The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 4: The 1967 Six Day War
Morning Edition: October 3, 2002
Listen to Part 4 of Mike Shuster's series.
BOB EDWARDS: The 1967 June Six Day War was a major watershed in the history of the Middle East.
It changed the borders of the Middle East, it changed military and political perceptions, and it brought the United States into the mix as a permanent factor in the region.
A seven-part series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," focuses today on the territory that Israel seized in that war.
NPR's Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER: In 1967, the mood in the Middle East was ugly. Israel, independent since 1948, was surrounded by Arab states dedicated to its eradication. Egypt was ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a firebrand nationalist whose army was the strongest in the Arab Middle East. Syria was governed by the radical Baathist Party, constantly issuing threats to push Israel into the sea.
And the crowded and angry Palestinian refugee camps dating back to the 1948 war had spawned groups in the shadows, including Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which had launched guerrilla attacks on Israel from Lebanon and Jordan. It was all connected, says Rashid Khalidi, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Chicago.
RASHID KHALIDI: In a sense the Palestinian tail wagged the Syrian dog which wagged the Egyptian dog which dragged the region into a conflict, which Israel initiated but which had several triggers.
SHUSTER: Most historians now agree that although Israel struck first, this pre-emptive strike was defensive in nature.
In the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union misinformed the radical government in Damascus that Israel was planning an invasion of Syria. Syria shared this misinformation with Nasser, who responded with several threatening actions. He closed the Gulf of Aqaba to shipping, cutting off Israel from its primary oil supplies. He told U.N. peacekeepers in the Sinai Peninsula to leave. He then sent scores of tanks and hundreds of troops into the Sinai closer to Israel. The Arab world was delirious with support, says Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War.
MICHAEL OREN: This immediately ameliorated Nasser's stature in the Arab world. He was elevated to almost a god-like status overnight and politically it seemed like a good bargain. The bad news was he wasn't counting on Israel striking back militarily.
SHUSTER: It was not easy for Israel to make the decision to strike at Egypt. For three weeks in May and early June 1967, Israel's leaders argued fiercely over what to do. The military wanted to attack. The chief of staff of the Israeli army then was a young Yitzhak Rabin, who suffered a short nervous breakdown under the stress.
Michael Oren says Prime Minister Levi Eshkol held the generals back.
OREN: He urged restraint. He told these generals that Israel first had to prove to the world in general, and specifically to the United States leadership -- to President Lyndon Johnson -- that Israel had exhausted all diplomatic options. That it had done its utmost to prevent war, and only as a last resort did Israel turn to this pre-emptive strike. This was vital, Eshkol said, in order to ensure American diplomatic support both during and after the war.
SHUSTER: The strike finally came at 7:10 in the morning of June 5th. Israel put 200 fighter jets and bombers in the air. They flew from Israel into the Mediterranean and attacked Egypt's airfields and installations from the west. That morning, Israel destroyed 286 of Egypt's 420 combat aircraft, killing a third of Egypt's pilots.
Later that morning, the ground war began. Columns of tanks and artillery blasted into the Sinai. Egypt's army crumbled. Reporter Michael Elkins described the results of the fighting at the end of the first day.
MICHAEL ELKINS: Less than 15 hours after the fighting began at dawn this morning, there was every evidence that Israel has already won the war though fighting will continue. Israeli armor has sliced through the Gaza strip to the Mediterranean coast, and the Arab forces in the strip are no longer a fighting factor. Israel has today created the nearest thing to instant victory the modern world has ever seen.
SHUSTER: In Egypt, state-controlled radio told the people a different story, that the Israelis had been defeated. Winston Burdette reported for CBS from Cairo.
WINSTON BURDETTE: There was no sign of panic. On the contrary there was jubilation in the streets. Wild cheers and chanting when the radio claimed: a first indication of victory, 23 Israeli planes shot down. Later a second alert and a second official claim. The total of Israeli planes destroyed had jumped to 70.
SHUSTER: It was all lies.
On the second day, in response to shelling from Jordan, Israeli troops surrounded the Old City of Jerusalem, which had been part of Jordanian territory since the end of the war for independence in 1948. And Israel made its first gains on the West Bank.
SOUNDS OF TRUMPET (SHOFAR), VOICES, SINGING
SHUSTER: And on the third day, June 7th, Israel seized the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem. Troops took positions at the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, to the delight of the Israeli people.
Historian Benny Morris says the seizure of these holy sites resonated with all Israelis, religious or not.
BENNY MORRIS: Since 1948, the Jordanians -- contrary to the armistice agreements -- had not allowed Jews to go there or worship there. So when the army took these places in '67, there was not just a sigh of relief that the threat of Arab attack had been dispelled, but there was also this outbreak of joy that at last the Israeli army had conquered the sites holiest to Judaism. This even appeared in places like Ha'aretz, which is a liberal, secular daily, but its editorial there spoke in sort of biblical, messianic terms of a return to what was ours.
SHUSTER: Midway through the war, Egypt's Nasser, reeling under the magnitude of his defeat, sought to excuse the disaster by claiming that the United States had entered the war on the side of Israel. This was a dangerous step, risking as it did the deeper involvement of the Soviet Union, strong backer of both Egypt and Syria.
WILLIAM QUANDT: Now when he said that, he knew it wasn't true.
William Quandt is author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967.
QUANDT: Least I'm 99 percent confident he knew it wasn't true, although some of his generals may have fed him false information. And Nasser did make the accusation, and it led many Arab countries to break diplomatic relations with the United States. So President Johnson was very annoyed with what he considered a very reckless position adopted by Nasser.
SHUSTER: On day four, the Israeli air force mistakenly attacked a U.S. intelligence ship near its coast, the Liberty, killing 34 Americans, and wounding 171.
The next day hostilities broke out with Syria. On the last day, June 10th, the Israeli army captured the Golan Heights.
The Middle East was in shock, and the conflict would never be the same. The territories that Israel had seized, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai, Gaza, and the Golan Heights would be at the center of all peace negotiations thereafter.
The war profoundly changed Israel itself, says historian Anita Shapira, of the Chaim Weizmann Center for the Study of Zionism in Tel Aviv. It led to the emergence of a strong mythic movement that claimed the West Bank as part of greater Israel.
ANITA SHAPIRA: The change of heart after the Six Day War brought into Zionism elements that potentially were there from the beginning but were never predominant and were never part of the leading elite of the movement. And this brought a change in the nature of the state of Israel and also brought a element in the relation between us and the Arabs.
SHUSTER: The Palestinians were both occupied and emboldened. In the months that followed the war, Yasser Arafat organized an insurrection in the West Bank. It failed, but says Yezid Sayigh, author of a monumental study of the Palestinian national movement, it brought about a shift in the outlook of the Palestinians themselves.
YEZID SAYIGH: And this in a sense catapulted the general Palestinian public into the arms of the guerrillas because they'd seen that the people they'd hinged their hopes on -- the Arab leaders and the armies they'd believed in -- had been swept aside in a matter of days. And here came along a bunch of young men who jumped into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, said: 'We're going to take matters into our own hands. The Palestinians will stand up and fight for themselves. We're going to transform ourselves from being destitute refugees waiting for charity handouts from the U.N. and turn ourselves into freedom-fighters, people with dignity.'
SHUSTER: After the Six Day War the Arab states could never again seek the eradication of Israel from the map. Thereafter the central conflict would be waged between the Israelis and the stateless Palestinians for the land they both claimed as their own.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.
EDWARDS: Maps of Israel's changing borders and background on the experts cited in this series are at npr.org.
Tomorrow in this continuing series, conflict returns to the Middle East in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But the decade ends with a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
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