Blog post

The June 1967 War Was a War of "No Choice"

This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, fought from 5-10 June 1967. Israel’s decisive victory included the capture of east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories – the West Bank and Gaza – as well as the Golan Heights and Sinai. The end of the war marked the beginning of what has become a 50-year military occupation of the West Bank. In Ten Myths About Israel, Ilan Pappe describes ‘The June 1967 War Was a War of “No Choice”’ as a core myth of Israel.

Ilan Pappe 6 June 2017

The June 1967 War Was a War of "No Choice"

This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, fought from 5-10 June 1967. Israel’s decisive victory included the capture of east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories – the West Bank and Gaza – as well as the Golan Heights and Sinai. The end of the war marked the beginning of what has become a 50-year military occupation of the West Bank. In Ten Myths About Israel, Ilan Pappe describes ‘The June 1967 War Was a War of “No Choice”’ as a core myth of Israel.

Israeli armoured troop unit entering Gaza during the Six-Day War, June 6, 1967.

However, the most important factor in the rush to war was the absence of any authoritative challenge to the warmongering within the Israeli leadership at the time. This might have offered some form of internal friction delaying the hawks’ pursuit of conflict, allowing the international community to look for a peaceful resolution. A diplomatic effort led by the United States was still in its early stages when Israel launched its attack on all its Arab neighbors on June 5, 1967. There was no intention in the Israeli cabinet of providing the necessary time to the peace brokers. This was a golden opportunity not to be missed.

In crucial Israeli cabinet meetings before the war, Abba Eban naively asked the chiefs of staff and his colleagues what the difference was between the 1960 crisis and the 1967 situation, as he thought the latter could have been resolved in the same way. It “is a matter of honor and deterrence” was the reply. Eban replied that losing young soldiers only for the sake of honor and deterrence was too high a human price to be paid. I suspect that other things were said to him that have not been recorded in the minutes, probably about his need to understand that this was a historical opportunity to correct the “fatal historical mistake” of not occupying the West Bank in 1948.

The war began early in the morning of June 5 with an Israeli attack on the Egyptian air force, which nearly destroyed it. This was followed the same day with similar assaults on the air forces of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Israeli forces also invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula and in the next few days reached the Suez Canal, occupying the whole of the peninsula. The attack on the Jordanian air force triggered the Jordanian capture of a small UN zone between the two parts of Jerusalem. Within three days, after fierce fighting, the Israeli army had captured East Jerusalem (on June 7), and two days later they drove the Jordanian army out of the West Bank.

On June 7, the Israeli government was still uncertain about opening a new front against the Syrians on the Golan Heights, but the remarkable successes on the other front convinced the politicians to allow the army to occupy the Golan Heights. By June 11, Israel had become a mini-empire, controlling the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. In this chapter I will focus on the Israeli decision to occupy the West Bank.

On the eve of the war, Jordan had entered into a military alliance with Egypt and Syria according to which, the moment Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan was obliged to enter the war. Notwithstanding this commitment, King Hussein sent clear messages to Israel that if war began he would have to do something, but that it would be short and would not entail a real war (this was very similar to his grandfather’s position in 1948). In practice, the Jordanian involvement was more than symbolic. It included a heavy bombardment of West Jerusalem and the eastern suburbs of Tel Aviv. However, it is important to note what Jordan was reacting to: its air force had been totally destroyed by Israel a couple of hours earlier, at noon on June 5. King Hussein thus felt obliged to react more forcefully than he probably intended.

The problem was that the army was not under his control, but was commanded by an Egyptian general. The common narrative of these events is based on Hussein’s own memoirs and those of Dean Rusk, the American Secretary of State at the time. According to this narrative, Israel sent a conciliatory message to Hussein urging him to stay out of the war (even though it had destroyed the Jordanian air force). On the first day Israel was still willing not to go too far in its assault on Jordan, but the latter’s reaction to the destruction of its air force led Israel into a much wider operation on the second day. Hussein actually wrote in his memoirs that he hoped all the time someone would stop the madness as he could not disobey the Egyptians nor risk a war. On the second day he urged the Israelis to calm down and only then, according to this narrative, did Israel proceed to a larger operation.

There are two problems with this narrative. How can one reconcile the assault on the Jordanian air force with the sending of a reconciliatory message? More importantly, even if Israel was still hesitant about its policy towards Jordan on the first day, it is clear even from this narrative that by the second day it did not wish to give Jordan any respite. As Norman Finkelstein has rightly noted, if you wanted to destroy what was left of the Jordanian army and retain your relationship with the one Arab country most loyal to Israel, a short operation in the West Bank, without occupying it, would have sufficed.17 The Israeli historian Moshe Shemesh has examined the Jordanian sources and concluded that, after Israel attacked the Palestinian village of Samua in November 1966, in an attempt to defeat the Palestinian guerrillas, the Jordanian high command was persuaded that Israel intended to occupy the West Bank by force. They were not wrong.

This did not happen as feared in 1966, but a year later. The whole of Israeli society was galvanized around the messianic project of “liberating” the holy places of Judaism, with Jerusalem as the jewel in the new crown of Greater Israel. Left- and right-wing Zionists, and Israel’s supporters in the West, were also caught up in, and mesmerized by, this euphoric hysteria. In addition, there was no intention of leaving the West Bank and the Gaza Strip immediately after their occupation; in fact there was no desire to leave them at all. This should stand as further proof of Israeli responsibility for the final deterioration of the May 1967 crisis into a full-blown war.

How important this historical juncture was for Israel can be seen from the way the government withstood the strong international pressure to withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967, as demanded in the famous UN Security Council Resolution 242 very shortly after the war ended. As readers probably know, a Security Council resolution is more binding than a resolution by the General Assembly. And this was one of the few Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel that was not vetoed by the United States.

We now have access to the minutes of a meeting of the Israeli government in the immediate days after the occupation. This was the thirteenth government of Israel and its composition is very relevant to the argument I am making here. It was a unity government of a kind not seen before, or after, in Israel. Every shade of the Zionist and Jewish political spectrum was represented. Apart from the Communist Party, every other party had a representative in the government, from left to right and center. Socialist parties such as Mapam, right-wing parties like Menachem Begin’s Herut, the liberals, and the religious parties were all included. The sense you get from reading the minutes is that the ministers knew they represented a wide consensus in their own society. This conviction was further energized by the euphoric atmosphere that engulfed Israel after the triumphant blitzkrieg that lasted only six days. Against this background, we can better understand the decisions these ministers took in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Moreover, many of these politicians had been waiting since 1948 for this moment. I would go even further and say that the takeover of the West Bank in particular, with its ancient biblical sites, was a Zionist aim even before 1948 and it fitted the logic of the Zionist project as a whole. This logic can be summarized as the wish to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians as possible. The consensus, the euphoria, and the historical context explain why none of the subsequent Israeli governments have ever deviated from the decisions these ministers took.

The first decision they made was that Israel could not exist without the West Bank. Direct and indirect methods of controlling the region were offered by the minister of agriculture, Yigal Alon, when he distinguished between areas where Jewish settlements could be built and areas that were densely populated by Palestinians, which should be ruled indirectly. Alon changed his mind within a few years about the method of indirect rule. At first he hoped that the Jordanians would be tempted to help Israel rule parts of the West Bank (probably, although this was never spelled out, by maintaining Jordanian citizenships and laws in the “Arab areas” of the West Bank). However, a lukewarm Jordanian response to this plan tilted him towards Palestinian self-rule in those areas as the best way forward.

The second decision was that the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would not be incorporated into the state of Israel as citizens. This did not include the Palestinians living in what Israel regarded at the time as the new “Greater Jerusalem” area. The definition of that area, and who in it was entitled to Israeli citizenship, changed whenever this space grew in size. The greater the Greater Jerusalem became, the larger the number of Palestinians in it. Today there are 200,000 Palestinians within what is defined as the Greater Jerusalem area. To ensure that not all of them are counted as Israeli citizens, quite a few of their neighborhoods were declared to be West Bank villages. It was clear to the government that denying citizenship on the one hand, and not allowing independence on the other, condemned the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to life without basic civil and human rights.

The next question therefore was how long the Israeli army would occupy the Palestinian areas. It seems that for most ministers the answer was, and still is: for a very long time. For instance, Moshe Dayan, the minister of defense, on one occasion threw into the air a period of fty years. We are now in the fiftieth year of the occupation.

The third decision was associated with the peace process. As mentioned earlier, the international community expected Israel to return the territories it had occupied in exchange for peace. The Israeli government was willing to negotiate with Egypt over the future of the Sinai Peninsula and with Syria over the Golan Heights, but not over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In one brief press conference in 1967, the prime minister at the time, Levy Eshkol, said as much.  But soon his colleagues understood that public declarations of this kind were unhelpful, to put it mildly. Therefore, this strategic position was never explicitly acknowledged again in the public domain. What we do have is clear statements from a few individuals, most prominent among them Dan Bavli, who were part of the senior team of officials charged with strategizing the policy towards the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In retrospect, Bavli reports that the unwillingness to negotiate, especially over the West Bank, underlined the Israeli policy at the time (and I would add: and ever since). Bavli described this policy as an “addition to belligerence and short sightedness” that replaced any search for a solution: “The various Israeli governments talked a lot about peace but did very little to achieve it.” What the Israelis invented there and then is what Noam Chomsky has called a “complete farce.” They understood that talking about peace does not mean they cannot establish on the ground irreversible facts that will defeat the very idea of peace.

Readers may ask, and rightly so, whether there was no peace camp or liberal Zionist position at the time that genuinely sought peace. Indeed there was, and perhaps there still is one today. However, from the very beginning it was marginal and had the support of only a small section of the electorate. Decisions are made in Israel by a core group of politicians, generals, and strategists who lay down policy, regardless of public debates. Moreover, the only way to judge, in hindsight at least, what the Israeli strategy might be is not through the discourse of the state’s policy makers but through their actions on the ground. For example, the policy declarations of the 1967 unity government might have differed from those of the Labor governments that ruled Israel until 1977, and from those voiced by the Likud governments that have ruled Israel intermittently up until today (with the exception of a few years in which the now extinct Kadima party led the Sharon and Olmert governments in the first decade of the twenty-first century). The actions of each regime, however, have been the same, remaining loyal to the three strategic decisions that became the catechism of Zionist dogma in post-1967 Israel.

The most crucial action on the ground was the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, along with the commitment to their expansion. The government located these settlements at first in less densely populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank (since 1968) and Gaza (since 1969). However, as is so chillingly described in the brilliant book by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, The Lords of the Land, the ministers and planners succumbed to pressure from the messianic settler movement, Gush Emunim, and also settled Jews at the heart of the Palestinian neighborhoods.

Another way of judging what the real Israeli intentions have been since 1967 is to look at these policies from the point of view of the Palestinian victims. After the occupation, the new ruler confined the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an impossible limbo: they were neither refugees nor citizens—they were, and still are, citizen-less inhabitants. They were inmates, and in many respects still are, of a huge prison in which they have no civil and human rights and no impact on their future. The world tolerates this situation because Israel claims— and the claim was never challenged until recently—that the situation is temporary and will continue only until there is a proper Palestinian partner for peace. Not surprisingly, such a partner has not been found. At the time of writing, Israel is still incarcerating a third generation of Palestinians by various means and methods, and depicting these mega-prisons as temporary realities that will change once peace comes to Israel and Palestine.

What can the Palestinians do? The Israeli message is very clear: If they comply with the expropriations of land, the severe restrictions on movement, the harsh bureaucracy of occupation, then they may reap a few benefits. These may be the right to work in Israel, to claim some autonomy, and, since 1993, even the right to call some of these autonomous regions a state. However, if they choose the path of resistance, as they have done occasionally, they will feel the full might of the Israeli army. The Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh has counted fourteen such uprisings that have attempted to escape this mega-prison—all were met with a brutal, and in the case of Gaza, even genocidal, response.

Thus we can see that the takeover of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip represents a completion of the job that began in 1948. Back then, the Zionist movement took over 80 percent of the Palestine—in 1967 they completed the takeover. The demographic fear that haunted Ben-Gurion—a greater Israel with no Jewish majority—was cynically resolved by incarcerating the population of the occupied territories in a non-citizenship prison. This is not just a historical description; in many ways it is still the reality in 2017.

Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and socialist activist, and the author of Ten Myths About Israel and The Idea of Israel. He is a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter, director of the university's European Centre for Palestine Studies, and co-director of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies.