Saleem Akhtar Malik |
The world, especially the Arab Middle East, is now witnessing the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israel War that resulted in Israel’s capture of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, Golan Heights from Syria, and West Bank of the River Jordan, including the holy city of Jerusalem, from Jordan.
The UN, in 1947, voted for the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Jerusalem was to have the status of an International city.
In 1967, your author had just completed his secondary school education and got admission in the college. Teenagers from my generation, since it would take another almost three decades for the internet and smartphones to appear, had more time to pay attention to the real issues sprouting up around them. A few days before the war, the author participated in a rally which was organized to support the Arab cause. The rally was addressed, besides others, by a Palestinian student leader studying in our college.
The Palestinian problem is one of the factors which generally determine Pakistan’s relationship with the Arab world. From a larger perspective, the modern Arab states owe their existence to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement negotiated between Britain and France during WWI. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, as a result of the war, allowed Britain and France to divide the former Ottoman possessions into their respective spheres of influence and arbitrarily redraw the boundaries of the Arab Middle East. The Ottoman province of Syria was divided into three separate territories; Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. Palestine was put under the British mandate whereas Lebanon and Syria went under French occupation. The UN, in 1947, voted for the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Jerusalem was to have the status of an International city. Whereas the Arab states rejected the UN plan, Jews accepted it (as a stop gap measure, as they eyed the whole of Palestine).
The state of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948 and was immediately attacked by armies of its Arab neighbors. And what armies they were. 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 in making toilets for the king. Only Trans-Jordan had a British-trained army which, under Glubb Pasha, its British commander, could take on the far better trained Haganah and Stern Gang, and occupied the West Bank of the river Jordan and East Jerusalem (including the Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine). Israel remained in control of West Jerusalem.
At the dawn of 6th June, Israel, in a lightning attack, destroyed the air forces of UAR, Jordan, and Syria.
The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea across Egypt, was completed by French engineers in 1869. For the next 87 years, it remained largely under British and French control, and Europe depended on it as an inexpensive shipping route for oil from the Middle East.
After World War II, Egypt pressed for evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal Zone, and in July 1956 President Nasser nationalized the canal, hoping to charge tolls that would pay for construction of a massive dam on the Nile River. In response, Israel invaded in late 29th October 1956, and British and French troops landed in early November, occupying the Canal Zone. Under Soviet, U.S., and U.N. pressure, Britain and France withdrew in December, and Israeli forces departed in March 1957. That month, Egypt took control of the canal and reopened it to commercial shipping. Israel fulfilled some of its objectives, such as attaining freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran.
The Straits of Tiran are the narrow sea passages between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas which separate the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea proper. The distance between the two peninsulas is about 13 km (7 nautical miles). The Strait of Tiran is named after Tiran Island located at its entrance 5 or 6 km (3 or 4 mi) from the Sinai. Straights of Tiran were important for Israeli navigation in the Indian Ocean since Egypt denied Israel rights of navigation through the Suez Canal.
How it all started…
UAR defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel Hakeem Amir, was a Major in the army before being directly promoted to the rank of field marshal. On the other side, Israel had been meticulously planning for the war since 1949.
We come back to 1967. On one of those days, Syria accused Israel of amassing troops along the Syrian-Israeli border. Nasser, then the most powerful leader in the Arab World, reacted by closing the Straights of Tiran for Israeli navigation. This was followed by a military pact between UAR (as Egypt was then called), Jordan, and Syria. These frontline Arab states and Israel then mobilized their forces for an impending war.
At the dawn of 6th June, Israel, in a lightning attack, destroyed the air forces of UAR, Jordan, and Syria. Thereafter, advancing swiftly into the Sinai Peninsula, Israeli armored columns reached up to the Suez Canal. Egyptian army and air force were defeated because, apart from rhetoric, they had not seriously prepared for war. UAR defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel Hakeem Amir, was a Major in the army before being directly promoted to the rank of field marshal. On the other side, Israel had been meticulously planning for the war since 1949. Its air force had made mockups of each Egyptian airfield and regularly practiced on those mockups. Nasser had played a gamble by blockading the Straights of Tiran. The gamble backfired.
After capturing the Sinai, Israel moved its forces to the Syrian and Jordanian fronts. On the Syrian front, Golan Heights is a plateau which overlooks the Israeli-held plains of Galilee. Syrians were at an advantage as they could engage the Israeli settlements down below with small arms, heavy weapons, and observed artillery fire. Since their air force was also destroyed, Syrians could not hold onto Golan Heights and withdraw towards Damascus. Lack of training and determination by Syrians also played part in their defeat.
The Jordanian army did not take much time in vacating the entire West Bank and withdrawing to the East bank of River Jordan. In retrospect, one can conjecture, that, perhaps the Jordanian monarch had decided to forego the West Bank and Jerusalem
Jordan was drawn into the war due to the pressure from other Arab states and a hostile Palestinian population which Jordan had inherited after capturing the West Bank in 1948. The West Bank of River Jordan, an area the size of District Chakwal, is a semi-mountainous region. The terrain, due to various high features dominating the valleys, favors the defender. It is difficult for an attacker to dislodge a trained defender from these dominating features.
Yet, the Jordanian army did not take much time in vacating the entire West Bank and withdrawing to the East bank of River Jordan. In retrospect, one can conjecture, that, perhaps the Jordanian monarch had decided to forego the West Bank and Jerusalem because the Palestinians had become a pain in the neck for him. They had become a state within a state and continuously threatened his throne. His tiny air force, though, gave the Israelis a tough time.
Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.