Saturday, April 11, 2009

Arabs and Israelis II: The Six Day War

For the next few years, the Middle East was relatively quiet. The presence of the UNEF along Israel’s Sinai border prevented hostilities from re-igniting there. A new group called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964. The group launched guerilla attacks across the Israeli-Syrian border after its inception, but overall there was little military activity.

This situation gradually changed as relations between the US and Egypt grew distant. The Soviet Union stepped in to supply Egypt with weapons and encouraged the Arab nations to unify against a common enemy, Israel. Since the fall of communism, historians have learned that the Russians were intimately involved in the Arab planning for a war against Israel.

Relations between Israel and Jordan were relatively cordial with one notable exception. On November 11, 1966, an Israeli border patrol jeep hit a mine, killing and wounding several soldiers. In response, the Israelis sent a large force to the village of Es Samu in the West Bank, from which they believed the militants who had set the mine had come. The Israelis ran into a Jordanian force and several soldiers on both sides were killed in the ensuing battle.

In the spring of 1967, Fatah, the military arm of the PLO stepped up attacks from Syria. At the same time, the Syrians went so far as to divert the flow of the Jordan River in order to deprive northern Israel of water. The Syrians also attacked Israeli water stations and tractors near the border. On April 7, one such attack resulted in an aerial battle in which several Syrian planes were shot down by the Israeli Air Force.

Israel retaliated with patrols into the Syrian demilitarized zone and a diplomatic offensive. The United Nations censured the Arab attacks. The Soviets derailed a similar resolution in the Security Council.

In May, the Israelis planned to celebrate their Independence Day with a military parade through their capitol, Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a divided city, as well as a holy city to the Arabs, and the idea of large numbers of Israeli soldiers in the holy city outraged Muslims. The Israelis acceded to the Muslim wishes and did not bring heavy weapons into Jerusalem. The Soviets used the absence of military hardware in Jerusalem to convince Anwar Sadat, speaker of the Egyptian National Assembly, that Israel was planning to invade Syria. The Syrians supported the claim and informed Nasser, still president of Egypt, that Israeli troops were massing on the border. Nasser mobilized the Egyptian army and declared a state of emergency.

Leaders throughout the Arab world began to prepare for war. Nasser and his allies made clear that their goal was to totally destroy Israel. Nasser said that the national aim was “the eradication of Israel.” Ahmed Shukairy, chairman of the PLO, said that all Jewish immigrants would have to leave: "This is a fight for the homeland – it is either us or the Israelis. There is no middle road. The Jews of Palestine will have to leave. We will facilitate their departure to their former homes. Any of the old Palestine Jewish population who survive may stay, but it is my impression that none of them will survive." It was clear that the Arabs wanted to exterminate the Jews.

On May 14, Egyptian General Muhammad Fawzi visited the Syria-Israel border. He saw that there was no evidence of an Israeli troop buildup and communicated this Nasser. Egyptian military intelligence and the US embassy in Cairo confirmed this to Nasser. Additionally, Israel invited UN observers to verify the absence of an invasion force. By this point, though, Nasser’s mind was made up. It was time to destroy Israel.

The Egyptians tripled the number of their forces in the Sinai, while Syria deployed its army in the Golan Heights overlooking northern Israel. On May 17, Egyptian reconnaissance planes violated Israeli airspace, flying over the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona. At this point, Israel started calling up reserves and placed the IDF on heightened alert.

The Egyptians continued the provocations over the next few weeks. The Egyptians told the UNEF to leave the Sinai and the Egyptian army took up positions on Israel’s southern border. On May 22, Egypt again closed the Straits of Tiran, a cause of the 1956 war. Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq all readied their armies.

Diplomatic efforts by the Israelis were unsuccessful. The US would not agree to an Israeli pre-emptive strike. The sole sign of hope was a proposal from President Johnson that the US might lead a multinational naval force to break the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Unfortunately, this plan met with little international support and troop buildups continued on both sides.

On May 30, Nasser signed a defense pact with King Hussein of Jordan. The pact effectively gave Egypt control of the Jordanian army. Iraq and Syria soon joined the alliance as well. The combined force opposing Israel at this point was estimated to be 500,000 infantry, 5,000 tanks, and 1,000 aircraft. Also at this point, Moshe Dayan was appointed Israel’s defense minister. Finally, on June 4, the Israeli cabinet voted to launch a pre-emptive strike in spite of US opposition and a ban on weapons sales from France, Israel’s chief supplier.

Early in the morning of June 5, 1967, the Israelis launched a surprise air attack against Egypt. The Israeli Air Force, leaving just twelve aircraft to defend the country, attacked while the Egyptian generals were locked in Cairo traffic jams on their way to work. The Israeli attacks almost totally destroyed the Egyptian air force, including their air bases and surface-to-air missile sites. At the same time, Israeli ground forces attacked the Egyptians in Gaza and the Sinai.

Realizing that the UN and the superpowers might intervene to stop the war at any time, the Israelis planned to make large gains quickly in order to be able to trade land for an end to the Egyptian blockade. Israeli tanks quickly penetrated and overwhelmed the Egyptian defenders despite their fortified positions. As the Egyptian position deteriorated, Marshal Amer, the Egyptian military commander, began to panic. He issued contradictory orders to his commanders, further confusing the situation, before finally ordering a retreat. Some Egyptian commanders fled to Cairo, leaving their troops to fend for themselves. As the Egyptian tanks left cover to withdraw, they became easy targets for Israeli planes. As the Egyptians took massive casualties, the retreat became a rout.

After 96 hours of fighting, Israeli forces captured the Mitla and Gidi Passes and partly blocked the Khatmia Pass, effectively trapping most of the Egyptian army. The Israelis also captured Sharm el Sheikh, the coastal base from which the Egyptians enforced their blockade. By June 8, Israeli forces had reached the Suez Canal and controlled the entire Sinai, as well as the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian losses were put at 11,500 killed, 5,000 captured, and as many as 50,000 wounded. Israel lost 275 killed and 800 wounded, a high number for such a small country. Many of the Egyptian prisoners were fed and transported to the canal, where Egyptian boats took them home, although some officers were traded for captured Israeli pilots.

As the fighting started in the Sinai, the Jordanians watched the planes flying between Egypt and Israel on their radar. Convinced by the Egyptians that the planes were attacking Israel, Jordan began shelling border areas of Israel. In reality, the planes had been the Israeli Air Force returning from the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force.

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message through UN General Odd Bull to King Hussein of Jordan that Israel had attacked Egypt, but would not attack Jordan unless Jordan attacked Israel first. By the time the message was received, Jordanian artillery was already in action and Jordanian airplanes had launched in a combined operation with Iraqi and Syrian jets. Jordanian troops also captured Government House, the UN headquarters located on the Hill of Evil Counsel in the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

The Israelis initially did not respond to Jordan’s attacks, but as the attacks grew stronger and Jordanian ground forces crossed the armistice lines, the Israelis first ordered the air force to respond to the Jordanian air attacks. Around noon on June 5, Israeli planes caught the Jordanian planes on the ground refueling and destroyed the entire Jordanian air force. The Syrian air force was also largely destroyed, as well as the base from which the Iraqi planes were operating.

Next Israeli ground attacks were launched with the goals of eliminating pockets of Jordanian territory that bulged out into Israel near Jenin and Latrun, threatening Israeli communications and giving the Arabs a place to launch mortar and artillery attacks deep into Israel. A third Israeli objective was to open a secure road to Mount Scopus, a Jewish enclave in Jerusalem surrounded by Jordanian territory, which had to be resupplied by UN convoys.

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, the first Israeli ground forces attacked Jordanian troops that occupied the Government House. The Israelis recaptured the Government House, and then attacked the village of Sur Baher to the south. When the village fell, the Israelis controlled the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Hebron, cutting off Jordanian forces to the south.

As this was happening, Israeli armored forces moved from the Latrun area toward Ramallah Ridge, which controlled the northern and eastern approaches to Jerusalem. Since the time of Joshua, Ramallah Ridge has historically been an objective of armies seeking control of Jerusalem. In heavy fighting, the Israelis captured the ridge from Jordan’s crack Arab Legion, and then took the fortified village of Biddu. An Israeli brigade also defeated Jordanian and Egyptian forces in Latrun itself.

As the Jordanian army fell back, King Hussein agreed to send reinforcements. After dark, Jordanian tanks and infantry began moving toward Jerusalem on the road from Jericho. They were ultimately detected and the column was virtually wiped out by Israeli warplanes. Israeli aircraft and ground forces also prevented other Jordanian attempts at reinforcing their front-line troops from succeeding.

Just after 0200 on June 6, the Israelis began their assault on Jerusalem. Israeli paratroopers under Motta Gur and tanks from the Jerusalem Brigade attacked the Police School and Ammunition Hill. The hand-to-hand fighting was intense and went on for four hours. Finally, the Israelis controlled Jerusalem up to the north wall of the Old City.

At 0830 on June 7, the Israelis renewed their attack against Augusta Victoria Hill, high ground overlooking Jerusalem to the east. As the Israelis attacked the hill from two directions, a third force penetrated the walls of the Old City at St. Stephen’s Gate. The Israelis met little resistance in the Old City and soon controlled the Temple Mount, a holy site in both Judaism and Islam, for the first time since Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Simultaneously, in Judea and Samaria, other areas of the West Bank, Jordanian armor and artillery was defeated by combined Israeli armor and air attacks. By the night of June 7, both sides had agreed to a UN ceasefire, leaving Israel in complete control of the West Bank. Israel lost 550 soldiers in the West Bank, while Jordan lost 700 killed and 2,500 wounded.

In northern Israel, the Israeli forces were heavily outgunned by the Syrians. The Syrians fielded 40,000 troops and 260 tanks and self-propelled guns which made up three armored brigades and five infantry brigades. The Israelis, with the majority of their army facing the more dangerous Egyptian army in the south, had only one armored brigade and one infantry brigade.

The war in the north started in the morning of June 5 with Syrian air strikes on targets in Israel including the city of Tiberias and oil refineries at Haifa. Israeli warplanes destroyed much of the Syrian air force later in the day, catching the Syrian planes on the ground.

The next day, the Syrians renewed their attack, first with an artillery barrages against civilian Israeli targets, and then with a ground incursion by two companies of infantry, which attacked Kibbutz Tel Dan. Israeli defenders with air support were able to force the Syrians back across the border. With the main force of Israeli army in action against the Egyptians and the Jordanians, Israel was unable to mount offensive operations.

On June 8, Syria and Israel agreed to a UN ceasefire. Five hours later, the Syrians resumed their shelling. As the fighting waned in the south, Israeli army units began to move north toward Syria.

The United States also hinted that an offensive against Syria should be started. The US National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that, with Syria “getting off without injury,” the nation that was instrumental in starting the war “would be free to start the whole deadly sequence again.” The US may have reasoned that a Syrian defeat would be an embarrassment to the Soviet Union and a blow to Soviet prestige in the nation.

The terrain along the border rose steeply to a plateau about 2,000 feet above sea level, known as the Golan Heights. The area had been occupied and fortified by the Syrians for the past eighteen years. This high ground was often used to launch artillery attacks against communities in northern Israel. Now Israel saw a chance to remove the thorn in their side.

The attack started with a prolonged air attack on the morning of June 9. Around noon, the Israeli ground forces launched five separate attacks. The primary objective was Q’ala, a town that was the most lightly defended by the Syrians because of the nearly impassable terrain. Q’ala was very close to a strategic road that would allow the Israelis to both threaten the rear of the Syrian forces deployed on the Heights as well as attack toward the Syrian regional headquarters at Quneitra, a strategic crossroads that would also open the door to Damascus.

One armored brigade and one infantry brigade attacked Q’ala. Engineers led the way through the Syrian minefield and bulldozers cut a road up the mountain under Syrian fire. The Israeli tanks moved single file through the minefield taking heavy casualties. It took almost six hours for the tanks to travel three miles to the objective.

The infantry brigade attacked a mile to the north at Tel Fakhir to protect the flank of the armor. After seven hours of fighting, virtually every Israeli soldier was either killed or wounded; yet the Syrian units became fragmented, with many soldiers and officers disappearing from the battle. After Tel Fakhir, other Syrian strongholds began to fall to the Israelis as well.

The next morning, June 10, Israeli reinforcements were sent through the hole in the Syrian line. The Israelis secured the breach and then began to move toward Quneitra. While still ten miles away, Syrian radio erroneously announced that Quneitra had fallen. When Syrians soldiers heard this, they became afraid that they would be encircled by the Israelis and trapped. Most of the Syrian army fled at this point.

By the time the fighting stopped, the Israelis had lost 115 killed and 306 wounded. The Syrian losses were 2,500 killed, 5,000 wounded, and 591 captured.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Six-Day War was the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. The USS Liberty was an American electronic intelligence gathering ship. Through a series of communication mistakes, the ship, which was supposed to be 100 miles away, was cruising ten miles off the Egyptian coast near El Arish. On June 8, the ship was attacked by two Israeli jets sent to investigate reports of shelling from the sea. The Israeli jets strafed the ship and attacked it with napalm. Shortly after, Israeli torpedo boats attacked as well. When the Israelis realized the ship was American, they broke off the attack, but 34 US sailors were killed and 171 wounded. Some of the sailors claimed that the Israelis intended to attack the ship, but several investigations by the US government have agreed that the attack was a case of mistaken identity.

Israel hoped that the war would provide the basis for peace with their Arab neighbors. The decisive victory might inspire the respect of their foes and Israeli territorial gains could be traded for national recognition. Several months after the war, however, Arab leaders met in Khartoum to reaffirm their pledge of “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.”

The next three years became known as the War of Attrition. A few weeks after the Six-Day War ended, in July 1967, Egypt began shelling Israeli positions in the Sinai. On October 21, 1967, an Egyptian missile attack sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat off Port Said. The War of Attrition continued until 1970, when, after Nasser’s death, the US helped Israel and Egypt to negotiate a ceasefire. Thousands of Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded in this low intensity conflict.


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