Arab Defeat in Six-Day War
In the runup to the Six-Day War (June 5th – 10th, 1967), tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors climbed steadily. Raids from Palestinian guerrillas based in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, increased, eliciting massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in a bind. He was the Arab world’s most popular politician, a hero of the masses for his defiance of Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956, but he was now being criticized for failing to aid those Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border.
Nasser knew that the Egyptian military was in no shape to fight Israel, but he sought to regain his stature in the Arab world by bluster and bluff. He broadcast increasingly heated speeches threatening Israel, and sought to convey his seriousness with demonstrations short of war. However, Nasser got carried away with his own rhetoric, and escalated the demonstrations beyond the point of prudence. He began by massing Egyptian forces in the Sinai. A few days later, he requested the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers separating the Israeli and Egyptian forces. A few more days, and he closed to Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. A week later, Jordan’s king arrived in Egypt to ink a mutual defense pact, followed soon thereafter by Iraq.
Unfortunately, what might have been intended as bluff seemed all too real from an Israeli perspective. Moreover, the Israelis, who actually were prepared for war, had long been itching for an excuse to cut Nasser down to size. So on June 5th, 1967, they launched preemptive airstrikes that destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground, and put pay to the Syrian planes as well. Then, having secured aerial supremacy, the Israelis launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days, and routed the Jordanians and seized Jerusalem and the West Bank within two. Egypt and Jordan accepted a UN ceasefire but the Syrians unwisely did not, so the Israelis attacked Syria on June 9th, and captured the Golan Heights within a day. Syria accepted a cease-fire the following day.
The defeat was humiliatingly lopsided: about 24,000 Arabs killed vs 800 Israelis, with similarly disproportionate rates for wounded and equipment losses. Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world, which he had sought to burnish with warlike rhetoric and demonstrations short of war, took a severe hit from which it never recovered.