Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Third Arab-Israeli War
1967
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The Arab-Israeli Wars

Roots

1948
1956
1967
1973

Palestinian Intifadas:  1987, 2000

War: Summer, 2006

BBC Maps on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

On April 7, 1967, Israel and Syria clashed along their border. The spark was a quarrel over cultivation rights (see Golan Heights and Water Wars for more on disputes between Israel and its neighbors since the 1948 war). This was followed in May by Israeli threats to attack Syria and false intelligence reports planted by the Soviets that Israel had actually begun mobilizing for such an attack (Soviet behavior has often been explained as a combination of internal dissonance within the Kremlin and Cold War politics: a desire to keep the United States, bogged down in Vietnam at the time, off balance). This would not be the last time false intelligence played a role in starting a Middle Eastern warEgypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser felt that the Arabs were too weak to defeat Israel, but, to save face in the Arab world, he knew he had to be prepared to help an ally.

On May 15, Nasser put Egyptian forces on alert. On May 16, he moved troops into the Sinai and demanded that the U.N. withdraw its forces from the Sinai.  Most Western observers and even some Israeli officials conceded that Nasser was motivated more by political than military aims: to discourage Israel from attacking Syria and to enhance his reputation in the Arab world. Nevertheless, on May 17, Israel began to call up its reserves.

On May 22, Nasser blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, a tactic he had used in the 1956 war. Then on May 30, Jordan's King Hussein signed a five year mutual defense pact with Egypt. Israel at this point initiated a total mobilization and prepared for war.

From June 5-10, the third Arab-Israeli War, or "six day war" was fought. Israel launched a lightning attack against the Arab states on June 5. Israel's fighter jets caught and destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian air force (304 planes) before it could get off the ground. Israeli warplanes swept in over the north coast beneath Egyptian radar, then deliberately climbed into radar range before reaching Cairo allowing, it was hoped, just enough time for Egyptian pilots to scramble, get into the cockpits of their planes, but not have enough time to get off the ground. The objective was to destroy as many planes as possible on the ground with the pilots inside them. Indeed, superior Israeli air power made the difference in this war. In similar strikes, the Israeli warplanes destroyed 53 Syrian and 28 Jordanian planes. (Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (Essex, U.K.:  Addison-Wesley-Longman, Ltd., 1999), 37)

Later that same day, Jordan began shelling the new city of Jerusalem as well as Jewish controlled areas of the old city. Israel captured Jordanian Jerusalem on the 7th. Jerusalem was reunited under Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the time of Bar Kochba 1,800 years earlier. Egyptian and Syrian invasion forces were repelled.

During the 1967 "Six Day War," Israeli ground troops advanced to the banks of Egypt's Suez Canal, occupied Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, occupied the Syrian Golan Heights, and occupied the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, which contained half the population of Jordan and half its economic resources. (Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982 and pulled out of Gaza in the summer of 2005.)

Hostilities ended with a ceasefire at 6:30 pm GMT on June 10. Two days later (June 12), the Israelis seized an abandoned outpost on Mount Hermon which they converted into an electronic listening station aimed at Damascus down the slopes below (Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War:  June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York:  Ballantine Books, 2003), 302;  Patrick Seale, Asad (Berkeley, CA:  Univ. California Press, 1988), 141). 

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli forces attacked an American naval vessel, USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 171. Some of the casualties occurred as the Israelis fired on lifeboats dispatched from the crippled ship. Liberty was, in fact, an American intelligence gathering vessel. The Israelis claimed it was an accident: that they mistook Liberty for an Egyptian vessel connected with what they believed to be Egyptian shelling of Israeli positions at al-Arish going on at the time (the explosions ashore later turned out to be an ammunition dump blowing up). Others charged that Israel had aimed to prevent the U.S. from monitoring Israel's last ditch attempt to grab more territory in the Sinai before the truce (Seale, 138; Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle, second edition (Boston: South End Press, 2001) , 35, note 39). The Israeli interpretation of this event is best captured in Oren, 262-271. 

At the end of June, the Knesset passed a law effectively annexing Arab East Jerusalem. (The United Nations responded with U.N. Resolution 267 on July 3, 1969 stipulating that Arab Jerusalem counted as "occupied territory." The vote was unanimously in favor.)

In July, 1967, Labor Party Minister Yigal Allon revealed his "Allon Plan" calling on Israel to maintain control of the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank. This plan became operational in Israeli government policy in 1970. Israeli control over territory in the region increased threefold as a result of the war.  Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories began. After this time, the United States began to view Israel as an effective counterweight to Soviet influence in the region (Schulze, 39).  Israel had become the dominant power in the area. 

In September, an Arab summit in Khartoum resolved not to recognize, negotiate with, or make peace with Israel.

The U.N. on November 22, 1967 issued Resolution 242 (Text at Yale's Avalon Project) calling upon Israel to withdraw from "territories occupied in the recent conflict."  The resolution underscored "'the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,'" and "'the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from acts of force.'" Resolution 242 also called for a "'just settlement of the refugee problem.'" (see Schulze, 40 and Document 11, 108)

Israel formally accepted the resolution, but refused to withdraw from Palestinian lands. Jordan also accepted 242.  The Palestinians rejected  242 because its language referred to them as refugees and called upon them to recognize Israel's right to exist. The problem with being labeled refugees, in their view, was that it suggested the Palestinians had no national identity and therefore did  not constitute a national entity, claims they categorically rejected all along. They eventually accepted 242 in 1988.  Iraq and Syria rejected the resolution outright while Egypt's response was equivocal (see Oren, 326). 

A fundamental problem with U.N. Resolution 242 was that there were two versions, one French the other English. The French version stipulated that Israel was obligated to withdraw "from the territories" occupied during the war, while the English version read only  "from territories." Israel was to argue fifteen years later in 1982 that it had complied with the latter sense of the resolution when it returned the Sinai to Egypt. Hence, Israel argued its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights was not countermanded by 242. The dispute over this point of international law remained at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israeli leaders Yitzak Rabin and Menachem Begin later both contradicted the commonly held belief that the 1967 war was a defensive attack on the part of Israel. Both claimed publicly that Israel knew Nasser was not planning to attack. His troop movements were the pretext for a long planned Israeli move to gain more territory. Rabin was quoted in Le Monde, February 29, 1968, as saying, "I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to the Sinai in May [1967] would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it." On August 8, 1982, Prime Minister Begin made a speech saying, "In June, 1967, we again had a choice. the Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him" (New York Times, August 21, 1982).  

 

Additional Resources:

Ami Gluska, "Israel's Decision to Go to War: June 2, 1967," MERIA, vol. 11, no.2, Article 1/8, June, 2007

Book titles (from Middle East Database Bibliography)

BBC: "How 1967 Defined the Middle East"

"Israel's Wasted Victory," The Economist, May 26, 2007

 

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email: tthornton@nmhschool.org

Last Revised: May 20, 2008