The Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948–73

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The Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948–73

On May 14, 1948, Zionists, a group dedicated to creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine, achieved their ultimate goal when they declared the establishment of the state of Israel. Even though the creation of Israel had been supported by the United Nations, an international peacekeeping organization founded in 1945 and made up of most of the countries of the world, the nation of Israel soon came under attack by Arab countries in the Middle East who felt that Israelis had stolen land from Arab Palestinians to create their country and that Israel was a threat to Arabic and Islamic cultures. The nations of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, along with other countries in the Arab League, an organization of Arabic nations committed to preserving Arabic values in the Middle East, attacked Israel in late May 1948, marking the beginning of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, a conflict that would continue in various forms between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East for the next thirty years.

Even though the creation and continued stability of the Jewish state of Israel was the main issue in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, related developments increased the political turmoil in the Middle East. Nearly every Arab state went through a period of significant political change due to either conflict with the influence of foreign powers or with how the government responded to the issue of Israel. Countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, which all border Israel, transformed their governments after being defeated by Israel in various conflicts. Another issue revolved around the Arab Palestinians, who began slowly to develop an independent political identity even though they no longer had their own land. Refused full citizenship rights in either Israel or the Arab states to which they fled as refugees (people who leave their home country in times of war or persecution), Palestinians struggled to determine how best to express their personal and political goals. By the late 1960s, they had emerged as a legitimate participant in the ongoing conflict. Influencing all of these factors was the Cold War (a period of political tension and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991), as both Israel and its Arab neighbors sought alliances that would help them in the constant struggle to maintain or regain cultural dominance. This chapter will explore the various conflicts between Israels and the Arab countries of the Middle East between Israel's creation in 1948 and the last official conflict known as the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It will also examine the ways in which the international community influenced these conflicts and often played a peacemaking role.

Building a Jewish nation

From the time that Jews began immigrating to Palestine in the 1880s, they were very conscious of building solid social institutions to look after their interests. The Jewish community in Palestine, the yishuv in the Hebrew language, had developed a system of collective farms, or kibbutzim, that were capable of providing nearly all needed food. They formed a workers' union that soon developed into a political party, called the Mapai Party, whose elected leaders became spokesmen and women for Jewish political issues. They also formed several armed civilian military forces, or militias, most notably the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Haganah. All of these groups were in place when Israel declared its independence in 1948 and contributed to its success in defeating the combined though poorly coordinated forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in the War for Independence over the next year.

Israelis received a psychological lift from their military victory, which solidified the nation of Israel and achieved the realization of the Zionist cause. From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, the Zionist movement had proclaimed that Jews could only live peaceably in the world if they had an independent state of their own. After the horrors faced by Jews during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), when German leaderAdolf Hitler (1889–1945) ordered the murder of millions of European Jews, most Western countries (such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States) supported Zionist goals. Soon after Israel declared its independence, many nations welcomed Israel into the world community. And the massive flow of Jewish immigrants to Israel validated the Zionist claim that Jews were eager to populate the land that was home to the first Jewish kingdoms (see sidebar). However, the large numbers of Jewish immigrants as well as the War of Independence forced tens of thousands of Arab Palestinians to leave their land and immigrate to surrounding Arab countries. Most of these Palestinians lived in refugee camps and were an economic burden to the countries they immigrated to, creating another reason for Arabic countries in the Middle East to dislike the creation of Israel.

Immigration to Israel

The Jewish population in Israel had grown from a few thousand in 1900 to about 650,000 in 1948. The British both increased and decreased the growth of the Jewish population of Palestine between 1920 and 1947. The Balfour Declaration promised the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine and encouraged Jewish immigration to the region in the 1920s. However, due to another promise made in the same document, the British were forced to imposed strict limits on immigration in the 1930s in order to control the growing Jewish presence in the area. After Israel gained its independence, however, those immigration limits were lifted and the population grew dramatically. Between 1948 and 1951 the population of Israel doubled, as approximately 684,000 Jews moved from areas where they felt persecuted to a nation where their religious identity formed the basis for the state.

Of this great wave of immigrants, roughly half came from Europe, especially Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where persecution of Jews had been especially intense. These immigrants were known as Ashkenazi Jews, and they traced their roots to Jewish populations based in Germany, Poland, Austria, and Eastern Europe. Of the other half of Jewish immigrants, the largest percentage came from Arab nations in the Middle East, known as Sephardic Jews.

Though they shared the same faith, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews possessed different backgrounds and resources. Sephardic Jews were generally peasants with little money or education; they also tended to be religiously conservative. Ashkenazi Jews were often wealthier and better educated; they also tended to be less religious. Ashkenazi Jews were the originators of Zionism, and they held most of the positions of authority in Jewish politics for many years. Over time, the gulf between the wealthy Ashkenazim and the poorer Sephardim would become a source of internal political conflict in Israel. In the early years, however, both groups took advantage of the tradition, made into the Law of Return in 1950, that declared that any Jew anywhere in the world could claim Israeli citizenship.

Israelis soon created unique political, social, and cultural traditions. Their political system, finalized by 1949, allowed all Jewish citizens to vote. (Arab Palestinians living in Israel were granted citizenship rights more gradually and with limitations.) Voters cast their ballots for a political party, and the parties named members to the 120-seat, single-house legislature called the Knesset (KA-ness-et), based on the proportion of the votes received by the party. From 1949 to 1977 the Mapai Party (later called the Labor Party) dominated Israel's politics. The Mapai formed a coalition (a form of political alliance) with other parties to name the prime minister and the cabinet, a body of high-ranking officials who advise the prime minister. (The Knesset also chooses the president, whose role is largely ceremonial.) Israel's first prime minister was the longtime champion of Zionism, David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973).

Ben-Gurion had risen to power in Jewish politics in part because of his success in creating the Haganah, a militia that formed the basis for Israel's first national army, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). One of Ben-Gurion's first acts following Israeli independence was to bring competing militia groups, especially the Irgun, headed by political rival Menachem Begin (1913–1992), under IDF control. Soon, the IDF became an important shaper of Israeli identity. Every Israeli male was required to complete three years of military training; Israeli females did two years' service. Thereafter, they became part of the military reserve. In the event of war, the entire population (between the ages of eighteen and fifty) could be called to fight. Because every Israeli citizen shared the common bond of military service, the population was unusually united in its determination to defend the state of Israel.

Ben-Gurion's role in crafting the IDF and his history as a promoter of Zionism contributed greatly to Israel's approach to regional politics. Ben-Gurion and other Israeli politicians promoted the idea that because Israel was a newly created state, it was weak and constantly in danger from Arab countries that wanted to destroy it. By doing this, Ben-Gurion hoped to convince Israelis as well as foreign allies that it was proper for Israel to continue to build not only its army but also to increase its borders when it could to create an area between Israelis and the Arab countries that sought to cause them harm. He promoted a doctrine, sometimes called "Ben-Gurionism," according to historian William Cleveland, which declared that any attack on Israel must be met with a counterattack of disproportionately greater force. Only by being overly aggressive in its own defense, according to the doctrine, could Israel ensure its security. This way of thinking was likely encouraged by Israel's small size, the history of Jewish persecution in Europe and the Middle East, and by the fact that Israel was literally surrounded on all sides by Arabic countries that had not supported Israel's creation. Fortunately for Israel, the countries surrounding it were going through their own political changes and were not able to gather together to attack Israel through most of the 1950s.

Egypt's rise to Arab leadership

The Israeli War of Independence, known in the Arab countries as the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, did more than assure the continued stability of the newly formed country of Israel. Its effects were spread to all of the countries that bordered Israel, which had been defeated in their attempt to halt its formation, and to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced from their land by Israelis because of the war. To Arabic Middle Eastern countries, Israel's independence was a disaster. In Palestinian circles the war and the refugee crisis that followed became known as Al Nakbah, or the catastrophe. This event forced many Middle Easterners to examine the role of the government in their countries and in many countries it caused a major shift in political power.

The effects of Israel's defeat of the Arabic countries in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 was probably most dramatic in Egypt. Egypt had been a powerful Arabic country in the Middle East since ancient times and Egyptians were proud of their historical dominance. However, since the late nineteenth century, the country had mainly promoted British policy in the Middle East, due to British influence, and often ignored the needs of other Arabic communities. Egypt's leader King Farouk (1920–1965), who ruled from 1936 to 1952, was more responsive to British demands than to those of his own people. After the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, increasing numbers of Egyptians were growing dissatisfied with Farouk's rule. Poor peasants were unhappy with their lack of political representation; a five hundred thousand-member religious faction called the Muslim Brotherhood demanded greater loyalty to Islamic values and an end to Western influences in the country; and powerful officers in the country's military were outraged at the way Egypt's military was being run and how it had failed against the Israeli forces. In 1952 a group calling itself the Free Officers staged a coup, or takeover of the government, forcing Farouk to leave the country. Leading the group was a young officer named Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), who would become the most powerful man in the Arab world through the 1950s and 1960s.

Nasser's rise to leadership in Egypt created an example for other Arab nations to follow. His first act was to unify the country by developing a strong sense of nationalism (devotion to the interest and culture of a particular nation) among his people. He encouraged Egyptians of all classes to reject foreign influences that had dominated the country for so many years and to identify with their nation and the Egyptian culture. To accomplish this, Nasser began to eliminate all sources that might conflict with his political policies, which were aimed at making Egypt a powerful and economically stable country in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood, who hoped to change Nasser's secular (nonreligious) government with one that followed Islamic law, and the Communist Party, which hoped to increase the power of the Soviet Union in Egypt by introducing a system of government where the state plans and controls the economy and a single party holds power were targets for Nasser. Nasser was also able to rely on military support for his policies, for he had once been a leader in the Free Officers.

Nasser wanted more than the leadership of Egypt, however. Nasser wanted to work with other Arab countries in the Middle East to create a large united Arabic alliance that would combine the resources of Arabs in the Middle East and become a powerful entity in the region. By the late 1950s, Nasser was the leader of a movement called Pan-Arabism, which stressed the importance of Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East instead of inside independent countries, and he was constantly attempting to rid his own country as well as other Arabic countries of the influence of foreign powers. Nasser rejected Britain's influence in Egypt and gained control over the Suez Canal, a major trading route through Egypt that had long been controlled by the British. In 1958 he convinced the leadership of Syria to join with him in creating the United Arab Republic, a merger of the Egyptian and Syrian economies and governments with Nasser in the lead. This was the start of what Nasser was hoping would be a larger republic in which all Arabic Middle Eastern countries would join, but the union collapsed by 1961 as Egypt attempted to gain too much control over Syrian government policies.

One of the rallying points of Nasser's nationalism—sometimes called Nasserism—was his opposition to Israel. For Muslims like Nasser, opposition to Israel was not a matter of anti-Semitism, or hatred of Jews, for Muslims had always showed the Jewish faith a certain amount of respect as an ancestor to the Islamic religion. Rather, Nasser and other Arabs resented the way that Jews had claimed Arab land and, in the 1948 war, expelled hundreds of thousands of their fellow Arabs from Israel. They also saw Israel as a way for Western countries, especially the United States, to spread their influence since most Western countries supported more diverse independent nations within the Middle East and many, including Nasser, saw this as a way for Westerners to attack Arabic and Islamic culture. Nasser encouraged Arabs to view Israel as their common enemy, and to unite in opposition to that enemy. In the 1960s other Arab nations would begin to support Nasser's view of the Middle East.

Shifts in the Arab World

As in Egypt, political change was occurring in nearly every other Arab country in the 1950s, in varying degrees. In Syria and in Iraq, the figures who had led Arab troops into the failed military effort against Israel were soon discredited and driven from office. Between 1949 and 1971, several groups fought for leadership of Syria, each with support from some element of the military. The first group to take power was a Communist government allied with the Soviet Union, but this fell apart when many Syrians began to dislike the role foreign powers were playing in their country. This led to a political union with Nasser's Egypt and the creation of the United Arab Republic, but this too failed as Egypt tried to make Syria into a colony of Egyptian culture and political policy. In the 1960s, the Baath Party took control of the Syrian government. The Baath Party was a socialist group (a system where the government owns the means of production, such as land and factories, and controls the distribution of goods and services) that originally supported a more democratic style of government and also favored Arab unity as a way to strengthen all Arabic countries in the region. In 1970 Hafez Assad (1930–2000) took power of the Baath Party in Syria, and the country changed from a country with a representative government to a dictatorship where only one person, Assad, had ultimate power. A similar situation occurred in Iraq. The Iraqi royal family maintained control of the country after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, thanks largely to British support, but the emergence of an Iraqi Baath Party (similar though distinct from Syria's) eventually brought a military coup against the king in 1958. For the next ten years, Iraqi politics were unstable, with ethnic and religious groups fighting for power. By 1968, however, the Baath Party gained control of the military and a Baath leader, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (1914–1982), became the dictator, or absolute ruler. Though they shared origins, the Baath Parties in Syria and Iraq were not allies; in fact, they fought bitterly over whose vision of Arab unity was best. Over the years, Syria allied itself with the Soviet Union, and Iraq with the United States. Both countries, however, remained determined foes of Israel and supporters of Arab efforts to reclaim Palestine.

Jordan and Lebanon, both of which shared a border with Israel, took more complicated positions with regard to Israel. Both countries had a tradition of good relations to Western countries and neither was eager to engage in open military conflict with Israel. Yet both Jordan and Lebanon were forced to absorb large numbers of Palestinian refugees, and the political activism of those refugees pressured them to join Arab actions against Israel in the 1960s. (For more on Jordan and Lebanon, see Chapter 4.)

The Suez crisis

Even though many of the Arabic Middle Eastern countries had been defeated by Israel in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, smaller conflicts between Israel and various Arab nations continued through the 1950s and 1960s. One of the first notable conflicts was known as the Suez Crisis, or the Arab-Israeli War of 1956. In many ways, the Suez Crisis was the product of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which were both trying to influence politics in the Middle East during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was attempting to move into Egypt in order to gain access to the Suez Canal and the United States and its allies wanted to prevent this. However, the main reason behind the Suez Crisis was the Arab support for Palestinian attacks on Israel.

By 1949 Israel had agreed to borders with neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, but those were often the source of conflict. Refugee camps existed along the borders, where Palestinians endured terrible conditions, living in tents or poorly made shelters with little sanitation. The Palestinians did not need much encouragement to launch attacks across the border on Israel, but the Arab nations that had taken the Palestines in after the war did not wish to renew conflict with a nation that had recently defeated them. Egypt, however, began to provide secret funding and training to Palestinians calling themselves fedayeen (an Arabic term meaning one who sacrifices for a cause). Small fedayeen attacks on Israeli citizens from refugee camps in the Gaza Strip region of Egypt and from the West Bank region of Jordan began in the early 1950s. By 1955, with Nasser's encouragement, these attacks grew larger and more concentrated. The increasing attacks on Israel were part of Nasser's plan to establish Egyptian and Arabic unity by combating an enemy of most Arabic countries in the Middle East. Nasser also closed the Suez Canal to Israeli ships in early 1956, making it nearly impossible for Israel to conduct trade with other countries since the Suez Canal was one of the main waterways in which foreign traders accessed the Middle East. In July 1956 Nasser ordered Egyptian troops to gain control of the canal's operations from the British, starting a conflict between Western and Arabic powers.

It is likely that Nasser did not intend to start a conflict over the Suez Canal; many believe he wanted only to demonstrate Egypt's willingness to stand up to Israel and the West. But Britain, France, and Israel (supported by the United States) saw this action as an aggressive move and were afraid that Nasser and the Egyptian army (backed by the Soviet Union) were preparing to not just hold the canal but to begin attacks on countries that supported Western values. British and French troops gathered on the islands of Cyprus and Malta, preparing to attack, and Nasser pulled his troops from the Sinai Peninsula to prepare for battle. By arrangement with Britain and France, Israeli troops entered the Sinai Peninsula on October 29, and thanks to their strong tank divisions and well-trained army they quickly captured the Gaza Strip and much of the Sinai before reaching the edge of the Canal Zone. Britain and France offered to stop the fighting if given possession of the canal, hoping to reopen the waterway to international trade and protect Western interests in the region. Egypt refused, and British and French troops entered the conflict, where Egyptian forces took heavy losses.

It seemed that the Egyptian army was on the verge of defeat when the United States forced a diplomatic solution to the crisis. It pressured Britain and France to remove their troops, replacing them with a United Nations Emergency Force. It also used its influence over Israel to force Israeli troops to withdraw its forces from captured territory in the Sinai region. And it insisted that Egypt keep the Suez open to all shipping. Despite being overpowered militarily, Egyptians celebrated the war as a victory. Nasser proved that Arabic countries could stand up to foreign powers, Israel was forced to give up captured Egyptian territory, and Britain and France were reduced to minor powers in the region, replaced by the United States as the main foreign influence. The Suez Crisis established a troubled peace in the region that would last until the late 1960s.

Palestinians begin to organize

After the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Arab Palestinians were a people with no representation or organization. Forced from their former homeland, nearly a million Palestinians had become refugees living without permanent homes in foreign Arab countries that refused to give them citizenship or rights. The largest groups of Palestinians gathered in Egypt's Gaza Strip, a small strip of land in the southwest corner of Israel, and in Jordan's West Bank, a small area of land that extended westward from the Jordan River but was surrounded on three sides by Israel. While many middle- and upper-class Palestinians were able to secure housing and jobs in Arab nations, the refugee camps were filled with uneducated and unskilled workers, most of whom had fled their homes without any of their possessions. The camps also lacked proper sanitary conditions, education systems for children, and any sense of security or governing system.

Out of these desperate conditions, organization slowly emerged. The Arab League (see sidebar) had offered to serve as the representative of the Palestinians after they were removed from Israel, though agreeing on how to do so proved difficult, especially since the Arab League itself was having problems agreeing on policy in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis and the failure of the United Arab Republic between Syria and Egypt. In 1964 the Arab League sponsored the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), under the leadership of a moderate Palestinian named Ahmad Shuqayri (1908–1980). Shuqayri called for Palestinian unity, but he did not openly endorse Palestinian attacks and raids on Israel.

For young Palestinians growing up in refugee camps, Shuqayri's leadership was too focused on pleasing Arab leaders. Soon these Palestinians, many of whom had been part of the Egypt-backed fedayeen and were determined to use direct force to reclaim Palestine, began to form organizations of their own. In 1958 they created a group called Fatah, which was dedicated to using aggressive protesting and military action to regain Palestinian land and rights. Fatah soon came under the leadership of a passionate college-educated Palestinian named Yasser Arafat (1929–2004). Other groups willing to use force to achieve Palestinian goals also emerged in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, most notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led by George Habash (1926–), and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

From the early 1960s onward, these Palestinian groups—especially Fatah, the dominant group—added to the tension in the region. They obtained weapons and began to launch attacks on Israel from within Arab nations. For Jordan, the growing strength of these Palestinian groups within its borders was very disruptive. They wanted to engage in conflict with Israel, while Jordan's King Hussein (1935–1999) wanted to maintain peace. When he ordered police and military action

The Arab League and Palestinians

On March 22, 1945, the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen joined together to form the League of Arab States, better known as the Arab League. The Arab League was formed to ensure economic and political cooperation among the Arab states in the Middle East, and to ensure a unified Arab front in conflicts in the region. As part of its initial agreement, the League members pledged themselves to preserving the rights of Arabs in Palestine. But that promise proved exceedingly difficult to keep in the years that followed.

In 1948, Arab League states tried to prevent Israel from becoming an independent nation, but they were soundly defeated. Through the 1950s, different Arab states offered varying levels of support for Palestinian refugees, but they could seldom agree on a shared solution to the problem. In 1964, the Arab League established the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a political body that would represent the Palestinians and, simultaneously, protect the interests of Arab nations. When the Arab states were again defeated by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 (a war between Israel and the Arabic countries of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan), Palestinians rejected the leadership of the Arab League and took control of the PLO for themselves.

Though the Arab League continued to function after the Six-Day War and into the twenty-first century, it was not a very effective organization. League members repeatedly clashed over leadership of the organization and of the Arab world, thus making compromise extremely difficult to achieve between members. Its inability to protect the rights of Palestinians is considered by many as the League's greatest failure. Had the League succeeded in securing real cooperation among its members, it is possible that Arabic nations would have reached a higher level of strength and stability in the late twentieth century.

against any Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets, these groups moved to Syria, a country that openly supported their actions against Israel. By 1966 Palestinian militants had built up a following in Syria and were attacking the northeast corner of Israel, near the Golan Heights (a strategic mountainous region in Syria that bordered Israel and overlooked Israeli towns clustered along the Sea of Galilee, also called Lake Tiberias). The Syrian government encouraged Palestinians to attack Israel from the West Bank (an area on the border of Israel and Jordan west of the Jordan River) as well, in an attempt to draw Jordan into the conflict. By early 1967 there were frequent battles between IDF soldiers and Syrian and Palestinian fighters along the borders of Syria and, to a more limited extent, Jordan.

The Six-Day War

By May 1967, Palestinian attacks on Israel from Syria had grown so persistent that many of the countries in the region began to prepare for war. Egypt, again hoping to show its leadership among Arab countries, pledged to support Syria in the event of an Israeli attack. Pressured by pro-Palestinian factions in his country, Jordan's King Hussein signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt in which Jordan and Egypt agreed to protect one another in the event of an attack on either country; Iraq also took part in this agreement. It soon appeared to Israel, and to many countries in the rest of the world, that some of the Arab countries in the Middle East were planning to wage war on Israel.

Israel determined that war between itself and the Arab countries surrounding it was impossible to avoid. Many people in the military and the government, as well as civilians, suggested that if Israel wished to win this war, it must be the first to attack, catching the Arab countries unprepared. The Israeli government decided that a first attack was Israel's best option and ordered the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to attack Egyptian airfields. On the morning of June 5, 1967, the IAF destroyed nearly every warplane owned by Egypt before the Egyptians could get a plane off the ground to counterattack. Encouraged by the success of their first strike, Israeli ground forces, led by future prime minister Ariel Sharon (1928–), began to cross the Sinai desert into Egyptian territory, defeating a large number of Egyptian forces and establishing control in the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula by the end of June 8, 1967.

Israel's battles against Syria and Jordan were equally decisive. The Israeli Air Force attacked the Syrian air force on the evening of June 5, 1967, and destroyed two-thirds of Syria's air force. Unwilling to advance ground troops into Israel, Syria instead began bombing Israeli towns from mountain bases in the Golan Heights, which towered some 1,700 feet above the Israeli valley below. Despite the overwhelming difficulty of climbing the mountains through narrow roads, the Israelis used a combination of aerial bombing and ground assault to capture the Golan Heights over the next several days. By June 9, 1967, they had pushed the Syrians from their mountain bases and established a ceasefire line along a border that came to be known as the Purple Line which marked Israel's control of the Golan Heights.

Reluctant Jordanian forces attacked Israel from the West Bank on June 5, 1967, and faced similar resistance from the Israelis. With their few planes destroyed by the IAF, and their ground troops defeated by the well-trained IDF troops, Jordanian fighters were quickly pushed out of the West Bank and across the Jordan River. By June 10, 1967, each of the Arab countries had accepted a ceasefire agreement and the war, known at its end as the Six-Day War or the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, was over.

New borders, new tensions

Israel's victory in the Six-Day War stunned the world and created conditions that have defined politics in the region ever since. Israel, a country that had begun on only a portion of the original land of Palestine, dramatically expanded the territory that it controlled. By taking the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula, Israel nearly tripled its size. These acquisitions dramatically increased the Palestinian refugee problem. In capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel had forced another 300,000 Palestinians into neighboring Arab countries; even more problematic, Israel now occupied territories containing an Arab population estimated at 1.5 million people. Recognizing that it could not simply take over these territories and absorb this population, Israel established military rule in these regions, which have come to be known as the Occupied Territories. Since 1967, a majority of Palestinian protests and military action against Israel would come from within Israeli-occupied territories as well as refugee camps on Israeli borders.

For the Arab nations, a new defeat by the Israelis came as a profound shock. Since their first war with Israel in 1948, many of the Arab nations in the Middle East (excluding Jordan) had formed new governments and built larger armies. They fully expected to defeat the Israelis. Yet they were once again beaten and many Arabs blamed their respective governments. According to William Cleveland, author of A History of the Modern Middle East, "the new regimes seemed every bit as corrupt, dysfunctional, and inept as their predecessors." Across the Arab world, politicians and common people began to wonder if there was not a better way to pursue their national goals than through allegiance to military dictators and continual conflict with Israel.

No group was more disappointed with the leadership of the Arab nations than the Palestinians. The Arab powers had again proved that they were unable to defeat the Israelis and reclaim Palestine for Palestinians. Over the next few decades, Palestinians would increasingly look to their own political leadership, especially that of the PLO, which after 1968 came under the control of Fatah and Yasser Arafat (1924–2004), to pursue their political goals. The PLO's political activities grew increasingly violent toward Israel and any group that supported Israel was less and less welcomed in Arab nations. In the years that followed the Six-Day War, however, the conflict in the Middle East, long defined by hostilities between Israel and neighboring Arab nations, increasingly became an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But not before the Arab nations collectively fought one last war against Israel.

From the War of Attrition to the Yom-Kippur War

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the United Nations, an international political organization formed in 1945 to promote peace in the world, passed Security Council Resolution 242, which it hoped would provide a framework by which Israel and its Arab neighbors could work out their differences peacefully. Resolution 242, however, was a document that did little to resolve the disputes in the region. It indicated that it was not permissible to acquire territory by war, which Arab nations seized upon to strengthen their case that Israel should give back the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. It also recognized the right of countries "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force," which the Israelis pointed to in support of their acquisition of territory. The United States and the Soviet Union urged the combatants to negotiate based on Resolution 242 and to seek peace, in the hopes that neither nation would be forced into assisting in a large war in the region. Instead, conflict continued on a smaller scale.

In the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, Egypt tried to win back the Sinai Peninsula by launching small attacks on the Israelis stationed along the border with Egypt, distant from Israel's population centers. In what has become known as the War of Attrition (1968–70; attrition means gradually wearing down or exhausting an enemy through constant harassment), Egypt attempted to wear down Israel's border troops with constant artillery attacks and limited troop engagements. Israel fought back fiercely, at one point penetrating deep into Egypt. Meanwhile, diplomats argued back and forth about Israel returning land and Egypt promising never to attack Israel again, but no agreement could be reached. For several years, little happened besides talks, as Arab states demanded the return of their land and Israel demanded guarantees of peace.

In 1973, conflict between Israel and numerous Arab countries resumed on a large scale. Israel was surprised on October 6, 1973 (the first day of the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday during which Jews pray for the forgiveness of sins), when Egyptian troops attacked Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and in the Sinai Peninsula, and Syrian troops took on Israelis in the Golan Heights. Israeli military intelligence had not predicted these attacks, and in the first hours and days of the war, known widely as the Yom Kippur War or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israel lost ground steadily to Arab troops. Once Israel had recovered from the surprise and rushed more troops to both battle sites, however, the IDF once again proved the superior military force and effectively won back all territory lost in the first few days of the war. In Syria, IDF forces advanced so far that they were able to bomb the Syrian capital of Damascus; in Egypt, the IDF captured the Suez Canal and threatened to penetrate further into Egypt. By October 22, however, pressures from countries outside of the Middle East forced the end of the war and, eventually, the return to the borders determined by the Six-Day War of 1967.

Though no territory changed hands as a result of the Yom Kippur War, about 8,500 Arabs and 2,800 Israelis were killed in the brief conflict. Israel was deeply shaken by the way its military had been caught by surprise during the war, which prompted the downfall of several prominent Israeli officials. The Arab powers were discouraged by yet another defeat on the field of battle, but they discovered a new weapon after the war: oil. Late in 1973, the Arab nations announced an embargo (ban) on the sale of oil to the West, causing a huge disruption in Western economies. Countries outside of the Middle East were deeply disturbed by the conflict, not only because of the oil embargo but also because the Soviet Union and the United States had nearly gone to war against each other as a result of actions in the Middle East. (War between those two superpowers, who possessed nuclear capabilities, was the most-feared possibility during this time, because many believed it would lead to the destruction of the world.) Once all parties recovered from the initial shock, however, Israel and Arab nations began to make slow steps toward more peaceable relations.

For More Information


Ciment, James. Palestine/Israel: The Long Conflict. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.

Farsoun, Samih K., with Christina E. Zacharia. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Gunderson, Cory Gideon. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Edina, MN: Abdo Publishing, 2004.

Kort, Michael. The Handbook of the Middle East. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Miller, Debra A. The Arab-Israeli Conflict. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2005.

Smith, Charles D., ed. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. 4th ed. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Web Sites

Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"Middle East: Land of Conflict." CNN. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"Palestine Facts & Info." PASSIA: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Jerusalem. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

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The Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948–73

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