The Six Day War Sparked Forty Years of Strife

An anti-colonialist hero, Nasser was enormously popular. He had nationalized the Suez Canal and faced down a joint invasion by Israel, France, and Britain in 1956. Highly sensitive to goading and criticism from the Arab press, Nasser often felt he had to act dramatically upon the foreign policy stage to maintain his standing. But his country faced huge developmental challenges, and the army was structurally weak, in part because officer appointments were based on family ties and friendships. “We are not military officers now,” Nasser told Amer in 1962, “we are politicians.” Egypt was in no condition to fight in a major conflict.

There was no united front challenging Israel, no “Arab strategy.” Egypt, Syria, and Jordan distrusted each other. Tarring Israel as an enemy was pure propaganda, propaganda that segued into a policy of baiting, without the means to back up the threats.

Radio Cairo, for example, broadcast inflammatory messages, some directed at Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol: “We challenge you, Eshkol, to try all your weapons. Put them to the test; they will spell Israel’s death and annihilation.” But these were empty words, and King Hussein, a realist, argued for a policy of nonbelligerence toward Israel, believing that the Jewish state was planning to let Nasser “spark off a war in which Israel would be able to unleash its real intention and seize Arab territory.”

Planned to Perfection:  Israel's longstanding invasion plans ensured swift dominion over the Sinai, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.  (Map: Baker Vail)
Planned to Perfection: Israel's longstanding invasion plans ensured swift dominion over the Sinai, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. (Map: Baker Vail)

Of all the combatants, only Israel was ideologically, mentally, and materially prepared for war. With a population of about 3.8 million, it was outnumbered and surrounded by enemies. As early as February 1967, Prime Minister Eshkol had told Israeli Defense Force officers to be ready for battle, although he considered Syria and Jordan the likely transgressors.

Founded by European and American Jews who embraced Western sociopolitical and military organizational structures, Israel’s dynamic democracy was based on merit, not cronyism, and it fielded a motivated, professional army. Security was paramount. Many Israeli hardliners argued that the nation needed “strategic depth”—buffer zones distancing the Israeli heartland from its enemies. Zionists and the religious right were also burning to re-create Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), which would encompass biblical sites then located beyond the nation’s existing borders.

Furthermore, many Israelis felt they had been held back during the 1948–1949 war for independence, and had been forced to return lands conquered in the 1956 invasion of Egypt. They were eager to finish the job, and many were eager to incorporate Jerusalem into Israel. Mixed with these dynamics were pressing social issues: a declining population, a stagnant economy, and the realization among the political classes that something was needed to galvanize the nation.

As war approached, Israel placed 70,000 men—infantry and paratroops—near the Egyptian border. They had some 700 tanks, mainly well-armored British Centurions; the Israeli air force (IAF), commanded by Gen. Mordechai Hod, consisted of 207 combat airplanes, a motley mix of French Mirages, Mystères, Ouragans, and Vautours.

For its possible invasion of Jordan, Israel deployed 40,000 troops organized into eight brigades, about 200 tanks, most of them modified World War II–vintage “Super” Shermans sporting 75mm or 105mm guns, and ultimately more than 200 fighter aircraft.

Although the U.S. warned against firing the first shot, the Israelis decided to read the lack of a firm no-go as a green light for war

On the Golan Heights, Israel had a much smaller force, consisting only of a couple brigades. By June 9, however, when Israel decided to invade Syria as well, it would strike with around 150 aircraft, 250 tanks, and 20,000 troops.

“Luck,” wrote the Roman writer Seneca the Younger, “is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Israel benefited from its superb intelligence organizations, which had precise and accurate information about its enemies. Thanks to the bold creativity of the Mossad, Israel’s famed and feared secret service, a MiG-21 had been delivered to its hands in 1966 and had been intensely studied. Additionally, Israeli cryptologists had deciphered Syrian military codes and placed a spy in the Syrian government who provided detailed plans for the Golan defenses and technical specifications for Syrian equipment. Agents inside Egypt gathered similar information. Thanks to such stellar work, “the Israeli air force,” one observer said in June 1967, “knew accurately…where every Egyptian [as well as Syrian and Jordanian] aircraft was located, what it was doing, what it could do.”

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26 Responses

  1. Tamahome Jenkins

    Wow, talk about the price of greatness. Excellent article, more people would do themselves a great service by learning more about the recent history of Israel before jumping to conclusions about who started what, or “good guys vs. bad guys.”

    Reply
  2. Earl Lee

    Another poor attempt to label Israel as the aggressor and the poor Arabs as defenseless victims. This article is rife with inaccuracies and bias. Unfotunately no-where near the high quality articles usually found on this website.

    Reply
  3. Tamahome Jenkins

    Earl, how is Israel not the aggressor in this war? Have you ever actually done any research on the Six-Day War, or do you just assume that Israel is blessed by God and can do what it pleases?

    Reply
  4. Ricardo

    It’s out of discusions that Israel did the first strike, but it was absolute self defense, without any doubt too. In other case surely the state of Israel doesn’t would exist today. I think it was clearly a self defense war (and one very well executed too)

    Reply
  5. Jim Faletti

    I am VERY disappointed with this article. You can not take a FEW facts, add your bias and write them off as facts. Taking one sentence to explain the Jordanian attack on a resort with the excuse of stupidity, then take three paragraphs to explain an opinion that the Israel’s attacked the American’s on purpose. If the American’s could see all that you mention, they would have been inside the international mark. And stating that they would have seen prisoners killed is ludicrous – not fact.

    What is clear is the “bad” attemp to make Israel the bad guy. In your own statement, that it was a “setback’ for the Egyptians, explains why when Israel offered to give back most if not all of the land, the offer was refused. They don’t want the land back, they want Israel gone. Factually, that is not going to happen and any propoganda is just that – propoganda.

    Reply
  6. dsm

    As a subscriber since the founding issue of MHQ I would label this as one of the most biased articles I have ever read.

    Reply
  7. Fred Wolfe

    This is a really biased article. Congratulations to the proud IDF and their excellent military campaign.

    Reply
  8. Steve

    The second paragraph of this article is so factually wrong. Immediately after the war, Israel offered to give back the land it had won in exchange for peace . The Arab leaders met in Khartoum after the war and issued the famous three no’s. No recognition, no peace, no negotiations with Israel. How did the writer of this article not know about this?

    Also, the land was not taken from the Palestinians. The West Bank was ruled by Jordan, Gaza by Egypt and Golan Heights by Syria. The author has an exciting writing style but has done no research to make sure he got his facts straight.

    Reply
  9. Ctos

    “Immediately after the war, Israel offered to give back the land it had won in exchange for peace .” – notice the poster does not say “all” of the land; Israel was attempting to legitimize some of its gains by giving back land (which it was mandated by the UN to do).

    Also notice the language “land it had won” which is in direct violation of the UN concept of the inadmissability of acquiring land by war.

    The truth is Israel started the war and it was not a defensive one (Israel’s territory was greater after the war and it attacked the Arabs in their own countries).

    Zionists and uninformed historians may take umbrage at this article but what they really take umbrage at is the truth of the FACTS around the ’67 war.

    Reply
  10. Lee Vann

    Another great article! Very informative and though, although I feel that it should have gone into more detail on the USS Liberty.

    Of corse the Pro-Zionist lobby would be upset with this, as it does not show their cause in the best possible light.

    Reply
  11. Kaiser

    So let me get this straight…Egypt kicks the UN out of the demilitarized zone two weeks prior, places all but 10,000 of its remaining forces (seven divisions and numerous independent brigades totalling 100K) in the Sinai, and closes the Straits of Tiran; Egypt flies artillery and battalions of commandoes to Jordan on June 3rd after signing a mutual defense treaty; Jordanian reserves are called up on June 2nd and orders subsequently captured from Jordanian command posts dated at the end of May detail operations for the capture of objectives inside Israeli territory; Iraqi forces are repositioned closer to the Iraq/Jordanian border; Syrian mobilization; etc, etc. And Israel was to believe this all just defensive “posturing”?

    Reply
  12. Jay White

    I was very disappointed that this poorly written propaganda piece was accepted by what I always considered the best military history magazine . I was so upset that MHQ would publish such garbage, that for the first time in 15 years I didn’t purchase MHQ. I sincerely hope this is not a trend . The history channel no longer has any history shows. Let’s hope MHQ doesn’t deteriorate into garbage that attracts the Jew haters who always bring up the Liberty which was in an active war zone.

    Reply
  13. Elliot

    I’m surprised at how some posters chose to read this article so selectively.

    Because of his own personal agenda, Kaiser omits facts clearly stated in the article that according to three US “separate intelligence groups” “Egyptian deployments…were defensive,” of which Israelis were informed on May 26 by U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara. This, of course, was nothing new to the Israelis who knew from their own superb intelligence organizations all the precise information about their enemies.

    Similarly, Kaiser chooses not to mention the following two passages from the article where IDF chief of operations Gen. Ezer Weizman and Menachem Begin both honestly admitted that the surprise air strike against Egypt had been planned for a long time:

    (1) “For five years,” IDF chief of operations Gen. Ezer Weizman recalled, referring to the surprise air strike against Egypt, “I had been talking of this operation, explaining it, hatching it, dreaming of it, manufacturing it link by link, training men to carry it out.”

    (2) “The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches,” Menachem Begin told the New York Times, “do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

    Why can’t one mention certain facts about Israel, facts confirmed by prominent Israeli historians themselves, without being attacked as being biased and writing propaganda?

    Reply
  14. Randy

    This article was a great addition to this issue. It is sad that today people are still looking at wars from only one side. Mankind needs to FINALLY learn that there are always two sides to every story and the only way to find truth is looking at both sides. The author stated the faults of both sides very well. I particularly appreciate the credit given to soldiers of both sides. As for the other comments, how can someone say this is bias? The paragraphs concerning the USS Liberty say in their first statement controversial which by definition means debatable. So how can you call the author a propagandist? His obvious respect for the Israeli military machine is clear throughout the article. The statements about the political motives of both sides are again, “debatable”, as are all political agendas. The comments on the colonial structure of the region being a serious cause were very interesting. To call someone a “Jew hater” for an article with historical facts and speaking on a subject rarely talked about today is juvenile, and obviously made by someone who has not studied the conflict. Readers need to focus on the real tragedies of such events for example, 1.4 million and now 4.7 million refugees. This is the real issue. The war happened no matter the cause , it should be time now to clean up the mess it caused by mending fences and helping those who are still affected by it.

    Reply
  15. Garbage

    Alright, so honestly I rarely try to make sense of anything that happens in the Middle East because everything seems to just boil down to a bunch of religious fanatics who hate each other. And no, for the record, I am not blaming this war on religion.

    This article, however, is the most biased piece of trash on earth. So lets say a guy comes near you with a knife, in a stance of aggression, are you going to stand and wait, or are you going to pull out your handgun and put a round through him?

    I mean for God’s sake, why is it that so many people support America in the Iraq war (when they are in the wrong, without any doubt whatsoever) but so many others support Gaza in the war with Israel? It makes absolutely no sense. At least Israel is actually TRYING to fight terrorism and ensure minimal casualties.

    Reply
  16. David All

    An extremely biased article. Its anti-Israeli slant makes this article a travesty of history. I hope this is an exception to the usual fine level of articles at MHQ and not an indication of articles to come.

    Reply
  17. Sheila Kalivas

    Finally, an unbiased account of the Palestinian/Israeli situation. Those who have commented otherwise appear to have a rigidly pro Zionist view. The objective of this scholarly and masterfully written piece is not to cast blame on one side or another, rather it is to articulate the breakdown of how peace has eluded the Middle East thus far. This is not only a fairly presented chronology of past events but it points to a future roadmap for achieving peace by rebuilding nations which were artificially created. Palestinians and Israelis are equally important thus both peoples must be represented by “satisfying Israel’s need for security ;and recognizing and fulfilling Palestinian struggles to create a viable nation-state. ” To label this author a Jew-hater, to my mind is unconscionable.

    It is said that “history repeats”. History does not have to repeat if we learn from past errors. Of concern to this writer is the right-wing or “populist” movement in the U.S. which holds extremist views about biblical prophecy to which this author has referred. This group has generated significant influence through purchased media blitz. The movement encourages and condones Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land including Jerusalem and joyously awaits the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem to usher in the end times.

    This scenario seems eerily similar to a historical misconstruing of prophecy from ancient Greece. King Croesus consulted the Oracle at Dephi to find out if he should go to war with Persia, the Oracle stated “If you go to war, you will cause the destruction of a great Empire”. Croesus went to war, was defeated and captured. He sent word to the Oracle asking why he was mislead. The Oracle said he was not mislead, a great empire was destroyed, his own. Because an event is prophesized does not indicate it is a desirable path to take. This piece by O’Brien Browne, if heeded, can avert a potential disatrous course of action.

    Reply
  18. Proud American

    A very amateurish, biased and naive perspective on the war. The author neglects to mention that but for the Six Day War, peace with Egypt and Jordan would never have been possible. He also fails to mention that Syria plays host to at least ½ dozen terrorist organizations including Hamas, Hezbollah and the PFLP. No mention is made of the fact that Israel’s overtures to the PLO unleashed a wave of terror not seen since 1947. No mention is made of the Khartoum agreement where the Arabs declared their infamous “Three Nos.” No peace with Israel, no recognition of her and no negotiation with her. If the author wants to play the blame game, there’s plenty to go around. Focusing on Israel exclusively exposes the author’s bias. Just as an aside, it was the Arabs who put the ball in play and Israel just finished the game. To the victor go the spoils. I say “bravo Israel” for standing up to gangsters, thugs and scoundrels of the Middle East and sending them back crawling to their little holes.

    Reply
  19. Dave

    I stumbled across this website recently, and had been having an excellent time reading a host of well thought out articles on various eras of military history. Then I stumbled across this “article” (if you can call a bundle of selectively cherry picked facts devoid of any relevant background information/context, assembled by a.. ‘person’ who is clearly attempting to rewrite history as part of an effort to support his hatred of Israel at least, and more likely Jews in general, an article). What a dissapointment. For what little it’s worth, I won’t be returning to this otherwise stellar community/website, but I sincerely hope that Mr. Browne’s racism and deliberate intellectual dishonesty would be sufficient reason for historynet to terminate it’s relationship with him.

    Reply
  20. jewz rulez

    everyone is saying this is biased and we get this. very poor article and not very accurate

    Reply
  21. Chris Montegue

    Very poorly written and researched article with very superficial analysis. The writer doesn’t go to great lengths to conceal his bias against Israel and has allowed his personal bias to skew the article to the point of being painful to read.

    Reply
  22. Richard

    The title of the article is itself completely misleading. Does the author mean to imply that that the attempt by the Arab states to destroy Israel in 1948 and the persistent attacks on Israelis by state forces and by terrorists as well as the utterly pervasive anti-semitic propaganda were just normal relations? My word, this is a new low in anti-Israeli propaganda.

    Reply
  23. An Unbiased Richard

    Great article. I especially love the comments. \This is biased trash\, etc, ironically written by biased trash.

    \In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.\
    – George Orwell

    Reply

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