In the spring of 1957, the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip occupied since the Suez Campaign of the previous year.
The United Nations sent an international Emergency Force (UNEF) to the Egyptian‑Israeli border and to Sharm el‑Sheikh. The great powers gave Israel assurances concerning the freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Eilat, and the government of Israel made it clear that any infringement of that freedom would be regarded as a casus belli.
All these arrangements, however, did not secure peace in the region. The terror‑reprisal cycle continued on several fronts. The Fatah [the Palestinian group dedicated to obtaining Palestinian independence, founded by Yassir Arafat in 1951]went on sending its men from Jordan to carry out terrorist operations within Israel’s borders. Syrian artillery on the Golan Heights frequently shelled settlements in the Upper Galilee and the Jordan Valley, forcing the Israeli air force to retaliate in operations that often turned into mini‑wars. Moreover, although the Egyptian border remained relatively quiet, as Egypt was involved since 1962 in a civil war in Yemen, [Egyptian President] Gamal Abdul Nasser made no secret of his intention to destroy the State of Israel at the first opportune moment.
Nasser Mobilizes Troops
In the spring of 1967 it seemed as though that moment had come. In three weeks and by five impressive initiatives, Nasser managed to embroil the entire Middle East in a major war. First, Egyptian forces in the Sinai were considerably reinforced, under the pretext of coming to Syria’s assistance. Then Nasser demanded the evacuation of U.N. forces from Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and U Thant, the U.N. Secretary General, immediately acceded to his request. On May 20, Egyptian forces occupied Sharm el‑Sheikh, closing the Straits of Tiran two days later. While Egyptian propaganda was proclaiming the imminent and inevitable destruction of Israel, the massive reinforcements of troops along the borders with Israel brought the numbers of Egyptian soldiers to 100,000 and tanks to 900. Once again, after ten years, Israel was directly confronted by Egyptian forces along the frontier. Finally, Nasser orchestrated a great Arab alliance: in addition to the Egyptian‑Syrian military agreement of November 1966, he now signed pacts with Jordan (May 30) and Iraq (June 4). Contingents arrived from other Arab countries, such as Kuwait and Algeria.
Israel is Forced to Respond
As Nasser had foreseen, Israel was forced to respond: the threat of annihilation could not be ignored. Accepting the closure of the Straits would have been interpreted as a sign of weakness and capitulation to Egyptian aggression; the economic strain of prolonged mobilization and the psychological effect of suspense and fear would have been unbearable. After a “waiting period,” requested by United States President Lyndon Johnson who wished to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict, a “national unity” government was formed in Israel on June 1.
Bolstered by the support of world Jewry and the sympathy voiced by western public opinion, Israel attacked on the morning of June 5. Six days later, at the cost of 676 lives and over 3000 wounded, the Arab coalition formed against Israel was routed. The Israeli army occupied Egyptian Sinai, the Syrian Golan, the Jordanian West Bank, and Arab Jerusalem. The Egyptian and the Syrian governments accepted a cease‑fire agreement and U.N. observers were posted along the Suez Canal and on the Golan Heights. Nasser announced his resignation, but withdrew it in the face of mass demonstrations demanding his return. In his resignation speech he made clear the part the Soviets played in bringing on the war.
A Turning Point
In the brief history of the State of Israel, the Six‑Day War constitutes a major turning point. This swift and total victory saved the Zionist entity from destruction, ensured its physical existence, and disillusioned those of her enemies who had hoped that the Jewish State was just a passing phenomenon. On the other hand, these densely‑populated territories regarded as “liberated” by some Israelis and as “occupied” by others, created a whole series of insurmountable problems–political, social, economic, moral and religious–unresolved to this day. The future of the State of Israel, its character and its place among nations, now depends on their solution.
Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People published by Schocken Books.