the Golan Heights, Israeli troops advancing on Damascus. 
    • All the Arab states accepted a UN resolution for a ceasefire by 10th June 1967.

  • Why did Israel win?
    • Tactics  – Israel used the surprise, ensured air supremacy and tackled one enemy at a time;
    • IDF – highly trained, highly motivated; superior weaponry
    • Israel was able to put 300,000 trained and experienced forces in the field; the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan amounted to 180,000
    • Arab weaknesses – unprepared, poorly rained, poorly equipped and un-coordinated – agreeing to truces at different points.
    • The Israeli air force was designed for speed and mobility – whereas Israel lost 35 planes, the Arabs lost closer to 450.
  • What did Israeli win?
    • Israel gained five new territories (Gaza, Sinai, West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights).  It was 350% bigger than it had been; its borders were more defendable, even having physical borders (e.g. the River Jordan, the Suez canal, the Golan Heights).
    • The Straits of Tiran/Gulf of Aqaba (and Port of Eilat) were therefore reopened.
    • But Israel now also had 1 million Palestinian Arabs inside its borders (in Gaza and the West Bank), this was to provide a major problem in the years to come and also increased terrorist actions against Israel. 
    • Some Arabs states began to seek better relations with Israel, largely on the grounds that they saw Israel as a strong military power, which could not be removed by force, e.g. Jordan.

UN Resolution 242

  • UN Resolution 242 – the so-called ‘land for peace’ deal. 
    • After the Six Day War the UN laid down a resolution for the Arab states to recognize the state of Israel and not act aggressively towards it. In return the Israelis should return the territories seized in 1967 and treat fairly all Palestinians within its borders.  This resolution has become the basis of all attempts to achieve peace and resolution of the Palestinian question.
  • Voted for by both the USA and the USSR
    • Rejected by Palestinians – resented being referred to as ‘the refugee problem’; and ‘Land for Peace’ ignored the land claims that went back to 1948-9.
    • Israel said it was prepared to negotiate separately with Egypt, Jordan and Syria over the territories it occupied but did not commit to fully withdrawing from them.
    • Egypt and Jordan initially agreed but they changed their minds when the Arab states met at a conference in Khartoum in August 1967.

The Khartoum Declaration, 1967

  • Arab states – including Egypt, Syria and Jordan, stated publicly that they rejected Israel’s right to exist and declared no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations. 
  • Nasser stated that he would abide by the Khartoum declaration until Israel pulled out of all the territories it had occupied, then he would be prepared to recognize and negotiate.  There was nonetheless an implicit acceptance of Resolution 242 in this stance.

Change and Continity

Along with WWI and the Proclamation of the State of Israel, the 1967 War is surely the most important event in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict because it involved Israel taking control of all of Palestine for the first time.

It was received in Israel as a great victory, but has been the root of its problems ever since because Israel went from being relatively governable, with a large Jewish majority to a state that now incorporated a large population of Arab Palestinians who remained stateless, unable to claim Israeli citizenship and unable to achieve a state of their own. What to do about the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in particular, have been the questions that have defined Israeli politics since 1967. Resolution 242 remains the basis of the ‘peace process’.

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