There are three basic facts about the 1967 Six Day War. Knowing these politically incorrect, inconvenient truths will banish any ambivalence a reasonable person might have, and will encourage the celebration the 50th anniversary of this great Israeli victory.
First, the threats to annihilate Israel were loud and numerous. Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser had united the military commands of his army with those of Syria and Jordan. He and those around him were repeatedly threatening to throw the Jews into the sea, to destroy the Jewish state. This was 22 years after the liberated concentration camps showed that Adolf Hitler’s rantings should have been taken seriously; because they were ignored, six million Jews died.
This was 19 years after an additional 6,000 Jews died because Palestinian Arabs rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have created a peaceful transition in the Middle East. An Israeli leader who ignored those threats would have been guilty not just of stupidity, but of criminal negligence.
Second, beyond the bellicose calls to annihilate their neighbour, the Egyptians gave Israel a casus belli when Nasser banished the UN army serving as a buffer between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai, and a second justification for war when Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran, the international waterways going to Eilat.
International law defines blocking a neighbour’s waterways as an act of war. Thus, Israel’s pre-emptive strike on the Egyptian and Syrian air forces in June 1967 was justified legally, morally and existentially. The 1967 war was an ein breira (no choice) war of self-defence.
Third, the most controversial piece of territory Israel secured from that conflict – the West Bank, including Jerusalem – was already in legal limbo. To call that territory “occupied” is wrong legally, historically and, again, existentially. Legally, the Jordanian army, rejecting the 1947 Partition Plan, invaded Israel, a state the United Nations had authorized.
In that 1948 war, Jordan seized the West Bank – what Jews call Judea and Samaria – and part of Jerusalem. The United Nations never recognized Jordan’s occupation of the territory. Thus, when Israel, in self-defence, won that territory in 1967, it wasn’t occupying Jordanian territory, it wasn’t occupying Palestinian territory – something no one would have said back then – it was seizing legally ambiguous territory.
Historically, Israel has longstanding claims to that territory, the biblical heartland of the ancient Jewish state. More recently, the British Mandate and the San Remo Conference allowed Jews to settle in that area west of the Jordan River, i.e. the West Bank.
Finally, existentially, the writer Yossi Klein Halevi acknowledges the demographic realities – there are over a million Palestinians living in that territory – and notes their legal limbo due to security and diplomatic complications. He therefore says that while he acknowledges the Palestinians in that area are an occupied people, controlled without full democratic rights, he (and I) cannot say this land – the Jewish people’s inheritance – is occupied by the Jewish People. We returned to our land, observing the legal and historical rules of warfare, in self-defence.
These three facts explain the Jewish euphoria from left to right in 1967, as well as why we should celebrate the victory, which saved Israel, from left to right. Let’s argue the next day.
These three facts – and genuine celebrations – do not mean demographic realities might not compel a compromise. Israel can consider relinquishing some territory, but never Jewish rights to that territory. A politician can compromise on borders but cannot rewrite history or legacy.
Shame on us for not knowing our history. Those who don’t know their history cannot grow. But those imprisoned by that history haven’t grown. Let’s learn the facts, then discern the best way to make new realities that bring us closer to the peace we all deserve.