Fifty-one years ago this month, The Six-Day War, also known as the June War, 1967 Arab–Israeli War, or Third Arab–Israeli War, was fought between 5 and 10 June 1967 by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt (known at the time as the United Arab Republic), Jordan, and Syria.
Relations between Israel and its neighbours had never fully normalised following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. In 1956 Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai, with one of its objectives being the reopening of the Straits of Tiran which Egypt had blocked to Israeli shipping since 1950. Israel was subsequently forced to withdraw, but won a guarantee that the Straits of Tiran would remain open. While the United Nations Emergency Force was deployed along the border, there was no demilitarisation agreement.
In the period leading up to June 1967, tensions became dangerously heightened. Israel reiterated its post-1956 position that the closure of the straits of Tiran to its shipping would be a casus belli. In May Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that the straits would be closed to Israeli vessels and then mobilised its Egyptian forces along its border with Israel. On 5 June Israel launched what it claimed were a series of preemptive airstrikes against Egyptian airfields. Claims and counterclaims relating to this series of events are one of a number of controversies relating to the conflict.
The Egyptians were caught by surprise, and nearly the entire Egyptian air force was destroyed with few Israeli losses, giving the Israelis air supremacy. Simultaneously, the Israelis launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, which again caught the Egyptians by surprise. After some initial resistance, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the evacuation of the Sinai. Israeli forces rushed westward in pursuit of the Egyptians, inflicted heavy losses, and conquered the Sinai.
Nasser induced Syria and Jordan to begin attacks on Israel by using the initially confused situation to claim that Egypt had repelled the Israeli air strike. Israeli counterattacks resulted in the seizure of East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank from the Jordanians, while Israel’s retaliation against Syria resulted in its occupation of the Golan Heights.
On 11 June, a ceasefire was signed. In the aftermath of the war, Israel had crippled the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian militaries, having killed over 20,000 troops while only losing fewer than 1,000 of their own. The Israeli success was the result of a well-played and prepared strategy, the poor leadership of the Arab states and their poor military leadership and strategy. Israel seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israel’s international standing greatly improved in the years after and their victory humiliated Egypt, Jordan and Syria, leading Nasser to resign in shame; he was later reinstated after protests in Egypt against his resignation occurred. The speed and ease of Israel’s victory would later lead to a dangerous overconfidence within the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), contributing to initial Arab successes in the subsequent 1973 Yom Kippur War, although ultimately Israeli forces were successful and won over the Arab militaries. The displacement of civilian populations resulting from the war would have long-term consequences, as 300,000 Palestinians fled the West Bank and about 100,000 Syrians left the Golan Heights to become refugees. Across the Arab world, Jewish minority communities fled or were expelled, with refugees going mainly to Israel or Europe.
This radio documentary, produced by The BBC and part of its series Not So Long Ago, presents a broader picture of the conflict, going back to the earliest days of tensions within the region and the various forces employed to maintain a tentative peace. It provides a background, a reason why things happened the way they did and that, like most all conflicts, doesn’t happen by accident or with the snap of a finger.