The Six Day War and the world today Part 2: ( Israel and Day One)

I will write this post in this weeks series with the assumption that most who read my blog have a somewhat realistic view of Israel today, as the only democracy in the region. A country that closely resembles either the US or other western style democracies (actually, as a “cafe” society Israel very much resembles Italy with it’s Mediterranean lifestyle). Full rights for ALL citizens, freedom of the press, etc.

But the Israel of 1967 was very different. In fact, it can reasonably be said that Israeli history can be divided into several “eras”. 1948-1956; 1956-1967; 1967-1973; 1973-1991(or 2000) and 1991 – present.

These eras principally deal with the military situation of both Israel and the surrounding Arab nations.

If you go back to the UN declaration of a two state solution in November of 1947 and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, the world was a very different place.

When the Arab nations started the war of Independence immediately upon Israel’s declaration, all of the powers that we know of today were still recovering from WWII. Europe was in shambles.

Millions of European Jews, survivors of the Holocaust were in relocation camps all over Europe.

Millions of Europeans, and Russians were struggling to find their homes, or rebuild what once was. Soldiers were returning home in droves, or struggling to exit POW camps.

So, the two sides in the war had no real outside powers to back them, or supply them.

The population of Israel then consisted of three primary groups. The Sabra’s, or native born, were the majority. Next came the almost 400,000 refugees from Arab lands that had been thrown out in 1948 (of a total of approx. 450,000).

The final group consisted of those that were able to escape the Holocaust or were now coming. The total population of the country was approx. 2.9 million.

After the armistice Israel looked very different than it does today. In geography, political orientation and attitude.

As secular as it is today, it was much more so than. The early Zionists had not been driven so much by religious fervor as the desire to escape persecution.

Interestingly, this secularity also affected the view of Diaspora Jews toward the new state. (Diaspora means Jews not in Israel). There was a certain appreciation for the fact that there was now a homeland for the dispossessed, however, the “rebound effect” was being felt to a certain degree in most of the rest of the world. Principally the United States. Most American Jews were of European descent and had no physical or emotional attachment to the “Holy Land”. Tourism was not part of the package at that point. Particularly with none of the holy sites being part of the new nation.

The existing residents of Palestine, were largely non religious anyway.

More importantly, Jerusalem had been lost in the war of independence. Jerusalem, under the UN partition plan, was supposed to be an open city. With access to religious sites guaranteed to all.

But the Jordanians prevented that. King Hussein of Jordan was a Hashemite. What that means is that he considered himself a direct descendant of Muhammed and as such, it was his duty to protect the shrines of Jerusalem, al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. So Jerusalem was closed.

In addition, Gaza was Egyptian, the Golan Heights were Syrian.

The maps of the day showed not borders, but armistice lines. Temporary divisions. The world attitude was basically, “we gave the Jews what they want, it will probably fail, but if it does it is not our fault.”

In what may be a surprise to you today, the US and Israel were not particularly close.

Harry Truman had agreed that the US would be the first country to recognize Israel, but that was the end. There would be no intervention or real help. After all, the US had bigger issues with the new enemy, Russia.

Eisenhower played a course down the middle. He recognized the potential for Soviet domination of the region and the Eisenhower doctrine called for military intervention on ANY states behalf, Israel or Arab, that the Russians threatened.

Kennedy believed in using the carrot. So he was supplying Egypt with significant imports of grain and other supplies in order to keep them from the Soviet sphere.

Of course, by the end of the Eisenhower administration and the Kennedy and Johnson years, the US had Vietnam to worry about.

Israel of the 1948-1967 period was 8 miles wide at it’s narrowest point, from the end of the territory that Jordan conquered to the Mediterranean.

There was a realistic feeling that Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city at the time, could be bombed or invaded in a matter of minutes.

More importantly, without Jerusalem, Hebron, Jericho, Bethlehem, the Galilee, etc, and with the nascent state looking only to create a country, the focus on religious issues and archeology was not what it is today.

What also has to be remembered is the violence and upheaval going on in the Arab world. Kings in Egypt, Syria and Iraq were overthrown, Jordan was formed, etc. The Arab world, which had largely sided with the Nazis during the war were suffering from their need to recover as well.

However, a state of war did exist. There were constant excursions by what were known as the Fedayeen between 1948-56 on Israel’s borders. Principally in the North.

There was protection in the Sinai because of the Sinai treaty that all parties had signed and the control of the Suez by Britain.

So, Israel, while in an official state of war – remember, the Israeli’s had first accepted the UN partition plan only to be attacked, and then at the armistice, offered again to accept the original UN plan, only to be rebuffed once more – was focused on other matters.

Included in this is the understandable, but shameful fact that the Arab residents were considered a “fifth column” and did not enjoy full rights. Most were vocally supportive of the state of war siding with the surrounding Arab nations and Israel did not know what to do with them. They enjoyed greater rights than their Arab neighbors, but were still required to carry ID, etc.

They had a population that was still largely skeletal from the holocaust, No real industry and perhaps most importantly, with the Jordan river in control of the Jordanians, no fresh water to speak of.

Finally, they had a dynamic leader in David Ben Gurion who, as the man who had declared independence and led them successfully (depending on your point of view) through the 1948 war; they had confidence in.

They spent these ten years trying to build an army, consolidating the various factions, such as the Palmach, the Ergun, the Stern gang, etc. What had been rogue bands of fighters with stolen, smuggled or recovered guns, was now trying to build an army.

The veterans of the 1948 war could not fill the holes in their hearts and souls however, feeling as if they had cost not just the Jews, but the world, Jerusalem (more on this in a post at the end of the week).

Remember also, that the US was still not a comfortable superpower. Prior to WWII the overwhelming majority of Americans were isolationist, and the British and French were the dominant world powers.

So, post WWII the French still perceived themselves this way.

This first period in Israel’s history culminated with the Suez crisis of 1956, precipitated by Nasser’s nationalization of the canal.

Nasser had been saved from the humiliation of the defeat at the hands of the nascent Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and the Suez was essentially given to the Egyptians as described in the previous post.

Israel, though, was now seen as more of a legitimate country and there were developing relations in Europe, African and Asia.

France began selling arms to Israel as well as nuclear technology. (The Dimona installation, cause of so much controversy).

From 1956 to the start of the war, the issues in Israel concerned water, and dealing with the increasingly hostile manipulations of Nasser. After his failed intervention in the Yemeni civil war, Nasser needed to rebuild his reputation. He began feverishly both competing with, and trying to ally with Syria and Jordan.

Israel was aware of the military buildup supplied by the Soviets in both Syria and Egypt.

They were also dealing with an unexpected change in the leadership of the nation as Ben Gurion was now retired in Sde Boker, on the cusp of the Negev desert and the bookish Levi Eshkol was the new Prime Minister. Eshkol was a farmer and financier and was vital to the growth of Israeli agriculture but the public had little faith in his ability to deal with the constant threats from the Arabs.

But the 1956 Sinai war had given Israelis a new sense that their little country might make it after all.

Two critical issues occurred on the Israeli side.

In 1964, Israel begain withdrawing water from the Jordan for its national water carrier. Later that year the Arabs combined to build a diversion which would have resulted in a loss of approximatley 15% of Israels water supply. The diversion was to send the water away from the Galilee into the Litani in Lebanon and a dam at Mukhabi for Jordan and Syria.

The IDF attacked the diversion in March, May and August of 1965. Of course, the border incursions that they had been dealing with, only became worse. Tensions were increasing and it looked as if war might ultimately be fought over water rights.

In November of 1966 with the threat of the Egyptian and Syrian buildup hanging over their heads, an Israeli border patrol was hit with a land mine. This led to a small incursion by the IDF (about 3000, many of them engineers to try and find mine fields) into 2 border towns in Jordan.

This was critical. The general consensus was that the Israelis overreacted (being only 3 at the time I can’t opine here). the real reason behind this feeling was that King Hussein of Jordan had been in secret negotiations with Israel since 1963.

This action most likely led to a seense of distrust from Hussein when during the war, the Israelis told him clearly that if he did not attack, Israel would not attack Jordan.

More immediately was the fact that Hussein ordered a nationwide mobilization of his army on November 20th.

In addition, in the North, Syria, in control of the Golan heights which is a high ground overlooking the Galil, or area around the Sea of Galilee had been steadily attacking Israeli towns with mortar rounds. Ths was in addition to attacking Israel by going through Jordan – of course leading to Israel’s mistrust of King Hussein who professed to not being able to prevent them.

In addition, the Soviets had persuaded Syria to sign a military alliance with Egypt, thus ensuring Nasser’s preeminence and ending, effectively Assad’s attempt to be the leader of the Arab world.

This finally erupted into a full scale aerial battle over Syria on April 6th, 1967.

The Syrians lost 6 Mig-21’s, the pride of the Soviet Air force. Little did anyone realize the abilities of the Israeli Air Force in their French Mirages. This was a portent of thngs to come.

Shockingly to the region was the freedom with which the Israeli’s were able to fly directly over Damascus, the Syrian capital.

The Syrians unleashed terrible bombing of a Kibbutz in the Golan.

There was UN action and a ceasfire was proposed. Israel agreed, Syria said no, not unless all agricultural work in the area was stopped.

The Israeli Cabinet authorized a limited military action against Syria in May. But Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of the IDF wanted a larger action intended to end the shelling (sound familiar to today?).

Finally, in addition to the concurrent Egyptian massing in the Sinai and the speech given by Nasser quoted in the earlier post, Future Syrian President Hafez Assad (he was then defense minister having participated in the earlier Bathist coup) in May said “Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian Army, with its finger on the trigger, is united… I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

And again, the world sat on the brink of war… (next Syria and Jordan.)

Historically, the significance of today in the war was this. In the early hours of June 5th, 1967, the IAF (Israeli Air Force) launched preemptive strikes against the Egyptian Air Force.

What Israel had done with the French Mirage, Ouragan, and Mystere Jets while seriously outmanned, was to create such efficiency that a plane could fly a sortee, and be prepped and put back in the air within 1/2 an hour. This allowed each Israeli Jet to fly up to 4 sortees a day. This was compared to the Arab’s one or two, at most, sortees. This effectively negated the manpower advantage.

By the end of the first day, virtually the entire Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed (by the end of the 6 days 300 of the Russian Mig 21’s out of a total of 450 were destroyed). This gave Israel virtual unfettered control of the skies for the remainder of the war.

It also allowed the total annihilation of the Egyptian army by air as they began their retreat in the desert.

This went unknown by Nasser and the Arab armies because Nassers Chief of the Army, General Amir wired in fake reports of massive Egyptian victories and an inexorable march to meet up with the Jordanians in Jerusalem. When Nasser was given the truth he was broken.

The only Egyptian to understand before hand that Egypt was not prepared to fight? Anwar Sadat, one of only two members of the original coup left on Nasser’s staff. Sadat wanted to fight Israel, but not yet.

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