Wednesday,28 June, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Wednesday,28 June, 2017
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Israeli documents

(l-r) Israeli generals Uzi Narkiss, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin entering Jerusalem
Al-Ahram Weekly

LAST WEEK, ahead of Israeli anniversary celebrations of the battle in which Tel Aviv occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Defence Ministry declassified confidential documents that, for the first time, reveal information related to Israeli military meetings, decisions and military directives related to the 1967 military operation that the Israelis call the “Six-Day War”.

Appearing beneath the headline, “Fifty years since the Six-Day War: Total air superiority,” the documents mention that the war defeated the strongest Arab armies, namely the Egyptian and Syrian armies, and stressed that the first mission of the Israeli army in that war was to entirely destroy the military aircraft in the Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi and Lebanese arsenals and to bombard all airstrips, thereby paralysing the air forces of Israel’s enemies.

According to the documents, the Israeli air force ranked relatively low compared to the Arab air forces. The Israeli army had only 412 airplanes in its service, about half of which were military airplanes, and 456 pilots. The Arab countries had 826 military airplanes and 980 pilots.

One document relates that, on 5 June 1967, 197 Israeli fighter planes launched major attacks against enemy airports. Thanks to this first strike, the Israeli army could invade the Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan and East Jerusalem which, at the time, was under the protection of the Jordanian army.

In a recorded testimony that had remained classified during the past 50 years, an Israeli air force commander at the time said, “I wanted to make sure we inflicted maximum damage to the Egyptian air force, using our maximum firepower. I did not take the Syrian air force as a serious threat. Yes, it was a nuisance, but not a serious one.” He added that while it was clear that Israel would neutralise the Egyptian air force, it had not been clear that this would be done in only three hours.

The commander went on to state: “On the whole, the Syrian air force wasn’t strong compared to what we had expected with regard to the Egyptian air force. As things proceeded rapidly and smoothly on the Egyptian front, carrying on the mission became easier. Therefore, we proceeded to attack the Syrian air force immediately and uninterruptedly.”

“For a week,” he continued, “the only aircraft in the skies of the Middle East were the planes of the Israeli air force. It was total and absolute superiority in the air.”

According to the declassified documents, all of Israel’s attack airplanes were deployed in the offensive against Arab airports and aircraft apart from 12 Mirage jets that were put on the ready to protect Israeli airspace. The documents also note that Israel lost 46 airplanes in the war and that 24 Israeli pilots were killed, seven were wounded and 11 captured.

Most of the Israeli aerial offences were directed at the Egyptian army in the Sinai and in the Egyptian strategic depth, in locations near Cairo. On the first day of the pre-emptive operation, no less than 14 Egyptian air force locations were targeted, five were targeted in Syria, two in Jordan and the sole airport in Iraq was targeted.


Eshkol

Also among the recently publicised declassified files were the transcripts of the Israeli Security Cabinet before and during the war. According to these, after the 1967 War, the most important question facing the cabinet was how to deal with the Palestinians who were living in the West Bank and Gaza. Then prime minister Levi Eshkol was recorded as saying that if he had had the choice he would have expelled the Palestinians to Brazil. He added: “The thinking is to cleanse the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem of non-Jews and to transfer the Arab inhabitants to somewhere else. We should bulldoze the houses so that the Arabs will be convinced to move out of there.”

There was another proposal, to transfer the Palestinians from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Another held that Gaza was part of Jewish history and, therefore, Israel should retain control of it.

In correspondence with Moshe Dayan, Eshkol said that Palestinians should be resettled in Arab states, the Sinai and parts of the West Bank and that the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) should take care of the matter. Dayan, for his part, suggested creating a military government in the West Bank. The Palestinians should not be granted Israeli citizenship but rather be placed under a military government for a long period of time so as to keep them from voting in Knesset elections and, ultimately, turn Jews into a minority.


Sharon

Another document recently released from the Israeli war archives contained remarks by then commander of the Israeli reserves’ artillery regiment Ariel Sharon to the war cabinet, urging the government to go to war. chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin was reviewing the security situation in a war cabinet meeting held in the Israeli army general command headquarters three days before the war. At one point, Rabin stood up and said: “The armed forces are prepared as never before. They can intercept and repel an Egyptian attack. Our objective is no less than the total destruction of Egyptian forces. Due to hesitation and foot dragging we lost the basic deterrent factor we had possessed and that had kept Arab countries frightened of us.”

Sharon said: “I understood from the ministers’ questions that there is concern over the numbers of casualties. Firstly, it is possible to annihilate the Egyptian army and confront the Jordanians and Syrians. There is a major justification for the command to decide to embark on a campaign associated with a larger number of losses. We have never encountered such a dangerous situation since the 1948 War. Therefore, this campaign involves greater losses and we should embark on it because we have no choice.” He added: “Two weeks ago I was sitting with the troops. The people who stand behind us are a splendid people. I have never seen such a morale from the people as I see today. The army is readier than ever for war… Who apart from us can come to you and say that the army is prepared for war? Every attempt to postpone the attack in the hope that we receive a hundred more tanks will be a mistake of the first order.”

Minister of Defence Dayan was the only one present who disagreed. “As long as the army speaks about the ideological aspect, I’ll speak about the technical one,” he said.

In the war cabinet meeting held just a day before the outbreak of the war, prime minister Eshkol said: “Everything that is happening around us, which we have described as a tightening encirclement, should compel us to see ourselves as the object of an impending vicious and brutal attack. It is a question of time, and the time will not be long in coming. It is best we pre-empt it.”

Another document features the testimony by Chief of Intelligence General Aharon Yariv before the Israeli Defence Forces history department, dating from February 1970, stating that the security establishment in Israel had obtained information that Egypt was planning to invade the Negev with its special forces and sever the northern from the southern portion of that region. He said that had it not been for US and Western assistance before the war and the Israeli army’s purchase of dozens of fighter planes and helicopters, Israel would not have been able to accomplish the military feat in 1967.

He added that during the waiting period before the war, many Jews were asking why did the army have to recruit reserves? It provokes the Arabs. “We said at the time, let’s recruit them first and then let’s get ready. I asked Yitzhak Rabin, ‘Why are you so worried? You have the freedom to act thanks to recruitment. You’re in a good position now.’”

Yariv turned to a historic discussion that occurred after the war, on 12 June 1967, in the office of Defence Minister Dayan. The topic of the meeting was whether or not to continue the military campaign. Yariv relates: “Dayan wanted the army to manage things. We said at the time that peace will not be attained.”

According to Yariv, at the end of the war, the Israeli goal was to expand the area of the Israeli state. Peace would be a screen, not an aim. The aims were to improve Israel’s strategic position, to safeguard the status of Jerusalem as a “Hebrew” city, to protect water resources and to annex other living areas without adding Arabs or, at least, the minimum number of Arabs possible.

In his recorded testimony, Yariv also related that during the waiting period before the war, he said that he had expressed the opinion that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser most likely did not intend to attack Israel at the time. However, chief of staff Rabin refused to accept that. The intelligence chief added that this subject continued to nag at Rabin whose “systematic reasoning” was unable to grasp Nasser’s actions.

When asked when the decision to go to war was taken, Yariv responded that it was taken during a meeting convened by prime minister Eshkol. He added that the decision was informed not by military criteria but rather by purely political considerations.

On the decision to occupy the old quarters in East Jerusalem, Yariv related that the defence minister cautioned against occupying the old quarters because of the holy sites it contains, which could cause problems internationally. What made the Israeli authorities change their mind? “I think that developments on the ground during the battle were the cause,” Yariv answered.

As for the Golan, Yariv recounts that on 8 June 1967 there was an intense discussion on the question of occupying that portion of Syrian territory. The defence minister was opposed to occupying the Golan for three reasons: The Russians, the UN and losses in lives. He added, “we left that meeting in a bad mood. We felt that we were ending this war without finishing the work. The following morning, I learned that the defence minister changed his mind.”

According to Yariv, Dayan had found the reason for that change of mind that morning. “I heard Dayan say that we had to inform the prime minister that we had received news from our intelligence unit that the Egyptian military in the Sinai was collapsing. I told Moshe that it was not collapsing. He said that according to the reports received from intelligence it’s collapsing.”

Yariv relates that Dayan issued three instructions regarding the Suez Canal. One was to destroy the Egyptian army. The second was not to enter the Gaza Strip. And the third was not to go all the way to the Suez Canal. When asked why Dayan had issued these directives, Yariv responded: “He didn’t tell me, but I can guess. The canal is an international question which he didn’t want to get involved in. As for Gaza, it’s a hornets’ nest.”

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