The Chinese, as ever, have a proverb for it: a picture is worth a thousand words, and there are some pictures out there that are surely worth much more than that. Such was the case with the experience of Tzion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat, and Haim Oshri, all 23-year-old paratroopers with the Israeli Defence Force, who, marvelling at having reached the Western Wall in East Jerusalem, were captured by camera by the veteran photographer David Rubinger. The Western Wall – also known as the Wailing Wall – is one of the holiest sites for Jews, being all that remains of Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, an act of casual vandalism that also preceded the dispersal (Diaspora) of all Jews in Palestine to other parts of the Empire and beyond. Karasenti, Yifat, and Oshri’s arrival at this site marked a truly symbolic moment: for the first time in nearly nineteen centuries the Jews’ most iconic site would henceforth be under the administrative control of a Jewish state. It’s an awe-inspiring image that seemed to encapsulate all the hopes and self-belief of a young nation proving itself more than capable of defending itself from all threats – and I would love to be able to reproduce it here on Harold Rex, but unfortunately the image’s licensing conditions would cause me no end of copyright headaches!! Instead, we’ll have to make do with this almost-as-iconic image, of Rabbi Shlomo Goren leading prayers below the Wall, shortly after its capture.
The 1967 War is one of those conflicts which, annoyingly, have more than one name: if you are an Israeli it’s the Six-Day War (and sure enough, it lasted only from 5 June to 10 June), while the Arabs prefer the term June War. It has been called the War That Changed Everything – obviously putting the two world wars firmly in their place, though, given how central the Middle East has been to the progression of world affairs since the end of the Second World War, this is probably a case where the hyperbole truly is justified.
Set up in 1948, the State of Israel was an entity that was always going to be controversial. Its Arab neighbours – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and what was then known as Transjordan – had made it clear from the outset that they would not tolerate such a state. Almost as soon as its independence was declared they launched an invasion – but the new State’s army surprised virtually everyone with its fighting spirit, and not only survived this multiple invasion but also managed to increase the amount of territory it controlled. Smarting from their defeat, the Arab states either experienced revolutions, with Iraq and Egypt soon ditching their monarchies, or flirted with them, as in the case of Jordan. Then, in 1956 the Israelis, in a secret deal cut with the UK and France, invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while the British and French landed forces in the Suez Canal area, ostensibly to protect it from the warring sides – but the deal was so transparent that a combination of Russian threats and an American currency embargo forced the British and French to quit almost as soon as they had landed. While the Egyptians, under their nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, had suffered a military defeat, their exhilaration at having scored a diplomatic victory over two European powers allowed them to forget about anything else, and over the next ten years they set about planning another “go” at Israel – as were the Syrians and (more reluctantly) the Jordanians.
The ongoing Arab-Israeli tensions are by their very nature a controversial subject, and the origins of the wars between them are no exception – with both Israelis and Arabs accusing the other of starting the 1967 war. The Australian journalist John Pilger, in a reference to a 2002 documentary that he made about the Palestinians, opines, in his book Freedom Next Time, that Israel was the aggressor in the war:
In Palestine Is Still the Issue, I had said, ‘In 1967, Palestinians once again fled their homes during the Six Day War when Israel occupied the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine, describing this as an act of self-defence.’ This was described by complainants as wrong and offensive. That the Arab states attacked first, they said, was “a matter of historical record”. Although Zionist propaganda had made much of six hundred thousand Jews pitted against five Arab states, the historical record offers a very different interpretation. Arab League armed forces, representing the five countries, had mustered merely twenty thousand men. Their heaviest armour consisted of twenty-two light tanks and ten ancient Spitfire aircraft. The Jews had fifty-two thousand active fighting troops, many of them highly mobilised, and a thirty-thousand-strong home guard…
The historian Patrick Seale wrote that the Egyptian army was far from threatening, with most of it bogged down in a civil war in Yemen. President Nasser, for all his bluster, had no wish to invade Israel. This was demonstrated by his decision to send only two divisions into Sinai, which he knew would be no match for the Israelis. It was a myth that the Arabs attacked first. While there was a single attack by Jordan, this came after ‘so-called “pre-emptive” Israeli action.
The BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen, however, offers a different interpretation. While Israel was certainly planning to take strong military measures after years of skirmishes and provocative acts from the Syrians and Egyptians, the real sanguinaries were based in Moscow rather than Cairo or Damascus:
On 13 May, Moscow delivered a warning to Cairo that Israel was massing troops on the border with Syria and would attack within a week.
Why exactly the Soviet Union fired the starting pistol for war has been debated ever since. Two Israeli historians, Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, argue that the USSR deliberately instigated the crisis; they say it wanted to block Israel’s nuclear weapons plans; and that the Soviets were ready to commit their own forces to the fight.
At the time a “medium-level” Soviet official told the CIA that the Soviet Union was stirring up the Arabs to try to make trouble for the US. With the big problems in Vietnam, another war in the Middle East would be an even worse headache.
Bowen also cites different figures for the comparative army strengths of the Israeli and Arab forces. His source (Martin Gilbert’s Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict) has the Israeli army as being 264,000-troops strong, with 800 tanks and 300 combat aircraft; while the combined Arab forces had 340,000 soldiers, 1,800 tanks, and 660 combat aircraft.
Whoever was ultimately responsible for starting the war, it was certainly irresponsible of Nasser to re-impose, on 22 May 1967, a blockade on the Gulf of Aqaba, denying Israel access to the Red Sea. This had been done in 1956 during the last war between Egypt and Israel. The day after Nasser’s blockade, Israel’s then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, announced full mobilisation – though when he went on television to explain the government’s actions he stuttered and sounded uncertain (much to the dismay of his country’s army officers).
Things weren’t necessarily that much better on the Arab side. Nasser had already made the mistake of appointing a yes-man, rather than a true professional, to head his armies: Field-Marshal Abdul Hakim Amer. It was as if he didn’t want to hear the truth about his army, which the country’s chief of operations, Lieutenant-General Anwar al-Qadi, was trying to get through to Amer – that more than half of Egypt’s top soldiers were already committed in a civil war in Yemen, and thus the country’s army was in no fit state to take Israel on. As for the Jordanians, King Hussein wasn’t exactly itching for a fight, either, but felt he had to go along with it in order to prevent a worse catastrophe: Jordan had previously signed a military alliance with Egypt (though the king personally greatly disliked Nasser), and if they hadn’t joined the war against Israel there would have been a revolution that would have toppled the Hashemite dynasty. It was an unenviable dilemma: lose a war, or lose the kingdom, and Hussein chose the former option, remarking many years later to an Israeli journalist:
I knew that war was inevitable. I knew that we were going to lose. I knew that we in Jordan were threatened, threatened by two things: we either followed the course we did, or alternatively the country could tear itself apart if we stayed out.
The outcome of the war that broke out on 5 June 1967 is well known: in the space of just six days, before a UN-brokered ceasefire was agreed, the Israelis comprehensively routed three of their Arab neighbours, destroying most of the Egyptian air force before it had even taken off, and seizing the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Nasser, utterly humiliated in a way that he should have been in 1956, toyed with the idea of resigning the presidency, but had a change of heart after a number of protests in his support. He died in office in 1970, to be succeeded by his vice-president, Anwar al-Sadat. King Hussein kept his throne, but now had the problem of what to do with most of the quarter of a million refugees who had fled in the wake of the ’67 war. Not until 1994 did he feel safe enough to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In Syria, three years after the war, the commander of the country’s air force, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in a military coup, and would remain as his country’s head of state until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by his son Bashar. As for the Israeli leader Ishkol, while he was relieved at having presided over victory in a war, it was said that he never fully recovered from his bungled TV appearance at the war’s eve, and he died in office suddenly in 1969.
Another, more tragic, outcome of the war was the displacement of 250,000 Palestinian refugees (there had already been 750,000 of them fleeing their homes in the wake of the 1948-9 war) who would henceforth be denied the right to return to their homes, and whose existence and future continue to challenge all subsequent efforts to forge a comprehensive, all-encompassing Middle East peace deal. No deal is going to be possible or viable without an agreement that provides them with some justice.
So, what of the future?
At least some Israeli figures considered their victory in the war a pyrrhic one, in the long term. The country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave a speech in which he said that, while East Jerusalem should stay in Israel’s hands, they would ultimately have to give everything else back, arguing that hanging on to most of the new territories would distort the state. The then foreign minister, Abba Eban, agreed, saying that the new conquests were not a “guarantee of peace but an invitation to early war.” He was right: just six years later Israel would be at war again – then with just Egypt and Syria, though no less ominous for the state’s future. Eventually the Israelis had to give Sinai back to Egypt, following the two states’ peace treaty of 1978, but continue to hold Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, in the face of numerous UN resolutions demanding that they vacate them, and in occupations that remain unrecognized as far as international law is concerned.
One of the main problems in the Middle East is the lack of courageous leadership, and the initiative required to make the kind of huge leap required for peace. Only sporadically has this come about in the region: firstly, and most dramatically, by Sadat, when he signed the Camp David Accords with Israeli prime minister Menahem Begin in 1978 (an act for which Egypt was kicked out of the Arab League for eleven years); and secondly, by one of Begin’s successors, Yitzhak Rabin (who had been Israel’s Chief of the General Staff during the 1967 War), who signed an imperfect but nonetheless encouraging peace agreement with PLO chief Yasser Arafat in 1993. Both Sadat and Rabin would later be assassinated by compatriots who considered their targets as having sold the nation out. While most Middle East public figures would agree with the need for courageous leadership, they understandably tend to value their own lives and safety much higher. In the meantime, cynical politicians continue to exploit the tensions for their own ends: Arab leaders continue to invoke the existence of Israel as a useful way of distracting their people’s attention from problems closer to home, while Israeli politicians are in perpetual competition as to who can get tougher on the Palestinians – and all the while, the essential issue remains unresolved.
The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen puts the conundrum starkly in his 2003 book Six Days:
I reject the view that the conflict is irredeemable, that the land cannot be split between two viable states that respect each other. It condemns generations of Israelis and Palestinians to perpetual war. Ending the occupation will cut out the cancer that is killing them. Intensive follow-up treatment will be vital to make sure it does not come back, in the shape of international guarantees and the deployment of foreign troops as peace-enforcers on the border between Israel and a Palestinian state.
Unfortunately, the chances of them doing that are not good. Throughout its history, controlling Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land has been a matter of power, not compromise. The last hundred years of bloodshed between Zionism and Arab nationalism have not been any different. It is all down to who has the most guns.
It would be bad enough if the misery was confined to the two nations, the overwhelming majority of whose people are decent men and women who ought to be able to live their lives in peace. But at the start of the twenty-first century, their war affects us all. It is at the centre of a new conflict between the West and the Islamic world which is escalating with alarming speed. The Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its heart, is a place where great tectonic plates of religion, culture and nationalism come together. In the last few years, the fault lines that run between them, never quiet, have opened up again. Ignoring the legacy of 1967 is not an option.
As for the Israeli soldiers who saw for themselves the ultimate fulfilment of the dream of a Jewish state administering the Western Wall for the first time in nearly nineteen centuries, they have returned to the site every year since the 1967 War. At least one of them has been harbouring doubts as to whether the whole struggle of fifty years ago was really worth it. In a recent interview he gave to the Guardian, Yitzhak Yifat, who served as a 23-year-old paratrooper in the war, commented:
I can say that the results of the war were bad. We realised that we had conquered another people. A whole people. And now it seems we cannot now get to a true peace, a real peace.
This is a result of the same war. To tell the truth, I don’t know how to change it.