The six-day war: why Israel is still divided over its legacy 50 years on
On Wednesday the Palestinian shopkeepers in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City will pull closed their metal shutters under curfew. Residents will retreat behind the doors of their houses in the little streets and alleys around the Via Dolorosa and Al-Wad Street.
Thousands of Israeli police will spread out through the cramped neighbourhoods and around the Old City’s towering limestone walls and gates to prevent confrontation with the thousands of Israeli nationalists carrying blue-and-white flags and drums, some blowing shofar horns, who every year descend on Jerusalem Day to march through the streets.
This year the march will be more fraught than usual, coinciding as it does with the 50th anniversary of the , fought from 5-10 June 1967, which saw Israeli forces capture east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories – the West Bank and Gaza – as well as the Golan Heights and Sinai in a series of lightning advances. For Israeli nationalists the anniversary is being celebrated as the “liberation” that opened the way to Jewish settlements and the Israeli claim of sovereignty – not recognised by most of the world – over all of Jerusalem.
It will be given extra meaning, too, by this week’s visit to Israel and the occupied of US President Donald Trump, who will take in (in a private capacity) the Western Wall, the most revered of Jewish holy sites, captured by Israeli paratroopers in 1967.
For Palestinians, the coming weeks will signify an entirely contrary and bitter set of emotions. They will be reflecting on 50 years of military occupation, and the fact that, despite the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the rounds of talks, and the endless lip service paid by both the international community and Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a two-state solution appears further away than ever.
The Jerusalem events – which will begin officially on Monday, coinciding with Trump’s visit to the city the day after – will continue through the summer, culminating in the official Israeli government celebration of the six-day war in the middle of September in the in the occupied Palestinian territories.
For all that, it remains a war the meaning of which within Israeli society – let alone outside it – is no more settled than it was half a century ago when Israeli paratroopers fought their way through the same streets to the Western Wall.
For the Israeli right wing, the six-day war is seen as a definitive event, a theme articulated by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the cabinet meeting that announced the funding for the celebration, when he described it as “one of the greatest victories in the history of Israel”.
“It brought us back to parts of our homeland and completely changed our strategic situation,” he said.
More explicit still has been Israel’s controversial culture minister, the far-right Miri Regev, who has described the planned celebration as touching “every Israeli, because these parts of were always, and will remain, the heart of the greater land of Israel”.
She said: “These are the areas where Abraham struck the roots of the Hebrew nation, and they are full of Jewish history from then until today. Regardless of the disagreements regarding the conflict over these areas, every Israeli must know and cherish these places as the cradle of the Jewish nation and its culture.”
In many respects a conflict of the cold war, the six-day war redrew the map of the Middle East, confirming Israel as a regional power and ending the notion that the new state could be swept away by the strength of the Arab armies. And while it opened the way to peace with Jordan and Egypt, it inaugurated a new and darker chapter in the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians that Israel now ruled over.
Pitting Israel against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the conflict followed tense weeks of military buildup by Egypt, which had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping with its armoured forces close to the border with Israel. The response was a pre-emptive Israeli air attack by almost 200 planes that targeted the Egyptian air forces on the ground. As Jordan joined the war, Israeli forces quickly fought their way into east Jerusalem, overrunning the positions occupied in the city by Jordanian forces for 19 years.
The West Bank and Gaza also fell quickly to Israeli forces, while in the north they pushed back the Syrian military to take the Golan Heights, and in the south pushed deep into the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.
But if the war was short, its continuing aftermath has dragged on for decades, a reality some would foresee even immediately after the fighting. Writing in August 1967, barely three months after the end of the conflict, a young Amos Oz – now one of Israel’s most celebrated writers – was among a number to caution against the sense of national celebration, recognising that the conquest also meant occupation, not least of the populous Palestinian territories.
“We are condemned now to rule people who do not want to be ruled by us,” he wrote bleakly in the long-defunct Labour newspaper Davar. “I have fears about the kind of seeds we will sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. Even more, I have fears about the seed that will be planted in the hearts of the occupiers.”
Others – even from within the same Labour movement as Oz – took a starkly different approach. The Nobel prize-winning novelist Shai Agnon and others in his circle produced a manifesto “loyally committing to the wholeness of our land”, adding that “no government in Israel is entitled to relinquish this wholeness”.
It is an argument that has persisted in Israeli society through the decades, becoming ever more hardened – between those who believe in swapping the land captured in 1967 for peace, as happened with Egypt and was proposed for Syria – and a resurgent pro-settler right wing, now in the driving seat, that sees a greater Israel between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean as a promised messianic imperative.
If the description of the planned Gush Etzion celebrations sums up that latter sentiment, the left’s position was laid out in the Israeli daily Haaretz on 7 April.
“From the military point of view, it was indeed a ‘glorious’ war, which was seen as justified,” the paper stated. “But it was also a war that generated a fundamental transformation in Israeli society.
“It led to the growth of unbridled national arrogance, which exacted an awful price in blood over the past 50 years and turned the military victory into a moral defeat. In retrospect, it should be called the 50 Year War, not the Six-day war, and judging by the political situation, its life expectancy appears endless.”
The writer Gideon Levy, a Haaretz columnist, has long been one of the most tenacious and trenchant critics of the impact of the Israeli occupation that followed the victory in 1967. He believes, however, that – outside of the pro-settlement right – the 50th anniversary of the war and what followed it will be marked mostly by apathy.
“I think most Israelis will be quite indifferent,” he said. “It is a society in denial. It is a society totally preoccupied with private affairs. No one but the settlers will celebrate. But, also, no one will mourn. In that respect, Gush Etzion is the right place to mark it, because only settlers will feel the day. In Tel Aviv, people couldn’t care less and no artificial effort by the government can change that.”
Other Israeli commentators have argued that the planned celebrations have missed an opportunity: focusing not on a national narrative where there is most consensus – most notably the idea of a “defensive war” against heavy odds – but on its problematic consequence.
Among those who served during the war is Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, a seventh generation Jerusalemite, whose family moved to the city in 1809 and who still remembers his emotions.
Like many of his generation – both secular and religious – he recalls the sense of euphoria at the news of the conquest of east Jerusalem and the Western Wall.
“I was a reserve intelligence officer in the Jerusalem Brigade,” he said last week. “I remember it so clearly. I was in an army Jeep travelling between Bethlehem and Hebron, when I heard over the two-way radio the voices of my fellow soldiers.
“We could hardly believe it. The Temple Mount [as Jews call the area where the Second Temple is located, also revered as the third holiest place in Islam] is in our hands. I can never forget this. We all felt the history – and the future – of Israel, of the Jewish people, rested on our shoulders… We had returned home.”
But while Rivlin, a member of the same Likud party as Netanyahu, talks about a need for coexistence within the city, he is also starkly aware of how it persists as a contested space.
“For 50 years, Jerusalem has been ours, but we have not let her rest. Some want to divide her, some want to see her grow, some want to see her shrink. The city is pulled and pushed and argued about, here and all over the world.
“As we mark the half a century since the city was reunited, I believe the time has come to bring peace to Jerusalem. To grow within her an Israeli hope, a hope for Jerusalem: the city which welcomes pilgrims from all communities, from all over the world. This is our duty now more than ever. To work to develop and preserve our city. It is not enough that the city is united if its people are still divided.”
Another of Israel’s most prominent politicians is the centre-right Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, whose party is challenging Netanyahu’s Likud for supremacy in the polls. He sees a different dynamic 50 years after the war.
“You have two competing things going on,” he told the Observer at the country’s parliament, the Knesset. “The first is the fact that the Zionist dream couldn’t have been completed without the unification of Jerusalem.
“My father was the most secular person you could ever meet, and a very devoted atheist. He decided when there was a boat in Europe after the [second world] war to come here, not go to the US or the UK.
“Not because [of] the future office buildings in Tel Aviv, but because he had this yearning for the Tower of David and the Western Wall, reconnecting to the places of [the prophets] Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel.
“[But] the other understanding is that – promised the right security measures – we have no interest in ruling 2.9 million Palestinians. We have nothing to look for in Nablus and Ramallah, and therefore we need to separate from this idea. Not because it is theirs, but because we are willing to give up on something that is ours in order to divorce from a situation that threatens the Jewish character of Israel.
“Which is why we cannot discuss the result of the six-day war as one conclusion or a one-dimensional result. It is like anything else in this country. It’s complicated.”
It is a complexity that has been dissected by historians including Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris. Shlaim, author of The Iron Wall, an acclaimed study of Israel’s military policies, has made a close study of the cabinet and general staff papers from the war. Although he agrees that it was a defensive war, he argues that – in the ease of the victory and in the national sense of joy – opportunities were lost, not least for a wider peace.
“Zionism [the historic movement for Jewish self determination in its own state] lost its way in 1967, that’s the crucial thing,” he told the Observer. “The main aim of the Zionist movement before the war was the establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. But by the eve of the war that objective had already been achieved. The victory in 1967 reopened the old question of the territorial aims of Zionism.
“And the two trends that emerged cut across party lines … the big division after 1967 was between those who accepted the division of Palestine as a solution and those saying the West Bank was an integral part of the land of Israel. And in an Israeli society split down the middle, the government resolved the dilemma by deciding not to decide.”
For Benny Morris, currently a visiting professor of Israel studies at Georgetown University, the victory was conflicted in another way as well. “The ultimate consequence is that, paradoxically, the war both contributed to advancing towards peace with the Arabs as well as undermining the peace between Israel and the Arabs.
“On the one hand it contributed to peace because it was so decisive that it persuaded the Arab regimes that Israel couldn’t be beaten militarily, and it gave Israel the bargaining chips in terms of land it could give in Sinai for peace with the Egyptians.
“On the other hand it gave rise in Israel to a messianic rightwing expansionism and ideology that had not really existed before 1967. Once Israel took over the West Bank and more and more settlements were built, these became a major obstacle that worked against peace.”
The memorial on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill is the best known national site dedicated to the six-day war . The scene of the fiercest fighting in the city, between Jordanian and Israeli paratroopers, its fall on 7 June opened the way for the quick capture of east Jerusalem, a pivot on which the history of the region has turned for half a century.
The paratroopers who fought here would be the same men who would continue through the city via Mount Scopus, the lanes of the Old City and finally the Western Wall itself.
Once an isolated outpost, these days it is part of a city that has grown around it, its trenches and a bunker preserved for posterity. Last week it was buzzing with activity. Groups wandered the grounds, one wearing black-and-white T-shirts with the number 50, while workers set up stands for an official commemoration ceremony this week.
Among the visitors were Yehudit Katz and Adara Zak, both aged 80. “The most important thing,” said Katz, when asked about the legacy of the war, “is that Jerusalem is unified.”
“It’s not unified,” interjected her friend quickly. “Everything is still under a question mark.”
In his museum office, Alon Wald, the site’s events and marketing manager, was keen to escape the political and ideological debates around the war. But then the conflict has a particular and visceral meaning for him. His father, Rami, was one of the 36 Israeli soldiers killed during the fighting on the hill, 50 metres from where Alon’s office is now. He admits that has defined much of his life.
“I am 50 myself. I belong to the next generation of Israelis to the men who fought here.”
He said that this year he would like the events marking the anniversary to be elevated above politics, if only for a moment. “It is about belonging,” he explained. “A sense of connection.”
Perhaps the final word should be left to the celebrated Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who in his cycle, Jerusalem 1967, described a return to the city after the war – depicting the conflict’s legacy in emotional terms where a sense of historic foreboding is never far away:
I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus-routes but 70 After, 1917, 500 BC,
Forty-Eight. These are the lines
you really travel on.
And already the demons of the past are meeting
with the demons of the future and negotiating about me
above me, their give-and-take neither giving nor taking,
in the high arches of shell-orbits above my head
Fifty years on that anxiety persists.
HOW THE WAR UNFOLDED
Events immediately leading up to the outbreak of war were messy and sometimes contradictory in intent, underpinned by Soviet disinformation about an Israeli plan to attack Syria, then in the midst of worsening border tensions.
After mobilising its troops against a perceived Israeli threat, Egypt moves its forces into the Sinai peninsular as UN forces withdraw. Barely a week later, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, right, orders the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Israel, warned by US president Lyndon Johnson not to pre-empt a war, begins calling up its forces as Arab armies 200,000-strong mass on the border. On 27 May, Nasser cancels a planned attack, believing that Israel has discovered the plans.
After an Israeli cabinet briefing that Jordan, Egypt and Syria are preparing to attack on three fronts, Israel orders a surprise air attack against the Egyptian air force, destroying most of its craft on the ground. Jordanian and Syrian airfields are then also targeted. In response, Syria and Jordan, joined by Iraq, launch air strikes on Haifa, Netanya and other Israeli targets.
In a lightning advance, Israel takes Gaza, Ras el Naqeb and Jebel Libni from Egypt. In Jerusalem, Israeli paratroopers capture Ammunition Hill from the Jordanian army, opening the way to capture east Jerusalem and the Old City.
Egypt’s Nasser turns down a UN ceasefire proposal. As Israel advances into the Sinai, its forces capture Nablus and Jericho.
The southern West Bank city of Hebron is captured by Israel as Egypt accepts a ceasefire .
Israel orders an attack to capture Golan Heights.
Israel gains Golan Heights. Ceasefire with Syria is agreed.
• Clarification added 9 August 2017: The introduction to this article referred to an expected curfew based on events of previous years. However, in 2017 there was no official order to close businesses, although there was a de facto curfew because streets were closed by the police, who also advised shopkeepers to shut.