Pyrrhic /pirik/adj. (of a victory) won at too great a cost to be of use to the victor. [PYRRHUS]
-Oxford English Reference Dictionary.
Forty years ago Israel won a famous victory, smashing its Arab (primarily Egypt and Syria) opponents even before they could start to make good their threats to destroy her. Nasser (the Egyptian “pan-Arab” president) had been making belligerent noises about destroying Israel for some time: in 1967 Egypt blockaded the important Israeli port of Eliat and expelled the UN peacekeeping force from Sinai, where it had been since the end of the Suez war in 1956. Whether or not Egypt and the other Arab states were serious about starting a war to destroy Israel (like the “Yom Kippur” war they launched in 1973) cannot be known for sure. But Nasser was probably bluffing, and believed that the US would restrain Israel from attacking, so that he could score a tactical victory without fighting.
If so, he was mistaken: Israel struck first, destroying the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground before they could even take off and, within six days, occupying the West Bank , East Jerusalem, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Between 200,000 and 300,000 West Bank Arabs became refugees, fleeing from the Israeli advance into Jordan.
Yes, it was brutal: but remember, Israel was dealing with states who were on record as seeking her total destruction. After her victory, Israel offered the Arab governments “land for peace” – withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for recognition (of her right to exist) from the Arab states. The Arab rulers would not agree to that and continued to proclaim that their goal was the total destruction of Israel.
Israel eventually handed back the sparsely populated Sinai, in return for recognition by Egypt, but its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza became long-term. Over time, it acquired a settler-colonial dimension. Jewish settlements were established, implying a move towards permanent Israeli annexation of at least part of the territories. (NB: this description of events draws heavily upon the AWL pamphlet “Two nations Two states“).
The BBC’s former Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen describes the aftermath: “The Six-Day war swept up a generation of Israelis and Arabs whose children still cannot live peacefully in the world the war created. Israelis deserve peaceful, safe lives. Palestinians who were dispossessed and exiled if they became refugees, humiliated and abused if they stayed, deserve justice. Israel’s overwhelming victory turned into a curse. It has never been able to digest the land swallowed in 1967. It has poured money into colonising the Occupied Territories, defying international law and splitting its own people. Thirty-six years (Bowen was writing in 2003) after the fighting with Jordan, Egypt and Syria, after thousands more deaths and the failure of six years of negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians are fighting again over the future of the West Bank and Gaza. It is still a low-intensity war. But if another full-blown Middle East war breaks out, its roots will lie in those six days in 1967. The Middle East will have no peace until Israelis and Palestinians, as equal partners, settle the future of the land that was captured in 1967 and unwind the consequences of the war”.
Jeremy Bowen’s evaluation of the Six Day War can be heard on BBC Radio 4, this Monday (4 June) at 12.42 pm. I also recommend his book, Six Days, published by Pocket Books at £7.99. Some people think Bowen is too pro-Palestinian… judge for yourself…