Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Six Day War: consequences keep coming

On the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Amnesty International issued its damning 2007 report on “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” The report (pdf) condemns Israel’s policy of military checkpoints, blockades, and a 700km fence inside the West Bank which curtails movement between communities and is destroying the Palestinian economy. Amnesty say the restrictions are not there to prevent suicide bombing in Israel but instead are imposed on Palestinians to benefit Israeli settlers in the area.

The report was issued on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the Middle East’s most defining event: the Six Day War which started on 5 June, 1967. The war changed the political map and its impact is felt to this day. The war itself was swift and severe. Israel gained a spectacular victory over its Arab neighbours. Egypt lost Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, Syria lost the Golan Heights, and Jordan lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Arab countries call this war an-Naksah (the setback).

The roots of the war lie in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. In 1956, Egypt nationalised the canal which was already off-limits to Israeli shipping. Israeli forces attacked the Sinai while British and French paratroopers took back control of the canal. The US demanded British withdrawal from the canal and Israeli troops from Sinai. A United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was deployed to the Canal Zone and the Sinai to keep the peace.

The next major flashpoint was over access to water in the early 1960s. Israel began by withdrawing water from the Jordan River to fund its irrigation projects in the arid south. Syria retaliated by building diversion works to take the waters from the Banias Stream out of the Sea of Galilee and into a dam for use by Syria and Jordan. Israel attacked the dam works in 1965 precipitating tit-for-tat low level violence between the countries for the next 18 months.

The third escalation was the Samu incident in 1966. An Israeli border patrol struck a mine and three soldiers were killed and six others injured. Israel blamed West Bank terrorists and launched “Operation Shredder” a revenge attack into Jordan. A 4,000 strong force entered the small village of Es Samu near Hebron, blew up 50 houses and killed 15 Jordanian soldiers and three civilians.

All throughout May 1967 tension increased as the Arab side prepared for war. The Soviet Union issued a false warning that Israel was massing troops in the north in preparation for an attack on Syria. Egypt and Syria already had a military alliance from the year before and Jordan joined in at the end of May. Nasser’s Egypt demanded the evacuation of UNEF from the Sinai. The Egyptian navy also blocked the strategically vital Straits of Tiran at the bottom of the Gulf of Eilat between Sinai and Saudi Arabia. The move effectively blocked Israeli vessels from getting in and out of its southern port of Eilat. With forces from other sympathetic Arab countries joining the force, Israel was confronted with an army of 465,000 troops, 2,880 tanks and 810 aircraft massed at their borders.

Alarmed by the build-up, Israel began a call-up of reserve forces and tried to find a political solution to the growing crisis. UN Secretary General U Thant visited Cairo. He agreed to remove the UNEF troops and recommended a two-week moratorium on aggressive acts in the Straits of Tiran. He also asked for a renewed diplomatic effort to solve the crisis. The US, preoccupied by the Vietnam conflict, was slow to move and its mediation plans were overtaken by events. Convinced that the Arab forces were about to attack, Israel drew up its own counter-offensive plans.

On 5 June, Israel decided on a pre-emptive strike. They took just three hours to destroy the bulk of Egyptian air force on the ground. Coming in below radar cover they killed 100 Egyptian pilots and destroyed 300 of the country’s 450 Soviet-made planes by the end of the day. With air superiority assured, Israeli army divisions swept through Gaza and into the Sinai towards the canal.

The main Sinai Desert battle took place at Abu Ageila (pdf) near the town of Arish in the north of the peninsula. This was a key battlefield in 1956 and now again eleven years later. Major General Ariel Sharon’s forces encircled the town and attacked Egyptian positions from the front, flanks and rear. Egyptian defences, ringed by mines, proved to be stronger than the Israelis expected. After two days, sappers cleared the minefield and the Israeli infantry broke through the trenches. The road to the Central Sinai was now open for the Israelis. When the Egyptian high command heard about the fall of Abu-Ageila, they ordered the retreat of all forces from the Sinai. The Egyptian campaign was effectively over.

Meanwhile Israel issued an ultimatum to Jordan to keep out of the war. Jordan refused and instead convinced that Egypt’s air force was winning the war, issued an artillery barrage on West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israel counterattacked. On 7 June the order was given to capture the Old City of Jerusalem. Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin marched through to the Zion Gate formally mark the Jews’ return to their historic capital’s holiest site. At the Western Wall, army chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, blew a shofar (kosher instrument made from ram’s horn) to celebrate the event. Within three days they had comprehensively defeated the Jordanian army and captured all of biblical Judea and Samaria.

One day later, Israel attacked Syria. Backed by the unimpeded fire from the Israeli air force, troops entered the Golan Heights in force. Within 24 hours four brigades broke through onto the plateau. Two more groups joined them from the north and south in a pincer movement that effectively ended Syrian resistance. Israel captured the entire Heights including its now abandoned principle city of Quneitra. Fighting stopped along a defacto border that became known as the Purple Line.

By 10 June, the war was over and the parties signed a ceasefire. Israel had more than tripled the size of the area it controlled, from 20,000 square kms to 67,000 square miles. It controlled the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Sinai and Gaza. Israel now ruled more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were hostile to their new political masters. Another 325,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank fled to other parts of Jordan where they became a significant and troublesome minority group.

Israel itself thrived as a result of the war. Beforehand it was a small country of two million people surrounded by 80 million Arabs. But now the Arab world knew it could never push the Jewish state into the sea. Armed with this self-confidence and renewed energy, Israel attracted major immigration from the West and more than a million immigrants from the Soviet Union. Its population has tripled to 7.1 million (including 1.4 million Israeli Arabs), its gross national product grew by 630 percent and per capita income tripled to $21,000.

In November 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which it hoped would established a formula for Arab-Israeli peace. Israel would withdraw from territories occupied in the war in exchange for peace with its neighbours. This resolution has served as the basis for peace negotiations from that time on. But the emerging Palestine Liberation Organisation embittered by the plight of their people refused to accept the resolution and turned to the terrorism that would define their struggle for next 25 years.

Some of the geographical consequences of the war were eventually unravelled. Israel withdrew from Sinai after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The withdrawal allowed Nasser’s successor Sadat to make a historic peace with Israel. The 1993 Oslo accords marked the beginning of a political dialogue between Israel and Palestine and allowed Jordan to make peace with its old enemy across the river. Israel and Syria maintain an uneasy peace. But the demography of the entire region has changed. 450,000 Israeli settlers now live in illegal settlements in the West Bank. They brought with them a biblical sensibility that informed their belief that this was ‘their country’. Israel remains defiant that an undivided Jerusalem is their capital. Six days have caused forty years of pain that still refuses to go away.

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