Six-Day War

One of the shortest armed conflicts in history, the Six-Day War was fought between Israel and the Arab states consisting of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria (with minor involvement from Iraq and Lebanon), as part of the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. The war took place from June 5 to June 10, 1967.

A summary of the Six-Day War

Following years of heightened diplomatic tensions and skirmishes between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Israel launched preemptive airstrikes that caught the Egyptians off guard. Almost the entire Egyptian air force was destroyed with only a few Israeli losses, resulting in Israel gaining air superiority.

Israel then launched a successful ground offensive that, again, caught the Egyptians by surprise. It eventually seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The United Nations intervened and put the brief war to an abrupt halt with a ceasefire. The Six-Day War resulted in significant geopolitical consequences in the Middle East and the lingering friction between Israel and the Arab nations.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

The Six-Day War came after several years of political tensions, disputes, and military conflict between Israel and the Arab states.

Following disputes surrounding Israel’s founding as an independent state in 1948, a coalition of Arab states launched an unsuccessful invasion of the newly established Jewish nation that sparked the first Arab-Israeli War.

Another major conflict followed, called the Suez Crisis, also known as the Second Arab-Israeli War or the Tripartite Aggression. The war erupted in 1956 when Israel, France, and the United Kingdom launched a controversial attack on Egypt as a response to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.

While the situation between Israel and the Arab states somewhat cooled off during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the animosity was still far from over. Arab leaders felt aggrieved by their costly military losses and the exodus of the Palestinian refugees due to Israel’s victory in the 1948 war. Israel, on the other hand, still believed that they were facing existential threats from Egypt other Arab countries.

How did the Six-Day War begin?

Border disputes sparked the Six-Day War. By the 1960s, Syrian-backed Palestinian troops had begun launching attacks across the Israeli border, which provoked retaliatory raids from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Conflicts only worsened in April 1967 after Israel and Syria were engaged in a ferocious air and artillery battle, in which six planes from the Syrian side were destroyed.

Following that April skirmish, Egyptian president Nasser received misleading information from the Soviet Union that Israel was moving its troops to its northern border with Syria in preparation for a full-blown invasion. Although the report was inaccurate, it nevertheless spurred Nasser into action.

In his show of support to his Syrian allies, Nasser began massing his troops in two defensive lines in the Sinai Peninsula on the Israeli border. These troops expelled the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), a UN peacekeeping force that had been guarding the border with Israel for more than a decade.

Escalating tensions

Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping on May 22 to May 23. A week later, he and King Hussein of Jordan signed a defense pact, placing Jordan’s forces under full Egyptian command. It would cost him almost half his kingdom.

As the Middle East situation worsened, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson warned both sides against firing the first shot and planned to gather support for an international operation to re-open the Straits of Tiran.

The plan never came to fruition, however. In early June 1967, Israel was set to counter the Arab military buildup by staging a preemptive strike.

The war erupts

In the morning of June 5, 1967, the IDF initiated Operation Focus, a large-scale, surprise air strike that commenced the Six-Day War. As Israel came prepared for the bloody battle, some 200 warplanes took off from the country and flew west over the Mediterranean before converging on northern Egypt.

After catching the Egyptians off guard, Israel bombarded 18 various airfields, eliminating around 80% of the Egyptian air force as it was lying on the ground. Then, Israel expanded its range of attack by wiping out the air forces of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq.

By then, Israeli pilots had gained complete control of the Middle East skies.

Israel all but sealed the victory by establishing air supremacy, but ferocious fighting would continue for the next few days. Egypt started war on the ground also on June 5. Simultaneously along with the airstrikes, Israel stormed a ground offensive by launching its tanks and infantry across the border and into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.

While Egyptian forces put up a spirited fight, they were sent crumbling in the end after Field Marshal Abdel Akim Hamer panicked and ordered all his troops in the Sinai to retreat. Over the next few days, Israeli forces continued to chase after their defeated opponents across the Sinai, inflicting several casualties.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s state-run radio had falsely reported an Egyptian victory. Jordan – having heard of such misleading news – began bombarding Israeli positions in Jerusalem. Israel retaliated with a devastating counter-attack on East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The aftermath of the Six-Day War was also of religious significance, culminating in Israel’s capture of the Old City of Jerusalem. As they gained access to the Old City – after almost 20 years of not having set foot in it – Israeli troops celebrated their victory by praying at the Western Wall.

black and white picture of Israeli tanks and troops advancing on the Golan Heights, 1967

A decisive victory for Israel

The Six-Day War’s last phase of the fighting took place along Israel’s northeastern border with Syria. On June 9, following another ferocious airstrike, Israeli tanks and infantry advanced on the heavily fortified and guarded Syrian region called the Golan Heights (Israeli leaders had debated whether or not they should take over Golan).

The next day, June 10, Israel successfully captured the Golan Heights. Later that day, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire that took effect, leading to the Six-Day War’s abrupt end.

The brief war resulted in a decisive Israeli victory. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people in Egypt alone were either killed or missing. Israel, on the other hand, suffered close to 1,000 casualties. And all these staggering numbers were the result of only 132 hours of fighting.

While Israel celebrated victory, the leaders of the Arab nations were left stunned by the severity of their defeat. President Nasser resigned from his post in disgrace but was later reinstated after Egyptians protested against his resignation.

Conclusion and legacy

The Six-Day War led to significant territorial changes in the Middle East. As a consequence of the war, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip (from Egypt), the West Bank and East Jerusalem (from Jordan), and the Golan Heights (from Syria).

While Israelis were jubilant over their victory, the Arab leaders were devastated by their horrendous defeat. In August 1967, the Arab leaders held a meeting in Sudan where they signed a resolution that guaranteed no peace and no reconciliation with Israel.

The ease and speed of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War might have caused IDF’s overconfidence, which led to their near-defeat in the Yom Kippur War several years later.

By occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the young nation also took in almost one million Palestinian Arabs. Several hundred thousand Palestinians later fled from Israeli rule, aggravating a refugee crisis that had started from the 1948 first Arab-Israeli war and laying the basis for the ongoing political conflicts and violence.

In 1982, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of a peace treaty. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, but it has retained some of the territories it claimed from the Six-Day War. These territories’ status has continued to be a hindrance to the peace negotiations in the Middle East.