The Six Day War Sparked Forty Years of Strife

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

For the IDF, the bloodiest part of this mini-campaign was their assault on Jerusalem. Here Jordanian snipers fired accurately and vicious house-to-house fighting ensued. At 2 a.m. the Israeli 55th Paratroop Brigade, supported by Sherman tanks and artillery, assaulted “Ammunition Hill,” a Jordanian strongpoint. Defended by a battalion of the 3rd Brigade, this position was bristling with barbed wire, minefields, bunkers, and trenches. The Israelis attacked head-on, taking many casualties, but managed to enter the trenches, where the fighting was hot and murderous. By morning, Jordanian officers had fled and the Hill had fallen, at the cost of 50 Israelis killed and 150 wounded. Jordan lost 106 dead and some 100 wounded. By June 6, the Old City was virtually surrounded and the Israeli Defense Force was mopping up pockets of resistance. Moreover, Latrun and Janin had been captured, and the Israel Air Force dominated the skies, unopposed.

Attempts by King Hussein and his commanders to rally the army were undermined by exaggerated reports of Israeli troop numbers and Jordanian casualties. Troops panicked in response, and this reaction, combined with the inadequate Jordanian command and control structure, doomed their forces to defeat. In the evening of June 6, realizing that neither the Egyptians nor the Syrians would come to their aid, Hussein and Riyad called for a general retreat. Moments later, they received news that the United Nations had just called for a cease-fire.

Jordan’s leaders rescinded their retreat order but because of the confusion, some troops never received it, others had already been routed, while Israelis who ignored the cease-fire mauled other Jordanians as they attempted to return to their old positions. The West Bank and Jerusalem were lost. Exultant Israeli soldiers began singing old Hebrew songs. “The Old City is ours!” one soldier shouted. “The people are drunk with joy,” wrote an Israeli poet.

On June 8, one of the most controversial events of the war occurred when Israeli warplanes and naval vessels repeatedly attacked USS Liberty, a lightly armed American spy ship sailing in international waters and flying U.S. colors—including a huge U.S. flag—off the shore of al-Arish, right near the fighting. American casualties totaled 34 American sailors killed and 171 injured in a two-hour attack that President Johnson, the CIA’s director Richard Helms, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and other officials believed was an intentional effort to halt U.S. monitoring that might have revealed Israeli executions of prisoners, the impending attack on Syria, or Israel’s nuclear weapons program. If the Liberty had picked up information about Israel’s war tactics and aims, it would have tarnished Israel’s carefully crafted image in Washington, and would have caused strains between the two nations.

Friendly Fire? Israel's attack on the spy ship USS Liberty is a subject of impassioned debate.  (Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Friendly Fire? Israel's attack on the spy ship USS Liberty is a subject of impassioned debate. (Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Hit by missiles, napalm, machine-gun fire, and a torpedo, the Liberty stayed afloat, thanks to the skill of the surviving crew, but Israelis jammed the ship’s sophisticated communication systems. Israel apologized for what it claimed was a mistake and eventually compensated the victims. In any case, as historian Donald Neff points out, “Israel was now free without fear of U.S. eavesdropping to pursue its final objective in the war: the capture of the Golan Heights.”

That is exactly what happened. After their stunning victories against Egypt and Jordan, Israeli policymakers turned their gaze toward the Golan. Observing the destruction of the Egyptian and Jordanian forces, the Syrians accepted the UN cease-fire at 5:20 p.m. on June 8. Ignoring this, the Israelis shifted troops from the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts, amassing seven brigades—including armor, mechanized infantry, regular infantry, and paratroops—and about 150 aircraft for the invasion. The Syrian army was in no condition to withstand them.

After a massive air attack, the Israeli Defense Force commanded by Brig. Gen. Dan Laner punched into the Syrian lines to the north, defended by the 12th Brigade Group, on the morning of June 9. Freed of duties on the other fronts, Israel’s air force smashed the Syrians with everything it had, its pilots flying more sorties—1,077—than they had against Egypt and Jordan. At 10 a.m. the Israelis entered the rocky terrain, and the Syrians fought hard from defensive positions, but failed to counterattack.

Syrian artillery was inaccurate, allowing Israel’s troops to enter Syrian lines and take out strongholds. The Israeli air force completely dominated the skies. By the end of the day, the IDF had nearly enveloped the Golan from the north and east. With its commanders fleeing their units and panic rippling up through the highest levels of the army, the Syrian army was essentially crippled.

On June 10, Israeli troops cleared up pockets of resistance in the Golan, superbly supported by the IAF. By 9 a.m., Syrian radio reported that the town of al-Qunaytarah had fallen, although the Israelis were miles away, which caused the Syrian army to rush back toward Damascus. Although some of its units fought on until eliminated, most Syrian troops fled, often leaving their equipment behind them. The Golan belonged to Israel by the end of the day. Satisfied that all of its goals had been achieved, Israel accepted the UN cease-fire. The six-day war was over.

In June 1967 the three key players had been playing different games: one of bluff, one of bluster, and one for keeps. The Egyptians and Syrians had played a dangerous game of brinkmanship and propaganda, wholly failing to see that in doing so they played into Israel’s goals of conquest. The Israelis were in no mood to give Nasser another political victory, something that consummate politician should have realized.

“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.” The object of war is to win, something the Israelis have always fully understood.

Supported by the people and the government, the Israeli Defense Forces expressed the dynamism of a Western-style, technically advanced democracy eager to acquire territory. Some lands, particularly the Golan Heights, Israel needed to increase its security. Other land it had long coveted. States enjoying legitimacy and well-functioning sociopolitical systems are the most formidable opponents. Large armies with modern equipment are no indication of fighting effectiveness.

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