This Week in History: Casus Belli in the Red Sea

On June 5, 1967, Israeli warplanes launched a surprise attack on Arab armies, beginning the most astonishing victory the IDF has ever achieved.

six day war 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
six day war 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the middle of May 1967, Israel was engulfed by a thick tension as a feeling of impending catastrophe filled the air. Nearly constant skirmishes over water use along the Syrian border had recently escalated with the IAF shooting down six Syrian MiG-21 fighter jets. Egypt was moving multiple armored divisions into the Sinai Peninsula. And just over two decades after the Holocaust, daily Hebrew-language radio broadcasts from Cairo and Jordanian-controlled Ramallah promised to annihilate the young State of Israel. Then, on the 22nd of May, Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser announced that “The Israeli flag shall not go through the Gulf of Aqaba,” and closed the Straits of Tiran to Eilat-bound shipping traffic. It was quickly clear – war was imminent.
Following the 1956 war, the Egyptian front had significantly calmed after Israel returned the Sinai, but communities in the North continued to experience sporadic shelling, firefights, cross-border raids and general disquiet. Syria was sponsoring terrorist raids from its own and Jordanian territory but the heaviest fighting took place over water sources. In 1965, Syria began working to divert the water flow from the Golan Heights away from Israel and the Kinneret, a move that if successful would have reduced Israel’s already small water supply by one third. The IDF, determined to prevent the Syrian water diversion project, launched regular attacks on the Golan, leading to a two-year back-and-forth between the two countries’ militaries that saw northern towns and Kibbutzim regularly terrorized by barrages of artillery fire.
By the beginning of 1967, as armed border incidents grew in frequency and intensity, the region increasingly appeared to be entering a war footing. One of the most serious clashes took place in early April when an Israeli tractor near the Kinneret came under fire from the Syrian army. After a heavy exchange of artillery fire, Syria scrambled fighter jets, six of which were shot down by IAF fighter pilots who chased the surviving MiG-21s all the way back to Damascus. The next day, Syria’s information minister declared that the fighting would be “followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended.” Indeed, the near constant battles on the Golan would eventually lead to an all-out war that threatened Israel’s very existence.
In 1966, presumably under Soviet pressure, Egypt and Syria had entered into a mutual-defense pact, pledging to declare war on each other’s behalf should one of the countries be attacked. Indeed, in the lead-up to the Six Day War, the Soviet Union played a key role in escalating the situation. On May 13, 1967, Nasser received a message from Moscow saying Israel was amassing troops on the Syrian border ahead of an impending invasion, information the Egyptian president knew to be false from his own intelligence. Nonetheless, the day after Israeli Independence Day (May 15 on the Gregorian calendar) and one day before the false Soviet prediction of an Israeli invasion of Syria, Nasser ordered United Nations peacekeeping forces out of Sinai, a move that convinced Israeli leaders the Egyptian tanks amassed in Sinai were headed toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Adding to the justified paranoia, that same day, Cairo Radio broadcasted a message: “The peak hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.”
In a desperate attempt at de-escalation, on May 19, Israeli diplomats frantically dispatched cables to capitals around the world, declaring that as long as Egypt did not close the Straits of Tiran – its artery to the East, including access to oil from Iran – it would not initiate any hostilities. Through Paris, Washington and Moscow, Jerusalem was sending an explicit message to Cairo: A naval blockade would be considered a casus belli. At that point, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops and hundreds of tanks had already deployed in the previously demilitarized Sinai - a buffer zone filled with UN peacekeepers designed to prevent a surprise attack. Three days later, despite the Israeli warning, Egypt nonetheless announced it was closing the Tiran Straits. “The Israeli flag shall not go through the Gulf of Aqaba,” Nasser said in a speech.
In the two weeks between the Egyptian blockade on Eilat and the outbreak of the war on June 5, Israel began rapid and frantic preparations for what it believed lay ahead. Almost the entirety of the IDF’s reserve force was called to active duty, emptying the streets, shutting down the economy and adding to the sense of impending catastrophe. An apocalyptic number of coffins were ordered built and public parks were prepared to become makeshift graveyards. The country was expecting a massacre. The message from Egypt was clear. Radio Cairo, broadcasting in Hebrew, delivered constant messages to the Israeli people (similar to those in the following video [Hebrew]): “Nasser, Nasser, we are behind you. We’ll annihilate you, we’ll incinerate you.”
If war had not yet been clearly imminent, the events that took place in the following week made it all the more so. On May 29, in a speech to the Egyptian parliament, Nasser said: “The issue now at hand is not the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran or the withdrawal of UNEF [from Sinai], but the rights of the Palestinian people.” Describing those words’ understood significance at the time, prominent Israeli diplomat Abba Eban later said of Nasser’s speech, it “took the conflict far back beyond the maritime context to place the question mark squarely on Israel’s survival.” On May 30, Jordan, which had previously been encouraged by Israel to stay out of the impending fight, signed a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, and by default, with Syria. Israel was suddenly surrounded by massive Arab armies readying themselves to carry out their declared intention of destroying the young state, and its people.
In the final days before the war, Egypt had assembled 100,000 troops along with nearly 1,000 tanks in the Sinai. In Jordan and Syria, another 110,000 soldiers were assembled in order to attack and destroy the Jewish state. A sense of doom blanketed the country. Israel, however, with the understanding that an existential threat was waiting at its borders, was determined to make a desperate attempt to gain the upper hand. On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israeli warplanes flew under the radar and launched a surprise attack on all the airfields of the massive Arab armies waiting to attack, beginning the shortest and most astonishing victory the IDF has ever achieved. Despite the sense that just twenty-some years after the first, a second Holocaust was imminent, Israel lived to see another day, with the help of what many at the time believed to be divine intervention.