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The Six-Day War: Day Two

Abba Eban.

This week, Jewish Ideas Daily commemorates the forty-fifth anniversary of the Six-Day War with a day-by-day synopsis, for which we are indebted to Michael Oren's comprehensive Six Days of War.  Below, the third of a seven-part series.  Read parts I and II.  

In the Sinai, Israeli aircraft commanded the skies and the IDF advanced along roads littered with Egyptian tanks.  Some were in flames, illuminating the darkness; others were simply immobilized by malfunctions in their Soviet-made engines, which had failed in desert conditions.  On June 6th, 1967, by 8:00 a.m. Tel Aviv time, Israeli forces had entered el-Arish.  It initially seemed desolate, but the Israelis were soon under fire from every window.  Israel's leadership, not expecting the war to move so quickly, had not considered what do to beyond el-Arish.  The IDF's challenge became keeping up with the retreating Egyptian forces.

Meanwhile, Gaza had been severed from Sinai.  Though Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had predicted that this move would cripple the Strip, fighting was heavy; Gaza would ultimately account for nearly half of all the war's Israeli casualties.  Still, Dayan's prediction was correct: Gaza was taken by mid-morning.

Yet even as Egyptian anti-aircraft gun barrels melted from the continuous, unsuccessful efforts against Israeli planes, more than half of Egypt's forces were intact.  Some important detachments had yet to see action.  Pilots remained available.  Forty-eight Algerian aircraft were en route, along with volunteers from Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan.  Expressions of support poured in from Arab sympathizers.  By contrast, Israel's forces were exhausted from over 24 hours of non-stop combat and were low on fuel and ammunition.           

Egyptian front

Meanwhile, another front was opening in the war—a political front.  In a 1:00 a.m. radio broadcast, IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin had informed Israelis of the previous day's astounding military successes.  The broadcast boosted morale; but, Rabin knew, carried a risk: The international community might now seek a cease-fire, preventing further Israeli advances and threatening Israel's gains with pressures for unreciprocated concessions.  The United States and Britain had declared neutrality, while France, then Israel's primary patron, had embargoed further arms shipments.

Egypt's leadership now ordered a wholesale retreat: An army assembled in 24 days began trying to draw back in as many hours.  Egyptian leaders may have believed that the more devastating their reversal looked, the more likely it was that the United Nations or Soviet Union would intervene.  They also began propagating the disinformation that America and Britain had intervened on Israel's behalf.  During the day, this rumor spread across the Middle East.  Mobs attacked American embassies and consulates.  Exports to America and Britain were banned.  Egypt severed its U.S. diplomatic ties; other Arab states followed suit.  Americans were deported from Egypt at virtually a moment's notice.

In the east, Jordanian forces were losing ground in tense, sometimes hand-to-hand combat as Israeli forces sought to "atone for the sin of '48," their failure to take Jerusalem's Old City in the War of Independence.  By 5:15 a.m., Israel had won East Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill in one of the bloodiest battles in Arab-Israeli history.  It took more hours of heavy fighting for the Israelis to capture Mount Scopus.  Angering some field commanders, Dayan decided to surround the Old City rather than attack.  Even the efforts at encirclement proved arduous.

Of the promised Arab reinforcements, only Iraqi forces saw combat.  The Saudis sent a contingent, but it did not fight.  An Egyptian doctor attached to Saudi forces on the eastern border remembered: "We hoped"—fruitlessly—"that one Israeli plane would attack us, so that we could say that we participated in the war and we fired our guns."

Jordan's military retained significant strength, but King Hussein panicked when his generals warned him before dawn that failing to retreat from the West Bank would decimate his army.  He feared that if he accepted a cease-fire while Egyptians still fought, Egypt would blame him for defeat; he might face mutiny from his military and Jordan's Palestinian Arabs.  He summoned Western ambassadors in Amman to warn that his kingdom might fall without an internationally imposed cease-fire.  He repeated the rumor that America had intervened to support Israel. President Lyndon Johnson heard and was infuriated.

Hussein also requested orders from Egypt but, for hours, received none.  Meanwhile, the IDF took the West Bank cities of Jenin and Ramallah and advanced toward Nablus and Qalqilya.  Hussein raced to the battlefield in a jeep.  He later recalled what he saw there: "In groups of thirty or two, wounded, exhausted, [soldiers] were trying to clear a path under the monstrous coup de grace being dealt them by a horde of Israeli Mirages screaming in a cloudless blue sky seared with sun."

In the north there was an abortive Syrian probe but general disorganization: The bridges across the Jordan River, for instance, were too narrow for Soviet tanks.  Dayan resisted opening a northern front.

Recognition was growing that the war would be decided in New York and Washington.  Sleepless for nearly two days, Foreign Minister Abba Eban flew to the UN; his plane was almost hit by Jordanian shrapnel.  Arriving in New York, he went straight to the Security Council.  With barely time to review his notes, he delivered what became a famous oration on Israel's behalf.

In the United States, President Johnson, with an election season beginning, was cognizant of the public's pro-Israel feeling—and angered by the Soviet role in the war and the misinformation about American behavior.  He was inclined to let Israel keep its gains and use them as bargaining chips.  Yet America allowed the UN to move toward a cease-fire.  Eban reluctantly acquiesced, and a resolution was passed.  But Israel was saved from the potential consequences when Egypt rebuffed the resolution, complaining that it did not require full and immediate Israeli withdrawals.

At 11:15 p.m., King Hussein finally received word from Egypt that its air force was obliterated and its army in full retreat.  Now Hussein could, and did, order a withdrawal from the West Bank.  He then heard about the UN resolution; the cease-fire would take effect at dawn.  Hussein accepted the resolution—and rescinded the order to retreat, in hopes that his forces and their Iraqi reinforcements could hold parts of the West Bank and the Old City until morning.

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