As the June sun climbed into the sky, burning the last wisps of morning mist from the desert, the Egyptian air force stood down from its daily dawn alert. At a dozen bases along the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s young fighter pilots stretched out in deck chairs to enjoy a coffee break. Suddenly, undetected by radar, scores of low-flying Israeli jets screamed in. For three tumultuous hours on June 5, 1967, wave after wave of French-built Mystère, Mirage, Ouragan and Vatour fighter bombers unleashed a torrent of bombs and rockets on the Egyptian airfields, destroying all but a handful of Nasser’s 340 serviceable warplanes and killing 100 of his 350 combat pilots before they could leave the ground. Almost simultaneously, a similar fate was being visited on the smaller air forces of Syria and Jordan. But even before the raids were over, Israeli air force Reserve Gen. Ezer Weizman—the mastermind behind the devastating pre-emptive strike—was on the phone from his underground command post to tell his wife: “We’ve won!” Replied Reuma Weizman:
“Ezer, are you crazy? At ten o’clock in the morning you’ve already finished the war?”
Her incredulity was understandable: 20 years later the speed and scope of the Israeli victory in what was to be called the Six Day War still astonish. Some savage ground fighting still lay ahead once the Israeli jets had finished their work, particularly in the old city of Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights. But without air cover the Arab armies were doomed.
It was the third Arab-Israeli war since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. In the first, within hours of the declaration of independence, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq had invaded from all sides, only to be defeated by the outnumbered Jews. In the second, the Israelis, in collusion with Britain and France, had overrun Egypt’s Sinai peninsula in October, 1956, giving the two Western powers a pretext to seize the just-nationalized Suez Canal. Then came the 1967 war when, seeking revenge for past defeats—and spurred by a burgeoning Palestinian guerrilla movement—Egypt, Syria and Jordan again formed an alliance to destroy what the Arabs called the “Zionist cancer.” And as Egypt ordered a UN peacekeeping force out of the Sinai and amassed troops and tanks in the desert as if to attack, the world looked on appalled.
It seemed that the 2.7-million-strong Jewish state—with a land mass smaller than Vancouver Island and surrounded by more than 38 million hostile Arabs—was about to be destroyed. The Western democracies, remembering the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and seeing Israel as a strategic asset, seemed deeply concerned, but apparently helpless to avert the conflict. Then came the Israeli pre-emptive air strike, followed by a lightning ground campaign that smashed three formidable Arab armies and captured an area more than twice the size of the Jewish state. It seemed like the fulfilment of a biblical prophecy. David had felled Goliath, and most of the world—except the Arabs and their Soviet bloc and Afro-Asian sympathizers—applauded.
But the very completeness of the victory would prove to be a mixed blessing for the Israelis. It would give them the security of defensible borders far from their population centres. But it would also alter their nation’s character, and its image abroad, as profoundly as it had changed the map of the Middle East. Until then Israel had appeared to the West in the uncomfortable but popular guise of underdog. But as the ruler of the resentful Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza, it forfeited that role. And to many, both within Israel and beyond, it seemed that the very fact of its being an occupying power would erode the liberal principles on which the Jewish state had been founded.
The process was not sudden. At first Israeli public opinion seemed to be largely in favor of trading territory for peace. Those, like rightwing politician Menachem Begin, who dreamed of a “Greater Israel,” including all the conquered lands, were regarded as extremists. But little by little, as the Arabs hurled 8 defiance and refused to negotiate, that perception changed. Not only did it seem essential to retain the conquered territories for security reasons, but the idea began to grow that they were not so much occupied as liberated.
That idea was given impetus by an upsurge of Jewish religious fundamentalism—itself a byproduct of the seemingly miraculous restoration in 1967 of the Jews’ biblical boundaries. The potent mix of religion and nationalism that resulted was exemplified by the powerful Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), whose members believe the West Bank belongs to the Jews by divine right and was restored to them by divine will. Although less mystical than the Gush, Begin’s Likud bloc shares that view, and when it swept into power in 1977, the process of colonizing the West Bank, which had begun cautiously under the Labour government of Golda Meir, surged ahead.
Right across Judea and Samaria—as the Israelis now officially call the West Bank in bib-
lical terminology—land was appropriated and Jewish settlements established, until by 1986 there were 105 of them, with a total population of 46,000. As the Israeli bulldozers advanced, the Palestinians reacted increasingly violently against what they viewed as a creeping annexation. In response, the Israeli military occupation became increasingly heavyhanded, although not heavy-handed enough for some extremist settlers, who frequently took the law into their own hands.
Such developments contributed to a growing perception abroad of Israel as expansionist and arrogant. The surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, 1973, temporarily restored Israel’s peace-loving image, but that perception was undermined again in 1982 when the Israelis invaded Lebanon. As regard for Israel waned, sympathy for the Palestinians grew, despite the frequent acts of international terrorism committed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The David of the 1960s was being cast as the Goliath of the 1980s. And although successive Israeli governments sought to portray the PLO as nothing but a terrorist organization, the 1.3 million people of the West Bank and Gaza—and the three million Palestinians living abroad—persisted in regarding the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat, as heroes.
A firm refusal to recognize or negotiate with the PLO is one of the few points of agreement between the two wings of Israel’s deeply divided coalition government—Labour, led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Likud, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. For their part, the newly reunited PLO refuses to recognize or negotiate with Israel. Those factors make it doubtful that the Peres plan for an international peace conference, involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China—and the interested parties, will even be realized, let alone bear fruit. Peres believes that under the UN umbrella, King Hussein of Jordan and acceptable non-PLO Palestinians would move on to direct talks with Israel on the future of the West Bank and Gaza. He points to Israel’s peaceful return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt as an example of the benefits to be derived from direct negotiations. But Hussein has no mandate to speak for the Palestinians, while Shamir describes the very idea of negotiations as “suicidal.”
Meanwhile, as the 20th anniversary of the Six Day War approaches, an entire generation of Israeli Jews and West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, who have never known anything but war and occupation, confront each other with mutual animosity. The young Jews, as settlers or soldiers, and the young Palestinians, as rebels or recalcitrants, communicate either through violence and counterviolence—or else fail to communicate at all. Their attitudes—as described in reports by Maclean's London Bureau Chief Ross Laver (page 24) and Senior Writer Bob Levin (page 30)— seem as implacable as the stony landscape they dispute. Said Aviv Hatchuel, 24, a Jewish West Bank settler: “It’s impossible to give back any of this territory. Anything that blood was spilled over, you just don’t give back.” Said Kifa Halaweh, 19, an Arab student: “If the Israelis think we will agree to peace in this situation, they are wrong.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.