Saturday, June 5, 2010

5 June 1967: Outbreak of the "Six Day War" in the Middle East

On this day, the Six Day War (as it is known in the west) broke out when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched air attacks against Egypt in response to a series of mounting military provocations. It was a doctrine that Israel's socialist politician and military leader Yigal Allon called the pre-emptive counterattack:  When the enemy's hostile intentions are clear, the smaller power, lacking large forces and strategic depth, needs to maximize its qualitative edge and the element of surprise, strike first, and carry the war onto enemy territory. Tensions had been rising with Syria (allied with Egypt in a military pact since 1966) over shelling of Israel's northern agricultural settlements and disputes over the demilitarized zone.  Egypt's movement of troops into the Sinai (following the expulsion of UN observers stationed there in the wake of the 1956 war) was a further provocation, and its closing of the Straits of Tiran—an international waterway—to Israei shipping constituted a clear act of war.

Although both politicians and scholars now agree that Israel struck first, the thesis that it did so as part of an aggressive and premeditated plan of expansion is, as historian (and current Israel ambassador to the US) Michael Oren has shown, a chimera.  All the evidence suggests that the war was the result of a miscalculation on the part of Egypt and Syria, goaded on by their Soviet patrons who wanted to stoke the tensions for geopolitical reasons of their own but not precipitate full-scale armed conflict (intercourse without orgasm, as one analyst of the period trenchantly put it).  And, far from being the masters of some comprehensive plan of aggression, the Israel leadership was shaken at the prospect of what many considered a new existential threat.

The result is well-known: Israel captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the territory between the 1949 armistice lines and the Jordan River (so-called "West Bank") from Jordan. Ironically, of course, Jordan attacked even though Israel had urged it to stay out of the war, and thus, today's most contentious issues—the issues of "borders," "settlements," and "refugees," and the "question of Jerusalem"—all in a sense arose from this fateful decision. It is tempting to speculate as to what would have happened absent this colossal blunder on the part of the diminutive Hashemite monarch:  would the result have been a relatively simple negotiation over territory, leading to peace, or rather, would the conflict have festered even longer? One likewise wonders what would have happened, had the Arab states, when presented with an Israeli offer of peace, had not responded with the "three no's" of Khartoum. Or, for that matter, what would have happened had the Israel government heeded the advice of some of its own intelligence and security staff and established a Palestinian state on its own without waiting for the Arab states to negotiate. For better or worse, historians generally confine themselves to what was and why, rather than what might have been.  It is among the great ironies that what did happen was that the great Israeli victory and subsequent occupation of the captured territories (lasting longer than many of the parties perhaps dreamed) was perhaps the greatest impetus to a new Palestinian nationalism and a seemingly interminable rather than definitively resolved conflict.

The fighting in June 1967 was in many ways the last "classic" modern war:  a swift war of movement, fought by regular forces of recognized states, with traditional weapons.  Although air-to-air missiles played their role, planes still relied on cannon in close combat. Some of the tanks (e.g, the British Centurion and Soviet T-34) dated from World War II.  The popular music of the conflict, no less than much of the political rhetoric, was of a type that would not return. It was the end of an era in the sense of both an older, more straightforward form of war, and more generally, a kind of moral, military, and political innocence.

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