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Six-Day War

History -- Military history -- War

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Background

Dramatis personae:

The 1956 Suez War had ended with the defeat of the Egyptian forces. The US forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and return it to Egypt which in exchange had agreed to stop sending guerrillas into Israeli territory. As a result, the border with Egypt quietened for a while.

No Arab state had yet recognized Israel's right to exist. According to some, Israel's long-term perspectives seemed rather dim, as its survival was only caused by the absence of accord between Egypt, Syria and Jordan, who were backed by the Soviet Union (the former two) or Britain (the latter), while Israel received little foreign support whatsoever (except significant German restitution payments and funds from the international Jewish diaspora). Other sources, however, point out that the Israeli armed forces had become confident it could win with relative ease over the surrounding Arab states. Massive air superiority was an important reason for this.

In 1956, when the US refused to help Egypt build the Aswan hydroelectric "high dam" facility, Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez canal, a move which incensed Britain and France. The two former Middle Eastern colonial powers collaborated with Israel, taking Israel's desire to halt incursions from Egypt and supporting Israeli military action, manufacturing an excuse from that action for an Anglo-French task force to re-occupy the Canal. However, though Israel's invasion was a success, the collusion quickly collapsed under the weight of overwhelming world condemnation. The U.S., U.S.S.R. and U.N. were uncharacteristically in agreement on the issue; the U.S.S.R. even issued veiled threats to use nuclear missiles against Paris or London. The one concession Israel was able to wring from the world out of the whole imbroglio was the stationing of a UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai, the U.N.E.F.[?] (United Nations Emergency Force), to keep that border region demilitarized and ensure Israeli security.

Several years later, ostensibly in response to Israel's construction of the National Water Carrier[?], Syria initiated a plan to divert the waters of the Dan (Banias) stream, one of the major sources of Israeli water (through the Jordan river). In addition to sponsoring Palestinian terrorism against Israel (often through Jordanian territory, much to King Hussein's chagrin), Syria also began methodical shelling of Israeli civilian communities in north-eastern Galillee[?], from gun emplacements on the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights. Although in 1964, Israel managed to destroy the water-subversion facilities, the border remained a scene of constant conflict, and the Israeli North was under continuous threat from Syrian guns.

On April 7, 1967, a comparatively minor border incident escalated with dizzying rapidity into a full-scale aerial battle over the Golan Heights, resulting in the loss of 7 Syrian MiG-21s and a flight of Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft over Damascus. Border incidents multiplied in frequency, and numerous Arab leaders, both political and military, ratcheted up the rhetoric, calling for the complete destruction of the State of Israel. Egypt (then already trying to seize a central position in the Arab world under Nasser) accompanied these declarations by occupying a position convenient for invading into Israel. Syria shared these views at well, although it did not prepare for an immediate invasion. The Soviet Union actively backed the military aspirations of the Arab bloc.

On May 17, Nasser took the first concrete steps towards war. He demanded that the U.N.E.F.[?] evacuate Sinai, a request which UN Secretary-General U Thant[?] immediately complied with, shocking Israel. Nasser's re-militarization of the Sinai was followed by an even more audacious move; on May 23, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran[?] to Israeli shipping, blockading the Israeli port of Eilat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba[?], in violation of international agreements regarding freedom of the seas. Overnight, Nasser had become the hero of the Arab world; he had vindicated Arab pride by standing up to the hated Israelis and defying the UN, erasing the "last traces of aggression" from the 1956 war. Almost overnight, the always tense Middle East had slid from a relatively stable status quo to the brink of regional war.

The few regional forces which might have prevented war quickly crumbled. In spite of the will of Jordan's King Hussein, who felt that Nasser's pan-Arabism was threatening his rule, it had numerous supporters in Jordan, and May 30 saw Egypt and Jordan signing a mutual defense treaty. Several days later, Jordanian forces were given to the command of an Egyptian general. Israel called upon Jordan numerous times to refrain from hostilities. However, King Hussein was caught on the horns of a galling dilemma: Allow Jordan to be dragged into war, and face the brunt of the Israeli response; or remain neutral, and risk full-scale insurrection among his own population and the invasion of Jordan by its vengeful Arab neighbors.

Israel's own sense of concern regarding Jordan's future role originated in Jordanian control of West Bank. This put Arab forces just 17 kilometers from Israel's coast, a jump-off point from which a well co-ordinated tank assault could slice Israel in two parts within half an hour. While the small size of Jordan's army meant that Jordan was probably incapable of executing such a manoeuvre, the country had a long history of being used by other Arab states as staging grounds for operations against Israel; thus, attack from the West Bank was always viewed by the Israeli leadership as a severe threat to Israel's existence. In addition, the loss of Jerusalem's holy sites and the subsequent prohibition of Jewish access to them were Israel's most painful moments of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Israel watched these developments with alarm, and tried various diplomatic routes to try settling them. The U.S. and U.K. were asked to open the Tiran straits, as they guaranteed they would in 1957. Jordan was asked through numerous channels to refrain, weeks before the war and even after they began hostilities against Israel on the first day of the war. All Israeli requests for peace were left unanswered, creating a feeling of grave concern for the future of the country. The feeling of ein brera ("no choice"), prevailed. The unbearable stand-off, moreover, could not last long, as every day that Israel's citizen army remained fully mobilized brought that country closer to complete economic breakdown. Nasser's move had made war inevitable; indeed, closing the Straits met the international criteria for an act of war. The only question that remained was who would strike first -- and Israeli military doctrine demanded that the tiny country's battles take place on the soil of its enemies. On June 3 the American administration gave its blessing to an operation against Egypt, and plans for war were finally approved.

Warfare

Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula

Israel's first, and most important move, was to attack the Egyptian air force. It was by far the largest and the most modern of all the Arab air forces, sporting about 385 aircraft, all of them Soviet-built and relatively new. Of particular concern were the 45 TU-16 Badger[?] medium bombers, capable of inflicting heavy damage to Israeli military and civilian centers. On June 5 at 7:45 Israeli time, as air alarms sounded all over Israel, the Israeli Air Force audaciously left the skies of Israel virtually unprotected, sending all but a handful of its jets in a mass attack against Egypt's airfields. Egyptian defensive infrastructure was extremely poor, and no airfields were yet equipped with armored bunkers capable of protecting Egypt's warplanes in the event of an attack, especially on the forward bases in the Sinai. The Israelis employed a mixed attack strategy; bombing and strafing runs against the planes themselves, and tarmac-shredding penetration bombs[?] for the runways that rendered them unusable, leaving any undamaged planes unable to take off, helpless targets for the next wave. The attack was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its planners, destroying virtually all of the Egyptian air force on the ground with few Israeli casualties, and guaranteeing Israeli air superiority during the rest of the war.

Israeli forces concentrated on the border with Egypt included 3 divisions (in Hebrew: ugdot), which consisted of 9 brigades (hativot), of which 5 were armored; there were also three reserve brigades[?]. The Egyptian forces consisted of 7 divisions, five of them infantry and two armored. Four infantry divisions were near the border, an infantry and an armored division in central Sinai, and an armored one in the west. In addition, a reinforced brigade (with 200 tanks!) under Colonel Shazly[?] was further south and had orders to encircle Eilat in the case of war. Overall, Egypt had over 100,000 troops and 900 tanks in the Sinai, backed by an appropriate number of artillery guns. This arrangement was based on the Soviet doctrine, where mobile armor units at strategic depth provide a dynamic defense while infantry units engage in defensive battles at the border.

The northern division, consisting of three brigades and commanded by Israel Tal, one of Israel's most prominent armor commanders, found itself slowly advancing through the Gaza strip and Al-Arish[?], which were not heavily protected. The central division (Avraham Yoffe) and the southern one (Ariel Sharon), however, entered the heavily defended Abu-Ageila-Kusseima region. Egyptian forces there included one infantry division (the 2nd), a battalion of tank destroyers and a tank regiment.

At that moment, Sharon initiated a brilliant attack, precisely planned and carried out. He sent out two of his brigades to the north of Um-Katef[?], the first one ordered to break through the defenses at Abu-Ageila[?] to the south, and the second to block the road to El-Arish[?] and to encircle Abu-Ageila from the east. At the same time, a paratrooper force was landed that destroyed the artillery, preventing it from engaging Israeli armor. The Egyptian armored regiment commander did not understand the situation, and did not dare to engage himself. Eventually, the unit's men fled by foot leaving all equipment behind. Abu-Ageila fell.

Many of the Egyptian units still remained intact and could be scrambled to prevent Israeli units from reaching the Suez Canal or at least to make them pay a heavy penalty for doing it. However, when the Egyptian Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer[?] heard about the fall of Abu-Ageila[?], he panicked and ordered all units in the Sinai to retreat. This disastrous order effectively meant the defeat of Egypt.

Due to the Egyptians' unprecedented retreat, the Israeli Command decided not to pursue the Egyptian units but rather to leave them behind and destroy them in the mountainous passes of West Sinai. Therefore, in the following two days (June 6 and 7) all three Israeli divisions (Sharon and Tal were joined by an armored brigade each) rushed westwards and reached the passes. Sharon's division first went southward then westward to Mitla Pass[?]. It was joined there by parts of Yoffe's division, while its other units blocked the Gidi Pass[?]. Tal's units stopped at various points to the length of the Suez Canal.

Israel's blocking was only partially successful. Only the Gidi pass was captured before the Egyptians approached it, but at other places Egyptian units did manage to pass through and cross the Canal to safety. Nevertheless the Israeli victories were impressive enough, with numerous points in the Sinai filled with hundreds of burning or abandoned Egyptian vehicles. According to many reports, Israel even allowed Egyptians who were captured and disarmed to go westward to the canal. While most fled to safety, Egyptian units on the west bank often shot the "traitors and cowards" who attempted to join their own forces.

On June 8th, Israel completed capturing the Sinai by sending infantry units to Ras-Sudar[?] on the western coast of the peninsula. Sharm ash-Sheikh[?], at its southern tip, was already captured a day earlier by units of the Israeli Navy[?].

Several tactical elements made the swift Israeli advance possible. The first is the complete air superiority the IAF has achieved over its Egyptian counterpart; the second--the unique morale among the Israeli troops who believed they were fighting for their country's survival; and the third--the lack of coordination among Egyptian troops and as a result their inability to help each other, use the artillery or summon any reinforcements. The former two also proved paramount during fighting in the Jordanian and Syrian fronts.

West Bank

As stated above, neither Jordan nor Israel wanted the war to take place, each for their own reasons. Much pressure has been put, however, by Jordanian pan-Arabists for Jordan to join the warfare. Some even claim that President Nasser used the obscurity of the first hours of the conflict to convince King Hussein that he was victorious; he claimed as evidence a radar sighting of a squadron of Israeli aircraft returning from bombing raids in Egypt which he claimed to be Egyptian. While this explanation seems very queer, it is recorded that one of the Jordanian brigades was sent to the Hebron area in order to link with the Egyptians (!). Whatever King Hussein's reason may have been, he decided to attack.

Prior to the war, Jordanian forces included 11 brigades (total of 60,000 troops), equipped by some 300 modern Western tanks. Of them, 9 were deployed in the West Bank and 2 in the Jordan valley. The Jordanian ground army was relatively well-equipped and well trained. Furthermore, Israeli post-war briefings claimed that the Jordanian staff acted professionally as well, but was always left behind "half a turn" by the Israeli moves. The Jordanian Air Force, however, consisted of only about 20 Hawker Hunter[?] fighters, obsolete by all standards.

Israeli Central Command forces consisted of five brigades. The first two were permanently housed in Jerusalem and were called "Jerusalem" and the mechanized "Harel". An elite paratrooper brigade was summoned from the Sinai front, Mordechai Gur's 35th. An armored brigade was allocated from the General Staff reserve and brought to the Latrun area. The 10th armored brigade was stationed north of Samaria. The Northern Command provided a division (3 brigades) which was stationed to the north of Samaria and led by Elad Peled[?].

On the morning of June 5, Jordanian forces made two minor (one could say symbolic) thrusts in the area of Jerusalem and shelled it. Units in Qalqiliya[?] fired several shots in the direction of Tel-Aviv. The Jordanian Air Force attacked Israeli airfields. Both air and artillery attacks caused little damage. Israel, however, had had enough, and Israeli units were scrambled to attack Jordanian forces in the West Bank. In the afternoon of that same day, IAF strikes destroyed the tiny Jordanian Air Force. By the evening of June 5, the infantry Jerusalem brigade moved south of Jerusalem, while the mechanized Harel encircled it from the north.

On June 6, the Israeli units made their moves: The paratrooper brigade completed the Jerusalem encirclement in the area called "The Ammunition Hill" (which was the site of a bloody battle). The reserve armored brigade attacked Ramallah through Latrun. The Harel brigade continued its push to the mountainous area north-west of Jerusalem. By the evening, the brigade arrived in Ramalla.

The Jordanian forces in Samaria amounted to 4 divisions, one of them being the elite armored 40th. The I.A.F. caught the 60th Jordanian Brigade from Jericho on its way to reinforce Jerusalem and annihilated it on the open road with massed airstrikes. One battalion from Peled's division was sent to check Jordanian defenses in the Jordan Valley. A brigade belonging to it captured Western Samaria, another captured Jenin and the third (equipped with light French AMX-13s[?]) engaged Jordanian Pattons[?] to the east.

On June 7 heavy fighting ensued. Gur's paratroopers captured Jerusalem's old city. The Jerusalem brigade then reinforced them, and continued to the south, capturing Judea. The Harel brigade proceeded eastward, descending to the Jordan river. In Samaria, one Peled's brigades seized Nablus]; then it joined one of Central Command's armored brigades to fight the Jordanian forces, equal in numbers and superior in equipment.

Again, the air superiority of the I.A.F. proved paramount as it immobilized the enemy, leading to its defeat. One of Peled's brigades joined with its Central Command counterparts coming from Ramalla[?], and the remaining two blocked the Jordan river together with the Central Command's 10th (the latter crossed the Jordan river into the East Bank to provide cover for Israeli engineers while they blew the bridges, but was quickly pulled back because of American pressure).

Golan Heights

During the evening of June 5th, Israeli air strikes destroyed two thirds of the mediocre Syrian air force, and forced the remaining third to retreat to distant bases, without playing any further role in the ensuing warfare. A minor Syrian force tried to capture the water plant at Tel Dan[?] (the subject of a fierce escalation two years earlier). Several Syrian tanks are reported to have sunk in the Jordan river. In any case, the Syrian command abandoned hopes of a ground attack, and began a massive shelling of Israeli towns in the Hula Valley instead.

June 7th and 8th passed in this way. At that time, a debate had been going on in the Israeli leadership whether the Golan Heights should be assailed as well. Factors which spoke in favor of the attack was the damage that had been and still was being inflicted to the Israeli civilians in the north, and the political pressure that they were applying. Military wisdom, however, suggested that the attack would be extremely costly, as it would be an uphill battle against a strongly fortified enemy. Moshe Dayan believed such an operation would yield losses of 30,000, and opposed it bitterly. Levi Eshkol, on the other hand, was more open to the possibility of an operation in the Golan Heights, as was the head of the Northern Command, David Elazar, whose unbridled enthusiasm for and confidence in the operation may have eroded Dayan's reluctance. Eventually, as the situation on the Southern and Central fronts cleared up, Moshe Dayan became more enthusiastic about the idea, and he authorized the operation.

The Syrian army consisted of about 50,000 men grouped in 9 brigades, supported by an adequate amount of artillery and armor. Israeli forces used in combat consisted of two brigades (one armored led by Albert Mandler[?], the other--the infantry "Golani") in the northern part of the front, and another two (infantry and one of Peled's brigades summoned from Jenin) in the center. The Golan Heights' unique terrain (mountainous slopes crossed by parallel streams every several miles), and the general lack of roads in the area meant that only those Syrian units that were in the path of entering Israeli forces would be able to fight them. Another advantage Israel possessed was the excellent intelligence collected by Mossad operative Eli Cohen (who was later captured and executed) regarding the Syrian battle positions.

The I.A.F., which had been attacking Syrian artillery for four days prior to the attack, was ordered to attack Syrian positions with all its force. While the well-protected artillery was mostly undamaged, the ground forces staying on the Golan plateau (6 of the 9 brigades) became unable to organize a defense. By the evening of June 9th, the four Israeli brigades had broken through to the plateau, where they could be reinforced and replaced.

On the next day, June 10, the central and northern groups joined in a pincer movement, but that fell mainly on empty territory as the Syrian forces fled. Several units joined by Elad Peled rose to the Golan from the south, only to find the positions mostly empty as well. During the day, the Israeli units stopped on an arbitrary line (there's no natural geographic boundary at that area), that later became the cease-fire line known as the "Purple Line".

War at air and sea

During the Six-Day War, the I.A.F. demonstrated the crucial importance of air superiority during the course of a modern conflict. While inferior both in terms of numbers and equipment to the Arab air forces, it was able to paralyze them and to grant itself air superiority over all fronts; it then complemented the strategic effect of their initial strike by carrying out tactical support operations. Of particular interest was the destruction of the Jordanian 60th armored brigade near Jericho and the attack on the Iraqi armored brigade which was sent to attack Israel through Jordan.

In contrast, the Arab air forces never managed to produce a considerable effect: Attacks of Jordanian fighters and Egyptian TU-16 bombers into the Israeli rear during the first two days of the war were not successful and led to the destruction of the aircraft (Egyptian bombers were shot down while Jordan's fighters were destroyed during the attack on the airfield).

War at sea was also extremely limited. Movements of both Israeli and Egyptian vessels are known to have been used to intimidate the other side, but neither side has ever engaged the other at sea. The only moves that yielded any result were the unleashing of 6 Israeli frogmen in Alexandria harbor (they were captured, having sunk a minesweeper), and the Israeli light boat crews capturing the abandoned Sharm As-Sheikh[?].

On the second day of the war (June 6), King Hussein and Nasser conspired to declare that American and British aircraft took part in the Israeli attacks. This false announcement was coordinated in a conversation between the two leaders by radio-phone. Amazingly, the two leaders neglected to properly encode the call, and Israeli intelligence intercepted the conversation. This famous exchange, which became known as "The Big Lie" in American and British circles, was broadcast over Israeli radio and in many other locations, including the UN General Assembly, and caused no small amount of humiliation to the two leaders in question.

On the fourth day of the war (June 8), USS Liberty, an American electronic intelligence vessel, was attacked by Israeli air and sea forces, nearly sinking the ship and causing heavy casualties. While Israel claimed the attack to be a case of mistaken identity, a claim subsequently supported by independent Israeli and U.S. inquiries, certain Western observers disagree. For discussion, see Israeli attack on USS Liberty.

Tactics

Three main trends are prevalent in the Israeli tactical conduct during the Six-Day War: the full usage of available air power in conditions of air superiority, use of paratrooper units (both for attacks behind enemy lines and as enhanced infantry), and the growing reliance on armored corps ("tankomania" in Israeli military slang). While the former point has been discussed earlier in this article, the latter two need further elaboration.

Paratrooper units have always been the pride of the Israeli army. While they had obviously received training for airborne operations, their main objective was ground combat, as improved infantry. It was in this role that the paratrooper units were used both during the retaliatory operations of the 1950s and 60s, and during the Six-Day War--for example, during the battle for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The only major use of paratroopers to achieve a tactical effect in an air-drop was during the battle for Abu-Ageila, when they were used, in a rather unorthodox operation, to combat artillery. This was to change in the years to come, as the Israeli army acquired more aircraft and helicopters: Paratroopers could be used for deep strikes, as they are intended.

"Tankomania" was an even more important trend, which was shared by numerous Israeli generals and officers. The I.D.F., which had no tanks during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and used them only for infantry support during the 1956 Suez War, quickly grew very fond of the mobility and power of armored corps. However, as the Yom Kippur War indicated six years later, the increased use of tanks was made without a parallel development of the infantry--which lagged behind both in equipment, resources, and ability to communicate with the armored units. During the Six-Day War, the attack in the northern Golan Heights was an early example of disharmony between tanks and infantry, as the Golani brigade experienced great difficulties while fighting Syrian positions, but was unable to coordinate tactical moves with Mandler's armored brigade nearby.

Conclusion of conflict and situation after war

By June 10, Israel has completed its last offensive, the one in the Golan Heights. On the following day, a cease-fire was signed in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 235[?] and 236[?]. Israel controlled the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights. Overall, Israel's territory grew by a factor of 4 (most of which was, however, the bare and uninhabited Sinai desert). Israel's strategic depth grew to at least 300 kilometers in the south, 60 kilometers in the east and 20 kilometers of extremely rugged terrain in the north, a security asset that was far from useless, as the Yom Kippur War would show six years later.

The political importance of the Six-Day War was immense; Israel demonstrated that it not only was able to repel its enemies or to apply pressure upon them, as it had done in the previous wars, but also to initiate strategic strikes that would change the regional balance in its favor. Egypt and Syria learnt the tactical lessons of the Six-Day War, but perhaps not the strategic ones, and were to initiate one more strike, Yom Kippur War, before learning that Israel was no longer the fragile state of the early 1950s that was able to defend itself each time only by the power of a miracle.

Yet another aspect of the war touches on the population of the captured territories: about 150,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, about 80,000 to 100,000 of them, already refugees of the war in 1948, fled to Jordan, where they contributed to the growing unrest that culminated in the events of Black September. The rest stayed, and lived under Israeli military occupation. Only the inhabitants of East Jerusalem and Golan Heights were allowed to receive Israeli citizenship, as Israel annexed these territories in the early 1980s. See also Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel's initial intention regarding the lands was one of negotiation; however both Jordan and Egypt eventually withdrew their claims to West Bank and Gaza (the Sinai was returned on the basis of Camp David accords[?] of 1977 and the question of the Golan heights is still negotiated with Syria). By the late 1970s, Israel sponsored the building of numerous settlements on the territories designed to enhance Israel's defense ability and improve Israeli foothold in the region; however the political effect of these settlements and its influence on the local Arab population is still debated.

However, the Six-Day War also laid the foundation for the future peace negotiations in the region--as on November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, the "land for peace" formula, which called for the establishment of a just and lasting peace based on Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 in return for the end of all states of belligerency, respect for the sovereignty of all states in the area, and the right to live in peace within secure, recognized boundaries.

War of Attrition

In the 1969-1970 war of attrition, Israeli planes made deep strikes into Egypt in retaliation for repeated Egyptian shelling of Israeli positions along the Suez Canal. In early 1969, fighting broke out between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal. The United States helped end these hostilities in August 1970, but subsequent U.S. efforts to negotiate an interim agreement to open the Suez Canal and achieve disengagement of forces were not successful.

Related articles

Further reading

  • "Six-Day War" - Israeli Security Lexicon / Zeev Shif and Eitan Haver / Zamora, Beitan, Modan, 1976
  • "11: The Apogee of Blitzkrieg" - "The Sword and the Olive" / Martin van Creveld / PublicAffairs New York, 1998 / ISBN 1-891620-05-3.

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