On May 15, 1967, 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.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), stationed in the Sinai since 1956, 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 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.
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.
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.
U.S. President Lyndon 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.
Arabs Unite Against Israel
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.
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."
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.
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. Israel had no choice but preemptive action. 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, the order was given to attack Egypt.
Israel Goes It Alone
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."
On June 5, Israel was indeed alone, 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. with the intent of bombing Egyptian airfields while the Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast. In less than two hours, roughly 300 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed.
A few hours later, Israeli fighters were sent to attack the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, as well as one airfield in Iraq. By the end of the first day, nearly the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces, and half the Syrians', 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.
While most IDF (Israeli army) 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.
It was not until June 9, after two days of heavy air bombardment, that Israeli forces succeeded in breaking through the Syrian lines.
Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein 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 then ordered the shelling of West Jerusalem.
It turned out the planes were Israel's and were returning from destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground.
It took only three days for Israeli forces to defeat the Jordanian legion. On the morning of June 7, the order was given to recapture the Old City. Israeli paratroopers stormed the city and secured it before Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived with Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin to formally mark the Jews' return to their historic capital and their holiest site.
At the Western Wall, the IDF's chaplain blew a shofar to celebrate the event.
The World is Stunned
After just six days of fighting, Israeli forces broke through the enemy lines and 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 were 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.
But Israel's victory came at a very high cost. In storming the Golan Heights, Israel suffered 115 dead – roughly the number of Americans killed during all of Operation Desert Storm. Altogether, Israel lost twice as many men – 776 dead and 2,586 wounded – in proportion to its total population as the U.S. lost in eight years of fighting in Vietnam.
By the end of the Six Day 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. Israel now ruled more than three quarters of a million Palestinians – most of whom were hostile to the government.
No War, No Peace
Foreign public opinion had been favorable to the Israeli cause; however, Israel had been left to fight the Six Day War alone. In view of its isolation, especially after the United States reneged on its assurances to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran, the Israeli public became more aware of the dangers of the Arab world. And it became more suspicious of its friends' commitments to the State of Israel. As a result, Israel was determined to use the military victory to establish secure boundaries.
The Palestinians also learned a great deal from their defeat. They reached the conclusion that they could no longer rely on their Arab brothers to win their homes back for them. The Palestinian leadership began to take a more active role in Middle Eastern affairs in an attempt to determine its own fate.
As in 1956, Israel had expected the military victory to convince the Arab states that it could not be driven out of Palestine and to induce them to sit down and negotiate a peace settlement. Israel even expressed its willingness to give up most of the territory it had won in exchange for a guarantee of peace.
The Arab leaders provided their answer from a meeting they held in Khartoum in August 1967, with the famous "three-no's":
Kings and presidents have agreed to unified efforts at international and diplomatic levels to eliminate the consequences of the aggression and to assure the withdrawal of the aggressor forces of Israel from Arab lands, but within the limits to which Arab states are committed: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel and maintenance of the rights of the Palestinian people in their nation.
A part of the Arab strategy was to once again use the United Nations to try to gain diplomatically what they could not achieve militarily. When the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on November 22, 1967, meant to provide guidelines for a peace settlement, the Arab states chose to interpret the new initiative – Resolution 242 – in a selective way that placed all of the responsibility for concessions on the Israelis and none on themselves (as they had done before with Resolution 194, regarding the refugees).
The ultimate goal of 242, as expressed in paragraph 3, is the achievement of a "peaceful and accepted settlement." This means a negotiated agreement based on the resolution's principles rather than one imposed upon the parties.
The most controversial clause in Resolution 242 is the call for the "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." This is linked to the second, unambiguous, clause calling for "termination of all claims or states of belligerency," and the recognition that "every state in the area" has the "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."
The resolution does not make Israeli withdrawal a prerequisite for Arab action. Moreover, it does not specify how much territory Israel is required to give up. The Security Council did not say Israel must withdraw from "all the" territories occupied after the Six Day War. This was quite deliberate. The Soviet delegate wanted the inclusion of those words and said that their exclusion meant "that part of these territories can remain in Israeli hands."
The Arab states pushed for the word "all" to be included, but this was rejected. The Arabs nevertheless asserted that they would read the resolution as if it included the word "all."
The literal interpretation was repeatedly declared to be the correct one by those involved in drafting the resolution. On October 29, 1969, for example, the British Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons the withdrawal envisaged by the resolution would not be from "all the territories." When asked to explain the British position later, Lord Caradon, the British ambassador who had drafted the resolution, said, "It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial."
The resolution clearly calls on the Arab states to make peace with Israel. The principal condition of this peace is that Israel withdraw from "territories occupied" in 1967, which means that Israel must withdraw from some, but not necessarily all, of the territories still occupied.
The Arab states also objected to the call for "secure and recognized boundaries" because they feared this implied negotiations with Israel. The Arab League explicitly ruled this out when it proclaimed the three "no's."
Goldberg explained that this phrase, "secure and recognized boundaries," was specifically included because the parties were expected to make "territorial adjustments in their peace settlement encompassing less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories, inasmuch as Israel's prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure."
Israel and the Palestinians
The Palestinians are not mentioned anywhere in Resolution 242. They are only alluded to in the second clause of the second article of 242, which calls for "a just settlement of the refugee problem." Nowhere does it require that Palestinians be given any political rights or territory.
In fact, the use of the generic term "refugee" was a deliberate acknowledgment that there were two refugee problems – one Arab and the other Jewish. Recall that around 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled persecution in Arab countries and never received any compensation.
In a statement to the UN General Assembly on October 15, 1968, the PLO, rejecting Resolution 242, said "the implementation of said resolution will lead to the loss of every hope for the establishment of peace and security in Palestine and the Middle East region."
By contrast, Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban expressed Israel's position to the Security Council on May 1, 1968:
My government has indicated its acceptance of the Security Council resolution for the promotion of agreement on the establishment of a just and lasting peace. I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab State on all matters included in that resolution.
The conflicting interpretations of Resolution 242 combined with the August 1967 Khartoum declaration (see above) assured continued tension in the area.
The Geography of Peace
Americans, who live in a country that stretches from sea to shining sea, sometimes find it difficult to appreciate the geography of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If a hostile neighbor seized control of the strategic ridges in the mountains of Judea and Samaria, its army could split Israel in two. From there, it is only about 15 miles to the Mediterranean.
At its narrowest point, the width of Israel prior to the 1967 Six Day War was only 9 miles! The distance to Tel Aviv was 11 miles, to Beersheba 10, to Haifa 21, and to Jerusalem, one foot. After the capture of the Sinai, Israel had a 100-mile buffer zone between its most powerful enemy, Egypt. An aircraft taking off from Amman, Jordan could be over Jerusalem in about two minutes.
The Golan Heights overlooks Israel's richest agricultural area. From the western Golan, it is only about 60 miles – without major terrain obstacles to Haifa and Acre, Israel's industrial heartland.
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. No occupation is pleasant for the inhabitants, but the Israeli authorities did try to minimize the impact on the population by restoring normal life and preventing any incidents that might encourage the Arabs to leave their homes.
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, but preferred to see the Palestinians languish so Israel could be blamed for their condition.
The Palestinians were given freedom of movement. They were allowed to travel to and from Jordan. 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 left in the care of a Muslim council. Despite the Temple Mount's significance in Jewish history, Jews were barred from conduction prayers there because of the Islamic sanctities on the site.
Excerpted with permission from: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict," by Mitchell Bard, Ph.D. (Alpha Books - Macmillan USA)