For Palestinians, Nakbar Day means the day of catastrophe. It is commemorated on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1948. It remembers the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were evicted from their homes and land partitioned by the UN for the new Jewish state.
If that were a catastrophe, then what was June 10, 1967, when Israel emerged victorious from became known as the Six-Day War with three times more land and an additional million Palestinians under its occupation? It was due to the most disastrous 20th century geopolitical miscalculation by the Arabs, specifically Egypt.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader of Egypt, was at the height of his powers. He had galvanised the Arab masses in 1956 when he nationalised the Suez Canal, which for nearly a century had been an Anglo-French enterprise. A decade later, he decided he would crush Israel and rounded up Jordan, Syria and Iraq to join in. He massed troops in the Sinai and imposed a blockade of the Straits of Tiran to prevent oil supplies reaching Israel.
It was a foolish move against a country with the Holocaust freshly seared in the memory, a Jewish homeland at long last with everything to lose and a formidable opponent as the 1948 war had demonstrated. Instead Israel in an audacious pre-emptive strike destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground on the first morning along with much of Jordan’s and Syria’s. Just five days later, they had routed the Egyptian army, moved into Gaza, reached the Suez Canal, captured the old city of Jerusalem and the West Bank and driven the Syrians off the Golan Heights. It was a humiliation like no other for the Arabs.
The mood in Israel was intoxicating, as I can remember first hand. It was as if the ‘Death to Israel’ chants in the streets of Arab capitals and the belligerent threats by Egypt, the most powerful of the Arab countries, had been silenced. As millions of dollars poured into Israel’s coffers from the world-wide diaspora of grateful and excited Jews, the future looked buoyant for the new state.
‘Little did we know what this military victory would bring’, Reuven Gal, a former senior Israeli security official, lamented to the Economist. ‘The celebrations were the beginning of the tragedy of the occupation. It has had a tremendous impact on our morality, democracy, the souls of our children and the purity of arms (the morality of the use of force)’.
It also spawned a geopolitical conundrum like no other in the world. The region endured decades of a rolling catalogue of violence: even more disaffected Palestinians, airline hijacks, massacres (Lod airport, Munich Olympics and the Hebron mosque), Black September, another war in 1973, assassinations (Sadat and Rabin), civil wars (Jordan and Lebanon), invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, annexations (East Jerusalem and Golan Heights), international court cases, intifada uprisings by Palestinians, suicide terrorism, the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah hostile forces on Israel’s borders, malevolent threats from Iran, mediators coming and going empty-handed, a controversial security wall, the growing involvement of religious extremism, the relentless growth of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and now the rapidly receding chances of any kind of acceptable settlement. No wonder Google has no less than 2.2 million references to the Israel/Palestine question.
Most of all, the geopolitical landscape changed. The Palestinian cause, once at the forefront of the Arab interests, is now at best a secondary matter. Arab countries have their own domestic problems with Islamic sectarianism, terrorism and civil wars. Israel in 1967 was more a country of pioneers, orange-growers and Holocaust survivors, Now it is a nation of Judaism with the Netanyahu government dependent on religious extremists for its survival.
The Israeli author, Yossi Klein Halevi, noted that until 1967 Israel did not have a single holy place. ‘Think about that and what it says about the place of religion in the Israeli identity then’, he told the Jerusalem Post. But ‘Judaism is now central to Israeliness’. He said the war was a victory for ‘the Jews’ rather than ‘Israelis’. It is not surprising when it meant the return of Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall of Herod’s temple, to Jewish hands. It was never going to be helpful for peace prospects that it was adjacent to Sunni Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqua Mosque. Nor was it that the West Bank – the ancient Judea and Samaria – was also back in Jewish hands after 2000 years.
Looking back, Arabs must rue lost opportunities. If they had accepted the famous UN resolution 242 passed six months after the war, how different circumstances might have been today. Israel would have withdrawn to its pre-war positions in return for being recognised as an independent state with secure borders and to be able to live in peace. Even Israel accepted that. So did Egypt. But Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, refused even to consider recognition for another 20 years, holding out for greater rights for his countrymen. By then, it was too late. Religious interests among Israelis were becoming just as important as the country’s long-term security.
Arafat has a lot to answer for. Spurning the UN resolution, he opted for terrorism instead. In exile, he wallowed in the international sympathy for the Palestinian case and being feted on his travels. He took too long to accept that Israel was now a permanent fixture and with every passing year its roots were growing deeper and the Palestinian cause shrivelling. Like Nasser, he hopelessly miscalculated. Fifty years on, his people still live under occupation and in grinding poverty while next door Israel is prospering with its high-tech and defence industries. The Jews are more settled than ever, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank, no matter how illegal their actions are on the basis of international law. Indeed the Israelis have not won friends with their high-handed seizure of Palestinian land in order to consolidate their own permanency.
The outlook for a settlement is little more than a mirage. President Trump made the fatuous claim that he could pull off ‘the ultimate deal’, though was not bothered whether it was a one or two-state solution. The Arab position is still a 15-year-old declaration that mirrors Resolution 242. It apparently impressed Trump when King Salman mentioned it during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia except it appeared that no one had told him that Israel all along had refused even to consider it. If a deal is ever reached, it may have to be one the Arab nations themselves impose on the Palestinians. It may also serve as an overdue lesson to the West of the thanklessness of meddling in the mare’s nest that is the Middle East.
FOOTNOTE. Returning to Israel five years after the war, I was struck by two matters. One was how the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv was treating patients from Arab countries who’d slipped into the pariah state discreetly by air from Cyprus. These people had greater faith in Israeli doctors than their own. The other was visiting a factory in Gaza happily making uniforms for the Israeli military. It was business. Why couldn’t this tiny microcosm of cooperation be translated to neighbourly goodwill in every way?
John Tulloh covered the Six-Day War in a 40-year foreign news career.