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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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.”
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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Tensions had been simmering for years between Israel and its neighbors. There was a dispute about how to share the waters of the Jordan River. Palestinian guerrillas had been attacking Israel from bases in Jordan and Syria, attracting powerful Israeli reprisal raids. Controversially, Israel was constructing a nuclear power plant.
While there were many points of contention, it was a single skirmish that presaged war. On April 7, 1967, the IAF shot down six Syrian MiGs after Syrian artillery had shelled two Israeli tractors that had entered a demilitarized zone. Adding insult to injury, the elated Israeli pilots flew victory circless over the skies of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The Soviets told the Egyptians in May 1967 that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian frontier. Although United Nations observers discovered no buildup, the Syrians—fatally, it turned out—asked the Egyptians to make some demonstration to relieve the pressure on them. Seizing this chance to play the “protector” of the Arabs, Nasser mobilized his army, placed it into defensive deployment in the Sinai, and asked the peacekeeping UN Emergency Force to withdraw. But what came next ensured war: After Field Marshal Amer sent troops to take control of Sharm el-Sheikh, Nasser closed the Tiran Straits on the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping on May 21.
Israel defined closing the straits as an act of war. Nasser’s move was, writes historian Laura James, primarily “aimed at reaping political gains, which he knew carried a high risk of precipitating military hostilities.” Underlining Egypt’s lack of hostile intention, its military intelligence knew virtually nothing about IDF plans, tactics, size, or deployment. Egyptian field commanders didn’t even know where their enemy was located. But by deploying troops and engaging in hostile acts, Egypt played into the hands of Israel’s hard-line leaders.
On May 23, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli chief of staff; Gen. Aharon Yariv, head of Aman, the IDF’s intelligence branch; and others advised the Israeli cabinet to declare war. The cabinet stalled. U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara informed the Israelis on May 26 that “three separate intelligence groups” had concluded that the “Egyptian deployments…were defensive.” This fit with Aman’s estimate that Egypt would “not be ready for war at least until the end of 1970.”
At this stage, Nasser apparently thought everything could be politically managed. He believed the United Nations would step in to end any hostilities, that the Soviets would counterbalance any move by the United States, and that Eshkol wished to avoid war. Even if it came to war, Field Marshal Amer had assured him that the army could hold off and perhaps even defeat Israel.
Under intense pressure from hardliners, Eshkol hesitated, hoping that the United States would suggest a diplomatic solution. Alternatively, he wanted the United States to bless any Israeli strike. But in high-level meetings between American and Israeli officials, the Americans were noncommittal: President Lyndon B. Johnson had his hands full with unrest at home, a looming election, and the Vietnam War. Although one high-placed U.S. official had warned, “do not fire the first shot,” the Israelis decided to read the lack of a firm American “no-go” as a green light.
The creation of a new Israeli cabinet on June 2 brought in hawks such as Moshe Dayan as defense minister and hardliner Menachem Begin. They insisted that the bluff be called to put an end to Syrian threats, deflate Nasser’s prestige, and maintain the IDF’s credibility—all while achieving Israel’s geopolitical goals, that is, expanding the state’s borders and increasing its strategic depth. On June 4, the cabinet voted to go to war.
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Israeli operational planners had long before developed contingency plans for war against Syria with code names such as Operation Pincers to conquer the Golan Heights, and Operation Whip designed to seize the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan. “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.”
On the Egyptian front, the Israeli plan of attack was to knock out Egyptian aircraft and bases while the IDF punched into Gaza and the Sinai. A task force of armored brigades and paratroops, commanded by Brig. Gen. Israel Tal, was to take Rafah and al-Arish, and head toward the Suez Canal, while in the center, through sand dunes thought impassable by the Egyptians, Brig. Gen. Avraham Yoffe would support Tal’s flanks with two armored brigades. Yoffe’s force would also back up Brig. Gen. Ariel Sharon’s tank, paratroop, and infantry brigades, which were to overrun initial defenses at Abu Ageila and then take the strategic Mitla Pass before moving on toward the canal.
Against Jordan, the Israelis planned two pincer movements: one to snip off Jerusalem, the other at the juncture of Janin and Nablus; a third strike would expel the Jordanians from the Qalqilyah-Tulkarm area. Syria would be dealt with later.
Benefiting from fine intelligence, King Hussein informed Nasser that the Israelis would attack Egypt by June 3, and Nasser warned his commanders to brace themselves. Hussein then placed his small forces almost exactly along Israel’s invasion routes. There, they awaited the onslaught.
Early in the morning of June 5, almost the entire Israeli air force, more than 180 planes, went on an apparently routine patrol over the Mediterranean Sea; Egyptian radar monitors thought nothing of it. Suddenly, the Israelis dove below radar level, banked, and roared toward UARAF bases in the Sinai and northeastern Egypt. They bombed Egyptian airbases for over three hours, coming in flights of four. The Egyptians, just in from their morning patrols and enjoying breakfast, were caught completely by surprise. “There were explosions everywhere,” Egyptian flight commander Tahsen Zaki said later, “but we kept going and managed to save a few planes.”
The attacks occurred just as Field Marshal Amer went airborne in an unarmed transport. He could not land for obvious reasons, and was afraid to issue radio commands for fear of being shot down. The Egyptian forces were effectively paralyzed.
Of the 12 Egyptian MiGs that managed to get off the ground, 10 were shot down. Losing only four Mystères, the Israelis destroyed 304 Egyptian aircraft, along with most of Egypt’s radar installations and 17 airfields. At 12:15 p.m., the IAF ripped into Jordan and Syria’s air arms as well, wrecking 53 Syrian planes and virtually the entire Royal Jordanian Air Force. Israeli planes even swept over Iraq, downing five Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers and destroying another 10 on the ground after the Iraqis bombed Israeli territory. On this day, one of the most destructive and effective aerial first strikes in history wiped out 70 to 80 percent of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian frontline air power.
As oily plumes of smoke from the burning wrecks of UARAF planes curled into the sky, the IDF launched its invasion. To the north, General Tal hurled the elite 7th Armored Brigade against the Rafah fortifications behind which the Egyptian 7th Infantry Division waited. The Egyptians fought hard, inflicting many casualties, but superior Israeli tactics eliminated each defensive line as the Egyptians failed to maneuver their forces effectively. The sole Egyptian counterattack consisted of a headlong rush of T-55 tanks, plowing forward without infantry or artillery support. They were decimated.
Tal’s men now rushed toward the 13-kilometer-long Jiradi Pass, the only access to al-Arish. Here the Egyptian 6th Infantry Brigade and two battalions of T-55s were dug in. To outflank this position, Tal sent a unit to the south, which got bogged down in sand dunes. The Israelis’ only option at that point was to pound their way through, in the type of frontal, straightforward fighting they disliked because the attrition it produced was disproportionately harmful to their small nation. Although initially taken by surprise by the speed of the Israeli advance, the Egyptians fought fiercely, eventually knocking out 13 IDF tanks. In some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, the battle raged until nightfall. Nevertheless, after hand-to-hand combat, Israelis cleared the pass.
Meanwhile, General Sharon’s brigades stood before the crack Egyptian 2nd Infantry Division at Abu Ageilah, dug into trenches protected by minefields and sand dunes. With typical Israeli boldness and creativity, Sharon ordered an armored task force under the command of Lt. Col. Natke Nir to cut through the dunes to the north, into the Egyptian rear. Helicopters then brought in paratroops to strike at Egyptian artillery positions.
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This innovative attack began at 10:30 p.m. with an artillery barrage of about 100 guns. Sharon’s infantry attacked out of the dunes, while the paratroops silenced enemy artillery, and Nir’s tanks barreled into the surprised defenders. Muzzle blasts of tanks, flashes of artillery, and the flames of demolished armor lit up the black desert night. Seemingly attacked from all sides simultaneously, the Egyptians nevertheless fought for 12 hours. When it was over, though, the 2nd Infantry Division had been destroyed.
After things had clearly disintegrated for the Egyptians, soldiers of all ranks began, in the words of military historian Kenneth Pollack, “dissembling, obfuscating, exaggerating and outright lying” instead of admitting their losses and errors. Reflecting the regime’s lack of open communication, Field Marshal Amer and his men joined in, telling Nasser and army officers that Egypt’s air force had destroyed its Israeli counterpart.
Only later in the day of June 5 did Amer tell Nasser the truth. With disastrous effect, some army commanders were not informed until the next day. Amer and most of the general staff appear to have been paralyzed with shock for much of this first day; orders were given and contradicted at a heated pace, spreading inertia and confusion throughout the ranks.
As in previous wars, the Egyptians fought with tenacity and bravery but lacked innovation, tactics, and maneuver. When two T-55 brigades of the 4th Armored Division, for example, tried to halt Tal’s advance to al-Arish, they ran smack into IDF Centurions from General Yoffe’s unit: as evening fell, nine Egyptian tanks had been reduced to blazing steel hulks while the Israelis lost only one Centurion. Renewing the assault in the morning, the Egyptians charged straight at the Israelis and were picked off by accurate gunnery and air strikes. The Egyptians retreated, leaving 30 of 80 T-55s behind, smashed. The Israelis suffered no losses.
After this catastrophic defeat, Amer ordered a general retreat from the Sinai on June 6. Bypassing normal communication channels, the field marshal called his commanders personally, ordering them to pull out. The retreat rapidly degenerated into a rout as officers fled pell-mell, leaving their men leaderless. Hundreds of soldiers simply dumped their equipment and headed homeward, many suffering agonizing deaths in the rocky wastes of the Sinai.
After disabling the USS Liberty, Israel was free to pursue its final objective, the Golan Heights, without fear of U.S. eavesdropping
Soon realizing his mistake, Amer tried to have some units stand against the onrushing Israelis. The Egyptian 3rd Infantry Division fought hard at Jebel Libni but was completely wiped out by the IDF. Similarly, the 4th Armored Division confronted and delayed Tal’s forces on June 7, but the price was huge losses in tanks, personnel, and equipment. Even so, those Egyptians at least managed to limp across the canal in an orderly fashion.
These, however, were isolated, uncoordinated engagements that could not stem the mayhem, and the Israelis captured about 5,000 Egyptian soldiers. According to Israeli historians such as Aryeh Yitzhaki, hundreds of other Arabs, including Palestinian civilians, were executed and dumped into graves, some of which they had to dig themselves, at al-Arish, Gaza, and elsewhere.
Over the battlefield, the remnants of the Egyptian air force flew ground attack sorties and engaged the much superior IAF. Some Egyptians, most notably the MiG-21 pilots of No. 40 Squadron, downed six Israeli jets in dogfights, but Israel shot down 42 UARAF aircraft.
In the confusion, relying on reports by Amer and others, Nasser and his generals informed the Jordanians that the IAF had been destroyed and that Egypt had invaded Israel. This bogus “news” emboldened King Hussein and his Egyptian general, Abdul Munim al-Riyad. Dismissing an Israeli message sent via the United Nations that Israel would not attack if Jordan remained a nonbelligerent, Hussein ordered his army to open fire. He even sent the 60th Armored Brigade to join the Egyptian “attack” in the Sinai.
Hussein and Riyad then ordered the RJAF to hit targets inside Israel. But working from abysmal intelligence, the Jordanian pilots became lost and bombed a beach resort. It was when their Hawker Hunters landed to refuel that Israeli Mirages suddenly screamed out of the sky and destroyed or badly damaged all of them.
Unable to resist taking what they regarded as the prize of prizes, the Israelis now decided to capture the West Bank and Jerusalem, although neither posed an existential threat. Brig. Gen. Elad Peled’s force, consisting of one armored, one mechanized, and one paratroop brigade, was ordered to attack the towns of Janin and Nablus. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Uzi Narkiss planned to overrun Jerusalem in a double envelopment, sending paratroops to strike north of the city, with the 16th Brigade sweeping in to capture the southern section of the Old City as the 10th Mechanized Brigade struck north. Other units were to advance through Latrun against Ramallah, northwest of Jerusalem.
In all these attacks, the Israelis tactically surpassed the Jordanians. The Israeli air force pummeled Jordan’s fortified positions and then thwarted Jordanian attempts to move their forces. Although individual Jordanian units fought ferociously, sometimes to the death, their shooting was generally inaccurate and their communication poor. In part this was because their officers simply fled once they realized all was lost. Although Jordanians were well-entrenched in fortified positions along the many ridges that characterize the terrain, Israelis had overrun all their positions on the outskirts of Jerusalem by June 6, in battles lasting from 20 minutes to several hours.
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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.
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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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.