Monday, June 04, 2007

Matt 24 Watch, 22: Reflections on the 1967 Six-Day War

Monday, June 5, 1967 -- the opening day of the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War -- marks a decisive break-point in the history of the Middle East and wider world, but one which (given the ways in which such things are commonly reported in the media and/or discussed even in academic circles and the resulting poisonous atmosphere) it is very easy to misunderstand or misperceive.

Accordingly, it is important for us to discuss it here, to attempt to provide at least a few balancing insights and contextual factors that are too often left out of the reckoning.

In so doing, I must first draw attention to a brief background survey on the history of modern Israel here, and also to a pamphlet on balancing some of the more strident views that see Israel as the unequivocal villain of the yet playing out story in the Middle East.

Also, it would be instructive for those who are inclined to disagree with what follows, to read the 1919 Versailles Treaty side agreement between Feisal Hussein, a leader of the then emerging "Arab Nation" and Chaim Weizmann, representing the Jewish nationalist movement. For, these men mutually recognised the legitimacy of each other's aspirations, and sought the mutually supportive development of the Arab and Jewish nations in the Middle East. If only the letter and spirit of this document had been honoured! (But,at least, we can learn from the sad actual history and maybe turn away from the road to disaster that so plainly looms before us . . .)

[NB: My own view on the rights and wrongs of he ME situation, is first that
all of us are finite, fallible, fallen and too often ill-willed, so the Israelis are obviously not without blame. But, when all is said and done on the sins of Israel, it does not warrant the idea that Israel is simply an Apartheid- like Western Colonialist/ Imperialist outpost imposed on the Palestinians who were living there "from time immemorial." Indeed, by sharpest contrast, the very existence of a Palestinain Arab national identity as such is in the main a response of Arabs to the assertion and success of Jewish nationalism in the land. It is fair comment to observe that Israel is a legitimate example of a people group seeking and succeeding in re-establishing their nation in their historic homeland [which, through repeatedly exiled from, they had never abandoned], and in general they have sought to do so on good terms with their neighbours, e.g by buying ruinate land -- often at massively inflated prices -- then restoring the soil to production. In that, I can note that, say, a Dr Martin Luther King agrees with me on at least the material points. (Observe,too: this just linked note corrects on the authenticity of his claimed letter on Zionism, but points out the actual thoughts and words of Dr King on the matter.)]

So, now, back to the story . . .

Monday, June 5, 1967, 7:10 AM, Israel time: under Operation Moked ["focus"] some two hundred jet aircraft sortied out of Israel in fours, then flew low and fast over the Mediterranean, to attack Egyptian air bases in the Sinai and as far west as Cairo, at 8:15 AM. Only twelve Mirages were left behind to guard Israel.

Why such a desperate gamble? (For,
gamble this plainly was.)

In brief:
1] The Ring of steel: On every land frontier, by late May 1967, Israel faced massed Arab armies, totalling about half a million men, with 800 aircraft and 2,700 tanks. In particular, in May, Egypt had instructed the UN peacekeepers -- who had been placed there after the 1956 war over Egypt's earlier closing of the Straights of Tiran -- to withdraw, and had put five infantry divisions and two armoured divisions facing Israel's Negev. Many of the Arab tanks were modern Soviet tanks [T54s, 55s, 62/4s], and it is noteworthy that 520 of Israel's tank force of about 900 were rebuilt ex-junkyard or at best second-hand World War II Shermans, a tank which had basically been obsolete by 1944. [The modern tanks used by the Arabs were evolved forms of those designed to defeat Germany's Tigers and Panthers; which in 1944 routinely made mincemeat of Sherman tank (and T34) units. Only the semi-obsolescent M48's (120 combat-ready) and Mark III or V Centurions ( 293 combat ready) used by Israel were comparable to the Arab tanks.]

2] The ticking clock: To face these armies, Israel (which had only a rather small regular army) had to mobilise the reserve units of its citizen army, which meant that its economy more or less came to a standstill. As Foreign Minister Abba Eban said in his June 7 Speech to the UN Security Council: ". . . there was peril for Israel wherever it looked. Its manpower had been hastily mobilized. Its economy and commerce were beating with feeble pulses. Its streets were dark and empty. There was an apocalyptic air of approaching peril. And Israel faced this danger alone."
3] The choke-hold on oil: By blocking the Straights of Tiran in the teeth of international agreements and guarantees, Egypt not only cut off Israel's trade with the far east, but also cut off its oil lifeline to the Shah's Iran, through the port of Eilat on the Red Sea's eastern wing. Thus, Israel was being choked to death just by the armies sitting there on its borders. This was in fact, an act of war, and had already led to a previous war in 1956. Nor, was that fact unknown to the Egyptians. The semi-official Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, May 26, confidently declared that closing the Straits of Tiran “…put Israel in a situation where it had to react…for many reasons, chiefly the psychological, Israel cannot accept or remain indifferent to what has taken place…Israel has to reply now. It has to deal a blow…Then it will be our turn to deal a second blow, which we will deliver with the utmost possible effectiveness…Let Israel begin! Let our second blow then be ready! Let it be a knockout!”

4] The threat to slice off Eilat: Israel's port on the Red Sea faced 200 - 400 Egyptian tanks, which could easily have lopped it off by driving across the narrow tip of the Negev. As Abba Eban noted to the UN Security Council, on June 6: "A special striking force, comprising an armoured division with at least 200 tanks, was concentrated against Eilat at the Negev's southern tip. Here was a clear design to cut the southern Negev off from the main body of our State. For Egypt had openly proclaimed that Eilat did not form part of Israel and had predicted that Israel itself would soon expire."

5] The May 28 threatened invasion: In fact, on credible reports, on or about May 28, Nasser nearly tried to do just that. He was within hours or possibly minutes of launching Operation Dawn, an armoured thrust across the Negev intended to cut Israel in two, when he was dissuaded by the Americans and the Soviets from initiating military operations. [Cf pp 7, 35 here.]

6] The Arab declarations: Cairo's Radio’s Voice of the Arabs broadcast of May 18, 1967 shortly after the UN force was asked to withdraw, gives a flavour of the Arab attitude: "The Zionist barrack in Palestine is about to collapse and be destroyed. Every one of the hundred million Arabs has been living for the past nineteen years on one hope – to live to see the day Israel is liquidated…There is no life, no peace nor hope for the gangs of Zionism to remain in the occupied land." Note in particular, that Israel's existence even within the undefensible 1949 ceasefire lines was viewed as "occupation of Arab land," to be eliminated, and with ferocious consequences for the Jewish people. People who were living in their historic homeland under international agreements made through the League of Nations and United Nations. Nasser, President of Egypt, on May 26, declared in a speech personally monitored by Eban: "We intend to open a general assault against Israel. This will be total war. Our basic aim will be to destroy Israel."

7] The Syria Crisis & Soviet provocation: For several years, there had been tensions and artillery exchanges across the border with Syria, which were heightened by a Soviet declaration that Israel had massed troops on its Northern border with intent to invade Syria. The reports were false and in fact mischievous, but were the excuse for inserting Egyptian troops into the Sinai.
So serious was this that the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces reportedly had a nervous breakdown in May, and the Prime Minister was similarly suddenly reduced to stammering during an address to the nation. Mass graves were dug, and there were those who grimly decided to take their own and their family's lives in the end, rather than subject their wives and children to the armies that threatened the most bloodcurdling slaughter.

No wonder, then, that the IDF's planners concluded that an all-out pre-emptive strike to decisively shift the balance of air power -- even though it was bound to be viewed in many quarters as an aggressive act (never mind the already existing act of war by Egypt, i.e closing off the Straights of Tiran, and the ineffectual-as-usual international response) -- was in effect the only credible strategic option for an Israel facing the openly declared threat of annihilation.

So, they rolled the dice, betting their air force on the outcome of a carefully prepared surprise attack timed to catch the Egyptian Air Force on the ground after routine Dawn patrols. They succeeded, destroying some 300 Egyptian Aircraft and crippling the air bases,and later in the day as well, the air forces and bases of the Jordanians and Syrians (who had both started air operations against Israel).

The cost for the day was steep: nineteen aircraft, about 1/10 of the strike force.

But, in three hours, they decisively shifted the balance of air power. With that force multiplier in hand, the IDF's units were able to go up against the seven divisions in the Sinai with three ad hoc divisions, and two independent brigades, plus a naval striking force against the blockade at Tiran.

The unexpected development of a front in the West Bank then intervened, and units had to be diverted to fight with the Jordanians on an ad hoc basis, capturing the West Bank and Jerusalem after bloody, largely improvised battles.

Finally, forces were concentrated on the Golan Heights, and the Israelis captured key posts there, reversing the situation where for nineteen years Syrians on the heights had routinely fired on Israeli settlements and fishing boats in the Galilee. (This had led to a longstanding low-grade war across the border.)

As a result of these swift battles, in six days, the ring of steel was broken, and Israel found itself unexpectedly in control of Sinai, the Gaza strip, the West Bank, and much of the Golan Heights -- which BTW has originally been part of the Palestinian Mandate under the League of Nations, but had been handed over to French-controlled Syria by the British. (These were the Mandatory Powers, in succession to the Ottoman Empire which had been defeated during the First World War, and collapsed. Arising form this, the various Mandates set the basis for the modern states from Iraq to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.)

Immediately thereafter, Israel offered to return the captured lands, in exchange for true peace. In the aftermath of the Khartoum Conference's "Three No's" by the Arab states -- to peace with, recognition of, or even negotiations with, Israel -- this window of opportunity passed. (Israel had similarly extended an olive branch after the 1948-9 war, and had been rebuffed at that time as well.)

Soon, border/ceasefire line fighting restarted, leading to the War of Attrition.

Sadat tried two-track actions, on one hand threatening to renew fighting and on the other apparently offering to negotiate for the return of the Sinai. In turn, Israel misread the opportunity, and so was subjected to the simultaneous surprise attacks in the Golan and Sinai on October 6 1973 which nearly led to nuclear war in the Middle East. For, 1,500 Syrian tanks broke through the lines in the Golan, which were held by some 150 Israeli tanks. The tanks mysteriously withdrew -- maybe in part motivated by the ferocity of the stand taken by the few remaining Israeli tanks opposing them -- and the tide was turned; in large part, due to an American decision to resupply the Israelis.

In the Sinai, after some of the most ferocious and bloody tank battles ever fought, the Israelis invaded Egypt proper, and surrounded one of the Egyptian armies that had crossed the Suez Canal, leading to a ceasefire.

Thereafter, in 1977 - 79, Sadat made a separate peace treaty with Israel, which eventually cost him his life at the hands of Islamist extremists.

In 1986, Jordan was on the verge of a power-sharing agreement with Israel over the West Bank, when the first Intifada broke out, just as the second did when the Oslo peace process came to a climax with the 2000 negotiations. (In short, these latter wars have broken out every time a settlement short of the destruction of Israel was at hand.)

Subsequent to Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, such assymetric warfare has again surfaced, leading at length to the two-front mini-war of 2006 after two abductions of soldiers inside Israel.

Peace is as far away as ever, in short.

One for prayer and for careful, sober, realistic reflection. END

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