Although the Arab-Israeli conflict goes way back before Israel declared independence in 1948, since that declaration, the civil war proceeded it and the First Arab-Israeli war immediately followed. Religious tensions and border disputes have been the cause of hostilities time and time again, and indeed, those conflicts began the Palestinian Refugee Crisis that continues to this very day.
By 1967 tension was seriously building once again. Under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership, a pact with Jordan and Iraq was made to politically encircle Israel, and the various Arab military forces were bolstered with weapons and tanks from the Soviet Union. Nasser himself boasted that the destruction of Israel was the aim of his administration, and it was just a matter of time until the Arabs would reclaim the land. Also, he announced that the Straits of Tiran would be closed to Israeli shipping, and mobilised the Egyptian army along the Israeli border. Israel had made clear though, that they considered the closure of the straits to their shipping a casus belli.
Months in the making
On June 5, 1967, shortly after 07:00, 200 French-made but Israeli-operated Magister, Mystere, Mirage and Ouragan aircraft crossed the border and flew deep into Egyptian territory. Flying low to escape radar detection, they were the first step in a plan that had been months in the making. Israeli spies had identified Egyptian military airports and knew exactly when the pilots were having breakfast. The Egyptian High Command had been careless in their contempt for Israel and its military. There were no concrete hangars and their Soviet Union manufactured MiGs, Tupolevs and Ilyushins were all lined up along the runways, as the Israeli planes banked for an attack run. The air sirens rang out just as the bombs fell. In minutes, 286 fighters were destroyed, and special runway buster bombs left craters along the runways. The Egyptian air force had almost ceased to exist, and the first day of the six-day war had begun.
Camouflaged by the night, Israeli troops had moved to the Egyptian border in three columns, planning to strike towards Suez and the Sinai. Egypt thought itself prepared, and the desert passes were reinforced by trenches, pillboxes, barbed wire and minefields, but the Israelis came by surprise. A “mailed fist” of tanks and armour would focus an attack on the main defensive line, while paratroopers and commandos targeted weak points via helicopters.
Chaos swept through the Egyptian headquarters in Cairo. Despite the reports of the destruction of the Egyptian air force though, Nasser welcomed the opening of hostilities. Immediately, he cabled Damascus, Amman and Baghdad to try to get them to join the war. He lied to them and told them that Israel had lost hundreds of planes and that the Egyptian counterattack was already underway. In reality, Israeli Centurian and Patton tanks, which outclassed the Egyptian T-34s and Stalins, were advancing in a pincer movement toward the entrenched Egyptians at Umm-Qatef.
Believing Nasser’s lies, the Jordanian army went on the offensive. The targets were the Israeli positions in West Jerusalem and beyond. American-made long-range guns shelled the suburbs of Tel Aviv as Jordanian tanks took off, and even Iraqi armour and fighter jets made ready. The New City of Jerusalem was soon a battlefield; 5,000 Jordanian and around 1,000 Palestinian soldiers advanced on the Israeli positions with machine guns, Bren guns and heavy mortars, and street by street fighting began. Everywhere around the ancient city, the Jordanians were on the move, trying to take vital Israeli positions on Mount Scopus. Loudspeakers atop of the Dome of the Rock mosque spurred the Arabs on to unite and take back the land in a Holy War.
Immediately after refueling and rearming, the Israeli Air Force took off towards Jordan, shooting down the Jordanian Hawker Hunter planes and destroying their bases. Jordanian Patton tanks on their way to the battle were caught in the open and destroyed.
Then came news from the north. Encouraged by false reports that the “victorious Jordanians were already on their way to Tel Aviv,” the Syrian artillery opened up from the Golan heights. Israel could hardly want to fight at three fronts at once, so they did not respond. Towards the afternoon, Syrian commanders grew bold, and Syrian T-34 tanks came down the hills, shelling villages and civilians. The situation was dire, but the attack was disorganised, and the Israelis fought it off, even dropping napalm on Syrian positions. The Israelis launched an attack in the late afternoon to encircle Jerusalem – at that point in time it was not part of Israel – and after vicious hand-to-hand combat, linked up with their enclave on Mount Scopus.
At the end of the first day, Israel was advancing in Egypt and gaining momentum on the West Bank against Jordan, while the north was under constant Syrian shellfire but still holding. Winning or losing this war, though, was decided in the respective headquarters. Lying to each other about the situation had given the Coalition’s High Commands a false impression of the war, and although they had strong and numerical superior forces, they were losing their nerve, in contrast to the Israelis.
Throughout the night, the fighting for Jerusalem continued and the Israeli forces made good progress on the West Bank and surrounded the Holy City. As the Israelis advanced towards Ramallah, thousands of Palestinian refugees flooded towards Jordan. King Hussein now feared for his monarchy.
By the second day, the burning wrecks of hundreds of tanks and jeeps were strewn across the Sinai desert, as the Egyptian army was pushed back. They fought well for their positions but were overwhelmed by the rapidity of the Israeli attack. Gaza was cut off, and Egyptian High Command ordered a full retreat from their fortified positions. This was a colossal mistake, as the more mobile Israelis could now tear into the fleeing troops, especially from the air. Nasser’s army disintegrated.
‘The Big Lie’
Promises of help and unity between the Arab forces never really materialised. Instead, leaders resorted to what would be called ‘the Big Lie’. It was not just Israel that was beating them – it was Anglo-American forces that were helping the Jews. The west had come to their aid and was bombing coalition cities. This ‘Big Lie’ swept through the Arab world from Algeria to Iraq, and American embassies were set on fire. In reality, the Americans and Western Europe did nothing because they feared that the Soviet Union might intervene if they did. The Soviets had a huge interest in the Middle East and especially close ties to Syria.
Early in the morning of the third day, Israeli Sherman tanks blasted the blocked entrances of the old town of Jerusalem, and the infantry entered from three directions. They were fired upon from windows and rooftops, but quickly seized the old Jewish quarters, which had been abandoned for ages. House to house they fought, until the Temple Mount was in Israeli hands – a place of major religious significance for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
The news soon reached Jews all over the world. The goal of a united Jewish Jerusalem seemed finally within their grasp, and the Messianic era would begin, however, the war was not over, though the Israelis were advancing everywhere and they controlled the skies. On the West Bank they were pushing towards Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron, while the Jordanian army was now on the brink of being destroyed.
In Egypt, Israeli paratroopers and commandos infiltrated Sharm El Sheikh and the Gulf of Suez. But besides a few battles with entrenched tanks and some rearguard actions, the Egyptian army wasn’t putting up much of a fight anymore, abandoned by its leaders, especially Nasser, who hadn’t been seen for days.
The events of Day 4
By the fourth day, the war appeared to be over. Israel had successfully secured all of historical Palestine, and advanced pretty much unopposed through the Jordan Valley and the West Bank. Much of the Egyptian army was trapped on the Sinai since Israeli tanks blocked the passes. It is estimated that 10,000 soldiers died that day alone in the desert.
Talks of crossing the Suez were proposed in Israeli headquarters, but then came a twist of fate. The Israeli air force attacked the USS Liberty, an American research ship in international waters that was on its way to observe the situation. 34 people on the ship died and 171 were wounded. Bombing an American ship in international waters with Napalm, whether an accident or not, was an act of war and a diplomatic nightmare.
Yet, despite the danger of also provoking the Soviet Union, the Israelis decided to attack to the north to secure the Syrian border, so on the fifth day, after vicious Napalm airstrikes, a frontal assault on the Golan heights began. It was one of the bloodiest and most costly attacks of the war, and many tanks and half-tracks were knocked out by the formidable Syrian defences. But the Israelis eventually broke into the Syrian trenches. Close combat ensued with high casualties on both sides, and the Syrians held their positions. On the sixth and final day though, after being constantly bombed from above, the Syrians broke.
The great powers of the world had had enough. The Soviets threatened military intervention should the Israelis advance on Damascus, and the US conveyed its ‘strong dismay’ about being attacked. The war had to stop.
After six days of war, 133 hours of combat, a ceasefire was brokered by the UN in Tel Aviv. The military might of three nations had been destroyed, and three nations had been defeated and embarrassed. Egypt had lost nearly 80 per cent of its military equipment and it nearly cost Hussein his monarchy.
It was time for diplomacy to take centre stage and time to find an agreement for the future, but we are all too aware that this has yet to happen to this day.
The significance of the six-day war is immense. Israel had shown that it was not only willing and able to defend itself from multiple attackers, but it was also able to go on the offensive and be the attacker. There was a boom in investment in Israel and in tourism, which turned the sluggish Israeli economy around. Jews could now visit some of their holiest sites, which they had not been able to before, though minority Jewish populations in Arab nations faced increased persecution and even expulsion.
Politically, there was a peace offer that included the return of much of the captured territory, but this is controversial and there are historians that claim Egypt and Syria didn’t ever receive it. But there was a postwar shift among the Arab nations from simply questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a nation to questioning its borders, which is a big change. Though the entire Soviet bloc broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, local resentment against the victors of the war has never faded, and the war greatly aggravated the already extant refugee crisis, which continues to this day with displaced people in the millions.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Counterstrike – The Six-Day War: