The Six Day War Sparked Forty Years of Strife

By O'Brien Browne
8/16/2009 • Lyndon B. Johnson, MHQ

Tanks on the move: Israeli armored forces rumble across the Sinai Desert in June 1967. In six days Israel crushed three armies and took three times the territory it had when it was formed in 1949.  (Photo: © EPA/Corbis)
Tanks on the move: Israeli armored forces rumble across the Sinai Desert in June 1967. In six days Israel crushed three armies and took three times the territory it had when it was formed in 1949. (Photo: © EPA/Corbis)

Israel’s 1967 surprise attack obliterated the Arab forces arrayed against it, and set the stage for decades of conflict and insecurity

The gleaming rows of Soviet-made Egyptian Arab Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 and Sukhoi fighters and Tupolev Tu-16 bombers were carefully lined up under a warm sun on the morning of June 5, 1967. Their pilots, back from their early patrols, were in the mess, breakfasting on tomatoes, falafel, and sliced cucumbers. Few noticed the black dots screeching toward them at more than Mach 1. In seconds the dots had grown into sleek Israeli Daussault Mirage IIIC, Super Mystère, Ouragan, and Sud Aviation Vautour jets, now spewing rockets, cannon fire, and bombs. Massive explosions rent the air and giant orange-red balls of fire billowed into the cloudless blue sky. The Israelis flew so low that Egyptians on the ground could make out their faces. Within minutes, the Israelis were gone, Egypt’s air force had ceased to exist, and the Middle East had been utterly transformed. Rapid in its execution, brutal in its destructive force, searing in its psychological impact, the 1967 War was one of the most dramatic and wrenching moments in the modern history of the Middle East. Through misinformation, misinterpretation, and misrule, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt stumbled into an unwanted war against the powerful Israeli Defense Force (IDF), with cataclysmic consequences, as the Jewish state—controlling the air after that de-
cisive strike—pushed aside the land forces of its enemies and boldly seized the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Desert, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

When the smoke had cleared, Israel emerged as the undisputed regional superpower. In the long run, however, it might be argued that no one won this war of opportunity, spawning as it did more than 40 years of unrest and death in a region that has become known as one of the most volatile in the world. Rather than using its startling victory to bargain for its security while restoring the lands and pride it had wrenched from the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, Israel held on to its gains, and the results have been tragic: fresh war and guerrilla fighting, an intractable and massive refugee problem, and burgeoning, radicalized, Islamic fundamentalism. A tactical masterpiece, the 1967 War may also have led to some of the worst strategic decisions Israel has ever made.

On paper, the forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan looked formidable. With Soviet help, Egyptian engineers had fortified the Sinai Desert. On the eve of war, the Egyptian army had seven divisions, 950 tanks (the majority of them T-55s), 1,000 artillery pieces, and about 100,000 soldiers in the Sinai. Egypt’s United Arab Republic Air Force (UARAF) consisted of 450 aircraft, among them the Soviet-made Tu-16 supersonic bomber and the state-of-the-art MiG-21 fighter. The Syrian army looked equally impressive, boasting 70,000 troops, 550 tanks (largely Soviet T-54s, T-55s, and Su-100s), and 300 pieces of artillery, while the Syrian air force consisted of 136 MiGs, including MiG-21s. The Syrians placed 12 brigades in the Golan Heights, a craggy area of valleys, forests, and ridges, some reaching 2,000 feet above sea level. Also advised by the Soviets, they had constructed fortifications and laid extensive minefields.

Jordan, the smallest of the three Arab populations with 1.5 million, in contrast to 33 million Egyptians and 6.3 million Syrians, fielded 270 tanks, mostly American M47 and M48 Pattons, 200 artillery pieces, and 45,000 troops in the West Bank, divided into nine brigades and independent battalions. The minuscule Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) had only 24 Hawker Hunters. Not having enough troops to defend the West Bank, the Jordanians positioned themselves on the high ground and built sophisticated defenses, particularly in Jerusalem.

In reality, however, none of these three states was prepared for war. All were saddled with enormous sociopolitical problems such as extremely high unemployment and illiteracy. Syria and Jordan were—and remain—artificial colonial creations, lacking national identities and political legitimacy. Syria had been convulsed by bloody coups as recently as 1966, and the leader of Jordan, King Hussein, whose family comes from a southern Arabian tribe, had little in common with his own subjects. Indeed, more fearful of a coup than of the Israelis, Hussein made certain that the army had no divisional or corps formations and that he made all the important decisions.

Likewise, the Syrian armed forces were fatally weak. Purges and political intrigue had depleted its officer corps, the Golan defenses had deteriorated, and perhaps only 50 percent of its tanks were operable. Its leaders, desperate for popular support, allowed Palestinian attacks into Israel and made arms deals with the Soviets.

Egypt, the largest Middle Eastern nation in population in 1967, seemed to be the exception. The country enjoyed a strong national identity, and its charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had helped overthrow Egypt’s British puppet monarchy in 1952. His best friend, Maj. Abdel Hakim Amer, was chief of the armed forces, later grandiosely titling himself “field marshal.”

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