The Six Day War Remembered
A reflection on the "what-might-have-beens. "
This May, Israel celebrated its 68th year of independent statehood. On June 5th, Israel commemorated the 49th anniversary of the Six Day War, in which it liberated the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old city, including the Western Wall. The Etzion Bloc, Jewish property seized by Jordan’s Arab Legion and held for 19 years was also liberated.
The proverbial Israeli “David” of the pre-1967 years has been transformed by the international press and western academia into the post-1967 “Goliath.” In the process, Israel has been labeled “occupier.” As a witness to this chapter of history (the Six Day War and its aftermath), this reporter can clearly testify that as of June 4th, 1967, the people of Israel were fearing another Holocaust of sorts. Surrounded by violent Arab enemies, and betrayed by France’s President Charles De Gaulle, who imposed an embargo on weapons sales to the besieged Jewish state, Israel was in a somber mood. The authorities in Israel prepared massive gravesites for what they expected to be a genocidal war waged by the Arab’s as promised by Egypt’s dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Nasser announced in a speech to the world on March 8, 1965, “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand, we shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood.” On May 17, 1967, Cairo radio declared, “All Egypt is now prepared to plunge into total war which will put an end to Israel.” Syrian president Nureddin al-Attasi spoke to the Syrian troops on May 22, 1967, declaring, “We want a full scale, popular war of liberation to destroy the Zionist enemy”
During Israel’s Independence Day on May 15, 1967, Egyptian troops moved into the Sinai, concentrating along the border with Israel. Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force, stationed in the Sinai since 1957, to withdraw on May 16, without bringing the matter before the UN General Assembly. UN Secretary-General U Thant immediately complied with Nasser’s demand. Two days later the Syrians put their troops in the Golan on high alert, ready for battle.
The Voice of the Arabs radio (Sawt al-Arab) in Cairo 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 the Zionist existence.” Simultaneously, Syria’s Defense Minister Hafez Assad declared: “Our forces are now entirely ready, not only to repulse 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.”
Nasser announced on May 23, 1967, the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli navigation, blockading Israel’s southern port of Eilat, her only outlet to the Red Sea. Israel’s PM Eshkol called it “an aggressive act against Israel,” and called on the UN and the major Maritime powers to restore free navigation through the Straits as promised by the US and the Maritime powers as a condition for Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai back in 1957.
On May 30, 1967, Nasser gave a speech in which he said, “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel… (Nasser usual term to identify Israel was the “Zionist entity.”) 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 of more declarations.”
Prior to June, 1967, Israel did not occupy any Arab land nor did it seek to expand its territory by war, yet, it endured Palestinian terror throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s from Egyptian trained Palestinian Fedayeen based in Gaza. The Palestinian (PLO charter) idea was to “liberate” Palestine by eliminating the Jews of Israel. In other words, all of Israel within the Green Line was “occupied Palestine.” Moreover, the Palestinians before June, 1967, did not call for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank then occupied by Jordan, or Gaza occupied by Egypt.
Had Israel lost the war in 1967, neither Egypt, Jordan or Syria would have volunteered to establish a Palestinian state. One can further bet that the Palestinians would have remained merely Arabs who belonged to the Arab nation, worshipping the pan-Arab high priest and prophet, Gamal Abdul Nasser.
While Israeli emissaries appealed to King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the war, King Hussein decided to sign a defense pact with Egypt on May 30, 1967. On Monday, June 5th, 1967, King Hussein ignored Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s request that Jordan stay out of the war that had that morning broken out between Israel and the UAR (United Arab Republic that combined Egypt and Syria). Professor Uriel Dann, in his book “King Hussein and the Challenge of Arab Radicalism,” pointed out that “Two days later he (Hussein) accepted the ceasefire call issued by the UN. By then, the West Bank was lost and his field army shattered.”
It is worth considering that had King Hussein accepted Eshkol’s request “to stay out of the war,” the West Bank would have remained in Jordanian hands, and there would have been no so-called “occupation.” Instead, this writer recalls Jordanian artillery shells pounding his airbase inside Israel on June 5th, 1967.
Before the Six Day War, Syria was in control of the Golan Heights, which tower 3,000 feet above the Galilee. The Syrians used their height advantage to shell Israeli Kibbutz farms and villages. The shelling increased to daily barrages in 1965-1966. On April 7, 1967, Israel retaliated, and during a dog-fight in the air, Israeli French-made Mirages shot down six Soviet-made Syrian Mig fighters. The Soviet Union, which was the provider of military and economic aid to both Syria and Egypt, deliberately misinformed Damascus, alleging that a massive Israeli military buildup was underway, in preparation of an Israeli attack. Israel explicitly denied the Soviet claims, but Syria nevertheless rushed to invoke its defense treaty with Egypt.
On June 4, 1967, Iraq joined the military alliance with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The President of Iraq, Abdul Rahman Aref, added to the chorus of Arab threats in warning that, “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear - to wipe Israel off the map.”
For Israel, the war that broke out on June 5th 1967 was an existential war, fought with dire odds. The Arabs amassed 309, 000 men against Israel’s 210,000 (almost 10% of its population). The Arabs possessed 2,337 battle tanks against only 1,000 that Israel had. Arab combat aircrafts numbered 682 against Israel’s 286. Israel had 203 artillery pieces against the Arabs 962. According to the LA Times, in the Six Day War, Egypt lost an estimated 11,500 killed and 10,000 taken prisoners, including nine generals. Syrian casualties were 1,000 killed, and Jordan lost 6,094 killed and wounded. Israel’s casualties were 777 killed and 2,811 wounded.
When it was over, on June 10, 1967, the Six Day War was not only seen as a glorious victory, but as a miracle that restored and unified Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital. The Arabs suffered a humiliating defeat as did the lure of pan-Arabism, and Israel prevailed against all odds.