Six Day War | 1967

1967: The Six-Day War and the Historic Reunification of Jerusalem

"...the first war in history which has ended with the victors suing for peace and the vanquished calling for unconditional surrender." Abba Eban

In June 1967, Israel was once again compelled to fight for its existence. The third war forced upon Israel was also the shortest. Israel succeeded against all odds and prevailed over the armies of its three most powerful neighbors, which threatened to strangle it from the south, east and north. Jerusalem, Israel's capital, was reunited. For the first time in 19 years, the Old City was open to believers of all faiths and Jews could access their holiest sites.

A War of Self-Defense

The escalation to war began with renewed heavy shelling of Israeli agricultural villages from Syrian army positions overlooking them on the Golan Heights, Palestinian infiltrations into Israeli territory, and Egyptian President Nasser's outspoken threats to wipe Israel off the map and to throw the Jews into the sea. On 16 May 1967 Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and entered the Sinai, moving quickly towards the border with Israel, despite the presence of United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), whose purpose was to serve as a buffer between the sides. Further acts of aggression quickly followed, as the Syrian army placed itself on a war footing on the Golan Heights. On 19 May, UN Secretary General U Thant acceded to Egypt's request to remove UNEF from Sinai, leaving Israel's southern border totally exposed to Egypt's army. On 22 May, in a move that constituted a casus belli [an act that justifies war], Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, cutting off Israel's only route to Asia and Iran, its main supplier of oil. Other leaders across the Arab world added their voices to the choir threatening to destroy Israel and by 4 June, the military alliance of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq was complete.

While sympathetic to Israel's plight, the international community did little to resolve the situation, and Israel was left to face the threat alone. As Yitzhak Rabin, then the IDF's chief of staff, stated at the time, "I believe we could find ourselves in a situation in which the existence of Israel is at great risk."

Invoking its inherent right of self-defense, Israel preempted the inevitable attack, striking Egypt's air force while its planes were still on the ground. Threatened by Syria in the north, Israel had not planned on fighting a third front in the east, but King Hussein ignored Israel's messages to refrain from joining the war and threw his troops into the battle. Israel had no choice but to quickly counterattack, capturing the Jordanian-occupied West Bank. On 7 June, after particularly harsh fighting, Israeli paratroopers liberated the Old City of Jerusalem. The six days of fighting ended on 10 June, after Israel conquered the Golan Heights, from which Syrian shelling had caused so much suffering to the Israeli communities below.

Israel had survived the planned onslaught along its main borders, while gaining control, against dire odds, of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.

The Search for Peace

As Israelis celebrated the reunification of Jerusalem and their first chance to visit Judaism's holiest sites after nearly two decades of Jordanian occupation, they also dreamed of translating their military gains into sustainable peace. With war's end, Israel made clear that it was willing to give up almost all the new territories under its control in exchange for a permanent peace agreement with its neighbors. 

However, the Arab leaders, convening at the Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan (29 August-1 September), decisively rejected Israel's call for peace, instead committing themselves to a hardline policy of "Three No's": no to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel.

A few months later, on 22 November 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, the seminal United Nations resolution on resolving the conflict. Acknowledging the precarious nature of the former armistice lines of 1949, UNSCR 242 recognized Israel's need for "secure and recognized boundaries" and called upon Israel to withdraw "from territories gained in the Six Days War", deliberately not referring to "all" the territories, in exchange for peace.

Yet peace remained elusive. Even today, many still believe that the core issue of the conflict with the Palestinians is territorial. But this claim does not ring true, as no Palestinian state was established when the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were under Arab control from 1948 to 1967, and terrorism and military attacks predated not only the 1967 conflict but the very establishment of the State of Israel. Moreover, Israel's neighbors have rejected proposal after proposal to divide the land, from the 1947 UN Partition Plan to Israel's 2008 offer to the Palestinian Authority. The true reason why peace could not be reached in 1967 is the same reason why the conflict began, and why it continues today: the Palestinian and Arab refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state in their historic homeland.

Had the Arab leaders been as willing as Israel to negotiate and compromise following the Six-Day War, a genuine and lasting peace might well have been reached. Instead, as Israel's then Foreign Minister Abba Eban stated, "This is the first war in history which has ended with the victors suing for peace and the vanquished calling for unconditional surrender."


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