The June war that changed the Middle East
The June war of 1967 — perhaps better known as the six-day war in the West — may have taken place nearly 50 years ago but it contributed to the reality the Middle East faces today, changing the shape of history in the region, particularly in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.
The conflict between Israel and an Arab coalition, composed mainly of troops from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, resulted in a shocking defeat for the Arabs. Israel was able to annex even more territory, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights. Israel quickly and easily defeated three major Arab powers, countries promoting a new idea of socialism and Arab nationalism. This was exemplified by Egypt under its charismatic president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The June war revealed the frailty that underpinned these resurgent Arab states, politically, economically and socially. It confirmed that the Arab world, as opposed to the various slogans and boastful claims that were being thrown about, ultimately came from a single fabric. This can be seen in the reaction to the defeat in all Arab countries, which saw the rise of the security state as opposed to one in which citizens’ rights were prioritised. This was based on the idea that the necessity of confronting Israel required Arab citizens to make sacrifices, including their own national and personal interests.
Arab regimes, backed by supporting players from political parties to media outlets, initially sought to cover up the sheer scale of this defeat. Some tried to claim this as a partial victory, saying that the Israelis had not been able to destroy these Arab states. As for the sound defeat of three Arab armies and the occupation of Arab territory, they claimed this as a minor issue that did not bear thinking about.
Arab regimes sought to avenge this defeat by unleashing Palestinian fedayeen from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to vent the frustrations of the Arab world and play down the extent of the crisis. This served as the birth of the Palestinian national movement, filling a vacuum that had been taken until then by Arab states and their official actions against Israel.
There was also a major shift in Arab politics away from talk about confronting the existence of Israel to confronting Israeli aggression and the Zionist state’s new expanded borders. Prior to 1967, Arabs had been more concerned about doing away with Israel. After the June war, that was no longer an option and the Arab world became more concerned about ensuring a Palestinian state.
At the time, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict was predictably viewed through a pan-Arab lens. After the 1967 defeat, the Palestinian cause became a more nationalist struggle, with increasing focus on supporting the Palestinian people, rather than fighting on their behalf.
Israel’s gains, on the other hand, emboldened its citizens and there was increased talk about establishing a Greater Israel, something that had previously been a strictly religious concept until then.
Israel was able to unite its territory and people in an unexpected way, including its capital, Jerusalem. There was a major shift in Israeli politics with an increasing confluence between the religious idea of Zionist and political secular Zionism.
Tel Aviv had confirmed itself as a major regional power and ally of the West in the eyes of its own citizens as well as the rest of the world. Even Israel’s economy was strengthened following the territorial gains, which included rich agricultural land and water resources.
Of course, not everything was positive for Israel. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip strengthened the commitment of the Palestinians. Israel, of course, was not able to hold onto the Gaza Strip and West Bank, let alone the Sinai peninsula.
One of the main repercussions of 1967 was that Israel became known as a colonialist force, occupying territory by force and seeking to control the Palestinian people through fear and oppression. This is a view that continues to be held today, almost 50 years later.
The June war changed the face of the Middle East well beyond the repercussions it had on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These are changes we are contending with today.