Last week marked the 51st anniversary of the June, 1967 Six Day War. It was a war I took part in as a young airman in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). For many Israelis, the Six Day War was a God given miracle, and a deliverance against immense odds. The national anxiety that preceded the War was marked by the Israeli government stockpiling coffins and rabbis consecrating parks as emergency cemeteries. The triumph of Israeli arms over the combined Arab forces was a sweet and exhilarating moment in history. Moreover, the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Western Wall was a most moving event.
The War was not of Israel’s choosing. Egypt’s dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser sought to avenge the humiliation of the 1948 Egyptian defeat. Having received massive amount of arms from the Soviet Union, and financial aid to boot, he was confident of victory. In 1948, Nasser was deputy commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary forces that secured the Falluja pocket. In August, 1948, his brigade was surrounded by the Israeli forces. Appeals for help from Jordan’s Arab Legion went unheeded. The brigade refused to surrender, however, negotiations between Israel and Egypt resulted in the ceding of the Falluja Pocket to Israel.
Some historians believe that Nasser did not want to engage in a war with Israel, principally because his army was bogged down in Yemen. Nasser however, managed to escalate his rhetoric and actions. On May 13, 1967, the Soviet Union delivered a warning to Cairo that Israel was amassing troops on the border with Syria and would attack within a week. Twenty-four hours following the Soviet alert, Egypt’s Supreme commander Abdul Hakim Amer ordered the Egyptian army to be on full alert for war.
Forty-eight hours later, Nasser ordered the UN peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai to get out. The UN peacekeepers had patrolled the border area between Egypt and Israel since 1957, following the Sinai Campaign in which Israel captured the Sinai only to return it to Egypt under American pressure, but with guarantees that Israel would have freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran. The departing UN peacekeepers were replaced by Egyptian soldiers Nasser dispatched to the Sinai border with Israel.
Nasser’s belligerency stepped up a notch higher when he announced Egypt’s blockade of the port of Eilat by shutting the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. That in itself was an act of war. Western powers, including the U.S., did nothing to reverse Nasser’s actions despite guarantees given to Israel. On May 16, 1967, Nasser sent a message to the UN Emergency Force commander stationed in Gaza, stating, “I gave my instructions to all United Arab Republic (the name remained even after the Egyptian-Syrian merger dissolved) forces to be ready for action against Israel the moment it might carry out any aggressive action against any Arab country. Due to these instructions our troops are already concentrated in Sinai on our Eastern border. For the sake of complete security of all UN troops, I request that you issue your orders to withdraw all troops immediately.”
Using the “Voice of the Arabs” (Sawt al-Arab) radio broadcast to whip up the Egyptian masses and the fawning Arab masses throughout the Middle East, Nasser, through this mouthpiece announced on May 18, 1967, “The Zionist barrack in Palestine is about to collapse and be destroyed. Every one of the hundred million Arabs has been living for the past nineteen years on one hope – to live to see the day Israel is liquidated. There is no life, no peace, nor hope for the gangs of Zionism to remain in the occupied land. As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of the Zionist existence.”
On May 20th, 1967, Syria’s Defense minister and later President Hafez Assad declared: “Our forces are now entirely ready, not only to repulse aggression, but to initiate the act ourselves and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland of Palestine. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united. I believe that time has come to begin a battle of annihilation.” Not to be undone, Iraq’s President, Abdul Rahman Arif chimed in, declaring on May 31st, 1967, “Our goal is to wipe Israel off the map.”
In the meantime, Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol made a disastrous broadcast to the anxious nation on May 28, 1967. He stammered and fluffed, which compounded insecurity in the nation. As a result, he was compelled to vacate the Defense Ministry portfolio he held. Moshe Dayan became the Defense Minister, which raised the national morale. The young “sabra” (native born Israelis) generals now got the green light to mobilize the reserves. On June 1, 1967, Israel formed a National Unity Government that included Menachem Begin, and on June 4, 1967, the cabinet made the decision to go to war.
The balance of forces gave the Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq) total advantage. According to U.S. Major John W. Dorough, the Arabs had more than four times the advantage in artillery pieces; 203 for Israel against 962 for the Arabs. The Arabs had more than three times more SAM missiles; 160 versus only 50 for Israel. In manpower, tanks and combat aircraft, Dorough’s estimates were 210,000 Israeli troops vs. 309,000 for the Arabs (not including Iraq’s Third Armored Division with another 15,000-20,000 troops), 1,000 Israeli tanks vs. 2,337 tanks for the Arabs, and more than twice the aircraft, 286 for Israel vs. 682 for the Arabs.
At this reporter’s airbase, all leaves were canceled, and feverish work ensued to prepare every aircraft for combat. During the night of June 4th, the Jordanians, under Egyptian command, shelled our base. The next morning, on June 5th, war broke out. At noon, our base commander announced with great emotion that “as of this moment the Arab Air Forces ceased to exist.” By the end of the week, Israel was in control of the Sinai, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. A week later, our squadron toured the Old City of Jerusalem, the Wall, and Hebron. We didn’t arrive as conquerors, but rather as liberators. We returned to our most cherished historical and religious roots.
The Six Day War changed the map of the Middle East. It gave Israel more secure borders and lent the Jewish state an aura of invincibility (at least until the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel triumphed albeit at a high cost). Most importantly however, it provided Israel with a bargaining chip for peace. Israel was ready to return the Sinai to Egypt for peace, and 10 years later President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, thus stunning the world and Israelis in particular. In 1979, at Camp David, a peace treaty was signed between Egypt, the largest and most important Arab state, and Israel. Jordan followed Egypt in 1994. Minor border adjustments were made to satisfy the Jordanians, and to date, a solid peace has endured. Israel still controls defensible and natural borders along the Jordan River and the Golan Heights.
Perhaps the most profound change in the Middle East has been the realization by the moderate Sunni-Arab states that Israel will not be defeated militarily, and that it is a permanent fixture in the region. In fact geo-politically, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states no longer see Israel as a threat but as an ally against a hegemonic Iran. The Six Day war was the catalyst in that change.