1967-2017 — The six days that changed Israel’s history (and for many of us our own)

The Six Day War broke out 50 years ago, while I was in the shower, at Kibbutz Neot Mordechai located in the northern corner of Israel’s border with Syria. Covering myself hastily, I escaped to the underground shelter where, as planed, I had the task to watch after these kind of Israeli kibbutznik children who jump on you, are forever laughing, and don’t call Mom to help, but want to know exactly what’s going on. My parents had sent me to Israel because they were fed up with that undisciplined, Communist girl with the yellow miniskirt. The war changed completely my life’s direction, even though it would take me a few years to understand how.

At that time, I just thought the kibbutz was simply a continuation of my communal ideals. Mine supported the Vietcong. Wages, homes, clothes, childcare…everything was shared; cars could be counted on the fingers of one hand, families put themselves on a list in order to drive to Kiryat Shmona mall, which was often bombed by the Syrians. The shop windows were all covered with adhesive tape. The Syrians frequently used their MIGs to attack Kiriat Shmona and the fields that I also worked on.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s famous stuttering speech on the radio where he expressed his anxiety that the complete destruction of the Jewish people seeming to be looming on the horizon, frightened us, but we didn’t stop living normally. We continued to spend the evenings singing and dancing, eating cheese and cucumbers at lunch and chicken on Saturdays; meanwhile I learned the belly crawls with the other volunteers. The weather was hot.

The threat of imminent destruction hurled Yitzhak Rabin, who was then chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), into a depressive state: he was chain smoking and no longer eating. He withdrew himself. And then, went out to fight. He was ready to come up with something extraordinary, with Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan. I still didn’t understand Hebrew and the tone of their voices crackling through the radio weren’t enough. We could have died, every last one of us: the Six Day War has been one of pure survival.

All historians, from Michael Oren to Daniel Gordis, have reconstructed it as the preannounced end and, miraculously, a victorious counterattack. The Palestinian’s sense of perpetual victimization subsequently changed the exegesis by falsifying it. The genius of history, the accumulated suffering and need for liberation or perhaps the Almighty himself, established the Jewish people’s victory, and undoubtedly their contemporary problems. However, it was the continuation of the love for life of the Jewish people: they came through in the end with the Pharaohs, with Hitler, and eventually with Nasser and all the Arab leaders who joined forces with him.

Ignorant people and those who hate Israel assume it was a war of conquest since Israel eventually walked away with the famous “occupied territories,”(which are actually only “contested”, and didn’t belong to the Palestinians but to Jordan who attacked Israel) instead of regarding it as a war that saved Israel from genocide. The origins of the Six Day War can be traced back to the anger created over Egypt’s defeat during the Suez Crisis in 1956, in the need by Gamal Nasser, a brilliant dictator who chose an alliance with the Soviet Union in order to promote a definitive war against the hated Zionist enemy and become the absolute leader of the pan-Arabism movement, who, in his plans, would surrender the entire Middle East to Egypt’s rule.

The spark was a false Soviet warning of Israeli troop concentrations along the Syrian border. Here began Nasser’s uncontrollable escalation. Entering the Sinai Peninsula with tanks and troops, he declared that it was time to “prepare for the final battle in Palestine:” Fifteen thousand men, 100 tanks and Soviet artillery were ready. On May 16, he urged the UN to withdraw their forces immediately, and UN Secretary General U Thant gave in and did so. However, the decisive move, the one in which even the Americans had even declared an act of war was the closure of the Straits of Tiran. Israel’s foreign minister Abba Eban immediately sought help from the French, British, and Americans: they were all afraid of the Russians.

The encirclement was day after day increasingly evident. Syria’s information minister Mahmoud Zubi declares on the radio: “(this battle will be)…followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended;” Cairo Radio says on May 16, 1967, “The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the battle we have long awaited…in which we shall destroy Israel” and a few days later: “The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.”

Pledges of extermination pour in: Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians and Saudis: Arab Allies move their troops along their borders with Israeli on May 25th. The PLO’s founder and first president Ahmed Al-Shukairy says: “I estimate that no Jew will survive.”

Rabin gave orders to dig mass graves in order to prepare for future casualties, they prepared evacuation plans by boat for children, while Umm Kulthum, the most famous singer in the Arab world, had a hit song with the popular refrain “Cut their throats.” However, there, in that state of desperation a strategic plan was devised that would save Israel. Eshkol established the first government of national unity; they met in an underground tunnel in Tel Aviv.

On Sunday, June 4, during a seven-hour meeting, Dayan outlined his proposal. The Egyptians have 100,000 men and 900 tanks in Sinai, Syria has 75,000 troops massed on its border and 400 tanks, the Jordanians have 300 tanks and 32,000 men. Israel has 246,000 soldiers, and 300 fighter planes against those of the Arabs, who have 700 planes.

A strategic invention was needed. At 7.30 am on June 5, while Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast, Israeli soldiers stood in awe as they watched dozens of planes take off from their territory: two hundred fighter planes flew at a very low altitude, only 15 meters, to avoid any radar detection. Only twelve planes remained to guard the country, an incredible risk.

Using the radio was forbidden, the order was: to keep quiet even in the case of extreme alarm, to throw ourselves into the sea if the risk is decisive. The Jordanians saw the air raid that occurred in Egypt on their radar, but they didn’t warn the Egyptians because Nasser constantly kept changing the codes. All the hundreds of Egypt’s planes were destroyed on the ground without ever lifting off. The Israelis lost 17 fighter planes and 5 pilots, and at 10:35 am, three hours after the start of the operation, Rabin announced: “The Egyptian Air Force has ceased to exist.”

Nasser’s delay in announcing the defeat caused King Hussein’s mistake, who nevertheless wanted to enter the war despite the fact that the Israelis had begged him not to, and Syrian resolve lasted until Israel took Golan Heights. I was there with the kibbutz members, quiet, silent, dumbfounded: I saw at night the battle on the slopes of the mountain, the lights went up when we were wining, down when we retreated.

The reunification of Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the Jewish people, though costing a heavy price in blood to Israel, was the great conclusion. After many uncertainties but driven by the necessity of a historic choice without which the Jewish people would never be the same and all the Jews in Jerusalem would be massacred, Motta Gur’s soldiers arrived to touch and conquer the stones of the Western Wall that the Jewish people had dreamt about for centuries, incredulous that this glory had touched them: the military rabbi Shlomo Goren held the first prayer session there with the Torah and shofar in hand, but he had to pass the latter to a young man close to him because he was so overcome by emotion he was unable to blow it.

Israel acquired three times its original territory including the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank, united Jerusalem that had been divided between them and the Jordanians since 1948, and the Golan Heights. Everything it could leave through reliable agreements, it left: the Sinai to the Egyptians, the Arava to the Jordans; Gaza to tke Palestinians, and it was quickly turned into a launch pad for missiles against Israel; moreover, with during the 1990s, most of the West Bank’s soldiers were evacuated according to the Oslo agreements , so that more than the 90 percent of Palestinians live in Palestinian-administered areas.

Leaving for good without any control and without insisting on demilitarization is a death sentence for thousands of Israelis who have already been affected by terrorism not since 1967, war but since the 1930s. The fundamentalist rejection vis-à-vis a Jewish state prevents peace: many times Rabin (who in his last speech to the Knesset explained that it was necessary to keep the Jordanian valley in the broadest way possible and not divide Jerusalem), Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and even Netanyahu when he divided Hebron, have accepted territorial exchanges, but the truth is that every decisive turning point shows that the Palestinians do not wish to acquire territories but instead seek the destruction of the State of Israel, and this is why they reject any proposal they’re offered. The hope of having civilized talks around a negotiation table and reaching an agreement can’t cloud the obvious facts that history shows us since about 100 years now: there hasn’t been any real demand for partition on behalf of the Arab world, but only a refusal. The ’67 war doesn’t have such an important role in this story.

The war was a miracle of audacity and inventiveness against certain death: its vilification, the reinvention of a “narrative” that has transformed the Palestinians into victims was to be expected. It’s like an age without any values, and which has revived anti-Semitism under the guise of the de-legitimization of the collective Jew, i.e. Israel. In reality, the results of the Six Day War provided a defense barrier for Israel, while the Arab world doesn’t renounce its hatred and reacts to any peace deal with terrorist campaigns, which have killed thousands of innocent victims.

Translation by Amy K. Rosenthal

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (June 3, 2017)

About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.
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