This week marks 50 years since Israel’s stunning victory in the war of 1967, known as the Six-Day War, which dramatically changed the landscape of the Middle East. In its defensive war against hostile armies, Israel prevailed and reunited its ancient capital Jerusalem. Yet for all the change that it wrought, the 1967 war is less a cause of current realities than is often thought. The aggressive military encirclement of Israel in May of 1967 which sparked the war derived from the fundamental Arab and Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist within any borders. This rejection to this day is the reason that peace does not yet reign.
Fifty years earlier, recognition of the right of the Jewish people in their historical homeland was declared in 1917 by Lord Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary, and adopted in 1922 by the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations). Nevertheless, this international legal and moral endorsement of Jewish rights in the land is still rejected today by the Palestinian leadership.
In 1947, the United Nations adopted the partition plan to create two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. The Jewish population agreed to the plan, but the vast majority of the Arabs vowed never to recognize a Jewish state in their midst and rejected the deal.
When Israel duly declared its independence on 14 May 1948, the Arab states surrounding Israel, declared a war of annihilation, and invaded the fledgling state. After fierce fighting, a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1949. The ceasefire lines acted as de facto borders between Israel and neighboring Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon – but the Arab states still refused to recognize the Jewish State.
From 1949 until 1967, the eastern part of Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied by Jordan and were administered from its capital, Amman, while the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt. The Jewish population was expelled from Jordanian-controlled territory, including from their ancient neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem, where every synagogue was bombed and desecrated. Although the ceasefire agreement guaranteed access for members of all religions to their holy sites, this commitment was not honored when it came to the Jews, who were prevented from visiting the places most holy to them.
Yet, despite the opportunity, no effort whatsoever was made by Arab states and the local population to establish a Palestinian state in the areas controlled by Jordan and Egypt; their goal remained to wipe out Israel. This was the raison d’etre of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 “to achieve through armed struggle the liberation of Palestine”, i.e. to destroy the state of Israel in its pre-1967 borders.
In 1967, Egypt and the other Arab countries prepared another war of annihilation against Israel. The Syrian army intensified its shelling of Israeli farmers in the Galilee, while Egypt amassed its troops. Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol attempted to avert war, announcing on 15 May that “Israel wants to make it clear to the government of Egypt that it has no aggressive intentions whatsoever against any Arab state.”
However, a few days later, Egypt demanded that the UN peacekeepers leave the Sinai, where they had been stationed since 1956 as a buffer between Egypt and Israel, and sent some 1,000 tanks and 100,000 soldiers to the border with Israel. Shortly after that, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli ships, a casus belli (case for war) under international law. Other neighboring Arab countries amassed troops on the borders with Israel and entered into military alliances, all the while issuing menacing statements:
“The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel … while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation…Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived.” (Egyptian President Nasser, 30 May)
“The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map” (President Aref of Iraq, 31 May).
Surrounded by hostile Arab nations that made no secret of their intention to destroy the Jewish state, Israel had no choice but to fight for its existence, and on the morning of 5 June neutralized the Egyptian air force in a surprise lightning strike.
Although Israel had sent word urging Jordan to stay out of the fighting, on 5 June the Jordanian army bombed Israeli cities and bases from the ground and air, forcing Israel to respond.
Against all odds, Israel prevailed in its war of defense, and in the course of the fighting, gained control of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the Golan Heights and the Sinai desert (which it later relinquished in exchange for peace with Egypt).
For the first time since Israel’s independence, Jews now had access to Judaism’s holiest sites and historical landmarks in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in the Old City. Jerusalem, which had been the geographical and spiritual capital of the Jewish people for thousands of years, was reunited. Israel tore down the concrete wall that had split the city for 19 years and set about transforming Jerusalem into a modern, free and dynamic city serving all its diverse residents – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Israel had strived for peace with its Arab neighbors since 1948; this desire is enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. Now, at the end of the 1967 War, Israel announced that it was prepared to negotiate and compromise for peace.
The Arab response, announced at the Arab League summit in Khartoum on 29 August 1967 was once again a full-fledged rejection of Israel, the famous “Three Nos:” “No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, and No negotiations with Israel.”
Since that time, Egypt and Jordan came to accept Israel, and peace treaties were achieved in 1979 and 1994. However, the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to recognize the Jewish state has been reiterated time and again throughout the past 50 years, much to the detriment of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Israel continues to extend its hand in peace, as it did in 1948 and 1967. Peace will come when the Palestinian leadership understands that the path to achieving its goals comes not through hatred, violence and rejection of Israel, but rather through recognition, respect and coexistence.