Origins of the Six-Day War

Origins of the Six-Day War

The Origins of the Six-Day War, which was fought between June 5 and June 10, 1967, by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt [known then as the United Arab Republic (UAR)], Jordan, and Syria, lay in both longer term and immediate issues. The foundation of Israel itself and its participation in the invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956 continued to be a significant grievance for the Arab world. Arab nationalists, led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, continued to be hostile to Israel's existence. By the mid-1960s, relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors had deteriorated to the extent that a number of border clashes had taken place. In 1967, Egypt expelled UN peacekeepers, stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since the Suez conflict, and announced a partial blockade of Israel's access to the Red Sea. Israel claimed this as a casus belli for a surprise strike which began the Six-Day War.


Summary of events leading to war

After the 1956 Suez Crisis, Egypt agreed to the stationing of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai to ensure all parties would comply with the 1949 Armistice Agreements.[1][2][3] In the following years, there were numerous minor border clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbors, particularly Syria. In early November, 1966, Syria signed a mutual defense agreement with Egypt.[4] Soon thereafter, in response to PLO guerilla activity,[5][6] including a mine attack that left three dead,[7] the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) attacked the city of as-Samu in the Jordanian-occupied West Bank.[8] Jordanian units that engaged the Israelis were quickly beaten back.[9] King Hussein of Jordan criticized Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for failing to come to Jordan's aid, and "hiding behind UNEF skirts".[10][11] In May 1967, Nasser received false reports from the Soviet Union that Israel was massing on the Syrian border. Nasser began massing his troops in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel's border (May 16), expelled the UNEF force from Gaza and Sinai (May 19) and took up UNEF positions at Sharm el-Sheikh, overlooking the Straits of Tiran.[12][13] Israel reiterated declarations made in 1957 that any closure of the Straits would be considered an act of war, or justification for war.[14][15] Nasser declared the Straits closed to Israeli shipping on May 22–23. On May 30, Jordan and Egypt signed a defense pact. The following day, at Jordan's invitation, the Iraqi army began deploying troops and armored units in Jordan.[16] They were later reinforced by an Egyptian contingent. On June 1, Israel formed a National Unity Government by widening its cabinet, and on June 4 the decision was made to go to war. The next morning, Israel launched Operation Focus, a large-scale surprise air strike that was the opening of the Six-Day War.

Suez Crisis aftermath

The Suez Crisis of 1956 represented a military defeat but a political victory for Egypt, and set the stage leading to the Six-Day War. In a speech delivered to the Knesset, David Ben-Gurion said that the 1949 armistice agreement with Egypt was dead and buried, and that the armistice lines were no longer valid and could not be restored. Under no circumstances would Israel agree to the stationing of UN forces on its territory or in any area it occupied.[17][18] Heavy diplomatic pressure from both the United States and the Soviet Union forced Israel into a conditional withdrawal of its military from the Sinai Peninsula,[19] only after satisfactory arrangements had been made with the international force that was about to enter the canal zone.[20]

After the 1956 war, Egypt agreed to the stationing of a UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai, the United Nations Emergency Force, to keep that border region demilitarized, and prevent Palestinian fedayeen guerrillas from crossing the border into Israel.[21]

Egypt also agreed to reopen the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, whose closure had been a significant catalyst in precipitating the Suez Crisis. As a result, the border between Egypt and Israel remained quiet for the vast majority of the period up to 1967.[22]

After the 1956 war, the region returned to an uneasy balance without the resolution of any of the underlying issues. At the time, no Arab state had recognized Israel. Syria, aligned with the Soviet bloc, began sponsoring guerrilla raids on Israel in the early 1960s as part of its "people's war of liberation", designed to deflect domestic opposition to the Ba'ath Party.[23] Even after nearly two decades of its existence, no neighboring Arab country of Israel was willing to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel or accept its existence. Tunisian President Habib Bourgiba suggested in a speech in Jericho in 1965 that the Arab world should face reality and negotiate with Israel, but this was rejected by the other Arab countries.[24][25]

Water dispute

In 1964, Israel began drawing water from the Jordan River for its National Water Carrier, reducing the flow that reached Hashemite territory. The following year, the Arab states began construction of the Headwater Diversion Plan, which, once completed, would divert the waters of the Banias Stream before the water entered Israel and the Sea of Galilee, to flow instead into a dam at Mukhaiba for use by Jordan and Syria, and divert the waters of the Hasbani into the Litani River in Lebanon.[26] The diversion works would have reduced the installed capacity of Israel's carrier by about 35%, and Israel's overall water supply by about 11%.[27]

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacked the diversion works in Syria in March, May, and August 1965, perpetuating a prolonged chain of border violence that linked directly to the events leading to war.[28]

Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank Palestinians

The long armistice line between Jordan and Israel was tense since the beginning of Fatah's guerrilla operations in January 1965. While Syria was the main supporter of such operations, Israel viewed the state from which the raids were perpetrated as responsible. King Hussein, the Hashemite ruler, was in a bind: he did not want to appear as cooperating with Israel in light of the delicate relationship of his government with the majority Palestinian population in his kingdom, and his success in preventing such raids was only partial. In the summer and autumn of 1966 the PLO carried out several guerilla attacks that caused death and injury to Israeli civilians and military personnel. This culminated on November 11, 1966, when an Israeli border patrol hit a land mine, killing three soldiers and injuring six others. Israel believed the mine had been planted by militants from Es Samu, a village in the southern West Bank, close to where the incident took place, which was a Fatah stronghold.[29] This led the Israeli cabinet to approve a large scale operation called 'Shredder'. On Friday, November 12, King Hussein of Jordan penned a letter of personal condolence to Israel which he cabled to U.S. ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, through the U.S. embassy in Amman which passed it to Barbour in Tel Aviv. Barbour, believing there was no urgency to delivering the letter, left it on his desk over the weekend, thus failing to deliver it in a timely fashion.[30]

The next day, on the morning of November 13, the Israel Defense Force mobilized, crossed the border into the West Bank and attacked Es Samu. The attacking force consisted of 3,000-4,000 soldiers backed by tanks and aircraft. They were divided into a reserve force, which remained on the Israeli side of the border, and two raiding parties, which crossed into the West Bank.

The larger force of eight Centurion Tanks, followed by 400 paratroopers mounted in 40 open-topped half-tracks and 60 engineers in 10 more half-tracks, headed for Samu; while a smaller force of three tanks and 100 paratroopers and engineers in 10 half-tracks headed towards two smaller villages: Kirbet El-Markas and Kirbet Jimba. According to Terrence Prittie's Eshkol: The Man and the Nation, 50 houses were destroyed, but the inhabitants had been evacuated hours before.

To Israel's surprise, the Jordanian military intervened. The 48th Infantry Battalion of the Jordanian Army ran into the Israeli forces northwest of Samu; and two companies approaching from the northeast were intercepted by the Israelis, while a platoon of Jordanians armed with two 106 mm recoilless guns entered Samu. The Jordanian Air Force intervened as well and a Jordanian Hunter fighter was shot down in the action. In the ensuing battles, three Jordanian civilians and 16 soldiers were killed; 54 other soldiers and 96 civilians were wounded. The commander of the Israeli paratroop battalion, Colonel Yoav Shaham, was killed and 10 other Israeli soldiers were wounded.[31][32]

According to the Israeli government, 50 Jordanians were killed, but the true number was never disclosed by the Jordanians, in order to keep up morale and confidence in King Hussein's regime.[33] The whole battle was short: the Israeli forces crossed the border at 6:00 A.M. and returned by 10:00 A.M.

Hussein felt betrayed by the operation. He had been having secret meetings with Israeli foreign ministers Abba Eban and Golda Meir for three years. According to him he was doing everything he could to stop guerrilla attacks from the West Bank and Jordan. "I told them I could not absorb a serious retaliatory raid, and they accepted the logic of this and promised there would never be one".[34]

Two days later, in a memo to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, his Special Assistant Walt Rostow wrote: "retaliation is not the point in this case. This 3000-man raid with tanks and planes was out of all proportion to the provocation and was aimed at the wrong target," and went on to describe the damage done to US and Israeli interests:

They've wrecked a good system of tacit cooperation between Hussein and the Israelis... They've undercut Hussein. We've spent $500 million to shore him up as a stabilizing factor on Israel's longest border and vis-à-vis Syria and Iraq. Israel's attack increases the pressure on him to counterattack not only from the more radical Arab governments and from the Palestinians in Jordan but also from the Army, which is his main source of support and may now press for a chance to recoup its Sunday losses... They've set back progress toward a long term accommodation with the Arabs... They may have persuaded the Syrians that Israel didn't dare attack Soviet-protected Syria but could attack US-backed Jordan with impunity.[35]

The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 228 unanimously deploring "the loss of life and heavy damage to property resulting from the action of the Government of Israel on 13 November 1966", censuring "Israel for conducting "a large-scale and carefully planned military action against Jordanian territory" in violation of the United Nations Charter and of the General Armistice Agreement between Israel and Jordan" and emphasizing "to Israel that actions of military reprisal cannot be tolerated and that, if they are repeated, the Security Council will have to consider further and more effective steps as envisaged in the Charter to ensure against the repetition of such acts."[36]

Facing a storm of criticism from Jordanians, Palestinians, and his Arab neighbors for failing to protect Samu, Hussein ordered a nation-wide mobilization on November 20.[37][38] Hussein complained that Egypt and Syria had failed to protect the West Bank, while "hiding behind UNEF skirts"; this accusation may have been a factor in Nasser's decision to rid his country of the UNEF force on the eve of the Six-Day War.[26]

The operation was the largest scale one that Israel was involved with since the Suez Crisis. While the diplomatic and political developments were not as Israel expected, following the operation Hussein worked hard to avoid any further clashes by preventing guerrilla operations from being launched from within Jordan.[39]

Some view the Samu raid as the beginning of the escalation in tensions that led to the war.[40] According to Moshe Shemesh, a historian and former senior intelligence officer in the IDF, Jordan's military and civilian leaders estimated that Israel's main objective was conquest of the West Bank. They felt that Israel was striving to drag all of the Arab countries into a war. After the Samu raid, these apprehensions became the deciding factor in Jordan's decision to participate in the war. King Hussein was convinced Israel would try to occupy the West Bank whether Jordan went to war, or not.[41]

Israel and Syria

The peace accord at the end of the 1948 war had established demilitarized zones (DMZs) between Israel and Syria.[42] However, as recalled by UN military forces officers such as Odd Bull and Carl Von Horn, Israelis gradually took over portions of the zone, evicting Arab villagers and demolishing their homes; these actions incurring protests from the UN Security Council.[43] Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister at the time of the Six Day War, remembered in 1976 that Israeli policy at the Demilitarized Zone between 1949 and 1967 was "to seize some territory and hold it until the enemy despairs and gives it to us", thus changing "the lines of the ceasefire accord with military actions that were less than a war".[42][44] Historian Michael Oren said that "[t]here is an element of truth to Dayan's claim", but that Israeli actions were justified, as "Israel regarded the de-militarized zones in the north as part of their sovereign territory".[45] Overall, Oren's account of the period shows Israel as the innocent victim of Syrian provocation and aggression.[46] From the Golan Heights, Syrians shelled Israeli settlements and other targets,[47][48] such as fishermen in the Sea of Galilee,[49] drawing punitive responsive strikes from Israel.[48] In a 1976 informal interview, Moshe Dayan said that Israel provoked more than 80% of the clashes with Syria.[44][50] Following the 1966 coup in Damascus, the Syrian-sponsored Palestinian guerilla attacks and acts of sabotage increased.[51] For two and a half years from the start of the attacks to the Six-Day War, the Palestinian attacks killed 14 Israelis and injured dozens more - soldiers as well as civilians.[citation needed] The Palestinian attacks were often through Jordanian territory, much to King Hussein's chagrin.[citation needed]

Publicly, Syria claimed that the increasing tension was the result of an Israel attempting to increase tension in order to justify large-scale military operation, and to expand its occupation of the Demilitarized Zone by dispossessing the remaining Arab farmers Syria also claimed that Syrian shelling had always occurred in response to Israeli firing on peaceful Arab farmers or Syrian posts.[52][non-primary source needed]

In 1966, Egypt and Syria signed a defense pact whereby each country would support the other if it were attacked. According to Indar Jit Rikhye, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad told him that the Soviet Union had persuaded Egypt to enter the pact with two ideas in mind: to reduce the chances of a punitive attack on Syria by Israel and to bring the Syrians under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's moderating influence.[53]

During a visit to London in February 1967, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban briefed journalists on Israel's "hopes and anxieties" explaining to those present that, although the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Republic (Egypt's official name until 1971) seemed to have decided against active confrontation with Israel, it remained to be seen whether Syria could maintain a minimal level of restraint at which hostility was confined to rhetoric.[54]

On April 7, 1967, Syria attacked Israeli agricultural equipment along the Sea of Galilee, using tanks, machine guns, and heavy mortars. The incident escalated into a full-scale aerial battle over the Golan Heights after Israel scrambled jets, resulting in the loss of six Syrian Air Force MiG-21s to Israeli Air Force Dassault Mirage IIIs, and the latter's flight over Damascus.[55] Tanks, heavy mortars, machine guns, and artillery were used in various sections along the 47 mile (76 km) border in what was described as "a dispute over cultivation rights in the demilitarized zone south-east of Lake Tiberias." Earlier in the week, Syria had twice attacked an Israeli tractor working in the area and when it returned on the morning of April 7 the Syrians opened fire again. The Israelis responded by sending in armor-plated tractors to continue ploughing, resulting in further exchanges of fire. Israeli aircraft dive-bombed Syrian positions with 250 and 500 kg bombs. The Syrians responded by shelling Israeli border settlements heavily, and Israeli jets retaliated by bombing the village of Sqoufiye, destroying around 40 houses in the process. At 15:19 Syrian shells started falling on Kibbutz Gadot; over 300 landed within the kibbutz compound in 40 minutes.[56] The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) attempted to arrange a ceasefire, but Syria declined to co-operate unless Israeli agricultural work was halted.[57]

Speaking to a Mapai party meeting in Jerusalem on May 11 Prime Minister of Israel Levi Eshkol warned that Israel would not hesitate to use air power on the scale of 7 April in response to continued border terrorism, and on the same day Israeli envoy Gideon Rafael presented a letter to the president of the Security Council warning that Israel would "act in self-defense as circumstances warrant".[58] Writing from Tel Aviv on May 12, James Feron reported that some Israeli leaders had decided to use force against Syria "of considerable strength but of short duration and limited in area" and quoted "one qualified observer" who "said it was highly unlikely that Egypt (then officially called United Arab Republic), Syria's closest ally in the Arab world, would enter the hostilities unless the Israeli attack were extensive".[59] In early May the Israeli cabinet authorized a limited strike against Syria, but Rabin's renewed demand for a large-scale strike to discredit or topple the Ba'ath regime was opposed by Eshkol.[60] BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen reports:

The toughest threat was reported by the news agency United Press International (UPI) on 12 May: 'A high Israeli source said today that Israel would take limited military action designed to topple the Damascus army regime if Syrian terrorists continue sabotage raids inside Israel. Military observers said such an offensive would fall short of all-out war but would be mounted to deliver a telling blow against the Syrian government.' In the West as well as the Arab world the immediate assumption was that the unnamed source was Rabin and that he was serious. In fact, it was Brigadier-General Aharon Yariv, the head of military intelligence, and the story was overwritten. Yariv mentioned 'an all-out invasion of Syria and conquest of Damascus' but only as the most extreme of a range of possibilities. But the damage had been done. Tension was so high that most people, and not just the Arabs, assumed that something much bigger than usual was being planned against Syria.[61][62]

Border incidents multiplied and numerous Arab leaders, both political and military, called for an end to Israeli reprisals. Egypt, then already trying to seize a central position in the Arab world under Nasser, accompanied these declarations with plans to re-militarize the Sinai. Syria shared these views, although it did not prepare for an immediate invasion. The Soviet Union actively backed the military needs of the Arab states. It was later revealed that on May 13 a Soviet intelligence report given by Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny to Egyptian Vice President Anwar Sadat claimed falsely that Israeli troops were massing along the Syrian border.[63][64] In May 1967, Hafez al-Assad, then Syria's Defense Minister declared: "Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian Army, with its finger on the trigger, is united... I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation."[65]

Removal of U.N. peacekeepers from Egypt

At 10:00 p.m. on May 16, the commander of United Nations Emergency Force, General Indar Jit Rikhye, was handed a letter from General Mohammed Fawzy, Chief of Staff of the United Arab Republic, reading: "To your information, I gave my instructions to all UAR armed forces to be ready for action against Israel, the moment it might carry out any aggressive action against any Arab country. Due to these instructions our troops are already concentrated in Sinai on our eastern border. For the sake of complete security of all UN troops which install OPs along our borders, I request that you issue your orders to withdraw all these troops immediately." Rikhye said he would report to the Secretary-General for instructions.[66][note 1]

The UN Secretary-General U Thant attempted to negotiate with the Egyptian government, but on May 18 the Egyptian Foreign Minister informed nations with troops in UNEF that the UNEF mission in Egypt and the Gaza Strip had been terminated and that they must leave immediately. Egyptian forces then prevented UNEF troops from entering their posts. The Governments of India and Yugoslavia decided to withdraw their troops from UNEF, regardless of the decision of U Thant. While this was taking place, U Thant suggested that UNEF be redeployed to the Israeli side of the border, but Israel refused, arguing that UNEF contingents from countries hostile to Israel would be more likely to impede an Israeli response to Egyptian aggression than to stop that aggression in the first place.[67] The Permanent Representative of Egypt then informed U Thant that the Egyptian government had decided to terminate UNEF's presence in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and requested steps that would withdraw the force as soon as possible. The UNEF commander was given the order to begin withdrawal on May 19.[68][69] Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser then began the re-militarization of the Sinai, and concentrated tanks and troops there.[70]

The withdrawal of UNEF was to be spaced over a period of some weeks. The troops were to be withdrawn by air and by sea from Port Said. The withdrawal plan envisaged that the last personnel of UNEF would leave the area on June 30, 1967. On the morning of May 27, Egypt demanded that the Canadian contingent be evacuated within 48 hours "on grounds of the attitude adopted by the Government of Canada in connection with UNEF and the United Arab Republic Government's request for its withdrawal, and ‘to prevent any probable reaction from the people of the United Arab Republic against the Canadian Forces in UNEF.’" The withdrawal of the Canadian contingent was accelerated and completed on May 31, with the effect that UNEF was left without its logistics and air support components. In the war itself 15 members of the remaining force were killed and the rest evacuated through Israel.[52]

Yitzhak Rabin, who served as the Chief of the General Staff for Israel during the war stated: "I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it." Menachem Begin also stated that "The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."[71] Former Chief of Staff of the armed forces, Haim Bar-Lev (a deputy chief during the war) stated: "the entrance of the Egyptians into Sinai was not a casus belli," but argued instead that the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran ultimately caused the war. Major General Mattityahu Peled, the Chief of Logistics for the Armed Forces during the war, said the survival argument was "a bluff which was born and developed only after the war... When we spoke of the war in the General Staff, we talked of the political ramifications if we didn't go to war —what would happen to Israel in the next 25 years. Never of survival today."[72] Peled also stated that "To pretend that the Egyptian forces massed on our frontiers were in a position to threaten the existence of Israel constitutes an insult not only to the intelligence of anyone capable of analyzing this sort of situation, but above all an insult to Zahal (Israeli military)."[73]

The Straits of Tiran

Strait tiran 83.jpg

In 1967, Israeli leaders repeatedly threatened to invade Syria and overthrow the Syrian government if Palestinian guerrilla actions across the border did not cease.[74] In addition, the Soviet Union fed the Syrian government false information that Israel was planning to invade Syria.[75] On May 13, the Soviets informed Egypt officially that Israel was massing troops and was planning on invading Syria.[76] On May 22, Egypt responded by announcing, in addition to the UN withdrawal,[75] that the Straits of Tiran would be closed to "all ships flying Israeli flags or carrying strategic materials", with effect from May 23.[77]

The rights of Egypt regarding the Straits of Tiran had been debated at the General Assembly pursuant to Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai following the Suez Crisis. A number of states, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States argued that the Straits were international waters, and, as such, all vessels had the right of "free and unhampered passage" through them. India, however, argued that Egypt was entitled to require foreign ships to obtain its consent before seeking access to the gulf because its territorial sea covered the Strait of Tiran. It too recognized the right of "innocent passage" through such waters, but argued it was up to the coastal State to decide which passage was "innocent".[78] Nasser stated, "Under no circumstances can we permit the Israeli flag to pass through the Gulf of Aqaba." There were ambiguities about how rigorous the blockade would be, and particularly about whether it would apply to non-Israeli flag vessels. Citing international law, Israel considered the closure of the straits to be illegal, and it had stated it would consider such a blockade a casus belli in 1957 when it withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza.[79] Egypt stated that the Gulf of Aqaba had always been a national inland waterway subject to the sovereignty of the only three legitimate littoral States — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt — who had the right to bar enemy vessels. The representative of the United Arab Republic further stated that "Israel's claim to have a port on the Gulf was considered invalid, as Israel was alleged to have occupied several miles of coastline on the Gulfline, including Umm Rashrash, in violation of Security Council resolutions of 1948 and the Egyptian-Israel General Armistice Agreement."[80]

The Arab states disputed Israel's right of passage through the Straits, noting they had not signed the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone specifically because of article 16(4) which provided Israel with that right.[81] To note, state practice and customary international law that ships of all states have a right of innocent passage through territorial seas.[82][83] That Egypt had consistently granted passage as a matter of state practice until then suggests that its opinio juris in that regard was consistent with practice.[84] Moreover, during the Egyptian occupation of the Saudi islands of Sanafir and Tiran in 1950, it provided assurances to the US that the military occupation would not be used to prevent free passage, and that Egypt recognizes that such free passage is "in conformity with the international practice and the recognized principles of international law.".[85] In 1949 the International Court of Justice held in the Corfu Channel Case (United Kingdom v. Albania) that where a strait was overlapped by a territorial sea foreign ships, including warships, had unsuspendable right of innocent passage through such straits used for international navigation between parts of the high seas, but express provision for innocent passage through straits within the territorial sea of a foreign state was not codified until the 1958 Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone.[82][83][86]

In the United Nations General Assembly debates after the war, the Arab states and their supporters argued that even if international law gave Israel the right of passage, Israel was not entitled to attack Egypt to assert that right, because the closure was not an "armed attack" as defined by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Pursuant to this point, international law professor John Quigley argues that under the doctrine of proportionality, Israel would only be entitled to use such force as would be necessary to secure its right of passage.[87] Others disagreed: after the 1956 campaign in which Israel conquered Sharm el-Sheikh and opened the blocked Straits, it was forced to withdraw and return the territory to Egypt. At the time, members of the international community pledged that Israel would never again be denied use of the Straits of Tiran. The French representative to the UN, for example, announced that an attempt to interfere with free shipping in the Straits would be against international law, and American President Dwight Eisenhower went so far as publicly to recognize that reimposing a blockade in the Straits of Tiran would be seen as an aggressive act which would oblige Israel to protect its maritime rights in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter.[88] United Nations Secretary-General U Thant also went to Cairo to help negotiate an agreement to avoid conflict, but after the closing of the Straits of Tiran, Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, contended that this was enough to start the war. Eban said, "From May the 24th onward, the question who started the war or who fired the first shot became momentously irrelevant. There is no difference in civil law between murdering a man by slow strangulation or killing him by a shot in the head... From the moment at which the blockade was posed, active hostilities had commenced, and Israel owed Egypt nothing of her Charter rights."[89] Contrary to this view in a letter written to the New York Times in June 1967 lawyer Roger Fisher argued that

The United Arab Republic had a good legal case for restricting traffic through the Strait of Tiran. First it is debatable whether international law confers any right of innocent passage through such a waterway.... [Secondly]... a right of innocent passage is not a right of free passage for any cargo at any time. In the words of the Convention on the Territorial Sea: 'Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order, or security of the coastal state... taking the facts as they were I, as an international lawyer, would rather defend before the International Court of Justice the legality of the U.A.R's action in closing the Strait of Tiran than to argue the other side of the case...[90]

The Israeli government asked the U.S. and UK to open the Straits of Tiran, as they guaranteed they would in 1957. Harold Wilson's proposal of an international maritime force to quell the crisis was adopted by President Johnson, but received little support, with only Britain and the Netherlands offering to contribute ships. The British cabinet later stated that there was a new balance of power in the Middle East, led by the United Arab Republic, that was A) to the detriment of Israel and the Western powers and B) something Israel was going to have to learn to live with.

Yitzhak Rabin reported that the cabinet was deadlocked over the issue of the blockade.[91] Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira in particular had pointed out that the Straits had been closed from 1951 to 1956 without the situation endangering Israel's security.[92] In a 30 March 1968 Ma’ariv interview Defense Minister Moshe Dayan explained: "What do you mean, [the war was] unavoidable? It was, of course, possible to avoid the war if the Straits [of Tiran] had stayed closed to Israeli shipping.[93]

Egypt and Jordan

During May and June the Israeli government had worked hard to keep Jordan out of any war; it was concerned about being attacked on multiple fronts, and did not want to have to deal with the Jordanian West Bank. However, Jordan's King Hussein got caught up in the wave of pan-Arab nationalism preceding the war;[g] and so, on May 30, Jordan signed a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, thereby joining the military alliance already in place between Egypt and Syria. The move surprised both Egyptians and foreign observers, because President Nasser had generally been at odds with Hussein, calling him an "imperialist lackey" just days earlier.[94] Nasser said that any differences between him and Hussein were erased "in one moment" and declared: "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight."[94]

At the end of May 1967, Jordanian forces were given to the command of an Egyptian general, Abdul Munim Riad.[95] On the same day, Nasser proclaimed: "The armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria are poised on the borders of Israel ... to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not of more declarations."[96] Israel called upon Jordan numerous times to refrain from hostilities. According to Mutawi, Hussein was caught on the horns of a galling dilemma: allow Jordan to be dragged into war and face the brunt of the Israeli response, or remain neutral and risk full-scale insurrection among his own people. Army Commander-in-Chief General Sharif Zaid Ben Shaker warned in a press conference that "If Jordan does not join the war a civil war will erupt in Jordan".[97] However, according to Avi Shlaim, Hussein's actions were prompted by his feelings of Arab nationalism.[g]

On June 3, days before the war, Egypt flew to Amman two battalions of commandos tasked with infiltrating Israel's borders and engaging in attacks and bombings so as to draw IDF into a Jordanian front and ease the pressure on the Egyptians. Soviet-made artillery and Egyptian military supplies and crews were also flown to Jordan.[98]

Israel's own sense of concern regarding Jordan's future role originated in the Jordanian control of the West Bank. This put Arab forces just 17 kilometers from Israel's coast, a jump-off point from which a well-coordinated tank assault would likely cut Israel in two within half an hour.[98] Hussein had doubled the size of Jordan's army in the last decade and had US training and arms delivered as recently as early 1967, and it was feared that it could be used by other Arab states as staging grounds for operations against Israel; thus, attack from the West Bank was always viewed by the Israeli leadership as a threat to Israel's existence.[98] At the same time several other Arab states not bordering Israel, including Iraq, Sudan, Kuwait and Algeria, began mobilizing their armed forces.

The Egyptian attack plan was code-named Operation Dawn, and was planned by General Abdel Hakim Amer. It called for the strategic bombing of Israeli airfields, ports, cities, and the Negev Nuclear Research Center. Arab armies would then invade Israel, and cut it in half with an armored thrust through the Negev.

The drift to war

In his speech to Arab trade unionists on May 26, Nasser announced: "If Israel embarks on an aggression against Syria or Egypt, the battle against Israel will be a general one and not confined to one spot on the Syrian or Egyptian borders. The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel."[99][100]

Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 1960, Nasser had stated that "The only solution to Palestine is that matters should return to the condition prevailing before the error was committed — i.e., the annulment of Israel's existence." In 1964 he said, "We swear to God that we shall not rest until we restore the Arab nation to Palestine and Palestine to the Arab nation. There is no room for imperialism and there is no room for Britain in our country, just as there is no room for Israel within the Arab nation." In 1965 he asserted, "We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand, we shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood."[101]

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq said that "the existence of Israel is an error which must be recitified. This is an opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948".[102] The Iraqi Prime Minister predicted that "there will be practically no Jewish survivors".

Nasser publicly denied that Egypt would strike first and spoke of a negotiated peace if Israel allowed all Palestinian refugees the right of return, and of a possible compromise over the Strait of Tiran.[74]

Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote in his autobiography that he found "Nasser's assurance that he did not plan an armed attack" convincing, adding that "Nasser did not want war; he wanted victory without war".[103][104] Writing from Egypt on June 4, 1967, New York Times journalist James Reston observed: "Cairo does not want war and it is certainly not ready for war. But it has already accepted the possibility, even the likelihood, of war, as if it had lost control of the situation."[105]

Writing in 2002, American National Public Radio journalist Mike Shuster expressed a view that was prevalent in Israel before the war that the country "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."[75] With what Israel saw as provocative acts by Nasser, including the blockade of the Straits and the mobilization of forces in the Sinai, creating military and economic pressure, and the United States temporizing because of its entanglement in the Vietnam War, Israel's political and military elite came to feel that preemption was not merely militarily preferable, but transformative.

Diplomacy and intelligence assessments

The Israeli cabinet met on May 23 and decided to launch an attack if the Straits of Tiran were not re-opened by May 25. Following an approach from United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Eugene Rostow to allow time for the negotiation of a nonviolent solution, Israel agreed to a delay of ten days to two weeks.[106] UN Secretary General, U Thant, visited Cairo for mediation and recommended a moratorium in the Straits of Tiran and a renewed diplomatic effort to solve the crisis. Egypt agreed, but Israel rejected these proposals.[107] Nasser's concessions did not necessarily suggest that he was making a concerted effort to avoid war. The decision benefited him both politically and strategically. Agreeing to diplomacy helped garner international political support. Moreover, every delay gave Egypt time to complete its own military preparations and coordinate with the other Arab forces. Also, Israel's rejection did not necessarily demonstrate a desire for war so much as it demonstrated the urgency it felt the situation warranted. Israel felt it could not afford to sustain total mobilization for long.[108] Caught up in Arab enthusiasm for military action and encouraged by the lack of response to the closure of the Straits, Egyptian Field Marshal Amer planned for initiating an attack on Israel in late May. He told one of his generals that "This time we will be the ones to start the war." This was counter to Nasser's strategy of pushing Israel to start the war. Historian Michael Oren states that Egyptian sources are divided over why Nasser did not veto Amer's plan. Oren suggests that "Nasser was apprised of [the plan] but lacked the political strength to override Amer's order. Also, the preparation of an Egyptian invasion of Israel had certain advantages for Nasser..."[109]

The US also tried to mediate, and Nasser agreed to send his vice-president to Washington to explore a diplomatic settlement. Most American diplomats who worked in the Middle East were sympathetic to Nasser's views on the Straits, with several of them arguing that the US should ignore both its on-the-record promises to Israel regarding the Straits being open and international law; a few diplomats who were not as impressed by threats from Arab nations advised the Johnson Administration to back the flotilla option as a "show of force" that would forestall war from breaking out. The meeting did not happen because Israel launched its offensive. Some analysts suggest that Nasser took actions aimed at reaping political gains, which he knew carried a high risk of precipitating military hostilities. On this view, Nasser's willingness to take such risks was based on his fundamental underestimation of Israel's capacity for independent and effective military action.[108]

On May 25, 1967, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban landed in Washington “with instructions to discuss American plans to re-open the Strait of Tiran”. As soon as he arrived, he was given new instructions in a cable from the Israeli government. The cable said that Israel had learned of an imminent Egyptian attack, which overshadowed the blockade. No longer was he to emphasize the strait issue; he was instructed to ‘inform the highest authorities of this new threat and to request an official statement from the United States that an attack on Israel would be viewed as an attack on the United States.” According to most sources, including those involved, the new instructions were sent at the instigation of Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, who was eager to force an American decision – either Johnson would have to commit to specific American action then, or Israel would be free to act on its own.[110] Historian Michael Oren explains Eban's reaction to the new instructions: "Eban was livid. Unconvinced that Nasser was either determined or even able to attack, he now saw Israelis inflating the Egyptian threat — and flaunting their weakness — in order to extract a pledge that the President, Congress-bound, could never make." He described the cable as an "...act of momentous irresponsibility... eccentric..." which "lacked wisdom, veracity and tactical understanding," and later came to the conclusion that the genesis of the cable was Rabin's indecisive state of mind.[111]

Despite his own skepticism, Eban followed his instructions during his first meeting with Secretary Rusk, Under Secretary Rostow, and Assistant Secretary Lucius Battle. American intelligence experts spent the night analyzing each of the Israeli claims.[110] On May 26, Eban met with United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and finally with President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a memo to the President, Rusk rejected the claim of an Egyptian and Syrian attack being imminent, plainly stating "our intelligence does not confirm [the] Israeli estimate".[112] According to declassified documents from the Johnson Presidential Library, President Johnson and other top officials in the administration did not believe war between Israel and its neighbors was necessary or inevitable.[113] "All of our intelligence people are unanimous that if the UAR attacks, you will whip hell out of them", Johnson told Eban during a visit to the White House on May 26.[113][114][115] This assertion was made in accordance with a CIA assessment that Israel could “defend successfully against simultaneous Arab attacks on all fronts... or hold on any three fronts while mounting successfully a major offensive on the fourth."[113][114] Consequently, Johnson declined to airlift special military supplies to Israel or even to publicly support it.[114] Eban left the White House distraught.

In a lecture given in 2002, Oren said, "Johnson sat around with his advisors and said, ‘What if their intelligence sources are better than ours?’ Johnson decided to fire off a Hotline message to his counterpart in the Kremlin, Alexei Kosygin, in which he said, ‘We've heard from the Israelis, but we can't corroborate it, that your proxies in the Middle East, the Egyptians, plan to launch an attack against Israel in the next 48 hours. If you don't want to start a global crisis, prevent them from doing that.’ At 2:30 a.m. on May 27, Soviet Ambassador to Egypt Dimitri Pojidaev knocked on Nasser's door and read him a personal letter from Kosygin in which he said, ‘We don't want Egypt to be blamed for starting a war in the Middle East. If you launch that attack, we cannot support you.’ Amer consulted his sources in the Kremlin, and they corroborated the substance of Kosygin's message. Despondent, Amer told the commander of Egypt's air force, Major General Mahmud Sidqi, that the operation was cancelled."[116] According to then Egyptian Vice-President Hussein el-Shafei, as soon as Nasser knew what Amer planned, he cancelled the operation.[117]

CIA Analysis of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The first page of the draft of the "special estimate" that predicted the outcome of the war

On May 30, Nasser responded to Johnson's request of 11 days earlier and agreed to send his Vice President, Zakkariya Muhieddin, to Washington on June 7 to explore a diplomatic settlement in "precisely the opening the White House had sought".[118] Historian Michael Oren writes that Rusk was "mad as hell" and that Johnson later wrote "I have never concealed my regret that Israel decided to move when it did".[119]

Within Israel's political leadership, it was decided that if the US would not act, and if the UN could not act, then Israel would have to act. On 1 June, Moshe Dayan was made Israeli Defense Minister, and on June 3 the Johnson administration gave an ambiguous statement; Israel continued to prepare for war. Israel's attack against Egypt on June 5 began what would later be dubbed the Six-Day War. According to Martin van Creveld, the IDF pressed for war: "...the concept of 'defensible borders' was not even part of the IDFs own vocabulary. Anyone who will look for it in the military literature of the time will do so in vain. Instead, Israel's commanders based their thought on the 1948 war and, especially, their 1956 triumph over the Egyptians in which, from then Chief of Staff Dayan down, they had gained their spurs. When the 1967 crisis broke they felt certain of their ability to win a 'decisive, quick and elegant' victory, as one of their number, General Haim Bar Lev, put it, and pressed the government to start the war as soon as possible".[120] Some of Israel's political leaders, however, hoped for a diplomatic solution.[75]


On June 1, Israel formed a National Unity Government, and on June 4 the decision was made to go to war. The next morning, Israel launched Operation Focus, a large-scale surprise air strike that was the opening of the Six-Day War.

Controversy remains as to whether Israel's attack was a preemptive strike or an unjustified attack.

See also


  1. ^ Sources on the expulsion of UN forces:
    • "In 1967, Egypt ordered the UN troops out and blocked Israeli shipping routes — adding to already high levels of tension between Israel and its neighbours." "Israel and the Palestinians in depth, 1967: Six Day War", BBC. Accessed July 17, 2010.
    • "Buoyed by the almost universal Arab acclaim he received for his actions, Nasser expelled the UNEF forces and announced the closing of the Straits of Tiran" Robert Owen Freedman. World Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pergamon Press, 1979, p. 79.
    • "The Israeli attack ended a nerve-wracking three weeks of waiting... begun when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the United Nations peacekeepers from the Gaza Strip and the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, blockaded the nearby Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, and deployed his massive army along the Israeli border." Dan Perry, Alfred Ironside. Israel and the Quest for Permanence, McFarland, 1999, p. 18.
    • "Soon after Nasser expelled UN forces from the Sinai, Secretary of State Dean Rusk directed State Department officials in Washington, New York, and Moscow to urge the Soviets to restrain their Arab friends." Nigel John Ashton. Cold War in the Middle East: Regional Conflict and the Superpowers 1967–73, Routledge, 2007, p. 18.
    • "Nasser... closed the Gulf of Aqaba to shipping, cutting off Israel from its primary oil supplies. He told UN 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," "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict Part 4: The 1967 Six Day War", NPR morning edition, October 3, 2002. Accessed December 28, 2008.
    • "...a Middle East crisis erupted on May 16, 1967, when Nasser expelled the UN troops that had policed the Sinai since the end of the Suez-Sinai War in 1957." Peter L Hahn. Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, Potomac Books, 2005, p. 50.
    • "In May, 1967 President Nasser expelled UNEF from Egypt and set in train the events that precipitated Israel's blitzkrieg invasion and conquest of the Sinai." JL Granatstein. Canadian Foreign Policy: Historical Readings, Copp Clark Pitman, 1986, p. 236.


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Further reading

  • Barzilai, Gad (1996). Wars, Internal Conflicts, and Political Order: A Jewish Democracy in the Middle East. New York University Press. ISBN 0-7914-2943
  • Cristol, A Jay (2002). Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship. Brassey's. ISBN 1-57488-536-7
  • Gat, Moshe (2003). Britain and the Conflict in the Middle East, 1964–1967: The Coming of the Six-Day War. Praeger/Greenwood. ISBN 0-275-97514-2
  • Hammel, Eric (October 2002). "Sinai air strike: June 5, 1967". Military Heritage 4 (2): 68–73. 
  • Hopwood, Derek (1991). Egypt: Politics and Society. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-09432-1
  • Hussein of Jordan (1969). My "War" with Israel. London: Peter Owen. ISBN 0-7206-0310-2
  • Katz, Samuel M. (1991) Israel's Air Force; The Power Series. Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, Osceola, WI.
  • Makiya, Kanan (1998). Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21439-0
  • Morris, Benny (1997). Israel's Border Wars, 1949–1956. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-829262-7
  • Rezun, Miron (1990). Iran and Afghanistan. In A. Kapur (Ed.). Diplomatic Ideas and Practices of Asian States (pp. 9–25). Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-09289-7
  • Smith, Grant (2006). Deadly Dogma. Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy. ISBN 0-9764437-4-0

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