VI. The Rise Of The Palestinian Movement In The Wake Of The 1967 Arab Defeat

VI. The Rise Of The Palestinian Movement In The Wake Of The 1967 Arab Defeat

Palestinian Liberation Army

Location: Sabra

Interfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

The international dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict was prominent during the period 1967–73. By the end of the 1967 war, Israel had defeated three Arab armies and gained control over all of historic Palestine (in addition to occupying the Syrian Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai Desert), and the Arab front-line states concentrated on recovering the territories they had lost during the war. Also during this period, the Palestinians returned to active participation in the conflict: the Palestinian guerrilla organizations, with Fatah at their head, grew in membership and influence, eventually taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and endowing it with a new spirit and significance.

Two years before the outbreak of war in 1967, Arab-Israeli tensions started to build up. Syria supported raids into Israel carried out by the Palestinian group Fatah, whose guerrillas often entered Israel from Jordanian-controlled territory. Israel also launched cross-border raids against Palestinian and Arab targets. In November 1966, Israel carried out a large raid on the West Bank village of al-Samu‘ that resulted in heavy casualties. Outbreaks of violence also occurred near the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. One particularly intense Israeli-Syrian battle on 7 April 1967 involved troops, tanks, and aircraft. This was accompanied by Israeli threats against the Syrian regime, followed by false reports of an Israeli military buildup on the Syrian border that the Soviet Union passed on to the Egyptian government. Although Egypt and Syria had signed a defense pact in November 1966, the preeminent Arab leader, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, was not anxious for war (especially having already committed significant troops to the Yemeni civil war).

In a show of force aimed at Israel, Nasser ordered his army to mobilize on 15 May 1967. Events quickly began spiraling toward war despite international efforts to resolve the crisis. On 18 May, U Thant, secretary-general of the UN, complied with Nasser’s request, expressed two days earlier, for the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force that had been stationed between Egyptian and Israeli forces in Gaza and Sinai and at Sharm al-Shaykh. Egypt consequently blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping on 23 May. On 25 May, Israel mobilized its reserve forces and on 30 May, Egypt and Jordan signed a defense pact, and the latter allowed Iraqi troops to enter the country from the east.

On 5 June 1967, Israel launched a devastating surprise air attack on Egyptian airfields, destroying over 300 aircraft and effectively annihilating the Egyptian air force. After some largely ineffective air raids on Israel by Syrian and Iraqi planes, the Israeli air force struck at Jordanian and Iraqi air bases later in the day and destroyed many more aircraft. Israel ground forces invaded Gaza and Sinai and conquered them within three days. Also on 5 June, Israeli forces crossed into the West Bank, capturing East Jerusalem after fierce battles with the Jordanian army. Soon they conquered the entire West Bank. On 9 June, Israeli forces attacked Syrian positions in the Golan Heights, even though Syria had accepted a UN cease-fire. Israel’s offensive ended on 10 June, and all sides agreed to a cease-fire the day after.

The war—referred to as al-naksa (the setback) by Arabs—marked a devastating defeat for the Arab world. In addition to Egypt having lost the Sinai, the Suez Canal was rendered inoperable inasmuch as it now constituted the front lines between Egyptian and Israeli troops. Nasser accepted blame for the defeat and resigned—only to return to power following popular demonstrations. Syria lost the strategically important Golan Heights. For the Palestinians, Egyptian control over Gaza and Jordanian control over the West Bank had been replaced by an Israeli military occupation: Israel now controlled all of historic Palestine. Moreover, some 400,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the occupied territories and crossed into Jordan.

In East Jerusalem, Israeli forces immediately destroyed 135 homes and displaced 600 Palestinians in the Maghribi Quarter next to the Western Wall to open a plaza for Jewish pilgrims. On 28 June, Israel formally annexed the city and quarters around it, thus dramatically expanding the area attached to the municipality of West Jerusalem. Israel immediately allowed Jews to build civilian settlements in the occupied territories in defiance of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. On 27 July 1967, Israeli cabinet minister Yigal Alon presented a plan, named after him, for establishing settlements and permanent Israeli control over parts of the occupied territories. By 1972, there were twenty-nine settlements in the West Bank and four in Gaza housing more than 1,200 Jewish settlers in addition to 8,600 settlers in the expanded borders of Jerusalem.

At the Arab summit meeting in Khartoum on 29 August 1967, the Arab world announced the “Three Noes”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. After months of discussions, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242, establishing the “land-for-peace” formula as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace, and appointed the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring as the UN’s special envoy for peace talks. By 1970, Jarring was clearly unsuccessful in his mission. In fact, fighting between Egyptian and Israeli forces soon resumed shortly after the 1967 war. The small-scale attacks back and forth across the Suez Canal soon escalated to a war of attrition initiated by Egypt in early March 1969. By January 1970, Egyptian losses were so serious that Nasser secretly flew to the Soviet Union to request additional military aid, and Soviet and North Korean pilots were sent to fly Egyptian planes in combat with the Israeli air force. The United States sent Secretary of State William Rogers to devise a cease-fire, which was accepted by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan in July 1970. Nasser died the following month, and Egypt’s new president, Anwar al-Sadat, began thinking of ways to pull Egypt out of the conflict with Israel.

The Arab defeat in 1967, including Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, brought the Palestinian problem back into the spotlight. Palestinian guerrilla groups known as fedayeen, with Fatah at their head, vowed to continue Arab resistance to Israel. Although its plans for sparking an anti-Israeli uprising in the newly occupied West Bank failed within three months of the occupation, Fatah began launching cross-border guerrilla raids into Israeli-controlled territory. Other Palestinian guerrilla groups were soon established, notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in December 1967. The fortunes of the fedayeen, and Fatah in particular, skyrocketed as a result of the battle of al-Karama on 21 March 1968. A major Israeli incursion into Jordanian territory aimed to destroy a fedayeen base at al-Karama in the Jordan Valley. While they succeeded, Israeli forces suffered an unusually high number of casualties in the process due to the defense mounted by Fatah fighters and Jordanian army troops, artillery units, and tanks. Following this battle (very significant from the point of view of Palestinian struggle), volunteers flocked to join fedayeen organizations.

The PLO suffered from the negative political fall out of the defeat of the Arab regimes and was largely discredited as a creation of Egypt and the Arab League. Fatah and other fedayeen groups managed to take over the PLO at the fifth session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in February 1969, and Fatah’s leader, Yasir Arafat, was elected chair of the PLO. The Palestinians affirmed that only armed struggle could liberate their homeland, and they regularly denounced UN Security Council Resolution 242. In August 1970, an extraordinary session of the PNC in Amman rejected Rogers Plan II that had been accepted by Egypt and Jordan the month before. The growing number of fedayeen forces in Jordan soon led to escalating the confrontation with Israel and, with PLO forces developing a state-within-a-state, tensions mounted with the Jordanian regime. After the PFLP hijacked three aircraft in early September 1970, flew them to Jordan, and held the passengers hostage, King Hussein ordered his army to drive PLO forces out of Amman. Ten days of fighting between Jordanian and Palestinian forces, known as Black September, commenced. After a truce arranged by the Arab League, PLO fighters in Amman withdrew to northern Jordan, but ultimately were expelled by the army in another round of fighting in July 1971.

To avenge the defeat, a Fatah faction calling itself Black September assassinated Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal in Cairo in November 1971. The group also kidnapped a group of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich in September 1972. A failed attempt by West German police to rescue the athletes led to a shootout, and eleven Israelis were killed in the operation. Though some raised questions as to the effectiveness of such spectacular, but potentially alienating, operations, there was no doubt that they served to impress the Palestinian problem into international public consciousness. At the end of this period (i.e. in late 1972), it is possible to say that, despite the setback of 1967 and the Israeli usurpation of all of historic Palestine, the Palestinians proved that they refused to accede quietly to this state of affairs, instead asserting themselves as an active player in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Selected Bibliography: 

Cobban, Helena. The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Khalidi, Ahmad Samih. “The War of Attrition.Journal of Palestine Studies 3, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 60-87.

Louis, William Roger, and Avi Shlaim, eds. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Sayigh, Yezid. Armed Struggle and the State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000.

Schleifer, Abdallah. “The Fall of Jerusalem.Journal of Palestine Studies 1, no.1 (Autumn 1971): 68-86.

Segev, Tom. 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.