On this day in history June 10, 1967, the Six-Day War ends with Israel victorious and tripling their territory capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the old city of Jerusalem. Both Israel and the Arab nations involved; Egypt (the United Arab Republic), Jordan, and Syria agreed to a United Nations ceasefire to broker an end of the war. In addition, to the territory, Israel also gained a population of hundreds of thousands of Arabs. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren writing in his book, Six Days of War, June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, considers the Six-Day War, “as the single most transformative event in the making of the modern Middle East.”
In the first months of 1967, Syria ramped up their civilian bombing attacks against Israelis in the northern kibbutzim, agricultural villages. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol warned Syria they would retaliate. Syria would not listen, and On April 7, Israel provoked a Syrian attack along the border in order to fire back, then the Israeli Air Force (IAF) barraged Syria and shot down six Syrian MIG jets given by Russia. Russia accused Israel of gathering their troops at the Syrian border for an attack, which was not true. Russia fearful they would appear as supporting Syria’s Ba’ath regime, which they did, escalated the situation. On May 11, 1967, Eshkol notified the United Nations Security Council, Israel’s decision “to act in self-defense” in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. (Sachar, 772) On May 12, the Soviet ambassador to Egypt claimed Israel was mobilizing the army on the Syrian border, which they were not, and Egypt realized.
Egypt’s President Gamal Abed al-Nassar purposely sent troops and again escalated the situation, which was politically motivated by their domestic unrest and economic troubles, and taunting by the Saudia Arabia. Nasser too wanted to “shore up the Ba’athist cabal in Damascus.” (Sachar, 773) On May 15, Egypt moved troops forward into the Sinai and on May 17, asked the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to vacate their 3,400 troops from the border and Gaza. On May 19, the UN Secretary General U-Thant complied without an emergency meeting of the General Assembly. On May 18, Nasser ordered UNEF troops to leave Sharm es-Sheikh, “guarding the Straits of Tiran.” (Sachar, 773)
Three days later on May 22, Egypt cut off Israel’s shipping access to the Straits of Tiran, an act tantamount to war. According to historian Howard M. Sachar in his book The Course of Modern Jewish History, the moves allowed Nassar “regained his status as the decisive leader of the Arab world.” Nassar was preparing the Arab world for “a jihad against Israel,” with Nassar declaring on May 21, “The Strait of Tiran is part of our territorial waters. No Israeli ship will navigate it again.” (Sachar, 773) On May 30, the Arab alliance of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and the Republic of Yemen, as well as coalition partners Iraq, Kuwait, and Algeria, signed a pact. Jordan’s King Hussein agreed to take command of the military forces. The public in the Arab nations held massive demonstrations in support of the holy war their countries were embarking on. By June 4, the Arab alliance was set for war with 230,000 troops mobilized; seven Egyptian divisions consisting of 120,000 soldiers were along the border along with 1,000 guns and 2,000 tanks. (Sachar, 774)
Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban began looking for western assurances that the Gulf of Aqaba would not fall to the Arabs, and an international naval flotilla could be devised to protect it. (Sachar, 773) The United States had yet to develop the close rapport of the post-six-day years and President Lyndon Johnson mired in the Vietnam War could not get Congress to guarantee any assistance. Without the US, the rest of the Western world refused to follow, Britain refused, while France did the opposite to help the Arabs De Gaulle “terminated all military shipments to Israel.” (Sachar, 773) The UN or its Security Council also was not helpful to Israel.
With little help from the outside, Israel began war preparations, calling up reservists and instituting a state of emergency. Israel’s Defenses forces learned through intelligence the Egyptian army would be using Soviet maneuvers and they prepared for it. IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin ensured Israel was prepared, acquiring in advance equipment France, West Germany, and the US, while Israel’s soldiers went through intensive training. (Sachar, 774) Prime Minister Eshkol bowed to pressure, permitted Herut to join the government to form a unity government, and gave the Defense Ministry post to Moshe Dayan.
By June 3, Israel realized there would be no diplomatic solution and no aid from the west. On June 4, the Israeli cabinet voted to give the Defense Ministry the decision making power to strike. Israel decided on a preemptive defensive strike on June 5, commencing the war with Jordan, Syria, and Iraq joining in the attack on Israel. Israel’s air force began their surprise attack 7:10 a.m. and in 170 minutes, they destroyed Egypt’s air force, 300 out of 340 planes. (Sachar, 775) Israel’s air force continued throughout the day to destroy “Egyptian armor and other vehicles” and additionally, they nearly destroyed all of the “Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi air forces.” (Sachar, 775) Israel was fighting on three fronts, Egypt in the West, Syria in the North and Jordan from the East.
An hour after launching their air offensive on June at 8:15 a.m. Israel began their assault by land. They attacked the Sinai; General Yisreal Tal attacked the Northern Sinai, while General Ariel Sharon “overran, Um Cataf, the linchpin of the Abu Aghelia network of defenses across the Nitzana-Ismailia axis.” On a third front, after a thirteen-hour battle Brigadier Avraham Yoffe reached the Mitla Pass “blocking the enemy line of retreat.” (Sachar, 775) On the first day of battle, the Israeli army was able to “trap” the Egyptian army within the Sinai.
Egypt wanted their army to look good so they lied about the battles and the rest of the Arab nations believed it and it affected how they proceeded, allowing them to make costly miscalculations that would help Israel. The false news reports prevented Syria from mounting an offensive; instead, they just “bombarded” the Galilee settlements rather than mounting an attack. Hussein used the same strategy when he “shelled” Jerusalem attacking the new city and towns beyond it. The Jordanians, however, made a mistake at 1 p.m. they decided on a land assault and occupied “the United Nations headquarters on the Hill of Evil Counsel.” (Sachar, 776)
Late in the afternoon on June 5, Egypt and Nassar finally heard the news about their devasting losses and the situation in the Sinai. When the Soviets and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin heard the news, he called President Johnson directly through their hotline asking him to stop Israel. Johnson was pleased with Israel resolving the mounting problem in the Middle East and he refused to interfere. Johnson, however, “ordered the United States Sixth Fleet toward the fighting zone.” (Sachar, 776)
By June 7, in the evening Israel Tal and Yoffe were able to ensure they blocked the Gidi and Mitla exits in the Sinai, while Sharon was able to trap the Egyptian army. Doing so the Israel army was able to “destroy or capture” 800 Egyptian tanks. (Sachar, 776) On June 8, Israel reached the “eastern shore of the Suez Canal,” and gained control of the Sharm es-Sheikh. By the end of the day, Israel had Egypt at their knees and “at 8:00 p.m. Nassar accepted Israel’s demand for unconditional cease-fire.” (Sachar, 776)
On June 5, on the Jerusalem front, Dayan responded to Hussein’s occupation of the UN with an offensive and quickly regained the Hill of the Evil Counsel. On June 6, in the early morning hours at 2:20 a.m. Colonel Mordecai Gur sent paratroopers, who at first attacked along the Arab City then were able to move to gain control at the top of Mount Scopus. The third part of the attack would be the Old City but Dayan was reluctant. Eshkol, however, was adamant, saying, “the Old City must be taken, to avert the danger of incessant bombardment [on Jewish Jerusalem].” At midnight, Dayan was still concerned about a frontal attack with Eshkol telling Dayan, “The government wants the Old City.” (Sachar, 652) Later on June 6, Israel engaged in armored attack for “control of the entire Jerusalem promontory including Ramallah and Bethlehem.” (Sachar, 776) By late morning on June 7, after the precision bombing and attacks, Israel was in possession of the entire West Bank.
Late on June 6, Dayan finally agreed on the final assault for Jerusalem after the cabinet notified him “that a United Nations cease-fire was imminent; if the Old City were to be taken, it would have to be seized before hostilities ended.” (Sachar, 652) In the morning on June 7, Gur ordered his soldiers to take the last Jordanian stronghold Augusta Victoria Church. Israel’s soldiers enter the Lion’s Gate by noon “rolled up” the Via Dolorosa to the Western Wall. “Within minutes,” Israel had captured the “entire Hashemite West Bank” including the old city of Jerusalem. As Gur proclaimed upon its capture, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu,” “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
The most significant territorial acquisition was Eastern Jerusalem, reunifying the city. Israel had control of the Temple Mount, “the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque” Islam’s holiest site, out of good faith they later ceded it to Jordan. Since 1948, when Jordan won Eastern Jerusalem and West Bank, Jews were unable to enter the Old City and visit the holiest of sites, the Kotel, Western Wall. Upon gaining control and access, Israeli soldiers wept, prayed and Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief chaplain of the Israeli army blew the shofar at the Kotel, the first time in 19 years. Dayan, Rabin, and Eshkol soon arrived. Sachar recounts, “Touching the flagstones of the ancient wall, even hardened veterans wept… the Jews had returned to the cradle of their peoplehood.” (Sachar, 777)
Naomi Shemer, who had just released “Jerusalem the Golden,” “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” changed her song adding lyrics:
We have come back to the deep wells
To the marketplace again.
The trumpet sounds on the Mount of the Temple
In the Old City.
In the caverns of the cliff
Glitter a thousand suns.
We shall go down to the Dead Sea again
By the road to Jericho.
The song became the “anthem of the Six-Day War.” (Sachar, 655)
By 3 a.m. on June 9, “the Egyptian and Jordanian ceasefires had come into effect.” (Sachar, 656) The last front was Syria, On June 9, Prime Minister Eshkol and the cabinet voted for an attack on Syria’s “Golan emplacements.” (Sachar, 777) The emplacements were “fortified redoubts hundreds of feet above the Israeli valley floor.” General David Elazar decided the best approach was to attack the emplacements from the Golan with a “frontal assault.” At noon on June 9, the Israeli army first used bulldozers to clear the rocks, and then attacked first with tanks then soldiers and at the same time, there was an air bombardment. The attack was costly with “heavy casualties” but the plan of attack worked the Syrians were surprised and soon Israel reached the emplacements. By early June 10, Israel was capturing village by village and the Golan capital, Quneitra. Sachar recounts, “Elazar’s strategy had been proved right: crack the main fortifications, move onto the roads behind the Syrians, and the enemy will panic.” (Sachar, 657) By noon, Israel had the Syrians pushed back to Damascus, desperate at 5:30 p.m. Syria agreed to a cease-fire.
On June 9, at 5:30 p.m. the United Nations was starting to pressure Israel to end the war, Israel’s UN delegate, Gideon Rafael notified the UN security council that direction was being sent to Israel’s troops. Israel had to race to gain the Golan before the UN’s cease-fire. In the morning on June 10, the Soviets became involved; Kosygin phoned President Johnson over the hotline demanding Israel stop their assault. The US then sent three task forces towards Syria including aircraft carriers Saratoga and America. Secretary of State Dean Rusk told Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman that Israel needs to accept a cease-fire. By that time, Israel had garnered the strategic Golan Heights and Dayan was working on the cease-fire through General Odd Bull. Sachar recounts, “The Six-Day War ended officially at 6:30 p.m., Israel time, on June 10.” (Sachar, 658)
Although it was a decisive victory, Israel lost 776 soldiers in the six days of fighting by the amount of wounded was triple, Israel, however, lost only “40 planes and 80 tanks.” (Sachar, 658) Israel’s casualties included 1,756 in the Sinai and a quarter in the battle for Jerusalem, one of the costliest battles in the war. In comparison, “The Arabs may have suffered up to 30,000 casualties, at least 450 planes and 1,000 tanks destroyed or captured, as well as vast quantities of supplementary equipment.” (Sachar, 658)
Israel’s territory also grew by multiples, adding “42,000 square miles.” As Sachar points out “a new military-geographic reality had been created in the Middle East.” (Sachar, 777) Israel was no longer a 4-minute plane ride across the country and within striking distance of Arab fire, now with their new buffer zone, Israel was close to “Amman, Damascus and Cairo,” and had to Suez Canal as a barrier to the south, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea to the east.
So how did Israel accomplish such a feat against the Arab nations with far mo re troops and equipment? Sachar also notes the Six-Day War “was an astounding military achievement, and one widely heralded throughout the entire free world. The discipline and gallantry of Israeli soldiers and civilians, who had shattered a seemingly overwhelming threat to their survival, and touched the hearts of common men everywhere.” (Sachar, 778) Rabin, who received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University three weeks later explained, the phenomena:
Our airmen, who struck the enemies’ planes so accurately that no one in the world understands how it was done and people seek technological explanations or secret weapons; our armored troops who beat the enemy even when their equipment was inferior to his; our soldiers in all other branches … who overcame our enemies everywhere, despite the latter’s superior numbers and fortifications — all these revealed not only coolness and courage in battle but … an understanding that only their personal stand against the greatest dangers would achieve victory for their country and for their families, and that if victory was not theirs the alternative was annihilation. (Sachar, 660)
Israel hoped the war and their victory could lead to a peace agreement on their terms. As Eshkol claimed in a June 12 speech to the Knesset, “Let this be said — there should be no illusion that Israel is prepared to return to the conditions that existed a week ago.… We have fought alone for our existence and our security, and we are therefore justified in deciding for ourselves what are the genuine and indispensable interests of our State, and how to guarantee its future.” (Sachar, 673) The call, however, never came. Three months later on September 1, the Arab nations met in Khartoum, Sudan and gave Israel their answer, establishing “the 3 Nos of Khartoum”: “No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, No negotiations with Israel.” Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban, remarked on the irony, “This is the first war in history which has ended with the victors suing for peace and the vanquished calling for unconditional surrender.” According to the Sachar in his book, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, “The Khartoum Declaration was the first serious warning to the Israelis that their expectation of an imminent “phone call” from the Arab world might be a pipe dream.” (Sachar, 676)
On November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242 drafted by British ambassador Lord Caradon (Hugh Foote), further shutting down Israeli hopes for a peace agreement on their terms and the direct negotiations or mediation US Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg preferred as possible solutions. UNSCR 242 states:
The Security Council … [e]mphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security.…
1.) Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:
- Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
- Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;
2.) Affirms further the necessity
- For guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area;
- For achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem;
iii. For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones;
3.) Requests of the Secretary-General to designate a Special Representative to proceed to the Middle East to … promote agreement and assist efforts to achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement in accordance with the provisions and principles in this resolution.… (Sachar, 664)
In the past 50 years, UNSCR 242 has interpreted differently by the Arab Nations and Israel.
The same political and diplomatic contradiction has been present in the historiography on the Six-Day War. Oren notes, “While the historiographical and political battle over the Six-Day War will no doubt persist, there can be no questioning its importance for understanding this crucial area.” Political viewpoint shape historians’ interpretations of the war and its effects on the Middle East. Guy Laron, the author of the 2017 history, The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East claims in his article “The Historians’ War Over the Six-Day War,” “Ever since 1967, writers have been debating the conflict.” According to Laron’s opinion, the Six-Day War historiography has gone through a journey, “When we debate the Six-Day War, what we are actually arguing about are the chances for peace in the Middle East today.”
The first book published chronicling the war was in 1968, Six Day War by Winston Churchill, and Winston S. Churchill, the son, and grandson of the British prime minister, takes on a pro-Israel position, calling Israel’s Defense Forces, “one of Israel’s greatest achievements.” In 1984, Donald Neff, former Time magazine’s bureau chief in Jerusalem came out with a negative view of Israel and the war in Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days That Changed the Middle East. Neff’s criticism remained the mode of analysis of the war until 30 years later in the late 1990s when archival records increasingly became available ushering a new era for historians to revisit the Six-Day War.
In 2002, Oren published his book, where he criticized the recent scholarship, writing, “A wave of revisionist writers, Israelis mostly, have sought to amplify Israel’s guilt…and evince it in the debate over the borders, or even the legitimacy of the Jewish state.” Oren’s book was a military history and mostly examined the battles of the war limiting, however, the “pre-war and post-war” elements. Ha’aretz columnist, Tom Segev took a more critical approach in his 2005 book 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East, and relied heavily upon Israeli historian Ami Gluska’s analysis in The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War.
Segev’s sweeping history looks at the years before the war, the war, and its aftermath. Segev tends to put the blame on the war on Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, arguing Rabin pushed reluctant and dovish cabinet into an offensive war when Prime Mini. Segev explains, “Nothing was gained by occupying the territories captured in the war. But swept away by fear and subsequently by the intoxication of victory, their emotions often propelled them to act against their national interests, a pattern of behavior the Israelis often attributed to the Arabs…. There was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it, which is what makes the story of Israel in 1967 so difficult to comprehend.” (Segev, 31)
Laron’s 2017 volume, The Six-Day War The Breaking of the Middle East also takes a negative tone about Israel generals blaming them for the war and arguing that the Soviet Union and the United States played a greater role than previously believed. Laron looked beyond at the roots of the war rather than the immediate crisis. Laron explains, “This study takes a different approach, arguing that the process that led to the war was not only much deeper, much longer, and influenced by global trends, but also that it was designed and even desired by prominent military figures in the warring countries. It emerged out of a global crisis, which engulfed the developing world in the 1960s and shifted the balance of power between civilians and generals in Israel, Egypt, and Syria. This crisis also caused the Soviet Union and the US to increase their arms sales and their military presence in the Middle East. In turn, these changes exacerbated existing tensions in the region and made war more probable. The Six-Day War’s crucible of weak civilian leaderships, trigger-happy generals, and intrusive great powers provides a salient example of how a regional conflict may start.” (Laron, 21)
For over 50 years Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War has been toasted, roasted, and shaped the modern Middle East and Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors. Peace with any of the Arab nations has been contingent on trading land acquired in the war for peace, leading to deals with Egypt and Jordan. However, peace with the Palestinians has been elusive impossibility even after ceding the Gaza Strip, as violence and terror have been their main modes of communication. As Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates, “The true reason why peace could not be reached in 1967 is the same reason why the conflict began, and why it continues today: The Palestinian and Arab refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state in their historic homeland.” As Israel faces constant criticism from the world it is now increasingly taking on the view that annexation might be the best and only solution for areas one in the war, proving again that going alone is Israel’s the best choice for survival.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Note: This history of the Six-Day War is hardly exhaustive to read more look at any of the following books.
“50 years ago: The Six-Day War and the historic reunification of Jerusalem,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2017. https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutIsrael/Spotlight/Pages/50-years-ago-The-Six-Day-War-and-the-historic-reunification-of-Jerusalem.aspx
Churchill, Winston S, and Randolph S. Churchill. Six Day War. Delhi: Army Publishers, 1968.
Gluska, Ami. The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War: Government, Armed Forces and Defence Policy, 1963-1967. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.
Laron, Guy. The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
Laron, Guy, “The Historians’ War Over the Six-Day War,” The Nation, June 5, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/historians-war-six-day-war/
Lorch, Netanel. One Long War. Jerusalem: Keter, 1976.
Oren, Michael. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Rosetta Books, 2010.
Sachar, Howard M. The Course of Modern Jewish History. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Segev, Tom. 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
Tal, David. “Israel Studies An Anthology: The Six Day War.” Jewish Virtual Library, October 2009. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/israel-studies-an-anthology-the-six-day-war
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.