The Toxic Legacy of 1967 Six-Day War | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 05, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:06 AM, June 05, 2020

The Toxic Legacy of 1967 Six-Day War

A war that began the longest military occupation of modern times and shaped the current world order

Today, June 5, marks the 53rd anniversary of the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In the six days of conflict, Israel captured the Sinai and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Syrian Golan Heights—all of which, except for the Sinai, it still illegally occupies.   

In fact, Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the longest in modern times, maintained predominantly with the help of narrative control. For example, during the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the New York Times wrote: "This year marks half a century since the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 in which Israel defied annihilation by its Arab neighbours and also came to rule over Palestinian Arabs in captured areas, including in the old city." This characterisation of Israel's role in the conflict (like in countless others) with its Arab neighbours (especially in comparison) is a perfect example of "falsifying history", according to Jewish scholar and author Norman Finkelstein.

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In truth, Israel was not facing any threat in 1967. And "the entire story of the danger of extermination" was, quite simply, a fabrication used "to justify the annexation of new Arab territory" by Israel, as Mordecai Bentov, a member of its then wartime government, told Israeli newspaper Al-Hamishmar on April 14, 1971. As such, the Arab states were really the ones facing an actual threat—that of Israeli expansionism.

Given this reality, on November 4, 1966, Egypt and Syria signed a "defence agreement" in the hope of discouraging Israel from going on the offensive against either country, knowing that the other would be forced to intervene as per the agreement. It was with this knowledge that Israel began to set its trap for Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser by goading cross-border shootings with Syria. The provocations reached their peak on April 7, 1967, when Israeli Mirages shot down six Syrian MIG-21s. Nasser could either come to the defence of his ally under attack by Israel (as promised), or dishonour the agreement and lose his credibility as leader of the revolutionary Arab world.

Nasser chose to honour the agreement. He put two Egyptian divisions into the Sinai next to Israel's border and partially closed the Straits of Tiran, which gave Israel the casus belli that it had been looking for.

In an interview published by Le Monde on February 28, 1968, Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin said this: "I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions which he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it." Likewise, General Matityahu Peled, Chief of Logistical Command during the war and one of 12 members of Israel's General Staff, wrote in an article that came out on June 3, 1972, in Le Monde: "While we proceeded towards the full mobilisation of our forces, no person in his right mind could believe that all this force was necessary to our 'defence' against the Egyptian threat. This force was to crush once and for all the Egyptians at the military level."

Lastly, to sum it up, this is what Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had to say in 1982: "In June 1967, we had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us… We decided to attack him."

The war itself may have lasted only six days, but the occupation that includes the remaining 22 percent of Palestinian land that was conquered by Israel during the war is now in its sixth decade. While Palestine's freedom struggle has continued in many different forms, so has Israel's brutal repression of Palestinians. On the scale of "morality", this is "the greatest issue of our time", as described by the great Nelson Mandela.

On the global and regional scales, few modern conflicts have had as big an impact in shaping the future of the world as the Six-Day War. According to US academic and activist Thomas Reifer, the war of 1967 sounded the "death knell of pan-Arab nationalism", and led to "the rise of political Islam" and to "Israel's emergence as a US strategic asset, with the United States sending billions of dollars… in a strategic partnership unequalled in world history." All these shifts that happened because of the war were naturally also connected to each other.

While Israel enhanced its power and influence globally to unprecedented new heights and established itself as the sole regional superpower, the Arab world never really recovered from the routing of the Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian alliance during the war of 1967. And, interestingly, it was after this destruction of Arab resistance by Israel that the US started calling Israel its strategic asset.

Once Israel proved its fighting prowess in the 1967 war—during the same time when the US was struggling in its war against Vietnam—the US understood the value of having Israel "enforce" US hegemony in the resource-rich Middle East, especially since its anti-war movement had just exposed the risks of depending solely on direct US military intervention. And thus began Israel's integration with US power, which has become so deeply entrenched today.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any meaningful Arab resistance, which the US and Israel had prevented from rising, using all means necessary, it was political Islam that filled the vacuum. Ironically, one of its most noticeable roles so far has been that of an adversarial scapegoat, used by the US and Israel in their pursuit of hegemonic ambitions and frequent interventions.

The workings of these factors and others have ensured that the world order today remains very similar to the one shaped by the war of 1967. And that includes (other than the same geopolitical intrigues) failure of global organisations and the larger international community to right the wrongs done during and after the Six-Day War, and to ultimately replace the world order of "might is right"—which the war had cemented—with something more just.


Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal

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