The 1967 Six-Day War and its difficult legacy

The Six-Day War began 50 years ago: Israel attacked three of its Arab neighbors, who had threatened to annihilate the Jewish state. Effects of Israel's victory are still felt in the region today. Tania Krämer, Jerusalem.

"It felt like an existential threat to Israel," Moshe Milo said about the time right before the war broke out.

Middle East | 14.05.2013

Milo was 23 years old at the time and a radio operator for an Israeli paratroopers unit.

In the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser had threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Similar comments were made in Syria. The two Arab states had already fought two wars with Israel in 1948 and 1956. In 1967, Nasser posted his troops on the Sinai Peninsula and blocked the Straits of Tiran for Israeli ships.

On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel's air force launched a surprise attack targeting the troops in the Sinai. Milo was ready to march against the Egyptians on the southern front, "but suddenly our mission was changed and we were on our way to Jerusalem."

Infografik Karte The Six-Day War of 1967 and it's consequences EN

Capturing the Western Wall

Fifty years later, Moshe Milo and Yoram Zamosch quickly walked along the Al-Wad Street in old Jerusalem's Muslim district. Zamosch had been the young commander of Milo's unit in 1967. Together, they had stormed the Lions' Gate and entered the old town, which had been under Jordan's control since 1948. The Six-Day War has left a lasting impression on the former comrades.

"Up until the war, we were considered a persecuted, weak people. The Holocaust had happened just 25 years ago," Zamosch said. "And then we managed to re-take the Western Wall. We were back, standing on our own feet."

Moshe Milo Yoram Zamosch Haifa

Milo and Zamosch still get emotional today when they think back on recapturing the Western Wall

Mere meters away, then-17-year-old Palestinian Haifa al Khalidi watched the invasion of the Israeli troops. From the roof of her parents' house, she still has a clear view of the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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"We had barricaded ourselves in our house and no one even dared to look out the window. That's when we heard someone yelling in the streets that the Iraqi soldiers had arrived," al Khalidi remembered. "But my mother quickly realized that those voices belonged to Israeli soldiers. It was a shock that the Israelis had made it to the old town so quickly."

On June 7, 1967, Israeli troops seized the area.

"We saw our commanders cry tears of joy because they were able to touch the Western Wall," Zamosch said.

He raised an Israeli flag there.

"We were back. The Israeli flag was flying above the Western Wall," Zanosch recalls.

Liberation and occupation

To this day, seizing the old town is celebrated in Israel as the "liberation and re-unification of Jerusalem." Just recently, the Israeli Public Records Office released transcripts of June 1967 government meetings that show how, after initial doubts, euphoria was rising with every day the war progressed.

If necessary, Israeli troops could be "in Beirut in a few hours," the defense minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, is quoted as saying.

Haifa Blick vom Dach

Today, there's a clear view of the Western Wall from the roof of al Khalidi's parents' house

In a few short days, Israel had tripled its territory and occupied many different areas. But now the country was also in control of another people: the Palestinians. Shortly after the end of the war, politicians discussed how to deal with the occupied areas.

"We're sitting here with two peoples, one that has all the basic rights and the other being denied all rights," then-foreign affairs minister Abba Eban is quoted as saying. That could hardly be justified in the face of the Jewish past and in an international context.

'Those who fled could never return'

In Jerusalem's old town, Palestinian Haifa al Khalidi was an eyewitness to the war's immediate consequences in 1967. The Mughrabi neighborhood was torn down to give Jews easier access to the Western Wall.

"They gave people two hours to clear their houses and then the bulldozers came," Khalidi said.

Just a few days later, the district was in ruins. The area became a spacious square in front of the Western Wall.

Haifa al Khalidi

Al Khalidi: We were in shock when the invasion happened

"I don't know where the people who lived there went. But those who fled were never able to return to Jerusalem."

Thousands of people fled to the east and many of them still live under refugee status in Jordan today.

For the Palestinians who stayed, 1967 marked the beginning of a life under military occupation. Israel annexed the Arab eastern part of the city and later declared Jerusalem the "undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people." But this position was never recognized by the international community.

The conflict continues

Most Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem got a special residence status - without full civic rights. Today, Palestinians who are registered in the West Bank or in Gaza still need a permit from the Israeli military administration to visit Jerusalem.

In 1967, Israel also took the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, which were previously under Egyptian control, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights. The swift military success showcased the power of Israel's relatively small military - but the war didn't put an end to the country's conflict with its neighbors. Several other wars followed.

Israel didn't officially make peace with Jordan and Egypt until much later. And the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is still far from resolved today.

"Nobody could have ever imagined that Israelis were going to be in East Jerusalem and the West Bank for this long," al Khalidi said. "I might not get to see it anymore, but one can only hope that this situation will change one day."


Mount of Olives today

The old City Wall and the gold-domed Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, are visible in the background from the mountain ridge which lies to the east of the Old City. The Old Jewish Cemetery, situated on the western and southern slopes of the ridge, are in an area once named for its many olive groves. It is the oldest continually used Jewish cemetery in the world.


Mount of Olives then

If it weren't for the ancient Ottoman city wall and the shrine in the background, viewers might not realize this is the same site. The picture was taken on June 7th, 1967, when the peak was this brigade's command post at the height of the Six-Day War, or Arab-Israeli War.


Al-Aqsa mosque today

Al-Aqsa, with its silver-colored dome and vast hall, is located on Temple Mount. Muslims call the mosque the "Noble Sanctuary," but it is also the most sacred site in Judaism, a place where two biblical temples were believed to have stood. As well, it is the third holiest site in Sunni Islam, after Mecca and Medina. There have long been tensions over control of the entire Temple Mount area.


Al-Aqsa mosque then

The name Al-Aqsa translates to "the farthest mosque." It is also Jerusalem's biggest mosque. Israel has strict control over the area after conquering all of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, and regaining access to its religious sites. Leaders at the time agreed that the Temple Mount would be administered by an Islamic religious trust known as the Waqf.


Damascus Gate today

The historic Gate, named in English for the fact that the road from there heads north to Damascus, is a busy main entrance to Palestinian East Jerusalem, and to a bustling Arab bazaar. Over the past two years, it has frequently been the site of security incidents and Palestinian attacks on Israelis.


Damascus Gate then

The gate itself - what we see today was built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1537 - looks much the same in this July 1967 picture. Seven Gates allow entrance to the Old City and its separate quarters.


Old City today

Jerusalem's vibrant Old City, a UNESCO world Heritage Site since 1981, is home to sites important to many different religions: the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque for Muslims, Temple Mount and the Western Wall for Jews, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians. Busy and colorful, it is a great place for shopping and food, and a top attraction for visitors.


Old City then

This picture was taken in July 1967, but 50 years later, some things in the Old City haven't changed at all. Boys like the one in the photo balancing a tray of sesame pastries - called bagels - still roam the streets of the Old City today, hawking the sweet breads sprinkled with sesame seeds for about a euro ($1.12) apiece.


Western Wall today

This section of ancient limestone wall in Jerusalem's Old City is the western support wall of the Temple Mount. It is the most religious site for Jewish people, who come here to pray and perhaps to place a note in a crack in the wall. There is a separate section for men and for women, but it is free and open to everyone all year round - after the obligatory security check.


Western Wall then

The Western Wall is also known as the 'Wailing' Wall, a term considered derogatory and not used by Jews. The above photo of people flocking to the Wall to pray was taken on September 1, 1967, just weeks after Israel regained control of the site following the Six-Day-War. It had been expelled from the Old City 19 years earlier during Jordan's occupation.