Six days of war, 50 years of occupation

It’s evident from Israel’s policies that it continues to choose territories over peace

Published - June 12, 2017 12:05 am IST

In this June 1967 image Israeli statesmen David Ben-Gurion (1886 - 1973) and Yitzhak Rabin (1922 - 1995) lead a group of soldiers past the 'Dome of the Rock' on the Temple Mount, on a victory tour following the Six Day War, Old Jerusalem, Israel.

In this June 1967 image Israeli statesmen David Ben-Gurion (1886 - 1973) and Yitzhak Rabin (1922 - 1995) lead a group of soldiers past the 'Dome of the Rock' on the Temple Mount, on a victory tour following the Six Day War, Old Jerusalem, Israel.

On May 22, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, while addressing his pilots at the Bir Gafgafa airbase in Sinai Peninsula, said, “The Jews are threatening war. We say to them ahlan wa-sahlan (you are welcome).” War clouds were already gathering over the West Asian skies. There were frequent conflicts between the Syrian and Israeli militaries in the demilitarised zone. A week earlier, Nasser had remilitarised the Sinai Peninsula. A week after Nasser’s speech, Egypt and Jordan — Cold War enemies — signed a joint defence agreement. Israel read these developments as preparations for a major war. On June 5, within six days of the Jordanian-Egyptian agreement, Israel launched a surprise attack on Egypt, totally destroying the Egyptian Air Force in one day. King Hussein of Jordan entered the war on the same day, but his troops had to withdraw to the eastern part of the kingdom in the wake of the Israeli advances. The Syrians attacked Israel from its northern border, but faced the same fate as the Jordanians. On the sixth day of the war, on June 10, Israel had captured the entire Sinai and Gaza Strip from Egypt; the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria. The war ended in six days, but it had already changed the face of the region in many ways.

Myth of Arab unity broken

Primarily, it broke the myth of Arab unity. Arab countries could never stand up to Israel together after the Six-Day War. Egypt, the strongest of them all, would take years to recover from the humiliation it suffered. Nasser died in three years, and with him died the idea of pan-Arabism. Second, the war reinforced Israel’s military might in the region. No Arab country but Egypt would dare attack Israel directly after the June War. Third, it turned Israel into an American asset in West Asia. The United States realised the true strategic potential of Israel only after the June War. Israel’s easy victory over Arab countries in six days amused President Lyndon B. Johnson at a time when American troops were fighting an increasingly tough Communist insurgency in Vietnam. The U.S. offered diplomatic protection, advanced weapons and financial aid to Israel and in turn the latter remained one of the pillars of American foreign policy in the region.

Israel was aware of the profound changes the war had made to regional politics and was ready to capitalise on its advantageous position. Shortly after reaching a ceasefire with Arab countries, the Israeli Cabinet decided to annex East Jerusalem. They promised to withdraw from Sinai and Golan but decided to continue military presence in the West Bank and Gaza until peace agreements were signed with Arab countries. But promises of peace for Israel, as the 50 years of occupation suggest, have always been a delaying tactic. Since the June 1967 war, the undeclared policy of Israel towards the occupied territories has been to continue the occupation. As General Moshe Dayan, Defence Minister (in picture), announced standing in front of the Western Wall in Old City after the war, “We have returned to our holy places… and we shall never leave them.”

Since the June War, Israel has not given up even an inch of the occupied territories without being forced to do so. Though Arab countries, in the September 1967 Khartoum conference, declared their famous ‘Three Nos’— no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel — they separately pushed for peace both before and after the Khartoum summit. Soon after the war was concluded, there were demands from Palestinian community leaders in the West Bank for an independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Such plans never took off. When King Hussein of Jordan expressed his desire for peace a month after the war, Israel refused to respond immediately. The Israeli offer came in September 1968, in which they promised to return parts of the West Bank to Jordan and retain the control over East Jerusalem. King Hussein rejected the offer.

Israel later entered into a peace agreement with Egypt, but only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Egyptian troops shocked the Israeli leadership with a surprise attack. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted to change the status quo and he found that war was the only option. Israel was ill-prepared for a war. Though Israel eventually fought back the Egyptians, the attack challenged the deterrence which Israel thought was established with its 1967 victories. The intelligence failure to foresee such a massive Egyptian troop movement also plagued the Israeli military and political leadership for years. It also reinforced the view that Egypt remained a potential Arab military rival. Within five years, the Camp David Accord was signed, which led to the eventual Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.

Subsequent concessions from Israel were also linked to the use of force. Israel agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza as part of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, only after the first intifada that began in 1987, during which the Palestinians rose against the occupation. But after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who signed the Oslo Accords, in 1995, the urgency for peace was lost and ever since then the Oslo process has been directionless. Though Israel kept talking about peace and portrayed itself as a victim of Palestinian terror, on the ground it continued to deepen the occupation of the West Bank with more Jewish settlements and land grabs. The next major concession from Israel happened in 2005 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull out both troops and settlers from Gaza, but only after the violent second intifada from 2000 to 2005.

Today, 50 years since the end of the June War, Israel is still on the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory which it promised to return within days of the war; East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, remains annexed to Israel; Gaza, the tiny Mediterranean strip that houses about two million Palestinians, is today the world’s largest outdoor prison, blockaded by both Israel and Egypt; and the West Bank remains an Israeli colony. As King Hussein said in Washington in 1969, “Israel may have either peace or territory, but she can never have both.” It’s evident, from the past 50 years of Israel’s policies, that it chose territories over peace. And the tragedy is that it got away with it for five full decades.

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