ON HIS recent trip to the Holy Land, the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed the difficulty of understanding life in Israel and Palestine. “We know we don’t know anything,” Archbishop Welby told The Guardian: “Everything you say here has to be qualified with the comment that it’s not as simple as that.”
Although he was talking about the present day, the Archbishop’s description applies equally to the Six-Day War, which was fought 50 years ago. In fact, no contemporary understanding of the land is possible without examining the brief conflict and the part that it plays in the narrative on each side.
The basic facts are these: the Six-Day War lasted from 5 to 10 June in 1967, and involved Israel against the Arab forces of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon. The war resulted in devastating losses for the Arab armies and a decisive victory for Israel. The Associated Press reported that 777 Israelis were killed, while the casualties of the Arab forces were much larger. Egypt lost an estimated 11,500 personnel, Syria a thousand, and Jordan 6094.
The wider significance, beyond these losses and the many more thousands injured, was that the future direction of the Middle East tilted on the outcome of those six days in 1967.
THE seeds of the conflict had been sown two decades earlier, when, in May 1948, the State of Israel was declared, in response to the reawakening of anti-Semitism in Europe, which had culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust. Sanctioned by the British, the state was created by the military force of the Jewish militias which became the Israel Defense Forces.
Surrounding Arab countries refused to recognise the new state. In the post-war period both Arab nationalism, and stridency from leaders, such as President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, increased.
Like everything in this conflict, the seriousness of the existential threat to Israel is debated. In Israel– Palestine: A beginner’s guide, Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami, who write from both sides of the conflict, disagree on how serious the Arab menace was.
“Syria posed a major threat to Israel,” the Jewish academic Cohn-Sherbok writes. “It continued to agitate against the Jewish state. Joining this protest, Jordanians and Egyptians encouraged Palestinian exiles to establish their own organisation, the PLO. This body subsequently set up the Palestinian Liberation Army whose aim was to liquidate Israel.”
Xinhua/AlamyContested: a rally in the West Bank city of Hebron to mark the 49th anniversary of the Six-Day WarEl-Alami sees the responsibility for the war as more evenly split. “Egypt had not intended to go to war, but was preparing for this eventuality,” he writes. As tensions rose, President Nasser and the other Arab leaders began to put aside their differences and unite against Israel. “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight,” Nasser said in late May.
Steven Jaffe, from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that even diaspora Jews were worried. “The language coming out of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad was that Israel was going to be annihilated,” he said. “This was only 20 years or so after the Holocaust. The British Chief Rabbi called for a day of fasting and intercession.”
DESPITE the worries, the Israelis were better prepared, and had carefully monitored the movements of troops and air forces in Egypt, and its allies. Using the element of surprise, an attack was unleashed against the still-grounded planes of Egypt. On the morning of 5 June 1967, a fearsome assault from the Israelis destroyed nearly 400 Egyptian aeroplanes.
Over the next few days, the Israelis also targeted Jordanian and Syrian airfields, while artillery fire and airstrikes hit Israeli positions. By 7 June, the UN had proposed a peace plan, but neither side accepted, leaving Israeli ground forces free to capture swaths of territory.
The West Bank, previously under Jordanian control, quickly fell to the Israelis, while they also claimed Gaza and Sinai from Egypt, and even the Golan Heights from Syria.
In purely military terms, it was a stunning victory for Israel. But it was the capture of east Jerusalem which began to be spoken of in quasi-spiritual terms. That Israel was in control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif once again was a historic moment.
“We could hardly believe it,” the Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, said last month. “We all felt the history — and the future — of Israel, of the Jewish people, rested on our shoulders. We had returned home.”
Some Evangelical Christians, especially those in the United States, proclaimed a miraculous intervention, strengthening their already solid support for Israel. The British Messianic Jewish writer Steve Maltz has said of the battle: “It seems that Jerusalem was being coaxed into Jewish hands, by fate, providence, or do we dare to say, through a miracle of God? Jerusalem was in Jewish hands for the first time in 1897 years.”
ONCE a ceasefire was agreed on 11 June, Israel was in a dominant position, which it has maintained 50 years later. Despite the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and other conflicts since, any change in status of the region has always kept Israel in the driving seat. Peace deals with Egypt and Jordan were eventually concluded, and Sinai was returned to Egypt.
Guy Laron, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writing in a new book, The Six-Day War: The breaking of the Middle East (Yale University Press, 2017), argues that the surprising success of Israel’s strategy in 1967 has led to a predilection for pre-emptive military action in subsequent decades.
The consequences of the war for a permanent peace agreement were significant. Some of the significant stumbling-blocks in the way of a deal today have their roots in 1967. The settlements, in which Israeli Jews live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, considered illegal by the international community, were only possible because of the Israeli victory. The war also gave Israel control over east Jerusalem — which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.
TO THIS day, some more strident Evangelical publications carry proclamations of the miraculous intervention of God in the outcome of the Six-Day War.
Less well known in the West is the story of Palestinian Christians. There remains a small Christian community in Gaza, but the majority of Palestinian Christians who are still in the Holy Land reside in east Jerusalem and the West Bank — both of which have been under Israeli control since the Six-Day War.
The Kairos Palestine document was issued by an ecumenical group of Christian leaders in 2009. It identifies the occupation of those lands by Israel as a barrier to peace. “These days, everyone is speaking about peace in the Middle East and the peace process,” it reads. “So far, however, these are simply words; the reality is one of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, deprivation of our freedom and all that results from this situation.”
The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, which has parishes in both Israel and Palestine, does not take an activist stance, although individual Anglicans have been prominent campaigners against the status quo.
The Christian population of Palestine continues to decline. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that “Today, Christians make up just 1 per cent of the mainly Muslim population of the Palestinian territories; in 1920, they were a tenth of the population of Palestine.”
In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has slumped from 20,000 in 1995 to 7500. While it would be naïve to blame this all on the occupation of east Jerusalem and the West Bank, that is a contributory factor. Christians, often educated and skilled, are able to emigrate to other parts of the Middle East, or the US.
COLIN CHAPMAN is a former lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology. He says that the status quo since 1967 has lessened the prospects for peace. “Israel’s refusal for 50 years to end the occupation is simply a continuation of the policies that were adopted in the period immediately after the Six-Day War,” he told me.
Steven Jaffe, from the Board Of Deputies, is more equivocal: some Jews saw “the occupation” as a malign influence on Palestinians and Israelis alike, and wished to see it immediately brought to an end, he said, while “others regard the return of Jewish people to live in places like Bethlehem and Hebron as a biblically ordained ‘liberation’ of those territories.”
Christian Aid’s spokesman for the Palestinians and Israel, William Bell, says that the status quo engendered by the Six-Day War may not last. “Fifty years after the Six-Day War, Palestinians and Israelis desperately need to see genuine efforts to achieve a just peace,” he said. “Poverty and violent conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory [OPT] are not inevitable. The main causes are systematic discrimination, impunity, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a lack of effective governance within the OPT.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Six-Day War in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. For Israel, it was a stunning victory that increased confidence in the young country’s military pre-eminence. For Palestinians, it was the beginning of further difficulties for their cause.
As events commemorate the anniversary, and as Archbishop Welby and President Trump will have discovered on their recent visits, the Six-Day War continues to loom large in the consciousness of all peoples in the Holy Land. It looms even larger in this anniversary year.
Andy Walton is a journalist and broadcaster.