What was the Six-Day War? – History, Causes, Casualties, & Consequences

Six-Day War - causes and aftermath

Six-Day War – causes and aftermath

In June 1967, the Middle East was rocked by a brief but intense conflict that saw the nation of Israel lock horns with an Arab coalition of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. The war started as a result of escalating tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including a blockade of Israeli shipping in the Red Sea, terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, and military buildup by Arab states near Israel’s borders.

Lasting from June 5 to June 10, 1967, the Six-Day War ended with a resounding victory for Israel, which then helped itself to some significant territories of its Arab neighbors, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. The West Bank included the Old City of Jerusalem.

In the article below, World History Edu explores the origins, major causes and consequences of the Six-Day War, which is also known as the Third Arab-Israeli War or Naksah.

Events that led to the Six-Day War

The Israelis had to contend with increased level of attacks from Palestinian guerrilla groups that were residence in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The Israeli leadership responded to those attacks in a tit-for-tat manner.

In November 1966, Israeli air strikes pounded the Jordanian village of Al-Samu in the West Bank. The attack claimed the lives of at least 18 people and wounded more than 50 people.

A few months before the break out of the war, the well-equipped air force of Israel brought down six MiG fighter jets of the Syrian air force.

Matters were made even worse following a Soviet Union intelligence report – on May 13, 1967 – that stated that Israel was getting ready to launch a military attack against Syria. The report, which was false, claimed that Israeli Defense Forces had mobilized about a dozen brigades with the goal of strategically attacking Syria. This report caused the already tense situation in the region to reach unmanageable level.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decisions before the War

There were some people in the Arab world that bemoaned then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s inadequate support given to the likes of Syria and Jordan in their fight against Israel.

As tensions kept escalating, Nasser threw in his full support to the Syrians and other Arab nations in the region, i.e. the Sinai Peninsula.

In mid-May 1967, the Egyptian president ordered his military forces to start mobilizing in the border region with Israel.

That same month, he also gave eviction notice to the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) that were stationed in the Sinai. Then on May 22, he made an even bolder decision. Nasser ordered the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to all Israeli ships. What this means was that Egypt was putting up a blockade of a vital Israeli port in the city of Elat.

Straits of Tiran

The conflict Israel and its Arab nations became an inevitability when Egypt’s took the decision to block Israeli ships entering the Straits of Tiran on May 22, 1967

Israel’s response

Following Egypt’s eviction of the UNEF from the Sinai, Israel refused to allow those forces to be stationed near its side of the border.

Following the naval blockade of the Traits of Tiran by Egypt, Israeli politicians established a unity government as it accurately predicted that war was about to break out.

Image: Levi Eshkol – Third Prime Minister of Israel from 1963 to 1969

The Jordan-Egyptian military defense pact

With Egypt firmly lending its support to the Arab nations in the region, it came as no surprise that Jordanian monarch King Hussein  touched down in the Egyptian capital Cairo on May 30. The two leaders discussed a number things, particularly issues pertaining to the rising tensions with Israel. After the meeting, a military defense pact was struck between Egypt and Jordan.

A few days later, Iraq joined the Egyptian-led military alliance. The North African country of Sudan also began mobilizing its forces. Another regional power Saudi Arabia released a statement that it was ready lend its support to the Arab alliance.

Image: Jordanian monarch King Hussein (right) and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser at the 1964 Arab League Summit in Egypt, 11 September 1964

Military strength of Israel and the Arab coalition

In terms of personnel and ground military equipment, the Arab coalition combined military strength was greater than Israel’s. For example, the Arab coalition had close to quarter of a million in deployed troops, compared to Israel’s 100,000. Arab coalition also had three times the number of tanks that Israel had. In terms of aircraft, the Arab coalition had about 950 air planes against Israel’s 300.

Israel tanks during the Six-Day War

Onset of the war

The military alliance that was forming among Israel’s Arab neighbors as well as the military mobilization of those nations caused Israel to act fast.

Less than a week after the Egypt-Jordan military alliance was struck, Israeli air force launched a preemptive air attack on the Egyptian air force. It’s estimated that Israel took out more than 88% of Egypt’s air planes. The goal of the operation, termed “Operation Focus”, was to immobilize the Egyptians in terms of air power. Also Israel carried out preemptive strikes against the Syrian and Jordanian air forces. Israel took out almost the planes of those countries.

Israel successfully nullified the threat from those two major Arab air powers in the region. With Israel commanding the sky, Arab nations’ forces on the ground would have a difficult time.

In the next three days that followed, Israeli forces ran amok, devastating the military installations of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. There were three main fronts when it came to the war on the ground: the Jordanian, the Sinai, and the Syrian fronts.

Israel went on to seize strategic territories from their Arab neighbors – i.e. the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.

Having signed a defense pact with Egypt, Jordan entered the war on June 5 by shelling a number of places in West Jerusalem. Israel’s plea to the Jordanian king to stay out of the war fell on deaf ears.

Third Arab-Israel War

Israel’s capture of Sinai. 7–8 June 1967

Therefore, Israel responded and fired back at Jordan. It took Israel less than three days to neutralize the threat posed from Jordan. Desiring some sort of buffer against the Jordanians, Israeli forces successfully expelled Jordanian forces from East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank.

By June 7, the Israeli Defense Force had entered the Old City. This decision by the Israeli defense minister raised some concern that important buildings and holy sites could be destroyed. As a result Israel deployed only paratroopers, who eventually captured Judea, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron.

On the Syrian front, the Syrian forces, which had suffered a lot of aviation losses, attacked Galilee. Israeli air force managed to thwart the Syrian attack, forcing the Syrians to switch to a ground attack. Again, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) successfully repulsed the Syrian forces.

Israeli paratroopers fighting against Jordanian forces

Syria had the advantage of natural barrier in the form of the Golan Heights. The Syrians used it to shell any Israeli forces that tried to invade the country. Israel, realizing the herculean nature of trying to go past the Golan Heights, contemplated halting its advance into Syria.

However, when the Israeli military leadership received news that the Syrians did not have a strong defensive position on the Golan Heights, the proceeded to attack the region, beginning with airstrikes. The Syrian forces lost a lot in terms of morale and important military infrastructure. The battle was intense, and many soldiers, on both sides, lost their lives.

With casualties mounting, the Syrian leadership agreed to a cease-fire, and by the 11 June, all hostilities had ceased.

Did you know?

Prior to “Operation Focus”, i.e. the preemptive Israeli airstrikes against Egyptian air force, Israeli newspapers ran false stories of Israeli troops being on vacation. They also stated that Israeli pilots were engaged in training courses. They carried out fake training exercises.

Israeli military leadership kept a tight lid on Operation Focus by damaging the U.S. Embassy’s antenna to prevent any intelligence about the operation from reaching the Americans.

The Israeli pilots that would carry out the operations were left in the dark until just five hours before the start of the operation.

Israeli unleashed more than half of its total aircrafts on the Egyptian airfields. The strikes destroyed more than 300 Egyptian aircrafts. And about 90 Egyptian pilots lost their lives in the attacks.

The total number of planes lost by the Arab coalition during Israel’s Operation Focus was somewhere between 450 and 500. Israel lost just 19, making the operation remarkably successful.

June 7: The UN Security Council demands a cease-fire

The first few days of the war were absolutely brutal. Israel, having destroyed all the air capabilities of their Arab neighbors, unleashed a flurry of attack against them. Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces were caught by surprise and could barely keep up with Israel’s onslaught. As the humanitarian situation and devastation increased, the UN Security Council on June 7 demanded that all hostilities be brought to an end immediately.

The War ends

Jordan and Israel agreed to cease fire that very day, and Egypt followed suit the next day. The Syrian leaders, however, refused to heed the cease-fire calls. The Syrian army instead intensified its shelling of places in northern Israel. Israeli forces then moved into the Golan Heights and completely overran the place. It took Israel less than 24 hours to capture the region. On June 10, Syria agreed to a cease-fire and halt its shelling.

Consequences of the war

Israel was clearly the outright winner during the Six-Day War. Its military completely devastated forces of the Arab nations. For example, the Arab nations – i.e. Egypt, Syria and Jordan – had a combined casualty of more than 18,000. Egypt suffered the most as its casualty was more than 11,000. This was followed by Jordan that suffered about 5500 casualties. Syria suffered slightly above 2000 casualties.

Those figures completely dwarfed the ones suffered by Israel. In the six days of hostility, Israel suffered only about 700 casualties.

In terms of military equipment lost, Israel lost about 400 tanks and 50 planes; while the Arab coalition lost about 2000 tanks and close to 500 planes.

Israel had demonstrated beyond all doubt its preeminence militarily in the region. There were celebrations all across the nation.

In addition to the human cost the Arab nations suffered, many of their military installations and equipment were badly damaged.

Such was the humiliation suffered by Egypt that President Nasser contemplated step down. He announced his decision to leave the presidency on June 9 only for him to be convinced by his people to stay in the position.

One of the major and lasting consequence of the Six-Day War is that it created an even more tense relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be an understatement to say that the latter, like many Arabs in the region, were disappointed with the outcome of the war. The Palestinians were perhaps the biggest sufferers in terms of the humanitarian situation created as a result of the war. In just a few weeks, the number of Palestinian refugees swirled to the hundreds of thousands.

In just a twinkle of an eye (figuratively), more than a million Palestinians were suddenly under the rule of Israel in the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Not even the UN Resolution 242, which was passed in November 1967, could force Israel to return those annexed territories back to Syria and Jordan.

Quite certainly, the Arab nations and people, especially the Palestinians felt very hard done by the peace accord (i.e. the Camp David Accords signed on September 17, 1978) struck between Israel and Egypt. The peace accord in a way dashed Palestinians’ hopes of having their own independent nation in the immediate future.

Did you know?

The Six-Day War is also called the Naksah or the June War. In some cases, it is termed as the Third Arab-Israeli War.

Questions and Answers

Raging in the early days of June 1967, the Six-Day War was a conflict between Israel and an Egypt-Syria-Jordan alliance. Image: Israeli tanks advancing on the Golan Heights. June 1967

The Six-Day War had significant consequences for the Middle East, including the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the expansion of Israeli territory, and the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The war also intensified Arab resentment towards Israel, leading to increased tensions and conflict in the region for decades to come.

How long did the Third Arab-Israeli War last for?

The Third Arab-Israeli War is also known as the Six-Day War. It raged from June 5 to June 10, 1967.

Why did the Six-Day War begin?

The Six-Day War was triggered by a number of very serious disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors. These disputes reached boiling proportion as a result of a number of events that ensued in early summer of 1967. A Soviet Union intelligence report stated that the military leadership of Israel where readying themselves for an attack on Arab neighbor Syria. This prompted Egypt to mobilize and ready itself for war against Israel. Sensing the military build-up in the region, Israel commanders ordered a preemptive air assault against Egypt and Syria. And so, the fierce war broke out between Israel and those two countries, who were supported politically and militarily by Arab nations in the region.

Where did the Six-Day War occur in?

Israel was the first to draw blood so to speak. The Jewish nation ordered an air strike against Arab neighbors Syria and Egypt. Shortly after, Israeli commanders began a ground offensive in neighboring territories of those countries, including in the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the West Bank.

By the end of the war, the victor Israel had captured those four territories from its neighbors. However, the Sinai Peninsula was later given back to Egypt.

Why did Israel carry out preemptive strikes against its Arab neighbors in 1967?

In the months leading up to the Six-Day War, Israel wholeheartedly believed that its national security and territorial integrity were severely under threat. This was the major reason why Israeli commanders ordered air strikes in the region. The air assault completely caught the Arab nations by surprise. They also severely damaged the Arab nations’ air capability and their morale.

What did the United Nations do about the conflict?

After Israel seized territories held by Syria, Jordan and Egypt, the United Nations passed Resolution 242 (in November 1967) demanding Israel quickly return those territories to its Arab neighbors. Dubbed “land for peace”, the initiative would go on to serve as a formula for future peace negotiations, especially the Camp David Accords which was brokered by the United States. The “land for peace” formula also underpinned the proposed two-state solution between Israelis and the Palestinians.

How did the Six-Day War end?

The Six-Day War came to an end on June 10, 1967. Israel was clearly the victor as it had captured territories – the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank – from its neighboring Arab countries.

In the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt brokered by the U.S., Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

The remaining three annexed territories, including East Jerusalem, continued to remain in the hands of Israel. It was agreed that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, would be placed under Israeli military occupation.

Why did the Palestinians feel disappointed by the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel?

The Arab nations and people, especially the Palestinians felt very hard done by the peace accord struck between Israel and Egypt on September 17, 1978. The Palestinians have long desired to have their own independent nation. That dream has remained an elusive one since then as there seem to be no light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to reaching a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Why did Israel win the Six-Day War?

Israel won because it’s quick and decisive preemptive airstrikes carried out against the Arab coalition. Their attacks drastically weakened the Arab forces on the ground. Israeli military leadership were obviously more efficient and better prepared than their Arab counterparts.

Why is it sometimes called the Third Arab-Israeli War?

The Six-Day War is also known as the Third Arab-Israeli War because it was the third major conflict that involved Israel and Arab nations. The first two occurred in 1948 and 1956. Israel secured victories in those wars as well.

Since those two wars, the Arab alliance could not wait to vanquish Israel and change the geopolitical situation in the region. Israel and its Arab nations were simply bound to lock horns again as both sides could not reach any amicable agreement. Plus there was a lot of international interference from global powers, especially the United States and the Soviet Union, in the region.

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