National Post (Latest Edition)
SIX DAYS THAT CHANGED THE ARAB WORLD FOREVER
Beginning just after 7 a.m. on June 5, 1967 — exactly 40 years ago today — a fleet of 200 Israeli airplanes took off and flew west at low altitude toward Egypt’s airfields. “From Joshua Bin-Nun, Kind David, the Maccabees and the fighters of 1948 and 1956, we shall draw the strength and courage to strike the Egyptians who threaten our safety,” declared Air Force Commander Motti Hod to his pilots. “Fly, soar at the enemy, destroy him and scatter him throughout the desert so that Israel may live.”
Within three hours, Israeli pilots had done just that. Almost 300 of Egypt’s 420 combat aircraft were blown up on the ground. Runways, radar stations and air defences were all systematically wiped out. Egyptian pilots died as they ate breakfast. Hod reported matter-of-factly to his political superiors: “The Egyptian Air Force has ceased to exist.” Without air cover, Egypt’s army — the most powerful in the Arab world — was defenceless against the coming onslaught.
So began the Six-Day War, one of the most astonishing military triumphs in human history. In just 132 hours of fighting, a country that hadn’t even existed 20 years previous would capture 42,000 square miles, expanding to 350% of its original land mass. Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights all fell under Israeli control. To quote deputy chief of staff, Haim Bar-Lev: “We have screwed every Arab country.”
Yet Israel’s anniversary celebration of the SixDay War is bittersweet — for two reasons.
First, the country’s victory made it an occupying power. Impoverished Palestinian towns and refugee camps that formerly had been the problem of Egypt and Jordan were now dumped into Israel’s lap. The creation of militarized Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza helped Israel control these areas — but also gave Israel the appearance of an imperialist power, and so transformed the country from scrappy underdog into neocolonial pariah. Militant anti-Zionism existed long before the Six-Day War, of course (and would continue to exist now, even if the war had never happened). But Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza has boosted the creed’s perceived legitimacy among diplomats and leftists.
Second, the modern military context makes the victories of 1967 seem irrelevant. In recent decades, Israel has suffered not one but two Vietnam-style traumas in Lebanon’s southern Hezbollah-controlled badlands — a long Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s, and then a short one in 2006. Israel is still a regional superpower, but no country can protect itself from suicidal death cultists indefinitely. With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pursuing nuclear weapons, and declaring that “the countdown button for the destruction of the Zionist regime has been pushed by the hands of the children of Lebanon and Palestine,” the glories of a war won with 1950s aircraft and Second World War-era tanks now seem like ancient history.
It is in the Arab world where the historical impact of the Six-Day War remains most keenly felt. The Israeli victory 40 years ago was so enormous, the humiliation of its neighbours so complete, that it single-handedly discredited both Arab nationalism — the great creed of the day — and its charismatic champion, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Six-Day War had existential meaning for Israel: It allowed Jews to escape their “Auschwitz borders” (as Abba Eban called them) and seize control of Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years. But it had no less existential meaning for Arabs. It showed them that the dictators who ruled them were hopeless at accomplishing the one, single delirious goal that had been at the centre of Arab ideology and propaganda since the early decades of the 20th century: the annihilation of the Jewish presence in the Middle East.
Indeed, to read the history of the Six-Day War is to understand that, for all the glorious daring of the Israelis 40 years ago, the result would have been unthinkable but not for gross Arab incompetence. As Israel attacked in June, 1967, Arab brigades were left to wander through the Sinai, West Bank and Golan Heights under contradictory or senseless orders. While the Israeli war machine was run by Ariel Sharon, Uzi Narkiss, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and other innovative, battle-tested veterans of 1948, the Arab armies were run by simpering political hacks. (Egypt’s entire ground operation in Sinai, for instance, was com- manded by Lt.-Gen. ‘Abd al-Muhsin Kamil Murtagi, a crony of the defence minister who had no operational military experience.)
Even more disgraceful was the pitifully low morale — indeed, the outright cowardice — of the Arab officer corps. On the Egyptian front, higher-ups simply abandoned their men, in some cases swimming back over the Suez Canal as the rank-and-file faced the Israelis. On the Syrian front, Israeli soldiers found hapless troops chained to their machine guns, their officers long gone to Damascus. (There were exceptions, however. Many Jordanian units fought well. And in a harbinger of things to come, some of the bravest Arab resistance was put up by Palestinian units fighting in Gaza.) What kind of ideology was Arab nationalism if not a single Arab army would fight for it?
In the short run, the war would elevate Yasser Arafat to the status of important global figure: If Arab states couldn’t finish off Israel, Palestinians were going to try to do the job themselves. But with his roots in secular ’60s-style Marxism, Arafat ultimately turned out to be a transitional figure. In the long run, it was militant Islam that filled the ideological vacuum Israel’s planes and tanks had produced in the Arab psyche. In the four decades following the Six-Day war, social influence, political power and military initiative in the Arab world have all shifted from national governments to mullahs and mosques. Hamas is now more powerful than the PLO. Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah both are more revered than any Arab president.
Israel fought its first four wars — in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 — against conventional Arab armies. It has fought its last three against the Islamist guerrillas and terrorists of Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Unlike the tinpot Arab conscript armies of 40 years ago, Islamist gunmen believe in their fight. They are willing to die for their cause, and they don’t run away. Morale, it turns out, matters far more than sheer numbers. Consider: The Arab armies that Israel faced 40 years ago fielded a combined 500,000 soldiers, 900 combat aircraft and 5,000-plus battle tanks. Yet they couldn’t do what Hezbollah did last year with just 5,000 troops, zero aircraft and zero tanks.
Forty years ago, it was easy to believe that Jews were simply better fighters than Arabs. But the problem wasn’t that Arabs don’t make good soldiers: It was that few of them were willing to die for corrupt, dysfunctional Arab autocracies. Now that Allah is their inspiration, things are very different. In the next 40 years, the descendants of Joshua Bin-Nun, Kind David and the Maccabees will face a far tougher foe.