Six Days in June: The war that changed the Middle East

“Israel wants to make it clear to the government of Egypt that it has no aggressive intentions whatsoever against any Arab state at all.”
— Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister of Israel - May 15 1967

The Six-Day War, also called the June War or Third Arab-Israeli War, was lightening war that took place June 5–10, 1967, and was the third of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The war reshaped the Middle East and had long-term repercussions for the region and its people. Israel's crushing victory included the capture of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Syrian Golan Heights; the status of these territories subsequently became a major point of contention and diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1. Egypt, the War of Attrition (1968 - 1971) and the Yom Kippur War (1973)

The 1967 War, a stunning military victory for the Israelis, was one part of its extended war with Egypt, a bi-product of a confrontation which began during the First Arab-Israeli war (1948) and the Suez Canal Crisis. 

The Israeli Defence Forces seizure of the Sinai Peninsula gave the Israelis crucial strategic depth and access to Egypt's oil wealth in the desert province. 

However, this strategic depth bringing the Israeli military to Cairo's doorstep sparked the bloody War of Attrition as the Egyptian military, humiliated by its ordeal with the Israelis in 1967 attempted to restore its honour. In 1973 - under the leadership of Anwar Sadat - the Egyptians and Syrians launched a major surprise attack along the Nile and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights after triple-agent Ashraf Marwan played a crucial role in contributing to Israeli intelligence failures before the war. Following initial setbacks, Israeli forces rallied and punched through Egyptian lines after Sadat halted the advance (a decision made to as a message to the Americans that Egypt wished to reignite peace-talks with the Israelis). 

The Yom Kippur War became the Middle East equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) as the United States and Henry Kissinger supporting the Israelis grappled with the Soviet Union who supported the Syrians and Egyptians. Defcon (or Defense Condition) III, the highest state of armed forces readiness for peacetime conditions, was declared in the name of President Nixon by the National Security Council. The Yom Kippur War paved the way for Sinai I and II Agreements, the Camp David Accords between Menachem Begin and Sadat, and the phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai in 1982 and dismantlement of all settlements. The peace-agreement was crucial in bringing Egypt, particularly its military, into the Western sphere whereby peace with Israel and ejecting Soviet advisers and influence was followed with American military and economic support. 

2. Fifty years of military occupation in palestine

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: A Palestinian civilian approaches a checkpoint in the city of Hebron.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: A Palestinian civilian approaches a checkpoint in the city of Hebron.

The 1967 War was a problematic victory for the Israelis. The absorption of the Golan Heights, Sinai, the West Bank and Gaza has led to ceaseless conflict between the Arabs and Israelis from Lebanon to Egypt to Palestine. 

The establishment of military administration in the occupied territories under Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan in the aftermath of the 1967 War became the blueprint for sustained occupation of Palestinian territories. This framework was in-part influenced by Dayan's observations of the American presence in Vietnam during his time there. However, this 'invisible occupation' gradually turned overt and the concept of land for peace (whereby the Israelis negotiate one-to-one with Arab states and trade lost Arab territory for peace) has become increasingly difficult to implement in the Palestinian Territories. The euphoria of 1967 turned into a major headache for Israeli policymakers and military officials and dived Israeli society. 

The construction and expansion of settlements into Negev and the West Bank, which was catalysed under the governments of Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, for many has aggravated the issue considerably and become a barrier to the two-state solution. 

The daily frustrations of occupation boiled over into open rebellion and protests (the first intifada) which lasted from 1987 - 1993 which laid the foundations for the Oslo Accords and the Middle Eastern Peace Talks of the 1990s. Following setbacks at Madrid, Camp David II and Geneva, the peace talks collapsed and once again Palestinian anger spilled over into a second, and more bloody, intifada. 

During this period, suicide bombs were utilised by Hamas and Islamic Jihad targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers while Israeli forces strangled Yasser Arafat (leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Ramallah and Jenin. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, concrete walls were erected by the Israelis to separate the Palestinians and Israelis from each other and to stem the suicide bombers, militants and terrorists infiltrating into Israeli-controlled land. 

Jewish settlements in Gaza were eventually destroyed and settlers withdrawn from the strip by Sharon, however with the ascension of Hamas in the 2006 elections, Gaza airport remained closed and an Israeli-Egyptian blockade was established to strangle the strip's socio-economic strength and turn the Palestinians living in Gaza against the Sunni fundamentalists. The blockade of Gaza and its brief and bloody wars (including the 2008 and 2014 Gaza Wars) have divided Israelis, the region, and international opinion ever since. To this day, 3.5 million Palestinians live under military occupation. 

3. Relationship with the United States of america

The 1967 War was a particular low-point in Israeli-U.S relations. A combined air and sea attack killed 34 American crew members on the USS Liberty on 8 June 1967 as the Arabs and Israelis were engaged in fighting. The incident has divided historians, with veterans and politicians like Dean Rusk believing the attack was deliberate while many American and Israeli officials believe the attack was an accident. 

Nevertheless, since the USS Liberty incident, Israeli-U.S relations considerably tightened after the 1967 War. For the Israelis ties to the West - the first being the British Empire, then France and finally the United States which became a superpower during the Second World War - were seen as crucial to building its strength and surviving in a turbulent region. In 1948, it was Czechoslovakia who played a key role in supplying the then Palestinians Jews who wanted to build the Israeli state with weapons and logistical support during the First Arab-Israeli War. Following the 1967 War, U.S political and military support as well as the exchange of military intelligence increased considerably as the United States came to regard the Israelis as an important military and political buffer against Soviet expansionism and influence in the Middle East. However, while the relationship between the countries remains strong, it has not been without problems. 

President Gerard Ford, successor to Richard Nixon, disappointed by the intransigence of Prime Minister Begin froze the delivery of armaments to Israel until it agreed to peace-talks with the Egyptians. The personal relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu was particularly poor, despite the record arms deal agreed between the United States and Israel. 

The relationship between Israel and the United States has frustrated, aggravated and turned many hostile to the United States, even militant. Inevitably, this relationship is not the singular reason for the Arab Middle East current turmoil however, it is not a secret that the United States' staunch deference to Israel militarily and politically in talks between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Arabs has affected peace-talks. The criticism of this preference for Israel usually becomes inflamed when Israel falls into conflict with its neighbours or pursues particular policies in the occupation of the West Bank. 

In some cases, the perceived lack of impartiality in this relationship has fuelled the propaganda of groups such as Al-Qa'ida and ISIS and angered Arab nationalists from Baghdad to Sana'a to Damascus.  Some argue that this relationship, the arming of Israel and the lack of pressure on the country in regards to its treatment of the Palestinians and Lebanese under occupation has placed the United States in the cross-hairs of extremists cells. Once again, the relationship has divided historians and commentators across the board.

5. Gaza


Initially controlled and occupied by the Egyptian government and military and described by Defence Minister Moshe Dayan as "a nest of snakes," Gaza fell under Israeli military control in 1967.  Since the Israelis seized Gaza following their lightning victory in the 1967 War, it has been a site of crucial developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both positive and negative. As military governor, Ariel Sharon crushed Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip between 1970-71. His military units carried out a string of tactics which pancaked entire districts which systematically relocated 160,000 Palestinians, killed over 100 Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) suspects, and led to arrest of 700. Gaza was the spark for the first intifada or uprising across the Occupied Territories following a car accident in Jabaliya refugee camp and the area was one of the first places to experience Palestinian autonomy and self-governance under the Oslo Accords.

However the onset of the Gaza Wars (2006 - current) have shattered the hopes and progress made during the 1990s replacing it with despair and uncertainty. Since the ascension of Hamas to political power, it has been estimated that 5,000 Palestinians have been killed, 15,000 wounded and 100 Israelis killed in the enclave. The tactics used by the Israeli military in some ways parallel those it utilised in its siege of Beirut, Lebanon in 1982 which reduced entire districts to rubble.  As with the PLO who dug into Lebanon's capital during the horrific civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, Israelis are using massive military power and bombardment to locate and destroy Hamas's tunnels to stop them firing rockets into Israel and for the end purpose of Gazan civilians ejecting Hamas from political power.

In the words of Jean-Pierre Filiu it is in the Gaza Strip, the cradle of the first intifada, where peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will be found. Gaza remains the key to the construction of a viable Palestinian state and Israeli security. The trajectory of Gaza becoming a new "Darfur" or new "Mogadishu" closed off to the outside world, leaderless and absent economic development on Israel's doorstep is an ominous scenario for Israel and the region. Israel's next war will inevitably refocus the Israeli public and garner unwanted international and regional attention. Whether or not the IDF is equipped to contain the looming disaster approaching besieged Gaza, Israel's political establishment and its Arab partners cannot wish away or turn a blind eye to the ultimate need for a political and socio-economic solution to its protracted conflict within the Gaza Strip. 

6. Syria and the Golan Heights

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra ( Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah)  province.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra (Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah) province.

The seizure of the Golan Heights from the Syrian government was a critical moment in Syrian-Israeli relations. The legacy of expulsion in the Golan Heights is a particularly grim stain on the Israeli victory in 1967. 'On the eve of the war, the Golan had a population of 138,000 Syrian who lived in 139 villages, two cities, and sixty-one farms. However, during and immediately after the war more than 95 per cent of Syrian Golanis departed.' 

In Cursed Victory, Ahron Bregman demonstrates how Israeli testimonies showed an indication of direct actions aimed at expulsion; 'the military commander Emanuel Shaked, who fought in the Golan, recounting how: "We gathered the Syrian Glands in a group. We let them take their belonging that they could carry in rucksacks, and sometimes we also helped them with trucks....Most went on foot. Some people protested or shouted, but no one resisted or fought us." In Jubata, in the north of the Golan Heights, 1500 - 2000 people were  evicted. According to 'one resident, Hammond Maray, recalls how: 

"Roughly about half the people from Jubata left their village and moved to Majdal Shams to hide...the Israeli military occupied the village of Jubata and began to forcibly transfer the people who remained; the people who had left Jubata (and came to hide in Majdal Shams) and tried to return...were also transferred. The Israeli army began shooting in the air and in the direction of people, all the time, to frighten the people...after the transfer., Jubata became a closed military zone; nobody could return." 

According to Bregman, the army would not allow the Golanis to return. Under Colonel Shmuel Admon, a military order was issued which declared the entire Golan a 'closed military zone' The destruction of many homes was draconian according to Mamdul al-Hajj Ahmad: "The village was totally empty. The Israelis had been in our house. They had overturned all the beds and ripped open the mattresses. They had shot our dog...I spent one night there, and at dawn, before the first light." With the Syrian Golanis gone, 'the Israeli army began demolishing entire villages' according to General Elad Peled, commander of the military's 36th division: "A few days after the end of the fighting...we started demolishing villages...With some of the houses no heavy machinery was even needed as it could be done with just a hoe."'

The destruction of Syrian villages in the Golan Heights and razing of Quneitra to the ground in 1974 before returning the town in a U.N brokered disengagement agreed were particularly brutal episodes in Syrian-Israeli relations. 

The conflict for the Golan Heights both in 1967 and 1973 were extraordinary in their ferocity. Loss of territory and the military defeat had a significant impact on then Defence Minister, Hafez Asad. The relationship between President Asad and successive Israeli governments, coupled with its combustible relationship with Washington, has come from this particular wound, a wound which has become infected and poisonous, taking on its own destructive form. The Syrian-Israeli conflict has been violent, as demonstrated by the ferocity of the Yom Kippur War and the proxy wars with Asad's allies Hizbollah and Iran in Lebanon, the latter of which became Israel's Vietnam from 1982 - 2000. 

For the Israelis, the Golan Heights is its bargaining chip with Syria and provides the Israelis with strategic advantage. However, the establishment of forty settlements and the opportunity to have priority position in tourism, wine and water, rich agricultural land and oil and gas has from a socio-economic standpoint remains as tantalising to Israelis as it did in the 1960s. For the Asad family, 'the most important element of any peace deal with Israel was the depth of the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan. He insisted on a full Israeli withdrawal from all the land which Syria controlled before the Israeli invaded in what Asad called 'the 4 June 1967 Line' where the Syrians would return to the Sea of Galilee.  

The Sea of Galilee became the defining feature which shattered the peace talks as Ehud Barak was unwilling to relinquish control and give the Syrian access to the water. 400-500 metres from the water was not enough for Asad who wanted to physically sit on the water. The stubbornness of the two leaders killed the agreement. The Geneva talks organised by Clinton which brought Asad and Barak together ended in spectacular failure and Asad, whose health had considerably deteriorated, died weeks later. In 2017, peace remains as elusive as ever between Syria and Israel. "President Asad, even if he survives the Syrian Civil War, will be vulnerable and relatively weak. The view in Israel is that the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli control for many years to come." stated Dr. Ahron Bregman grimly.  

Matthew C.K Williams