Memories from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war

Memories from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war

by Abdallah Schleifer


We think of the Nakba – a process that began in late 1947 and ran through to the Fall of 1948 – as the regional catastrophe extraordinaire; certainly for the 750,000 ethnically cleansed Palestinian refugees, it was.

But for the rest of the Arab world, the impact of the Nakba was limited. However it was, in large measure, the partial justifications by Arab army officers staging coup d’etats (in Syria and Egypt), as would also be the case following 1956.

That case was, in strictly military terms, an even more stunning victory than 1948 when the Jordanian Army was able to defeat the Israelis in the fight for the Latrun salient and the battle for the Old City, including the Jewish Quarter. Jordan’s army, unlike the rest of the Arab armies – held most of the territory allocated by the 1947 U.N. Partition Resolution, Jordan was assigned to defend that land.

But the 1967 Arab-Israeli War was a regional humiliation with the IDF wiping out the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air force in the first hours of combat. In one sense, the way the war was fought (on open terrain with the Arab infantry and armor exposed to Israeli control of the skies), one could say the war was doomed to be over in hours. When it did end, after six days, Israel had occupied all that remained, after the 1947-48 fighting, of the Palestinian territory allocated in the U.N. Partition Resolution. This included the West Bank including Arab Jerusalem, all of Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights.

The IDF knew
The IDF had been preparing for this war since 1957 and the IDF high command as well as the upper echelons of the Israeli government knew, as did every serious intelligence agency in the West, that if the Arabs were to begin the war (which they did not) it would be over in about ten days and if the Israelis started it, it would be over in five or six days. In either scenario the Israelis would smash the opposing force. The details of that disaster, in English and from the Arab side of the firing line, are to be found in my own eyewitness account – The Fall of Jerusalem , long out of print but probably still available second –hand from Amazon.

But neither the Arab nor Israeli public knew this – and as the crisis evolved from periodic clashes over Israeli operations in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria, both publics believed that Gamal Abdul Nasser’s threats to intervene posed a direct, serious risk to the very existence of Israel, to the dread of the Israeli public (and in turn Western public opinion) and to the joyful expectations of the Arab public. Nowhere were the expectations so high as among the Palestinians.

By the beginning of June Israelis were watching Cairo TV footage of Egyptian forces marching through Cairo enroute to the Sinai and preparing mass graves in Israeli Jerusalem for what they assumed would be their own vast casualties. The Israeli high command said nothing to reassure them, and even the news that Israel had wiped out the Egyptian air force in the first hours of war was not to be disclosed by the IDF for 48 hours. In fact, the Israeli and Arab publics were initially being assured by Radio Cairo that it was the Egyptian air force that was shooting down Israeli aircraft and Egyptian troops advancing into Israel.

The dust settles
So when it was suddenly all over, the Israeli public could only assume that a miracle had happened – and the very small Israeli religious nationalist movement began to acquire credibility and recruits with its messianic vision of a Greater Israel. Today Religious Zionists provides the militant core of a settler movement, and its once obscure political organization is now a major political force, holding important portfolios in Netanyahu’s cabinet.

In the Arab world, many Islamists - either marginalized as political movements or, as the case of Egypt, decimated by the Nassserist regime - also invoked God, who had denied the Arabs victory because they had abandoned Islam, and had given victory to Israel because it was a religious state. Both conclusions were false but became enduring myths. Nasser whatever he was, as an individual and Egypt as a nation, had not abandoned Islam as their religion by opting for a secular nationalist-socialist state. As for the leadership of Israel (and most of the Israeli population) they were, on the eve of the 1967 war, at the very least, thoroughly secular, if not agnostic or even atheist.

It was the ideology of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism which was immediately discredited, replaced initially among the most politically conscious by a Marxist understanding of socialism which dovetailed with the rising popularity by the summer of 1968 of a Palestinian resistance movement, raiding across the Jordan River to attack IDF forces. But by the late 70s and early 80s both Marxism and a secular Palestinian armed force—Fateh and the smaller but more radical groups - threatening Israel first from Jordan and then from Lebanon’s border areas were a spent force. The drift to Islamism, that in different forms would take power in Gaza, most recently in Egypt and appear to be at the cusp of power in Libya , was underway.

Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.  Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”


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