Six Day War: Legality of Settlements Debated

West Bank settlement outpost of Migron.

hide captionAn armed Jewish settler walks past mobile homes in the West Bank settlement outpost of Migron.

David Silverman/Getty Images

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 fifth part of a five-part series follows.

Some of the settlements that grew up in the West Bank since 1967 began as small outposts.

Since 1996, Israelis have built more than 100 of these settlements — consisting of a few trailers or tents on a hilltop — that were never officially authorized by the Israeli government. But most of them were constructed with direct help from the state.

One of the newer West Bank outposts, Migron, began in 2002 as a cell phone tower on a hilltop overlooking road 60, a major West Bank artery.

Israeli authorities decided the tower needed security, so the Army posted guards. Soon after, Jewish settlers brought in some 60 trailers, or mobile homes. Israeli ministries built roads and helped provide all the basic services. The outpost has round-the-clock security, courtesy of the Army. Today 180 Israelis call this hilltop home.

"You just feel that it's so right, so natural to be here," says Aviva Winter, a resident of Migron. "You know, post office, phones, the electricity, the water, all the systems, the educational systems ... we have here education, a library, a Gymboree for kids. And everything is by the government and by the regional council that we're part of."

In the late afternoon sun, several children happily push toy wagons and plastic cars on the roadway that snakes around the outpost. One of Winter's neighbors is planting strips of lush, green grass in his front yard.

Winter, her husband Netzer, and their children moved to Migron from Jerusalem in 2003. Winter says she sees herself and fellow settlers as "a natural continuation" of the pioneering tradition of early Zionists. She calls Judea and Samaria, the Biblical name for the West Bank, "the heart of Israel."

Migron is mentioned in the book of Samuel. Winter claims settlers have a Biblical right to this land — something she says all settlers here are reminded of daily when they read the Torah.

"We are reliving it," Winter says. "All the Biblical stories. We're talking about Jacob's dream, Abraham, everyone passed through this area. It really is a dream that's coming true after 2,000 years."

Winter says it's natural that everyone knows they have their own land to which they belong.

"The Arabs have 21 lands where they belong to," she says. "I think that's the way God created the world, every nation has his own right place to live, and if you're not in your right place then there is a lot of problems."

Asked if she thinks the 2.4 million Palestinians currently living in the West Bank are in "the right place," the Tacoma, Wash.,-born Winter claims, erroneously, that most Palestinians were brought into the West Bank during Jordanian rule in the 1950s.

The problem with Migron, according to court papers, is that the outpost was illegally built on land owned by Palestinians in the adjacent villages of Deir Didwan and Burqa.

"Israel claims it respects ownership rights in the West Bank," says Dror Etkes, the Settlement Watch Coordinator for Israel Peace Now, "but Migron was constructed ... fully on registered private Palestinian land."

In February, responding to a lawsuit by Peace Now, the Israeli government conceded that the outpost was unauthorized, that it was built on private land and, the state said, that it should be dismantled.

In 2005, the Israeli-government-created Sahsohn Commission concluded that the state illegally spent more than 4 million Shekels, or about $1 million, of public funds building Migron.

The state has successfully petitioned the court for more time to create an outpost evacuation plan before dismantling the outpost. Etkes called that just another stalling tactic. He said Migron is a prime example of how settlers continue to establish facts on the ground in the West Bank — backed by the government – that, over time, often become larger settlements.

"And what we see here, is, not only has the state not enforced law on Israelis in West Bank, but the state is supporting and subsidizing law violation on a massive scale," Etkes says.

The ongoing legal fight over Migron is likely to become a key test-case for other outposts. Settlers are fighting back hard in the courts because a loss at Migron could make other, more vast Israeli-built areas in the West Bank legally vulnerable, Etkes says.

"They're extremely afraid of Migron," he says. "They understand very well that once a precedent will be done in Migron, there will be dozens and hundreds of sites in the West Bank. And it's not only outposts, but official settlements, which are fully or partially built on private Palestinian land."

According to the government's own Sahsohn report, more than 100 new unauthorized outposts have been built in the West Bank since 1996. The report says most have basic infrastructure provided with direct help from the state.

The first Israeli settlements in the West Bank began cropping up in the fall of 1967 — just a few months after the Six Day war.

Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg said that back then, there were warnings at the highest levels within the government that settlements would be viewed by some as neo-Colonial occupation and could backfire. But parliamentary proponents of settlement consistently won out. The romanticized allure of settlement, Gorenberg says, was hard to stop. It was the way Jews in the late 19th century returned to their homeland before independence.

"It had this log cabin, frontier mystique — or the equivalent on Israeli terms — and people who settled the land were heroes," Gorenberg says. "But it was anachronistic. It was this out of date ideal that, when applied to the post-'67 reality, led Israel into a quagmire."

Today the Israeli government, on the one hand, concedes that Migron and the other outposts like it are illegal and contrary to established government policy. Yet, at the same time, the government has actively supported their development and, so far, has done little to remove them.

"That's a pattern that began in the summer of 1967. It reflects that the conflict between the rational understanding that settlement is destructive for Israel and the emotional, almost mythical romance with settlement has not been resolved," Gorenberg says.

Polls show that a majority of Israelis have increasingly soured on the mystique of settlement, and no longer believe they'll be able to hold on to the majority of West Bank land captured 40 years ago.

Yet, near daily rocket fire from Gaza Strip — from which Israel unilaterally withdrew two summers ago — has made Israelis more fearful than ever of implementing a West Bank pullout. As one analyst here put it, "The incredible irony is that at a time when the majority of Israelis have finally reached a conclusion it's impossible to stay in the West Bank, they're terrified of what the divorce will bring."

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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