June 5th marked the 55th anniversary of the Six-Day War of 1967. Palestinians refer to the war as the “Naqsah,” or setback. But no matter what you call it, the Six-Day War has no parallel in modern military history. It ended with Israel vanquishing the collective military might of the Arab world. The armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq collapsed in the face of a well-trained, highly motivated Israeli Army.
On paper, Israel should have lost. In every category – tanks, artillery, airpower, naval forces and manpower, Israel was badly outnumbered. But as the current Ukraine-Russia conflict reminds us, in war there are intangibles that cannot be quantified or otherwise reduced to a number.
With its back to the Mediterranean Sea and memories of the Holocaust still vivid, Israel was fighting for its very existence. Of course, there were other contributing factors to Israel’s victory such as superior military intelligence, superior training, and superior leadership but the overriding factor was that every Israeli soldier was cognizant of the consequences of defeat. One need look no further than statements from the Arab side to know what those dire consequences would be.
Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser made his intentions clear when on May 26, he declared, “The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” Not to be outdone, on May 31, Iraq’s President Aref stated, “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.” Similar sentiments were expressed by the leaders of Syria and the PLO. Spurred by their leaders, the Arab world, from Cairo to Damascus, Khartoum to Baghdad, was whipped into an excited frenzy. Egyptian audiences were glued to their television sets as they watched columns of tanks and artillery making their way to the front in anticipation of final victory over the hated Yahuds.
The Arabs believed their own propaganda, and why shouldn’t they? They had the most modern Soviet equipment – brand new T-55 tanks, ultra-modern Mig-21 fighter jets, M-46 130mm artillery that outranged anything possessed by their enemy, brand new missile boats equipped with sea-to-sea missiles. Moreover, they could muster 600,000 men under arms against Israel’s 264,000. Even some Western “experts” began to eulogize Israel, believing that the creation of the modern state of Israel was an anomaly, destined to be destroyed by superior force of arms.
But alas, events turned out quite differently than expected. On June 5, at precisely 7:45 a.m., Israel launched Operation Focus, a series of devastating, coordinated airstrikes aimed at crippling the Egyptian Air Force. In just under three hours, Israel Air Force Mirage III, Super Mystere and Vauntour aircraft transformed the bulk of the Egyptian Air Force, with all its mighty Soviet equipment, into expensive heaps of scrap metal. The IAF then turned its attention to Syria, which had instigated the conflict, catching the bulk of the Syrian Air Force on the ground, and dispatching it with ruthless efficiency.
Jordan’s King Hussein, believing Arab propaganda broadcasts steeped in Alice in Wonderland-like fantasy began bombarding West Jerusalem with Long Tom 155mm guns and 106mm recoilless rifles. Its Hunter fighter-bombers attacked Kfar Saba. Israel had warned the Little King to stay out of the conflict, but Israel’s admonishments had little effect on Hussein. The King’s fate and that of his nation was thus sealed. The IAF destroyed the Jordanian Air Force in short order.
Arab air losses during the war totaled 452, the bulk of which were destroyed in the early hours of the fighting. Having secured air superiority, Israeli armor and mechanized infantry rolled into enemy territory seizing the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and perhaps most importantly, Judea-Samaria and East Jerusalem from Jordan.
While the war technically began on June 5th with Israel’s preemptive strike on Egyptian airfields, in reality, it was set into motion by Nasser’s reckless May 23rd decision to re-impose a naval blockade on the Straits of Tiran, an international waterway through which Israeli shipping passed. The closure of the Straits was a clear violation of international maritime law and an act of aggression tantamount to a declaration of war.
In 1956, Israel went to war with Egypt partly because of Egypt’s closure of the Straits. To induce Israel to withdraw from Sinai, the United States made two key commitments. It guaranteed that it would open the Straits in the event of another blockade and recognized Israel’s right under international maritime law to act on its own to ensure free passage of Israeli ships. However, the United States, embroiled in the Vietnam quagmire, reneged on its commitment to Israel.
After exhausting all diplomatic channels, Israel acted militarily and justifiably so – legally, morally, and ethically. Arab political propagandists and some of their Western apologists have argued that the Arabs had no intention of going to war, that their deployment was strictly defensive and that they had valid legal claims to maintain a blockade, but these views are ahistorical and rooted in mendacity. They are designed to promote a false anti-Israel narrative, one that casts Israel as the aggressor and serial violator of international conventions.
But facts do not lie. The aggressive intentions of the Arab nations in the weeks preceding the Six-Day War, their belligerent rhetoric, alliances, blockades, and menacing military deployments provide ample justification for use of force. Indeed, during the war, Israel captured top-secret Egyptian and Jordanian documents evidencing the Arab intent to carve up Israel. To this very day, the Six-Day War provides the classic example of legal use of force under the UN Charter and accepted principles of international law.