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Six Day War: Shaping the Modern Middle East

Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day, May 16, marking the 40th anniversary of the capture and de facto annexation of East Jerusalem.
Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day, May 16, marking the 40th anniversary of the capture and de facto annexation of East Jerusalem.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The first part of a five-part series on the Six Day War follows.


In the spring of 1967, Israel grew increasingly alarmed by threats from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The popular leader of the socialist Pan-Arab movement threatened to close the straits of Tiran, a vital passageway that would cut off Israel's southern water link to the outside world. Nasser used a bogus Soviet tip that Israel was about to invade Syria as a pre-text to kick out United Nations peacekeepers from Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

"He had never really liked this force and wanted to use the Soviet report as an excuse to evict UNEF, the U.N. emergency forces," said historian and author Michael Oren. Oren wrote Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. "This he proceeds to do. He puts 100,000 of his men into Sinai, with several thousand battle tanks and war planes — and makes defensive pacts with Iraq and Syria — and declares intention to wage a war of destruction against Israel."

But on the morning of June 5, Israel struck first. The devastating pre-emptive attack destroyed most of the Soviet-supplied Egyptian air force before the MiG jets ever got off the ground. That night, a defiant Nasser called for jihad.

"Oh Arabs, this is the day for Holy War, this is the day for vengeance," said Nassar.


In the Sinai Peninsula, Israeli armor smashed through Nasser's defense lines with relative ease. The fight quickly became a rout. By nightfall of the second day, Egyptian forces were in full retreat and, with them, Nasser's wider Pan-Arab ambitions crumbled.

Nearly 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the first 48 hours of fighting.

"It was a shock, a nightmare. It was, somehow, the dream turned sour," said Ahmed Maher, a former Egyptian foreign minister. "The whole purpose of the Revolution was to build a strong country — politically, economically and militarily — and to put an end to the situation in which Israel was dominant.

In the opening day's fight, Syrian fighter jets attacked Haifa, Israel's most populous northern city. The Israeli air force quickly hit back at Syrian bases, effectively taking out the Syrian air force.

In the meantime, Syrian artillery units in the Golan Heights began shelling Rosh Pina and other towns in Israel's north.

Israel largely ignored the artillery at first.

While the offensive in Egypt was going far better than planned, Israel was reluctant to use ground forces against Syria and badly wanted to avoid a wider fight with Jordan, which then occupied the West Bank, Oren said.

"On that morning of June, the Israeli government sent a message to King Hussein of Jordan, saying, 'What's about to happen in the south is between us and the Egyptians. You stay out of it and we'll stay out of it. Don't do anything,'" Oren said.

Israeli soldiers were given careful orders not to shoot back if Jordanian forces opened fire. Under intense pressure from Arab states, King Hussein had placed his Army under the command of Egyptian generals. At 10:30 a.m. on June 5, those generals gave the order to open fire on Israeli-held West Jerusalem.

From Augusta Victoria Ridge near the Mount of Olives, Jordanian artillery units began raining 75 mm shells down on the city. Some 900 buildings were destroyed and 20 Israelis killed in a relentless barrage.

At the same time, Jordanian jets attacked the coastal cities of Hadera and Netanya, and Jordanian long-range guns just outside the West Bank city of Jenin began shelling the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Throughout this, the orders held firm: Israel did not return fire.

The "don't fire" orders collapsed, however, when Jordanian infantrymen swept up on to a strategic ridge on the north side of Jerusalem. Jordan gained a key advantage in targeting the city. Israel realized that Jordan was making far more than a symbolic nod at Pan-Arab solidarity.

As Jordan was about to lay siege to West Jerusalem, Israel called in reinforcements from the Sinai battle and sent its Jerusalem Brigade to re-take the ridge, which it did in a fierce fight that included hand-to-hand combat.

"After very intense fighting — I can't stress this enough: The Jordanian armies fought with unprecedented valor — but after 24 hours, the Jordanian army was broken and ... was retreating throughout the West Bank, through Nablus, through Hebron, Bethlehem and across the Jordan River," Oren said.

Israeli forces gave chase and took control of the entire West Bank.

"What you had here was a conquest without a strategic goal," said writer and historian Gershom Gorenberg. "The war was unexpected, the conquest was unexpected and the strategy had to be invented after the fact. And in many ways you could say that to this day, Israel is still trying to figure out what the strategic goal was of conquering the West Bank 40 years ago."

While Israeli forces swept into the West Bank, in Jerusalem Israeli paratroopers entered the old city and reached the Temple Mount and Wailing Wall. Euphoric Israeli soldiers celebrated renewed access to Judaism's holiest site by blowing a rams horn and singing.

The final two days of war were largely a fight with Syria. After Israeli intelligence learned that Syrian forces were near collapse, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered Operation Hammer. Israel quickly gained control of the Golan Heights.

Eventually, a U.N.-brokered ceasefire took effect. In less than a week, Israel had more than tripled the size of the territory under its control.

With Israel's total victory in the Six Day War also came weighty responsibilities, especially the occupation of the heavily populated Palestinian West Bank.

After 40 years, including two Palestinian uprisings and waves of deadly suicide bombings, Israel's messy and tragic entanglement with the West Bank continues.

"It's tragic more than anything else," said Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes. "It's a story of waste of energy, of waste of life, of waste of so much potential on both sides — Palestinian and Israel. It's a story that cannot end well. Occupation cannot last."

The war lasted for six days. Four decades later, debate over Israel's victory and its implications remains unsettled.

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