Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East

Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East

by Jeremy Bowen

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Suicide attacks on Israelis, bombings, assassinations, and bloodshed in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank dominate the news from the Middle East. It is the most troubled region on earth. At its heart is the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis - and the legacy of six days of war in 1967.

After the state of Israel emerged from war in 1948, both sides knew


Suicide attacks on Israelis, bombings, assassinations, and bloodshed in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank dominate the news from the Middle East. It is the most troubled region on earth. At its heart is the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis - and the legacy of six days of war in 1967.

After the state of Israel emerged from war in 1948, both sides knew more battles were coming. In June 1967, years of slow-burning tension exploded. In six extraordinary days, Israel destroyed the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. But far from bringing peace, as many Israelis hoped, their stunning victory turned into a curse.

From the initial battle order issued to the Israeli air force on Monday June 5, 1967 to the final ceasefire on the evening of Saturday the 10th, the Six-Day War was a riveting human drama. Building on his first-hand experience of the region after his five years as the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, as well as extensive original research, Jeremy Bowen presents a compelling new history of the conflict. Six Days recreates day by day, hour by hour, the bullying and brinckmanship that led four nations to war, interweaving testimonies of combatants from all sides in a seamless narrative.

A rigorous and original piece of modern history is as vivid as fiction, Six Days not only sheds new light on one of the key conflicts of the twentieth century, it explains much about the Middle East and the problems the region still faces today.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Bowen, the BBC correspondent in Jerusalem from 1995 to 2000, here pieces together events of the 1967 Middle East conflict. His gripping, fast-paced narrative recounts, hour by hour, the stories of enlisted troops, battlefield commanders, senior military leaders, beleaguered civilians, and political leaders in the region, in interested foreign capitals, and at the UN. The aftermath of this conflict is still with us, as negotiations continue over the return of lands seized by Israel in 1967 and the Israeli settlements in those territories. The author is evenhanded in pointing out failures at all levels and on both sides, describing an untenable situation that is unlikely to produce peace any time soon. Included are facts that have come to light only recently, making books written directly after the war obsolete. Libraries that have not purchased a current title like Michael Oren's Six Days of War will want to add this.-Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Former BBC Middle East correspondent Bowen carefully reassembles the geopolitical dynamics of one week that triggered embittered conflict for decades-and still counting. Bowen's comprehensive account layers the intrigue and deceptions of international diplomacy with the dogged determination of the Israelis to achieve their own definition of security in a hostile environment. Among the figures who emerge from a Machiavellian web of prewar maneuvering are Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser, whose hubris based on nonexistent military superiority approached the Shakespearean, and King Hussein of Jordan, ultimately used and abused by ally and enemy alike, whose self-admonition ("That's what I get for being so stupid") rang out in an aftermath of utter pathos for the Arab cause. The Israeli strategists, amazingly able to cloak a military juggernaut even from their own citizenry, barefacedly lied about being attacked; the US administration (President Lyndon B. Johnson along with hardened Cold War vets like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy) winked, nodded, and went along. The Soviets, asleep at the UN chessboard, missed an opportunity to pounce on American vacillation and redraw the postwar map in favor of their Arab clients. But the euphoria that arrived within the first few hours of a war in which Israeli air superiority immediately tilted the balance was already tinged with foreboding. Bowen suggests that administration of the vast new territories it was allowed to retain (with the famous ambiguities inherent in the UN's affirming resolution) left Israel "mired in an unwinnable colonial war" with its millions of new Arab subjects. Following the 1995 assassination of Israeli leader YitzhakRabin ("one of the most effective acts of political violence in modern history") and a rush of Israeli settlement in the occupied territories, "The violence of the occupation has given [Palestinian extremists] a prominence they would otherwise not have."Reference-level account of inevitability tinged by intriguing what-ifs. Agent: Michelle Tessler/Carlisle & Company, on behalf of Julian Alexander/Lucas Alexander Whitley

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Six Days

How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East

By Jeremy Bowen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Jeremy Bowen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5947-0




Mount Zion is a grand name for a small hill. It dominates the southwest corner of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Christians venerate Mount Zion because they believe it was the place where Jesus and his disciples ate their last supper. Running east from Mount Zion outside the city walls is the Himnon Valley, a narrow, rocky canyon where Canaanites once carried out human sacrifices to their god, Moloch. So many funeral pyres burned in the valley that the sky was turned black with their smoke.

On 28 May 1948 smoke was rising over Jerusalem again. A young Jewish commander, Yitzhak Rabin, one of Israel's top soldiers, stood on Mount Zion, looking down at houses and synagogues on fire inside the Old City. The Jewish quarter was burning and there was nothing he could do about it. His men had tried. The nearest entrance to the city, the turreted Zion Gate, was blackened and blasted by explosions and pitted with bullet holes. Twenty-six-year-old Rabin was the commander of the Har'el Brigade of the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah, the Jewish army. It was two weeks since Britain had pulled out its last troops and given up the mandate under which it had controlled Palestine since the First World War. Jewish leaders immediately declared Israel independent. The new state was recognised and admitted to the United Nations by world leaders who believed that the Jewish people deserved a state after the horrors of the Holocaust. Arab armies invaded to try to kill off the new state. A civil war in one of Britain's colonial territories between its native Arabs and Jewish settlers blew up into the first all-out Middle East war of modern times.

Below Mount Zion, inside the walls, was a 'shattering scene' that stayed with Rabin for the rest of his life. The Jewish quarter was surrendering. A procession led by two rabbis was walking towards what Rabin knew were the positions of the Jordanian Arab Legion. The young Jewish state was losing its last toehold inside the walls of the holy city. Nine days before, on the 19th, men from the Palmach captured Mount Zion and held it against a fierce Jordanian counterattack. Some of them were 'so bone-tired' that even though they expected a counter-attack at any moment they kept dozing off.

Failing to capture the Old City, which contains places holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, was the biggest Israeli defeat of the 1948 war. One of Rabin's senior officers was a 23-year-old Jew from Jerusalem called Uzi Narkiss. He had led the counter-attack through Zion Gate that reached the Jewish quarter. But his unit was exhausted, under strength and without reinforcements, and Jordanian troops drove them out. Like Rabin, the failure haunted him for years. On the eve of war in 1967, Uzi Narkiss was a general, still suffering 'from guilt that Jerusalem was divided, that no Jew remained in the Old City ... for one night I held the gate to the city in my hands – but it was torn out of them'. He had one war aim – to go back.


In July 1948 tens of thousands of exhausted Palestinian civilians were forced out of their homes and into territory controlled by the Jordanian army on the foothills of the West Bank. An Israeli intelligence officer called Shmarya Guttman watched them go: 'A multitude of inhabitants walked after one another. Women walked burdened with packages and sacks on their heads. Mothers dragged children after them ... warning shots were heard ... occasionally, you encountered a piercing look from one of the youngsters ... and the look said: "We have not yet surrendered. We shall return to fight you."' They had been expelled by the Israeli army from the towns of Ramle and Lydda, on the orders of Rabin. During the assault on the towns the Israelis killed around 250 people, including dozens of unarmed Palestinian detainees who were being held in the church and the mosque. Yeruham Cohen, an Israeli intelligence officer, reported: 'The inhabitants of the town became panic-stricken. They feared that ... the Israeli troops would take revenge on them. It was a horrible, ear-splitting scene. Women wailed at the top of their voices and old men said prayers, as if they saw their own deaths before their eyes.' All but around 1000 of Lydda and Ramle's population of 50–70,000 was expelled in the next few days. Some of them were robbed of their valuables along the way. On the long and hot walk to the Jordanian lines, many refugees were killed by dehydration and exhaustion. 'Nobody will ever know how many children died,' wrote Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion. Ramle and Lydda, which was renamed Lod, are now medium-sized Israeli towns. Rabin was not proud of what he did, but regarded it as necessary: 'We could not leave Lod's hostile and armed populace in our rear.'

Palestinians use the Arabic word nakba, which means catastrophe, to describe 1948. A society that had grown up over more than a thousand years was destroyed and scattered across the Middle East. Palestinians fled for the reasons that civilians do in all wars, to save their lives and protect their children and also because, in some places, Israel practised what is now called ethnic cleansing. In Deir Yassin, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jewish extremists carried out the most notorious massacre of the war. They boasted that they killed 250 people. Afterwards, it was enough for Jewish psychological warfare units to broadcast the village's name for traumatised Palestinian civilians to head for the border. The truth about Deir Yassin was bad enough, but the versions that went out on Palestinian radio stations made brutal slaughter sound even worse. Hazem Nusseibeh, a young man from one of Jerusalem's leading Palestinian families, sat at the microphone at the Voice of Palestine radio station and rebroadcast grisly details of murder, mutilation and rape. He concentrated on the rapes, hoping that it would strengthen Palestinian resistance, which was collapsing. It had the opposite effect. More Palestinians decided their only chance of survival was to get out. Nusseibeh realised he had made a mistake when group after group of refugees coming into Jerusalem's Old City through Jaffa Gate told him the thought of death was one thing but the prospect that their women would be dishonoured was even worse.

Between 600,000 and 760,000 Palestinians were refugees by the summer of 1949. A few had enough money left to relocate their families and start businesses somewhere else. Most of them were poor peasant farmers or labourers who became utterly destitute. The vast majority ended up in miserable camps in the surrounding Arab states. Their property was seized by the Jewish state. The Palestinians' old homes were either bulldozed or occupied by new immigrants to Israel. By the 1960s the refugees' resentment was one of the main engines of Palestinian nationalism. What Shmarya Guttman saw in the eyes of the refugees being expelled from Lydda came to pass. The Palestinian refugees' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren became foot-soldiers in the Middle East's long war.


At the end of 1948, what was left of the Egyptian army that had entered Palestine to destroy the new Jewish state was besieged southeast of the port of Ashdod in what was known as the Faluja pocket. In a lightning campaign the Israelis broke a United Nations truce, seized the Negev desert, delivered a crushing blow to the Egyptian army and captured hundreds of square miles of territory along with Beersheba, the only real town in the desert. But the Egyptians left behind in the pocket were fighting back hard. A meeting was arranged between the two sets of commanders to discuss a truce. Among the Egyptian officers was a young major called Gamal Abdul Nasser. Yigal Allon, the Israeli commander of the southern front, and Yitzhak Rabin, his head of operations, led the Israelis. Both sides were courteous, complimenting the bravery of each other's soldiers. The Egyptians refused to surrender. They went back with their jeeps and white flags to their own lines, and the siege of the Faluja pocket continued. Four years later, in the aftermath of the humiliation of 1948, Nasser led a group of young officers who seized power in Egypt. He became president. After he defied Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis, Nasser was seen as the leader of the Arab world. Allon left the army and went into politics. In 1967 he was one of the leading hawks in the cabinet. Rabin continued his military career. In 1967 he was chief of staff, the Israeli army's most senior officer.


King Abdullah of Jordan had a grandson, a prince called Hussein. On 20 July 1951 Abdullah invited Hussein, who was sixteen, to go with him to Jerusalem. Hussein was delighted. He idolised his grandfather, who had just appointed him captain in the army to celebrate a fencing prize he had won at school. On Abdullah's orders he wore his new uniform for the trip. Abdullah was going to Jerusalem for a secret meeting with Jewish officials, with whom he had been quietly negotiating for thirty years. Between them, they made sure that the Palestinians had no chance of creating their own state. Even though his army fought Israel fiercely in 1948, especially in and around Jerusalem, many Arabs regarded Abdullah as a traitor for colluding with the Jews and not fighting harder. The king also wanted to pray at the Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem's great Islamic shrine. The British ambassador to Jordan, Sir Alec Kirkbride, a man some people said was as powerful in the land as the king, warned Abdullah not to go. There had been talk that he might be assassinated. The king brushed the warning aside. He was a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. He was not going to be scared out of Jerusalem. Besides, he had important business.

Sir John Glubb, 'Glubb Pasha', the British officer who commanded Jordan's Arab Legion (for which Britain paid the bills and issued most of the orders), sent extra troops to line the streets and flood the 2000-year-old compound that encloses Jerusalem's two great Islamic shrines. The soldiers milled around the Aqsa mosque, the holiest place in the world for Muslims after Mecca and Medina and the great golden Dome of the Rock, the oldest, most striking building in the Islamic world. As he went into al-Aqsa, Abdullah told his guards to drop back. They were crowding him. A young man called Shukri Ashu stepped out from behind the door with a revolver. He shot the king behind his right ear. The bullet came out through his eye. He died instantly. The assassin kept on firing until he was cut down by Abdullah's bodyguards. One of his bullets ricocheted off a medal on Hussein's chest. In the confusion twenty more people were killed and hundreds wounded. Prince Hussein was hustled away and flown back to Amman. 'The next day,' he wrote, 'I carried a gun for the first time.'

War without end

Peace was possible just after 1948. The United Nations brokered armistice agreements between Israel and Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, which were signed in the early part of 1949. Yitzhak Rabin took part in the negotiations in Rhodes. He was given a khaki tie to wear with his uniform, the first one he had owned. Despite lessons from his driver, he never mastered the art of tying it. He kept it permanently knotted, loosening it and pulling it over his head when it was time to take it off. At night he hung it up with his trousers. The UN hoped that the armistices would lead to proper peace agreements. Diplomatic contacts took place between Israel and all its neighbours. It was a real opportunity. But both sides, blaming each other, squandered their chance.

With no peace agreements, they slid into a series of vicious border wars. In the first few years after 1948 the quality of the Israeli army deteriorated. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's prime minister, disbanded the Palmach, its highly effective but independent minded strike force. Early cross-border operations of the new Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were embarrassing fiascos until, from the early 1950s, Israel started to develop the strategic doctrines and forces that fitted its own unique challenges. The armistice lines after 1948 left Israel with long borders that, in places, were extremely vulnerable. The centre of the country was not much more than ten miles wide. There was another narrow 'neck' connecting Jerusalem with the rest of Israel and the south. It would not have taken much for Jordanian and Egyptian forces to link up to cut off Eilat.

Israel decided to ignore its lack of strategic depth by fighting on Arab territory with flexible, highly mobile armoured ground forces backed up by air power. Intelligence, surprise and aggression were vital. They would not wait passively in static defences for their enemies to attack. From around 1952 Israel started a long project to build a modern army, a plan that came together spectacularly in 1967. First, though, came another full-blown war. It was launched in 1956 after Israel made a secret alliance with Britain and France to attack Nasser's Egypt. Israeli tanks moved fast across the Sinai, showing what the rapidly evolving Israeli army could already do. Yet this was a work in progress. The most important air operations in the 1956 war were flown by the British and the French. But the diplomatic ground had not been prepared properly. Israel and the two declining imperial powers were treated as aggressors by the USA and the USSR, the two rising superpowers. Britain and France were humiliated and Israel had to give up the Egyptian territory it seized. In return, Egypt had to allow ships bound for Israel through the Straits of Tiran into the Gulf of Aqaba and on to the Israeli port of Eilat. Blue helmeted peacekeepers from the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) were deployed on the border, in the Gaza strip and at Sharm al Sheikh, an Egyptian village overlooking the Straits of Tiran.

After 1956 it suited Egypt and Israel to keep their border quiet. Both had a lot to do. The Israelis wanted to develop their economy, absorb more than a million immigrants and build the army. Nasser used his position as the Arab hero who vanquished the imperialists to lead a pan-Arab nationalist movement that his supporters fully expected would recreate Arab greatness. Nasser's followers had huge faith in Egypt's military power. The fact that its soldiers were roundly beaten in 1956 was quickly forgotten. The Soviet Union provided weapons and Nasser's propaganda machine trumpeted his army's prowess. Throughout the Arab world, listeners to Cairo Radio (which meant almost everyone) thought that Egypt could take on not just Israel, but the world.

But the truth was very different. The problems started at the top, with Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer. Although he was a five star general with the post of commander-in-chief, his main qualification for the job was not his military achievements but the fact that he was the man Nasser trusted most. As a young officer he fought bravely in 1948. Soon, though, he became better known for his love of hashish and the good life, which remained a life-long interest, than for his martial prowess. His military knowledge did not progress after 1950, when as a major he attended Staff College. After that, he did nothing to master the art of preparing soldiers for the battlefield and leading them to victory on it. His real job, which he did very well, was to make sure that the army stayed loyal by stamping out plots and keeping the officers happy. Nasser wanted the Free Officers' coup, in which he deposed the king in 1952, to be Egypt's last military rebellion. Major Abd al-Hakim Amer was promoted to major-general overnight. His field marshal's baton was not far behind.


Excerpted from Six Days by Jeremy Bowen. Copyright © 2003 Jeremy Bowen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jeremy Bowen became a foreign correspondent in 1987, covering major conflicts in the Middle East, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. From 1995 to 2000 he was the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, winning a Best Breaking News report from the Royal Television Society on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. After two years presenting Breakfast, BBC1's morning news program, as well as major history documentaries, he now is a roving Special Correspondent. He lives in London.

Jeremy Bowen became a foreign correspondent in 1987, covering major conflicts in the Middle East, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. From 1995 to 2000 he was the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, winning a Best Breaking News report from the Royal Television Society on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. After two years presenting Breakfast, BBC1's morning news program, as well as major history documentaries, he now is a roving Special Correspondent. He lives in London.

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