Tuesday,22 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)
Tuesday,22 August, 2017
Issue 1347, (1 - 7 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The three-year war

The late General Mohamed Fawzi , former minister of defence, was chief of general staff of the Egyptian forces in June 1967 during what is known as the six-day war. Fawzi's first words are a correction of dates: the war, he considers, lasted not six days but three years

"The war started 5 June 1967 and ended in August 1970. Israel, however, had been preparing for war for 10 long years before June 1967, and the US, Israel's active ally, supported these preparations. Although the US had forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai in 1956, a secret document that was revealed 11 years later underlined the nature of the alliance between the two countries. In a letter addressed to the Israeli government, President Eisenhower wrote: 'The United States pledges to keep the Gulf of Aqaba open for navigation as an international waterway.'

"The document was concealed from all parties, including Egypt, until May 1967 when it was made public by Washington. But why was it made public at that particular time? The goal, which we learned later, was to provoke Egypt into reacting violently, thus turning international public opinion against it.

"After 1956, Israel formulated a plan for a comprehensive war against Egypt, the largest Arab state and the main threat to Israel's future. Ben Gurion believed that striking at the top would improve conditions for Israel, particularly since Egypt had made substantial progress in its first five-year plan (1962- 1967).

"As part of the indemnities for Nazi war crimes, Israel concluded a number of arms deals providing it with Mirage-3 and Mirage-5 planes from France. Upgrading its air force was part of a military plan known as 'Zion', which consisted of a vast air strike against Egypt, to be followed by a massive advance of its land troops. According to this plan, Israel trained its pilots in low-altitude flying, at 30 metres above sea level, to gain skill for staging an air strike that would wipe out Egypt. The Zion plan entailed 10 years of training and preparation.

"A US intelligence warship sailed from the western coast of Africa and docked off Port Said. The ship sent information about the Egyptian military situation to Israeli planes coming from Tel Aviv to Sinai and Port Said. Starting 4 June, the US warship had been providing Israel with intelligence on Egypt's main units in Sinai, particularly the 4th Armoured Division. Interference by US intelligence was so damaging that when the war broke out 5 June, wireless communications between the Egyptian command and ground forces were impossible. This crippled Egyptian management of the war. US Air Squadron 66, stationed in Britain, also participated effectively in the war by carrying out reconnaissance for the Israelis. The Sixth Fleet, meanwhile, was guarding Israeli waters. Nasser knew exactly what he was talking about when he accused the US of participating in the war.

"The June war was a premeditated military aggression planned since 1957. The Israeli commander of the south zone, in a press conference after the war, said: 'My conscience can no longer bear this burden of silence, nor the perpetration of deceit and dishonesty. I must admit that the June 1967 war was an offensive planned and premeditated by Israel, precisely since the end of 1956. Provoking the Arabs was part of the plan.'

"The Israeli general resigned from the military and joined the Peace Now movement. 'We spent 10 long years with nothing on our minds but the Zion plan, for every eating, drinking, sleeping and waking hour. Finally, it was executed in 80 decisive minutes,' the Israeli commander stated.

"The Israeli plan was founded on three factors: surprise, deceit, and applying Israel's military principle of pushing any battle beyond the enemy's borders. In the first part, the air force was to act; once its task was accomplished, the ground forces were to move in. In the event that the air force failed to accomplish its task, the entire plan would be cancelled.

"The second part of the plan pertained to how Israel would deal with Egyptian forces. Al-Qaher, Egypt's defence plan, ratified in 1966, was conceived as the military dimension of the decision taken by the Arab Summit meeting in 1964, to prevent Israel from expanding into Arab territory. The Egyptian plan focussed on defence and deterrence techniques, while Israeli forces were trained in attacks and raids."

In the wake of Nasser's political victory in 1956, the Egyptian armed forces were regarded as important actors in the movement to free Egypt from imperialism, Nasser the champion of Arab nationalism. Nasser provided political, financial and military assistance to independence movements in Africa and Asia. Fawzi, who was entrusted with the affairs of African states, says that by 1966, 19 African states had gained their independence with Egyptian assistance. The Egyptian role led to the erosion of the French and British colonial presence in these countries.

Egypt's union with Syria consolidated the dream of Arab solidarity but, three years in, the arrangement fell apart. Just as the union with Syria crumbled, dealing a crushing blow to dreams of Arab unity, revolution broke out in Yemen. Nasser's backing for the republican regime was prompted by his determination, first, to back and encourage national liberation movements; second, to foster Arab solidarity; third, to deal a blow to imperialism in one of its last strongholds; and fourth, to show the world that the United Arab Republic (the name kept after the break with Syria) was still a power to be reckoned with.

Egyptian support for Yemen meant sending forces as far as 2,600 nautical miles south, but in Fawzi's words, it was originally conceived as "a limited action comprising political, moral and material support -- by no means was it envisaged as an action that could drain our resources." Two battalions of Special Forces and an aircraft squadron were sent to Yemen to reinforce the nascent republican government and consolidate the revolution. Nasser himself referred to the support he sent to Yemen as "symbolic". Egyptian military presence in Yemen, however, reached 70,000 servicemen in 1964.

According to Fawzi, although this contribution was made at a time when Israel seemed to be preparing for war, the political leadership in Egypt was not pessimistic enough to plan accordingly. Although Egyptian military strategy was focussed on the north-eastern axis, no significant effort was made to prepare for war in terms of equipment or training of military cadres. Fawzi acknowledges the enormous error committed by expanding operations in Yemen, with its difficult mountains, vast deserts and tribal conflicts.

"Our involvement had become a show, staged by 70,000 men. If we had taken control of three cities only -- Sanaa, El-Hodaida and Taiz -- that would have done the job. Yemen, however, did not drain our resources to the extent that writers like to imply. We never sent Yemen any of the new arms of heavy weaponry we had obtained from the Soviet Union, such as Mig-21 planes or T-55 tanks. The basic error, no doubt, was that our strategy lost its focus and looked south instead of north. This caused an imbalance in the focus of the military command responsible for national security.

"The truth is that on the morning of 5 June all Egypt's military forces were in Egypt, with the exception of one infantry brigade and two battalions of Special Forces. The problem with the armies being away in Yemen has more to do with the troops' lack of training and the lack of modern arms. The Egyptian forces came back from Yemen and were sent to Sinai immediately, where they met a well-armed and highly trained enemy.

"The Egyptian military command was handicapped by its lack of strategic reconnaissance facilities. Israel knew everything about us, while we knew nothing about its military might. Another problem was the complete separation between the political and the military leaderships in Egypt in the period preceding the war.


Nasser and Amer

"In December 1966, Nasser received a coded message from Field Marshal Amer, who was on an official visit to Pakistan. He wrote: 'It is our duty to consider ending the task of the United Nations emergency forces [stationed along the Egyptian-Israeli borders in Sinai]. Certain neighbouring Arab countries are accusing Egyptian forces of hiding behind the emergency forces and refusing to lend other Arabs a hand.'

"This was the earliest sign of discord between the two top leaders of the country. Amer claimed to be representing the views of the high-ranking military, but this was not necessarily the case. He was speaking his own mind, and his decisions were arbitrary. The differences between the two men were to grow deeper over preparations for battle.

"The second important issue which highlighted Nasser and Amer's conflicting standpoints surfaced during a meeting attended by ministers and high-ranking officers. Amer insisted on the closing of the Tiran Straits, a proposal opposed by all those attending. He demanded: 'How can an Egyptian soldier bear to see the Israeli flag in the gulf?' The decision to close the Straits was taken at this meeting. Preparations and public mobilisation were stepped up, troops were moved, and the media captured the mood with excessive zeal.

"Nasser, however, did not wish to be distracted by side issues. He wanted to focus on the threat Israel posed to Syria. He was aware that Egypt had hardly been able to provide the basics for the implementation of the Al-Qaher plan.

"But Israel and the US would have gone ahead on 5 June whether the straits were closed or not, and whether the emergency forces remained in place or not. While the threat to attack Syria seemed imminent, the plan for war against Egypt was ready.

"The decision to close the gulf had several negative consequences. Executing the decision required enormous human and material resources, which compromised the effectiveness of Egypt's defence plan. As a result, Amer had to withdraw part of the forces in Sinai to station them in Sharm El-Sheikh, but when he could no longer find forces, he began to draw on strategic reserve forces, first a brigade of paratroopers and then the 4th Armoured Division, which is the strategic reserve of the state. Therefore, the war started without a strategic reserve.

"At this point, I can assert, looking back 30 years after the battle took place, that we were doomed to lose before a single shot was fired. It was not the best time for Egypt to fight, and the situation was aggravated by total discord between the political and military leaderships. The military leadership had separated itself from the constitutional organisation of the state, a situation that can lead to nothing but failure. The proof is that only one side fought the battle: Israel. A staggering 75 per cent of Egypt's ground forces did not even see the enemy. The death toll among the Egyptian forces was only 10,000 men: 1,000 died in confrontations in Rafah and Gaza, and 9,000 were victims of the 'wrong and arbitrary decision of one man'.

"On the evening of 6 June, hardly 24 hours after the beginning of the war, Amer ordered the forces to withdraw to the west bank of the canal, and to leave their weapons behind. He repeated the same order on 7 June, and it wreaked havoc. A stampede took place in the narrow mountain passes. Thousands found their death there.

"Why did Amer not consult anyone before giving this order? There is some background to the story. Before the war, Amer had issued Presidential Decree 118, merging the post of chief of staff of the armed forces into a new administration, to be named the Supreme Armed Forces Command. But this new body was established on paper only, without terms of reference, so that, as chief of staff of the armed forces, I was not assigned any field operation in the 1967 battle. My functions were transferred to the commander of the ground forces, and I, like all the rest of the able commanders, became nothing but onlookers.

"Despite the debacle of the sixth day, it is impossible to say exactly when the war ended. On 10 June, the decision for a ceasefire on the Arab front was issued, yet the Ras Al-Esh battle was fought on 1 July, by the very forces which had withdrawn, carrying the weapons which had not been used in June. Naval battles raged on after 5 June 1967. On 5 June, Israel was far from scoring a decisive victory.

"Egyptians did not consider themselves to have fought a war and lost it; the term defeat did not seem to apply. To be defeated implies the collapse of the regime, but this did not occur. The people's overwhelming rejection of Nasser's resignation is proof that the regime had not collapsed in the least. The June experience was therefore referred to as 'the setback'.

"After the war, the people started to play an active role in the affairs of their country and to speak their minds. A new strategy was adopted, not for the defence of the land, but for its liberation. Liberation was a national cause defined in the resolutions of the Khartoum Summit held on 27 September 1967.

"It was time to change the leadership and to break free from the shackles of a divided command. The armed forces were to be reformed, and new scientific techniques were introduced to upgrade performance. From there, we fought the War of Attrition, then the October War, and we were victorious."

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