Jun 2007 Journal
The Six-Day War: The real story
I remember the Six-Day War vividly because I was supposed to arrive in Jerusalem for a mini-sabbatical at the Hebrew University on 5 June 1967. The 40th anniversary of the war will be seen by historical revisionists as an opportunity to rewrite what happened. What follows is the real story.
Before the war, Jerusalem was divided and Sinai was occupied by the United Nations force stationed there after the 1956 Suez fiasco to prevent Arab terrorists getting into Israel from Egypt and the Gaza Strip. There had been 37 such attacks in the first four months of 1967, in addition to the daily shelling of northern kibbutzim by Syrian artillery on the Golan Heights, which had been endured since1948.
On 15 May Egyptian forces moved into Sinai. It was believed to be a political demonstration to cheer up the Syrians, not a military challenge. On 17 May Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riyad wrote to UN Secretary-General U. Thant demanding that he withdraw the peacekeeping force from Sinai. Within hours, and without consulting the UN, who had put them there in the first place, he did as he was asked.
By 21 May Egyptian forces were lined up on the Israeli border, but no shot had been fired. On 22 May President Nasser announced a blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, cutting off the port of Eilat, an act of war in direct contravention of international maritime law.
Nasser made a series of bellicose speeches. On 27 May he declared: ‘Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight’ and ‘The meaning of Sharm el-Sheikh is a confrontation with Israel. Adopting this measure obligates us to be ready to embark on a general war with Israel.’ These sentiments were echoed by Iraq and Syria. Even King Hussein, denounced by Radio Cairo on 28 May as a ‘Hashemite whore’, signed a pact with Nasser on 30 May.
The Israelis were militarily inferior in numbers and equipment to Egypt alone, and the extinction of Israel was very much on the cards. Assurances from US President Johnson and many others that the Gulf would be kept open proved worthless.
Tension built up on the borders and many commentators thought Israel had left it too long to respond, even if they were militarily able. On 5 June, however, the Israeli air force waited until the Egyptian pilots had returned from their morning patrol and were having breakfast. They then flew under the Egyptian radar and used heat-seeking missiles to destroy the Egyptian air force on the ground.
The land battle for Sinai was the biggest tank battle on record but, without air cover, the Egyptian army was outclassed. By the end of the second day, Egyptian fortifications had been penetrated, and the roads to the Suez Canal were clear. By 8 June resistance had collapsed.
The Israelis had sent a message to King Hussein that their quarrel was not with him and that, if he did not join in the war, he would remain unchallenged. Convinced by Egyptian claims of an outstanding victory, however, he began shelling the new city of Jerusalem mid-morning on 5 June. Israel initially refused to respond, but eventually the parachute division that had been scheduled to be dropped on Sharm-el-Sheikh was re-assigned to the attack on the Old City, which was captured by 7 June, though at a relatively heavy cost in lives. The remainder of the West Bank fell more easily.
Israeli forces were thus free to turn their attention to Syria. On 9 June Israeli bulldozers cleared rocks from the sides of the Golan escarpment and, by 10 June, when a ceasefire was agreed, the whole of Golan Heights as far as Quneitra was in Israeli hands.
I arrived in Jerusalem two weeks late. Not only were the Jews celebrating, but the traditionally moderate Jerusalem Arabs were benefiting from the tourist boom and happy to see friends - even Jewish ones - they hadn’t seen for 20 years. The consensus on both sides was that Nasser would fall and that the Israel-Arab conflict would be resolved. Instead, Nasser was rearmed by the Russians, the United Nations worked hard to maintain the war it had precipitated, and the Khartoum Conference pledged ‘No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel’.