Select Page



by William H. Benson

June 5, 2003

     It began at 7:10 a.m., Monday morning, June 5, 1967 when the first of the Israeli fighter jets lifted off and headed toward Egypt, and by 7:30 a.m. some 200 aircraft were aloft.  Their only goal was to destroy Gamal Nasser’s Egyptian military power.

     It ended on Saturday, June 10th, one hundred and thirty two hours later, or six days; hence, the name the Six Day War.  Because that name conjures up an image of a lightning conquest, the Arabs ever since have refused to call it that, referring to it instead as the June War or the Setback.

     I recently picked up Michael B. Oren’s new book, Six Days of War–June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, in which he listed a series of aftershocks of those six days.

     The Egyptians lost between 10,000 and 15,000 soldiers, including 1500 officers and forty pilots.  Jordan lost 700 soldiers, with another 6000 wounded or missing.  Syria counted 450 dead.  And yet, Israel reported losing 679 soldiers, but actually it may have been closer to 800.

     All but a small percentage of Egypt’s military hardware, some $2 billion worth, was destroyed; all of Egypt’s bombers and 85% percent of Nasser’s combat aircraft were eliminated.

     Somewhere between 175,000 and 250,000 Palestinians fled the West Bank of Jordan during the war and ended in the desperate refugee camps where they suffered horrible conditions.  Israel did little to cause that unfortunate human flood, but then Israel did little to stop it nor to encourage the refugees to return to Israel after the fighting had ended.

     The angry, shocked, and deeply hurt Arabs lashed out at the Jews living elsewhere in Arab countries; mobs burnt down Jewish synagogues and assaulted Jewish residents.  And yet, some 1.2 million Palestinians who now were living under Israeli rule were spared much persecution

     During those six days the Israeli military had conquered 42,000 square miles of new territory, and had increased the size of Israel by three and a half times.  Jerusalem was then reunited into a single city, and the Jewish state, once vulnerable to attack, was afterwords within striking distance of the major Arab cities of Damascus, Cairo, and Amman.

     Israel’s military had earned the solid respect of the United States, and a feeling of euphoria swept over Israel.  Harry McPherson, an LBJ White House Counsel, reported, “The spirit of the army, indeed of all the people, has to be experienced to be believed. . . . It was deeply moving to see people whose commitment is total and unquestioning.”  

     Moshe Dayan, with his black eyepatch, and Yitzhak Rabin were elevated to icon-status.

     But not all the Israelis were pleased about the win.  One Israeli soldier named Shai said, “We weren’t especially excited or happy about killing Arabs or knowing that we’d won.  We just felt that we’d done what we had to do.  But there’s a big difference between that and feeling happy.” 

     The Arab intellectuals came away from those six days with an intense disillusionment with Arab nationalism.  Some stressed the need for modernization and democracy.  Others suggested a militant radicalism like in Vietnam and Cuba.  Still others called for a return to the fundamentals of Islam.  Michael Oren wrote, “Painful examinations would be made of Arab society, its inherent propensities and weaknesses, and of the Arab personality and psyche.”

     The Arab politicians refused to accept responsibility for the defeat.  Nasser blamed his insubordinate Egyptian officers for the loss and put them on trial.  Jordan’s King Hussein talked fatalistic, “If you were not rewarded with glory it was not because you lacked courage, but because it is Allah’s will.”   After Nasser’s death in 1970 the Egyptian Salah al-Hadidi, wrote that, “I can state that Egypt’s political leadership called Israel to war.  It clearly provoked Israel and forced it into a confrontation.”

     Michael Oren concluded his book with the comment that in a larger sense the Six Days War has never ended, even after thirty-six years, for basic truths still persist–Israel is still incapable of imposing a lasting peace, the Arabs can still wage a military campaign, suicide bombers can rip apart a peaceful morning, and Israel’s right to exist still hangs in suspension as does the Palestinians’ right to repatriation and statehood.  Today it is sadly true that the Middle East is once more in the grip of turmoil.