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Middle East: 40 Years Later, Six-Day War Rages On

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> Israeli forces in action in Sinai in 1967 (AFP) June 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Today marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1967 Six-Day War -- a landmark conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors that laid the foundations of the modern Middle East.

In the words of Israel's top military commander at the time, the preemptive strike resembled creation itself. Moshe Dayan, Israel's one-eyed warrior, called the victory over the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria the "Six-Day War" -- an obvious reference, in the Holy Land, to the six days of creation as recounted in the Book of Genesis.

Yet the bitter irony -- for Palestinians, for Israelis, for the world -- is that the war still rages on, four decades later. Clashes continue over land Israel seized in the war, which was followed by a huge growth in Israeli settlements, the defeat of pan-Arabism, and the rise of political Islam.

"The 1967 war, to my mind, my conclusion is that it was really a threshold in the making of the modern Middle East, it was a crucial juncture -- for several reasons," says Micheal Oren, an Israeli historian and author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." "First of all, as a result of the war, Israel came into possession of the territories which are so hotly disputed today."

Lightning Strike

Tensions began rising in May 1967. Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sent troops into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, then under the control of UN peacekeepers. Nasser ordered out the UN troops and then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

Jordan joined Egypt's alliance with Syria in what looked like a looming attack on Israel. Iraq and other Arab states offered small forces.

Israel, increasingly nervous, began to mobilize its reserves. Finally, after much internal debate, the Israeli Air Force launched a preemptive attack that virtually wiped out the air forces -- mostly on the ground -- of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.

"The Six-Day War was a fitful event, and an ominous threat to Israel," then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said. "We didn't want the war, and we did our best to prevent it. But when it was forced upon us, we were ready -- in men, in training, in equipment -- to meet the challenge and to fight back."

In less than a week, Israel went on to seize control of the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Elusive Peace

By June 10, six days after fighting had begun, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had agreed to cease-fires.

Peace was eventually reached with Egypt in 1979, with the Jewish state agreeing to return Sinai.

Peace with Jordan would follow in 1994. However, the Jordan River became their new border as Israel retained the West Bank, where since 1967 it has built up numerous Jewish settlements, roads, and checkpoints.

Rise Of Fanaticism

Indeed, one consequence of Israel's six-day victory was the rise in settlement activity, which helped fuel a messianic sense among some Israelis that the biblical West Bank lands of Judea and Samaria were now Israel's for good.

Ameer Makhoul, an Israeli Arab political analyst based in Haifa, was 9 years old during the war. He sees the conflict as the start of what he calls "Israeli fanaticism."

Hamas was swept to power in popular elections in 2006 (ITAR-TASS file photo)

"The Israeli fanatic groups grew up after the war, and mostly after the beginning of the establishment of the settlements in the West Bank," Makhoul says. "This Israeli fanaticism grew up after the war and the occupation of 1967."

But it also provided the impulse for political Islam. That's because, the war spelled the death-knell for pan-Arabism, a secular, socialist, nationalist drive led by Nasser to unify Arab lands.

After the 1948 war with Israel, from which the Jewish state emerged, Nasser sought to rally Arabs around his unifying vision. But after the Six-Day War, it was not to be. And Nasser died three years later:

The 1967 war also put the nascent Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), under the late Yasser Arafat, in center stage. The PLO, led by Arafat's Fatah movement, staged a series of guerrilla attacks on Israel, but in 1993 also sought peace in the Oslo Accords.

But Oslo left so many key issues to be resolved at a later date -- such as the status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Israeli settlements, security and borders -- that it was ultimately undermined.

No Peace In Sight

And in the ideological vacuum left by the demise of pan-Arabism, Islamism found fertile ground across the wider Muslim world, says the Israeli historian Oren -- first in Iran, then in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine with the group Hamas.

Where Arafat once sought to make peace, today's Palestinian government is run by Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of Israel.

Many on both sides say they want peace, and that to achieve it, Israel should give back what it still retains from its 1967 victory: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

But despite Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas militants there continue to fire rockets regularly into Israeli towns, such as Sderot.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizballah guerrillas have fired rockets into Israel -- a tactic that proved successful for them during last year's 34-day conflict with Israel.

All of that, together with internecine Palestinian violence between Hamas and Fatah supporters, suggests Israel is unlikely to consider giving back its 1967 holdings any time soon -- or to put its faith in the Oslo formula of "land for peace."

So the Six-Day War, in one form or another, continues -- four decades later. Perhaps the seventh-day, when it comes, will be used for peace.
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