Six Day War: Shaping the Modern Middle East The Israeli victory launched a contentious, ongoing struggle over East Jerusalem and the Old City of Jerusalem — and marked the start of Israel's 40-year military occupation of the West Bank.

Six Day War: Shaping the Modern Middle East

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

So many of Israel's troubles come from a war that Israel won. At least that's one perspective, one of many about the war that came 40 years ago this week. The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors brought fundamental changes to the map of the Middle East. Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

For Israel it was a stunning triumph, and for the Arabs it was a humiliating defeat. Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring a comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

In the first of a five-part series on the Six Day War, NPR's Eric Westervelt traces the military history of the conflict that reshaped the region.

ERIC WESTERVELT: 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 Tehran, 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 pretext to kick out United Nations peacekeepers from Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Here's historian Michael Oren.

Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Author, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East"): He had never really like this force. He wanted to use the Soviet report as an excuse for evicting UNEF, United Nations Emergency Forces. And as he proceeded to do, and then he put 100,000 of his men into Sinai, several thousand battle tanks and war planes, he made defensive pacts with Iraq and Syria and declared his intention to wage a war of destruction against Israel.

WESTERVELT: But on the morning of June 5th, Israel struck first. The devastating preemptive attack destroyed most of the Soviet-supplied Egyptian Air Force before the MiG jets ever got off the ground. That night a defiant President Nasser called for jihad.

Mr. GAMAL ABDEL NASSER (Former President, Egypt): (Through translator) Oh Arabs, this is the day for holy war. This is the day for vengeance.

WESTERVELT: 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. Nearly 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the first 48 hours of fighting. Ahmed Maher is a former Egyptian foreign minister.

Mr. AHMED MAHER (Former Foreign Minister, Egypt): It was a shock, a nightmare. It was somehow the dream had turned sour. 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.

WESTERVELT: 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. Meantime, Syrian artillery and short-ranged rocket units in the Golan Heights began shelling Rosh Pina and other towns in Israel's north.

(Soundbite of rocket launchers)

WESTERVELT: Israel largely ignored the Syrian artillery at first. Historian Michael Oren is author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." He says 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.

Mr. OREN: And that morning of June 5th, the Israeli government sent a message to King Hussein saying what's about to happen in the south is between us and the Egyptians. You stay out of it, we'll stay out of it, don't do anything.

WESTERVELT: Israeli soldiers were given strict 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 the 5th of June, 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 down 75 millimeter shells on the city. Nine hundred buildings were destroyed and 20 Israelis killed in a relentless barrage.

Mr. OREN: At the same time Jordanian jets attack the Israeli coastal cities of Hadera and Netanya, and Jordanian long-range guns - situated outside of the West Bank city of Jenin (unintelligible) began shelling the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Now, throughout this, the Israeli government - the orders held firm. The Israelis did not return fire. This is a pretty, pretty amazing - pretty extensive aggression, but they didn't return fire because they didn't want Jordan in the war.

WESTERVELT: The don't-fire orders collapsed, however, when Jordanian infantrymen swept 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. Jordan was about to lay siege to West Jerusalem. Israel called in reinforcements from the Sinai battle and sent its Jerusalem brigade to retake the Ridge. They did, in a fierce bloody fight that included hand-to-hand combat. Again, Michael Orin.

Mr. ORIN: Twenty-four hours later, after very intense fighting - and I can't stress this enough - the Jordanian army fought with unprecedented valor. But after 24 hours, the Jordanian army was broken and the Jordanian army was retreating in the West Bank through Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, across the Jordan River.

WESTERVELT: Israeli forces gave chase and took control of the entire West Bank. Writer and historian Gershom Gorenberg calls the West Bank conquest an accidental victory that has gone on to dominate and befuddle Israeli political, military and diplomatic life ever since.

Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Historian): What you had here was a conquest without a strategic goal. The war wasn't expected, the conquest was unexpected, the strategy had to be invented after the fact, and in many ways you could say that until this day Israel is really trying to figure out what the strategic goal was of conquering West Bank 40 years ago.

WESTERVELT: While Israeli forces were sweeping into the West Bank, in Jerusalem Israeli paratroopers entered the Old City and reached the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall. Euphoric Israeli soldiers celebrated renewed access to Judaism's holiest site by blowing the ram's horn.

(Soundbite of ram's horn)

(Soundbite of men singing in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: 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 gained control of the Golan Heights after 48 hours of fierce combat. A UN-brokered ceasefire took effect at 6:00 p.m.

In less than a week, Israel 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, two Palestinian uprisings and waves of deadly suicide bombings, Israel's messy entanglement with the West Bank continues. Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes calls it a tragedy.

Mr. DROR ETKES (Peace Now): It's tragic more than anything else because it's a story of waste of energy, of waste of life, waste of so much potential in both sides - Palestinian and Israeli. It's a story which cannot end well. Occupation cannot last.

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

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: Our series on the Six Day War continues all week. Tomorrow, Palestinians in East Jerusalem and their struggles since 1967.

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