Israel's then Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin talks to soldiers in the field during the Six-Day War. Photo: Israeli Government Press Office via Flickr
Israel's then Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin talks to soldiers in the field during the Six-Day War. Photo: Israeli Government Press Office via Flickr

Taking historians and Arab politicians completely by surprise, Israel last week released 150,000 “confidential documents” on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War of 1967. Scholars are still scrolling through the piles and piles of paper, which represent only a fraction of the 400 million documents stored in Tel Aviv. While academics have long desired to see those documents — which ought to have remained classified, under Israeli law, until 2037 — Arab leaders have been glad to keep that dark part of their history under lock and key, fearing that if too much were revealed, it would be shown just how weak — and complicit — they were in one of the worst collective military disasters of modern times.

During the Six Day War, Israel famously crushed the armies of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, led at the time by its charismatic president, Gamal Abdul Nasser. They occupied the Syrian Golan Heights, took the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, expanding the new nation’s strategic area by at least 300 kilometers in the south and 60 kilometers in the east – and added 20 kilometers of extremely rugged terrain in the north, a security asset that would prove useful in the next war, of 1973. Approximately 700-900 Israelis were killed, while 4,500 were wounded. Anywhere between 9,800 and 15,000 Egyptians were listed as dead or missing, with 4,338 captured by Israel. Jordanian losses were estimated at 6,000. The Syrian Army suffered 1,000 dead and 367 captured.

The released documents prove that on the first day of the 1967 war, the Israelis were actually afraid of the Egyptian Army, with Chief-of-Staff of the IDF Yitzhak Rabin recommending that his troops strike first or else “there would be a grave danger to Israel.” Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was equally uneasy, fearing a “real massacre” of Israeli troops. Those fears quickly turned to confidence within the upper echelons of Tel Aviv, when, at 7:45 AM on June 5, Israeli planes launched a massive attack on the Egyptian Air Force – the largest and strongest in the Arab World. The strikes destroyed 380 warplanes parked on the runway, killing 100 of Egypt’s best pilots. Special tarmac-shredding bombs were used, disabling surviving aircraft and leaving them unable to take off.

By June 7, the Israelis had begun the conquest of Sharm el-Sheikh, and the next day, took the Sinai Peninsula, also advancing on East Jerusalem, seizing Bethlehem and Nablus. On June 9, the IDF carried out dozens of attacks on Syrian positions, causing a collapse in the Syrian Army’s defense lines. By June 10 Israel had occupied the Golan Heights and Nasser appeared on television, taking full blame for the defeat and resigning from his post, famously coining the war a “naksa” or “disaster” — a name that has stuck to it ever since in the collective Arab mind.

As Israel opens its archives, the Arabs stand dumbfounded, with no counter-archive to challenge Israeli alibis

The 1967 war was a sad day in the life of Arab nationalists and a turning point in the history of the Middle East. It dragged the Arab world into more chaos and political stagnation, legitimizing military rule throughout the region, all focused on the ostensible “liberation” of Palestine. Forced conscription came next for all able-bodied young men aged 18 and above, forcing thousands of educated Arabs to flee to Europe and the US to avoid a career in the army. Dissidents across the Arab world were rounded up and shot and ad hoc tribunals were set up to try people on the streets of Arab capitals. Within Palestine, it allowed Yasser Arafat, who led an armed resistance to Israel that was to last until the early 1990s, to come to prominence. In Syria, the Baathists cuddled up to the Soviets after 1967, inviting approximately 800 Soviet military advisers, along with pilots and officers, to set up base in the country with the aim of rebuilding war losses. Fifty years down the road, that relationship remains intact, with Russian troops still there, officially engaged in the ongoing battles of the present Syria War. Feelings of deep humiliation, topped with a craving for revenge, dictated policy in both Egypt and Syria after 1967.

As Israel opens its archives, the Arabs stand dumbfounded, with no counter-archive to challenge Israeli alibis. The Egyptian archives remain classified, with many doubting that they actually still exist, while those of other Arab countries, such as Iraq and Syria, have been destroyed by years of neglect, corruption, and the present wars in both countries.

Fadi Esber, editor of the peer-reviewed Dimashq Journal and a Research Fellow at The Damascus History Foundation, commented, saying: “All the transcripts, all the reports, all the cables, all of the memoranda should sooner or later become available to historians. These documents will ensure a better understanding of the events that unfolded in the run-up to war and during the fateful six days of armed conflict in June 1967. However, a more balanced narrative awaits the release of crucial records from the other players involved, namely the Soviet Union and the Arab countries, provided that such records still exist.”