The Six Day War, which happened in 1967, is often cited by historians as the creation of modern Israel’s presence both in the Middle East and internationally. The war showcased Israel’s impressive military ability and nearly tripled the country’s size through territorial gains from its Arab neighbors.
Most importantly, much of the Israeli-Palestinian tension that is seen in the region today resulted from the outcome of the war, as the Israeli settlement on these Arab territories increasingly drew international condemnation against Israel.
In this article, we will explore the 6 Day War and its effects on Israeli-Arab tension in the Middle East. Let our historical experts tell you everything you need to know about the 6 Day War of 1967!
What Was the Six Day War?
The Six Day War, or the 1967 Israel war, resulted in an overwhelming Israeli victory against an Egypt-Syria-Jordan alliance. The 6 Day War date was from June 5 to june 10, 1967.
The outcome of the war gave Israel new territory, including the West Bank, Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. These territorial gains created a massive refugee problem, as hundreds of thousands of Arabs now found themselves under Israeli control.
The war showed the severe incompetence of Arab armies and, by contrast, highlighted the effectiveness of the Israeli military. The 6 Day War also began Israel’s modern relationship with the United States, as the American government realized the enormous advantage of having a friendly relationship with this powerful Middle Eastern country.
Who Fought in the 6 Day War? Background of the War
After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, surrounding Arab states launched an invasion against it, which eventually failed: the First Arab-Israeli War. This Israeli victory is often called “The Catastrophe” by Palestinians. As a consequence of the war, 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee the area. Thousands of Arabs became refugees because of Israel’s territorial gains.
Furthermore, the Israeli victory was a massive blow to the morale of the Arab countries and led to political turmoil in their governments. For example, Syria experienced several military coups during this period. Meanwhile, over one million Jewish immigrants migrated to the country in 1948, giving Israel a large, young, and mostly male population to be conscripted into its military.
– The 1956 Suez Crisis
In neighboring Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Egyptian officers launched a coup in 1952, making Nasser the President of Egypt. In 1956 Israel, France, and the United Kingdom launched an attack on Egypt after President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, but the invasion was soon brought to an end by the condemnation of the United States.
This made Nasser a revered figure throughout the Arab world for standing up against Israel and European powers. Nasser began creating a nationalist pan-Arab movement in the region that championed Arab pride, which also included revenge on Israel.
Following the Suez Crisis, there was relative peace until the mid-1960s, but tensions were still very high. Israel was still paranoid about invasions from its Arab neighbors, who were recovering from their military losses.
– The Impact of the Cold War
The effects of the Cold War were an important factor in the rising Arab-Israeli tension. The Soviet Union was an ally of the socialist President Nasser and helped Egypt modernize its air force.
Jordan was by the far the friendliest neighboring Arab country of Israel, as it was allied with Britain and even had discussions with Israel about splitting up Palestine in 1948.
On the side of the enemies, Israel had the most open hostility with Syria, which was in a power struggle for control of the River Jordan with Israel. Syria also harbored Palestinian guerilla fighters, who would periodically launch raids in Israel. For its part, Israel began developing agricultural fields on disputed territories on the Israeli Syrian border, which further heightened tensions.
– The Increasing Military Might of Israel
Israel was friendly with the United States but was mostly supported by Britain and especially France. Israel largely bought French aircraft and British tanks to build up its military.
In early 1967 both U.S. and British military leaders commended Israel’s impressive military, and by the end of the year, Israel was nearly capable of creating nuclear weapons. U.S. and European military advisors frequently commented that Israel would be unstoppable against any Arab army.
Escalating Tensions as the 6 Day War Is Closing in
Leading up to the war, during the mid-1960s, there were several attacks on Israel by Palestinian guerilla groups that were based in the territory of its Arab neighbors. These repeated attacks prompted retaliatory strikes by the Israeli Defense Forces.
In November 1966, the Israeli military struck the village of Samua, in Jordan’s West Bank, in an attack that killed 18 people. This angered the King Hussein of Jordan, who was in secret peace talks with Israel.
This attack helped sever the friendly relations between Jordan and Israel. However, Jordan’s internal politics also played an important role in the disruptions of the relations between the monarchy and Israel’s government.
At that time, in fact, King Hussein was growing increasingly paranoid about Arab nationalism in his own country. In particular, he was fearful that Arab nationalists in his military would overthrow him if he was too friendly with Israel. The United States pushed for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s raid on the village.
The resolution, though, did not stop Israel’s aggression. The Israeli Air Force shot down 6 Syrian fighter jets in April 1967, during a small skirmish of air attacks and artillery. By this time, it was clear to both Israeli and Arab leaders that the increasing tension would soon lead to a military conflict of some kind.
– The Trigger of the 6 Day War: Failed Intelligence
Inaccurate information relayed from Soviet intelligence informed President Nasser that Israel was planning to attack Syria within a week. The reason for this false information has been the object of a heated debate by scholars.
While some claim it was a genuine intelligence mistake, others speculate that it was purposely passed on to Nasser by its Soviet ally to escalate tension.
This could have been done to start the war, in an attempt to stifle Israel’s nuclear program and growing military threat in the Middle East. In this sense, the war would have been a means to further weaken the United States’ international power. The superpower, in fact, was at the height of its intervention in Vietnam and could not afford to intervene militarily in the Middle East.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been criticized throughout his presidency for being too weak on Israel, so he quickly began to mobilize his military to avoid internal turmoil. Critics of Nasser frequently pointed out that he failed to come to Syria and Jordan’s aid against Israel. People also accused him of relying too much on the United Nations peacekeeping forces, which at the time guarded the Israeli-Egypt border.
– The Mobilization of Egyptian Forces
Within a day of the Soviet intelligence, the supreme commander of the Egyptian military, Field Marshal Abdul Hakim Amir, put his army on full alert. Nasser mobilized Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula on May 14. These forces were significantly under full strength, as much of the Egyptian army was bogged down in a conflict in Yemen.
Nasser formally called the United Nations Emergency Force, the same corps that had guarded the border since 1956, to leave the Sinai Peninsula.
Throughout this escalating tension, President Nasser’s “Voice of the Arabs” — the Cairo radio station — broadcasted threats to Israel. This created worry in the U.S. government and United Nations, who hoped to avoid a large-scale military conflict in the region.
On May 22, Nasser closed off Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran, which connected the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. This effectively created a blockade of the Israeli port of Eilat and served as the tipping point of Egyptian-Israeli tension. On May 30, the King of Jordan signed a mutual defense pact with Nasser, effectively placing Jordanian troops under the command of the Egyptian military. Syria and Iraq joined shortly after.
– Israel’s Reaction
Levi Eshkol, the Israeli Prime Minister, responded by fully mobilizing Israel’s army the day after the Straits’ closing. The mandatory military service of Israel’s male population gave him a large army, which by 1967 was extraordinarily well-trained and well-equipped compared to its neighbors.
While the Israeli military had been heavily trained during the previous months in anticipation of a conflict, the Arab armies were relatively unprepared and undertrained. This difference in preparation would soon make itself abundantly clear.
Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, flew to Washington D.C. to get President Johnson’s consent for an attack, as Israel was condemned by the United States as an aggressor during the 1956 Suez Crisis and hoped to get permission from its American ally this time.
U.S. President Lydon B. Johnson told Eban that Israel was to not attack first and shouldn’t worry about an Egyptian attack. He also assured Eban that he would try to open the Straits of Tiran with an international naval force, though this never came to fruition.
Despite President Johnson’s plea to not launch an offensive, Israel knew it had to act sooner rather than later. Israel’s military strategists knew that, if they waited for an Arab attack, their defenses could be overrun by its surrounding enemies. This would result in a drawn-out conflict that could cost thousands of Israeli lives.
Who Started the 6 Day War? – The Preemptive Strike
On June 5, Israel launched a preemptive attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Around 200 Israeli aircraft bombed Egypt’s air bases as part of Operation Focus. The planes largely flew out to the Mediterranean Sea and turned into Northern Egypt, flying low to avoid detection.
Other planes flew through the Red Sea. Jordanian radar picked up these planes on radar and warned Egypt, but this was not relayed to the airbases in due time because of widespread communication problems.
Israel attacked 18 different airfields throughout Egypt and destroyed over 90% of the country’s aircraft before they even left the ground. 338 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed and around 100 pilots were killed.
This attack mainly consisted of strafing runs that focused on aircraft on the ground, along with tarmac-shredding explosives that destroyed the runways and inhibited surviving planes from being used.
The success of the attack was largely due to the lack of infrastructure in place to shelter Egyptian planes, along with an order to shut down the entirety of the country’s air defense system. This resulted from the fact that two high-ranking Egyptian military leaders were flying over the country. Syria and Jordan’s air bases were also effectively destroyed on the same day.
By the end of the day, Israel possessed complete control of the region’s skies. This was a complete shock to both the Arab countries and Israel itself, as it had not envisioned such a successful attack.
– From Air Strikes to Land Invasion
That same day, Israeli ground forces crossed the Egyptian border into the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Egyptian ground forces numbered around 100,000 men and 900 tanks, compared to Israel’s 70,000 men and 700 tanks.
As the Israeli ground attack was conducted simultaneously with the air assault, the initial stage of the Sinai campaign was marked by high Israeli casualties, though the Egyptian defenders would experience far greater casualties throughout the ground war in the Sinai.
Israeli ground forces simultaneously attacked the heavily fortified town of Rafah on the northern Egyptian Mediterranean coast, Abu Agheila, Jebel Libni, and the Bir Lahfan junction.
The lack of air support made the Egyptian troops especially vulnerable to air attacks. While Egyptian ground forces put up a spirited defense of extensive fortification systems, they were soon ordered to retreat by Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer.
Israel trailed the Egyptian retreat across the Sinai, inflicting many casualties. Within three days, Israeli troops captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula up to the bank of the Suez Canal.
– The End of the 6 Day War
On June 5, Jordan began firing artillery into West Jerusalem, after hearing of a false Egyptian victory. Israel conducted a devastating counterattack. By June 7, Israeli troops had successfully driven Jordanian troops out of East Jerusalem and the majority of the West Bank. This was the first time in nearly two millennia that Jews completely controlled their holy sites in the city of Jerusalem.
That day, a ceasefire was called for by the UN Security Council. Both Israel and Jordan promptly accepted, followed by Egypt the following day. Despite the Israeli victories against Egypt and Jordan, Syria chose to keep fighting, firing artillery into villages in Northern Israel.
On June 9, Israeli aircraft bombed fortified Syrian positions in the Golan Heights. After that, ground forces launched an assault, capturing it after a day. Syria agreed to the cease-fire on June 10.
Israel was now in control of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, Jordan’s West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Golan Heights. Israel had effectively tripled its size in six days.
The Aftermath of the 6 Day War
Israel’s total military deaths were only 700 compared to Egypt’s 11,000, Jordan’s 6,000, and Syria’s 1,000. Along with these significant casualties, the Arab armies also lost much of their weaponry and equipment during the war’s duration, albeit very short. The overwhelming Israeli victory demoralized Arab society and simultaneously rejuvenated Israeli pride.
Israeli society flourished in the aftermath of the war. The small country experienced a massive baby boom following its victory in 1967, and thousands of immigrants from around the world moved into their promised land.
Jews living in the Soviet Union — who had been persecuted and forcibly assimilated for decades by the Soviet regime — demanded visas to move to Israel. Over 160,000 Soviet Jews moved to Israel during the 1970s.
The country also grew economically, mostly from the resources in the conquered territories, especially oil in the Sinai Peninsula. The victory was also of great religious significance, as Jews could now pray and travel to Judaism’s most revered holy site, including the Western Wall and Cave of the Patriarchs.
However, Jews living in Arab countries met fierce hostility by Muslim populations following the 1967 war. Jewish synagogues and neighborhoods were attacked, as antisemitic Arab mobs increasingly targeted Jewish communities.
This caused a massive migration of Jews out of Arab countries into Israel. There were also anti-Jew sentiments throughout the Communist Eastern Bloc following the war, most notably in Poland. Over 11,200 Polish Jews immigrated to Israel in 1968 alone.
– The Impact of the 6 Day War on International Relations
The outcome of the war created the modern U.S.-Israeli alliance that we know today, as the U.S. government was impressed by Israel’s military and saw an immense opportunity in a closer alliance with the Middle East’s greatest military power.
As French and British influence gradually left Israel and the Gulf during the 1960s, U.S. leaders sought to fill the vacuum of declining Western influence. The Cold War alliance between the Soviet Union and the Arab countries also pushed the United States to increase its support of Israel.
President Nasser chose to resign his position on June 9, due to Egypt’s devastating defeat. At any rate, he remained in power due to mass protests of millions of Egyptians that flooded the country’s streets imploring him to stay in the presidency.
The effects of the 6 Day War brought extreme tension to the region. The defeated Arab leaders met in Sudan in August of the same year. They declared that there would be no peace with Israel. This tension led to the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict, the 1973 Yom Kippur War. On that occasion, Syria and Egypt invaded Israeli territory.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) also became increasingly more prominent as a Palestinian guerilla group during the aftermath of the 1967 conflict. Yasser Arafat would increasingly grow the PLO’s presence in the region as guerilla attacks against Israel became increasingly more frequent. The 1967 war marked a defining moment for the Palestinian movement, as it increasingly severed ties with its Arab allies.
– The Backlash of the 6 Day War on Israel
While much of the country was ecstatic with the massive territorial gains of the war, many Israelis on the political left warned that this territory acquisition was only a source of escalating tension, international criticism and, eventually, military conflict.
The 6 Day War created hundreds of thousands of refugees, as the newly acquired territories controlled by Israel put many Palestinians under Israeli rule. Over time, Israel began occupying the territories with Israeli settlers and armed forces, in a massive breach of international law. This has brought widespread international condemnation of Israel and its settlement policies.
The territory gained with the 6-day war of 1967 would become a core component of the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the proposal of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
Israel gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, but still occupies the Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza Strip, which are an integral part of the Israeli-Palestine tensions today.
We have covered many components of the 6 Day War. Let’s go over the main points of the conflict.
- The 6 Day War began in 1967, when Israel launched a preemptive strike against an Arab alliance of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
- The Israeli air force effectively destroyed all three Arab countries’ air power on the first day of the conflict.
- Assaults against Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian ground forces resulted in overwhelming Israeli victories.
- By the end of the war, Israel had tripled its size, with control of the entirety of Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip.
The 6 Day War laid the groundwork for the modern Israeli-Palestinian tension. The Arab Israeli conflict has enveloped the Middle East throughout the late twentieth and early 21st century. Israel greatly increased its power in both the region and internationally, as many nations, including the United States, recognized it as the most prominent military power in the Middle East.