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The Six Day War Sparked Forty Years of Strife

By O'Brien Browne
8/16/2009 • MHQ

The Israelis suffered 302 personnel dead, 1,453 wounded, and lost about 100 tanks on the Jordanian front. The Jordanian Army, which sustained 6,000 to 7,000 killed and 12,000 to 20,000 wounded, performed the best of the three Arab armies. This, however, was more due to the costly house-to-house fighting and the challenging terrain that confronted the IDF than to superior leadership or the prowess of Jordan’s military.

As with Egypt’s air force, the Egyptian army was virtually destroyed, with 10,000 to 15,000 casualties, the loss of 530 tanks and 80 percent of its ground equipment. In contrast, the Israelis lost 61 tanks while suffering only 1,400 casualties. In the Golan, Israel probably suffered about 750 casualties and lost several tanks, although concise figures are hard to come by; estimates of Syrian losses run around 7,500 killed and wounded, with 86 tanks and 130 artillery pieces knocked out.

These figures are dwarfed, however, by the number of Palestinian refugees produced by the war—some 1.4 million fled their homes to live rough lives in various Arab host nations. About the same number found new homes inside Israel and in the occupied territories by 1973. Never returning to their homes, the number of these displaced Palestinians, according to the United Nations, has now swelled to about 4.7 million.
Victory left Israel controlling major Christian and Muslim holy sites, and it had expanded its land area threefold. Israel’s triumph thrilled its people and was the wonder of much of the world. Life magazine issued a 100-page special edition titled, “Israel’s Swift Victory.”

Other observers, however, were more somber: “The Isolation of Victory” was the headline in The Times of London. Basking in the praise, dismissing the critics, Israel eventually annexed the Golan Heights and made Jerusalem Israel’s capital, fulfilling a dream for many Jews.

But 42 years hence it appears that the Israelis quickly became complacent and arrogant. In their hubris, they did not seize the pivotal moment after their victory to bargain for security, choosing to ignore UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace. Had the Israelis withdrawn promptly or negotiated a security deal, arguably they might have secured their borders and their people while doing much to defuse Arab frustration and their desire for retribution.

Israelis and many historians call this brief conflict the Six-Day War. Other historians prefer a more neutral title such as the 1967 War or the June ’67 War. Most Arabs, however, know it as el naksa, “the setback.” Regardless of what it has been dubbed, the Arab world saw it as a clear debacle. Nasser resigned and, although spontaneous demonstrations brought him back to power, Arab nationalism as a political or military force had been thoroughly discredited.

The June ’67 War fundamentally shifted and embittered Arab-Israeli dynamics, vexing into creation a host of ills that have since spread far beyond the region: the closing of the Suez Canal; the assassination of U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy on the war’s first anniversary by a disturbed young Palestinian, who had been born in Jerusalem; the increased influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East; the radicalization of both the Israeli settler program and Palestinian efforts to reclaim their lost lands; the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel in the late 1960s; the 1973 October War; a diplomatic impasse concerning the occupied territories; the refugee problem; the first Lebanon War; ongoing Jewish settlements; and the intifadas (Arabic for “awakening” or “uprising”) that have continually threatened world security.

Three great challenges faced the Middle East in 1967, as they do today: building nations, or rather, re-building them from the artificial states carved by European colonial powers after World War I; satisfying Israel’s need for security; and recognizing and fulfilling Palestinian struggles to create a viable nation-state after their expulsion from Palestine and other lands annexed by Israel.

In all three cases, the 1967 War solved nothing and even made some things notably worse. In fact, Israel’s staunch refusal to give up the West Bank and the Golan Heights, for internal political and security reasons, has played into the hands of radicalized Middle Eastern leaders, who have deftly used this to mobilize the masses against Israel and their allies, especially the United States.

We live in the world created in the summer of 1967. It remains a dangerous place.


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