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The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 4: The 1967 Six Day War

audio icon Listen to Part 4 of Mike Shuster's series.

more Read a transcript of Part 4 of Mike Shuster's series.

moreSee maps of Israel's borders before and after the Six Day War.

Map of Israeli conquests in the Six Day War of 1967
Map of Israeli conquests in the 1967 Six Day War.
Source: Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th edition - Sir Martin Gilbert; Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2002; ISBN: 0415281172 (paperback), 0415281164 (hardback); Map: NPR Online

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Israeli troops in Jerusalem during the Six Day War
Israeli troops in Jerusalem during the Six Day War.
Photo courtesy MultiEducator-The Multimedia History Company

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Oct. 3, 2002 -- No Arab state had made peace with Israel, and in 1967, events conspired to bring war between Israel and its neighbors -- Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

NPR Diplomatic Correspondent Mike Shuster reports on the Six Day War and its aftermath in the fourth segment of the Morning Edition series on the history of the Middle East conflict.

"In 1967, the mood in the Middle East was ugly," Shuster reports. "Israel, independent since 1948, was surrounded by Arab states dedicated to its eradication. Egypt was ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a firebrand nationalist whose army was the strongest in the Arab Middle East. Syria was governed by the radical Baathist Party, constantly issuing threats to push Israel into the sea."

The Israelis attacked Egypt first, on June 5, 1967, in what most historians say was a defensive move. In the spring of that year, the Soviet Union had led the radical government in Damascus to believe that Israel was planning to invade Syria. Syria shared this misinformation with Nasser. The Egyptian leader closed the Gulf of Aqaba to shipping, cutting off Israel's primary oil supplies. He also ordered United Nations peacekeepers to leave the Sinai Peninsula. And he sent scores of tanks and hundreds of troops into the Sinai toward Israel.

Nasser's stature was immediately boosted in the Arab world, says Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War. "He was elevated to almost a god-like status overnight and politically it seemed like a good bargain," Oren says. "The bad news was he wasn't counting on Israel striking back militarily."

After three weeks of internal debate, Israel's leaders decided to attack. In the first day, Israel nearly destroyed Egypt's air force, and struck deep into the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian territory. After six days of war, Israel had seized all of the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and all of Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The seizure of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem allowed Israelis to visit and worship at the holy sites for the first time in decades. Historian Benny Morris, author of The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, the Jews and Palestine, says "there was not just a sigh of relief that the threat of Arab attack had been dispelled, but there was also this outbreak of joy that at last the Israeli army had conquered the sites holiest to Judaism."

The war profoundly changed Israel itself, says historian Anita Shapira, of the Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism in Tel Aviv. It led to the emergence of a strong mythic movement that claimed the West Bank as part of greater Israel.

In the months after the Six Day War, Palestinian guerrilla leader Yasser Arafat organized an insurrection in the West Bank. It failed, but it brought about a shift in the outlook of the Palestinians, says Yezid Sayigh, author of Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1945-1993. "This in a sense catapulted the general Palestinian public into the arms of the guerrillas because they'd seen that the people they'd hinged their hopes on -- the Arab leaders and the armies they'd believed in -- had been swept aside in a matter of days.

"And here came along a bunch of young men who jumped into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (and) said: 'We're going to take matters into our own hands. The Palestinians will stand up and fight for themselves. We're going to transform ourselves from being destitute refugees waiting for charity handouts from the U.N. and turn ourselves into freedom-fighters, people with dignity.'"

In the wake of Israel's dramatic victory over traditional Arab armies, Shuster says, "the central conflict would be waged between the Israelis and the stateless Palestinians for the land they both claimed as their own."

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970)
Gamal Abdel Nasser President of Egypt from 1956 to 1970. Born in mud-brick house in Alexandria, Egypt. Attended Royal Military Academy and entered Egyptian army. Helped found secret military organization, the Free Officers, whose goal was to oust the British from Egypt and overthrow the Egyptian royal family. Led a coup d'etat in 1952. Nationalized Suez Canal in 1956. Became leading nationalist of Arab world and created United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) in 1958. Moved troops into the Sinai and cut off Israeli oil supplies in 1967, which led to the Six Day War, in which Egypt's air force was nearly destroyed in the first day, and Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula all the way to the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Yasser Arafat (1929- )
Yasser Arafat Leader of Palestine Liberation Organization from 1969 to present. Believed to have been born in Cairo, Egypt. Attended University of Cairo, becoming a civil engineer. In the late 1950s he helped form Fatah, one of the Palestinian groups created to fight the state of Israel. Launched guerrilla operations against Israel in 1965. Tried but failed to organize insurrection against Israel's occupation of the West Bank after Six Day War in 1967. Spoke to the U.N. General Assembly on behalf of Palestinians in 1974. Established base in Beirut, but was ousted by Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sent into exile in Tunisia. Supported Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War, but agreed to compromise with Israel after Iraq's defeat. Signed the Oslo Agreement with Israel in 1993 and was co-recipient of Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres, Israel's then foreign minister. Returned to Gaza and was elected president of Palestinian Authority in 1996. Walked away from Camp David negotiations in 2000. Now under siege in Ramallah by Israeli army.

Other Resources

• Read U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, approved Nov. 22, 1967, which called for Israel's withdrawal from territories it captured in the Six Day War and set a hoped-for framework for "a just and lasting peace" in the region.

• See additional related documents and materials at the U.N. site on the "question of Palestine."

• See additional photos of the Six Day War.