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The Six-Day War: Background & Overview

(June 5 - 10, 1967)

The Palestinian Army
Terror from the Heights
Arab War Plans Revealed
Countdown to War
The Blockade
Escalation
The U.S. Position
Israel Launches Preemptive Strike
Jerusalem Is Attacked
A Second Exodus
The Stunning Victory
The West Bank and Gaza

Israel consistently expressed a desire to negotiate with its neighbors. In an address to the UN General Assembly on October 10, 1960, Foreign Minister Golda Meir challenged Arab leaders to meet with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to negotiate a peace settlement. Nasser answered on October 15, saying that Israel was trying to deceive world opinion, and reiterating that his country would never recognize the Jewish State.(1)

The Arabs were equally adamant in their refusal to negotiate a separate settlement for the refugees. As Nasser told the United Arab Republic National Assembly March 26, 1964:

Israel and the imperialism around us, which confront us, are two separate things. There have been attempts to separate them, in order to break up the problems and present them in an imaginary light as if the problem of Israel is the problem of the refugees, by the solution of which the problem of Palestine will also be solved and no residue of the problem will remain. The danger of Israel lies in the very existence of Israel as it is in the present and in what she represents.(2)

The Palestinian Army

In 1963, the Arab League decided to introduce a new weapon in its war against Israel — the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO formally came into being during a 1964 meeting of the first Palestinian Congress. Shortly thereafter, the group began to splinter into various factions. Ultimately, the largest faction, Fatah, would come to dominate the organization, and its leader, Yasser Arafat, would become the PLO chairman and most visible symbol. All the groups adhered to a set of principles laid out in the Palestine National Charter, which called for Israel's destruction.

The PLO’s belligerent rhetoric was matched by deeds. Terrorist attacks by the group grew more frequent. In 1965, 35 raids were conducted against Israel. In 1966, the number increased to 41. In just the first four months of 1967, 37 attacks were launched. The targets were always civilians.(3)

Most of the attacks involved Palestinian guerillas infiltrating Israel from Jordan, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon. The orders and logistical support for the attacks were coming, however, from Cairo and Damascus. Egyptian President Nasser’s main objective was to harass the Israelis, but a secondary one was to undermine King Hussein’s regime in Jordan.

King Hussein viewed the PLO as both a direct and indirect threat to his power. Hussein feared that the PLO might try to depose him with Nasser’s help or that the PLO’s attacks on Israel would provoke retaliatory strikes by Israeli forces that could weaken his authority. By the beginning of 1967, Hussein had closed the PLO’s offices in Jerusalem, arrested many of the group’s members, and withdrew recognition of the organization. Nasser and his friends in the region unleashed a torrent of criticism on Hussein for betraying the Arab cause. Hussein would soon have the chance to redeem himself.

Arab War Plans Revealed

In September 1965, Arab leaders and their military and intelligence chiefs met secretly at the Casablanca Hotel in Morocco to discuss whether they were ready to go to war against Israel and, if so, whether they should create a joint Arab command. The host of the meeting, King Hassan II, did not trust his Arab League guests and, initially, planned to allow a joint Shin Bet-Mossad unit known as “The Birds” to spy on the conference. A day before the conference was scheduled to begin, however, the king told them to leave out of fear they would be noticed by the Arab guests. Hassan secretly recorded the meeting and gave it to the Israelis, who learned the Arabs were gearing up for war, but were divided and unprepared.

“These recordings, which were truly an extraordinary intelligence achievement, further showed us that, on the one hand, the Arab states were heading toward a conflict that we must prepare for. On the other hand, their rambling about Arab unity and having a united front against Israel didn’t reflect real unanimity among them,” said Major General Shlomo Gazit, who headed the Research Department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate.(3a)

Terror from the Heights

The breakup of the U.A.R. and the resulting political instability only made Syria more hostile toward Israel. Another major cause of conflict was Syria’s resistance to Israel’s creation of a National Water Carrier to take water from the Jordan River to supply the country. The Syrian army used the Golan Heights, which tower 3,000 feet above the Galilee, to shell Israeli farms and villages. Syria’s attacks grew more frequent in 1965 and 1966, forcing children living on kibbutzim in the Huleh Valley to sleep in bomb shelters. Israel repeatedly protested the Syrian bombardments to the UN Mixed Armistice Commission, which was charged with policing the cease-fire, but the UN did nothing to stop Syria’s aggression — even a mild Security Council resolution expressing “regret” for such incidents was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Israel was condemned by the United Nations when it retaliated.

While the Syrian military bombardment and terrorist attacks intensified, Nasser’s rhetoric became increasingly bellicose. In 1965, he announced, “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand; we shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood.”(4)

Again, a few months later, Nasser expressed the Arabs’ aspiration: “[el] the full restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people. In other words, we aim at the destruction of the state of Israel. The immediate aim: perfection of Arab military might. The national aim: the eradication of Israel.”(5)

Syria’s attacks on Israeli kibbutzim from the Golan Heights finally provoked a retaliatory strike on April 7, 1967. During the attack, Israeli planes shot down six Syrian fighter planes — MiGs supplied by the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets — who had been providing military and economic assistance to both Syria and Egypt — gave Damascus false information alleging a massive Israeli military buildup in preparation for an attack. Despite Israeli denials, Syria decided to invoke its defense treaty with Egypt and asked Nasser to come to its aid.

Countdown to War

On May 15, Israel's Independence Day, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai and massing near the Israeli border. By May 18, Syrian troops were prepared for battle along the Golan Heights.

Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), stationed in the Sinai since 1956 as a buffer between Israeli and Egyptian forces after Israel’s withdrawal following the Sinai Campaign, to withdraw on May 16. Without bringing the matter to the attention of the General Assembly (as his predecessor had promised), Secretary-General U Thant complied with the demand. After the withdrawal of the UNEF, the Voice of the Arabs radio station proclaimed on May 18, 1967:

As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.(6)

An enthusiastic echo was heard May 20 from Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad:

Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united....I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.(7)

The Blockade

On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and all ships bound for Eilat. This blockade cut off Israel's only supply route with Asia and stopped the flow of oil from its main supplier, Iran.

In 1956, the United States gave Israel assurances that it recognized the Jewish State's right of access to the Straits of Tiran. In 1957, at the UN, 17 maritime powers declared that Israel had a right to transit the Strait. Moreover, the blockade violated the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which was adopted by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea on April 27, 1958.(8)

President Johnson expressed the belief that the blockade was illegal and unsuccessfully tried to organize an international flotilla to test it. At the same time, he advised the Israelis not to take any military action. After the war, he acknowledged the closure of the Strait of Tiran was the casus belli (June 19, 1967):

If a single act of folly was more responsible for this explosion than any other it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision that the Strait of Tiran would be closed. The right of innocent maritime passage must be preserved for all nations.(9)

Escalation

Nasser was aware of the pressure he was exerting to force Israel’s hand, and challenged Israel to fight almost daily. The day after the blockade was set up, he said defiantly: "The Jews threaten to make war. I reply: Welcome! We are ready for war."(10)

Nasser challenged Israel to fight almost daily. "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight," he said on May 27.(11) The following day, he added: We will not accept any...coexistence with Israel...Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel....The war with Israel is in effect since 1948.(12)

King Hussein of Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt on May 30. Nasser then announced:

The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel...to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations.(13)

President Abdur Rahman Aref of Iraq joined in the war of words: "The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear -- to wipe Israel off the map."(14) On June 4, Iraq joined the military alliance with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The Arab rhetoric was matched by the mobilization of Arab forces. Approximately 465,000 troops, more than 2,800 tanks, and 800 aircraft ringed Israel.(15)

By this time, Israeli forces had been on alert for three weeks. The country could not remain fully mobilized indefinitely, nor could it allow its sea lane through the Gulf of Aqaba to be interdicted. “I believe we could find ourselves in a situation in which the existence of Israel is at great risk,” warned Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin. On June 2, 1967, Rabin told the Ministerial Committee for Defense, “This forum and myself – and I’m sure this applies to the majority of the army’s officers – don’t want war for its own sake. I think we may find ourselves in a military situation in which we have lost many of our advantages, reaching a position, which I don’t want to express too harshly, in which our existence is in serious danger. The war will be difficult and involve many casualties.” Rabin warned that Israel could not afford to wait to act. “I feel very strongly that the diplomatic-military choke hold around our neck is tightening, and I don’t see anyone else breaking it,” Rabin stated. “Time is not on our side. And in a week or two, or in three or four weeks, the situation will be worse.”(15a)

Israel decided to preempt the expected Arab attack. To do this successfully, Israel needed the element of surprise. Had it waited for an Arab invasion, Israel would have been at a potentially catastrophic disadvantage. On June 5, Prime Minister Eshkol gave the order to attack Egypt.

The U.S. Position

The United States tried to prevent the war through negotiations, but it was not able to persuade Nasser or the other Arab states to cease their belligerent statements and actions. Still, right before the war, Johnson warned: Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.(16) Then, when the war began, the State Department announced: Our position is neutral in thought, word and deed.(17)

Moreover, while the Arabs were falsely accusing the United States of airlifting supplies to Israel, Johnson imposed an arms embargo on the region (France, Israel's other main arms supplier also embargoed arms to Israel).

By contrast, the Soviets were supplying massive amounts of arms to the Arabs. Simultaneously, the armies of Kuwait, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were contributing troops and arms to the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian fronts.(18)

Israel Launches Preemptive Strike

Thanks to the recordings made by King Hassan II in 1965, along with other sources, “we knew just how unprepared they were for war,” Gazit recalled. “We reached the conclusion that the Egyptian Armored Corps was in pitiful shape and not prepared for battle.” The information in those recordings gave the Israeli army’s leaders confidence “we were going to win a war against Egypt. Prophecies of doom and the feeling of imminent defeat were prevalent among the majority in Israel and the officials outside the defense establishment, but we were confident in our strength.”(18a)

On June 4, 1967, the Israeli cabinet met and voted unanimously to give the defense ministry approval to decide when and how to respond to Egypt’s aggression. Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote in his memoir:

Once we voted, we knew that we had expressed our people’s will, for amid the alarms and fears of mid-May, our nation gave birth to new impulses within itself. All the conditions which divide us from each other and give our society a deceptive air of fragmentation, all the deeply rooted Jewish recalcitrance toward authority now seemed to have been transmuted into a new metal which few of us had felt before. There had, of course, been some fear, as was natural for a people which had endured unendurable things. Many in the world were afraid that a great massacre was sweeping down upon us. And in many places in Israel there was talk of Auschwitz and Maidenek. The anxiety expressed by friends outside told us that our apprehension was not vain. Yet, as the last days of May were passing into the haze of memory, the people were gripped by a spirit of union and resolve. Men of military age silently laid down their work in factory, office and farm, took up their files of reservist papers and disappeared toward the south.(18b)

Eban also noted that thousands of you men were crowding the offices of Israeli consulates and Jewish Agency institutions throughout the world, asking to be sent to Israel for immediate service.(18c)

On June 5, 1967, Israel was isolated, but its military commanders had conceived a brilliant war strategy. The entire Israeli Air Force, with the exception of just 12 fighters assigned to defend Israeli air space, took off at 7:14 a.m. in  Operation Moked (aka Operation Focus) with the intent of bombing Egyptian airfields while the Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast. By 11:05 a.m. 180 Egyptian fighter planes were destroyed. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was not planning to attack Syria until the Syrians attacked Tiberias and Megiddo. Israeli fighters subsequently attacked the Syrian and Jordanian air forces, as well as one airfield in Iraq. By the end of the first day, most of the Egyptian and half the Syrian air forces had been destroyed on the ground.

The battle then moved to the ground, and some of history’s greatest tank battles were fought between Egyptian and Israeli armor in the blast-furnace conditions of the Sinai desert. On June 9, at 5:45 a.m., the head of Southern Command informed the chief of staff: “IDF forces are on the banks of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The Sinai Peninsula is in our hands. Congratulations to you and the IDF.”

CLICK ON MAPS TO ENLARGE

Jerusalem Is Attacked

Initially, Israel did not plan to capture the West Bank. “The conquest of the West Bank was made conditional on the situation in the south,” Dayan said the evening of June 5. “In any case, the possibility of capturing the West Bank is considered preferable to breaking a corridor through to Mount Scopus.”

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein on June 5 saying Israel would not attack Jordan unless he initiated hostilities. When Jordanian radar picked up a cluster of planes flying from Egypt to Israel, and the Egyptians convinced Hussein the planes were theirs, he ordered the takeover of the UN headquarters located near Talpiot and the shelling of West Jerusalem. It turned out that the planes were Israel’s and were returning from destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground.

Hussein's decision changed the course of the war. Israel counterattacked and took over the West Bank of Jordan within 48 hours. According to Major General Rephael Vardi, the Palestinians believed the Jordanian and other Arab forces were going to quickly occupy Israel. Such was their surprise that the Israeli forces that entered Nablus were welcomed by the population with flowers and with flags because they believed that these were Iraqi forces that had come to support the Jordanians.(18d)

While forbidding the army from entering the Old City, he said, “if the connection to Mount Scopus is completed this morning, the West Bank should be conquered up to the peak mountain ridges, while enabling escape routes for civilians.” Palestinians took advantage of those routes to flee eastward.

At 6:15 a.m. on June 7, Dayan ordered the encirclement of the Old Cityand instructed the army to enter. Israeli paratroopers stormed the city and secured it. At 10:08 a.m., according to the army diary, a message was received, saying, “The Temple Mount is in our hands and our forces are by the [Western] Wall.” Dayan arrived with Rabin to formally mark the Jews’ return to their historic capital and their holiest site. At the Western Wall, the IDF’s chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, blew a shofar to celebrate the event.

It took only three days for Israeli forces to defeat the Jordanian legion.

A Second Exodus

After Jordan launched its attack on June 5, approximately 325,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank fled to other parts of Jordan, primarily to avoid being caught in the cross-fire of a war.(19)

A Palestinian refugee who was an administrator in a UNRWA camp in Jericho said Arab politicians had spread rumors in the camp. "They said all the young people would be killed. People heard on the radio that this is not the end, only the beginning, so they think maybe it will be a long war and they want to be in Jordan."(20)

Some Palestinians who left preferred to live in an Arab state rather than under Israeli military rule. Members of various PLO factions fled to avoid capture by the Israelis. Nils-Göran Gussing, the person appointed by the UN Secretary-General to investigate the situation, found that many Arabs also feared they would no longer be able to receive money from family members working abroad.(21)

Israeli forces ordered a handful of Palestinians to move for "strategic and security reasons." In some cases, they were allowed to return in a few days, in others; Israel offered to help them resettle elsewhere.(22) The net result, however, was that a new refugee population had been created and the old refugee problem was made worse.

The Stunning Victory

While most IDF units were fighting the Egyptians and Jordanians, a small, heroic group of soldiers were left to defend the northern border against the Syrians. It was not until the Jordanians and Egyptians were subdued that reinforcements could be sent to the Golan Heights, where Syrian gunners commanding the strategic high ground made it exceedingly difficult and costly for Israeli forces to penetrate. Finally, on June 9, after two days of heavy air bombardment, Israeli forces succeeded in breaking through the Syrian lines.

After just six days of fighting, Israeli forces were in a position to march on Cairo, Damascus, and Amman. By this time, the principal objectives of capturing the Sinai and the Golan Heights had been accomplished, and Israeli political leaders had no desire to fight in the Arab capitals. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had become increasingly alarmed by the Israeli advances and was threatening to intervene. At this point, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk advised the Israelis “in the strongest possible terms” to accept a cease-fire. On June 10, Israel did just that.

The victory came at a very high cost. In storming the Golan Heights, Israel suffered 115 dead-roughly the number of Americans killed during Operation Desert Storm. Altogether, Israel lost twice as many men — 777 dead and 2,586 wounded-in proportion to her total population as the U.S. lost in eight years of fighting in Vietnam.(23) Also, despite the incredible success of the air campaign, the Israeli Air Force lost 46 of its 200 fighters.(24) The death toll on the Arab side was 15,000 Egyptians, 2,500 Syrians, and 800 Jordanians.

By the end of the war, Israel had conquered enough territory to more than triple the size of the area it controlled, from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles. The victory enabled Israel to unify Jerusalem. Israeli forces had also captured the Sinai, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and West Bank.

The West Bank and Gaza

Israel now ruled more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians — most of whom were hostile to the government. Nevertheless, Israel allowed many of the refugees who fled the fighting to return, reuniting more than 9,000 Palestinian families in 1967. Ultimately, more than 60,000 Palestinians were allowed to return.(25)

In November 1967, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which established a formula for Arab-Israeli peace whereby Israel would withdraw from territories occupied in the war in exchange for peace with its neighbors. This resolution has served as the basis for peace negotiations from that time on.

Israel's leaders fully expected to negotiate a peace agreement with their neighbors that would involve some territorial compromise. Therefore, instead of annexing the West Bank, a military administration was created. According to Major General Vardi, Israel did not expect to be saddled with responsibility for the captured territories:

We did not believe that the Israeli rule of the territories would last more than a few months following our experience after the Sinai Campaign in 1956 in which by March 1957 we were compelled to withdraw from the whole of Sinai. Some preparations for a military government in the West Bank, in case of war, had been made, but these were minimal because the possibility that the Big Powers would allow the occupation of the West Bank seemed unreal. Therefore we had to start organizing the military government virtually from scratch in order to establish the rule of the IDF, assume the functions of a civil government, maintain law and order, organize and provide public services, look after all the other necessities of the population, restore life to normal, and especially to reconstruct the economy.(25a)

No occupation is pleasant for the inhabitants, but the Israeli authorities did try to minimize the impact on the population. Don Peretz, a frequent writer on the situation of Arabs in Israel and a sharp critic of the Israeli government, visited the West Bank shortly after the Israeli troops had taken over. He found they were trying to restore normal life and prevent any incidents that might encourage the Arabs to leave their homes.(26)

Except for the requirement that school texts in the territories be purged of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic language, the authorities tried not to interfere with the inhabitants. They did provide economic assistance; for example, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were moved from camps to new homes. This stimulated protests from Egypt, which had done nothing for the refugees when it controlled the area.

Arabs were given freedom of movement. They were allowed to travel to and from Jordan. In 1972, elections were held in the West Bank. Women and non-landowners, unable to participate under Jordanian rule, were now permitted to vote.

East Jerusalem Arabs were given the option of retaining Jordanian citizenship or acquiring Israeli citizenship. They were recognized as residents of united Jerusalem and given the right to vote and run for the city council. Also, Islamic holy places were put in the care of a Muslim Council. Despite the Temple Mount's significance in Jewish history, Jews were barred from conducting prayers there.


Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.

(1)Encyclopedia Americana Annual 1961, (NY: Americana Corporation, 1961), p. 387.
(2)Yehoshafat Harkabi, Arab Attitudes To Israel, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), p. 27.
(3)Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 616.
(3a)Sue Surkes, “Morocco tipped off Israeli intelligence, ‘helped Israel win Six Day War,’” Times of Israel, (October 16, 2016).
(4)Samuel Katz, Battleground-Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, (NY: Bantam Books, 1985), pp. 10-11, 185.
(5)Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1976), p. 110.
(6) Isi Leibler, The Case For Israel, (Australia: The Globe Press, 1972), p. 60.
(7)Ibid.
(8)United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, (Geneva: UN Publications 1958), pp. 132-134.
(9)Yehuda Lukacs, Documents on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1967-1983, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 17-18; Abba Eban, Abba Eban, (NY: Random House, 1977), p. 358
(10)Eban, p. 330.
(11)Leibler, p. 60.
(12)Leibler, p. 18.
(13)Leibler, p. 60.
(14)Leibler, p. 18.
(15)Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1982), p. 149.
(15a)Gili Cohen, Six-Day War documents show Dayan proposed Arab rule in parts of West Bank, Haaretz,(June 4, 2015).
(16)Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969, (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 293.
(17)AP, (June 5, 1967).
(18)Sachar, p. 629.
(18a)Sue Surkes, “Morocco tipped off Israeli intelligence, ‘helped Israel win Six Day War,’” Times of Israel, (October 16, 2016).
(18b)Abba Eban, An Autobiography, (NY: Random House, 1977), pp. 400-401.
(18c)Eban, p. 401.
(18d)Major General Rephael Vardi, The Beginning of Israeli Rule in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (April 16, 1989).
(19)Encyclopedia American Annual 1968, p. 366.
(20)George Gruen, "The Refugees of Arab-Israeli Conflict," (NY: American Jewish Committee, March 1969), p. 5.
(21)Gruen, p. 5.
(22)Gruen, p. 4.
(23)Katz, p. 3.
(24)Jerusalem Post, (4/23/99).
(25)Encyclopedia American Annual 1968, p. 366.
(25a)Major General Rephael Vardi, The Beginning of Israeli Rule in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (April 16, 1989).
(26)Don Peretz, "Israel's New Dilemma," Middle East Journal, (Winter 1968), pp. 45-46.