Unmasking the Six-Day War


Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East

Every time Israel invades another country it insists that it—not the invaded or occupied—is the victim. No matter how brutal its actions, it maintains its status as a beleaguered nation facing hostile Arab regimes beyond its borders and a terrorist threat from within. Such is the mythology that clouds every war Israel has ever fought, from the expulsion of almost a million Palestinians at its founding, to the invasion and devastation of Lebanon in 2006.

The 1967 “Six-Day War” is no exception. During the 1967 war, Israel’s high-tech military easily routed the forces of Jordan, Egypt and Syria, and began the occupations of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. As Lance Selfa put it, writing in Socialist Worker, “The image of plucky little Israel, threatened with destruction, winning a smashing victory in a preemptive war against its more powerful neighbors, has become commonplace.”

But a recent book by Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev sets the record straight. Segev is one of the New Historians, a group of left-wing Israeli scholars who challenge the dominant history of Zionism. 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East is based on exhaustive research of Israeli archival records, diaries, interviews, letters, and minutes of cabinet meetings. Limited entirely to the discussions that took place at the top of Israeli society, Segev disproves the standard myths justifying the war—that Egypt provoked the war and that Israel’s existence was somehow in jeopardy. In the process, he exposes the cynical, war-hungry, and ego-driven characters of the Israeli political and military establishment.

Segev meticulously paints a picture of Israel in the late 1960s. Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s organization of Palestinian resistance, was growing bolder. Regionally, a still-dominant Pan-Arabism was led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who, in rhetoric at least, was taking an increasingly confrontational tone toward Israel. And domestically, the economy was in recession, racial tension was growing, and a rise in Jewish emigration coupled with a growing Israeli Arab population was leading mainstream commentators to worry about the “demographic problem.” On the international level, Israel’s primary backer and weapons dealer was France, by then a waning world power. Increasingly, the Israeli elite courted the United States.

But while Israeli leaders and mainstream commentators held a defensive posture to the outside world, in their inner circles they debated and plotted out decidedly aggressive strategies. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) generals proposed large-scale operations against Syria and Jordan, while “doves” like Shimon Peres argued that developing Israel’s illegal nuclear program would be enough of a deterrent to hostile Arab regimes. As early as 1963, IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin described Israel’s ideal boundaries as following the Jordan River, the Suez Canal, and the Litani River in the north. Indeed, there was widespread consensus that the borders drawn following the 1948 war were inadequate for Israel’s defense.

The IDF came up with a number of plans to expand Israel’s borders. Some, like the one code-named Whip, were to occupy West Jerusalem and the West Bank in one go; other, more surreptitious plans involved quietly farming Jordanian land, “acre by acre.” “We thought of the [1949] cease-fire lines as a temporary arrangement,” military leader Moshe Dayan would later explain. But Israel’s primary strategy in the lead-up to the 1967 war was to escalate border conflicts to provoke increased hostilities.

On November 13, 1966, ostensibly in response to an attack on three Israeli paratroopers, the IDF attacked the West Bank town of Samua, blowing up between sixty and one hundred homes. Not all the homes were evacuated, leaving—according to Israel’s envoy to Washington—“many civilian bodies” including those of elderly women. Operation Shredder, as it was called, culminated in an air battle with Jordanian forces. The operation was followed by media hysteria and racist justifications about the need to stop by force “an animal, driven only by its urges.”

Many Israeli politicians and commentators were dissatisfied with the operation against Jordan. Jordan’s King Hussein was, after all, compliant with U.S. and Israeli interests. Syria, seen by Israeli generals as Israel’s foremost enemy, was backed by the Soviet Union and was a more difficult target. But Syria would soon have its turn.

Throughout 1966, Syrian and Israeli tensions increased along the border over water rights and disputed land that had been demilitarized since the 1949 cease-fire agreement. Syrian and Israeli farmers working this land provided a pretext for low-intensity conflicts for years. About 80 percent of incidents, Moshe Dayan would later say, were the result of Israeli provocations:

It would go like this. We would send a tractor to plow the earth in some plot you couldn’t do anything with, in a demilitarized zone, knowing in advance that the Syrians would start shooting. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to go farther, until finally the Syrians would lose their temper and shoot. And then we’d fire back, and later send in the air force.

In January, a Fatah operation that killed an Israeli in Dishon provided a useful excuse to escalate. Rabin described the increased number of border incidents as a “gold mine” and argued that it was now necessary to hit Syria, “at least in a Samua formulation.” By March he was granted permission to bring armored tractors near the Syrian border. When, in April, two tractors drew Syrian fire, Israel responded with its air force. Over the next few hours, they shot down six Syrian MiGs in the largest battle in the north of Israel since 1949. The press respond unanimously with elation. The newspaper Ha’aretz called the battle “a glorious accomplishment.” Ma’ariv wrote “There is no doubt that Israel’s prestige has skyrocketed. The Syrians have been stripped of their illusions.”

According to Segev,

This was not the large-scale operation against Syria that the IDF had demanded, but it did provoke a dramatic escalation of tensions. [Prime Minister] Eshkol knew that that was what the army was after, and he could reasonably have expected to know that it would be the result of deploying the air force.

In this context, the Israeli Independence Day of mid-May became the occasion of intensified saber-rattling directed at Syria with the Israeli military holding a high-profile parade through the streets of Jerusalem.

The IDF’s wishes came true on May 14 when Egypt deployed troops to Sinai. Two days later, Egypt asked the United Nations to remove its peacekeeping force—stationed there since Israel’s 1956 invasion of Sinai—from the border. While these actions led to some confusion among the Israeli political and military elite, there was an understanding that Egypt was responding to, in the words of the head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, “Syrian pressure, and the last straw was the Israeli declaration regarding possible action against Syria….” Moshe Dayan argued that Nasser could not remain indifferent to the attacks on Samua, the air battle with Syria, and ongoing Israeli propaganda against Syria. To do so would risk his prestige and undermine his promise to protect Syria from Israeli attack.

In the standoff of the weeks that followed, the Israeli ruling class debated the ifs, hows, and whens of war. While some cabinet members expressed surprise and unease at the prospects of war with Egypt, generals and military leaders saw it as a golden opportunity. For his part, Prime Minister Eshkol worried that attacking Egypt immediately was too great a risk, but speculated that if they blockaded Israel’s access to the Straits of Tiran between the Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula, an Israeli attack would be more palatable to the United States.

Indeed, on May 23, Nasser blockaded the straits, and Israel’s military leaders frothed at the mouth at the prospect of all-out war. An action limited to the straits was not on the table. “Let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Yitzhak Rabin, “first we will attack Egypt; then we will also attack Syria and Jordan.” “Hawks” and “doves” debated whether and when to initiate a war “for Israel’s existence.” But beneath their fiery rhetoric lay a much more opportunistic calculation. In fact, Rabin had revealed to cabinet members that Egypt had already decided that ships under American escort would not be stopped. He also reported that the Egyptian forces were in a defensive, not offensive, position. In order to keep war on the agenda, this information—and the nonmilitary solutions that flowed from it—was kept top-secret.

The real debate lay in the timing of Israel’s response and the importance of first winning American approval. Should Israel give the situation a couple of weeks to “let diplomacy run its course,” thereby winning political cover and approval? Or should it strike immediately to ensure the advantage of a decisive first blow? The most extreme of the “antiwar” positions, taken by Shimon Peres, was to wait six months and spend the interval in preparation. But all talk of diplomacy was a cover for the “historical opportunity” available to Israel, as then-General Ariel Sharon put it. And even “cautious” cabinet members like Labor Minister Yigal Allon suggested “inventing a pretext” to attack.

Eshkol’s primary concern was to have the approval of the United States. So when the director general of the Foreign Ministry suggested wiring the U.S. ambassador that Israel was about to initiate an all-out war, Eshkol responded: “Better say there is danger of an attack on Israel.” Better yet, Rabin suggested, “We’ll say there is danger of a comprehensive Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel. I want the record to show that, before we acted, we did everything we could to exhaust diplomacy.”

Washington was an easy convert. “You’ll whip the hell out of them,” remarked President Lyndon Johnson. Pentagon officials were sure the IDF would score an easy victory. “The only thing worrying the Pentagon,” argues Segev, “was the need for Israel to back up its actions with arguments the world would find convincing.” And so as each day passed, the generals became more aggressive in pushing for immediate war, while Eshkol tried to bide his time, not seeking any diplomatic solutions, but nevertheless appearing to “let diplomacy run its course.”

By June 3, Israel received the green light from Washington, in the words of Mossad leader Meir Amit, to “crush Nasser.” The question of the straits, said Amit, was secondary to the main question: “What will the Middle East look like?” The very next day, the formal decision to go to war was made and all that was left were tactical deliberations. Some ministers suggested staging a provocation to begin the war, but the most pragmatic of the lot pointed out “No one will be able to prove that our planes went in first after we start spreading the word that we are besieged by all sides.”

And so, by 7:45 a.m. on June 5, Israel attacked the Egyptian Air Force. At 8:10, Kol Israel Radio announced that the Egyptians were attacking Israel. And within the hour, the war had effectively been won, the Egyptian Air Force completely debilitated. Dayan meanwhile had ordered the censor to maintain a “fog of war” until the evening. “For the first twenty-four hours,” he said, “we have to be the victims.”

By evening, the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had been all but destroyed, the Gaza Strip was almost entirely in Israeli hands, and armored units were progressing to the north and south. The Jordanians had meanwhile bombed several towns because, as General Yariv put it, King Hussein had to “do something” in order to hold onto power. Syria shelled a few Israeli towns a day later.

As the fog of war lifted the next day, an elated media was giddy with the taste of victory, seeing in it a triumphant continuation of the 1948 war. “My God!” exclaimed Ma’ariv, “The country is suddenly so large!” It was not long until first Jordan and then Egypt and Syria would request cease-fires. Israeli leaders, anticipating international pressure would soon force them to stop, continued a feverish snatch-and-grab for as long as possible. But pressure would not come from the U.S. until, in the words of the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Israel was able to “finish the job.” McGeorge Bundy, the head of the White House task force on the situation, had also “hinted” that it was time to act against Syria.

“Given the new situation that has emerged,” explained Eshkol on the second day of the war, “we must contemplate new definitions of our security and political goals, which in my opinion must be directed toward changing the nature of Israeli-Arab relations as they have existed since 1948….” But while Israeli leaders set about taking full advantage of the “new situation,” invading the West Bank, Gaza, and Syria’s Golan Heights—and posing for cynical photo-ops in the newly conquered Jerusalem—it was Palestinian refugees and POWs from Arab armies that suffered the consequences. One Israeli soldier commented,

We’ve turned the Sinai Peninsula into a valley of death, into one big cemetery. Unarmed men, prisoners with their hands above their heads, cut down against orders.… I’ve seen too many murders to shed any tears. Apparently it doesn’t take years of Nazi education to turn people into animals.

Another soldier reported, “Our soldiers were sent to scout out groups of men fleeing and shoot them. That was the order.” A reporter for Yediot Aharonot witnessed POWs forced to dig their own graves before they were shot. As for Palestinians in Jerusalem, David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s first prime minister and still its most influential politician—declared: “They must be expelled. There’s no need for any law. Occupation is the most effective law.” 

Towns throughout Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank were attacked and looted. Refugee camps in Jericho were bombed to inspire fear and encourage Palestinians to flee. Hundreds of homes in Kalkilya were demolished. More than 200,000 Palestinians in all were made refugees, according to Israeli estimates.

For the many more Palestinian refugees who stayed in the newly occupied territories, Israelis offered an “enlightened occupation.” But this was far from the case. Segev writes:

The military and civilian presence in the territories rapidly mutated into an endless labyrinth of headquarters, commands, branches, departments, units, wings, bureaus, authorities, administrations, and outposts—a giant warren of countless officers, soldiers, and civil servants. Their work consisted almost entirely of inventing more and more reasons to interfere in the residents’ daily lives.

As administrators of the occupation set about tying the territories’ economies to Israel’s, a “whip and carrot” approach—as Dayan called it—was used to reward accommodation and put down the slightest rebellion with an iron fist. Curfews, freezing the movement of goods, house searches, arrests, torture during interrogations, deportations, and house demolitions were used early on as means of collective punishment. In describing this “enlightened” benevolence to a Palestinian poet, Dayan likened the situation to a rape:

The situation between us is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the young girl he has taken against her wishes. But when their children are born, they will see the man as their father and the woman as their mother. The initial act will mean nothing to them. You, the Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by imposing our presence upon you.

In the aftermath of the war, Israel offered Egypt and Syria a withdrawal from Sinai and the Golan in return for direct negotiations. These were to be separate negotiations and made no mention of Jordan, the West Bank, or Jerusalem. These “offers” had the desired effect of creating the impression that Israel was interested in peace, while in reality presenting Egypt and Syria with untenable arrangements. A couple of weeks later they entered into similarly and deliberately futile discussions with Jordan. Meanwhile, Israeli leaders approached Palestinian public figures whom they hoped would be receptive to setting up a Palestinian state “under IDF patronage”—without an army but with a police force.

This “state” required a permanent IDF presence and would be loosely based on the 1947 partition border, minus some Israeli annexations—and East Jerusalem would remain part of Israel. Israel would undertake to “solve” the refugee problem by creating an international fund that would encourage the refugees to leave Gaza and the West Bank for settlement in other countries. Little headway was made on these goals, though they would be resurrected years later in the failed Oslo peace negotiations.

The 1967 war reshaped the face of the Middle East. It began one of the world’s longest-running occupations, a great source of anger and bitterness among millions of Palestinians and Arabs across the region. It discredited Nasser and Arab nationalists who proved themselves unable to challenge Israel’s expansion and aggression. At the same time, Israel had more than proven its worth to the United States. In six days it had dealt a devastating blow to Pan-Arabism and overwhelmingly routed three armies at once. Military and financial support from the U.S. skyrocketed soon thereafter.

Totaling around 600 pages, it is at times a tediously detailed read with thin analysis. Many of the strategic decisions and turns in the lead-up to the war, and during it, are presented as simply ego- and personality-driven dramas. Less clear still are U.S. aims and the context of the Johnson administration’s dealings with its Israeli counterparts.

But the biggest limitation of the book is that Segev seems to think that 1967 was essentially a massive blunder, driven by egos and greed. Had Israel acted differently in either avoiding the war or handling its victory differently, Segev assumes it could have developed a more peaceful coexistence with its neighbors. In fact, the reality is that Israel’s relationship to Palestinians and to its Arab neighbors was determined in 1948. The Six-Day War was a tragic but predictable extension of its colonial founding.

The historic significance of this war and the mythology around it make Segev’s 1967 an indispensable contribution. His focus on Israeli archival material should leave no trace of doubt that Israeli leaders knew that the war was not a defensive necessity, that it would be easily won, and that it was fought on the basis of cynical and strategic considerations of the state.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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