Six days that shook the Middle East

In June 1967, catastrophic brinkmanship between Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Israel – with Moscow manoeuvring behind the scenes – saw local tensions escalate into all-out conflict. Matthew Hughes details day by day how the Six-Day War unfolded...

The crews of Israeli armoured vehicles during the waiting period before the beginning of the Six-Day War. (Photo by David Rubinger/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The countdown to war

On 7 April 1967, Israeli Mirage warplanes shot down six Syrian air force MiGs in a dogfight over southern Syria, one downed jet falling onto the Syrian capital, Damascus.

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This was the latest escalation along Israel’s borders with its Arab neighbours, where there had been cross-border skirmishes ever since Israel’s formation in 1948. The humiliating loss of the Syrian jets would escalate to another Arab-Israeli conflict: the Six-Day War of June 1967.

The tipping point on the road to June’s hostilities came when Syria’s ally, the Soviet Union, misleadingly told Damascus on 13 May 1967 that Israel was massing for an attack. This was a blatant lie by Moscow, part of wider Cold War machinations.

Syria had a defence pact with the pan-Arab leader of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, so the threat of an Israeli attack meant that Nasser was duty-bound to come to Syria’s aid. Arab unity in the face of potential Israeli aggression also led King Hussein of Jordan to sign a defence pact with Nasser on 30 May, spreading any potential clash to include Jordan too. As Nasser could not ignore Syria in the face of the (non-existent) Israeli invasion, he sent troops into the Sinai peninsula. The UN had stationed buffer force peacekeeping soldiers in the Sinai after the 1956 Egypt–Israel war but Nasser’s deployment led the UN to completely withdraw its troops. The Sinai was now a war zone.

Mutual distrust, Soviet deceit and Israeli fears of destruction meant that Israel’s prime minister Levi Eshkol and his generals now saw war as inevitable. It is not clear that Nasser wanted war – much of his army was away fighting in Yemen – but to de-escalate and climb down was hard. Circumstances conspired to tip the two sides into an unwanted clash of arms.

Day 1) Monday, 5 June 1967

Israel launches an all-out assault, the Egyptian air force is wiped out at a stroke

The war started at 7.45am, dram­atically and decisively, when the entire Israeli air force (just 12 warplanes remained behind) headed off in Operation Focus, flying low to avoid Egyptian radar, and wiped out nearly all the Egyptian warplanes on the ground.

As the Israeli air force chief proclaimed: “The spirit of Israel’s heroes accompanies us to battle… From Joshua Bin-Nun, King David, the Maccabees and the fighters of 1948 and 1956, we shall draw the strength and courage to strike the Egyptians.”

Egyptian commander Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, on being told a counter-attack was impossible as all his warplanes were destroyed, “completely collapsed. I had never seen him like that before,” recalled a subordinate. With 298 Egyptian warplanes destroyed by the end of the day, Israel had already effectively won the war as, without air cover, the Egyptian army in the Sinai desert was doomed. Israeli tanks joined the fray, pushing towards the Suez Canal.

Iraqi and Jordanian warplanes joined the fight and Israel wiped out those air forces too. When Jordan started shelling Israeli positions around Jerusalem, Israel told King Hussein: “The war is between us and the Egyptians. If you don’t join in, nothing will happen to you.” But Hussein’s soldiers intensified shelling and sealed their fate. Hussein was on his own. As Nasser’s air force collapsed, he had an incredible conversation with Hussein, informing him: “Be strong. Today we have sent all our aeroplanes against Israel. Since early this morning our air force has been bombing the Israeli air force.” Within a few days, Hussein’s army was gone, the king lamenting: “I have never received a more crushing blow than that.”

Day 2) Tuesday, 6 June 1967

The Jordanians dig in, King Hussein’s forces battle to repel Israel’s lightning advance

By 6 June the Egyptian army was in full flight. Egyptian soldiers left their weapons and up to 10,000 Egyptians died in the retreat, from thirst and combat. In the chaos, Egyptian artillery fired on its own men. Meanwhile, Egyptian media outlets absurdly told the Egyptian people that their army had “wiped out” enemy attacks and was penetrating Israel.

Egyptian soldiers retreated wholesale, instead of digging in and blunting enemy air power by fighting at night. Who exactly ordered that retreat divided opinion for years. Nasser’s supporters said that it was Amer. Both Nasser and Amer blamed the fiasco on a US–UK intervention in support of Israel, or on faulty weapons supplied by the Soviets. A political campaign against the US across the Arab world ensued and mobs attacked US facilities. In truth, the defeat was down to Nasser’s poor diplomacy, his weak army and Israeli pre-emptive aggression.

Meanwhile, momentous events were unfolding on Israel’s eastern front, where battle was raging in Jerusalem, which was then divided between Israeli and Jordanian control.

Israeli paratroopers fighting as infantry encircled the walled old city – home to the Muslim Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary, Dome of the Rock, or ‘Temple Mount’) and Jewish Western Wall holy sites – but did not enter. At the same time, paratroopers assaulted Jordanian-held bunkers on ‘Ammunition Hill’ just north of the old city. The battle started at 1.25am as Israeli soldiers moved to their attack positions. The Jordanians fought like lions. They killed and wounded scores of Israelis, shouting “Allah Akbar” (“God is great”) as they fought.

By 4.30am, the Israelis had found a way into the enemy positions, but their Sherman tanks could not depress their guns to fire into the Jordanian lines. Nor could the paratroopers easily get through the narrow trenches with their wide backpacks. But Jordanian resistance gradually crumbled. One of the Jordanian officers on Ammunition Hill radioed out “ammunition is running low. You will no longer hear from me, but I hope you will hear about me and my men.”

In the end, 71 Jordanians and 53 Israelis died on Ammunition Hill and the postwar Israeli-built memorial at that place honours the fallen on both sides. Jordanian troops did not cut and run, but they gave way to Israeli firepower and momentum. To his troops, Hussein in a dispatch said: “Kill the enemy wherever you find them with your arms, hands, nails and teeth.”

Day 3) Wednesday, 7 June 1967

Israel takes Jerusalem. The old city falls , bulldozers move in and the Palestinian population is put under Israeli military control

On 7 June, Israel captured the old city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall – soldiers rushing to pray at the site – smashing into the walled city via the Lions’ Gate and Zion Gate. By 10am, the old city was in Israeli hands.

An Israeli field officer told his subordinates how the “ancient city of Jerusalem which for generations we have dreamt of and striven for – we will be the first to enter it. The Jewish nation is awaiting our victory. Israel awaits this historic hour. Be proud. Good luck.”

An Israeli intelligence officer described entering the Muslim Haram al-Sharif thus: “There you are on a half-track after two days of fighting, with shots still filling the air, and suddenly you enter this wide open space that everyone has seen before in pictures, and though I’m not religious, I don’t think there was a man who wasn’t overcome with emotion.”

An Israeli commander then radioed “Har ha-Bayit be-Yadenu” – “the Temple Mount is in our hands”. Israeli soldiers could not find their way to the Western Wall and so a local Palestinian directed them there. Israel’s chief military chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, arrived with a shofar – a ram’s horn – to blow at the Western Wall, where he proclaimed that he had “come to this place never to leave it again”. Goren also proposed that the army blow up the Muslim mosque complex atop the Western Wall. The Israeli army refused, but military bulldozers moved in, destroyed 200 houses by the Western Wall and cleared a huge open space for visitors.

Israel’s minister of defence, Moshe Dayan, arrived at 2.30pm, announcing with characteristic ambiguity: “We have reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part it again. To our Arab neighbours we offer even now… our hand in peace.”

Israeli troops also conquered the West Bank and, with it, some 1.25 million Palestinians who would now live under Israeli military occupation.

Meanwhile, Egyptian radio bizarrely broadcast that Egyptian troops were at the gates of Tel Aviv, just as Israeli troops opened the Straits of Tiran between the Sinai and Arabian peninsula. Still, some Egyptian units fought on, tanks at the Egyptian air base at Bir Gafgafa in central Sinai delaying Israeli attackers. The few remaining Egyptian planes continued to fly sorties – more like suicide missions – and Israeli troops were so surprised that they initially thought the Egyptian MiGs were their own Mirages.

Day 4) Thursday, 8 June 1967

Israel zeroes in on Syria. With Jordan and Egypt quelled, Israeli forces push northwards

In the Sinai, advancing Israeli troops had stopped taking enemy soldiers prisoner, leaving them to walk west to the Suez Canal, only seizing high-ranking Egyptians for use in any eventual prisoner swap (the Arabs only took 15 Israelis prisoner). Israel simply could not accommodate the vast numbers of Egyptian prisoners and wounded.

One Israeli tank commander later testified how he told himself: “Hold on, there’s going to be a massacre here with both sides shooting.” He ordered his men: “No killing soldiers. Try to catch them and then let them go so that they’ll spread the word that the Israelis won’t kill them. Just send them home.”

By 8 June, with the Jordanian and Egyptian armies broken, Israel turned its attention to the northern front with Syria. Would it attack for a third time, against Syria? Israel feared Soviet intervention and Dayan opposed a war with Syria. The conflict appeared to be ending as a four-day war, with Israel in charge of the Sinai and the West Bank. Syria, it appeared, would escape the war unscathed. The Soviets signalled that they would not accept further Israeli aggression.

At 7.10pm, Eshkol convened his ministerial team and argued for the seizure of at least part of the Golan Heights, against Dayan’s wishes. In an unprecedented move, members of the Israeli settler movement addressed the convened ministers. One minister said that he would prefer the Golan Heights and a diplomatic break with the Soviets, to the Syrians on the ridge and Israel retaining ties with Moscow. Others there argued against an attack, saying that a break with Moscow meant a break with a raft of Afro-Asian countries. Dayan also spoke against war with Syria. Finally, Eshkol proposed that Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, the head of the Israeli army, and he would approve a Golan operation if necessary.

Day 5) Friday, 9 June 1967

Eyeing the Golan Heights. Dayan changes tack and Syrian forces are overwhelmed

Early in the morning, Nasser – finally coming to terms with the reality of the situation – cabled the Syrians, advising them not to fight Israel: “Keep the Syrian army intact,” he counselled. “We have lost this battle. God will be with us in the future.”

Then the mercurial Dayan decided to go on the offensive, having argued against such a move the day before.

When Israeli troops started bombing and attacking up into the Syrian-held Golan Heights, Eshkol was furious, as he had agreed not to attack. Dayan’s position on Syria was so inconsistent that some have argued that only a psychologist could understand it.

The die was now cast and Israel’s northern front exploded in a final round of fighting that would see Arab forces humiliated again.

Day 6) Saturday, 10 June 1967

Soviets prepare to bomb Israel. As Israel routs its Syrian enemies, Moscow feels compelled to intervene

With the Syrians in retreat, a new and – to the Soviet Union – intolerable prospect now revealed itself: the Israelis might have Damascus in their sights.

Soviet grandee Alexei Kosygin contacted Washington and told the Americans: “A very critical moment has arrived which forces us, if military actions are not stopped in the next few hours, to adopt an independent decision… These decisions may bring us into a clash, which will lead to a grave catastrophe… We propose that you demand from Israel that it unconditionally cease military action in the next few hours.”

As Israeli jets flew over Damascus, Soviet forces prepared to bomb Israel. Eventually, US president Lyndon Baines Johnson, alongside the UN, forced Israel to halt its forces short of the Syrian capital.

At one stage, Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban, called Eshkol and got his wife on the line. She told her husband: “Eban wants you to stop the war because he can’t stand the pressure from the United Nations.” At 6.30pm, a ceasefire went into effect.

For the cost of fewer than 1,000 dead, Israelis troops were now 31 miles from Amman, 38 miles from Damascus and 69 miles from Cairo. This victory gave Israel a military solution to the political problems of its legitimacy. Humiliated, the Arabs refused to accept the defeat of 1967, Israelis settled the newly occupied lands and the Palestinians resisted. The result was another conflict – the 1973 Yom Kippur War – and a legacy of acrimony that continues to plague the Middle East today.

Matthew Hughes is professor of military history at Brunel University London.

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This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine