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Six Day War – The Third Arab–Israeli War (1967)

Ever since Israeli victory during the wars of 1948 and 1956, the Arab coalition led by Egypt, Syria and Jordan was eager to change the situation in the region by defeating Israel. Both sides understood that the conflict was far from over and were preparing for the next stage of confrontation. International interference and inability of the sides to find a settlement made one of the most iconic conflicts of the modern era – the Six-day War inevitable.

On May 13, 1967 the Soviet Union falsely informed Egypt about concentration of 11-13 brigades of the Israeli Defence Forces with an intent to strike Syria. In response Egypt started concentrating forces along the border with Israel in Sinai and on May 16 demanded the UN peacekeeping forces to leave the peninsula. At the same time, Israel refused the request of the UN on deployment of the UNEF on their side of the border either.

In the next few days Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Sudan started mobilization of their forces, Iraq sent expeditionary forces to Jordan, Saudi Arabia expressed its willingness to participate in military actions. But the turning point, which made the full scale confrontation inevitable was the decision of Egypt to block Israeli ships from entering the Straits of Tiran on May 22-23.

On June 1 Israel established a National Unity Government, which on June 4 decided to go to war. The Arab Coalition of Egypt, Jordan and Syria had an advantage over Israel in deployed troops with 240 thousand against 100 thousand, in tanks with 2504 against 800 and in aircrafts with 957 against 300.

Israel planned to strike on June 5 with the Operation Focus, which aimed to destroy Egyptian air force. The Israeli media published false reports claiming Israeli soldiers are on vacation, while their pilots were carrying out training sorties as usual and their intelligence helped make these trainings as realistic as possible and damaged the tracking antenna of the US Embassy to prevent the Americans finding out about the operation before the strike took place. The Israeli pilots were informed about the start of the operation only 5 hours in advance. At the same time Egyptian air defence system was effectively off on June 5.

The Operation Focus: An Operational Success of Israel and Its Air Dominance

Nearly 200 Israeli aircrafts attacked 14 Egyptian airfields and caught them absolutely off guard. 338 Egyptian aircrafts were destroyed, 100 pilots were killed within 3 hours. Jordanian and Syrian Airforce attacked Israel in retaliation at 11 am June 5. The response of Israeli airforce was attack on their airfields which led to destruction of all 28 Jordanian, 53 Syrian and 10 Iraqi planes. The Operation Focus was a decisive success: Israel lost only 19 planes in this Operation and guaranteed its total air dominance for the rest of the war.

The ground war was taking place at three fronts: the Sinai front, the Jordanian front, the Syrian front.

At the Sinai front the Egyptian forces consisted of seven divisions: four armoured, two infantry, and one mechanized infantry. Egypt had 100,000 troops and 900–950 tanks in the Sinai, so Israel concentrated three divisions consisting of six armoured, one infantry, one mechanized infantry and three paratrooper brigades for a total of 70,000 men and 700 tanks along this front. Israel’s plan was to catch Egyptians off guard by attacking simultaneously with air strikes, and attacking through the Northern and Central routes in the Sinai Peninsula instead of the Central and Southern Routes used during the Sinai War.

On 5 June, at 7:50 a.m., the northernmost Israeli division, consisting of three brigades and commanded by Major General Israel Tal started its advance towards Arish through Gaza with an aim to encircle Khan Yunis, while the paratroopers were ordered to take Rafah. Initially, Egyptians offered little resistance, since their intelligence concluded that, this was a diversion rather than a main attack. However, soon resistance against the 60th armoured brigade ramped up. This did not stop the Israeli forces from reaching Khan Yunis Railway junction in 4 hours. Afterwards IDF advanced on Sheikh Zuweid and defeated fierce Egyptian resistance thanks to air domination. The road on Arish was open and by 8 am of 6 July elements of the 79th Armored Battalion and the 7th brigade entered the suspiciously quiet city. Suddenly the Egyptians started firing from the balconies, windows and there was a heavy battle going on for control in the city and the IDF was only able to take full control of the city after reinforcements were sent.

The northernmost division then split into two parts. One of them continued the advance on the Suez channel, while the second group turned south and captured Bir Lahfan and Jabal Libni.

Further south on 6 June, the 14 thousand men 150 tank strong Israeli 38th Armored Division under Major-General Ariel Sharon was confronted by the Egyptian 2nd Infantry Division under Major-General Sa’adi Nagib, consisting of 16,000 troops and 90 tanks. Israel successfully advanced towards Abu Ageila. The paratroopers landed behind Egyptian positions and sew enough confusion to weaken the artillery of the Egyptian defense, which opened the way of the IDF to capture Um Katef. It was followed by fierce close tank battle, which ended in an Israeli victory with 40 Egyptian and 19 Israeli tanks destroyed.

An Order to Retreat from Sinai after the Fall of Abu-Ageila

The Egyptian forces in Sinai were still largely intact, but their Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer panicked and ordered retreat of all units from Sinai after hearing about the fall of Abu-Ageila. This order did not elaborate on the sequence and manner of the retreat, which only decreased the defensive capabilities of the Egyptian troops.

During the following days the IDF continued its advance westward and inflicted heavy losses on the Egyptians. Despite episodic heavy resistance by the Egyptians as in Bin Gafgafa, the napalm bombing by the Israeli aviation and uncontrolled retreat weakened the morale of the Egyptian troops. Instead of catching retreating Egyptians, the IDF decided to capture 3 passes from Sinai to the Egyptian mainland and face the Egyptian troops there. Although IDF was not able to stop all Egyptian troops from crossing, these passes became a killing ground for the Egyptian troops with 10000 being killed in one day alone.

The capture of Sinai was completed by the fall of Sharm El-Sheikh on June 7 and Ras Sudar on June 8.On June 9, the UN Security Council achieved an armistice between sides. Israel wanted to avoid confrontation with Jordan and Syria before defeating Egypt, but the offers of neutrality to Jordan were rejected, as the Egyptian president Nasser persuaded King Hussain of Jordan that Egypt had an advantage against Israel. On the morning of 5 June, both sides started the fire, but Israel attempted a last grasp attempt to avoid confrontation with Jordan by passing its message of request of peace through the UN representative Bull.

King Hussain countered that it was too late and the Jordanian aviation was already on the way. Jordanian and Iraqi aviation started shelling Israeli controlled West Jerusalem, which caused 16 military and 20 civilian casualties, with 900 buildings damaged. Israel responded with its own air attack within the Operation Focus, which damaged military aviation infrastructure of Jordan and secured the Israeli air dominance. East Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan at the time and the Jordanian army took position in the UN residency – the Government House to fire on the Israeli sector. The Jerusalem Brigade’s Reserve Battalion 161 of Israel took the Government house despite heavy losses and forced Jordanians to retreat to Bethlehem.

Later on that day, Israel encircled Eastern Jerusalem with the Jerusalem Brigade from the south, and the mechanized Harel Brigade and 55th Paratroopers Brigade from the north. A fierce battle happened for the Ammunition Hill. Jordanian resistance was so strong that the IDF lost all but two of their attacking officers and achieved the goal only after 4 hours. 55th Paratroopers Brigade afterwards drove eastwards, linked up with Mount Scopus, and defeated the other Jordanian positions around the American Colony.

Israel and the Jordanian Military in the Middle East

Towards the evening of June 5, the mechanized Harel Brigade succeeded in taking Latrun and Ramallah. Also, the 163rd Infantry Battalion secured Abu Tor and cut the Old City from Bethlehem and Hebron. On June 7, the Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan ordered IDF to enter Old City despite reservations and concerns of the Israeli Government. The fighting was conducted solely by the paratroopers out of fear of destruction of holy sites. IDF took control of the Old City after little resistance. Judea, Hebron, Bethlehem and Nablus were also captured by IDF on June 7. Remnants of the Jordanian army fell back into Jordan. Israel was victorious on this front as well. Syria also believed the Nasser about Egypt’s early success in the conflict and sent its aviation to attack Galilee. This attack was intercepted by the Israeli aviation.

A minor ground attack was also attempted by the Syrians in attempt to capture the water plants at Tel Dan, Dan, and She’ar Yashuv. This was repulsed by IDF as well. Israeli air domination, lack of communication by Syrian units, tanks being too wide for bridges were among the causes of unsuccessful attack of the Syrians. This caused them to abandon any attempts to make ground offensive on Israel and airstrikes were chosen as a method instead. However, on the evening of June 5, Israel stroke Syrian airfields within the Operation Focus, destroying 2/3 of the Syrian airforce and forcing the rest out of the conflict.

The Israeli leadership was unsure whether to attack Syria or not. On one hand, Syria was using Golan Heights to shell Israel, on the other hand it would have been a literally uphill battle against a fortified enemy. But the intelligence about weakened positions of Syria in general and in Golan Heights in particular led Dayan to order an offensive on Golan without government authorization. The Israeli offensive started with air strikes which severely damaged defensive infrastructure and morale of the Syrian Army. The 8th Armored Brigade, led by Colonel Albert Mandler, advanced into the Golan Heights from Givat HaEm.

Heavy fighting in unfavourable terrain led to numerous casualties on both sides, but with the help of aviation IDF ultimately captured Zaura, Qala and Ein Fit fortresses. In the central sector, the Israeli 181st Battalion captured the strongholds of Dardara and Tel Hillal after fierce fighting. By the evening of June 9, Israel reached the plateau, which allowed reinforcements to come. Israel had 8 brigades by dawn ready for an assault on the second line of defenses. Soon the ceasefire was negotiated around the so called Purple Line. By 11 June, all military actions stopped. Up to 983 Israelis, 15000 Egyptians, 700 Jordanians and 2500 Syrians were killed in action. Israel gained a huge victory. It seized the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights.

About one million Arabs were placed under Israel’s direct control in the newly captured territories. The Israeli victory came as a result of more efficient military leadership, better preparation of troops and intelligence. But the Six-Day war by no means was the last conflict and merely 6 years later the confrontation escalated into another war.

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