Today is the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, Israel’s militarily decisive but politically confounding rapid defeat of armies in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria (Iraq and Lebanon were involved as well) that has done as much as any other single event to help shape the modern Middle East. Your perspective on how the war started will depend quite a bit on your perspective on the current Israel-Palestine situation, and as I really try to keep my own views on modern issues out of these historical posts it’s time to both sides the hell out of this.
The seeds for the 1967 war were sown after the 1956 Suez Crisis, whose seeds were sown after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and so on back to, well, you can go all the way back to King David or the Exodus if you want, but let’s keep things reasonable. After Suez, the United Nations established a demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria and put a peacekeeping force in Sinai. In the years following that conflict, Israel had a series of border dust ups with each of the three main Arab participants in the war:
- Israel began claiming parts of the Syrian DMZ as its own territory, and Syria began raiding and shelling Israeli targets across the border
- Israel invaded the West Bank, then Jordanian territory, going after PLO targets in the November 1966 Samu Incident
- the Rotem Crisis, in February 1960, saw Egypt mass troops in northern Sinai in reaction to tensions between Israel and Syria; the Israelis were caught almost completely by surprise and had to back off Syria in order to forestall an Egyptian invasion for which they were very unprepared
The latter, in particular, caused the Israelis to adopt a policy that any sign of mobilization from Egypt had to be met with an immediate Israeli response.
Your view on the immediate cause of the war is undoubtedly also colored by your politics. Was it an Israeli war of aggression intended to affect the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, as it did? Was it a war for Israel’s very survival (though even Israeli leaders later said the Arab threat was deliberately overblown)? The facts are that the Soviet Union fed Damascus intel, which we now know was false, about an imminent Israeli invasion, which prompted Egypt to amass troops in Sinai and close the Tiran Strait, through which most of Israel’s oil imports came. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was prepared to launch an attack on Israel in late May but was dissuaded by Moscow, but the Israelis deemed the strait closure an act of war anyway, and so on June 5 they launched a preemptive air campaign called Operation Moked. The rest, as they say, is history. When the war was over the Arabs had been thoroughly defeated and the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan, and Sinai all belonged to Israel, with only Sinai eventually going back to its original ownership in 1982.
This being the 50th anniversary of the war there is a massive amount of material out there for you to read today and I suspect anything I could add would simply be repetition. I also, full confession, have spent all day working on a massive LobeLog piece on the overnight diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf, so I am pretty spent. So I’m going to direct you to a couple of places where I promise you’ll find interesting things to read:
- First is the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn and his blog, where he’s done an annual series on the Six-Day War going all the way back to 2010. These are great and highlight a lot of the key historical details of the war.
- Brookings has put together an anthology on the war’s many legacies. There are some really interesting pieces in here, including a look at how the war ended the Saudi-Egypt rivalry and spurred Riyadh to invest in proselytizing efforts to boost its stature, how it changed the nature of warfare in the Middle East, how it contributed to the birth of international terrorism, and of course its many terrible effects on the Palestinian people.
- The Nation also has a few pieces worth your time, including one on the deep historiographical disagreements about the war and another on the occupation and the Palestinians.
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