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50 years later, a reporter recalls the 6-Day War – and the Israeli-Palestinian tensions that remain

June 2, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a 1967 battle between Israel and neighboring Arab nations. The war created a stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians that continues today. It’s the same standoff that confronted President Donald Trump on his recent visit to the Middle East. Fifty years later, former NewsHour correspondent Terence Smith reflects on his coverage of the war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the June 1967 Six-Day War, fought between Israel and several neighboring Arab nations.

The swift Israeli victory was total. But no one knew at the time, and in the war’s aftermath, that many of the dividing lines struck would define relations in the region for the ensuing 50 years.

Former NewsHour correspondent Terence Smith reported on the war then for The New York Times, and he remembers those historic days for us now.

TERENCE SMITH, Former NewsHour Correspondent: The Six-Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors began 50 years ago shortly after dawn on the hot, dry morning of June 5, 1967.

In the course of six frantic days, Israel decimated the armies and air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and redrew the map of the Middle East. The war created a stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank that persists to this day. It is the same stand-off that confronted President Trump on his recent visit.

I covered the battle for Jerusalem and the West Bank as an incredibly green, inexperienced correspondent for The New York Times. I had arrived in Israel just 10 days before on my first foreign assignment for the paper, and I knew nothing.

Scrambling after the Israeli army units as they conquered the ancient Old City of Jerusalem, I followed them inside as they took control of the Western Wall, the retaining wall of the Second Temple. Suddenly, the troops were face-to-face with the holiest site in Judaism. Israelis had not been able to visit or pray at the wall since 1948. It was quite a moment.

I covered the Israeli units as they swept through the West Bank, driving Jordan’s Arab legion from Bethlehem down to Jericho and to the banks of the Jordan River. Burned-out Jordanian tanks and armored personnel carriers littered the highway. Where the troops stopped then is the armistice line today.

The fighting in Jerusalem and on the West Bank had been fierce, with heavy casualties, but it was largely over in 96 hours. Israelis and Palestinians alike were stunned. Suddenly, two peoples who had been separated by the so-called Green Line for 19 years confronted each other. Both sides were curious about the other.

As soon as they could, ordinary Israelis poured into the walled Old City. Curiosity and the universal human instinct for bargains drove them into the shops in the narrow streets of the Old City. The shelves on the Jordanian side were stocked with duty-free electronics and small luxuries that were unavailable or much more expensive in high-tariff Israel.

The bargains flew off the shelves. And not just ordinary Israelis. Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Israeli Jerusalem, and Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan, both famous antiquities collectors, descended on the Arab dealers in East Jerusalem and negotiated for ancient treasures to add to their collections.

Palestinians began to explore West Jerusalem and meet Israelis for the first time. A few had the nerve to travel to Jaffa to visit homes that they or their parents had fled in 1948.

In the process of getting to know each other in the first weeks after the war, Palestinians discovered that Israelis were not, in fact, 10 feet-tall, and Israelis found that Palestinians were not, in fact, all cutthroats.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light. A lot of blood had been spilled. But people on either side of the Green Line wanted to see what they could while they could. There was a shared assumption that, because the Israeli victory had been so total, that, this time, some sort of peace was inevitable.

It was an assumption, not necessarily an aspiration, not for everyone. People on both sides expected that the cease-fire would be replaced by an agreement, Israel would give up some of the occupied territory, just as it had during the Suez crisis nine years earlier, and that, this time, finally, there would be peace. How could it not?

No one I spoke to in those months after the war thought that the stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians would last for 50 years. Even the deeply cynical Moshe Dayan famously said he was just waiting for the phone to ring from the other side to negotiate peace.

It wasn’t to be. By the fall of that year, the Arab states met in Khartoum and agreed on their famous three no’s: no negotiation, no recognition, no peace with Israel.

At the same time, the first Jewish settlers had established a rump settlement on the West Bank, promising not to leave.

I remember asking Dayan at a news conference, what was going to be done about the settlers? “If we can solve the big issues,” he told me, “the settlers will be no problem.”

Today, there are some 400,000 Israelis settlers in the West Bank and 350,000 more in East Jerusalem. They are still promising not to leave, and constitute a major political voice on the right in Israel.

So, the elements of a deadlock, the same deadlock that has defied a solution for 50 years, were in place before the year was out.

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