Six Day War: Land Ownership Disputes Arise

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The fourth part of a five-part series on the Six Day War follows.

The end of the 1967 war and the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip brought dramatic changes to the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.

In the West Bank, Israel confiscated large chunks of agricultural land where settlements were eventually built. For some Israelis, the occupation meant a chance to return to the homeland of their ancestors.

The Palestinian village of Turmus Aya and the neighboring Jewish settlement of Shilo were among those areas affected. As in other areas, land ownership disputes are many.

"My land is where the pine trees are that you can see right here," says Mahmoud Hazameh, 68. "These pine trees I planted myself. There's also another piece of land on the other side of the mountain, which has been taken also from me."

Hazameh said he grew grapes, chickpeas and wheat on that land, before the 1967 war – and continued to farm it after. He takes out yellowing documents dating back to the Ottoman Empire that he claims prove his ownership.

But in the mid-1970s, Israel confiscated most of his land, he said. Hazameh hired a lawyer and tried to get it back. Even after he lost in court, he still tried to farm the land that was no longer his, he said.

"I didn't stop," Hazameh says. "I started taking six and seven tractors with a lot of workers and I started marching towards my land — the land that had fed my whole community and my ancestors."

But the settlers uprooted his crops and the police refused to help him, he said. Eventually, he gave up.

Even today, 40 years after the 1967 war, the question of land ownership in the West Bank is one of the most highly charged and complex issues.

An Israeli government spokesman says the land of Shilo was built exclusively on what is known as "state land." That means it either belonged to the Jordanian government before 1967 or to Palestinians who fled the West Bank during or after the war.

But Peace Now, a dovish Israeli group that opposes the settlements, says most settlements are built on a combination of state land and private Palestinian land. In the case of the Shilo settlement, Peace Now says more than one-quarter of the land belongs to Palestinians like Hazameh.

Turmus Aya is just 10 miles from the Palestinians financial and political capital Ramallah. There, farmers still raise the same crops their fathers and grandfathers did. The homes are large — built for extended families —- with outdoor terraces shaded by grape arbors.

Mayor Mohammed Jamil Ibrahim says the village is 400 years old, and that life was peaceful until the June day in 1967 when Israeli soldiers first entered the village.

"People were in panic. People were scared," Ibrahim says. "People had heard a lot of stories from the refugees of 1948 (about) how the Israelis ... acted aggressively against the people of Deir Yassin and the people of Kibya, so they expected a lot of aggression."

Hundreds of residents fled to Jordan, where many remain today, Ibrahim says. For those who stayed, life changed dramatically in 1975 when a group of fervently religious Jews started an archaeological excavation on a nearby hill. Ibrahim says soon after the settlers appeared, Israeli officials came to reassure the residents of TurMus Aya about their new neighbors.

"At the beginning, the military chief of this area would say, 'They are looking for artifacts. Don't annoy them. Don't disturb them.' Slowly, slowly, their caravans started coming and their caravans became permanent. Then they started building houses and so on and so forth," Ibrahim says.

As the settlement began to encroach on Palestinian land, Israeli officials offered compensation but the residents refused, Ibrahim says.

The mayor says there were never any friendships between the Palestinians and the settlers. But he said dozens of young men from the village did go to work in Shilo. This ended with the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s.

Israeli soldiers entered the village frequently, searching for Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis. Soldiers built a large, dirt barricade making it impossible for villagers to reach the main road between Ramallah and Nablus.

Today, amid a relative lull in the violence, a few Palestinians have returned to work in Shilo's aluminum factory. But none of them is from Turmus Aya.

Yakov Yarden, one of Shilo's first settlers, says he misses the Palestinian friends he made before the violence engulfed the West Bank.

"The Arabs usually worked here, but we came to them also — to their weddings and other things," Yarden says.

For many religious Israelis, the lightning victory of the 1967 war was proof of divine intervention.

Jews could return to live in places mentioned in the Bible. Beginning in the mid-1970s, they began building Jewish settlements all over the West Bank. Today, more than a quarter-million Israelis live in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.

Shilo has grown to 250 families, and the settlement now has its own yeshiva, or rabbinical training institute. One of Shilo's founders, Shevach Stern, said the settlers always hoped to have good relations with their Arab neighbors. At the beginning, the villagers of Turmus Aya welcomed them, he says.

"They liked the idea that we were here," Stern says. "Because they knew, from other places, that wherever the Israel comes, progress comes. They knew that the village would get electricity and water – they would get work here and that's how it was for quite a few years."

Settlers say that all changed with the first intifada. Since then, eight settlers from Shilo and five Palestinians from Turmus Aya have been killed. Dozens have been wounded, among them David Rubin. Five years ago, he was on his way home from Jerusalem when his car came under a hail of bullets. Both he and his then 3-year-old son were gravely wounded.

Today, Rubin spends his days teaching Christian groups about the Biblical importance of Shilo. Living in the settlement means a daily connection to Jewish history, he says.

"When my children walk down to school every day, they go down the hill and every day I think, 'Wow. This is amazing. My children are walking down the same rocks that Samuel the prophet walked on when he grew up in Shilo,'" Rubin says.

Rubin, and many other settlers, say the entire West Bank should be placed under permanent Israeli sovereignty. But their Palestinian neighbors in TurMus Aya say there can be no peace unless all of the Jewish settlers leave.

Six Day War: Shaping the Modern Middle East

The first report in a five-part series.

Six Day War Timeline

View a timeline of events that took place between the Israelis and Egypt, Syria and Jordan during the Six Day War.

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The first part of a five-part series on the Six Day War follows.

In the spring of 1967, Israel grew increasingly alarmed by threats from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The popular leader of the socialist Pan-Arab movement threatened to close the straits of Tiran, a vital passageway that would cut off Israel's southern water link to the outside world. Nasser used a bogus Soviet tip that Israel was about to invade Syria as a pre-text to kick out United Nations peacekeepers from Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

"He had never really liked this force and wanted to use the Soviet report as an excuse to evict UNEF, the U.N. emergency forces," said historian and author Michael Oren. Oren wrote Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. "This he proceeds to do. He puts 100,000 of his men into Sinai, with several thousand battle tanks and war planes — and makes defensive pacts with Iraq and Syria — and declares intention to wage a war of destruction against Israel."

But on the morning of June 5, Israel struck first. The devastating pre-emptive attack destroyed most of the Soviet-supplied Egyptian air force before the MiG jets ever got off the ground. That night, a defiant Nasser called for jihad.

"Oh Arabs, this is the day for Holy War, this is the day for vengeance," said Nassar.

In the Sinai Peninsula, Israeli armor smashed through Nasser's defense lines with relative ease. The fight quickly became a rout. By nightfall of the second day, Egyptian forces were in full retreat and, with them, Nasser's wider Pan-Arab ambitions crumbled.

Nearly 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the first 48 hours of fighting.

"It was a shock, a nightmare. It was, somehow, the dream turned sour," said Ahmed Maher, a former Egyptian foreign minister. "The whole purpose of the Revolution was to build a strong country — politically, economically and militarily — and to put an end to the situation in which Israel was dominant.

Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day

hide captionIsraelis celebrate Jerusalem Day, May 16, marking the 40th anniversary of the capture and de facto annexation of East Jerusalem.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In the opening day's fight, Syrian fighter jets attacked Haifa, Israel's most populous northern city. The Israeli air force quickly hit back at Syrian bases, effectively taking out the Syrian air force.

In the meantime, Syrian artillery units in the Golan Heights began shelling Rosh Pina and other towns in Israel's north.

Israel largely ignored the artillery at first.

While the offensive in Egypt was going far better than planned, Israel was reluctant to use ground forces against Syria and badly wanted to avoid a wider fight with Jordan, which then occupied the West Bank, Oren said.

"On that morning of June, the Israeli government sent a message to King Hussein of Jordan, saying, 'What's about to happen in the south is between us and the Egyptians. You stay out of it and we'll stay out of it. Don't do anything,'" Oren said.

About the Series

Six days of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors in June 1967 re-shaped the modern Middle East.

The repercussions of the conflict continue to reverberate. To some, the Six Day War, or the June '67 War, as Arabs prefer to call it, never really ended.

To Israelis, victory brought reunification of Jerusalem, renewed access to holy sites, and greatly expanded the size of the fledgling Jewish state. For Palestinians and Arabs, including Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians, it was a humiliating defeat that cost them the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the war, NPR is taking a close look at its enduring legacy — the continued fight over East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Israeli soldiers were given careful orders not to shoot back if Jordanian forces opened fire. Under intense pressure from Arab states, King Hussein had placed his Army under the command of Egyptian generals. At 10:30 a.m. on June 5, those generals gave the order to open fire on Israeli-held West Jerusalem.

From Augusta Victoria Ridge near the Mount of Olives, Jordanian artillery units began raining 75 mm shells down on the city. Some 900 buildings were destroyed and 20 Israelis killed in a relentless barrage.

At the same time, Jordanian jets attacked the coastal cities of Hadera and Netanya, and Jordanian long-range guns just outside the West Bank city of Jenin began shelling the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Throughout this, the orders held firm: Israel did not return fire.

The "don't fire" orders collapsed, however, when Jordanian infantrymen swept up on to a strategic ridge on the north side of Jerusalem. Jordan gained a key advantage in targeting the city. Israel realized that Jordan was making far more than a symbolic nod at Pan-Arab solidarity.

As Jordan was about to lay siege to West Jerusalem, Israel called in reinforcements from the Sinai battle and sent its Jerusalem Brigade to re-take the ridge, which it did in a fierce fight that included hand-to-hand combat.

Author and historian Michael Oren

hide captionMichael Oren, author of "Six Days of War June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."

Courtesy: The Shalem Center

"After very intense fighting — I can't stress this enough: The Jordanian armies fought with unprecedented valor — but after 24 hours, the Jordanian army was broken and ... was retreating throughout the West Bank, through Nablus, through Hebron, Bethlehem and across the Jordan River," Oren said.

Israeli forces gave chase and took control of the entire West Bank.

"What you had here was a conquest without a strategic goal," said writer and historian Gershom Gorenberg. "The war was unexpected, the conquest was unexpected and the strategy had to be invented after the fact. And in many ways you could say that to this day, Israel is still trying to figure out what the strategic goal was of conquering the West Bank 40 years ago."

While Israeli forces swept into the West Bank, in Jerusalem Israeli paratroopers entered the old city and reached the Temple Mount and Wailing Wall. Euphoric Israeli soldiers celebrated renewed access to Judaism's holiest site by blowing a rams horn and singing.

The final two days of war were largely a fight with Syria. After Israeli intelligence learned that Syrian forces were near collapse, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered Operation Hammer. Israel quickly gained control of the Golan Heights.

Eventually, a U.N.-brokered ceasefire took effect. In less than a week, Israel had more than tripled the size of the territory under its control.

With Israel's total victory in the Six Day War also came weighty responsibilities, especially the occupation of the heavily populated Palestinian West Bank.

After 40 years, including two Palestinian uprisings and waves of deadly suicide bombings, Israel's messy and tragic entanglement with the West Bank continues.

"It's tragic more than anything else," said Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes. "It's a story of waste of energy, of waste of life, of waste of so much potential on both sides — Palestinian and Israel. It's a story that cannot end well. Occupation cannot last."

The war lasted for six days. Four decades later, debate over Israel's victory and its implications remains unsettled.

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