Fifty years ago, on the morning of 5 June, the Middle East was about to witness a tectonic shift. It all started at 8.10 am Egyptian time. Israeli jets fitted with rockets started taking off from their bases. Within a few minutes, more than 200 jets, 95 per cent of total air power of the Israel Air Force (IAF), were in the air flying low enough to avoid getting detected by Egyptian radars.
The surprise element was the key to success of the operation. Most of the jets first flew towards the Mediterranean Sea and then turned towards Egypt. Others took the Red Sea route to enter through the southern side. At 8.30 am, the jets were inside the enemy airspace undetected.
Israel’s aim was to render the Egyptian bases unoperational and damage as many jets as possible. Their task was further made easy by the fact that Egyptians parked different types of jets in separate bases. This helped the IAF prioritise the targets, taking out the most lethal ones first. Thanks to a robust intelligence network inside Egypt providing real time information, IAF already knew the locations of all the enemy jets and pilots assigned to them.
At 8.30 am, Israeli jets hit their first target. It was just another day for Egyptian pilots who were having breakfast. They had returned from routine morning patrol. In 30 minutes, IAF had neutralised six air bases and taken out half of the enemy’s air force. By 10.30 am, Egyptian air force, as a fighting force, had ceased to exist.
Though it may sound farcical to suggest that the war didn’t start on 5 June but it isn’t entirely untrue. The events that would culminate into Six-Day War were set in motion weeks ago, if not months.
Which was the one incident most responsible for breaking out of the war?
It depends on who you ask. But one thing is clear. Had Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser not ordered the closure of the Straits of Tiran on 22 May, the war in June would not have commenced. Israel had made its position abundantly clear that it would treat closing the straits as an act of war.
But the Egyptians would not have closed the straits in the first place had Nasser not ordered the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to pack off and leave on 19 May. (UNEF was stationed in the Sinai Peninsula after the Suez crisis of 1956. They acted as a buffer between Israeli and Egyptian forces.) And there would have been no need to ask the UNEF to leave if the army hadn’t crossed the Suez Canal and entered Sinai.
Why did Nasser send the army into Sinai and oust UNEF? Some commentators point towards the 13 November 1966 incident when Israeli forces raided As Samu’, a village in what was then South Jordan.
The reason being the death of three Israeli paratroopers in a landmine attack by Fatah, a fledgling guerrilla group which was gaining notoriety with such acts of terror. Israel’s patience had run its course. And it tried to punish the perpetrators it thought were hiding in As Samu’ but what was supposed to be a small punishing raid across the border escalated quickly as Jordan forces came face to face with Israeli paratroopers. Many civilians died. King Hussein of Jordan was humiliated. He mocked Nasser for failing to help Palestinians and hiding behind UNEF’s skirts.
It is this comment many construe that led Nasser to send his army across the Suez.
Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s military aide Israel Lior, however, believed that the Six-Day War began on 7 April.
Israel’s patience was wearing thin with Syria too, which was harbouring and supporting guerrilla groups, carrying out terror attacks in Israel. A small skirmish on the Syrian border like the As Samu’ raid quickly escalated into a mini war in which as many as 130 jets got involved. IAF ended up chasing Syrian jets all the way to Damascus and taking a victory lap around the city. After King Hussein, it was Syria’s turn to be humiliated. Egypt did not come to Syria’s defense despite having signed a mutual defense treaty six months back. Once the flag-bearer of Arab nationalism, Nasser was increasingly becoming an object of ridicule.
But all he was trying to do was avoid getting entangled into a needless conflict with Israel. Not least because the Jewish state was any less of an anathema to him but he knew Egypt was not yet ready to take on Israel’s military might. He was biding his time.
His longtime comrade and one of the closest advisers, Abdel Hakim Amer was also egging him on to get rid of UNEF and close the Straits of Tiran but with little success.
Then came the Israeli Independence Day parade which was scheduled to take place in the Israeli part of Jerusalem that year. The thought of Jewish soldiers triumphantly marching on the streets of the city evoked intense passion and anger among the Arab population living in the eastern part. It was suggested that the parade be shifted to another city but Eshkol refused.
However, his government understood the exigency for an unostentatious affair to calm the tempers and decided against parading tanks and artillery. Only if they knew that de-emphasising the affair would have an exact opposite effect.
The Soviets told the Egyptians, pointing to the absence of tanks and artillery in the parade, that Israel was massing armies with heavy artillery on the northern border and preparing to invade Syria. Amer who was itching for war vouched for the authenticity of the Soviets’ intelligence. Nasser found it hard to ignore Amer any longer. Amer had full control over the army and had installed his cronies in important ranks in the army. He caved in.
Israel’s leaders however didn’t lose sleep over the reports of the Egyptian army moving into Sinai. Nasser was just flexing his muscle, they thought. Maybe that’s what Nasser was really doing, moving the army into Sinai as a caution to deter Israel from attacking Syria, allaying any doubts about his leadership of the Arab world and more importantly trying to appease the disgruntled populace, giving them what they wanted.
However he wouldn’t be able to completely control the events he set in motion. The expulsion of UNEF on 19 May and closing of the straits on 22 May set alarm bells ringing in Israel. The generals wanted to preemptively strike Egypt and gain unassailable advantage but Eshkol trod with caution. He didn’t want to go to war without securing the support of the US which was imploring it not to attack first.
Egypt was all set to strike the first blow on 27 May but after the USSR’s intervention, Nasser called off the operation. Jordan signing a mutual defence pact with Egypt on 30 May and the MIG sorties over Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona were ostensibly the last straws. Israel could sense the noose tightening around its neck. It had waited long enough. On 4 June, the Cabinet decided to take the plunge.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Israel had won the war within three hours of firing the first shot. The only concern now was to occupy as much enemy territory as it could before the UN knocked the warring parties to the negotiating table to agree on a ceasefire. The astonishing rate at which the country expanded in six days surpassed even the wildest expectations of its people.
Twelve Things The Six-Day War Changed
First, the most obvious change was in the geography of the region itself. Israel had won 42,000 square miles of extra territory in war booty which made it three and a half times the size it was on 4 June. In less than one week, the Arabs lost Sinai, West Bank, Golan Heights and most important of them all, Jerusalem.
In 1947, the UN partitioned the British Mandate Of Palestine. Israel got only 56 per cent of the land and resembled a moth-eaten entity. But thanks to the 1948 war the Arabs waged to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, Israel ended up with 30 per cent more land than the UN had given it.
The Six-Day War as it was officially christened, evoking the six days of creation, had indeed created a new Middle East.
Second, the accession of territories brought with them a new problem, that of hundreds of thousands of refugees and a completely new citizenry, a hostile one at that, into Israeli fold. It was anyone’s guess whether they would prove to be an asset or a liability.
Given the circumstances, Israel’s leadership would’ve agreed to trade the newly acquired territories in 1967 for peace treaties with Arab nations, however the latter didn’t show any inclination for direct talks.
Israel would do so many years later. In 1982, it returned Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty and unilaterally gave up control over Gaza in 2005. While it holds on to the Golan Heights, Israel has handed over its control in some areas in West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Third, the war changed the nature of the Israeli state. The addition of lakhs of new people presented its own problems. Giving Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank political rights would mean a dilution of the Jewish nature of Israel but not doing so would invite charges of imperialism and oppression. Israel chose the latter. Until 1981, the occupied territories remained under military rule and then under a civil administration run by a unit in the Defense Ministry.
In just six days, Israel’s status went from a defensive state fighting for its survival to, as Ian Lustick puts it, an imperialist one.
Fourth, the new populace, which was very poor compared to Israeli citizens, solved the problem of Israel’s growing need for low cost mass labour. They took up tasks that Israel’s citizens would rather not do. This proved to be a boon not only for the Israeli economy but also for the poor Arabs as their economic conditions changed dramatically. Political rights remained a far cry but unemployment in Gaza kept falling as more and more refugees found opportunities to work in nearby Israeli towns. Agriculture activity boomed in West Bank where farmers were not only free to trade in East Bank in Jordan but were provided with markets in Israel to the west. Under the guidance of Israeli experts, farmers also started shifting from low-price crops to labour-intensive ones.
Fifth, the peace, however, didn’t follow the improvement in economic conditions of people in the occupied territories. The decisive and one-sided Israeli victory had created a sense of hopelessness in the general population in Arab countries that Israel could not be defeated. Their leaders also realised that engaging Israel in a conventional war would only spell more doom for them.
Egypt and its Arab allies including guerrilla organisations now sought to bleed Israel by a thousand cuts. Egypt with its air force replenished within months of the June war started harassing Israeli forces in Sinai with heavy aerial bombardments along the Suez Canal and raids into Sinai. Its guerrilla allies on the other hand launched terrorist attacks with the help of local Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank. Israel paid them back in the same coin but peace remained elusive.
The Six-Day War had changed the nature of warfare in the region.
Sixth, the main reason why Egypt could recover from the humiliating defeat in the June war so quickly and force the war of attrition on Israel was solely because of the Soviet Union which replenished its arsenal, most importantly its air force. Israel’s complete dominance over its enemies during the 1967 war threatened to reduce the USSR’s dominance in the region. To protect their hard-earned clout, the Soviets decisively shifted towards Arabs, a major geopolitical orientation with great ramifications.
The United States, though sympathetic to Israel before 1967, was trying to keep both sides happy and went to great pains to refute the allegations of collusion with Israel in attacking Egypt.
But with the USSR’s tilt towards the Arabs and the presence of the sizable politically conscious and influential Jewish population in America, it became easier for the US to pivot towards Israel. The war changed a friend into a strategic ally, as Israel’s former ambassador to America, Michael Oren recently put it.
Seventh, the 1967 war changed so much—geography, geopolitics, demographics, economy, politics couldn’t have remain insulated for long. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Six-Day War sowed the seeds for the growth of the right wing in Israel. The bone of contention was the newly occupied lands which the Labour parties wanted to trade in exchange for long lasting peace agreements with Arabs. Right wing parties vehemently opposed the idea as did traditional Zionists. West Bank and Gaza, they reasoned, were part of the promised land, the Greater Israel. The war threw up a new leader in Menachem Begin. An insignificant entity before the war, the right-wing coalition led by Likud under the leadership of Begin, would go on to form the government in 1977. Since then, the right wing coalition has ruled for the major part of the last four decades.
Eighth, the Six-Day War had an unmistakable impact on the economy. In 1966, the prevailing economic conditions in the country were pretty harsh. Low population growth and decreasing immigration coupled with a drop in foreign investments pushed construction and housing—two very important economic activities in Israel into a downward spiral. Rising unemployment figures dominated the newspapers. But the war changed all that. The construction industry, buoyed by thousands of fresh contracts in newly occupied areas, came out of its coma. Unemployment started dropping and immigration as well as investment picked up as sense of security returned. The tourism industry got a big fillip, too.
Ninth, the economy was not just improving, a structural shift was also taking place. From traditional strongholds of construction and agriculture, people were moving to factories. Availability of cheap Arab labour from the newly occupied territories was of immense help in facilitating this transformation. Israel was reaping millions of dollars in profits from oil wells in Sinai.
It didn’t have a great military ally like Egyptians who had the USSR that could provide them all the weapons they needed. Pushed to the wall, Israel ventured on its own and bet big on defense manufacturing. It paid off and the fruits of their labour weren’t limited to advanced military equipment alone. It had a spillover effect on various industries that would turn Israel, a country of socialist kibbutzes into an innovation nation.
Tenth, the June war put an end to Israel’s social crisis too. The country’s morale in 1966 was sapping due to the failing economy, rising unemployment and increasing terrorist attacks. Forget immigration, even Israeli Jews were fleeing the country. The fact that the people were choosing the Diaspora over the Homeland was insulting to the majority of the people. “There could be no greater blow to the Zionist ego,” as Tom Segev puts it succinctly in his book on the 1967 war.
The war reversed the situation. The post-war country suddenly looked huge. And more than the size of new territories, it was the return of Judaism’s holiest sites under Jewish control after 2,000 years that swelled the Jews throughout the world with immense pride. For Jews, no amount of territory could’ve transcended the symbolism of repossessing the most sacred sites like Temple Mount, Western wall and Biblical towns such as Hebron and Bethlehem.
Before the war, a strain in relations was developing between the Ashkenazi Jews, an educated, elite lot who had immigrated to Israel from Western countries and the Mizrahi Jews, their poorer brethren immigrating in hordes from Arab countries due to increasing hostilities against them. The former felt threatened by the latter’s increasing population. However, the war shattered such ethnic and class barriers. Arabs who were poorer than the Mizrahi Jews now replaced them as a group to be looked down upon.
Eleventh, the June war also had unintended consequences. Before 1967, various guerrilla groups—Fatah, the PLO—were fighting separately, launching attacks separately in their own chaotic ways. The stunning defeat of Arab forces made these groups come together and fight as Palestinians. PLO and Fatah merged. Michael Oren recently opined how “The biggest winners of the Six-Day War” were Palestinians. He couldn’t be more right when he says that the war shaped the Palestinian identity as it exists today because “the concept of a ‘Palestinian’ did not exist as we now know it.”
Twelfth, the 1967 war became a cult which military leaders throughout the world cited and drew their own lessons from. The importance of air power and first strike couldn’t be more pronounced. However, six years later, in 1973, Israel would forget this lesson when Prime Minister Golda Meir decided not to attack first and paid the price for it, thankfully not as heavy as Egypt did in 1967.
The Arabs underestimated Israel’s military might. Egypt’s president, instead of leading his people, ended up being led by them. In his quest to win their hearts and minds, he goaded the country into ruin.
Nasser placed his camaraderie with Amer over the interests of the country. Amer in turn did the same and promoted people to important military ranks based on their loyalty to him rather than competence.
The war also teaches us how the fire of irrational hatred can consume even the best of people.Nasser was a great leader but got into an unwarranted war started by someone else (Syria) and ended up losing the most. King Hussein showed poor judgment. He couldn’t contain himself from attacking Israel after hearing misleading initial reports of Egyptian victories.
There are a lot of lessons to learn for India as well. On how to deal with insurgency in Kashmir or Pakistan’s strategy of warfare through non-state actors. India fares badly at deterrence. Israel hasn’t perfected the concept but has learned to achieve significant successes by imposing very heavy costs on the enemy.