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The Six-Day War's difficult legacy

Tania Krämer Jerusalem / cb
June 5, 2017

The Six-Day War began 50 years ago: Israel attacked three of its Arab neighbors, who had threatened to annihilate the Jewish state. Effects of Israel's victory are still felt in the region today. Tania Krämer, Jerusalem.

Sechstagekrieg - israelische Panzer in den Golanhöhen - Syrien
Image: Imago/Keystone

The Six Day War: Fifty years of occupation and uncertainty

"It felt like an existential threat to Israel," Moshe Milo said about the time right before the war broke out.

Milo was 23 years old at the time and a radio operator for an Israeli paratroopers unit.

In the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser had threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Similar comments were made in Syria. The two Arab states had already fought two wars with Israel in 1948 and 1956. In 1967, Nasser posted his troops on the Sinai Peninsula and blocked the Straits of Tiran for Israeli ships.

On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel's air force launched a surprise attack targeting the troops in the Sinai. Milo was ready to march against the Egyptians on the southern front, "but suddenly our mission was changed and we were on our way to Jerusalem."

Infografik Karte The Six-Day War of 1967 and it's consequences EN

Capturing the Western Wall

Fifty years later, Moshe Milo and Yoram Zamosch quickly walked along the Al-Wad Street in old Jerusalem's Muslim district. Zamosch had been the young commander of Milo's unit in 1967. Together, they had stormed the Lions' Gate and entered the old town, which had been under Jordan's control since 1948. The Six-Day War has left a lasting impression on the former comrades.

"Up until the war, we were considered a persecuted, weak people. The Holocaust had happened just 25 years ago," Zamosch said. "And then we managed to re-take the Western Wall. We were back, standing on our own feet."

Moshe Milo  Yoram Zamosch Haifa
Milo and Zamosch still get emotional today when they think back on recapturing the Western WallImage: DW/T.Krämer

Mere meters away, then-17-year-old Palestinian Haifa al Khalidi watched the invasion of the Israeli troops. From the roof of her parents' house, she still has a clear view of the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

"We had barricaded ourselves in our house and no one even dared to look out the window. That's when we heard someone yelling in the streets that the Iraqi soldiers had arrived," al Khalidi remembered. "But my mother quickly realized that those voices belonged to Israeli soldiers. It was a shock that the Israelis had made it to the old town so quickly."

On June 7, 1967, Israeli troops seized the area.

"We saw our commanders cry tears of joy because they were able to touch the Western Wall," Zamosch said.

He raised an Israeli flag there.

"We were back. The Israeli flag was flying above the Western Wall," Zanosch recalls.

Liberation and occupation

To this day, seizing the old town is celebrated in Israel as the "liberation and re-unification of Jerusalem." Just recently, the Israeli Public Records Office released transcripts of June 1967 government meetings that show how, after initial doubts, euphoria was rising with every day the war progressed.

If necessary, Israeli troops could be "in Beirut in a few hours," the defense minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, is quoted as saying.

Haifa  Blick vom Dach
Today, there's a clear view of the Western Wall from the roof of al Khalidi's parents' houseImage: DW/T.Krämer

In a few short days, Israel had tripled its territory and occupied many different areas. But now the country was also in control of another people: the Palestinians. Shortly after the end of the war, politicians discussed how to deal with the occupied areas.

"We're sitting here with two peoples, one that has all the basic rights and the other being denied all rights," then-foreign affairs minister Abba Eban is quoted as saying. That could hardly be justified in the face of the Jewish past and in an international context.

'Those who fled could never return'

In Jerusalem's old town, Palestinian Haifa al Khalidi was an eyewitness to the war's immediate consequences in 1967. The Mughrabi neighborhood was torn down to give Jews easier access to the Western Wall.

"They gave people two hours to clear their houses and then the bulldozers came," Khalidi said.

Just a few days later, the district was in ruins. The area became a spacious square in front of the Western Wall.

Haifa al Khalidi
Al Khalidi: We were in shock when the invasion happenedImage: DW/T.Krämer

"I don't know where the people who lived there went. But those who fled were never able to return to Jerusalem."

Thousands of people fled to the east and many of them still live under refugee status in Jordan today.

For the Palestinians who stayed, 1967 marked the beginning of a life under military occupation. Israel annexed the Arab eastern part of the city and later declared Jerusalem the "undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people." But this position was never recognized by the international community.

The conflict continues

Most Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem got a special residence status - without full civic rights. Today, Palestinians who are registered in the West Bank or in Gaza still need a permit from the Israeli military administration to visit Jerusalem.

In 1967, Israel also took the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, which were previously under Egyptian control, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights. The swift military success showcased the power of Israel's relatively small military - but the war didn't put an end to the country's conflict with its neighbors. Several other wars followed.

Israel didn't officially make peace with Jordan and Egypt until much later. And the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is still far from resolved today.

"Nobody could have ever imagined that Israelis were going to be in East Jerusalem and the West Bank for this long," al Khalidi said. "I might not get to see it anymore, but one can only hope that this situation will change one day."