Today in Middle Eastern history: the Six-Day War begins (1967)

Israel's victory over a coalition of Arab armies established the contours of the modern Israel-Palestine conflict.

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Today is the anniversary of the start 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 correlate pretty closely to your perspective on the current Israel-Palestine situation, and as I really try to keep my own views on modern issues out of this 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 sewn after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and so on back to, well, I suppose 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, which was then Jordanian territory, going after PLO targets in the November 1966 Samu Incident, and its forces killed 16 Jordanian soldiers in the ensuing battle

  • 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. That set the stage for war.

Starting in the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union began feeding intelligence to Damascus about an imminent Israeli attack, and in mid May it also shared that intel with the Egyptian government. This supposed intel was based on some legitimate evidence—Israel had repeatedly threatened to invade Syria over those clashes in the DMZ around the Golan Heights. But the intel itself seems to have been wrong, or at least it seems to have been wrong in hindsight, and there continues to be a debate over whether the Soviets deliberately fed the Arabs false information to stoke a conflict. There is compelling evidence, in the form of diplomatic contacts between Moscow and Cairo in the run-up to the war, that the Soviets in fact tried to deescalate the situation, which strongly suggests that Moscow simply made an error in its analysis of the situation when it issued those warnings to the Syrians and Egyptians and was not acting deliberately. There are even some historians who now argue that the Soviet intel was not wrong at all, and that the onset of this war derailed a real Israeli plan to invade Syria.

In response to those warnings, the Egyptians began amassing troops in Sinai, just as they’d done in 1960 over escalating Israeli-Syrian tensions. They also ordered, in late May, the evacuation of UN peacekeepers who had been stationed in Sinai since the Suez Crisis. The Israelis interpreted these moves—or at least claim they interpreted them—as proof of an imminent Egyptian invasion. Based on what we know from the Egyptian perspective, however, the intent seems to have been to make a show of force that would encourage Israel to lay off of Syria. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as much as said so, and his buildup, while significant, was evidently not large enough to signal that an attack was coming (both Israeli and US intelligence agencies concluded the buildup was defensive). The Egyptians certainly would have entered a war had Israel started one by attacking Syria, but they do not seem to have had plans to strike first. Nor were they in a position to do so, given how much of the Egyptian military was tied up in the North Yemen Civil War.

Nasser also, again in late May, ordered the closure of the Straits of Tiran, preventing any ship traffic from passing between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat, through which it received around 90 percent of its oil imports (mostly from Iran) was effectively blockaded. This move in itself might have been enough to trigger a conflict, as the Israelis had made a point after the Suez Crisis of saying that they would regard the closure of the straits as an act of war. International law seems to be on their side in this case, though the Egyptians contended that they had the legal right to institute the closure. Legalities aside, faced with the combination of the Tiran closure and the Egyptian military buildup, on June 5 the Israelis 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 East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan, and Sinai all belonged to Israel, with only Sinai eventually going back to its previous owners (in 1982).

Again, your view on the eternal question of Who Started It is probably colored by your perspective on the current state of the Middle East. Was it a war for Israel’s very survival against an imminent existential threat? We should note, then, that even Israeli leaders have argued that any “threat” Israel was under in 1967 was overblown. Did Israel start the war with the deliberate intent of seizing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan? There are some historians who argue that this was, in fact, the Israeli goal, though it would have been one of several Israeli aims, like dealing their hostile neighbors another decisive military defeat and chipping away at Nasser’s reputation in the Arab world.

On the Egyptian side, while Nasser does not seem to have wanted war with Israel and his military buildup in Sinai was not meant to trigger one, he had to know that the Israelis would view the Tiran closure as a casus belli and he did it anyway. His intention was probably to force Israel to back down over the Golan, and score some Tough Guy political points both at home and across the Arab world, but it was a provocative step nonetheless. Between Tiran and the Sinai buildup, the Israelis had reason to believe that even if an Egyptian attack wasn’t imminent, Nasser intended to force them onto a permanent war footing that could cripple the Israeli economy. By some interpretations this is a war that could have been prevented had any diplomatic channel existed by which the Israelis and the Egyptians could explain themselves to one another. But that assumes neither side was determined to pick a fight, which is a question that’s still pretty hotly debated over 50 years later.

The 50th anniversary of the war generated a lot of content a couple of years ago, and if you’re interested in further reading I can direct you to a bit of that: