Remembering the Six-Day War: A Fact Sheet – Part II

Israeli soldiers on the outskirts of East Jerusalem – June 1967

(Continued from last week)

Israel’s victory came at a very high cost. In storming the Golan Heights, 115 Israeli soldiers perished — roughly the number of Americans killed during Operation Desert Storm. Altogether, Israel lost twice as many men — 777 dead and 2,586 wounded — in proportion to her total population as the U.S. lost in eight years of fighting in Vietnam. Had Israel waited for the Arabs to strike first, as it did in 1973, the cost would certainly have been much higher and victory could not have been assured.

Following the cease-fire, the Israeli government immediately expressed a desire to negotiate a peace agreement with its neighbors. Arab leaders met in Khartoum and provided their answer, declaring there would be “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.”

In the course of defending itself against Jordanian forces, Israeli troops reunited Jerusalem and captured the West Bank. Israel also gained control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Overall, Israel’s territory grew by a factor of three and incorporated more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians — most of whom were hostile to the government. Ultimately, more than 60,000 Palestinians of the approximately 325,000 who fled during the fighting (these were Jordanian citizens who moved from one part of what they considered their country to another to avoid being caught in the cross fire) were allowed to return.

The war also had religious significance. Under Jordanian rule, Jews and many Christians were forbidden from entering the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the site of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, and many Christian shrines. After capturing the city, Israel discovered the Jordanians had desecrated many holy places, synagogues and cemeteries. After the unification of Jerusalem, each religious group was granted administration over their holy sites and the city was made accessible to people of all faiths.

The unwillingness of any Arab state to make peace left Israel with no choice but to hold onto those territories it had captured until the Arabs were prepared to negotiate a settlement. In the meantime, the government made every effort to make their occupation as benign as possible, though it recognized that the nation’s security needs required that it restrict some Palestinian rights.

On November 22, 1967, the international community laid the foundation for future peace negotiations. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which called for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied” in 1967 in return for “the termination of all claims or states of belligerency.” The framers of Resolution 242 recognized that territorial adjustments were needed because the previous armistice lines had proven indefensible. Prior to the war, at its narrowest point, Israel was just 9 miles wide. Consequently, the framers of the resolution deliberately left open the question of how much territory Israel should relinquish in exchange for peace. By leaving out the words “all” or “the” when referring to the disputed territories, they acknowledged the need to make adjustments in the final borders that would allow Israel and the other states in the region “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

Every Arab leader who has subsequently been willing to make peace has received both land and peace from Israel. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat demonstrated the courage and vision to accept Israel, the leaders of Israel responded by making peace and withdrawing from the vast Sinai desert that had provided a valuable strategic buffer. Israel also gave up military bases, oil fields and evacuated Jewish communities.

Israel also offered to grant autonomy to the Palestinians, which was less than the full independence they demanded, but a step that would likely have led to statehood. The Palestinians rejected the offer and continued to pursue a strategy based on terror.

Many Israelis hoped that an agreement could be reached to return control over most of the West Bank to Jordan, but King Hussein was too weak to make a deal and faced widespread opposition in the Arab world, which had never recognized his 19-year occupation of the area. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) became the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians,” negotiations over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza (which Egypt did not want back as part of the treaty with Israel) was separated from the relationship between Israel and Jordan. It took another 15 years after Egypt made peace with Israel before King Hussein was willing to negotiate an agreement. Israel again responded with concessions.

In 1993, Israel reached an apparent breakthrough with the Palestinians and was prepared to withdraw from most of the disputed territories and allow the Palestinians to establish a state in exchange for peace. The Oslo agreement collapsed, however, when the Palestinians failed to fulfill their obligation to stop terror attacks. Still, Israel withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip and nearly half of the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made another effort to trade land for peace when he met with President Bill Clinton and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000. Barak was prepared to give up all of Gaza, 97% of the West Bank, dismantle most settlements and allow the Palestinians to establish a state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But Arafat said no.

Israel gave the Palestinians yet another opportunity to prove they were interested in peace when it evacuated the entire Gaza Strip in 2005. Nothing has prevented the Palestinians from creating all of the trappings of a state in Gaza. Had they done so and demonstrated they were interested in coexistence with Israel by stopping the violence, Israelis undoubtedly would be interested in negotiating a compromise in the West Bank. Instead chaos and ongoing attacks against Israel have caused most Israelis to regret the disengagement and to resist calls for future concessions until a new Palestinian leadership emerges that is interested in peace.

Meanwhile, Israel has negotiated the outline of an agreement with the Syrians that would result in the return of most, if not all of the Golan Heights. Once again, the obstacle to an agreement is that Israel is offering land while Syria is unwilling to give peace in exchange.

Israel has given up approximately 94% of the territories won in the 1967 defensive war. So the dispute today is over only 6% of that territory and Israel has already said it is prepared to give up most of that.

After the victory in the Six-Day War, Israelis hoped they had convinced their neighbors that Israel was a permanent fixture in the Middle East. Now, 40 years and five wars later, many Israelis doubt they will ever be accepted in the region, especially as radical Islam grows stronger and its adherents explicitly call for Israel’s destruction and strive to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Still, despite never enjoying a day of peace in the last four decades, the people of Israel continue to hope for peace and to look forward to a day when Palestinian and other Arab leaders demonstrate the courage and vision of Anwar Sadat and King Hussein and heed the words of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”



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