On 6 June fifty-six years ago, Israel launched a preemptive war against its Arab adversaries. The June 1967 War changed the map of the Arab Middle East and removed whatever doubts the world had about the power equation in this region. Israel used Egypt’s closing of the Tiran Straights as the casus belli –an act or an event provoked by the enemy that is used to justify a war. The Straits of Tiran are the narrow sea passages between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas that connect the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. The distance between the two peninsulas is about 13 km. Nasser blockaded the Tiran Straits for Israeli shipping when Syria raised an alarm that Israel had concentrated its army along the Israel-Syria border, ostensibly for an invasion of Syria.
The state of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948 and was immediately attacked by armies of its Arab neighbors. Syrians were represented by bands of marauders headed by Fawzi el Kawaukji, an ex-Ottoman Army officer. The Egyptian army, according to Nasser, was busy making toilets for King Farouk. Nasser participated in the first Arab- Israeli War as a staff officer in the Egyptian army’s 6 Infantry Division. Trans- Jordan had a British-trained army which, under Glubb Pasha, its British commander, took on the far better-trained Haganah and Stern Gang and secured the West Bank of the river Jordan and East Jerusalem.
Understanding the matter better
Haganah was a Zionist paramilitary group formed in 1920 with the expressed goal of defending the growing Jewish population in British mandate Palestine against attacks by Arab residents. Lehi, often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang, was a Zionist paramilitary militant organization founded by Avraham Stern in Mandatory Palestine. Its avowed aim was to evict the British authorities from Palestine by use of violence, allowing unrestricted immigration of Jews and the formation of a Jewish state.
Though Israel managed to capture the Negev desert bordering Egypt during the 1948 Arab-Israel armistice, Egypt imposed a naval blockade of the Tiran Straits, denying Israel access to the Indian Ocean through its Red Sea port at Eilat. Jamal Abdel Nasser and his colleagues in the Egyptian army who participated in the 1948 Arab -Israel War, were disgruntled with how the Arab forces, particularly the Egyptian army, were poorly employed during the war. Soon thereafter, they formed an underground “Free Officer’s Association” in the army that, on 22 July 1952, ousted King Farouk from power. The monarchy was abolished on 18 June 1953 and Egypt declared a republic. After assuming power, Nasser and the Free Officers expected to become the “guardians of the people’s interests” while leaving the day-to-day tasks of government to civilians.
On July 26, 1956, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, the joint British-French enterprise which had owned and operated the Suez Canal since its construction in 1869. The Suez Crisis, or the Second Arab–Israeli War, was an invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the UK and France. The Israeli British/ French aims of this war were to regain control of the Suez Canal for the Western powers and to remove President Nasser from power. Israel’s primary objective was to re-open the blocked Straits of Tiran for Israeli shipping. After the fighting had started, political pressure from the US, the Soviet Union, and the UN led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. The episode humiliated the United Kingdom and France and strengthened Nasser. Israel, however, withdrew its army from the Sinai Peninsula only after Egypt agreed to end the blockade of the Straits of Tiran.
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The United Arab Republic was established on 1 February 1958 as the first step towards a larger pan-Arab state, originally proposed to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser by a group of political and military leaders in Syria. During Nasser’s rule (1952-70), Egypt, then officially designated as the United Arab Republic (UAR), was a bulwark of Arab nationalism and the nerve center of the Arab world. A towering personality, Nasser commissioned Nazi scientists who helped UAR in producing supersonic fighter aircraft, biological weapons, and a delivery system (providing the backdrop for Frederick Forsyth’s thriller “The Odessa File”). Interestingly, while Messerschmitt was busy designing UAR’s Helwan fighter aircraft (Zohar & Hirschel, 2012), Kurt Tank, another Nazi aeronautical engineer, was constructing the HF-24 Marut for India (Heinz, 1960, Taylor, 1976).
Both these aircraft were to be powered by the Egyptian E-300 Brandner jet engine (Bhargava, 2008). Nasser and Nehru were aware that the foundations of the aerospace programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union rested on WWII German military technology. Hinting at Israel while witnessing a military parade, Nasser had commented that his rockets could land south of Lebanon. While considering the threat from Israel, perhaps Nasser ignored that during WW II many of the future Israeli military commanders had served on the Allied general staff.
Though the Suez War was a political victory for Nasser, he was jilted by the Israeli army’s rapid advance in the Sinai Peninsula that rubbished his bluster about his “rockets landing in the south of Lebanon in a future war against Israel”. Blockading the Straits of was a bluff he used to equalize Israel’s territorial gains during the Suez War. He expected that, even if UAR were defeated, the superpowers and the UN would again intervene to restore the status quo ante bellum -the situation as it existed before the war. Israel, backed by the US, called Nasser’s bluff.
Abdel Hakeem Amir, the Egyptian defense minister, who was catapulted from a major to the Field Marshal’s rank after the revolution, could not appreciate that the most suitable line of Egyptian defense line was along the ridge line located in the center of the Sinai Peninsula where the Mitla and Gidi Pass were located. Instead, he dispersed the Egyptian army throughout the Peninsula. The war resulted in Egypt losing all its territory up to the east bank of the Suez Canal.
Hussain, the little king of Jordan, was unwittingly pulled into the war, mainly due to the fear of his pro-Nasser Palestinian subjects. After the Arab air forces were destroyed on the first day of the war, Hussain petitioned for a ceasefire with Israel. His request was rejected by Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister who said he would henceforth look at the political situation through his tank sight. Thoroughly demoralized after the defeat of the Jordanian air force, the Jordanian army made a hasty retreat across the Jordan River, leaving the entire West Bank to Israel. As for Syria, it lost the Golan Heights – the source of the Jordan River and its tributaries that empty into the Sea of Galilee – a lake that is the main source of fresh water for Israel and Jordan. Before the war, the Israel-Syria border was located in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.
Husnain Heikal, President Nasser’s confidant and editor of the Cairo daily Al Ahram, mentions in his book “Autumn of Fury “that Nasser, contrary to his public pronouncements had never wanted to destroy Israel. He considered Israel as another Crusader state which would, in due course of time, die its natural death.
The Crusader states, also known as Outremer, were four Catholic states in the Middle East that lasted from 1098 to 1291. These feudal entities were created by the Latin Catholic leaders of the First Crusade through conquest and political intrigue. The four states were the County of Edessa (1098–1150), the Principality of Antioch (1098–1287), the County of Tripoli (1102–1289), and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099–1291). The Kingdom of Jerusalem covered what is now Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and adjacent areas.
We can understand why Nasser compared Israel with the Crusader states. According to the Israeli writer David Ohana (2006):
“Before the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was compared to the legendary leader Saladin, who in the distant past had defeated the foreign invaders. The weekly journal El-Howdat informed its readers that “since Salah Ed-Din el-Ayyubi (Saladin), the Arabs have not had a leader like Abdel Nasser.” Saladin was viewed as a mobilizing symbol of the liberation of Jerusalem, “of Muslim unity, religious sacrifice, selfless struggle, and the victory of faith.”
Like many politicians, Nasser used the blockading of the Tiran Straits to demonstrate that he was no less than Saladin who stood against the might of the Crusaders and prevailed. After its defeat in the 1967 Arab- Israel War, Egypt gradually lost its clout in the Arab world. In 1973, Anwar Sadaat, Nasser’s successor, tried to restore the status quo ante by attacking Israel in a two-front war planned with Syria.
Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.