In the picture: Israelis digging trenches in Kibutz Gan Shmuel in the days leading to the Six Days War
Note: A video by PBS at the bottom of the article includes interviews with Syrians, Egyptians, Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Russians, and others. People who were in key positions on all sides. They share their stories and provide a balanced picture of the what, why, and when, the Six Day War was born, fought, and ended. The article below is an Israeli point of view of the war
I searched the internet looking for the one picture that will describe best the Six Day War. The one picture that will say it all. There were plenty famous pictures featuring the greatest moments of the war: The first Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall, the victorious Israeli generals entering the Old City, the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Sinai desert, tanks, war planes, soldiers, prisoners of war, Israelis soldiers in the Suez Canal. From my point of view, non of these pictures captured the essence of the Six Days War. They all missed one important element; non of them reflected the fear of the coming war that preceded the victory.
In 1967 there was no Israeli TV. The only stations available were Arab stations from Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. These were the TV stations we watched in Israel. In the days leading to the war, these stations broadcasted repeatedly the massive crowed and military parades in Egypt and other capitals in the Arab world, place were thousands of people marched and chanted “Death to the Jews.” This is all that we saw on TV. It worried us. I chose a picture of Israelis digging trenches in perpetration for the upcoming war. This was one of the most common activities in Israel in the days before the war. Most adult men were drafted. The women, the elders, and the kids dug trenches.As an elementary school student, I also dug a trench in our back yard. The country was preparing for the worse.
Personal Memories from the days leading to the war
I lived in a town near the Jordanian border. We could see the nearest Jordanian town from our neighborhood. We knew that the war was coming and in the weeks leading to the war we practiced several times running to the school’s bomb shelter. The whole school practiced on how to squeeze as many students into one room. I was in an elementary school on June 5th 1967. I will never forget that day: We took a math test that morning when suddenly the school siren went off. We ran across the school yard to a bomb shelter. We didn’t know that this was how the Israeli government chose to let us know that it launched a surprise attack on Egypt and Syria. We took shelter as if the enemy was coming. I’m not sure why our teacher insisted that we’ll continue with the test when the “all clear” signal was given. I was all confused and disoriented. I lost my pencil when I ran in panic to the shelter, so when we were instruct to continue with the test, I sat in the classroom unable to do anything. The siren went off again and we ran to the shelter for the second time. When the “all clear” was given, the school discharged us. I walked home with two friends. The streets were empty and we were scared. I lived at the farthest house. It was far from everyone else. It was surrounded by orange groves. I was scared to go home by myself. I ran into a person in uniform. He carried a gun, so I asked him to escort me home and he agreed. No one was home. I was all alone for about an hour, than I saw my younger sister who was in first grade at the time. She walked up the hill by herself. Shortly after that my older sister showed up and the three of us went to the basement to wait until mother returned from work. The basement had an outside stairs. We were so scared that we didn’t dare going out to use the restroom in the house. (Gideon)
“In early June 1967, as I cowered with my mother and sisters in the “safest” room of our house near Jerusalem — the downstairs bathroom — we feared the worst. None of us imagined that the war that had just begun would end in six days. It was inconceivable that the Israeli army would destroy three Arab armies, kill upward of 15,000 Arab soldiers (at a cost of 700 Israeli casualties), triple the size of the state of Israel and, for the first time in two millenniums, give the Jewish people control over the entire land of Israel, including the crown jewel, the Old City of Jerusalem.” (Miko Peled-Los Angeles Times)
THE SIX DAY WAR
“Cut off from military aid by France’s Charles de Gaulle, hitherto a reliable arms supplier, and not yet an ally of the United States—which had recently sold or given away hundreds of millions of dollars in arms to the Arab world—a beleaguered Israel found itself surrounded by massive armies in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. These combined militaries fielded 900 combat aircraft, 5,000 tanks, and 500,000 soldiers, ensuring an astounding edge of three-to-one or even greater in every category of military asset. Israel won two conflicts with its neighbors before the Six-Day war, and one after it. But the modern Middle East had never witnessed anything quite like what transpired between June 5 and 10, 1967. Even today, the astounding chain of events of some 35 years ago reads more like fiction than history.” (Six Days of War by Michael B. Oren-Commentary Magazine)
“The Six Day War (5-10 June, 1967) erupted between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria due to an escalation in Israeli-Arab tensions, the state of inter-Arab relations, and world powers’ intervention in Middle East affairs. A number of factors fueled Israeli-Arab tensions at the time: First and foremost was the Arab League’s decision to divert the sources of the Jordan River away from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) into Syrian and Lebanese territory, combined with Israel national water carrier becoming operational in 1964. The standoff over regional water sources is considered the prime catalyst for the war. Second came the Arab League’s decision to name the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) as the Palestinian’s official body. That, complied by a series of Syrian-sponsored terror attacks in Israel, caused regional tensions to soar. Syria was believed to be trying to strengthen its position in the Arab world and challenge Egypt’s dominance, after its 1961 decision to quit the United Arab Republic – the joint state it had formed with Egypt three years earlier as a first step to establishing a pan-Arab nation. According to various analysts, news of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona spurred panic in Egypt, further aggravating the situation.
On April 7, 1967 six Syrian MiG-21 fighter jets were shot down by the Israeli Air Force in what was initially a minor border confrontation, prompting Syria turned to Egypt requesting urgent assistance. Meanwhile, on May 13, the USSR falsely informed Egypt that the IDF had deployed a large force along the Syrian-Israeli border. Then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser answered Syria’s plea and dispatched seven military divisions to its border with Israel and sending nearly 1,000 Egyptian tanks to Sinai. The Egyptian troops met the United Nations Emergency Force, deployed along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Cairo asked the UN to evacuate its forces from the border but then-UN secretary-general, Myanmar’s U Thant, refused, saying the forces would either remain in place or would withdraw completely.
On May 17, Nasser informed Thant that he should evacuate all UN troops from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The order was immediately executed, prompting a near immediate deployment of Jordanian troops Amman’s border with Israel. Israeli intelligence indicated that Egypt was not interested in an armed confrontation, since its forces were involved in the civil war in Yemen. On May 20, however, Egypt began withdrawing its troops from Yemen, prompting Israel reassess the situation and subsequently order a wide mobilization of reserve forces, which nearly paralyzed Israel’s economy.
May 22, 1967 saw Egypt close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, a belligerent move which Israel regarded as direct provocation Egyptian President Nasser was later quoted as declaring “if IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin wants war, then he was welcome to it.”
On May 30, Jordan informed Egypt its troops were at Cairo’s disposal, as Iraq and several other Arab nations followed suit. Israel’s pleas to the western powers and the UN to intervene in order to prevent a war were left unmet.
June 2, 1967 welcomed a new government in Israel. The new cabinet named Israel’s fourth Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan its defense minister. The following day, France – Israel’s chief weapons supplier – declared a weapons embargo in the Middle East.
On June 4, Israel decided to launch a preemptive strike against neighboring Arab air-force bases in order to assume airspace control on the region.
On the morning of June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force pummeled Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian airfields, destroying over 350 planes within a few hours. Only 20 Israeli jets were shot down during the fighting, mostly by anti-aircraft missiles. IAF fighter jets also made sure any existing runways were demolished, so as to paralyze the remaining enemy warplanes.” (ynet.com)
“Beginning on June 5, Israel focused the main effort of its ground forces against Egypt’s Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. In a lightning attack, the Israelis burst through the Egyptian lines and across the Sinai. The Egyptians fought resolutely but were outflanked by the Israelis and decimated in lethal air attacks.
By June 8, the Egyptian forces were defeated, and Israel held the Gaza Strip and the Sinai to the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, to the east of Israel, Jordan began shelling its Jewish neighbor on June 5, provoking a rapid and overwhelming response from Israeli forces.
Israel overran the West Bank and on June 7 captured the Old City of East Jerusalem. The chief chaplain of the Israel Defense Forces blew a ram’s horn at the Western Wall to announce the reunification of East Jerusalem with the Israeli-administered western sector.
To the north, Israel bombarded Syria’s fortified Golan Heights for two days before launching a tank and infantry assault on June 9. After a day of fierce fighting, the Syrians began a retreat from the Golan Heights
on June 10. On June 11, a U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect throughout the three combat zones, and the Six-Day War was at an end. Israel had more than doubled its size in the six days of fighting…The Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors ends with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire. The outnumbered Israel Defense Forces achieved a swift and decisive victory in the brief war, rolling over the Arab coalition that threatened the Jewish state and more than doubling the amount of territory under Israel’s control. The greatest fruit of victory lay in seizing the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan; thousands of Jews wept while bent in prayer at the Second Temple’s Western Wall. ” (History)
Commentaries on the Six Days War
“The war was a military disaster for the Arabs but it was also a massive blow to the Arabs morale. Here were four of the strongest Arab nations systematically defeated by just one nation. The success of the campaign must have surprised the Israelis. However, it also gave them a major problem for decades. By capturing the Sinai, the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Israelis had captured for themselves areas of great strategic value. However, the West Bank also contained over 600,000 Arabs who now came under Israeli administration. Their plight led many young Arabs into joining the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a group that the Israelis deemed a terrorist organization. Israeli domestic policies became a lot more complicated after the military successes of June 1967.” (History Learning Site)
“776 Israeli soldiers fell in the Six-Day War. While all branches of the service had performed well, the Air Force had, for the first time, played a decisive role: clearing the skies at the outset made all that followed possible. This was the War of the Air Force. Diplomatic efforts to bring to an end the by-now 40 years of conflict, which predated the establishment of Israel by more than two decades, came to naught. In November 1967, after months of deliberations, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242, calling for peace and recognition of the “right of every nation to live free from threat within secure and recognized boundaries”, in return for Israel’s withdrawal “from territories”, not “all the territories”, nor “the territories captured in the course of the recent hostilities”. However, the Arab League, in its session in the Sudan (1967) adopted a different resolution, the “Three No’s” of Khartoum: No peace, No negotiations, No recognition of Israel.” (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
“There may be reasonable arguments to be made about the need for Israel and the Palestinians to live under separate sovereignty rather than the unsatisfactory status quo. But the problem with most of the discussions about the topic is the assumption that merely recreating the situation that existed before that war will bring about peace. Hard as it may be to ask news consumers to think that far back into history, it is necessary to remind those who harp on “1967” as the only possible solution that when there was not a single Jew living in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, there was no peace. Not only that, prior to that war, when the area now dubbed the “occupied territories” were in the possession of Jordan and Egypt, the focus of the Arab and Muslim world was not on the creation of a Palestinian state but on ending Jewish sovereignty over the territory of pre-1967 Israel.” (Commentary Magazine)
“Over 75% of the Israeli population have no experience of living in Israel within the 1967 borders, and can hardly perceive of such a reality as anything but a nightmare. The truth is that also among those who experienced the pre-1967 reality many remember it as a nightmare, at least in security terms. When Abba Eban, who was Israel’s foreign minister during the Six Day War, appeared at the United Nations following the war, he described Israel’s 1949- 1967 boundaries as “Auschwitz borders.” What exactly did he mean? In 1969 he gave an explanation in an interview to the German Der Spiegel: “The June (1967) map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz. We shudder when we think of what would have awaited us in the circumstances of June, 1967, if we had been defeated; with Syrians on the mountain and we in the valley, with the Jordanian army in sight of the sea, with the Egyptians who hold our throat in their hands in Gaza. This is a situation which will never be repeated….” So at least from a security point of view Israel is undoubtedly better off today than it was before the war, even though modern implements of warfare (especially missiles) have greatly changed the significant of borders.
But beyond the elusive question of borders, what else did the war change with regards to the reality we live in? To start off one must point out that certain things would have changed even without the Six Day War. For example, the predominance of the Zionist Labor Movement, which lasted from 1935 to 1977, and which advocated various shades of social democracy, would have come to an end sooner or later, though the Six Day War and its aftermath enhanced the process.
Why? First of all because the regime’s cockiness following the Six Day War resulted in the Yom Kippur War, and despite the fact that this war finally resulted in a military victory, the shock of the surprise and lack of preparedness started to crack the regime’s perceived omnipotence. The war also changed the whole context of the debate between the political Left and Right. Whereas until 1967 the debate dealt primarily with socio-economic issues, the change in the territory under Israeli control brought up the issue of the permanent borders of the state (i.e. “territorial compromise” – yes or no?), the nature of the desired permanent solution between Israel and its neighbors, if and when such a solution would become possible, not to mention the essence of Zionism, and balancing the Jewish and democratic components of the state.
These post-1967 issues are still prominent, and have given rise to various phenomena such as messianic Judaism on the one hand, and Israeli human rights organizations on the other, which are opposite reactions the new reality that Israel has got itself into, and which would have been much less relevant in the pre-1967 reality.
…But to return to the consequences of the Six Day War, let us remember that if today many complain about the absence of progress in the peace process, before 1967 there was no peace process, only open threats and acts against Israel’s existence. True, it took 10 years before peace with Egypt became possible, and 25 years before a dialogue (faulty as it may be) began between Israel and the Palestinians. However, all this was totally unimaginable before Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Perhaps a permanent peace solution is impossible, and Israel will have to continue to live by its sword as long as it manages to survive, however, we are certainly in a totally different place, despite the pessimism and double-talk of both Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu.
One of the more negative aspects of the new reality is that whereas before 1967 Israel was perceived in the world as little David confronting Goliath, today Israel is perceived as the giant bully, even though the reality is much more complex, and Israel’s current status in the world is not affected only by an objective perception of realities, but in some cases also by old fashioned anti-Semitism as well.
Finally, before the outbreak of the Six Day War Israel was in a state of a deep economic depression, which gave rise to jokes such as “the last person to leave Lod Airport (today’s Ben-Gurion Airport) is requested to turn off the lights.” The consequences of the war pushed Israel into a completely different economic reality, which despite ups and downs, and growing socio-economic inequalities and injustices, changed its economic status from a fairly successful developing economy to an industrial economy which is a world leader in certain spheres.
What is the conclusion from all the facts that have been presented above (and they are but a drop in the ocean)? It is that it is very difficult to say whether the Six Day War brought more good than evil, or vice versa. The Six Day War was an occurrence that was forced upon Israel, which did not plan it and did not desire it. Going back to what existed before this war is impossible, and the real question is where we go from where we are today – a reality that was only partially shaped by the Six Day War.”(www.jpost.com)
“Many believe now, as they believed then, that Israel was forced to initiate a preemptive strike in 1967 because it faced an existential threat from Arab armies that were ready — and intending — to destroy it. As it happens, my father, Gen. Matti Peled, who was the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of logistics at the time, was one of the few who knew that was not so. In an article published six years later in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, he wrote of Egypt’s president, who commanded the biggest of the Arab armies: “I was surprised that Nasser decided to place his troops so close to our border because this allowed us to strike and destroy them at any time we wished to do so, and there was not a single knowledgeable person who did not see that. From a military standpoint, it was not the IDF that was in danger when the Egyptian army amassed troops on the Israeli border, but the Egyptian army.” In interviews over the years, other generals who served at that time confirmed this, including Ariel Sharon and Ezer Weitzman.
In 1967, as today, the two power centers in Israel were the IDF high command and the Cabinet. On June 2, 1967, the two groups met at IDF headquarters. The military hosts greeted the generally cautious and dovish prime minister, Levi Eshkol, with such a level of belligerence that the meeting was later commonly called “the Generals’ Coup.” The transcripts of that meeting, which I found in the Israeli army archives, reveal that the generals made it clear to Eshkol that the Egyptians would need 18 months to two years before they would be ready for a full-scale war, and therefore this was the time for a preemptive strike. My father told Eshkol: “Nasser is advancing an ill-prepared army because he is counting on the Cabinet being hesitant. Your hesitation is working in his advantage.” The prime minister parried this criticism, saying, “The Cabinet must also think of the wives and mothers who will become bereaved.” Throughout the meeting, there was no mention of a threat but rather of an “opportunity” that was there, to be seized.
Within short order, the Cabinet succumbed to the pressure of the army, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Six-Day War began three days later and was over on June 10, 1967. When the guns fell silent, one general saw yet another opportunity, one that would take most of Israel’s other leaders some decades to recognize. This was my father. A 1995 newspaper profile reconstructed the first weekly meeting that the IDF general staff held after the war. When it came his turn to speak, my father said: “For the first time in Israel’s history, we have an opportunity to solve the Palestinian problem once and for all. Now we are face to face with the Palestinians, without other Arab countries dividing us. Now we have a chance to offer the Palestinians a state of their own.” (Miko Peled-Los Angeles Times)
“The victory of the Six Day War was the beginning of a euphoric era for Israeli society. Much of the world, helped by various Christian sentiments, saw the Jewish State as invincible, and the Israeli public and military felt matchless. For the first time in the fledgling democracy’s short life, Israel saw impressive economic growth. It was suddenly trendy to be an Israeli and to live in Israel, and a large wave of American Jews flocked there. Israel had conquered more than triple the size of the area it previously controlled, from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles, the defense of which would prove a staggering (and ultimately forfeited) task. But in the afterglow of victory, many in the Israeli military high command were more focused on renovating their quarters, and the soldiers who were assigned to the Sinai were improving their fishing skills on the Suez Canal.
Israel’s victory left the Arab world – especially Egypt – deeply wounded, and not only militarily but psychologically as well. It was inconceivable to the Egyptian psyche that a nation (and a nation of Jews no less) as small as Israel would so swiftly and effectively demolish their military might, and above all the Egyptian air force. Following the defeat, a steady acceleration of anti-Semitism began in Egypt. Books such as The End of Israel and Human Sacrifices in the Talmud, and of course, the long-in-print The Protocols of the Elders of Zion became best sellers. News media, films and even monuments commemorated what the ‘Zionist entity’ had done to Egypt. All of this was done in order to instill a motivation for restoring Egyptian pride, to focus the blame for the defeat outward away from the Egyptian government, and to increase the hatred and dehumanization of Israel. It is true the 1973 war is seen as one of the few diplomatic and military failures Israel has experienced. Yet, one cannot understand Israel today 39 years later and the Israeli mindset – especially with regard to Iran – without understanding the events that took place from 1967-1973.” (www.forbs.com)
“With close to two and a half million Jews living in the tiny country, it had the highest concentration of Jews since pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. So pessimistic was the outlook that the nation’s cemeteries and national parks were marked to become gravesites for the many who would surely perish in the course of the war. However, despite all the prognostications, by the time the war ended, the territory under Israeli control had tripled in size. Jews returned to sites where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years, sites from which waves of terror were launched against them for so many years. The casualties and losses were painful, but minimal in comparison to all projections. The Jewish nation was miraculously victorious in the face of unbelievable odds. History books speak of the “Hundred Years’ War,” the “Thirty Years’ War,” and many other long-fought battles. Here, in a matter of six short days, a nation managed to utterly rout not one, but four powerful enemies! Jews across the globe thanked G‑d for the great miracles that happened. An incredible sense of pride and spiritual awakening gripped the Jewish people worldwide. The following is a brief account of some of the major events of the war, with emphasis placed on a few of the miraculous occurrences which characterized its battles. We will also highlight the pivotal role of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, in calming and reassuring a frightened and trepidation-filled nation, both before and during the war, and foretelling its miraculous outcome. (chabad.org)
“The key to Israel’s victory was recognition that its survival was at stake. This led to full mobilization of the state and the people and creation of a government of national unity. The people and leaders had no choice but to become heroes overnight. A generation of brilliant generals, led by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, was in charge of the military, ably supported by Ezer Weizmann, the former Israeli Air Force (IAF) commander and deputy chief of staff. Gen. Weizmann, the future president of Israel, and his successor, Gen. Moredchai Hod, took a huge bet by throwing the well-trained 200-strong IAF against the Egyptian Russian-trained air force. The IAF, outnumbered 3-1, destroyed the Egyptian air force in the first 45 minutes of the war. The complete air superiority of the IAF and the dogged execution of a daring battle plan designed by then Southern front commander Yeshayahu Gavish were key to the victory in Sinai. Meticulous intelligence work by the Mossad, led by Gen. Meir Amit, and by the military intelligence, AMAN, were also vital to attaining victory. Nasser’s army in Sinai was decimated. The Jordanians, occupying Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and East Jerusalem, and the Syrians, lodged in the escarpments of the Golan Heights, were beaten within days.
On the diplomatic front, things were different from today. Despite blood-curdling threats by the Arab states, Israel had world public opinion largely on its side. The victory allowed Israel and the Jewish people to once again govern Jerusalem, accomplishing the dream expressed in all Jewish daily prayers during almost 2,000 years of exile. The Temple Mount, on which Solomon’s Temple was built, and the Second Temple restored after the Babylonian exile, returned to Jewish sovereignty. So did the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. It is precisely the Israeli victories in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War (the failed Arab attempt at a rematch in 1973) that allowed the Jewish State to sign peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Forty years later, however, Israel’s very existence is challenged again. Now more than ever, Israel is the proverbial canary in the Middle East coal mine, the litmus test of Arab and Muslim attitudes to the world beyond the Land of Islam. Today the threat is not only Arab — it is also Iranian. It is not secular nationalism and pan-Arabism, but Islamist. It is both extremist Shi’a, as expressed by Iran and Hezbollah, and militant Sunni, articulated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Moslem Brotherhood, and increasingly, al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Gaza and Lebanon. Forty years ago, the threat was classically conventional. Today, Israel and the United States lack strategy and doctrine to defeat the whole spectrum of threats, from the suicide bombings and Qassam rockets of Hamas and Fatah, to the improvised explosive devices in Iraq and the short range Iranian-supplied Katyusha rockets of Hezbollah. The threat is also unconventional — from Syrian chemical weapons-armed rockets, to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. It is not the “Israeli occupation” but the rise of extremist Islamist forces that constitute a global threat and are central in Middle East destabilization.
Israeli, European and U.S. policymakers and generals still think in terms of nation-states and conventional armies. The global jihadi movement, its political leaders, paymasters, recruiters and propagandists recognize no national borders. Israel also appears to have forgotten the lesson that in the Middle East one can negotiate only from a position of clear strength. Unilaterally pulling out of Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 only increased the terrorist appetite for blood. Ehud Olmert’s proposed appeasement of Syria by giving up the Golan would be yet another geopolitical catastrophe. Leaving bloodthirsty terrorist leaders, such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas’ Haled Mashal, or for that matter, Osama bin Laden, to roam free only delays peace in the Middle East.
The Six-Day War teaches us important lessons in freedom. National mobilization and unity in recognition of existential threats lead to victory. Bravery and real leadership, both national and on the battlefield, secure success. Never underestimate the enemy. Intelligence matters — and so does public diplomacy and global information support. Finally, we learn that both political and military institutions must recognize the nature of the evolving threat and devise and bravely carry out victorious strategies to defeat the implacable enemies of the free world, then and now. (The Washington Times)
A balanced historical documentary of the Six Day War by PBS (US Public Broadcasting Service)