Fifty-two years ago, Israel vanquished its Arab opponents in the Six-Day War, waged from June 5-10, 1967. Israeli victory led to its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, and Golan Heights. The war and its outcome had significant implications for the future of the Middle East, and its repercussions echo to this day.
The Arab world refused to recognize Israel’s independence after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-1949. Seven years later the Suez Crisis resulted in hostilities that ended in the status quo ante bellum when the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations intervened to halt the conflict. In the mid-1960s tensions again escalated and another war became inevitable when in May 1967 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, effectively cutting the southern Israeli port of Eilat off from global commerce. When the Egyptian Army mobilized along the border with Israel, Israeli Defense Forces launched a preemptive strike that all but eliminated the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Israeli armored forces then proceeded to overrun the Sinai Peninsula, inflicting heavy losses on the Egyptian Army in the process. Jordan and Syria entered the conflict only to suffer territorial losses for their troubles when Israeli forces decisively defeated their militaries. Israeli forces seized the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights—strategically located high ground along the Israeli-Syrian border. Arab forces suffered 20,000 killed as opposed to only 800 Israeli dead.
The Israeli military exited the Six-Day War overconfident in its ability to defeat Arab armies with armor-heavy forces backed by airpower. When the Egyptians and Syrians struck again in 1973, Israeli air and ground forces suffered heavily from surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank guided missiles. Only an enormous infusion of replacement equipment from U.S. military stockpiles in Europe and a reversion to combined arms tactics salvaged victory after three weeks of heavy combat. The Yom Kippur War was the last major Arab-Israeli conventional war; future conflicts would entangle Israeli forces in hybrid conflict with guerrillas in Lebanon and Gaza, while Palestinian intifadas would seek to bypass Israeli strength in conventional combat by embroiling Israeli forces in what some analysts term fourth dimension warfare.
While the Golan Heights and much of the West Bank remain under Israeli control, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of the Camp David accords in 1978 and voluntarily abandoned Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005. Earlier this year on March 25, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation formally recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the strategically important Golan Heights, a policy pronouncement cheered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but criticized by much of the rest of the world. Although seizing territory by force of arms is illegal by international norms and the UN Charter, the Trump administration claims that territory gained in a defensive war is legal. Although it is unlikely that Israel would ever have voluntarily ceded the Golan Heights back to Syria, validating its annexation potentially opens a Pandora’s Box of territorial claims by states based on the waging of “defensive” wars.