Six-Day War in 1967 Reshaped the Middle East

Conflict Between Israel and Arab Neighbors

Israeli tanks in the Six-Day War
Israeli tanks advancing in the Six-Day War.

Shabtai Tal / Getty Images

The 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors shocked the world and resulted in an Israeli victory that created the boundaries of the modern Middle East. The war came after weeks of taunts by the leader of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, that his nation, joined by Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, would destroy Israel.

The roots of the 1967 war dated back nearly two decades, to the founding of Israel in 1948, the war against Arab neighbors that immediately followed, and the perennial state of hostilities that came to exist in the region.

Fast Facts: The Six-Day War

  • June 1967 war between Israel and Arab neighbors changed the map of the Middle East and transformed the region for decades.
  • Egypt’s leader, Nasser, vowed to destroy Israel in May 1967.
  • Combined Arab nations massed troops to attack Israel.
  • Israel struck first with devastating air raids.
  • Ceasefire ended conflict after six intense days of fighting. Israel gained territory and redefined the Middle East.
  • Casualties: Israeli: approximately 900 killed, 4,500 wounded. Egyptian: approximately 10,000 killed, unknown number wounded (official numbers never released). Syrian: approximately 2,000 killed, unknown number wounded (official number never released).

When the Six-Day War ended with a ceasefire, the borders of the Middle East had effectively been redrawn. The previously divided city of Jerusalem came under Israeli control, as did the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai.

Background to the Six-Day War

The outbreak of war in the summer of 1967 followed a decade of upheaval and change in the Arab world. One constant was antagonism toward Israel. In addition, a project which diverted the waters of the Jordan River from Israel nearly resulted in open warfare.

During the early 1960s, Egypt, which had been a perennial opponent of Israel, was in a state of relative peace with its neighbor, partly the result of United Nations peacekeeping troops placed on their shared border.

Elsewhere on Israel's borders, sporadic incursions by Palestinian guerrillas became a persistent problem. Tensions were heightened by an Israeli air strike on a Jordanian village that was used to launch attacks against Israel, and by an aerial battle with Syrian jets in April 1967. Egypt's Nasser, who had long supported Pan Arabism, a political movement urging Arab nations to join together, began to make plans for war against Israel.

Egypt began moving troops to the Sinai, close to the border with Israel. Nasser also closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and openly declared, on May 26, 1967, that he intended to destroy Israel.

On May 30, 1967, Jordan's King Hussein arrived in Cairo, Egypt, and signed a pact which put Jordan's military under Egyptian control. Iraq soon did the same. The Arab nations prepared for war and made no effort to conceal their intentions. American newspapers reported the intensifying crisis in the Middle East as front-page news in the early days of June 1967. Throughout the region, including in Israel, Nasser could be heard on the radio issuing threats against Israel.

Egyptian jets destroyed on their runways in the Six-Day War.
Egyptian jets bombed on their runways in the Six-Day War. GPO via Getty Images

Fighting Began

The Six-Day War began on the morning of June 5, 1967, when Israeli and Egyptian forces clashed along Israel's southern border in the region of the Sinai. The first strike was an aerial attack by Israel, in which jets, flying low to evade radar, attacked Arab warplanes as they sat on their runways. It was estimated that 391 Arab planes were destroyed on the ground and another 60 were shot down in aerial combat. The Israelis lost 19 planes, with some pilots taken prisoner.

With the Arab air forces essentially taken out of the fight at the very outset, the Israelis possessed air superiority. The Israeli Air Force could support its ground forces in the fighting that soon followed.

At 8:00 a.m. on June 5, 1967, Israeli ground forces advanced on Egyptian forces which had massed along the border with the Sinai. The Israelis fought against seven Egyptian brigades supported by approximately 1,000 tanks. Intense fighting continued through the day, as the advancing Israeli columns came under fierce attacks. The combat continued into the night, and by the morning of June 6, Israeli troops had advanced far into Egyptian positions.

By the night of June 6, Israel had seized the Gaza Strip, and its forces in the Sinai, led by armored divisions, were driving toward the Suez Canal. Egyptian forces, which hadn't been able to retreat in time, were encircled and destroyed.

As the Egyptian troops were getting battered, Egyptian commanders gave the order to retreat from the Sinai Peninsula and cross the Suez Canal. Within 48 hours of Israeli troops beginning the campaign, they reached the Suez Canal and effectively controlled the entire Sinai Peninsula.

Jordan and the West Bank

On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel had sent a message through a U.N. ambassador that Israel did not intend to fight against Jordan. But King Hussein of Jordan, honoring his pact with Nasser, had his forces begin shelling Israeli positions along the border. Israeli positions in the city of Jerusalem were attacked by artillery and there were many casualties. (The ancient city had been divided since a ceasefire at the end of the 1948 war. The western part of the city was under Israeli control, with the eastern part, which contained the old city, under Jordanian control.)

In response to Jordanian shelling, Israeli troops moved into the West Bank and attacked East Jerusalem.

Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 11, 1967.  Dan Porges/Getty Images

Fighting in and around the city of Jerusalem continued for two days. On the morning of June 7, 1967, Israeli troops entered the Old City of Jerusalem, which had been under Arab control since 1948. The ancient area was secured, and at 10:15 a.m., the Israeli flag was raised over Temple Mount. The holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall ( also known as the Wailing Wall) was in Israel's possession. Israeli troops celebrated by praying at the wall.

Israeli forces took a number of other towns and villages, including Bethlehem, Jericho, and Ramallah.

Headline at the United Nations during the Six-Day War.
Newspaper headline at the United Nations during the Six-Day War. Bettmann/Getty Images

Syria and the Golan Heights

During the first days of the war action was only sporadic along the front with Syria. The Syrians seemed to believe the Egyptians were winning the conflict against Israel, and made token attacks against Israeli positions.

As the situation stabilized on the fronts with Egypt and Jordan, the United Nations called for a ceasefire. On June 7, Israel agreed to the ceasefire, as did Jordan. Egypt rejected the ceasefire at first, but agreed to it the following day.

Syria rejected the ceasefire and continued to shell Israeli villages along its border. The Israelis decided to take action and move against Syrian positions on the heavily fortified Golan Heights. The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Dayan, gave the order to begin the assault before a ceasefire could end the fighting.

On the morning of June 9, 1967, the Israelis began their campaign against the Golan Heights. The Syrian troops were dug into fortified positions, and the fighting became intense as Israeli tanks and Syrian tanks maneuvered for advantage in very difficult terrain. On June 10, the Syrian troops retreated and Israel seized strategic positions on the Golan Heights. Syria accepted the ceasefire that day.

Consequences of the Six-Day War

The brief yet intense war was a stunning victory for the Israelis. Though outnumbered, the Israelis inflicted heavy casualties on its Arab enemies. In the Arab world, the war was demoralizing. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had been boasting of his plans to destroy Israel, announced he would resign as the nation's leader until massive demonstrations urged him to stay on.

For Israel, the victories on the battlefield proved it was the dominant military force in the region, and it validated its policy of unyielding self-defense. The war also began a new era in Israeli history, as it brought more than one million Palestinians in occupied territories under Israeli rule.

Sources:

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  • "The Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, 1967." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 7: 1960-1969, Gale, 2001. Gale eBooks.
  • "Arab-Israeli War of 1967." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 156-159. Gale eBooks.