People & Events return to index
For the Israelis, the six days of war in June 1967 were a series of stunning victories that doubled the amount of land under their control. Although it established Israel's military dominance over neighboring Arab states, the Six Day War also gave rise to an increasing militancy among Palestinian guerrillas determined to find new battlefields.
Failed U.S. Diplomacy
The Six Day War had its origins in disputes between Israel and Egypt over the rights of Israeli shipping to pass through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The State of Israel had been founded in May 1948. The boundaries established by Israel's 1948 war with its Arab neighbors had held uneasily for a few years when Egypt's ruler Gamal Abel Nasser decided in 1956 to nationalize the Suez Canal and deny passage to Israeli ships both there and in the Straits of Tiran that led to the Red Sea. Israel responded by invading and occupying the Sinai Peninsula for several months until a United Nations peacekeeping force was put in place and the right of free shipping restored. In late May 1967, Nasser told the U.N. force to leave Egypt and again closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel. Egypt also began preparing for an attack that was aborted when the Israelis learned of it. The United States, which had guaranteed Israel's right to passage through the Straits, asked Israel not to attack while it pursued a diplomatic resolution, but that effort was unsuccessful, and after a May 26 meeting with Israel's foreign minister, President Lyndon Johnson declared, "I've failed. They'll go."
Events of the War
The war began on June 5 with Israeli preemptive air strikes that destroyed 286 of Egypt's 420 combat aircraft. Israeli tanks surged across the Sinai, and its troops took over the Egypt-occupied Gaza Strip. Focused on the fight against Egypt, Israel initially did not seek to move against Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but when King Hussein's troops began shelling Israeli positions, the battle plans changed. Israeli paratroopers captured East Jerusalem on June 7, and the Israeli army stormed across the West Bank, driving opposing forces to the Jordan River.
Cold War Conflict
In the meantime, both the United States and the Soviet Union publicly sought a ceasefire while privately warning the other not to intervene in the fighting (in fact, the 1967 war marked the first use of the diplomatic "hot line" between the two countries). While not rebuking Israel for its preemptive strike, the Johnson administration did impose an arms embargo on the region. It did not retaliate when the Israelis attacked an American intelligence ship, the U.S.S. Liberty, on June 8, accepting the official explanation that the assault had been a tragic accident. The United States became more concerned when Israel began to push into the Syrian-held Golan Heights, raising the possibility that the Soviet Union would respond. A U.N.-sponsored ceasefire took hold on June 10, however, and direct confrontation between the superpowers was avoided.
Israeli Victory, Palestinian Resolve
The breadth of Israel's military success in the Six Day War was stunning; its troops captured the Sinai, Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, doubling the territory under the nation's control. Israel inflicted casualties at a rate some 25 times higher than it suffered, and it captured nearly 6,000 prisoners while having only 15 taken by the other side. But Israel's military dominance also created problems; roughly 500,000 Palestinians were displaced by the fighting, and a million were now under Israeli control in what became known as the "occupied territories." That November, U.N. Resolution 242 urged withdrawal from these territories in exchange for a permanent end to hostilities; this "land for peace" formula became the cornerstone of subsequent negotiations in the region. But the war had destroyed the dreams many Palestinians had of using Arab armies to defeat Israel and establish an independent state in all of pre-partition Palestine. Despite the defeat, the Palestinian exile leaders were not interested in peace. On the contrary, given the demonstrated military weakness of the Arab states, they were convinced that they had to be more aggressive in opposing Israel and demonstrating that Palestinian nationalism had not died.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza greatly increased the numbers of Palestinian refugees living in squalor on international charity in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. These camps provided the bases of support and recruits for the various Palestinian militant organizations grouped under the loose umbrella of the P.L.O. led by Yasser Arafat. One such group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was formed a few months after the end of the Six Day War. Within a year, it would stage the first hijacking of an Israeli airplane, ushering in a new phase of the Middle East conflict.