The Six Day War

50 years since one of the defining battles of the twentieth century

Published 5th June 2017

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Six Day War, a conflict which marked a significant turning point for the new Israel and its identity in the Middle East.

The start of the twentieth century saw different relations developing between the communities in the region of the Middle East.  The First World War created and defined state territories; then the nationalist movements formed them further.  The ancient Jewish communities of the area of Palestine started to be transformed as Zionism and European anti-Semitism encouraged Europe’s Jews to move to the biblically-defined land of Israel.

Under the British mandate between the wars, relations between different Arab groups and the newly arrived Jewish communities as well as the more established Jewish communities became fraught.  Violence broke out on both sides as the British government increasingly tried and failed to keep a balance in the region.

After the Second World War in 1948 the Jews of Palestine declared independence as the State of Israel.  The Arab countries on the border of the new state attacked Israel – and to their shock the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were defeated by Israel.   In the years that followed, tensions between Israel and its neighbours as well as military and political coups within the Arab countries created hostilities and fear.  The Israeli involvement on the side of the British and French invasion that was the Suez Crisis of 1956 ensured that Israel became viewed as an aggressor in the region and helped to form an Egyptian determination and Syrian decision to destroy Israel at all costs.  However, the continued instability within those countries and the hardening of their alliances with the Soviet Union during the heightened tensions of the Cold War made their status as regional powers insecure.

Analysts from the UK and the US stated that Israel had the superior forces in the region in 1967.  They believed that Egyptian forces were not sufficiently trained or organised, that Syrian forces were not effective and that the Jordanian military was as focused on a potential internal military or terrorist threat from the Palestinians as it was from an external power.  On the other hand Israel was wholly focused in the threats on all its land borders.  The new Israeli country was determined to stand its ground or to die fighting, therefore the majority of young men did their national service and saw it as part of the duty and right to survive.

According to many analysts the likelihood of war in 1967 had become inevitable.  In May of 1967 the Soviets informed General Nasser of Egypt that the Israelis were amassing a force on the border.  Although it was not true, Nasser decided to close the Straits of Tiran to Israel and expelled the UN peacekeepers who were in the country as result of the 1957 invasion.  Whilst US and British officials tried to broker talks between the two sides, Israel prepared for war.  Syria was quick to come to the support of Egypt.  The Jordanian King also decided to side with his Arab neighbours, fearing a Palestinian attack on his own throne if he did not. 

Israel was prepared for war, and when it looked like Iraqi forces were also mobilising to join the Arab forces in an attack, Israel decided to strike.  Years of careful and detailed reconnaissance missions meant that the Israelis knew the location of every one of their enemies’ airbases and it was here the Israeli air force attacked on the morning of 5 June 1967.  Within a few hours the Egyptian air force and its airbases were destroyed.  The Jordanian and Syrian air forces were also devastated as the day continued.  Israel offered to cease hostilities against Jordan provided its land forces stayed out the war, but the Jordanian King did not trust their assurances.  Israeli forces then moved through the Sinai defeating the Egyptian forces.

Over the following five days Israeli forces defeated the armies of Syria, Jordan and Egypt.  In only six days they had captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert from Egypt; the Golan Heights from Syria; and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.  Militarily it was an example of detailed and determined strategic planning and training – a text book example of how to attack and hold ground.

The war was huge success for Israel – its reputation as a strong country was assured, and its military leaders such as Izsak Rabin became heroes and household names.  The city of Jerusalem was under Jewish control for the first time in nearly two thousand years.  The Jordanians would never threaten Israel again and instead returned to private talks of peace with Israelis.  Nasser was forced to resign – although only temporarily.  For the Arab world and the Palestinians of 1967 the war was the latest example of its own weaknesses, disunity and conflicting identities.  Reputations were lost and relationships destroyed.

However, the land that was seized by Israel in 1967 has continued to be disputed ever since.  The new boundaries have been part of a continued argument of territorial control, security and national and cultural identities across the region.  Withdrawals from some of the land seized by the Israelis have been a part of several different peace processes in the 50 years that have followed.  The war did not bring the final peace that the Israelis had hoped for, not even in the short term as they were again attacked by Egypt in 1973.

Nonetheless, the Six Day War was a defining moment for the new Israel.  The Israeli soldier was not looked upon as a ‘weak Jew, pushed about by anti-Semitism’ but as a fighter and a force to be reckoned with.  Many Jewish identities became drawn together under the new Israeli identity.  The war demonstrated that Israel and its people were not going to be ‘pushed into the sea’, regardless of what those around them threatened.