A Short History of the Six Day War, part 1

On June 5, 1967, Israel went to war with its neighbours. By June 10, Israel had more than tripled in size. In a decisive victory in six short days, Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan, who in turn had help from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Tunisia. Soon dubbed “the Six Day War”, this short, regional conflict would go on to have enormous implications for Israel, the Middle East and the peace and security of the world.

This series of posts will summarise, in three parts, the causes, conduct and consequences of the Six Day War. It attempts to give a simple but not simplistic account of the facts, inasmuch as the facts can be ascertained from noteworthy historical accounts of the war.

This account will begin with the consequences, followed by the conduct of the war in its most important events and finally, the war’s causes. We start with the consequences of the Six Day War in order to show the reader the enormous impact this small war has had, and why he or she should continue reading.

Consequences
The Six Day War’s consequences were numerous and far-reaching, and some of them plague the region to this day. The changes of perceptions of threats in the area, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent Egypt-Israel peace accord, the hostage massacre at the Munich Olympics and the increased importance of the Middle East as a Cold War hotspot are some of the war’s short term outcomes. I will attempt to outline the longer lasting ones here. They are the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the occupation the Palestinian territories and military and nonmilitary conflict.

First, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism, or jihadism, or whatever you want to call it, is an indirect consequence of the Six Day War. Before the Six Day War, Pan-Arabism was the motto of the day. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, had become the leader of a kind of anti-colonial, anti-Israeli, socialist movement in the Arab world. This movement was a source of unity and the reason why Arab states combined their armed forces on the eve of the Six Day War. In a very unusual act as governments go, Egypt and Syria had even united under one state to form the United Arab Republic, though only for three years. Nasser was very charismatic and popular and, in the lead up to the Six Day War, was assured a win by those around him.

One year before the Six Day War, in 1966, Nasser ordered the execution of Sayyid Qutb, a leading intellectual member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb was not a terrorist (and the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation), but he played a big role in the rise of Islamic terrorism. When he was executed, he was made a martyr. His ideas spread and “jihadist” organisations like al-Qaeda followed them.

The transnational Islamist movement arose in a vacuum. After the Six Day War, the Arab leaders (the losers) bickered and fought. Each heaped culpability on the others and suddenly, unity was no longer a priority. Some leaders, such as Jordan’s King Hussein, wanted a peace accord with Israel, while Nasser engaged Israel in the pointless but deadly War of Attrition. Pan-Arabism thus discredited, Islamic fundamentalism became the new ideology of the Muslim world. While most Muslims do not fall under this banner, Islamism has attracted people from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Morocco, India, Iraq, Britain and Spain. And the main target of anger and terrorism in the name of Islam has been Israel.

In the second lasting consequence of the Six Day War, Israel acquired the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. It occupies the last four of these to this day. The return of the Sinai to Egypt was the major reason that Egypt and Israel were able to sign a peace agreement in 1978. Israel and Jordan signed a peace accord in 1994 but return of the West Bank was not part of the deal. It was believed that the Golan Heights could be returned to Syria and the West Bank to Jordan for peace accords, but they were not. The Heights were not of sufficient importance to Syria and peace with Syria not of sufficient interest to Israel to ever make the exchange. And no one wants the Gaza Strip. What problems these territories have caused.

The acquisition of territory by conquest and the settling of it with the conquering state’s citizens are both strictly prohibited by international law. With the exception of East Jerusalem, which the vast majority of Israelis refuse to give up, the government of Israel once hoped that the occupied territories could be returned for peace treaties (“Land for Peace”). At the same time, however, it was allowing Jewish settlers into all areas of the territories. Settlements began springing up everywhere. Settlements in the Sinai were uprooted to return the land to Egypt, and settlements in Gaza were removed in 2005 for reasons we will not go into here. But there are still half a million Jewish settlers in all the occupied territories. Going into all the trouble they have caused for both Israel and the Palestinians is the subject of the book “Lords of the Land” by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar; suffice it to say, the occupation and settlement are the primary reasons the Palestinians are angry.

Third and most important, and related to Israel’s territorial gains, it may be fair to say that all major violence against Israelis and Palestinians since June 1967 has been due to the consequences of the Six Day War. One consequence of the 1948 war, the first Arab-Israeli war, was the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem. The Six Day War exacerbated it. The Palestinians were pushed in greater numbers into refugee camps in places like Lebanon and Jordan. Palestinians were a big presence in western Jordan, and around 1970 had almost carved out an autonomous enclave on the East Bank of the Jordan River. The Palestinian organisation Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat, conducted border raids on Israel and fought with Jordanians as well.

In September of 1970 (“Black September”), Palestinians attempted to assassinate King Hussein. They also hijacked airplanes and, after removing the hostages, blew them up on television. The Jordanian army attacked and, after a year of fighting, drove them out of Jordan to Lebanon.

The Six Day War is also known as the third Arab-Israeli war; the fourth one was in 1973; and the fifth one was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, and after a short time staying out, Arafat’s guerrillas entered the fray. The Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, entered Lebanon in an attempt to shore up a friendly government and take out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. For some time it occupied Beirut, but was forced to retreat to a small part of southern Lebanon that it held as a buffer. Israel’s invasion is generally held as the progenitor of Hizbullah, which prodded Israel into violence several times since, most evidently in the 2006 Lebanon War. In what many Israelis saw at the time as unprovoked and unnecessary violence, in 1982, the IDF killed several thousand Lebanese, enabled the massacre of more than 800 Palestinian refugees and suffered more than 600 casualties.

The occupation of the territories turned the IDF from a defense force into a police force, setting up checkpoints, defending settlers and bulldozers, arresting and shooting Palestinians for violating curfews. This oppressive policing of Palestine led to the first Intifada. The typical image of the Intifada is the Palestinian boy throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. The first Intifada was an uprising against Israeli control of the Palestinian territories and lasted for six years. The second Intifada, characterised less by stones and more by suicide bombings, also lasted several years (when it ended is disputed) and a third one may be in the works.

Contrary to what many Israelis believe, the Intifadas were spontaneous, not planned. They were not the attempted destruction of the State of Israel by the Palestinians but may be likened more to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis: people were herded into terrible conditions and handled with violence. Only the most sheeplike people would not consider fighting back. Things have not gotten any better in the occupied territories and there is no solution in the works. The Palestinians were the real victims of the Six Day War, a war that, in the minds of too many people, has never been resolved.

Tomorrow, we will look at the conduct of the war itself.

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One Response to “A Short History of the Six Day War, part 1”

  1. Tony Blair is the world’s greatest threat to rational thinking « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] and killing of their co-religionists as an extension of this policy. As I have written elsewhere, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism was most stark after the Six Day War, which, incidentally, is when US support for Israel took off. If anyone wants to know why […]


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