The 1967 Six-Day War began on June 5. On June 10 it ended. Yet the result of those six days of conflict was a massive reshaping of Israeli and Palestinian society. Israel’s overwhelming victory gained it not merely territory, but a new position as the region’s most powerful American ally. At the same time, the war undermined the power of Labor Zionism, making room for new, more radical ideologies. For Palestinians, the collapse of the pan-Arab movement following the war prepared them for what was to be finally a national struggle, led by a popular movement, to achieve a Palestinian state.

            The official and not entirely accurate account of the causes of the war, as put forth by then Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, was that neighboring Arab states got together, behind the leadership of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdal Nasser, to try and destroy the state of Israel. Responding to this “existential threat,” Israel struck preemptively at the Arab armies that stood poised to crush it. Eban states the provocation starting the war to be Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in violation of international law, and Egypt’s reoccupation of the Sinai. Thus Eban argues, “Israel waged her defensive struggle in pursuit of two objectives- security and peace[1].”

            As Norman Finkelstein points out, this position has problems. First, Israel was not a blameless victim of yet another irrational Arab vendetta. For instance, in the Samu incident in 1966, an IDF unit of 4,000 men attacked the West Bank village of Samu (under Jordanian control), destroyed 125 houses, and killed eighteen Jordanian soldiers[2]. Israel was not at war with Jordan at the time. In April 1967, Israel downed 6 Syrian MIGs, and army chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin announced on army radio that, “the time is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government[3].” If Arab states were using nasty rhetoric about Israel, they weren’t doing so in a vacuum.

            Further, the facts fail to support Eban’s “defensive war for peace” claim. Nor for that matter was there anything resembling an “existential threat.” American president Lyndon Johnson told Eban only days before war broke out that according to American intelligence, “[I]f Egypt attacks, you’ll whip the hell out of them.[4]” Menachem Begin, present at a meeting with defense ministers shortly before the war began, later recalled that IDF commanders “had no doubts of victory.” General Rabin declared that Nasser’s troops in the Sinai “would not have been enough to unleash an offensive. He knew it and we knew it.[5]” The head of Mossad, Meit Amit, declared, “Egypt was not ready for a war; and Nasser did not want a war.” Finally, if Israel was interested in peace, why did it launch an attack two days before Egypt’s vice president was due in Washington for talks on the status of the Straits of Tiran, the alleged casus belli of the war[6]?

            Against this background remains an intense and significant inter-Arab rivalry. As leader of pan-Arab nationalists, Nasser was hardly in a position to seem to allow Israel to threaten and attack fellow Arab states with impunity. In particular, he remained in a protracted leadership struggle with General Salah Jadid, leader of Syria and the Baath party[7]. Was he to allow Jadid to portray him as a weak ally to the Arab world? Add to this Soviet intelligence reports claiming Israel was preparing to attack him, and Nasser’s inflammatory rhetoric and decision to reoccupy the Sinai do not seem to be solely signs unwarranted aggressive intent.

            Why then did Israel attack? The prominence of David Ben Gurion’s “activism” at the time gives a probable explanation. Ben Gurion held that the Israeli government was to be the sole guarantor of the rights and security of Israelis. “If the [goyim] did not fulfill their perceived obligations to Israel, they would at best be ignored, at worst be fought[8].” The net effect of this, combined with early Arab rejection of Israel, was that any potential or perceived challenges were to be dealt with forcefully. Thus the incident Finkelstein described at Samu was a response to Palestinian guerilla attacks. So as well was the incident with the Syrian MIGs, and the subsequent bellicose rhetoric a result of tensions with Syria over water rights in the Galilee[9]. Nasser provided “activism” with a perfect test whereby Israel could force its neighbors to accept it on its terms.

            On June 10, a cease-fire was declared, and the war was over. Israel now controlled Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Sinai. All the Arab states in the conflict had lost both territory and credibility. Worst hit was Nasser, who resigned. Although re-elected, his position as leader of the Arab world was now doubtful, and pan-Arab nationalism stood completely discredited[10].

Shortly after the war ended, Arab states met a Khartoum to demand a return of territories and “insistence of the rights of the Palestinian people to their own country in August[11]. They refused to recognize, or negotiate directly with Israel. Israel for its part demanded direction negotiations, a full peace for any withdrawal, and declared Jerusalem “non-negotiable.” In November the UN Security Council acted, passing Resolution 242, which insisted on withdrawal from “territories” captured, a negotiated peace deal between all parties, and a “just” solution to the refugee problem[12].

In Israel, the war’s biggest winners were the religious and nationalist forces that increasingly allied to shape the postwar situation. Begin declared, “The right of the [Jewish] people to the land of its ancestors cannot be separated from its right to peace and security[13].” He demanded “large-scale Jewish colonization” of territories acquired, a policy National Religious Party leader Zevulon Hammer concurred with. Even many Labor Zionists like Prime Minister Eshkol believed that the territories conquered belonged to Israel by “historic right.”

The various settlement plans put forth and carried out, first by Labor ministers Yigal Allon and Israel Galili, later by Begin’s administration, all shared the central assumption that settlements were essential to establishing Israeli “facts on the ground” that would determine any future settlement. This nationalist approach to securing Israel’s territorial gains was supported wholeheartedly by the religious right. Thus when Rabbi Moshe Levinger went to a Hebron hotel for Passover in 1968, and refused to leave afterwards, it was Allon who lent Levinger and Levinger’s followers weapons, and it was Dayan who told Hebron’s mayor that there were no laws prohibiting Levinger from staying, however much it might irk locals[14].

            Political decisions made at the time had religious overtones as well. On the mundane side, the West Bank was renamed “Judaea and Samaria” in official documents[15]. Some six hundred Arab Jerusalemites were made homeless as the Israeli government bulldozed the Maghrebi quarter to make room for worshippers going to the Western Wall[16]. Allon’s plan which included annexation of up to 40% of the West Bank, was expanded as groups like the Greater Israel movement and later, Gush Emunim, established “wildcat” settlements which they later demanded the government recognize, much as Levinger had done in Hebron.

            Most importantly, the focus on the postwar question of how to settle the territories changed Israel’s position. Israel was now firmly in the role of “occupying power.” While colonization had been an important aspect of Labor Zionism all along, the new settlements were designed not only to establish connections with the land, but to seize and establish control, frequently over sites of biblical significance. The Labor Party was either unable or unwilling to change this. Thus activists like Allon and Dayan made settlement a primary issue, obscuring Labor’s original goal of equality with a nationalism little different from Begin’s Herut party.

            Internationally, the war changed Israel’s situation enormously. Cold War antagonisms and the situation in Vietnam led successive American administrations to appreciate the presence of a strong anti-communist friend in the Middle East. Determined to undermine any and all Soviet allies, globalists in the administrations were generally content to see Soviet-allied Arab states defeated. Israel’s perceived utility in the Cold War made it into one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid. Whereas it had received only $140 million from 1968 to 1969, in 1974 alone, it received $2.57 billion[17]. While regionalists did occasionally argue that the Middle East was unstable precisely because of Israel’s aggressiveness[18], this view did not get far. “Strategic asset” became the buzzword associated with Israel in the Congress[19], and Cold War antagonisms, matched with domestic concerns, ensured Israel would continue to receive favorable treatment.

            On the Palestinian side, the result of the 1967 war had both intended and unintended results. On the immediate side, Palestinians in the West Bank were placed under a military government determined to make them benefit the Jewish state as much as possible. This included everything from land seizures to building restrictions, to agricultural tariffs, designed to turn them, for the most part into a dependent underclass of the Jewish economy. Politically, domestic Palestinian government, limited as it had been under Jordanian (and Egyptian rule) was reduced further. “Politically Palestine is finished” said Moshe Dayan in 1973[20], and so far as the Occupied Territories were concerned at the time, he was right. House demolitions of families of fedayin and dissidents, indefinite detention of political activists[21], and other forms of harassment ensured it would remain so.

            Yet the 1967 war also opened up a new possibility for leadership in the Palestinian struggle. If the Arab states had appropriated to themselves the Palestinian national cause (while gobbling up its territory) in 1948, the setbacks of 1967 caused them to draw back. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded in 1964 as Nasser’s maintain control over the issue. In the wake of the 1967 fiasco, Ahmad Shuquayri, “Nasser’s man” as Smith terms him, was forced down[22]. Instead, the various armed Palestinian resistance groups were invited to join[23]. These groups, including Yasser Arafat’s Fateh and George Habash’s PFLP, while to some degree dependent on patronage from the Arab states, were relatively independent, and popularly based, though in the refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, not in the West Bank.
            The legitimacy of these groups only grew in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fateh was started in 1958 as an armed group determined to reclaim Palestine for the Palestinians through armed struggle[24]. Contrasting with the inaction of the various Arab states, Fateh carried out frequent raids and attacks in Israel. While of little military significance, this won them considerable legitimacy as compared with the Arab states and PLO who could claim to have done absolutely nothing at all. When Israel raided Jordan in March 1968, Fateh commandos inflicted surprisingly heave casualties on Israeli forces at Karamah, eventually forcing Jordanian troops to intervene[25].

            Despite being forced out of Jordan in October 1970, the armed factions now controlled the PLO, and subsequently turned it into a “quasi-state organization”. By the time of the Lebanese civil war, the PLO was providing everything from education to healthcare to job training in the refugee camps they had access to. They had an army (with some outside help), military policy, a treasure in the form of the Palestinian National Fund, a military police force and even a research institute in Beirut dedicated to Palestinian affairs[26]. Funded by taxes on expatriates and oil money from the Gulf States, the PLO operated a complex and extensive network of services not unlike those maintained by sovereign states.

            Negotiated settlements of the Palestinian issue were largely a moot point during the period. U.N, Resolution 242, as PLO leaders observed, recognized the rights of Palestinians as individuals, not as a nation[27]. Consequently, the resolution was unacceptable to them. For the Israelis, the Resolution was in principle acceptable, but no Israeli was prepared to give back all territory conquered. Arab states meanwhile differed as to their goals, but they all insisted on a full return of captured territory. Common ground was sparse, and the resolution, and its successor 338, which followed the 1973 war, served as words and little else.

            While the PLO has changed in both prestige and policy over the years, it has remained established as the primary expression of Palestinian national aspirations. The fact that it went from being an Egyptian public relations tool to a movement with widespread support among both Palestinian expatriates, and those in Israel, indicates just how far they have come. The fact that in 1993, Israel would sign the Oslo Declaration of Principles with a PLO negotiator[28] as the first step toward establishing peace not only with the Palestinians, but with Jordan and Syria as well, says quite a bit.

            Similarly, the settlement movement in Israel has waxed and waned, but the fact that settlements have remained on the agenda since 1967, is a definite tribute to the strength of the religio-nationalist discourse that the 1967 war help promulgate in Israel. Similarly, the U.S.-Israel alliance has remained sacrosanct since the 1967 war. There has been no president who has not made the obligatory “we support Israel’s right to exist and are prepared to defend it,” despite the fact that Israel’s continued existence seems not at all doubtful.

            In short, many of the larger changes wrought by the Six-Day War remain firmly in place. Specifics vary and adjustments occur, but the underlying “facts on the ground” that were created in 1967 have remained very much present since then, wherever they may eventually lead.

[1] Abba Eban from The Israeli-Arab Reader, 184

[2] Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 124

[3] Finkelstein, 125

[4] Finkelstein, 135

[5] Finkelstein, 134

[6] Charles Smith, Palestine and The Arab Israeli Conflict, 284

[7] Smith, 275

[8] Smith, 230

[9] Smith, 271

[10] Smith, 301

[11] Smith, 305

[12] Smith, 341

[13] Geoffrey Aronson, Israel, Palestinians and the Intifada, 310

[14] Aronson, 312

[15] Joel Beinin, Lecture 16

[16] Smith, 287

[17] Beinin, 19

[18] Kathleen Christisson, Perceptions of Palestine, 134

[19] Christisson, 174

[20] Reader, 315

[21] Raja Shehadeh, The Third Way, 6

[22] Smith, 272

[23] Smith, 309

[24] Smith, 272

[25] Beinin, 18

[26] Helen Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organization, 404

[27] Smith, 307

[28] Smith, 458

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