- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The three weeks between the Arab invasion and the first truce of June 11, 1948, were for Israel a desperate struggle for survival. The Syrians were repulsed at Degania, and Transjordan's British-commanded Arab Legion severed the main road to Jerusalem and captured the Old City while Egyptians advanced to within 30 miles of Tel Aviv.

But in later stages of the war, Israel resupplied by Czechoslovakia and strengthened by the arrival of veterans of World War II steadily pushed back the Arab armies, some of them operating at the end of long supply lines.

By December, Israeli forces had crossed into Sinai and were at the gates of El-Arish, but were forced to withdraw under British threats to come to Egypt's aid. They could not capture the Gaza Strip before Cairo agreed to armistice talks. The armistice agreement with Egypt was signed in Rhodes, Greece, in February 1949, followed by agreements with Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria.

Transjordan and Israel divided Jerusalem, and effectively colluded to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. King Abdullah's forces limited themselves mainly to holding territory rather than attempting seriously to destroy Israel, and he annexed the West Bank. His kingdom was renamed Jordan.

In turn, David Ben Gurion, who became Israel's first prime minister, rejected demands that Israel should capture the central highlands (later to be known as the West Bank), saying it was time to end the war and concentrate on building the country. King Abdullah secretly concluded an accord with Israel that would have given him a land corridor between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it was never ratified.

The readiness to accommodate the Jewish state would cost King Abdullah his life, and he was shot dead by a Palestinian assassin at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 1951. But his pragmatism, so reviled by many of his contemporaries, kept the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem in Arab hands for nearly two decades, laying a foundation for later Palestinian claims to the territory.

Israel won about a third more territory than it had been allocated under the U.N. partition plan. Israel provided a refuge for 687,000 Jews who arrived mainly from Europe and Middle Eastern countries, doubling the Jewish population in the first three years. But approximately 700,000 Palestinians abandoned their homes, never to return. How the Palestinian exodus happened, and who is to blame, remains hotly disputed.

Unsatisfactory outcome

The end of the war was in many ways an unsatisfactory outcome for all sides. Israel formed a Jewish dagger in the heart of the Arab world. Some Israelis bemoaned the loss of Jewish holy sites. Military planners worried about the vulnerability of the narrow borders.

The defeat of the Arab armies did not end the conflict. There were frequent infiltrations across the cease-fire lines, at first mostly by unarmed Arabs grazing cattle or stealing property, but later by increasingly fierce guerrilla-style operations. In response, Israel staged retaliatory cross-border attacks of ever-greater harshness.

Controversies over the killing of Arab civilians during Israeli reprisals especially the killing of 69 persons, mostly women and children, in the demolition of the Jordanian village of Kibya in 1953 brought new orders to attack only military positions. Amid growing confrontations with the armies of Egypt and Jordan, Cairo announced a major arms deal with Czechoslovakia, while France rearmed Israel.

Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's decision to nationalize the Suez Canal set the stage for the Suez crisis of 1956.

Israel plotted with Britain and France, agreeing to invade Sinai to give the European powers an excuse to "intervene," invade the canal zone and remove Nasser. Israel hoped to retain Sinai. However, the United States, citing the breach of the U.N. Charter and worried about the threat of growing Soviet influence in the Arab world, forced Britain and France to withdraw from the canal zone. The following year, the Israelis retreated completely from Sinai after receiving assurances of freedom of shipping and that Egypt would curb cross-border attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Israel's 1967 victory

In April 1967, an Israeli tractor attempted to work a disputed field, drawing Syrian artillery fire on Kibbutz Gadot. The Syrian positions were out of range of Israel's tanks, and the air force was called into action.

Israel shot down six Syrian aircraft that had been scrambled to challenge them and pursued the Syrians planes all the way to Damascus. The countdown to the Six-Day War had begun, although Israeli planners may not have known it. Egypt, the most powerful Arab country, was embroiled in the civil war in Yemen, and Israel assumed the Syrians would not move without Egyptian support.

Tensions on the northern border, raised by Israel's use of demilitarized zones, were heightened further by the confrontation over the division of the waters of the Jordan River between Israel, Syria and Jordan. From the early 1960s, Israel began building its National Water Carrier to bring water from the Sea of Galilee to the southern parts of the country. In response, Syria started work on canals to divert the sources of the Jordan. Israel's attempts to knock out Syrian equipment often escalated into mini-battles involving tanks, artillery and aircraft.

The exact sequence of events that led to war may never be known. Martin Van Creveld, the military historian, argues in "The Sabre and the Olive" that many senior officers in the Israeli Defense Forces were spoiling for a fight and wanted to provoke the increasingly radical Syrian government into war. On the Arab side, an unspoken reason for Nasser's ill-conceived rush to war may have been a desire to stop Israel from completing its development of nuclear weapons, either by intimidation or by war.

[Editor's note: Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons is not discussed in this series of articles from the London Daily Telegraph. According to reviewers, the most complete and readable account on the subject is considered to be "Israel and the Bomb" by Avner Cohen, Columbia University Press (1998), available from, among others, Barnes & Noble (www.bn.com) and Amazon.com.]

In the first half of May, the Soviet Union fed intelligence reports of an Israeli buildup along the Syrian frontier. Nasser, despite Israeli denials, disengaged from Yemen and ostentatiously poured troops into Sinai. Egypt ordered U.N. troops out of Sinai and its forces reoccupied Sharm el Sheik. The blockade on the Straits of Tiran, which Israel had declared in 1957 would provoke war, was reimposed.

Six-Day War

At the end of May, Jordan signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt. Iraq joined a few days later. Arab leaders proclaimed that they would reconquer Palestine once and for all. On June 3, President Charles de Gaulle overturned France's pro-Israeli policy and announced the suspension of further arms shipments.

As Israeli politicians tried to find a diplomatic solution, the generals demanded that Israel take immediate action to prevent the Egyptians from building up their forces. In an atmosphere of popular fear of a renewed Holocaust, graves were dug in Israeli public parks in anticipation of massive casualties.

Giving up on international action to open the Straits of Tiran, Israel was determined to land the first blow. H-hour was set for 7:45 a.m. on June 5. Israeli aircraft had earlier taken off in staggered formation over the Mediterranean and struck simultaneously at nine Egyptian air bases just as the pre-dawn patrols landed for their morning breaks.

Acting on excellent intelligence, Israel destroyed nearly 300 aircraft in the next three hours. Three-quarters of the Egyptian air force had been left smoldering and by 11:00 a.m. Israeli commanders believed the war had been won. The Israeli air force was free to wreak similar damage to the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, which had joined the hostilities.

With air superiority assured, the task on the ground was made easier. The Gaza Strip and the fortress-like defenses guarding the access routes to the northern Sinai were captured by the second day.

Jordan ignored Israel's appeals to stay out of the war King Hussein later admitted that he had been misled by Egyptian propaganda claims to be winning a stunning victory and Israeli paratroopers triumphantly entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the Lion's Gate on the third day of the war. The rest of the West Bank had fallen by nightfall. On the fourth day of the war, the Israelis reached the Suez Canal.

On the fifth day, Gen. Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister, ordered a last assault on the Golan Heights. The Syrians initially put up stiff resistance, but by the next day the Israelis had taken Kuneitra as the Syrians redeployed their troops northward to defend Damascus.

It was Israel's greatest triumph. Israel had conquered an area more than three times as large as its own territory. But the conquest of territory was a poisoned chalice: Israel had become a mini-empire, occupying a sullen and resentful Palestinian population on the West Bank.

The victory set in motion Israel's religious-nationalist settler movement. Its leaders held a Passover dinner in Hebron in 1968 and have never left since, in a campaign to speed up the settlement of the captured lands. The humiliation of the Arab states energized Palestinian militants.

On the first day of the 1967 War, Gen. Dayan had told the nation on radio:

"Soldiers of Israel, we have no aims of conquest." In the aftermath of victory, however, the Israeli government was ambivalent about the return of captured territory, especially the West Bank, which comprised the heartland of the biblical Land of Israel.

Israel immediately annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, along with a band of West Bank territory next to it. In the rest of the West Bank, the Cabinet coalesced around a plan proposed by Yigal Allon, a former military commander: Israel would retain a band of territory between six and seven miles wide along the Jordan river, as well as strips of land on the border with Israel, and return the rest to Jordan in exchange for peace.

Israel said it was waiting for a phone call from King Hussein to discuss a settlement, but it never came. Instead, the Arab summit in Khartoum, Sudan, in September 1967 issued the "Three Nos": No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel and no recognition of Israel.

The patent failure of Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism, which had mesmerized a generation of Arabs, transformed Palestinian politics. No longer would Palestinian exiles wait for the Arab armies to liberate Jerusalem; they would launch their own war.

In 1959, Yasser Arafat, then working as a civil engineer in Kuwait, and a group of fellow Palestinian exiles formed an underground group called Fatah (an acronym meaning "Conquest," derived by reversing the initials of Palestine Liberation Movement).

Already in 1953, as a Palestinian student activist in Cairo, Mr. Arafat had made one of his first tentative steps on the political stage with a petition, written in blood, telling Egypt's leadership: "Don't Forget Palestine."

Fatah established a small publication, Filastinuna (Our Palestine) that demanded the liberation of Palestine, criticized Arab regimes for their failure to act, and called on Palestinians to take up arms. Fatah believed that the lessons of the armed struggle that evicted the French from Algeria in 1962 could be applied to Palestine.

Fatah's first cross-border attacks in 1965 were puny affairs. The first raid was stopped by the Lebanese authorities, notwithstanding a leaflet announcing that "our revolutionary vanguard has issued forth."

The group's first "martyr" was killed not by the Israelis, but by Jordanian border guards. The Palestinian armed campaign drew a hostile response from many Arab governments. After the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967, all this would change.

Mr. Arafat and his followers slipped through Israeli lines and infiltrated the occupied West Bank, seeking to set up secret guerrilla cells along the lines of Maoist doctrine that a revolutionary should be able to operate among his people "like a fish in water." Most of the West Bank, however, was too dazed by the occupation to consider rising up in arms against the Israelis.

Change of tactics

After about a year marked mainly by failures, Fatah changed tactics and tried instead to mount hit-and-run attacks from outside Israel's borders. Its defiant action had a galvanizing effect on demoralized Palestinians.

Volunteers and funds began to flow into the proliferating Palestinian groups, each vying with the other to announce heroic military deeds, whether real, inflated or fictitious. Arab governments were gradually sucked into the conflict, opening their borders and purses to the Palestinian revolutionaries.

The turning point came in 1968. On March 18, an Israeli bus struck a mine left by Palestinian fighters in the south of the country. A doctor and instructor accompanying the party of high school students were killed, while several teen-agers were injured. It was the 38th Fatah operation in little more than three months. The Israelis decided it was time to teach the Palestinians a lesson and to strike at Fatah in Jordan.

The Palestinians were tipped off and decided to make a stand at their main headquarters in Jordan, Karameh. At dawn on March 21, the Israelis invaded, but quickly ran into trouble. Paratroopers unexpectedly came under fire from gunmen hiding in caves outside the town, while the main Israeli force faced heavy fire from Jordanian units nearby.

The Palestinian fighters forced the Israelis to take Karameh street by street. In the end, the Israelis destroyed the town, killed 120 Fatah men and took a similar number prisoner. But the Israelis suffered 28 dead before finally extricating themselves, abandoning some casualties and equipment in the field.

Karameh immediately became a byword for valor in Palestinian mythology. Less than a year after the combined Arab armies were overwhelmed by the Israelis in the Six-Day War, the Palestinian fighters had inflicted painful losses on a superior enemy. Karameh was not a victory in battle, but survival against overwhelming odds. It placed Palestinians back on the political map.

To be continued next Wednesday.

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