Every year in Jerusalem, when early June arrives, poignant recollections of the Six-Day War come to mind. We remember the life-and-death battle that Israel fought in 1967 against an array of Arab nations.
And this year – June 2017 – marks that war’s 50th anniversary.
Even before Israel declared statehood in 1948, warlike Arab nations threatened the survival of its Jewish population. And after statehood, more than ever, they called for the fledgling nation to be “wiped off the map.”
A trio of enemies – Egypt, Syria and Jordan – had diligently prepared themselves for an inevitable confrontation. To make matters worse, they enjoyed financial, diplomatic and – briefly at times – military support from 10 other equally hostile Arab nations.
In 1965, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared, “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand; we shall enter it with its soil covered in blood.”
After the 1967 War was said and done, the Arabs called it an-Naksah – “The Setback.”
Israelis and their friends simply called it a miracle.
The miraculous happened, at least in part, thanks to the remarkable prowess of the Israel Defense Forces and the tireless planning, courage and brilliance of its commanders. Still, Israel’s brave soldiers had to fight their hearts out, against all odds.
In 1967, the State of Israel was only 19 years old. And despite its successes during the 1948 War of Independence, East Jerusalem – including the historic Jewish Quarter – had been lost.
Meanwhile, by 1967, Soviet-backed Arab states – motivated both by nationalistic and religious dogmas – felt justified in preparing for Israel’s destruction.
To make matters worse, though war was threatened, Israel had no real allies. France had turned a cold shoulder; Britain was politely ambiguous, and although the United States claimed to be interested in Israel’s wellbeing, it was unwilling to make a concrete commitment to her support.
In short, the Jewish State was on her own.
Certainly, the last thing Israel wanted was a war. But by spring 1967, it was clear that sooner rather than later, the first shot would surely be fired.
Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol warned on May 11,
In view of the 14 incidents of sabotage and infiltration perpetrated in the past month alone, Israel may have no other choice but to adopt suitable countermeasures against the focal points of sabotage. Israel will continue to take action to prevent any and all attempts to perpetrate sabotage within her territory. There will be no immunity for any state which aids or abets such acts.
Then came a particularly menacing incident: Nasser demanded that the United Nations Emergency Force, which was serving as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, be removed from the Sinai Peninsula.
UNEF obediently withdrew.
At the same time, Egypt was massing tens of thousands of troops and nearly 1,000 tanks, all facing Israel. Today, war historians say that some half a million Arab troops – Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian – were prepared to attack Israel. Around 250,000 were initially deployed.
Meanwhile, the Russians spread the false rumor that Israel was assembling troops on the Syrian border, about to launch an offensive. In fact, the opposite was true. Syria was actively instigating the impending conflict.
By then, everyone knew that war was in the air. The Israelis were enduring an agonizing and suspenseful build-up to the looming conflict. All reserve soldiers were called into active duty. Young men dug trenches and graves; families obeyed home-front security drills; and everyone tried to ignore the relentless, hateful threats emanating from all sides. Many would recall, years later, that it was one of the most nerve-wracking times of their lives.
Then came Nasser’s decisive and ultimately deadly move. On May 23, he closed the Red Sea shipping lanes – the Straits of Tiran – to all Israel-flagged vessels. American President Lyndon Johnson later remarked,
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. The right of innocent maritime passage must be preserved for all nations.
Even now, 50 years later, the events of those terrible days crescendo like an ominous drumbeat. It gradually deepened, intensified and finally exploded into a deafening, heart-stopping battle.
The Israelis launched a preemptive aerial attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967.
Michael Oren is an acclaimed historian, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and author of the meticulously researched book Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. He wrote,
It started at 7:10 in the morning of June, 5, 1967, Israel time. By 7:30, close to 200 planes were aloft. With them went the orders, issued that morning, by Air Force Commander Mordechai “Motti” Hod,
“The spirit of Israel’s heroes accompany us to battle. From Joshua ben-Nun, King David, the Maccabees and the fighters of 1948 and 1956, we shall draw the strength and courage to strike the Egyptians who threaten our safety, our independence and our future. Fly, soar at the enemy, destroy him and scatter him throughout the desert so that Israel may live, secure in its land, for generations.”
Israeli planes roared into view while Egypt’s pilots were enjoying their breakfast; only four unarmed Egyptian training flights were in the air. The rest of Egypt’s aircraft were on the ground at several bases.
The Israelis relentlessly bombarded them. They continued to attack for hours, rearming and refueling planes more quickly than anyone imagined possible.
Oren wrote, “In little over half an hour, the Egyptians had lost 204 planes – half of their air force – all but nine of them on the ground.”
A historical report later confirmed that, during the course of the 1967 War, 452 Arab aircraft were destroyed. “The entire Jordanian Air Force, the entire Syrian Air Force and most of the Egyptian Air force was eliminated.”
Along with the aerial attack, Israel’s ground war began on June 5 against Egypt’s burgeoning forces in Sinai.
As for Jordan, Israel had no interest in fighting against her. But although their relations had always been less hostile than with Syria or Egypt, repeated efforts to avoid confrontation failed.
On June 6, after repeated bombardments by the Jordanians, Israel moved troops not only into East Jerusalem but also into historic Judea and Samaria – the West Bank.
The next day, after intense fighting, the IDF consolidated control over all Jordanian-held territories. The subsequent Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank, the legality of which has been debated for half a century, continues to this day.
Jordan suffered one humiliating loss after another.
Since the 1948 War of Independence, Israelis had not been permitted to enter Jerusalem’s Jordan-held Jewish Quarter, or to approach the Western Wall (often called the Wailing Wall), the holiest site of Jewish prayer. In fact, General Motti Gur – commander of the Jerusalem operation – can be heard inquiring on one radio broadcast, “Tell me, where is the Western Wall? How do we get there?”
On June 7, the IDF surged into Jerusalem’s Old City through the Lion’s Gate and advanced rapidly toward the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.
The aftermath of the Jerusalem battle was summed in a simple statement in Hebrew that electrifies Israelis to this day. It couldn’t have been clearer or more to the point: “Har haBayit be Yadenu!”
“The Temple Mount is in our hands!”
Eloquent photographs appeared in newspapers around the world, capturing the awestruck faces of young Israeli soldiers, standing in amazement at the Western Wall. Not long thereafter, Yitzhak Rabin – future prime minister of Israel – stood in the shadow of the Wall and declared,
The sacrifices of our comrades have not been in vain. The countless generations of Jews murdered, martyred and massacred for the sake of Jerusalem say to you, “Comfort ye our people, console the mothers and the fathers, whose sacrifices have brought about redemption.”
It is astonishing, in retrospect, to realize that on the same day Israel took back Jerusalem from the Jordanians, an entirely different IDF operation seized control of Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh, on the Red Sea shoreline.
And from Sharm, on June 6, the IDF broke the Egyptian naval blockade of the Straits of Tiran which had sparked the war.
In the meantime, despite key Israeli victories that had taken place in Egypt, Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank, the war wasn’t over. In the north, the Syrian Army was persistently shelling Israeli villages – kibbutzim – from vantage points in the Golan Heights and along Israel’s northern borders.
This ignited a ferocious IDF engagement with Syria which involved fiery tank battles and, at times, even hand-to-hand combat.
Finally, on June 10, Syria was also defeated.
A ceasefire between Israel and the surrounding nations soon followed. Newsday summed up the results.
After just six days of fighting, Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and all of Jerusalem. The new Israel was more than three times larger than the old one. It was oddly reminiscent of Genesis: six days of intense effort followed by a day of rest, in this case the signing of a ceasefire.
The 1967 War ended with such a dramatic conclusion that the facts are still, to this day, hard to fathom. Analysts cite it as one of the greatest military victories in modern times. Many of us still shake our heads in wonder.
Oren has described the war’s impact on his family:
I will never forget my father rushing to the breakfast table, waving a copy of Life. On the cover was a photo of an Israeli soldier chest-deep in the Suez Canal, a captured Kalashnikov brandished over his head. “You see that?” he shouted. “That is what we can do!” And then he kissed the picture.
Far away in California, young as I was, I still recall listening to a radio broadcast at the war’s conclusion with a secular Jewish man named David Rabinowitz. He shook his head in disbelief as he heard the news.
“There’s only one explanation,” he told me, and he all but shouted the ancient words: “Ten thousand will fall at the hand of one Jew!” His face was flushed with joy.
Later, when I talked to my father about the Israeli triumph, his eyes flooded with tears.
“I’ve seen the Bible come alive in my lifetime,” he told me, his voice breaking. “First the Jews were re-gathered in their homeland. And now this?
“It really is a miracle.”