Fifty years on from the six-day war

Burhan Wazir looks at an account of the war that remains the most consequential of all the regional wars in the Middle East

Israeli tanks encounter Syrian soldiers giving themselves up as POWs on the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in June 1967

The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East
Guy Laron, Yale University Press, £20

The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 remains the most consequential of all the regional wars in the Middle East. For Israel, the six-day military triumph over Syrian and Egyptian forces was crowned by land gains which had previously been thought unattainable – East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. It would also pave the way for the explosion in illegal settlements, future occupations, Palestinian uprisings and counter-attacks which have remained hurdles to any two-state solution for 50 years. A short period of Israeli exultation has given way to half a century of despair for those hoping for peace.

For Arabs, the totality of the Israeli victory was humiliating, so severe that the defeat led to much questioning and introspection: Self-Criticism after the Defeat, a book by a young Syrian philosopher called Sadek al-Azm, became an overnight bestseller. The once proud Egyptian army and air force - and the legacy of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser – was shattered.

The Egyptian name for the operation, Al Qahar (deterrence or sometimes referred to as the conqueror) would be replaced in history books in favour of 'al-naksa' (the setback), as if the war was a seismic aftershock of 'al-nakba' (the catastrophe) of 1948. The Six Day War also created an additional 250,000 Palestinian and 100,000 Syrian refugees. The spirit of Arab nationalism – but not anti-imperialism – was also buried with Nasser, who died in 1970, aged 52.

For decades, historians have generally subscribed to the opinion that the Nasser was goaded into the conflict by Syria and Russia. One of the more illuminating discussions of the war occurs in a 1997 collection of essays called “Looking Back at the June 1967 War”, presented at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and featuring contributions by Noam Chomsky, Musa Budairi and Ilan Pappe.

In his new book, The Six-Day War: the breaking of the Middle East, Guy Laron, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, takes an alternative approach, He outlines a long march towards an inevitable conflict which began with the Suez Crisis in 1956. It would eventually lead to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Israel all heading towards war in concert.

Laron spends the first third of his book framing events on the international stage. On the superpower front, by 1967, the Soviet Union was so fearful of Israel’s potential nuclear capability it was tacitly encouraging the Egyptians to go to war. At the same time, the US was mired in Vietnam, and President Lyndon Johnson could only offer scant public support to Israel. The Israeli economy was also deep in recession and the country was being led by its first post-Ben Gurion Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, an uncharismatic bureaucrat.

In Egypt, Nasser had roused the Arab world with a promise to liberate Palestinian territories and eliminate Israel. But his nation was also involved in a proxy war in Yemen in an effort to help republicans fighting troops loyal to the last traditional ruler, Imam Muhammad Al-Badr. The Egyptian incursion would begin with 2,000 men, but by 1965, the campaign was costing $100 million a year and involved 70,000 soldiers; half the Egyptian army. In Egypt, staple products like flour, wheat and oil started to disappear from the market.

Nasser was also unaware of the fact that Egyptian troops were woefully under-prepared for war. The lack of battle readiness has been addressed in another book, written by General Mohamed Fawzi, who was then the Minister of Defence. He writes in his memoirs, Reconstructing a Shattered Egyptian Army, reprinted by the US Naval Institute Press, that the standards of education in the Egyptian armed forces were abysmal. 'Only 9 percent of personnel within the army had high school diplomas, 18 per-cent in the navy, and 21 percent in the air force. Those who joined the armed forces with a high school education completed high school with a barely passing grade [the equivalent of a D in an American grade system].'

In the north, Palestinian guerrilla groups like Fatah were carrying out attacks on Israeli towns from bases in Syria. In November, 1966, three Israeli soldiers were killed by a landmine placed by Fatah members in Arad, near the Jordanian border. The Israeli response, Operation Shredder, saw 3000-4000 soldiers backed by tanks and aircraft destroy over a hundred homes and a school and medical centre. After an aerial battle between the air forces of both countries, 14 Jordanians were killed.

A quick series of escalations in May, 1967 would prove to be Nasser’s undoing. That month, he moved his troops into Sinai, after calling for the withdrawal of United Nations forces who had kept peace since the Suez Crisis. As Egyptian troops neared the Israeli border, Nasser also ordered the blocking of Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran. He said Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait and Sudan would unite in 'the destruction of Israel'.

In Israel, the fear of a three-front surprise attack caused disarray. Yitzhak Rabin, chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, suffered a nervous breakdown. On the eve of war, Eshkol gave a radio address which was characterized by stammering unintelligibility. He had difficulty understanding the text, and was heard whispering to his aide.

Laron outlines the convincing theory that fearing annihilation, the Israelis launched a pre-emptive air strike on Egypt’s air force. In just a few hours, Israeli planes had destroyed all of Egypt’s heavy and light bombers and 85 per cent of its jet fighters.  By the final two days of the war, the Egyptian army had either surrendered or fled and lost 85 per cent of its equipment. In the end, Egypt lost more than 15,000 soldiers and Israeli casualties numbered around 800. As he argues later, the Israeli cult of the pre-emptive offensive was born of the Six-Day War.

As the author writes in this deeply discouraging account– most previous books have focused on Israeli heroism, but Laron focuses on an ever widening gulf between Israelis and their neighbouring states – the aftermath of 1967 changed the region’s political reality. After the Arab Spring, the military regimes of Damascus, Cairo and Amman are stronger than before. The Israel Defence Forces remains the most powerful institution in Israel, where successive governments have legitimised or underplayed settler ideology. Between 1965 and 1967, there were 125 Fatah operations which killed 11 Israelis. In the three years following the Six Day War, the number of operations had passed 5,500.

As the 50th anniversary of the war approaches, a peace deal which offers the Palestinians their own state seems less likely than ever. President Trump’s promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, if it is carried out, revive the bitter legacy of 1967 by implicitly recognizing conquest of the eastern half of the city in 1967.