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The 1967 Six-Day War

QUESTION:

Was Israel the agressor in 1967? Did Israel attack peaceful Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq on June 5, 1967, and wrestle the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the "West Bank" (Judea and Samaria) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria?

ANSWER:

* In May 1967, Egypt and Syria took a number of steps which led Israel to believe that an Arab attack was imminent. On May 16, Nasser ordered a withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) stationed on the Egyptian-Israeli border, thus removing the international buffer between Egypt and Israel which had existed since 1957. On May 22, Egypt announced a blockade of all goods bound to and from Israel through the Straits of Tiran--a Casus Belli (cause of war) according to international law. Israel had held since 1957 that another Egyptian blockade of the Tiran Straits would justify Israeli military action to maintain free access to the port of Eilat. Syria increased border clashes with Israel along the Golan Heights and mobilized its troops.

The U.S. feared a major Arab-Israeli and superpower confrontation and asked Israel to delay military action pending a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. On May 23, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson publicly reaffirmed that the Gulf of Aqaba was an international waterway and declared that a blockade of Israeli shipping was illegal. In accordance with U.S. wishes, the Israeli cabinet voted five days later to withhold military action.

The U.S., however, gained little support in the international community for its idea of a maritime force that would compel Egypt to open the waterway and it abandoned its diplomatic efforts in this regard. On May 30, President Nasser and King Hussein signed a mutual defense pact, followed on June 4 by a defense pact between Cairo and Baghdad. Also that week, Arab states began mobilizing their troops. Against this backdrop, Nasser and other Egyptian leaders intensified their anti-Israel rhetoric and repeatedly called for a war of total destruction against Israel.

Arab mobilization compelled Israel to mobilize its troops, 80 percent of which were reserve civilians. Israel feared slow economic strangulation because long-term mobilization of such a majority of the society meant that the Israeli economy and polity would be brought to a virtual standstill. Militarily, Israeli leaders feared the consequences of absorbing an Arab first strike against its civilian population, many of whom lived only miles from Arab-controlled territory. Incendiary Arab rhetoric threatening Israel's annihilation terrified Israeli society and contributed to the pressures to go to war.

Against this background, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt on June 5, 1967 and captured the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Despite an Israeli appeal to Jordan to stay out of the conflict, Jordan attacked Israel and lost control of the West Bank and the eastern sector of Jerusalem. Israel went on to capture the Golan Heights from Syria. The war ended on June 10.

- Anti-Defamation League

* Israel did indeed simultaneously attack Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq on June 5, 1967. It had little choice. For weeks leading up to that day, Israel's Arab enemies upped the temperature by amassing troops on the borders of the tiny Jewish state, while threatening murder and mayhem. Consider the following:

May 14, 1967: Egypt's President Gamal Nasser demands the withdrawal of United Nations force--established in 1957 as an international "guarantee" of safety for Israel--from the Sinai peninsula. The UN meekly obeys; the United States and Britain fail to rouse the Security Council to take action.

May 15: Three Egyptian army divisions and 600 tanks roll into the Sinai. World community does nothing.

May 17: Cairo Radio's Voice of the Arabs: "All Egypt is now prepared to plunge into total war which will put an end to Israel."

May 18: Voice of the Arabs announces: "As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence."

May 18: Nasser announces blockade of Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea, severing Israel's southern maritime link to the outside world. Israel considers the closure an act of war. (US President Lyndon Johnson later says: "If a single act of folly was more responsible for this explosion than any other it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision that the Straits of Tiran would be closed.")

May 20: Syria's defence minister (now president) Hafez el-Assad says: "Our forces are now ready not only to repulse the aggression but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united..."

May 27: Nasser: "Our basic objection will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight."

May 30: Nasser : "The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel."

May 30: Jordan's King Hussein signs a five-year mutual defence pact with Egypt and the two set up a joint command, making clear its stance in any future conflict.

May 31: Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar reports: "Under terms of the military agreement signed with Jordan, Jordanian artillery, co-ordinated with the forces of Egypt and Syria, is in a position to cut Israel in two..."

May 31: Iraqi President Rahman Aref announces: "This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear--to wipe Israel off the map."

June 4: Iraq joins Nasser's military alliance against Israel.

June 5: Six Day War begins: Israeli Airforce attacks airfields in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

June 10: Israel and its enemies accepted UN Security Council cease-fire demands. The war ended, leaving Israel in control of the Sinai peninsula, eastern Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Judea-Samaria and the Gaza Strip. (The Sinai was returned to Egypt between 1978 and 1982, as part of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.)

* "Never in human history can an aggressor have made his purpose known in advance so clearly and so widely. Certain of victory, both the Arab leaders and their peoples threw off all restraint. Between the middle of May and fifth of June, world-wide newspapers, radio and, most incisively, television brought home to millions of people the threat of politicide bandied about with relish by the leaders of these modern states. Even more blatant was the exhilaration which the Arabic peoples displayed as the prospect of executing genocide on the people of Israel ... In those three weeks of mounting tension people throughout the world watched and waited in growing anxiety--or in some cases, in hopeful expectation--for the overwhelming forces of at least Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq to bear down from three sides to crush tiny Israel and slaughter her people."
- Samuel Katz, Battleground: Fact and fantasy in Palestine

* Israel's critics maintain that the 1967 War was one of Israeli aggression rather than a war of Israeli self-defense. Yet, on May 15, Israel's Independence Day, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai, massing near the Israeli border. By May 18, Syrian troops, too, were preparing for battle along the Golan Heights, 3000 feet above the Galilee, from which they had shelled Israel's farms and villages for years. Egypt's Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), stationed in the Sinai since 1956, to withdraw, whereupon the Voice of the Arabs proclaimed, on May 18, 1967:

"As of today there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence."

Two days later an enthusiastic echo came from Hafez Assad, then Syria's Defense Minister, who proclaimed openly: "Our forces are now entirely ready...to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explodethe Zionist presence in the Arab homeland....The time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation." President Abdur Rahman Aref of Iraq joined the chorus of genocidal threats: "The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear - to wipe Israel off the map." On June 4, Iraq formally joined the military alliance with Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Damascus regime's commitment to military final solutions for Israel has been described by Ahmed S. Khalidi and Hussein Agha as stemming from "...an apparently strong conviction that the struggle with Israel is no mere political or territorial dispute, but rather a clash of destinies affecting the fate and future of the Middle East." Moreover, Syria's approach to Israel, say Khalidi and Agha, remains "bound up with the view that force, whether active or passive, is the final arbiter of the conflict with Israel and the ultimate guarantor of any settlement in the area."

Was Israel the aggressor in 1967, as the Arabs [and anti-Zionists] continue to maintain? It hardly seems possible. The jurisprudential correctness of Israel's resort to anticipatory self-defense is well-established in longstanding customary international law. The Law of Nations is not a suicide pact. Israel could not have been expected to wait patiently for its own annihilation. Indeed, when the Government of Golda Meir decided not to exercise the lawful option of anticipatory self-defense in October 1973, when Egypt and Syria were preparing to launch yet another war of aggression against the Jewish State, her country almost paid for it with collective disappearance. And although Israel eventually prevailed against the Arab aggressors, it did so at a staggering cost in human life. The Yom Kippur War produced 2326 deaths of Israeli soldiers, nearly ten thousand injuries and hundreds of prisoners. These costs to Israel were the direct results of A'man's (Military Intelligence Branch) failure to predict the Arab attack, a failure known in Israel's intelligence community as the Mechdal, a Hebrew term meaning "omission", "nonperformance" or "neglect".

- Louis Rene Beres, Professor of International Law, Department of Political Science, Purdue University

* "The war is inevitable... The war is coming, though not immediately... The efforts and the agreements which are now taking place are not building peace; they are agreements leading to war."
- Amin al-Huweidi, the former Egyptian Minister of War and head of the General Intelligence

* "In recent weeks, the Middle East has passed through a crisis whose shadows darkened the entire world. The crisis has many consequences, but only one cause. Israel's right to peace, security, sovereignty...indeed its very right to exist, has been forcibly denied and aggressively attacked."
- Abba Eban, in his statement to the UN following the Six Day War

* In the months leading up to the 1967 Six Day War the airwaves in the Middle East and throughout the western world were crowded with threats that Israel was going to be driven into the sea, that Israel and all its citizens were going to be wiped off the face of the earth. The threats were accompanied by actions -- Egyptian President Nasser ordered the UN peacekeeping forces to leave the Sinai Peninsula and replaced them with his own troops, the Gulf of Aqaba was blockaded to stop the majority of Israel's shipping, Syrian troops gathered on the western edge of the Golan Heights while border incidents and terrorist attacks against Israel increased. While many individuals and groups did speak up to draw attention to the real threat Israel faced, one group was conspicuously silent -- the Christian church.
- Dave Blewett, The National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (NCLCI)

* The only prerequisite to a solution of the Middle Eastern question in its entirety (including the situation of the refugees) remains the acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist. We have recently witnessed the spectacle of many nations of the world in effect denying only to Israel the prerogative of self-protection against terrorist harassment and openly avowed politicide. The war in the Middle East was the direct result of the illegal Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and the announced intention of Arab leaders, with accompanying military measures, to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. Yet Israel is now taking steps towards permanent peace and reconciliation, while all that most Arab leaders offer is a promise of revenge. Considerably after the cease-fire was effected the Iraqui chief of state spoke for Arabs everywhere in proclaiming that "the existence of Israel is in itself an aggression." No real hope is in sight for a negotiated settlement, either with the Arabs or through the almost completely futile United Nations organization. If the Israelis do not insist upon taking necessary steps on their own to ensure their rights as an independent people, they run the risk of death. We must avoid the wholly unsupported assumption that if Israel will only behave as others ask or demand, her detractors will become rational and want to be friends. The only thing that would appear capable of propitiating Arabs, communists and Christians who find the Israelis guilty of "aggression" would be for the latter to lie down and be slaughtered.
- by A. Roy and Alice Eckardt in "AGAIN, SILENCE IN THE CHURCHES", The Christian Century, August 2, 1967

* "The American Council in Jerusalem came just before the [Six Day] war to evacuate all the Americans in the area..."
- Walid, a Palestinian Arab defector, indicating that the brewing war was common knowledge, quoted from "Answering Islam"

* "As my right honourable friend said yesterday, and I am paraphrasing his words, it is hard to imagine getting closer to catastrophe than in the way we seem to have been drifting in the last day or two. I, as have other Members of the House, have had some connection with this situation for a good many years - in fact, since I first went down to the United Nations at the end of the war when the state of Palestine was established by United Nations actions."

"So long as Israel's neighbours, or some of them, refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a state, then we move from one crisis to another."

"Israel, of course, also has the basic obligation which I am sure she accepts, to live without provocation and threat to her neighbours and in accord with the UN decisions which gave her birth."

"I am perhaps repeating the obvious, but the danger point, is the situation in Sharm el Sheikh. The troops of the United Arab Republic now control this port in the Gulf of Aqaba. In 1957 we spent days and nights arguing about this particular aspect of the settlement which it was hoped would have been reached at least in accord with the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from the ground they had conquered. They made it quite clear at the time that they visualized a package deal by which, in return for withdrawing from vital strategic points, and especially from Sharm el Sheikh, they would be protected against action from those areas, and particularly this point, which would prejudice and destroy their own national interest. They undoubtedly feel they have a commitment to that effect."

"We need not go into the legal situation. Perhaps it should be sent to the international Court of Justice for Judgement, but before the International Court of Justice could render a judgement many things would have to be done to avoid trouble, because the Gulf of Aqaba now is of vital importance to the existence of the State of Israel . From 90-92 percent of its oil goes past the Strait of Tiran and into the gulf to the port of Elath. That certainly is one very dangerous point."

"The second dangerous point is the Gaza Strip which has now been taken over by the Palestine Liberation Army, a part of the force of the United Arab Republic. This army is composed of men devoted-and fanatically and sincerely devoted -to what they believe to be the liberation of their homeland. They are there now in the Gaza strip with 300,000 Palestinian refugees. If there could a more explosive situation than that, I do not know what it could be."

"The third point is the Syrian border, which has been the scene of terrorist incidents and activities in recent weeks and which perhaps has been the occasion for the development of the recent crisis, which can explode at any minute."

"The fourth danger point is the possibility of excessive reaction or retaliation by land, water, or air against provocation or terrorist incidents."

- Canadian Prime Minister L.B. Pearson in the House of Commons, May 24, 1967

* "...something should be done about the right of Israeli ships, which was exercised by all other ships until a day or so ago, to navigate the Suez Canal. There have been decisions by the Security Council of the UN affirming that right, but in practice, the affirmation has not meant very much to Israel."
- Canadian Prime Minister L.B. Pearson in the House of Commons, June 8, 1967

* In 1967, Palestinian raiders from Syria increasingly put the lives of Jewish immigrants in danger. Encouraged by the U.S.S.R., Egypt, and its charismatic leader Gamal Nasser, was thought to have "expansionist" tendencies, and a desire to invade Israel. As 100,000 Egyptian troops massed on the Sinai, Israel took the only action available to prevent certain defeat...on June 5, 1967, they attacked. A brilliantly planned air attack destroyed almost the entire Egyptian air force as it sat on the ground. By gaining air superiority, the Israelis were then able to maneuver their tank corps with impunity, not fearing Egyptian air attacks. A series of armored cavalry and tank task forces then advanced rapidly and surrounded or cut-off Egyptian defenders. Six days later, it turned into a rout, and the Israelis gained both territory and the respect of other military forces in the region.
- by Clark Staten, Emergency Response & Research Institute, Chicago, IL