5–10 June 1967

A photograph of the Israeli defence minister, General Moshe Dayan (1915–81), taken at a press conference in Jerusalem during the Six Day War in June 1967. The city was entirely in Israeli hands after only a few days’ fighting.

The Six Day War is in some sense a misnomer. What happened in the second week of June in the territories bordering the young state of Israel was a single colossal battle of manoeuvre between a greatly outnumbered Israeli Defence Force and the armies and air forces of almost all Israel’s Arab neighbours. After six days, the battle was over, with Israel the bloodied victor. Deception mattered in the battle for two very distinct reasons. First, the Israeli armed forces successfully masked their intentions right up to the decisive moment when enemy aircraft were caught by surprise and destroyed, followed shortly by the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. But second, the Arab states deceived themselves repeatedly during the battle by pretending all the time that they were winning when the truth was exactly the reverse.

Self-deception is a corrosive and dangerous influence in war. The Arab states – principally Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq – had waited many years to stamp out an Israel that they had failed to emasculate in 1948 and again in the brief Suez war in 1956. Their anti-Semitic hostility was expressed in visceral terms, while for years in the 1960s they brought ever larger military resources in preparation for the moment when they could begin again to reclaim land they saw as properly Arab. By 1967, they were confident that the military balance was at last decisively in their favour; the Soviet Union was supportive and encouraging, because it condemned Israel as an outpost of American capitalist imperialism, while the United States, it was thought, was bogged down with the war in Vietnam. When the Soviet Union mischievously (and wrongly) informed the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, that Israel was massing troops on the northern frontier opposite Syria, the Arab states moved closer to a showdown they were overconfident of winning.

This aerial view shows the destruction inflicted on Egyptian aircraft – caught by surprise in the open – by an Israeli pre-emptive strike on 5 June 1967. The raids destroyed 286 of Egypt’s 420 aircraft and gave air supremacy to the Israeli air force.

The path to conflict was a complex mix of diplomacy, threats and military planning, but the decisive step was taken by Nasser when he reoccupied the demilitarized zone on Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in the third week of May 1967. Nasser’s commander-in-chief, Abd al-Hakim Amer, drew up a battle plan for a major advance into Israel that would link up with the army of King Hussein of Jordan. The plan was poorly prepared and communicated, but Amer was confident that Egypt’s 420 aircraft, 1,500 tanks and 200,000 men would sweep the Israelis away. Jordan was less convinced, but Hussein cemented an alliance with Nasser that compelled him to take part. Syria was more circumspect, but with the arrival of Iraqi reinforcements, the planned Operation Victory seemed more certain of success.

The Israeli government was caught between conflicting pressures – from her Arab neighbours who were clearly, at least from the evidence, gearing up for a major war, from the Soviet Union, which was constantly warning Israel of its support for the Arab cause, and from the United States, which was desperate to persuade the Israelis not to provoke or be provoked into war. This locked the Israeli leadership into a vicious circle: either accept the changed balance in the Arabs’ favour, or risk starting a conflict from which they were likely to be the losers. Chief-of-staff Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol endorsed military preparations. Israel’s 200 aircraft, 1,100 tanks and 275,000 reservists were primed for battle in case it came. To deceive the Egyptians, dummy movements and camps were simulated to make it look as if the chief threat was along the north coast of Sinai, when the bulk of Israeli armour was further south. A daring plan was worked out to neutralize enemy air power by a stealthy and unexpected first strike. Given the material imbalance, surprise and deception were valuable allies.

War came a step closer when, due to popular demand, the flamboyant ex-soldier, Moshe Dayan, with his distinctive eyepatch, was finally appointed Minister of Defence with the right to make key military decisions. He was all for pre-emption. ‘We’re not England here,’ he told his cabinet colleagues, ‘with its tradition of losing big battles first.’ On 4 June, the Israelis decided to strike first while Nasser made sabre-rattling speeches in Cairo and all the Egyptian high command was away from Sinai. The operation began at 7 a.m. on 5 June when almost all Israel’s 200 aircraft were airborne. Flying low under the radar, some made a wide loop to attack Egypt’s bases from the west while others flew towards bases on Sinai, keeping complete radio silence. The surprise was an overwhelming, almost unbelievable success. No anti-aircraft guns fired because no-one expected an attack. The runways were pitted with bombs, radar installations blown up and 286 out of Egypt’s 420 aircraft destroyed. One-third of Egypt’s pilots died on the ground rather than in the air. Over the following two days the same destruction was meted out to the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi air forces.

The Arab forces and public were instead told that the Israeli air force had been destroyed and that the Egyptian army was advancing into southern Israel. Amer did not learn the full truth until later, and then became almost insensible with the crisis, locking himself in his office and communicating with no-one. The air strike, however, was only the start of the Israeli programme of deception. At 7.50 a.m. the invasion of Sinai began, first along the coast, which was heavily defended, because the Egyptians had been fooled into thinking the main thrust would come here. Then, gradually, major Israeli offensives with tanks and heavy artillery opened up further south. The tactics were a model of what Blitzkrieg strategy was thought to be. Moving as fast as possible, outflanking or surprising the enemy, using heavy air support, the Israeli attack was, as Ariel Sharon, commander of one of the southern divisions, described it, ‘a continuous unfolding of surprises’. The enemy defended stoutly, but in the absence of clear commands or adequate intelligence and with only negligible air support, the front crumbled. The Egyptians made a disorganized retreat and Israeli tanks reached the east bank of Suez by 9 June. Arab soldiers were utterly confused and demoralized by the contradiction between Cairo radio, constantly broadcasting news of phantom victories, and the evidence all around of dead and dying soldiers, burned-out tanks and vehicles and the order to retreat at all costs back to Egypt.

Self-deception also encouraged the Jordanians to take advantage of the battle in Sinai. Listening to constant communiqués on the smashing of the Israeli air force and the advance into southern Israel, Hussein’s commanders launched their own artillery attack with heavy guns from the West Bank, while Jordanian tanks tried to surround Jerusalem. Though Israel had wanted to avoid simultaneous conflicts to east and north, the threat could not be ignored and over the following three days fierce engagements, which resulted in some of the heaviest Israeli casualties, destroyed Jordan’s smaller armed forces and captured not only the whole of Jerusalem but the entire West Bank. Syria had been hedging its bets, but joined in the propaganda chorus of Arab victories. Syrian guns devastated northern Israel until finally, despite fears of Soviet intervention, Israeli forces battled onto the Golan Heights in southern Syria and were poised, if they wanted, to march to Damascus. At 6 p.m. on 10 June, Israel agreed to enforce a ceasefire. Its territory was now more than three times greater than it had been before the battle.

The cost for the Arab cause was catastrophic. The Egyptians lost most of their air force and an estimated 10,000 military dead, as well as 85 per cent of their military equipment, while Jordan and Syria lost over 1,100 soldiers. Israel lost 679 dead and 36 planes, but the surprise attacks destroyed 469 enemy aircraft in the most comprehensive air strike of the century. Cairo radio’s broadcasts switched from strident fabrications of victory to sombre reflection on defeat. Nasser broadcast his resignation (later rescinded) after he described the shock of the Israeli deception: ‘We expected the enemy to come from the east and the north, but instead he came from the west.’