Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A war that nobody wanted?

By Amal Siriwardena- 

The Middle East war of June 1967 has shaped the geo-political contours of the Middle East ever since. What is more, half a century later the issues raised by it remain largely unresolved. What makes it more tragic is that it seems to be have been a war which none of the belligerents really wanted, but was a result of misinformation and miscalculation.

The 1967 was the third of the wars that broke out in the Middle East post- World-War II. The first occurred shortly after the creation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. A resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 provided for the partitioning of the existing state of Palestine, which was under a British mandate, into an Arab state and a Jewish state. The resolution was passed with the support of the Western powers and the Soviet Union, over the opposition of all the Arab countries. The conscience of the West had been then been stricken by the holocaust. Shortly after, five Arab Countries, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon attacked the fledgling Jewish state. With the exception of the Jordanians all the Arab armies fared poorly. The war was ended with a UN brokered armistice in 1949 whereby Israel greatly increased the territory under its control.

The early 1950s saw the emergence of a new Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized power deposing the former monarch. He was not only an Egyptian Nationalist but aspired to be a pan Arab leader, and had socialistic leanings. He first sought financing for his dream project, the High Aswan dam, from the West. However following Egypt’s purchase of arms from the Soviet block and its recognition of Communist China the U.S. refused aid for the dam. Nasser retaliated by nationalising the British and French owned Suez Canal, justifying it as the Canal being a vestige of imperialism. Britain, France and Israel responded with military action, with Israel occupying the Sinai Peninsula between the Israeli border and the canal; British and French forces seized the Canal. However, at this point the political dynamics of the cold war situation prevailed. The United States was fearful of the aggression pushing the Arab world into the Soviet camp. By a UN resolution, Britain, France and Israel were forced to withdraw and the Canal was ceded to Egypt. However Israel was granted access through the Straits of Tiran, leading to the Gulf of Aqaba. Despite the U.S. action Nasser tilted more and more towards the Soviet Union, which became his major supplier of arms, even though Egypt was an active member of the non-aligned movement. Both in 1949 and 1956, there was no peace agreement, no recognition of Israel by the Arab countries only a cessation of hostilities.

The creation of Israel and the subsequent expansion of its territory has led to vast numbers of displaced Palestinian people, mainly in Egypt, Jordan and Syria. . This has spawned the militant Palestinian movement Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat, who then mounted guerilla attacks on Israel. This formed the backdrop to the 1967 war when an attack by Fatah on Israeli soldiers prompted a retaliatory attack on a West Bank village. King Hussein of Jordan came under popular pressure to do more to protect his people. Hussein in turn, rebuked Nasser for not doing more to "liberate Palestine". The Soviet Union conveyed reports to Nasser, apparently false, that Israeli forces were massed along the Syrian border, preparing to attack Syria.

Under the terms of the agreement which ended the 1956 war, a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) had been stationed on the Egyptian side of the Sinai- Israeli border and at Sharm-El- Sheik near the straits of Tiran. Nasser next made the fatal move. He expelled the UNEF and upped the ante by blocking the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping on May 22. He also sent additional forces into the Sinai. The unanswered question is whether at this point, Nasser really wanted war. Did he count on the fact that the United Sates would intervene, as it did in 1956, to broker a settlement? Both Yitzhak Rabin, then Chief of the Israeli General Staff and Abba Eban then Foreign Minister have gone on record saying they do not believe Nasser wanted war. Whatever Nasser’s intentions, there is no doubt it was a colossal blunder. What the Arab countries have been striving for ever since is a return to the pre-1967 boundaries, with the possible exception of a Palestinian State on the West Bank.

However, the die was now cast. King Hussein was in turn being pressured by hard line elements in Jordan. On May 30th he flew to Cairo to join in a military alliance with Egypt which placed Jordanian forces under Egyptian command. Egypt was already in a military alliance with Syria. A national unity government was formed in Israel; on June 5th Israel struck with devastating results. Flying low over the Mediterranean to avoid the radar, Israel launched a surprise air strike which virtually wiped out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Shortly after, Israeli tanks rolled into the Sinai. The Egyptians were overwhelmed not so much by superior weapons, but by superior strategy, tactics, leadership and morale. Within three days Israel had occupied the Sinai, the Gaza strip and reached the Suez Canal.

Despite his alliance with Nasser, Hussein was initially reluctant to enter the war. He was in the words of his wife Queen Noor, "Damned if he did and damned if he didn’t". Hussein was aware that the Jordanians were no match for the Israeli forces. After the attack on Egypt, Israel notified him that it would not attack Jordan if he stayed out of the war. However, Hussein was misinformed about the results of the Israeli air attack and chose war. Jordanian forces commenced shelling targets in Israel, including the outskirts of Tel Aviv and the Israeli sector of Jerusalem. Though the Jordanian forces fought bravely, Israel swiftly captured the entire West Bank of the Jordan and East Jerusalem.

On June 6th King Hussein asked the UN for a ceasefire. However there were inevitable delays on the exact terms. Even after Hussein formally accepted the cease fire on June 7, Israeli forces continued fighting till they had secured the whole of the West Bank. Israel also launched a massive air and ground attack on Syria’s Golan Heights. Again the attack continued after Syria had accepted the ceasefire on June 9th, with hostilities ceasing only the following day. A curious episode in this connection was the destruction of US intelligence ship USS liberty on the June 8th by Israeli jets and torpedo boats killing 34 sailors. The ship may have been eavesdropping on Israeli plans to attack Syria. Israel claims the incident was an accident and this was officially accepted by the U.S., but even some highly placed Americans regarded this with skepticism.

The war ended with Israel more than tripling the land under its control. Israel lost less than a thousand men while the Arab countries lost about 20,000. There was another wave of refugees with about 300,000 Palestinians fleeing the West Bank. In November 1967, the United Nations passed resolution 242 which called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories; it also speaks about the acknowledgement of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of every state and their right to live within secure and recognised boundaries. It should be noted that the resolution did not call for unilateral withdrawal by Israel but for withdrawal in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement.

Flash forwarding to the current situation, though Egypt has recovered the Sinai through the Peace agreement of 1979, the West Bank, the Palestinian Issue and the Golan Heights remain intractable problems. Though the Palestinian authority, with limited powers, has been established in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, the Israeli policy of expanding settlements and American acquiescence doom any possibility of a viable Palestinian state emerging in the near future. What began as an Arab- Israeli problem has now metamorphosed into an Israeli- Palestinian- Islamic Fundamentalist problem.

The U.S. paid dearly for its support for Israel with the 9/11 bombing. An interesting question, post -1967, is what has driven American policy in the region. Is it a rational appraisal of American interests? Or is it the influence the Jewish Diaspora has on U.S. domestic politics? Whatever the answer, it seems to have doomed the region to eternal conflict.