Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War

The Six-Day War pitted the young nation of Israel against the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which were joined by contingents from other Arab states. The event transformed relations between Israelis and Arabs, creating a new Middle East with changed borders, an energized Palestinian drive to an independent state, and a unified Jerusalem. Largely unforeseen and unintended, the results of the war have determined the course of negotiations between the belligerents since.

Summary of Events

The Israel Defense Forces Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacked the air force of Egypt on June 5, 1967, initiating the Six-Day War. The war involved separate conflicts in the Sinai, West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, and resulted in Israel’s occupation of these regions. Israel;Six-Day War[Six Day War]
Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War]
[kw]Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War (June 5-10, 1967)
[kw]Arab States in the Six-Day War, Israel Defeats (June 5-10, 1967)
[kw]Six-Day War, Israel Defeats Arab States in the (June 5-10, 1967)[Six Day War, Israel Defeats Arab States in the]
[kw]War, Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day (June 5-10, 1967)
Israel;Six-Day War[Six Day War]
Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War]
[g]Middle East;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[g]Israel;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[g]Palestine;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[g]Egypt;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[g]Syria;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[g]Jordan;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[c]Military history;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[c]Government and politics;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 5-10, 1967: Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War[09310]
Rabin, Yitzhak
Dayan, Moshe
Nasser, Gamal Abdel
[p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;war with Israel
Hussein I
Riad, Abdul Munim
Amer, Abdel Hakim
Eban, Abba
Elazar, David
{ayn}At{amacr}s{imacr}, H{amacr}shim al-

Events leading to the conflict had been building for at least a decade. First, the Suez Canal crisis Suez Canal crisis (1956) of 1956—the result of tensions that ensued after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, thereby threatening British, French, and Israeli interests in the region—increased tensions between Arabs and Israelis. The crisis led to U.S. intervention, but not until the IDF pushed back Egyptian armies in the Sinai. The result was a surge in Nasser’s standing among Arabs and an arms buildup (the Soviets supplied the Arabs and the French supplied the Israelis). Syria, Israel’s Arab neighbor to the northeast, shelled Israeli kibbutzim and supported guerrilla raids into Israel. The incessant anti-Israel radio broadcasts from Cairo, Damascus, and Amman persuaded many Israelis that an Arab invasion was inevitable.

Other geopolitical circumstances also contributed to the Six-Day War. While the Soviet Union did not want war in the Middle East, it wanted to make Syria a client state and to embarrass the United States after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin Kosygin, Aleksey had no clear objectives except to maintain tensions and gain inroads into the oil-rich region. Although uneasy with atheistic communism, some Arab states were willing to accept Moscow’s military aid. They used the Palestinian cause to conceal their own divisions and economic shortcomings, and as a symbol of Arab unity.

To legitimize the plight of the Palestinians and keep them under control, Nasser promoted the semiautonomous Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. The largest arm of the PLO, Fatah Fatah , made forays into the Jewish state, provoking Israeli retaliation. As Syria chided Nasser and Jordan’s king Hussein I for not preparing for war more aggressively, Nasser faced internal strife, agricultural decline, Islamic militants, and a civil war in Yemen. His armed forces were poorly trained and hampered by a stilted command structure and an absence of operational plans for an attack on Israel. Even less prepared was resource-poor Jordan, which, unlike Syria, had much to lose from an ill-conceived conflict.

Nasser escalated tensions from January through May, 1967. He ordered United Nations peacekeeping United Nations;peacekeeping
United Nations;and Egypt[Egypt] forces to leave the Sinai, which he could do legally. To the world’s amazement, however, U.N. secretary-general U Thant Thant, U
[p]Thant, U;peacekeeping consented, and Egyptian soldiers moved to the borders of Israel. Nasser then closed the Straits of Tīrān to Israeli shipping, a move he knew Israel would consider an act of war. These straits divided the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea and provided access to Israel’s only Indian Ocean seaport, Eilat.

Although Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol Eshkol, Levi and most of his cabinet were convinced that a combined Arab assault was only a matter of weeks away, they were divided on how to respond. U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;relations with Israel , who during this period was distracted by the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, told the Israelis that they could expect no help from the United States if they attacked first. U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk Rusk, Dean feared Soviet military intervention and international condemnation. When an unfounded report reached the Kremlin that Israeli tanks were advancing toward Syria, the Soviet Politburo inexplicitly gave it credence. Various U.S. and U.N. proposals to open the Straits of Tīrān came to nothing. Aware that their post-1956 policy of deterrence was threatened, IDF leaders dreaded an Egyptian air-land attack, which would throw Israel on the defensive.

The trigger for the war was King Hussein’s decision to fly to Cairo to forge an alliance and permit an Egyptian, Abdul Munim Riad, to command his armies. Feeling isolated in the Arab world and fearing the loss of the West Bank (and fearing for his life), the king believed he had no other choice. Their worst fears realized, the Israelis were now faced with a triple-pronged invasion, not counting Palestinian guerrillas. As Nasser’s prestige soared among Arabs everywhere, he escalated his war rhetoric while groping for a face-saving way to back away from a full invasion. His field marshal and rival, Abdel Hakim Amer, pressed for an attack in the Negev, which afterward could be returned, leaving Nasser the hero. However, events quickly moved beyond Nasser’s brinkmanship.

As pressure mounted to strike first, Eshkol finally agreed to appoint General Moshe Dayan as minister of defense. Some cabinet members thought of seizing Gaza and later trading it for a secure peace and the opening of the straits. Dayan hoped to keep Syria and Jordan at bay while Israel dealt with Egypt. An Israeli ground assault in the Sinai was risky, however, because of the large Egyptian air force. Israel had only 275,000 soldiers, 1,100 tanks, and 200 planes against the combined Arab armies of a half-million soldiers, 5,000 tanks, and 900 planes, not including components from seven other Arab states.

On June 5 at 7:00 a.m., two hundred Israeli jets, in radio silence, took to the sky and attacked eight Egyptian air fields from the west. Other planes bombed four forward bases in the Sinai. Within two hours, the Israelis had destroyed or rendered useless 286 Egyptian planes (mostly on the ground), 13 air bases, and 23 radar and surface-to-air missile sites. Simultaneously, IDF tanks boldly advanced into Egyptian defenses in Gaza and the Sinai, with heavy casualties on both sides. When Hussein heard Amer’s (false) claims of an Egyptian counterattack, he approved of Riad’s decision to attack Israel. The IDF reacted by destroying most of Jordan’s air force and took positions around Jerusalem. In response to Hussein’s call for help, Syrian planes attacked but were driven off; Syria lost sixty-eight planes to Israel’s ten. At no time then or during the entire war were Arab forces coordinated or even in communication with each other.

Johnson and Kosygin agreed to urge the U.N. Security Council Security Council, U.N. to call a cease-fire, but the Israelis tried to stall it until the Sinai was clarified. Nasser likewise hesitated to call a stop to the fighting, convinced he could counterattack. Cairo radio announced an Anglo-American collusion with Israel, a charge Johnson labeled the “big lie.” In fact, Britain remained neutral, while France was effectively pro-Arab.

On the war’s second day, June 6, IDF tanks smashed through the Sinai defenses in three sectors. Three Egyptian divisions were mauled, leaving thousands of soldiers stranded in the desert. Soviet vehicles were poorly adapted to the terrain. Unaware that half of their units were still intact, Nasser and Amer, believing the entire front was collapsing, ordered a full retreat from the Sinai. As Egyptian troops hurried to the second line, Israeli planes pounded hundreds of tanks and vehicles. Still refusing the U.N.-mandated cease-fire, Nasser broke diplomatic relations with the United States, as did six other Arab states. As fierce encounters raged around Jerusalem, Dayan and Eshkol would not permit entry into the Old City. The Syrian high command approved an invasion of Israel but then withdrew following a failed probe. While the Israeli cabinet argued about a response to Syrian bombardment and to Jordanian resistance in the West Bank, it dispatched Israeli diplomat Abba Eban to the White House to gain time. Johnson’s initiative for a cease-fire, however, was stymied in the U.N. Security Council and the Kremlin.

On June 7, Dayan unilaterally permitted the IDF to enter the Old City. Another fateful decision was to allow the Muslim waqf (Islamic trust) to administer the Temple Mount. The defense minister also declared the Straits of Tīrān an international waterway once Sharm al-Sheikh was taken. Meanwhile, Israeli tanks overran the Sinai’s second line and sped toward the Suez. Despairing of Soviet intervention, Nasser finally consented to a cease-fire. The Israeli cabinet was already considering seizing the opportunity to make peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, a move welcomed by Johnson. By day’s end, Israel had taken most of the West Bank West Bank and the Sinai up to the Mitla Pass.

June 8 saw Israeli jets mistakenly attack the USS Liberty, Liberty (ship) 13 miles from the Sinai. Eshkol apologized for the fatal error and offered to compensate for the American casualties (34 dead, 171 wounded). Throughout the day, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss a cease-fire, but Eban objected to delegate Nikolai Federenko’s Federenko, Nikolai proposal to condemn Israel and force it to withdraw immediately to June 4 lines. Emerging from a three-day seclusion, Nasser rejected the cease-fire in favor of a counteroffensive. Amer ordered the bridges over the Suez Canal demolished, leaving twenty thousand Egyptians on the east bank. When his commanders informed Nasser of the situation in the Sinai, he relented and called for a cease-fire.

The Galilee villagers demanded protection from Syrian shelling. Without consulting Eshkol, Dayan—who was notorious for changing his mind—suddenly gave the Israeli Northern Command permission to attack the guns. Apparently, he believed that the Syrian army was pulling back from the Golan Heights and that the Soviet threat was a bluff.

On the fifth day, June 9, General David Elazar ordered his tanks up the Golan slopes, after Israeli bombs failed to penetrate Syrian bunkers. Preceding the tanks were mine-clearing bulldozers, which sustained heavy losses. The first tank group lost ten of thirteen tanks. Bloody hand-to-hand combat occurred in the trenches on the heights. After Israeli units seized both northern and southern sectors of the Golan, the cabinet, following acrimonious debate, voted to continue the offensive until the following morning.

On the war’s sixth day, June 10, a Syrian counterattack faltered, as Elazar prepared to advance toward Damascus but was rebuffed by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Abandoned by Moscow, Syria’s president, Hāshim al-ՙAtāsī, asked for a cease-fire. Close behind the Syrian forces were ninety-five thousand civilians who lived on the Golan. At last, at 6:00 p.m., the cease-fire was in place, but not until the IDF had occupied the entire Golan Heights Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. The Soviet Union never got its U.N. resolution condemning Israel, although it did, along with most of the Communist bloc, cut diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. The United Nations opened discussions on establishing permanent peace among the belligerents.

The war was documented by Israeli, Arab, American, British, French, and Soviet sources. Total noncivilian deaths included 15,000 Egyptians, 450 Syrians, 700 Jordanians, and 800 Israelis. The Israelis took 6,000 prisoners, while surrendering 15 of their own. The IDF destroyed 617 tanks, 2,000 guns, 14,000 vehicles, and 469 planes (50 in dogfights), while losing 36 planes.

The Arab states were not inclined to negotiate treaties, while the Israeli cabinet was divided between the advocates of land-for-peace and of wait-and-see. American initiatives were frustrated, and the Soviets and the Arabs demanded a return of all occupied territories as a precondition for starting peace talks. The proclamation of the Arab summit at Khartoum—no recognition of Israel, no negotiations, no peace—was seen by the Israelis as intransigence. Sharp disagreement in the Israeli cabinet, especially over the West Bank and the Sinai, effectively stalled any clear and consistent strategy.


The Six-Day War transformed conflict in the Middle East. The resulting U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, became the basis of all subsequent discussions of peace in the region. More than 200,000 Palestinians had fled the West Bank for Jordan and elsewhere. The war discredited Arab nationalism and served to split the Arab states into the so-called rejectionists—Syria, Algeria, and Iraq—and the so-called moderates—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Egypt. The war also helped to energize militant Islam and Palestinian nationalism. The contentious issue of Jerusalem remains unresolved as well. Israel;Six-Day War[Six Day War]
Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War]

Further Reading

  • Bowen, Jeremy. Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. A British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent’s day-by-day narrative, which stresses the negative consequences for Israel. Written in a popular, journalistic style. Somewhat anti-Israel in tone.
  • Gilbert, Martin. The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2005. Includes a brief overview of the conflict from 1917 to 2005, with 167 excellent maps and a useful index.
  • Hammel, Eric. Six Days in June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Pacifica, Calif.: Pacifica Press, 2001. Popular narrative. Good on military aspects of the conflict, with detailed accounts (but with little critical analysis) of the events of 1964-1967.
  • Oren, Michael. Six Days of War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. An excellent introduction to the war. Integrates discussion of diplomacy surrounding the war, with extensive coverage of the political debates inside the Israeli cabinet. Utilizes numerous archival sources and the author’s interviews over some twenty years.
  • Parker, Richard B., ed. The Six-Day War: A Retrospective. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. A former U.S. ambassador to several Arab countries analyzes related events of the decade preceding the war. Places the conflict in the context of Cold War politics.

Israel Is Created as a Homeland for Jews

Jordan Annexes the West Bank

Israel Enacts the Law of Return

Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic

Middle East Turmoil Leads to U.N. Action in Lebanon

Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization

Fatah Launches Its First Terrorist Strike on Israel

Israel Attacks the USS Liberty

United Nations Security Council Adopts Resolution 242

Habash Founds the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine