Ron Forthofer: Revisiting the Six Day War

By Ron Forthofer
Special to

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, an event that dramatically changed the Middle East. As a result of the war, Israel occupied Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian territories. The ongoing occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands remains a source of conflict and suffering forty years later. In addition, controversy still swirls around the war itself.
 Initially Israel said that it had been attacked and that its survival was at stake. However the evidence clearly shows that Israel began the fighting when its air force attacked Egypt on June 5th. Israel’s sneak attack essentially destroyed the Egyptian air force while Egyptian planes were still on the ground.

Since both U.S. and Israeli intelligence services confidently predicted that Israel would quickly win a war against the combined Arab forces, the claim about Israel’s survival being at risk was quite a stretch. Israeli General Matityah Peled, chief of the logistical command during the 1967 war, was even more blunt in March 1972: “Since 1949 no one was in any position to threaten the very existence of Israel. Despite this, we continue to nurture the feeling of inferiority as though we were a weak and insignificant people struggling to preserve our own existence in the face of impending extermination.” Also in March 1972 General Ezer Weizmann, former Commander of the Israeli Air Force and Chief of Operations in 1967, claimed there was “no threat of destruction,” but that the attack was justified so that Israel could “exist according to the scale, spirit and quality she now embodies.”  In yet another 1972 interview, Mordechai Bentov, a former member of the Israeli ruling coalition during the June war, said: “This whole story about the threat of extermination was totally contrived and then elaborated on afterwards to justify the annexation of new Arab territories.”

Confronted with this evidence about the Israeli attack, many now argue that the attack was preemptive and prevented an Arab attack. Leading up to the Israeli attack, both sides were engaging in brinkmanship with many provocations particularly along the Israeli-Syrian border.  On May 22nd, Yitzak Rabin, Israel’s Chief of Staff, met with Moshe Dayan, Israeli military legend. According to Rabin, Dayan critiqued the Israeli Cabinet and Army saying: “The nature and scale of our reprisal actions against Syria and Jordan had left Nasser with no choice but to defend his image and prestige … thereby setting off a train of escalation in the entire region.” The U.N.’s General Odd Bull, chief of the U.N. forces in the Middle East, said: “it was quite clear the military establishment, including the intelligence services, badly wanted a showdown with the Arabs.”

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took several steps to reduce the threat of an Israeli attack against Syria. He ordered the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from the Egyptian side of the frontier with Israel. Little noted is that Israel immediately rejected repeated requests to allow the UNEF to take up positions on its side of the frontier. Nasser also moved large numbers of Egyptian troops into the Sinai. Israel then began a large-scale mobilization of its reserves. Nasser subsequently said the Straits of Tiran were closed to Israeli flagships and to ships carrying oil and weapons bound for Israel. Israel had not sent a flagship through the straits in nearly two years, but it did receive Iranian oil shipped through them. However Israel could also import oil through its port at Haifa. U.S. diplomats worked to resolve this crisis, and the Egyptian vice-president was to meet with President Johnson on June 7th. Dean Rusk, the U.S. Secretary of State was bitterly disappointed by the Israeli attack. He said: “They attacked on a Monday, knowing that on Wednesday the Egyptian vice-president would arrive in Washington to talk about re-opening the Strait of Tiran. We might not have succeeded in getting Egypt to reopen the Strait, but it was a real possibility.”

Despite these moves by Nasser, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote in his autobiography “Nasser did not want war; he wanted victory without war”. James Reston of the New York Times wrote from Cairo on June 4th that: “Cairo does not want war and it is certainly not ready for war.” In 1968 Yitzak Rabin said: “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.” In 1982, Israeli Prime Minister Begin admitted: “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.” Reinforcing the position that Egypt was not prepared for war with Israel, Egypt then had 50,000 of its crack troops tied down in Yemen.

Given these doubts about Israel’s stated reasons, why did Israel attack? Was it to deny Nasser a political victory and to crush the idea of Arab unity? Or was the intent to destroy Arab weapons and forces? In a 1976 interview Moshe Dayan said the attack on Syria was due to Israelis’ greed for Syrian land. It is likely that all three of these reasons played some role in the decision to attack. However, regardless of the reason, in July 1967 Gen. Yigal Allon, then deputy prime minister for the Labor Party, created a plan to solidify Israel’s occupation of key parts of the West Bank and to prevent the formation of a viable Palestinian state. This Allon Plan, slightly expanded, has basically been implemented in the West Bank, making daily life almost impossible for Palestinians and leading to horrific violence and terrible losses for both Palestinians and Israelis.

The Israeli occupation of Arab lands, particularly of the West Bank and Gaza, has been brutal. The fact that the occupation, with all the subsequent violations of the Geneva Conventions, continues after 40 years provides a severe indictment of the world community. The U.S. is particularly guilty through its almost blind support for Israeli policies and aggression. Through their actions, the U.S. and Israel are saying that international conventions do not apply to them. They have taken us back to the law of the jungle where might makes right. Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not confront these two rogue nations and thus allows this awful situation to fester and to grow worse. Unless and until human rights and international law are respected, there will be no peace in the Middle East, and it is likely the violence will spread.

-Ron Forthofer ran for Colorado 2nd  Congressional District in the Nov 2000 election.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out