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Six-Day War

Middle East [1967]

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: Aug 11, 2021

The Six Day War, also known as the Third Arab-Israeli War, or the June War was an armed conflict in 1967 between Israel and an Arab coalition comprising Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The war was fought from the 5th of June until the 10th of June 1967, and resulted in an overwhelming victory for Israel.

  • The Six Day War was an armed conflict in 1967 between Israel and an Arab coalition comprising Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
  • President Nasser’s decision, based on false Soviet intelligence reports, to expel the UNEF from the Sinai and close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping are generally understood to be the primary causes of the war.
  • Multiple attempts by the United States to peacefully resolve the situation would end in failure.
  • The Arab coalition was equipped with approximately 800 aircraft, 2,800 tanks and 465,000 troops; its primary objective was the annihilation of the Jewish State.
  • The Israeli forces, including reservists, comprised only around 264,000 troops, and would receive no assistance from the United States or Europe.
  • The imminent threat of annihilation resulted in a unity government in the Knesset, the appointment of Moshe Dayan as minister of defense, and the unification of many Jews around the world in defense of Israel.
  • On the morning of the 5th of June, in a pre-emptive strike to gain air supremacy, Israeli fighter aircraft decimated the Egyptian air force, while the Israeli army simultaneously launched its invasion of the Sinai to liberate the Straits of Tiran.
  • False reports of assaults against Israel by Egypt on the same day, soon drew Syria and Jordan into the war; Israel chose not to challenge these reports to gain a significant tactical advantage.
  • During the following 5 days, Israel would more than triple the size of its territory by liberating Jerusalem and capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.
  • Pressure by the United States and Soviet threats of intervention would result in a ceasefire on the 10th of June; Israel’s victory nonetheless, would significantly reshape the Middle East and mark the Jewish State as a force to be reckoned with.


Following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Israel withdrew its troops from the region, and Egypt agreed to the deployment of the UNEF (the United Nations Emergency Force) in the Sinai.

This was to ensure the compliance of the 1949 Armistice Agreements as well as permit Israeli shipping via the Straits of Tiran. Furthermore, Israel also expressed its desire to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East.


The expulsion of the United Nations Emergency Force from the Sinai and the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping by Egypt are generally understood to be the immediate causes of the war.

Egyptian President Nasser’s actions, actuated for the most part by false intelligence information from the USSR, played a vital role in escalating the tension preceding the outbreak of hostilities. Later, after mobilizing its forces, Egypt discovered that it had been fed false information. However, President Nasser would reveal in a private meeting with UN officials that his military leaders were insisting that Egypt wage war, and that he was afraid of a coup and possibly assassination if he chose not to attack Israel.

While the Johnson administration was not opposed to a pre-emptive assault by Israel, the United States remained neutral during the war. Moreover, it also imposed a weapons embargo on the region. Following the devastating losses, Arab leaders, in order to save face, sought to accuse the United States and Britain of helping the Israelis. However, the Israelis managed to secretly record and subsequently reveal to the world a phone conversation between King Hussein and President Nasser, in which they planned to falsely accuse the British and the Americans. This revelation confirmed the denials of the British and American officials.

The USS Liberty, a naval technical research ship of the United States, was attacked during the Six Day War on the 8th of June 1967 by Israeli fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats. The assault resulted in the deaths of 34 crew members and severe damage to the vessel. Following an investigation, the U.S. and Israel concluded that the attack was based on misidentification. The Israeli government subsequently issued an official apology, and financially compensated the families of the deceased men, the wounded, and the United States government for the incident.

Furthermore, Iraq also took issue with Kuwait for overproducing oil. The OPEC cartel had long sought to maintain a price of $18 per barrel. However, Kuwait’s decision to exceed the quotas had reduced the oil price to nearly $10 per barrel. The consequent annual loss of $7 billion to Iraq, an amount equivalent to its balance of payments deficit in 1989, would impose a severe economic burden upon the Iraqi regime.

Iraq accused Kuwait of waging economic warfare. The situation, Iraq claimed, had been further aggravated by Kuwait’s slant-drilling into the Rumaila oil field across the border in Iraq. The two nations finally signed a pact. This would enable Iraq to supply Kuwait with water for drinking as well as irrigation. An Iraqi request for the use of Umm Qasr, however, was rejected.

On the 10th of October 1960, then Foreign Minister Golda Meir, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, would invite Arab leaders to discuss a peace settlement with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

Five days later, however, President Gamal Abdel Nasser would respond by accusing Israel of merely attempting to deceive world opinion. He reiterated his position that Egypt would never even recognize Israel. The ensuing years would only intensify his antipathy toward the Jewish State. On the 24th of March 1964, he declared before the United Arab Republic National Assembly that “the danger of Israel lies in the very existence of Israel.”

Revelation of Arab Plans

In September 1965, a secret meeting of Arab leaders, comprising key intelligence and military chiefs, was held in Morocco. The chief objective of the assembly was to discuss a possible attack on Israel under a united Arab command.

The host of the meeting, King Hassan II of Morocco, however, entertained no small misgivings concerning his Arab guests. He would pass on a secret recording of the meeting to the Israelis. Later, the Israeli Major General Shlomo Gazit would hail the recordings a crucial intelligence accomplishment. The recordings, according to Gazit, had revealed that the supposed “Arab unity and having a united front against Israel didn’t reflect real unanimity among them.”

Tension with Syria

Syria’s secession from the United Arab Republic in 1961 had led to significant unrest within the nation. Moreover, Israel’s use of the Jordanian river to supply water for the Jewish State had increasingly agitated Syria. By 1965, Syria was launching frequent attacks on Israeli villages and farms from the Golan Heights which towered 3,000ft above the Galilee.

Syrian shelling would compel children on the Huleh Valley’s kibbutzim to sleep in bomb shelters. Israel’s protests before the United Nations Mixed Armistice Commission against the Syrian bombardments fell on deaf ears. The Soviet Union would veto even a sympathetic UN Security Council resolution conveying ‘regret’ for the incidents.

Meanwhile, Nasser voiced Arab aspirations of invading Israel “with its soil saturated in blood” for “the destruction of the state of Israel.” Finally, Israel retaliated on the 7th of April 1967 by launching a lethal airstrike. Israel shot down six MiG fighter planes of Syria which had been supplied by the Soviets.

The Soviets, who had been major military as well as economic supporters of Egypt and Syria, would soon afterwards provide Syria with false intelligence information indicating that Israel had been preparing its military for a strike against Syria. Despite denials of such a scheme by the Jewish State, Syria would invoke its treaty with Egypt and request Nasser’s help.

Casus Belli

In the meantime, Egypt too, was fed false information by the Soviet Union. The Soviets informed Egypt in early May that Israel had deployed troops along its northern border in order to attack Syria.

In response, Nasser moved the Egyptian troops into the Sinai and deployed them on the 15th of May near the Israeli border. The next day, Nasser ordered the UNEF in the Sinai to withdraw. The UNEF had functioned as a buffer between the Egyptian and Israeli forces since the Suez Crisis.

Secretary-General U Thant immediately complied with the demand without even presenting the matter to the UN General Assembly. By the 18th of May, the UNEF had withdrawn, and on the 20th of May, Syria’s Defense Minister Hafez Assad claimed that the Arab forces were now ready “to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland” in a “battle of annihilation.”

On the 22nd of May, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The United States had assured Israel that it recognized Israel’s access to the Straits. 17 maritime powers had also declared at the United Nations in 1957 that the Jewish State reserved the right to use the Straits of Tiran.

Egypt’s blockade was also a violation of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone adopted by the UN on the 27th of April 1958. The closure of the Straits of Tiran halted the flow of oil to Israel from Iran and shut down Israel’s sole supply channel with Asia.

President Lydon Johnson of the United States condemned the blockade and sought to alter the situation. He also advised Israel against initiating any military action. However, President Johnson would reflect that “the arbitrary and dangerous” decision to close the Straits of Tiran was the “single act of folly” which was most responsible for the war.

Prelude to the War

Following the closure of the Straits, Nasser started challenging Israel to wage war. On the 27th of May, he said: “the Arab people want to fight.” He further elaborated: “our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”

The following day he declared that “the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel,” and that Egypt “will not accept any (…) coexistence with Israel.”

On the 30th of May, after signing a defense pact with King Hussein of Jordan, Nasser stated: “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel (…) while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation.”

President Abdur Rahman Aref of Iraq further noted: “our goal is clear –to wipe Israel off the map.” Soon, the joint Arab forces were fully poised to annihilate the Jewish State, with approximately 800 aircraft, 2,800 tanks and 465,000 troops prepared for battle.

Israeli Preparations

Against the mammoth Arab armies, the Israeli forces, including reservists, comprised only around 264,000 troops. By now, Israel had been on alert for nearly three weeks. The reservists were essential to civilian life and the nation could not remain permanently mobilized.

However, at the same time, Israel could not long afford the denial of its access to the Straits of Tiran. By now, the United States had made multiple attempts via negotiation to prevent a large-scale war. However, it could not persuade Nasser or his Arab allies to cease their belligerent overtures. Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol would send Meir Amit, the head of the Mossad, to enlist the aid of the United States.

The Johnson administration informed him that the United States would not be opposed to a pre-emptive strike by Israel. Later, however, after war broke out, the State Department would announce that the United States would be “neutral in thought, word and deed.”

Moreover, while the Soviets would continue to flood the Arabs with arms, the United States as well as France would maintain an arms embargo on the region. As the prospect of war became increasingly inevitable, a sense of imminent annihilation hovered over the Jewish State.

The Israeli government dug 14,000 mass graves in the Tel Aviv Yarkon Park. It seemed that the Mediterranean would be turned into another Auschwitz. Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin noted that “the existence of Israel is at great risk.”

He further pointed out however, that Israel had to act soon if it hoped to survive. Prime Minister Eshkol’s reluctance to go to war in the meantime, would agitate many Israelis. Some started calling for Israel’s founder and former Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to return and lead the nation.

However, when Ben-Gurion declared his opposition to a war, the idea was soon abandoned. Finally, Eshkol appointed the charismatic Moshe Dayan as defense minister, and on the 4th of June, 1967, the Israeli cabinet voted unanimously to handover to the defense ministry the powers to respond to Arab aggression at its own discretion.

The next day, in an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Eshkol invited Opposition Leader Menachem Begin to join the government to help lead the war effort. Thousands of young Jewish men throughout the world crowded Jewish Agencies and Israeli consulates asking that they be sent for immediate service to defend their Jewish homeland.

Foreign Minister Abba Eban noted in his memoir that the “alarms and fears of mid-May” had birthed “a new metal which few of us had felt before.”

A Preemptive Strike

Despite the predictions of catastrophe for the Jewish nation by many, a cautious optimism pervaded Israeli military strategists. Major General Gazit of Israel’s Military Intelligence for instance, noted that despite the intimidating numbers, “the Egyptian Armored Corps was in pitiful shape and not prepared for battle.”

Moreover, Israel’s commanders would soon conceive a lethally effective plan. With the exception of merely 12 fighter jets which would be assigned to defend Israeli air space, the entire Israeli Air Force would be dispatched to decimate the Egyptian air force while the Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast.

The plan was to gain air supremacy right at the outset, and then repel the Arab aggressors. On the 4th of June, General Rabin met with the pilots and told them: “If you succeed – we win the war; if you fail –God help us.” The following morning, the Israeli planes took off at 7.14am to launch Operation Focus.

By 11.05am, Israel had destroyed 180 Egyptian planes. By the end of the day, Israel had bombed Egyptian airfields and destroyed 302 Egyptian, 52 Syrian and 20 Jordanian aircraft. Arab leaders, in the meantime, however, were airing fake news to maintain high morale among their people.

Reports from Amman, Damascus and Cairo falsely claimed that Arab aircraft had bombed Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and had inflicted massive casualties on the Jewish State. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan decided not to challenge these reports. He concluded that it was expedient to let the world see Israel for as long as possible as the victim.

Ground Battles

Coinciding with the airstrikes on the 5th of June, 3 Israeli brigades under Major General Israel Tal, stormed into the Sinai via two points: one south of Khan Yunis and the other opposite of Nahal Oz.

The Egyptians had secured the region with pillboxes, minefields, hidden gun emplacements, underground bunkers and trenches. The Israeli plan was to attack with concentrated armor at a few key points. Initially, the Egyptians countered with light resistance, assuming that the Israeli advance was merely a diversion to stage a heavier attack.

However, as the Israeli advance continued, the Egyptians realized that this was not the case, and responded with heavy fire. Despite the heavy casualties, the Israelis pressed ahead, clearing the Egyptian positions and eventually reaching Sheikh Zuweid.

Fierce fighting would occur here. However, soon after the Egyptian commander and some of his staff got killed, the Egyptian soldiers abandoned their positions. In the meantime, Israeli Colonel Albert Mandler’s 8th Armored Brigade which had been assigned to divert the Egyptian forces from the actual routes of invasion, would assault Egyptian fortifications in Kuntilla and capture the region in the night.

Conquering the Sinai

On the 6th of June, the Israelis advanced with more reinforcement and captured Arish. Moreover, an Israeli Armored Division under Major-General Ariel Sharon attacked and eventually captured Um-Katef.

Furthermore, the Israelis, bolstered by Colonel Rafael Eitan’s 35th Paratroopers Brigade, captured Gaza City as well as the entire Strip. By midnight, the Israelis were also in control of the road junctions of Bir Lahfan, Arish and Abu Ageila.

Amidst the ground fighting, several remaining Egyptian fighter planes would launch attacks on the Israeli ground forces. However, the Egyptian Air Force would sustain heavy losses from Israeli anti-aircraft units as well as the Israeli Air Force. The capture of Abu Ageila by the Israeli forces would mark the beginning of Egypt’s devastating defeat.

Field Marshal Abdel Amer, who panicked at the news, ordered his units to retreat. Nasser too, having heard the dismal results, ordered a general retreat within 24 hours from the Sinai. The retreating Egyptians, however, were aggressively pursued by the Israelis. Despite some resistance, thousands of Egyptians were killed in the fighting.

Because of the haste of their retreat, many had also abandoned their military equipment, vehicles and weapons. Cut off from other Egyptian units, they had to walk more than 100 kilometers on foot. Many soldiers would die due to the intense heat and thirst.

The high number of Egyptians who decided to surrender would exceed Israel’s capacity to provide for prisoners of war. Consequently, Israelis would imprison high-ranking officers while permitting other soldiers to return home.

On the 7th of June, after a brief naval operation supported by paratroopers and commandos, the Israelis conquered Sharm el-Sheikh. After countering a relatively weak Egyptian resistance, finally, Israel managed to liberate the Straits of Tiran.

Defense Minister Dayan announced at 12.15pm that the Straits of Tiran were now open to all ships without any inhibition. Israel consummated its conquest of Sinai finally on the 8th of June by dispatching infantry units to the Egyptian town of Ras Sudar on the Gulf of Suez.

The Battle for Jerusalem

On 5th of June, Prime Minister Eshkol had sent a message to King Hussein of Jordan, promising not to attack Jordan, if the Jordanians restrained from initiating hostilities. However, King Hussein had handed control of his army to the Egyptian General Riad on the 1st of June.

Moreover, during the early hours of the war, amidst the Israeli airstrikes, the Egyptian Field Marshal Amer had convinced King Hussein that the cluster of planes flying toward Israel which Jordanian radars had picked up were actually Egyptian aircraft dispatched to bomb the Jewish State.

The truth, however, was that these were Israeli fighter jets returning home after having decimated the Egyptian air force. King Hussein, duped into believing that the Arabs were winning, rejected Eshkol’s offer and ordered the shelling of West Jerusalem which was part of Israeli territory.

The Jordanians also attacked Mount Scopus, kibbutz Ramat Rachel, the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, Kfar Saba, Kfar Sirkin and Netanya. The Prime Minister’s Residence and the Knesset were targeted as well. Soon, Israel responded by sending Colonel Motta Gur’s Paratrooper Brigade 55 to prepare an assault to liberate Jerusalem within 12 hours.

There were two well-trained and experienced battalions of Jordanian fighters assaulting the city. Finally, on the 6th of June at 2am, a battalion of Brigade 55 assaulted the Jordanian stronghold of Ammunition Hill.

The Israeli paratroopers cut through the wire fences and advanced through the mine fields. But the trench fighting was costly. The initial thrust alone resulted in the deaths of 7 Israeli soldiers. After three hours of brutal fighting, the Israelis finally captured the Jordanian command bunker. The Israelis lost 36 soldiers while Jordanians lost 71.

The Israelis would later bury 17 Jordanian men in a grave with an epitaph written in English: “Here lay 17 brave Jordanian soldiers, IDF, 1967.” Meanwhile, an Israeli battalion was dispatched to the Rockefeller Museum facing the Arab quarter of the Old City.

Moreover, a group of Israeli paratroopers secured a spot on Mount Scopus. During the night, Dayan and Israeli commander Uzi Narkiss met on Mount Scopus to plan the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem.

However, Prime Minister Eshkol decided to give one more chance to King Hussein to save face. Eshkol promised the king that Israel would not capture the Old City if Jordan would immediately agree to an unconditional ceasefire, oust from Jordan the Egyptian generals, and begin a peace process with Israel. However, King Hussein rejected the offer by sending his troops to Jerusalem, hoping to hold as much territory as possible.

Liberating Jerusalem

Finally, Defense Minister Dayan made the historic decision. At 6.15am, on the 7th of June, he ordered the Israeli army to encircle the Old City, and then, to enter it. However, Dayan also admonished his troops not to damage any holy sites.

As the Israeli paratroopers stormed onto the Via Dolorosa, they found no Jordanian resistance. Most of the Jordanian troops had apparently fled the night before. Israeli Colonel Gur then led his troops to Temple Mount.

At 10.08am he radioed: “the Temple Mount is in our hands.” Israeli Officer Ezra Orni hung over the Dome of the Rock, a huge Israeli flag, and Israeli soldiers prayed before the Western Wall, weeping in joy. For the first time in nearly 2,500 years, Jerusalem was in the hands of the Jews.

Soon, Dayan and Rabin arrived, formally marking the Jews’ return to their holiest site and their ancient capital. IDF chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew a shofar at the Western Wall to celebrate the victory. During the 20-years of Jordanian rule over Jerusalem, no Jews had been permitted to either live or visit their holy sites in the city.

Moreover, Jordan’s official policy of Islamizing Jerusalem had resulted in the destruction or desecration of 58 synagogues, a ban on the acquisition of property by churches, and a ban on the funding of medical and social services by churches.

However, following the reunification of Jerusalem by the Jewish State, Muslim holy sites were not destroyed, and the city would be open to people of all faiths. Additionally, the previous restrictions on churches would be lifted.

Syrian Hostilities

Initially, Syria’s engagements with Israel were limited. However, Syria too was deceived by the false reports of the Egyptians who claimed to be decimating the Israeli forces.

Soon, the forecast suggested that Egyptians would be assaulting Tel Aviv. 12 Syrian jets subsequently attacked Israeli settlements in Galilee. Israeli fighter jets, however, soon retaliated by shooting down three Syrian aircraft and driving away the rest.

Moreover, Israeli jets also intercepted two strafing Lebanese fighter aircraft, and shot down one of them. On the 6th of June Syrian efforts to capture the water plants at Dan, She’ar Yashuv and Tel Dan, were successfully repelled by the Israeli forces.

Given the heavy damage Israel had inflicted upon the Arab armies by the first two days of the war, on the 7th of June, the Israeli leadership began debating the possibility of capturing the Golan Heights. Syria had previously used the Heights to attack Israeli villages and civilians.

However, at the same time, an Israeli assault on the Syrian fortification would be a dangerous uphill battle. The Israelis would have to be prepared to fight 9 brigades of nearly 75,000 Syrian troops. Dayan would initially oppose the plan. However, as the Arab losses increased, Israeli reconnaissance unveiled a collapsing Syrian defense in the region.

Moreover, thanks to the intelligence gathered by the famous Mossad spy Eli Cohen, the Israelis were also aware of Syrian battle positions. Finally, at 7am on the 9th of June, Dayan gave the order to launch the daring assault.

Capturing the Golan Heights

The attack began with dozens of sorties by Israeli jets on Syrian strongholds from Tawfiq to Mount Hermon. Soon Syrian storehouses and artillery batteries were knocked out.

Shortly afterwards, Colonel Albert Mandler’s 8th Armored Brigade, accompanied by the Engineering Corps, moved into the Golan Heights via Givat HaEm. The Israelis however, faced heavy fire. With the Israeli casualties mounting, Mandler ordered simultaneous attacks on Qala and Za’ura. A fierce tank battle ensued.

However, eventually, with air support, the Israelis managed to capture Za’ura, Qala as well as the ‘Ein Fit fortress. By the evening of the 9th of June, Israelis had also taken control of the Syrian strongholds of Tel Hillal, Dardara, Darbashiya and Tel ‘Azzaziat.

The Israelis continued their advance through the night, countering a Syrian resistance in Jalabina. Around 8.30am on the 10th however, Syrian soldiers began to destroy their own bunkers and documents, and retreat.

The Israeli troops who had climbed up from the South to the Golan, discovered empty Syrian positions. Israel’s 8th Brigade entered Mansura with no resistance. They found abandoned military equipment and tanks in perfect condition. On the same day, Israel completed its capture of the Golan Heights, having sacrificed nearly 115 soldiers in the campaign.

Ceasefire and Conclusion

Israel’s victory over Syria increasingly alarmed the Soviet Union which threatened to directly intervene on the Arab side. The United States, in the meantime, strongly urged Israel to agree to a ceasefire, which Israel did on the 10th of June.

By the time the hostilities ceased, casualties were approximately as follows:

  • Israel : 777 dead, 2,586 wounded and 15 captured
  • Egypt: 15,000 dead or missing, and 4,338 captured
  • Jordan: 696 dead and 533 captured
  • Syria : 2,500 dead and 591 captured

Several days earlier, the Arab leaders had been talking of how they would soon wipe the Jewish State off the map and meet for lunch in Tel Aviv. By the end of the war, however, Israel had captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

After more than two millennia, Jerusalem was once more in Jewish hands. In merely six days, Israel had more than tripled the size of its territory, and substantially grown its strategic depth. The Jewish State had also proven to the world that it could defend itself without the assistance of the United States or its European allies.

Before and After the Six Day War

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Six-Day War." World History Blog, Aug 23, 2021.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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