The War of Six Days and Forty Years

31 May 2007

The War of Six Days and Forty Years

By Gwynne Dyer

On the 5th of June, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In six days it annihilated the Arab air forces, defeated the Arab armies, and conquered the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. It seemed like a decisive victory at the time — but forty years later, the outcome is still in doubt.

By the 10th of June, 1967, the amount of territory under Israeli control had tripled. Most of it was the empty desert of the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt eleven years later in exchange for a peace treaty. The Israeli government also decided in principle in 1967 to give the Golan Heights back to Syria in return for a peace treaty, although that deal has still not happened. But no decision was ever taken to “give back” East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The temptation was too great.

From the start, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been about two things: demography and land. If Israel was to be a Jewish state, then most of the Palestinian Arab population had to be removed, and that deed was accomplished during the independence war of 1948-49. Some of the Arabs fled and others were driven out, but by the end of the war the Arab population of the land under Israel’s control, which had been close to a million, was only two hundred thousand.

As Benny Morris, the doyen of the “new generation” of Israeli historians, put it in “The Guardian” in 2004: “Pillage (by Jewish fighters) was almost de rigueur, rape was not infrequent, the execution of prisoners of war was fairly routine during the months before April 1948, and small and medium-scale massacres of Arabs occurred during April, May, July and October to November. Altogether, there were some two dozen cases.” So by 1949, Israel was an overwhelmingly Jewish state.

David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, noted in his diary: “We must do everything to ensure they (the Palestinian refugees) never do return.” We would now call it “ethnic cleansing” — no matter why the refugees fled, if you don’t let them go home again when the shooting stops, that’s what you are doing — but it was vital to the project of founding a Jewish state in former Palestine. And for twenty years, it worked.

Before 1967, Israel was militarily insecure but demographically triumphant: 85 percent of the people within its frontiers were Jewish. Then, with the victory of 1967, it showed that it had become militarily unbeatable, a fact that was confirmed by the last full-scale Arab-Israeli war in 1973. But the conquests of 1967 revived its old demographic insecurities, for most of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 were now back in the same political space as the Jews.

Many Israelis saw the danger, and urged that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip be handed back to the Arabs (though almost none were willing to give back East Jerusalem). A few brave souls even argued that the occupied territories should become the Palestinian state that had been promised in the United Nations resolution of 1948 that partitioned Palestine and created Israel. But most succumbed to the lure of the land.

Jewish settlement in the West Bank began almost immediately. By now, forty years on, there are 450,000 Jews in former East Jerusalem and the West Bank (plus another 17,000 in the Golan Heights). None of that could have happened without the 1967 victory, but the implication is that the separation of the populations that happened in 1948 has been undone.

All the land between the Jordan river and the sea is effectively a single political territory, because Israel ultimately controls all of it. There are now ten million people living in that space, but only a bare majority of them are Jews: 5.5 million, versus 4.5 million Palestinians. Since the Palestinians have a much higher birth-rate, they will become the majority by 2015, less than a decade from now.

This is what Israelis call the “demographic problem,” but it is really a political and territorial problem. If they want to hang on to the land, then they are stuck with the Palestinians who live on it. If Israel is truly democratic and grants all these people the vote, then it will cease to be a Jewish state. If it chooses to remain Jewish by excluding them, then it is no longer democratic. And yet it cannot bring itself to let the occupied territories go.

The 1967 victory has brought Israel two generations of military occupation duties, two Palestinian uprisings, and a chronic terrorist threat. It has also brought it an existential political threat, because essentially what 1967 did was to reunite the Palestine that had been divided in 1948. What if, one day, the Palestinians simply accept that fact?

Ehud Olmert, now Israel’s prime minister, put it bluntly in an interview with “Yedioth Ahronoth” in 2003. “We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘We have been won over. We agree with (extreme right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor) Lieberman. There is no room for two states between Jordan and the sea. All that we want is the right to vote.’ The day they do that is the day we lose everything.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“As Benny…worked”)