To mark the 48th anniversary of the Six-Day War, in which the Israeli army captured the Golan Heights, West Bank and Sinai Peninsula, the Israel Defense Forces Archive has released minutes taken during general staff meetings in the days leading up to the war. The records deal with issues such as when to start the war, and include the war diary of the army’s high command, documenting decisions made throughout the campaign. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is also documented recommending an independent Arab government in some sections of the West Bank.
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“I believe we could find ourselves in a situation in which the existence of Israel is at great risk,” warned Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, discussing the possibility of a future war between the IDF and the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In a special discussion held by the army’s general staff with the Ministerial Committee for Defense on June 2, 1967 – just before the war broke out on June 5 – Rabin told fellow participants, “This forum and myself – and I’m sure this applies to the majority of the army’s officers – don’t want war for its own sake. I think we may find ourselves in a military situation in which we have lost many of our advantages, reaching a position, which I don’t want to express too harshly, in which our existence is in serious danger. The war will be difficult and involve many casualties.”
Rabin noted that with the Egyptian army poised in Sinai, every day that passed without Israel attacking allowed the Egyptians to dig in further. “If we have to attack, this will become harder,” he explained, noting that, in his opinion, the Syrians would not remain passive.
“I feel very strongly that the diplomatic-military choke hold around our neck is tightening, and I don’t see anyone else breaking it,” Rabin stated. “We don’t have the right to wait until the situation is too difficult, if not more than that – I don’t want to describe such a scenario expressly – if we don’t act immediately,” he added.
The main objective, as Rabin described it, was to deal Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser a decisive blow that could bring about a change in the entire Middle East. “I think that today we are entering a phase that is inescapable,” Rabin told the ministers. “Time is not on our side. And in a week or two, or in three or four weeks, the situation will be worse.”
Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Mordechai “Mottie” Hod told the ministers that the air force was ready to go, without needing even 24 hours notice. Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, said, “IDF forces are more prepared than ever before, and they are capable of repelling and destroying an Egyptian assault.” He warned that hesitation and foot-dragging led to “a loss of our main deterrent factor – Arab states’ fear of Israel.”
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol requested general staff members “not to regard ourselves as Goliaths. In a country of two million people, a person has to ask himself: Even if I accept your belief [in victory], and there is nothing greater and more important than your confronting the cabinet with regard to the days passing by without attacking, let’s assume we broke the enemy’s forces. The next day we’d have to rebuild our own forces as well, since we’ll be weakened too. If we have to fight every 10 years, we have to consider if we’d have an ally that helped us, or do we just talk to our allies now and thumb our noses at them later.”
The war diary describes the conduct of battles through the eyes of the chief of staff’s bureau. On June 5, the air force reported the blow dealt to the Egyptian air force in the IDF’s opening gambit, Operation Moked (aka Operation Focus), in which 180 Egyptian fighter planes were destroyed by 11:05 A.M. In a discussion with Defense Minister Dayan, it was decided “not to touch Syria.” But an hour later the Syrians attacked Tiberias and Megiddo, leading to an attack by Israel’s air force on targets in Syria, including the bombing of four airfields.
That same night, Dayan talked to the chief of staff and suggested that capturing the West Bank be given the lowest priority. “The conquest of the West Bank was made conditional on the situation in the south. In any case, the possibility of capturing the West Bank is considered preferable to breaking a corridor through to Mount Scopus [an Israeli enclave isolated since 1948],” the minutes of the meeting said.
In a further discussion that was held on June 6, it was stated that “if the connection to Mount Scopus is completed this morning, the West Bank should be conquered up to the peak mountain ridges, while enabling escape routes for civilians.” It was stressed that entry into Jerusalem’s Old City was forbidden.
At the same time, air force commander Hod – basing his comments on his pilots’ reports – said there was “a massive flight [of people] eastward.” That evening, Dayan informed senior officers that they should prepare to enter the Old City, but only on his orders.
At 6:15 A.M. on the third day (June 7), the defense minister ordered the encirclement of the Old City and instructed the army to enter it. The instructions were not to enter the area of the [Al-Aqsa] mosque and the Western Wall. Shlomo Lahat was quickly appointed as East Jerusalem’s military governor. There were more reports of massive movement of people from the West Bank to the east.
At 10:08 A.M., according to the army diary, a message was received, saying, “The Temple Mount is in our hands and our forces are by the [Western] Wall.” At the same time, the general staff considered issuing a threat to Jordan, stating that if the shelling of Jerusalem did not cease, the air force would bomb Amman.
Several sections of the diary describing the unfolding of events are still censored and redacted after 48 years. These include cabinet meetings and discussions at the general staff’s command.
The very next day, June 8, there was a discussion among military figures who were planning how to govern the West Bank. It was decided to impose military rule, with a division of the area into six subdistricts. The governor would be subordinate to the head of the army’s Central Command. Dayan expressed some thoughts regarding the future of the West Bank: he proposed an independent Arab government in some sections; that Jerusalem be united; that the 1949 Armistice Agreement with Jordan, which determined the border between the two countries, be annulled, and more. Regulations for opening fire were discussed as well, and it was decided not to shoot at Jordanian forces unless they opened fire first. It was also decided to take control of the looting raging throughout the West Bank.
Toward the evening of that day, the general staff began to realize that action against Syria was also necessary, since the bombardment of border settlements continued unabated.
On June 9, at 5:45 A.M., the head of Southern Command sent the following telegram to the chief of staff: “IDF forces are on the banks of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. The Sinai Peninsula is in our hands. Congratulations to you and the IDF.” Among other decisions made with regard to continued military action, it was noted that enemy combatants who remained in the area and offered resistance should be shot.
In the north, the defense minister ordered the capture of the Golan Heights.
On June 11, the army issued a new order to all fronts: “The IDF is going into a defensive mode on all fronts, within the expanded borders of Israel, in the south, east and north.” The documents show that access to the Western Wall was permitted the very next day.