A Short History of the Six Day War, part 2

Conduct

Why did Israel win the Six Day War? There are a few reasons. First, it attacked preemptively. Israel’s attack may or may not have been justified (though, as I will explain in the third section, the historical record implies that it was) but it was a surprise. Surprise attack is a good strategy. Second, Israelis generally felt that their backs were against the wall. The prevailing feeling in Israel before the war had been one of fear (which, again, we will go into in the final section of this account), and when fear is translated into fight (as opposed to flight) it is deadly. The prevailing feeling among Arabs was hubris. Third, Israel had superior forces, and relied on air power at the beginning of its campaign. Fourth, the Arab armies had poor leadership and organisation, and were not as prepared, as numerous or as mighty as they had thought. This section will expatiate on the most important events of the war.

By 07:30 on June 5, 200 Israeli planes were aloft and heading to Egypt. A Jordanian radar officer noticed and radioed his commanding officer in Amman. The officer in Amman relayed the information to Cairo. However, the Egyptians had, just the day before, changed their codes and had not notified the Jordanians. The Israeli aircraft destroyed most of Egypt’s air force and antiaircraft weapons on the ground.

Now in control of the air, Israel sent tanks across the Sinai desert. They suffered many casualties but still did better than the Egyptians. Major General Ariel Sharon, prime minister during the Second Intifada, was commander of one of the most powerful of the armoured divisions that took the Sinai. Battles continued and Israeli tanks kept advancing. By day 4, there was no more doubt that the Egyptians were defeated and that Israel had taken the Sinai.

A few hours after the attack on Egypt, the US consul-general in Jerusalem mused that Jerusalem might have been spared the violence that was raging around the region. At first, things were calm. King Hussein of Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank, received a phone call from Nasser saying that Israel had suffered great losses. The Iraqis told him their aircraft were already engaging with Israel’s. Hussein ordered the attack.

Bombs from planes and cannons shook Israel for a few hours but then Israel performed two lightning strikes that destroyed Jordan’s planes and airfields. They took other positions in Jordan, and over the next two days occupied much of the West Bank. This new territory included the Old City–East Jerusalem. Jews were ecstatic. This was a big cause of their feeling at the end of the war that God was truly on their side: not only had they triumphed over seemingly (but not actually) overwhelming odds, but they had taken back the holy lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the now united holy city of Jerusalem.

On day 2, Nasser declared, erroneously, that the US was actively aiding Israel in the fighting. He asked the USSR for equal assistance to ward off the Americans. Radio stations in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere claimed, also erroneously, that American or British planes and ships were causing all kinds of trouble. As a result, mobs attacked American embassies throughout the Middle East. Ten oil-producing Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Iraq limited or banned oil shipments to the US and Britain. This began the 1967 oil embargo and the use of the “oil weapon”.

The United States continued monitoring the conflict from a distance. The USS Liberty, breaking with the 6th Fleet, came close to the Sinai coast. Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli chief of staff (later prime minister), had warned that all unidentified vessels traveling at high speed would be sunk. The Liberty was not identified fast enough, and Israeli jets and boats attacked it. The ship was badly damaged and 34 American crewmen died. The US and Israeli governments both conducted inquiries and found that the attack was an accident. However, some US diplomats and officials say it was not. The Israeli government later paid nearly $13m in settlements. To this day, there are many unanswered questions about the USS Liberty incident.

Back to the front. Syria had also believed the reports that Israel was nearly defeated but nonetheless moved with some caution. When the Israeli Air Force was finished with the Egyptian Air Force, it turned its attention to the Syrian Air Force. In the evening of the first day of the war, the Israelis destroyed two thirds of Syria’s fighter jets. Several Syrian tanks were put to rest as well. Syria’s army began shelling positions in northern Israel but were soon pushed back again. By day 5, the battle for the Golan Heights was raging. The Golan Heights are a plateau bordering Israel, Syria and Lebanon. In two days, they became an occupied territory and in 1981 were annexed (like East Jerusalem but unlike Gaza and the West Bank) by Israel.

After the last gun had been fired over the Heights, the war was over. The ceasefire was signed the next day, on June 11th. Israelis proved to the world that it took more than some local bullies to bring it down. But its troubles were not over.

Yesterday, we saw the consequences of the Six Day War. Part 3 will show us how we got to June 5.

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