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Arab-Israeli War of June 1967

The Arab-Israeli War of June 1967 constituted the first major crisis that began to redefine the region’s place in international politics and, as a consequence, the role that the U.S. Army engineers would play in the area. With a preemptive strike, the Israelis soundly defeated the Arab states in only six days. The humiliating defeat intensified pan-Arab nationalism and fueled Arab resentment and mistrust of the Western nations that had supported Israel. The war correspondingly enhanced the position of the Soviet Union and expanded its political and military influence in the region. It provoked civil war in Jordan between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Jordanian government. It laid bare the fissure in Lebanon between the Christian and Muslim populations, a situation that Israel exacerbated by its raids on Palestinian bases in Lebanon beginning in January 1969. Many in the Arab world denounced the United States—because of its support for Israel — for the subsequent collapse of Lebanon into civil war over the next six years.

By the early 1960s, both sides considered a third round of war inevitable. An ominous arms race developed. Egypt and Syria were supplied with Soviet aid and military hardware, and Israel suddenly found European powers--the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), Britain, and especially France--to be willing suppliers of modern armaments. Jordan continued to receive arms from Britain and the United States.

Tensions mounted in 1964, when, after Israel had nearly completed a massive irrigation project that involved diverting water from the Jordan River into the Negev Desert, Syria began a similar project near the river's headwaters that would have virtually dried the river bed at the Israeli location. Israel launched air and artillery attacks at the Syrian site, and Syria abandoned the project. Guerrilla incursions from Syria and Jordan steadily mounted, as did the intensity of Israeli reprisal raids.

In April 1967, increased Syrian aircraft-shelling of Israeli border villages encountered an Israeli fighter attack during which six Syrian MiGs were shot down. Syria feared that an all-out attack from Israel was imminent, and Egypt, with whom Syria had recently signed a mutual defense treaty, began an extensive military buildup in early May. On May 18, Egypt's president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, demanded the withdrawal of UN forces from Gaza and Sinai; Secretary General U Thant promptly acceded and removed the UNEF. Four days later, Nasser announced a blockade of Israeli shipping at the Strait of Tiran, an action that Israel since the 1956 War had stressed would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Jordan and Iraq rapidly joined Syria in its military alliance with Egypt.

On 30 May 1967, mounting public opinion led to the appointment of Moshe Dayan as minister of defense. Levi Eshkol, who had been both prime minister and minister of defense since Ben-Gurion's resignation in 1963, retained the prime minister's position. Dayan immediately made a series of public declarations that war could be avoided, while secretly planning a massive preemptive strike against the Arab enemy.

On the morning of June 5, Israel launched a devastating attack on Arab air power, destroying about 300 Egyptian, 50 Syrian, and 20 Jordanian aircraft, mostly on the ground. This action, which virtually eliminated the Arab air forces, was immediately followed by ground invasions into Sinai and the Gaza Strip, Jordan, and finally Syria. Arab ground forces, lacking air support, were routed on all three fronts; by the time the UN-imposed cease-fire took effect in the evening of June 11, the IDF had seized the entire Sinai Peninsula to the east bank of the Suez Canal; the West Bank of Jordan, including East Jerusalem; and the Golan Heights of Syria. Unlike the aftermath of the 1956 War, however, the IDF did not withdraw from the areas it occupied in 1967.

Israel was ecstatic about its swift and stunning victory, which had been achieved at the relatively low cost of about 700 lives. The IDF had proven itself superior to the far larger forces of the combined Arab armies. More important, it now occupied the territory that had harbored immediate security threats to Israel since 1948. For the first time since independence, the Israeli heartland along the Mediterranean Sea was out of enemy artillery range. The exploits of what was known in Israel as the Six-Day War soon became legend, and the commanders who led it became national heros.

Although control of the occupied territories greatly improved Israel's security from a geographical standpoint, it also created new problems. The roughly 1 million Arabs within the territories provided potential cover and support for infiltration and sabotage by Arab guerrillas. From shortly after the June 1967 War until 1970, a steady stream of men and weapons were sent into the West Bank by a number of guerrilla groups, in particular Al Fatah. Incidents of sabotage and clashes with Israeli security forces were commonplace. In the spring of 1970, the guerrilla strategy reverted to shelling Israeli towns from across the Jordanian and Lebanese borders. International terrorism, aimed at focusing world attention on the grievances of Palestinian Arabs against Israel, also appeared after the June 1967 War.

Hostilities on the Egyptian front were far more serious. The decimated Egyptian army was rapidly resupplied with advanced Soviet weapons, and the Soviet presence at the Suez Canal increased dramatically. In October 1967, the Israeli destroyer and flagship Elat was sunk by a missile fired from an Egyptian ship docked in Port Said; Israel retaliated with the destruction of Egyptian oil refineries at Suez. A year later, shelling began along the canal, and a new round of fighting, commonly known as the War of Attrition, commenced. For nearly two years, until a new cease-fire was imposed on August 7, 1970, Egypt (with growing and direct support from the Soviet Union) threw an increasingly heavy barrage of artillery and missiles at fortified Israeli positions along the east bank of the canal, while Israel stood its ground and launched a series of fighter-bomber raids deep into the Egyptian heartland. This deadly but inconclusive conflict culminated on July 30, 1970, when Israeli and Soviet-piloted fighters clashed in a dogfight near the Suez Canal. Israeli pilots reportedly shot down four MiGs and lost none of their own, but this direct confrontation with a nuclear superpower was a frightening development and helped bring about the cease-fire.

Although activity aimed against Israel by Palestinian guerrillas continued throughout the early 1970s, Israel felt relatively secure vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors after the War of Attrition. Israel's military intelligence was convinced that Syria would launch a war only in concert with Egypt and that Egypt would go to war only if it were convinced that its air power was superior to Israel's. This theory, which became so institutionalized in Israeli military thinking as to be dubbed "the concept," contributed to the country's general sense of security. Defense expenditures declined markedly from 1970 levels, the annual reserve call-up was reduced from sixty to thirty days, and in 1973 the length of conscription was reduced from thirty-six to thirty-three months.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2013 19:26:10 ZULU