Many remember the euphoria that followed Israel’s total victory in the Six Day War of June 5, 1967. Surprisingly, very few recall the United Nations was one of the primary causes of that war.
On May 17, 1967 “[t]he Egyptian chief of staff, Gen. Mohamed Fawzy, called today for the immediate withdrawal of United Nations peace-keeping force” from the Gaza (NYTimes). On May 18, 1967, U.N. Secretary General U Thant announced he “decided to withdraw the United Nations Emergency Force from the armistice line between Israel and the United Arab Republic [Egypt]” (NYTimes). “Through the Secretariat, he announced only that he had been asked to remove the force, which has served since November, 1956, as a buffer between Israeli and Egyptian forces in the Gaza Strip and on the armistice line that runs from there across the Sinai Peninsula” (ibid).
That said “it had gone to the Middle East with Cairo’s consent and that ‘as a peace-keeping force it could not remain if that consent were withdrawn or if the conditions under which it operated were so qualified that the force was unable to function effectively'” (ibid). Paradoxically on May 27, 1967, “Thant asked the Security Council today to remind Israel and her Arab neighbors that under an existing resolution the Council could use a blockade or other measures to suppress any violation of their 1949 armistice” (NYTimes). On June 5, 1967, Thant gave another reason for the withdrawal: “From a practical point of view, he said, to have delayed would have endangered the lives of members of the international force, supplied by Brazil, Canada, Denmark, India, Norway, Sweden and Yugoslavia” (NYTimes).
On May 19,1967, United States President Lindon Jonson’s “Administration was urged by several members of Congress today to try to persuade the United Nations to keep its peace-keeping force in the operation between Egypt and Israel despite objection of the Unite Arab Republic” (NYTimes). “Senator Hugh Scott, Republican of Pennsylvania, said he was shocked by Secretary General Thant’s ‘capitulation’ to Cairo’s demand” (ibid). “The White House said that President Johnson considered the tense Middle East situation to be ‘a matter of deep concern,’ and that he was following the situation closely” (Ibid).
On May 23, 1967, the NY Times reported: “Now that the United Nations force has been withdrawn, President Nasser, through the use of his military forces, has moved to re-establish the principle that Egypt rightfully controls access to the narrow, 100-long gulf” of Aqaba, by imposing a blockade on “Israeli ships and ships of other nations carrying strategic material to Israel” (NYTimes). That same day, President Jonson “urged the United Arab Republic today to avoid an ‘illegal’ blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and asserted that the United States was ‘firmly committed’ to the territorial integrity of all Middle Eastern nations.”
Had the peace keeping force been maintained, continuing to serve its purpose as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, it would have been difficult if not impossible for Egypt to contemplate going to war with Israel. It is also clear that both Syria and Jordan would have been reluctant to go to war with Israel, without Egypt, the country which was spearheading the campaign.
Additionally, Thant’s claim that the lives of the soldiers serving in the peace keeping force were endangered is doubtful. Egypt had already suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel, Britain, and France, when it nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, and the attacking of the peace keeping force would likely have provoked another international conflict that Egypt, also, would have quickly lost.