Israel's Pyrrhic Victory Looking at the Middle East, Four Decades after the Six-Day War

Forty years after the Six-Day War, Israel continues to face problems on its borders, from shootouts in Gaza to fighting in Lebanon. Indeed, the Israeli triumph of 1967 has proven to be a false victory.

By in Jerusalem


Dark clouds hang over Jerusalem's Old City. A rare spring rain has just washed the dust off the square in front of the Wailing Wall. It is still drizzling, but people are already hurrying back outdoors to the famous site.

The first to emerge are the ultra-orthodox Jews in their black robes. Some sway back and forth during prayer, while others rest their heads against the massive stone wall, seemingly in a trance. Behind them a group of young religious Israelis form a circle, hold hands and sing the Israeli national anthem. The tourists gradually feel confident enough to return, and a group of Japanese stick scribbled notes into the cracks in the wall.

No one notices three elderly men as they slowly approach the wall. Their names are Zion, Itzik and Haim. They were standing in the same spot exactly 40 years ago. They were members of a unit of Israeli paratroopers who recaptured the Jewish quarter on June 7, 1967, which had been in Jordanian hands for almost 20 years, and occupied the Arab Old City. "One of the first notes in the wall was mine," says Zion, a tall, bearded man. "It was the most moving moment of my life." Photographer David Rubinger captured the moment when the three young soldiers stood, lost in reverie, at the Wailing Wall for the first time.

Rubinger's photograph became the symbol of the most successful war in the history of the Jewish state. In the space of only six days the Israeli army, led by Defense Minster Moshe Dayan, was victorious on three fronts: They drove Egyptian forces out of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, expelled the Jordanians from the West Bank and captured the strategically important Golan Heights from the Syrians. By the time the short conflict ended, Israel controlled more than three times as much land as its original territory.

In the wake of a resurgence of the old fear of the Holocaust among many Jews, and worries that their new state would not last long, Israelis celebrated the victory as a gift from God. Still, "neither the panic that prevailed before the war nor the euphoria that followed it were justified," writes Israeli historian Tom Segev in his new book on the 1967 war.

There was no doubt that the Egyptian president, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, had openly threatened Israel. He forced United Nations troops to withdraw from the Sinai and blocked the Straits of Tiran, Israel's access to the Red Sea. But critical internal mistakes also helped to unsettle the Israeli people. By calling up thousands of reservists far too early, the country essentially forced itself to act.

Six Days, Years of Repercussions

The sigh of relief was all the more audible when the whole thing ended in only six days. But most Israelis failed to understand the serious consequences of the war. Deeply humiliated, Egypt and Syria tried to exact their revenge six years later in the form of the Yom Kippur War. Subsequently, Egypt and Jordan managed to sign a peace treaty, but Syria has remained an unpredictable neighbor to this day, and has repeatedly waged indirect war against Israel through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

But Israel still pays the highest price today in the Palestinian territories. The state that has its roots in the bitter experiences of 2,000 years of persecution had, in fact, subjugated another people itself. An army that had been established for the purpose of defense suddenly found itself in the role of an occupier.

In June 1967, about 1 million Arabs came under Israeli control, and about 300,000 decided to abandon their land. For many Palestinians it was already the second exodus. In the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948, at least 700,000 Palestinians were robbed of their homeland. Most fled to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. In 1967 the tragedy was repeated for many Palestinians, who ended up in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Refugees Deprived of their Land

The Jabal al-Hussein refugee camp lies in a dusty canyon on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Thirty-thousand people live here in gray concrete houses pressed up against the mountainside. The narrow streets are filled with the odors of rancid cooking fat, cat feces and human urine. Ghazi al-Zein, 64, greets visitors in a room that also serves as a bedroom and dining room. Stained mattresses on two wire bed frames stand against the wall. A bowl of hard-boiled eggs stands on the floor and a gas cooker is in a corner.

Palestinian refugee Ghazi al-Zein (left): "We will never make peace with the Israelis."
Christoph Schult

Palestinian refugee Ghazi al-Zein (left): "We will never make peace with the Israelis."

Zein, a Palestinian, was born in 1942, six years before the founding of the state of Israel. He was born in a house in Jaffo, which is now part of Tel Aviv. When the war broke out in 1948, his father packed the family into a taxi and took them to safety in the mountains near Nablus in the West Bank. "We'll go home in a week," he promised. That week turned into years and years into decades. The family lived in a tent for more than 10 years and was only able to build a modest house in the early 1960s. The Six-Day War began a short time later. The Israelis occupied Nablus, and a few weeks later they loaded Zein and hundreds of other young men onto trucks and deported them to Jordan.

Ghazi al-Zein has been living as a refugee for the past 59 years. His family barely has enough money to eat, and most meals consist of either falafel or rice. "We will never make peace with the Israelis," he says.

The Palestinian refugee situation is viewed as one of the main obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Palestinian politicians of all stripes demand the right of return for their refugees. But most of them no longer want to live in Israel, including Zein. He wants to return to Nablus.

A Massive Land Grab

The Israeli settlements are the other stumbling block to resolving the conflict. In 1967 there were no plans to occupy the West Bank. On the contrary, the Israelis were trying to dissuade King Hussein of Jordan from forming a military alliance with Egypt.

Today, 40 years later, 270,000 Israelis live in 122 settlements in the West Bank. Another 190,000 have settled in the region surrounding Jerusalem and in the Arab eastern section of the city. The Israeli government has invested $14 billion in the construction of settlements -- a massive land grab that was not Israel's original intention.

Geula Cohen can explain why it happened nonetheless. The 82-year-old lives in one of the Jewish sections of East Jerusalem established after 1967. The walls of her living room are decorated with black-and-white photographs that illustrate some of the highlights of her life: Cohen as a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and Cohen at the ground-breaking ceremony for a new settlement. The largest photograph shows a young girl with long, black hair standing in front of a microphone.

Cohen operated the Zionist Stern Gang's banned radio station in the 1940s. The underground militia's goal was to drive out the British from the area known as the Palestinian Mandate by committing acts of sabotage and attacks. The group's ideological roots stretched back to 1923.

Graphic: The State of Israel
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: The State of Israel

At the time, the British and the French handed over the territory east of the Jordan River to the Hashemite dynasty. A group known as the Revisionists was formed to protest this decision. It was vehemently opposed to David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founder, when he accepted the partition of the country into a Jewish and an Arab state in 1947. As far as the Revisionists were concerned, the Jewish state that was being established should have started in the Sinai Peninsula, included large parts of modern-day Lebanon and end far to the East of the Jordan.

Cohen interviewed Ben-Gurion three weeks before the beginning of the Six-Day War. "What would you tell your grandson if he asked you where the borders of our country are?" she asked the former prime minister. "They are the current borders of Israel," he responded. "Would you encourage an Israeli child to write a song of longing for a united Israel?" she asked. "If he wants to write it, he should write it," Ben-Gurion answered dryly. "I would not write one."

Cohen chuckles when she thinks about the interview. "The founders of our state had come to terms with partition," she says. "We, on the other hand, believed in the liberation of the territories."

Cohen was at the scene when the first settlement was born. During the Passover Festival in 1968, a group of foreigners rented a few rooms in the Park Hotel in Hebron. Shortly after entering the rooms, they identified themselves as Israelis and announced that Hebron was now under their jurisdiction. After weeks of negotiations, the extremists moved to a nearby military base. Two years later, the government approved the first settlement, on a hill near Hebron.

Based on much the same method, a handful of new settlements cropped up each year after that. And when the right-wing Likud Block came into power in 1977, building settlements became the official policy. "We only made one mistake in 1967," says Cohen. "We should have deported all Palestinians to Jordan."

The Security Fence

Shaul Arieli knows from experience how difficult it is to suppress a people with military force. He was in command of the Israeli brigade stationed in the Gaza Strip in the early 1990s.

Arieli, now 48, still looks like a soldier. His head is shaved and his neck and upper arms are muscular. But he has switched sides and joined the peace camp. His arguments are cold, hard facts. In 1967, he says, about 2.4 million Jews and 1.2 million Arabs lived in the region between the Mediterranean and Jordan, which the settlers call Erez Israel.

Former Israeli soldier Shaul Arieli is fighting today to shrink the size of the security fence that cuts deeply into the Palestinian region.
Amit Shabi

Former Israeli soldier Shaul Arieli is fighting today to shrink the size of the security fence that cuts deeply into the Palestinian region.

As a result of their higher birth rate, the Palestinians have almost made up the difference today. While the number of Jews in Israel has more than doubled, four times as many Palestinians live there today than 40 years ago. Today there are 5 million Arabs and 5.3 million Jews living on Israeli territory.

"The Arabs will be the majority in a few years," says Arieli. In Israel's core, there are five Jews to every Arab. If this ratio were expanded to the territories captured in 1967, he says, 16 million Jews would have to emigrate to Israel. "There aren't that many Jews in the entire world," says Arieli.

A map covered with red and green lines flickers on his computer screen. Green represents the lines of the 1949 cease-fire. Red represents the separation wall, or security fence, the Israeli government is building in the West Bank. The red line and the green line diverge in a number of places. This is where the wall cuts deeply into the Palestinian region.

Arieli, the retired army colonel, has become an expert on the separation wall. Together with the residents of Palestinian villages who suddenly find themselves on the Israeli side of the wall, he has filed several lawsuits with Israel's supreme court -- and he has been successful. The originally planned course of the wall would have included 20 percent of the West Bank, but thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling, that number has declined to 8 percent.

Arieli predicts that only a few percent will remain in the end. Then the Palestinians will finally be able to establish their own state. "Only when that happens," says Shaul Arieli, "will we have truly won the 1967 war."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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