Did Israel Seize the Golan Heights From Syria Because of a Photograph?

Intelligence operatives and historians debate what led Moshe Dayan to change his mind about attacking Syria

Israeli tanks on the Syrian front during the Six-Day War.
Ram Lahover / GPO

Only on the morning of June 9, 1967, the fifth day of the Six-Day War, did Defense Minister Moshe Dayan change his mind and order an assault on the Syrian front.

Two days earlier, on June 7, Dayan told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (according to minutes released to the State Archive last month): “We started the war to root out the Egyptian force and open the straits [of Tiran]. On the way, we took the whole West Bank. I don’t think that meanwhile we can start another battle, with the Syrians. If that is the question, I’d vote against it. If we’re going into Syria to change the border to make it easier for the farms [in the Hula Valley], because the Syrians are shooting at them, I’d be against it.”

The next day Dayan was still holding to his objection in the face of opposition from the ministers and the prime minister, who wanted to attack Syria, and in the face of opposition from representatives of communities in the north who had come to present their positions to the ministers by special permission from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. But 24 hours later Dayan changed his mind and the Israel Defense Forces launched an attack on the Golan Heights.

In the minutes from that day, the words in which Dayan presented his reasons for the change of opinion were redacted, but Brig. Gen. (res.) Dani Asher, who deciphered aerial photographs during the war, and was an expert on the northern border, has his own theory.

In a lecture he gave recently at a conference sponsored by the Tel Hai Academic College, he said he believed Dayan changed his mind because of the aerial photos he and his friend Azariah Bergbest interpreted on Wednesday, June 8.

The deciphering of the photos revealed that in the eastern Golan Heights, in and around the Syrian city of Quneitra, which had been teeming with life during the period leading up to the Six-Day War, looked suddenly deserted. The vehicles that had been parked at the commando camp the day before were gone, as were the other army camps and the soldiers.

According to Asher, the interpreters were actually reporting what they did not see. Because those photographs included only the eastern area of the Golan, they could not know whether the Syrian forces were moving to the front with Israel, or whether this was the first sign of a withdrawal.

Asher recalls that Maj. Eli Weisbrot from the Syrian branch of Israeli intelligence was the one who interpreted the photos, saying that Syrian defenses on the Golan Heights had collapsed. From that moment, Asher said in his lecture, everything moved quickly and Dayan gave the order to attack directly to the head of Northern Command.”

Shlomo Mann, who studies the northern front in the Six-Day War, said: “One of the theories is that those aerial photographs, in which the camps at Quneitra look deserted and abandoned, led Dayan to authorize the assault on the Syrian Golan Heights.” However, Mann, who wrote the book “Tel Hata’alot” about the battle for the Syrian outpost of Tel Faher in the Golan Heights, and who writes a blog on the subject, said the decision seems to have been taken because that night, “A conversation was intercepted between Egypt’s President Nasser and Jordanian King Hussein in which Nasser is heard saying, ‘We lost this battle, may Allah help us in the next one, we are going for a cease-fire.’ And then, the moment Egypt announced the cease-fire, that meant the Egyptian front was done.”

According to Dayan, the IDF could only take the first line of Syrian positions facing the Hula Valley with the forces at the Northern Command’s disposal, and that wouldn’t help the communities in the valley that were under the Syrian guns. But the moment the Egyptians and the Jordanians agreed to a cease-fire, forces were available for the Syrian front.

According to Mann, Dayan was told he was missing a historic opportunity. “He was afraid he would be blamed. We conquered all of Sinai, we conquered the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the Syrians, the ones who all these years made life miserable for the inhabitants of the north, they come out without a scratch from this war? And there were the aerial photos.”

There were also Syrian ruses. They had signed agreements with Egypt and Jordan before the war, but Mann and others say they were in no hurry to go to war and were trying to keep a low profile. On the first day of the war they did attack Kibbutz Dan, but Mann says all the Syrians were trying to do was maintain the status quo of the past 19 years and make do with bombardments.

Moreover, Asher told Haaretz that the 11th Syrian Brigade, responsible for the northern Golan Heights, was not in the regular chain of command on the Golan and this apparently led to mishaps, such as the attack on the first day of the war. Mann said that despite preparations, on the night between June 5 and 6, the Syrian high command decided against a planned attack, which was to have included capture of the Galilee panhandle and a strike against the National Water Carrier. Instead, the Syrian army switched to a defense mode.

After the first, relatively minor Syrian attacks on the first day of the war, the Israel Air Force attacked Syrian forces on the Banias plateau, Tel Hamra and Tel Azaziyat. On the night between June 8 and 9, the Syrian government decided to toe the line with Egypt, which had signed a cease-fire. In the morning, the Israel Air Force attacked.

At first, Asher said, before the Syrians withdrew, there were battles, and that when the first reports came in about the difficulty of ascending the Golan Heights, there was major pressure. A senior intelligence officer, Prof. Hans Ludwig Shrtreim (Luntz), “in fact said we were to blame because we wrote a report, with added interpretation not our own. He called us and said, ‘Since when is a report written about something you don’t see?’ And he talked about a committee of inquiry and trial. He was afraid and so were we. Another day went by until we understood the battle for the Golan had been won,” Asher said.