Fifty years ago, Israel’s Six-Day War turned the Middle East upside down. Hardly any other war has changed the political landscape of a region so fast and so fundamentally. The stunning victory of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) over three Arab armies in just six days established the Jewish state as a regional great power, and the territorial conquests provided Israel with strategic depth for the first time. However, the annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights burdened Israel’s international relations. Thus, the legacy of the Six-Day War has influenced Israeli politics until today.
Escalation to War
Although Israel had celebrated an impressive victory against Egypt in the Sinai Campaign (1956), the political gains of the operation proved to be limited. The Suez Canal remained closed to Israeli ships; and although the Sinai Peninsula had been demilitarized, the protection of the free movement in the Gulf of Aqaba and the safeguarding of the Israeli-Egyptian border were in the hands of a United Nations Emergency Force whose withdrawal Cairo could demand unilaterally.
Nevertheless, the Israeli-Egyptian front remained relatively quiet in the 1960s. Instead, the Syrian frontline became a constant source of unrest. The regime in Damascus supported the Palestinian terrorists who used Syria as a base for their operations against Israel. In addition, skirmishes between Israeli and regular Syrian forces occurred on a regular basis. Finally, the control of the water resources in the Syrian-Israeli border area—like the Kinneret, the river Jordan and its headwaters—was a constant reason for conflict.
In April 1967, an encounter between the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and the Syrian air force triggered a circle of escalation that finally led to the Six-Day War. In a show of force, Israeli warplanes ostentatiously overflew the outskirts of Damascus. Adding fuel to the fire, high-ranking Israeli officials threatened Syria with further actions in the next weeks. This was not taken lightly in Damascus and Cairo. Additionally, the Soviet Union (for reasons that remain largely obscure until today) briefed Cairo and Damascus about a concentration of Israeli forces along the border to Syria, which, however, just was not real; there was no buildup of Israeli troops along the border. Nevertheless, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded the United Nations Emergency Force to withdraw from the Sinai on May 16 in reaction to the assumed Israeli provocation; afterwards Egyptian forces deployed at the border to Israel. This heated up the situation tremendously: Israel mobilized its reserves, an action which, in turn, was answered by Nasser on May 22, by the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. One week later, Egypt and Jordan entered a military alliance: both countries declared that an attack on one of them would be seen as an attack on the other. Under the impression of these developments, Israel made the decision to attack before the Arab alliance would do so.
Comparison of Arab and Israeli Forces
Most important, however, is the comparison of the military forces. Israel’s total manpower after full mobilization (275,000 soldiers) outnumbered those of the single Arab allies (Egypt: 190,000, Syria: fifty thousand, Jordan: fifty-five thousand). Because of the Egyptian army’s commitment of their best forces in Yemen, Cairo was not able to concentrate more than one hundred thousand troops and around nine hundred tanks in the Sinai. Therefore, the IDF was superior in numbers in comparison to the combined Arab forces. Nevertheless, when it comes to weaponry, the Arab alliance outgunned the IDF considerably.
However, military capabilities are more than just numbers. At the end of May 1967, the CIA was convinced that Israel’s military forces were “superior in training, leadership, military doctrine, and maintenance of equipment. They could best any one of their neighbors and probably all of them collectively.” As the report emphasized, the IDF’s superiority was based on its high-quality standards, especially regarding the training. A noteworthy feature was the demand of personal commitment, initiative and unconventional thinking. Based on a mindset of flexibility and offense and provided with a tendency to improvise, the IDF was the most powerful military force in the Middle East.
Israel’s armored corps was particularly important. During the 1960s the IDF invested in the modernization of the tanks and the quality of their crews. Operating British Centurions, American M-48 Pattons and modified Shermans, as well as French AMX-13s, the armed battalions had the crucial task to penetrate fast and deep into hostile territory to destroy the enemy’s lines of communication and moral. Moreover, the IDF spent a considerable amount of their budget on the modernization of the IAF. On the eve of the war, Israel was equipped with the latest French fighter jets (Mirage III-C, Super-Mystère and Mystère IV). The qualitative edge of the Israeli pilots and ground crews was extraordinary. The high quality of maintenance and repair—as well as the high turn-around rate of the Israeli war planes and the surplus of able pilots—allowed an IAF plane to conduct twice as many missions as an Egyptian plane. In case of a war, the task of the IAF was to gain air superiority as soon as possible, to protect Israel against aerial attacks and to provide air support for the ground forces.
Whereas Jordan’s army was mainly equipped with outdated weaponry, Egypt and Syria had received plenty of Moscow’s finest arms since the end of the 1950s. Both were equipped with the latest Soviet MiG fighter jets (Tu-16, Il-28, MiG-21, MiG-19 and Su-7) and T-54/-55 tanks. However, they lacked trained soldiers capable of operating those sophisticated weapon systems. Overall, the level of training and education in the Arab forces simply was inadequate.
Moreover, maintenance and repair of military gear was a major problem in Arab armies; only a fraction of the planes, tanks and guns were fit for service. In addition, the Egyptian army was unorganized: thousands of Egyptian soldiers were deployed at the Israeli-Egyptian border without uniforms, unarmed and without provisions. In short: the Arab forces were only able to play off their superiority in weaponry towards Israel to a limited extent, because of their severe lack of organization, maintenance and training.
The Six-Day War
On the early morning of June 5, around two hundred Israeli fighter jets left their bases. Their mission was nothing less than the complete destruction of the Egyptian air force, to establish Israeli air superiority. When the Israeli aircrafts entered the Egyptian air space, most of Egypt’s military command was on a routine inspection flight in the Sinai. Thus, to prevent friendly fire the Egyptians switched off their air defense and radar systems. No wonder Israel’s attack seemed to come out of nowhere. Thanks to precise intelligence and meticulous training the operation became a tremendous success; the Israeli fighter pilots managed to destroy more than 280 Egyptian aircrafts in a matter of hours.
After securing air superiority, three Israeli divisions composed of armored and mechanized infantry brigades as well as paratroopers advanced into the Sinai Peninsula confronting the Egyptian forces. Meanwhile, Nasser assured King Hussein of Jordan that his air force had already smashed the IAF. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but Amman took the bait. Jordanian forces started shelling Israeli positions in Jerusalem. When they attacked the Israeli enclave at Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, the IDF launched a counteroffensive and advanced into East Jerusalem and the West Bank while the IAF crushed the Jordanian air force.
At the beginning of the second day of war, the IDF successfully halted a Syrian offensive towards the Galilee. However, because of the Israelis’ fear of an intervention by the Soviets in support of Damascus the IDF did not advance into Syrian territory (yet). Meanwhile in the West Bank, the Israeli forces pushed the Jordanian troops back. On the southern front, the IDF proceeded further towards the Suez Canal and entered the Gaza Strip. Although the Egyptian forces could still have put up a serious fight even without air support, Cairo commanded the Egyptian troops to retreat. However, the unorganized withdrawal of tens of thousands of soldiers ended up in utter chaos. The Egyptian troops panicked, many fled to the desert on foot and hundreds simply got lost and died of thirst. Hundreds of military vehicles lined up in huge traffic jams on Sinai’s main routes and presented easy prey for the IAF.
Around midmorning of the third day, Israeli paratroopers entered Jerusalem’s Old City—a very special moment in Jewish history. For the first time since Israel had lost the Old City in the War of Independence in 1948, Jews were able to pray at the Western Wall—the holiest site in Judaism. In the meantime, many cities in the West Bank surrendered to the IDF. In the southern war theatre, with the Egyptian troops being almost completely routed, the Israeli forces reached the Suez Canal and Sharm el-Sheikh.
On June 8, Cairo asked for ceasefire negotiations. For Israel’s military leadership in HaKirya that was the moment of decision regarding the Golan Heights—it was now or never. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered his forces to advance. Thus, on the fifth day of the war Israeli troops entered the Syrian Golan Heights under heavy artillery and air support. However, the political pressure from Washington, DC and Moscow was mounting. Eventually, the Kremlin threatened to intervene directly in support of the Arabs. Consequently, at 6 p.m. on June 10, the weapons fell silent.