To understand the modern Middle East, one has to realize how the Six Day War, which occurred 50 years ago, profoundly changed that region of the world. Before the events that took place between June 5 and June 11, 1967, the Arab-Israeli conflict was one between nation-states. The Palestinians were under the control and sovereignty of Egypt and Jordan respectively. Terrorism consisted of cross-border attacks by Palestinian guerillas under the sponsorship of Egypt and other surrounding Arab countries. In six days, that state of affairs started to change until, today, the conflict in the Middle East has taken on a massively different character.

One June morning

On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel was encircled by a ring of steel. To the south and west, the Egyptian Army was deployed in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. In the east, in what is now called the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem, were the Jordanian Army and armored units of the Iraqi Army. To the north and west, along the Golan Heights, the Syrian Army was massed, ready to march. Israel had mobilized all of its reserves in the aftermath of Egypt’s closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships and the expulsion of United Nations Emergency Forces from the Sinai where they had served as a buffer since the 1956 war.

While Israeli and Arab forces were almost an even match numerically, Israel’s strategic position was untenable.

Israel had called up every man of military age, needed to sustain its civilian economy in the long term. Also, because of the geography of the Jewish State and the surrounding Arab countries, an offensive of just a few miles would suffice to split Israel in two. Her major cities were within artillery range. Arab media called for the obliteration of the Jewish state.

Then everything changed

On the morning of June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force, largely at the time consisting of French-built planes, launched a first strike on Egyptian airfields, destroying that country’s air force on the ground. The attack was followed up by a ground offensive that overran the Gaza Strip and the Sinai by June 8.

In the meantime, under the instigation of Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, Jordanian and Syrian forces launched attacks on Israel. The Israeli Air Force destroyed the Jordanian Air Force on the ground and attacked an Iraqi Air Field. The subsequent battle to take Eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank was hard and brutal. Jordanian troops were well equipped and trained. But, in the end, Israeli air superiority was the decisive factor.

Israeli attacks on Syrian air bases on the evening of June 5 knocked out two-thirds of that country’s air strength. Israeli ground forces attacked the Golan Heights, which overlooked Israeli farms and villages, on June 9, taking that strategic position by June 11, when a ceasefire effectively ended the war.

The aftermath

The results of the Six Day War were profound and long-lasting. After that conflict, the existence of the Jewish State was never seriously in jeopardy, even during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, thanks to an enhanced Israeli strategic position and the overt support of the United States. The Arab-Israeli conflict as a war between nation states began to die down thanks to the Camp David accords in the late 1970s that made peace between Israel and Egypt and the 1990s signing of a peace treaty between the Jewish state and Jordan. Syria is in the midst of a civil war that has removed that country as an effective threat.

In the meantime, the Six Day War brought millions of restive Palestinians under effective Israeli control.

By the 1990s, Israel was caught in an ugly situation with no good choice exists. A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would return Israel to the untenable strategic position that endangered her before the Six Day War. Retaining control over those territories places Israel in the position of controlling a restive population of millions, sparking terrorism at home and international condemnation abroad. The issues of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank only serve to complicate Israel’s diplomatic position.

But, at the very least, Israel is a thriving country with alliances with surrounding Arab states, both openly and tacit, against common enemies. Israel lives and has a future, something that was in doubt on the morning of June 5, 50 years ago.