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The football kicking the players, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 war

What was truly ironic about the Arab legal case was that Arab representatives at the 1967 UNSC laid out the legal justification for what Israel did, beginning on June 5.   

lead lead King Hussein of Jordan (left), President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Abdel Hakim Amer in Cairo to sign Egyptian-Jordanian-Iraqi defense pact,30 May 1967. Wikicommons/Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Some rights reserved.June 5 was the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1967 war. It is too long a time to rely on memory and since there was no internet then, web accessible historical documents tend to be sparse and subject to a selection process impacted by current ‘narratives’. I would argue that to get a more realistic understanding of how that war came about, one has to consult contemporary documents, which requires thumbing through books, often in the dusty back corner of library stacks.

In my opinion the best short description of how the war came about was written by Malcolm Kerr in the third (and last) edition of his book, The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd Al Nasir and his rivals 1958-1970.

“It was not hard to imagine in May of 1967, that the mounting tension in the Arab world would lead to some sort of violent outbreak. The conflict to which all signs seemed to point, however, was between Arab revolutionaries and conservatives. The old quarrel with Israel seemed irrelevant: the Arabs were preoccupied not with her but with one another. Even when the Israelis first appeared on the scene in the weeks before the June war, they were merely there as a football for the Arabs, kicked onto the field by the discontented Syrians, then back again by Nasir. But of course the Israelis took a rather different view of themselves. It became a case of the football kicking the players.

In any case 1967 was not the year for it. [Egypt to liberate Palestine]. With much of his army bogged down in Yemen, his treasury empty, and the Anglo-Americans and the Arab monarchs ganging up on him, his first concern was to secure his political base: Egypt, the Soviet partnership, and his leadership of the Arab Left.

This last was now being threatened. Nasir’s alliance with the Ba’athists had backfired: instead of restraining them from provoking Israel, it had the effect of increasing their boldness and saddling him with the responsibility of coping with Israel’s threats of retaliation.

Nasir chose to run the risks of deterrence and the rest followed logically (although not inevitably). To pose a credible deterrent he had to get rid of the UN Emergency Force in Sinai; having done so, he then felt obliged to restore the blockade against Israeli shipping at Sharm al Shaikh, precisely because this was what the Jordanians and Saudis had tauntingly said he would not do. Once Nasir had gone that far it hardly mattered what his initial purpose had been: with the momentum he had built up his prestige was engaged and so was Israel’s. “ (pages 126-127)

The immediate cause of the crisis of May-June 1967 war was the claim by Syria, repeated by the Soviet Union that Israel was massing its army on the Syrian border. That the claim was bogus soon became clear to everyone, including the Egyptian leadership. This claim of an Israeli military threat and the support it received from the Soviet Union has an interesting origin. To understand how it came about one must be aware that at this time Syria was a Middle Eastern client state of the USSR with a very unstable regime. In addition one must realize that this was not the first time such a bogus claim was made.

The Syrian regime came to power in February 1966. Given its Marxist and domestic Communist support the USSR worked to keep it in power. The ethnic and religious divides in Syria meant that for any regime keeping power was not an easy thing to do. To this end, along with military aid the USSR issued a steady stream of announcements about threats to the regime from the western powers and Israel. In May of 1966 one of these announcements almost the same as that of May 1967, claimed that the Israeli army was massing on the Syrian border.

In late April of 1967 an article was published in the official Syrian army magazine questioning the validity of Muhammad and the Koran. The result was rioting in the streets of Syrian cities in protest. The government responded by claiming that the rioters were Zionist and imperialist stooges who were aiming to bring down the regime. This only increased the popular reaction against the government. The regime then changed its tune claiming that the author of the offending article was an imperialist Zionist spy who was trying to create disruption among Syrians. This did not mollify the Syrian street and the disturbances continued becoming a serious threat to the regime.

The next gambit was to claim that the Israelis were massing their army at the border and about to invade. This was confirmed officially by the Soviet Union whose leaders seemed to be frantically looking for a way to buttress their Syrian clients. We all know the rest of the story. It could be said with some justification that the spark which ignited the Middle East in 1967 was an article in the Syrian army journal.

While the USSR was energetically pouring gunpowder on the fire, the West seemed rather flummoxed about what to do to prevent a war. The United States in 1956 had given Israel assurances that the Sinai would not be militarized and the Israeli port of Eilat would not be blockaded by Egypt. On the basis of those assurances Israel had withdrawn from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. When Nasir sent his army into the Sinai and re-imposed the blockade, Israel turned to both the UN Security Council and the United States to reverse the situation. Neither responded effectively.

I would suggest that the reader of this article take some time to find and read the transcripts of the debates in the UN Security Council in May and June prior to the outbreak of the war. UNISPAL which is an official UN site that is supposed to be a compendium of documents relating to the conflict has somehow managed to exclude these transcripts from its collection. I can understand why this is the case for the Arab “narrative” then was quite different from today’s “narrative”.

On May 29, 1967 Muhammed al-Kuny, Egypt’s UN ambassador, explained to the UN Security Council Egypt’s legal position justifying the re-imposition of the blockade, which according to international law is an act of war, as follows:

“… I wish to state that, according to international law, a state of war confers certain rights upon the belligerents. Also, it is a general incontestable rule of international law that the conclusion of a partial or general armistice agreement does not end the state of war. It only terminates hostilities.

Basing ourselves on either legal facts as we shall read them from the provisions of the General Armistice Agreement or the facts of life in our part of the world as we have been witnessing them through the years, there is no shade of doubt as to the continued existence of the state of war between the Israelis and both the Arabs of Palestine and their brethren in the Arab countries.”

Along with al-Kuny’s justification for an act of war based on the existence of a state of war, the Arab representatives repeatedly pointed out and emphasized the provision in the Armistice agreements which prohibited territorial claims based on the armistice demarcation lines. The Green Line which the later Arab “narrative” referred to as internationally recognized borders was for the Arab “narrative” prior to June 5, 1967, armistice lines that were in no way an international border. What was truly ironic about the Arab legal case was that the Arab representatives at the UNSC in May of 1967 laid out the legal justification for what Israel did beginning on June 5.   

A little over two months after the war ended the Arab League met in Khartoum and issued its three negatives; no negotiations, no recognition and no peace. A full reading of the Khartoum resolution reveals that there was a fourth element and that was an “insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.” However this was an afterthought, as the Arab states saw the land lost in the war not as part of Palestine but as Arab territory belonging to Egypt, Syria and Jordan. This was confirmed by Lord Caradon, who was one of the authors of UNSC 242 which was adopted by the Security Council on 22 November 1967, almost six months after the Khartoum conference. As has become recognized since then, one failing of that resolution was that it left out any consideration of the Palestinians other than as refugees. It was envisioned at the time that territory of the West Bank and Gaza would be returned to Jordan and Egypt. According to Lord Caradon this was the demand of the Arab representatives to the UN.

The 1967 war changed the Middle East in fundamental ways. First and foremost it marked the end of the credibility of pan-Arab ideology and called into question Arab nationalism as vehicles for progress. Eventually this vacuum was filled by the Islamist extremists that we have come to know today. Palestinian terrorism became the favored military solution to defeat Israel but within two years this terrorism was turned on the Arabs themselves. Two more conventional wars were fought between Egypt and Israel; the War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970, under Nasser’s leadership and the October 1973 war under Anwar Sadat’s direction. Six years later Israel and Egypt signed the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state.

The conquest of the West Bank and its disconnect from Jordanian hegemony provided the Palestinians with an additional opportunity to establish a state of their own. By my count this was their fourth chance for statehood. At the turn of the century the Palestinians and Israel came close to concluding a peace agreement but the effort stalled and then descended into another paroxysm of conflict and hatred.

Fifty years after the 1967 war the most that can be said is that the conflict remains an emotional topic of debate.

About the author

Efraim has been a resident of the western Negev, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, for almost 40 years. He has a Masters Degree from the University of Michigan in international relations and is both a farmer and an English teacher, and a teacher twice-retired, most recebntly from teaching English at a Bedouin High School.

 


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