On the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel faced a mortal threat.
The events of June 1967 came in the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai Campaign waged by Israel along with France and Great Britain to protect international passage of the Suez Canal, which was prevented by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
On December 31, 1956, when Israeli troops were forced by international pressure to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, following its victory over Egypt, then-Israeli-Foreign-Minister Golda Meir stated before the UN that “we should not assume that if Israel withdraws, Egypt will prevent Israeli shipping from using the Suez Canal or the Gulf of Aqaba.”
As forewarned by Meir, eleven years later, on May 16, 1967, Nasser demanded that UN peacekeeping forces evacuate the Sinai. On May 22, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships.
In one fell swoop, the international guarantees granted to Israel after its 1956 withdrawal were null and void. A hostile Egypt, well-equipped with Soviet-made weapons, was primed for war with troops positioned in the Sinai.
American President Lyndon Johnson opposed Egypt’s move stating that the United States considers the Gulf of Aqaba to be “an international waterway.” However, vocal opposition from the international community opposition was limited, as the passage of Israeli ships bound for the port city of Eilat was barred.
On May 18, 1967, Secretary General U. Thant described Syrian terror attacks across Israel borders as “contrary to the spirit and letter of the United Nations.” The UN leader had made a statement against Arab terror without also criticizing Israel - a momentary pause from years of blind equivocation.
Arab leaders were clamoring for the destruction of Israel.
King Feisal of Saudi Arabia stated, “The first priority of the Arabs is the extermination of Israel.” Hafez El Assad of Syria on May 20 stated that the time has come to “enter into a battle of annihilation.”
On May 26, Nasser stated that Egypt was ready for all out war and that its main goal is “the destruction of Israel.” He spoke of “inflicting punishment that will go beyond the imagination of the aggressor.” Radio Cairo exhorted its listeners to “Massacre all the men, all the women, all the children of Israel.”
PLO leader Ahmed Shukairy, upon arrival in Amman, Jordan, on June 1, stated that he estimated that among the Jews in the aftermath of the war, “none will survive.”
France suspended arms shipments to Israel. Great Britain announced its neutrality. The United States had reiterated its commitment to support the “territorial integrity of all nations in the Middle East.”
The US Administration appealed to Israel for calm, urging Jerusalem to avoid “hasty action.” To Israel, war was inevitable. Waiting would only work to the advantage of Nasser and his cohorts.
On May 25, 1967, United Nations, Secretary General Thant conducted a “very cordial” meeting with the Egyptian dictator, yet the Security Council had failed to resolve the issues.
How would Israel respond? Arab armies were far larger and better supplied. They were amassing and prepared for battle. The Israelis were accessing the risks and dangers, while burial societies were choosing open areas to bury the anticipated victims of the impending war.
The situation continued to escalate.
On May 28, PLO terrorists and Arab irregular troops fired mortars and machine guns from Gaza upon Israeli farmers and soldiers.
The day the war began on June 5 Israeli civilians were again in the line of fire. Jordanian guns from Kalkilya began firing mortar shells upon Tel Aviv, where there were no casualties. There was severe damage in Jerusalem as heavy fire also reigned down upon the residents there. In the first day of shelling, ten Israelis were killed and one hundred were wounded. Over the next two days, there were five hundred Israeli civilian casualties. One thousand buildings were damaged.
After Six Days
The UN Security Council unanimously voted for a ceasefire. Only after Israel’s overwhelming victory, the UN intervened. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan noted that “The United Nations had kept peace in the Middle East only as long as President Nasser did not want to start war again.”
The first town captured in Judea and Samaria – Jenin - was nearly empty, as its inhabitants had fled in fear. Soon realizing that they were not in danger, they began to stream back.
When Israeli forces entered Bethlehem, they were met with hundreds of white flags of surrender. In Hebron, Jews almost immediately visited the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the Arabs, who had prohibited Jewish entry beyond its seventh step for centuries, did not dare object. The Arabs had initially feared that the Jews as victors would exact revenge for the hostilities which they had perpetrated over the years. However, Israel’s armed forces displayed civility.
On June 27, Israel annexed all parts of Jerusalem. Just one day later, on June 28, the UN General Assembly responded demanding an Israeli withdrawal from newly-acquired territories. A chorus of condemnations was also leveled against the Jewish State for its annexation of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Where were their voices in the days leading up to the war?
Israeli leaders reacted to the criticism.
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reacted to the international pressure, telling the Knesset that Israel alone fought for its right to exist and “alone we are entitled to determine our true and vital interests and how we will be secured.”
Israeli Ambassador to Great Britain Aharon Remez, at a Zionist conference in London, asked, “Who has the right to tell Israel to revert to the position of the greatest danger while her enemies are already proclaiming their determination for a new round?”
The world response was swift and vocal, but Jews and Israel’s friends worldwide experienced great relief. Israel had not only survived, but emerged victorious.
The destruction of Jewish synagogues and landmarks within Jerusalem’s Old City by the Jordanians since their occupation in 1948 was over. Jews could once again return to their most sacred sites. Religious institutions of all faiths were now respected.
Israel’s tactical situation dramatically improved. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were no longer in range of Jordanian guns. The Northern parts of Israel, Tiberius, the Chula valley regions, would no longer be shelled by Syria. The IDF could have better control on hostilities from Gaza. There was now more space, a buffer, between Israel and her enemies. The waters of the Jordan River could no longer be diverted from its sources in the Golan Heights, as was done by Syria prior to the war.
As some Israeli generals were praising the strength of their armed forces, Eshkol made reference acknowledging the Jewish State’s true source of strength: “Faithful to itself and looking confidently towards the future, with the aid of the Rock and Redeemer of Israel, this nation shall yet dwell in safety.”
Larry Domnitch is the author of The Impact of World War One on the Jewish People by Urim Publications. He lives in Efrat.