Six Day War was more than just military power

IDF commanders became my generation’s heroes, but the victory was not only a military one.

ISRAEL AIR FORCE Mirage fighter jets train over Israel in 1967 before the Six Day War. (photo credit: GPO)
ISRAEL AIR FORCE Mirage fighter jets train over Israel in 1967 before the Six Day War.
(photo credit: GPO)
Marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, the victory photo albums are reopened and the stories of battlefield courage are retold, of the IDF taking Sinai and the paratroopers marching through the Old City of Jerusalem under the command of Motta Gur.
I was 15 years old. Gaza was under Egyptian rule. Instead of enjoying the summer break, we spent it in tense circumstances, digging trenches in my hometown Sderot.
I remember the fear on June 6, when the paratroopers under the command of Rafael Eitan invaded Gaza and in a matter of hours took control of it and its hundreds of thousands of residents.
IDF commanders became my generation’s heroes, but the victory was not only a military one.
The war in 1973 was much more difficult, although we already controlled all of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria and Golan Heights, demonstrating that the victory six years before was not the result of control over territories.
More than military power, in the Six Day War it was the spirit of the people that led to the victory. And the leadership which kept the citizens united throughout the tense three weeks until the US agreed to the preemptive strike by the Israel Air Force, which wiped out the Egyptian Air Force all at once.
Strategic depth is manifested, first and foremost, in the resilience of the home front. The Israel of 1967 was a different society. It was not necessarily more united around the army than it is now, but it was more united around values of fraternity and solidarity. The public’s confidence in the army, as well as the solidarity of the era, were essential to enabling Israel’s restraint over the three weeks.
The people’s resilience allowed towns, kibbutzim and moshavim to withstand the blows from the Syrian artillery, the Egyptian mortars and the Jordanian Legion’s bombings. It enabled the IDF to absorb a high number of casualties (779) and to conquer Sinai and the Golan.
Following the war, the social cohesion was replaced by a feeling of arrogance, glorification of generals and near worship of the land, for which we subsequently paid a terrible price in the Yom Kippur War.
The settlement ethos promoted by David Ben-Gurion, the pioneering establishment of 100 settlements across the Negev encouraged by Shimon Peres, were replaced by a messianic ethos and the set-up of dozens of outposts and settlements in territories that are densely populated by a different people.
Thus successive Israeli governments have brought the home front – civilian residents – to the battlefront. In parallel there have been technological advances on the enemy’s side, including in the fields of cybersecurity and rocket technology, which have made the enemy ever more sophisticated.
Nevertheless, the social cohesion remained strong. Four decades later, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the people demonstrated tremendous social resources as the entire North of the country was paralyzed by Katyusha rockets from Lebanon. The people opened their doors to host neighbors from the Galilee, one of the most moving phenomena of my term as defense minister.
The Israeli defense system stands out in its ability to overcome such tactical challenges: Ten-year-old children in the North have never heard a rocket warning siren or seen the inside of a bomb shelter.
It also knows how to provide strategic solutions. I am proud of having had the opportunity to introduce a new pillar to Israel’s defense paradigm of defending the home front, with projects such as the Iron Dome and David’s Sling anti-rocket systems and the National Emergency Authority.
These enable the political branch to maneuver diplomatically and the army to operate on the battlefield, while knowing that the home front is safe.
Although it has withstood the tests of time, we must not take this resilient social cohesion for granted. It is currently threatened by a divisive government that seeks to identify “enemies” within Israeli society.
In recent years we have been witnessing the worrisome break-up of society into a mere collection of individuals.
The silence of the prime minister in the face of attacks against bereaved families who wish to see their sons’ bodies brought home for proper burial in Israel had epitomized that process. As has a prime minister who bows before the most radical elements in the parliament and views them as “natural allies.” The conflict with our neighbors, and the labor of controlling another people for half a century now, also threaten the resilience of our society.
Democracy, the ability to sustain a society marked by solidarity, and the commitment of the political branch to diplomatic measures that ought to complement the military measures: These are the building blocks of Israel’s security, no less than its physical, military force. As they are eroded, so is our ability to win wars.
Amir Peretz is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset and a former defense minister and deputy prime minister, and is currently a candidate for the leadership of the Labor Party.