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Israel won the Six Days’ War and crushed her Arab neighbours

Posted in Historical articles, History, War on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the Middle East first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Israeli forces,  picture, image, illustration

Israeli forces on the move by Graham Coton

On Wednesday, June 7, 1967, Israeli paratroops stormed the Mount of Olives on the east side of the Old City of Jerusalem. There was a brief pause. Then over the crackling intercom came the voice of their commander: “Paratroopers, today we stand at the gates of the Old City where so many of our dreams lie. Be proud.” The order to move was given and vehicles climbed the steep track to St. Stephen’s Gate. By ten o’clock they were at the Temple and the Western Wall. The paratroopers, boys of 19 who had grown up with the State of Israel, wept. It was the climax of the Six Days’ War.

The Six Days’ War between Israel and the Arab states was a crisis of the first magnitude. But it arose and was resolved so quickly that the world had barely time to tremble. The war had become inescapable as the series of border incidents and retaliatory threats between Israel and the Arabs escalated to an intolerable degree. Arab radio propaganda had become frenzied in its shrill denunciation of the Israelis who, it insisted, had dispossessed the Arabs of part of their homeland. “Fight Arabs,” shrieked Radio Damascus. “We shall hang the last imperialist soldier with the entrails of the last Zionist.”

The Arab states began military and diplomatic manoeuvres that could only spell war, not only to the watchful Israelis but to a now attentive world. In May President Nasser of Egypt sent Egyptian troops into the Sinai Peninsula. He asked the United Nations Emergency Force, which had been sent after the Suez crisis to keep the peace, to withdraw. Finally he closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting all access to Israel through the Gulf of Aqaba. And in case anyone still had any doubts about Arab intentions Nasser declared: “We have completed our preparations and are ready to confront Israel.”

At the end of the month King Hussein of Jordan and the Egyptian President hugged each other at Cairo airport, clearly indicating that Jordan was on Egypt’s side. The remaining major Arab power, Syria, was equally explicit in its intentions: “Only Palestine-born Jews will be left in Palestine,” declared a Syrian leader, “but I think none of them will be left alive.”

Israel was thus faced with war on three fronts. In the north-east against Syria, in the east against Jordan and in the south east against Egypt. One other power was also arrayed against her. Russia had invested deeply in the Arab cause, particularly in Egypt and Syria. She had supplied weapons and military advisers. Israelis, monitoring the signals from Syrian military posts, would often hear a Russian artillery adviser, a woman, cursing her pupils fluently when their gunners fired inaccurately at Israeli kibbutzim.

Faced with these enemies, Israel looked for support. None was immediately forthcoming. The European powers, in particular, were anxious not to interfere too much in the impending conflict lest the Suez canal be closed and their supplies of oil cut off. Nevertheless, with Moshe Dayan, who had been the hero of the Israeli campaign in the Suez crisis, as Minister of Defence, morale was high and Israel’s contempt for the Arab soldiers – “their soldiers are too lean and their officers too fat” – was quickly revived.

On Monday, June 5, Israel was surrounded on three sides, outgunned and outmanned but the inequality in numbers and weapons did not last long. Israel struck first and fast. The same day, leaving only twelve planes to guard their home bases, the Israeli airforce took precisely 170 minutes to destroy the entire Egyptian air power. On Tuesday, it crushed the air forces of Jordan and Syria. By nightfall, 416 Arab aircraft had been destroyed, all but 23 of them still on the runways.

On the ground the battle was joined on all three fronts. The Israelis had always intended that the manipulation of their forces should be flexible. Now this thinking paid off. On the Monday they went for the Egyptians in Sinai, throwing to the wind the well established principles of careful communication and orderly advances. Led by Abraham Yoffe, in peacetime a distinguished naturalist, the Israeli forces, many in improvised transports, tore through the desert and by Wednesday, had reached the Suez canal. An Israeli pilot said later that he had had no difficulty in identifying Israeli vehicles among the dust-covered ants on the ground: “Whenever we saw an ice-cream wagon, hot-dog van or a milk truck, we knew they could only be ours.”

In the key position of Sham-el-sheik on the Straits of Tiran, the Egyptians were bombed out of their positions. On Wednesday, Israeli paratroops were dropped in, but they didn’t even have to raise the Israeli flag. Three Israeli motor torpedo boats had beaten them to it half-an-hour earlier and had put out to sea again in case they were mistaken for Egyptians.

On the Jordanian front the Israelis waited until Jordan committed the first act of war. When she did, a bitter battle was fought in the streets of Jerusalem. Israel hesitated to use air-power on the Holy City and the Jordanian army was the only Arab force to handle itself with any prowess, even though it lacked the up-to-date Russian equipment of the others. But eventually Jerusalem was won and weeping paratroops prayed at the Wall.

The Syrian front had threatened to be the most problematical. Syrian gun-positions overlooked Israel’s kibbutzim which they had shelled regularly over the years so that even Israeli tractors were armour-plated. Helped by their Soviet advisers the Syrians had built elaborate fortifications on the Golan Heights, to protect their guns. On the Thursday, Israeli planes pounded away at the gun-emplacements and on the Friday the Syrians agreed to a cease-fire.

It did not last long, however, and on the same day, the Israelis had to storm the Heights. The hills were bare and open but Israeli tanks rolled relentlessly forward. When the going got too steep, bulldozers shoved them upwards from behind. The Syrians were dumbfounded – their guns could not be depressed sufficiently to hit the approaching enemy. Nevertheless the Syrians still had to be dislodged from their deep-dug positions. In the end, infantry had to settle the matter with grenades and hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. On Saturday the Syrians surrendered.

And so the Six Days’ War came to an end. Israel had won a tremendous victory. She had achieved secure and easily-defensible borders, enclosing an area almost four times as large as her pre-war territory. She had reunited Jerusalem. She had established herself as the most important power in the Middle East. And she had achieved a greater sense of national unity than at any time since the founding of the state.

Israel had also created severe problems for herself, problems which still exist. Her victory did not bring peace with the Arabs any nearer; there has been almost constant fighting on the Arab fronts ever since. Her new territories were inhabited by a million Arabs who are far from enthusiastic supporters of the victorious state. And the defeat of Egypt and Syria was a great blow to Soviet prestige; the Russians have renewed their efforts on the Arab side with increasing intensity. Finally, the defeat of the Arabs gave fresh impetus to the activities of the Palestinian-Arab guerrilla forces. These have become an important political factor in the Arab states.

The Six Days’ War was one of the most outstanding military campaigns fought in this century. But, in the end, it left the problems of the Middle East unresolved. Only a fundamental change of heart among Israelis and Arabs will bring about peaceful co-existence there and prevent it from exploding once more.

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