Israel's Victory in Six-Day War Perplexes Arab Intellectuals to This Day

Especially in Egypt, historians and others are still wondering whether 'the Arab personality' was responsible for the 1967 disaster, or whether such theories are nonsense

An Israeli soldier guarding Egyptian prisoners at El Arish during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Shabtai Tal / GPO

A young man in white was seen walking through a West Bank valley during the Six-Day War, and he didn’t look like he belonged there. A local resident noticed that he was a Jordanian soldier who, to disguise his identity, had swapped his uniform for a “suit” made of flour sacks. These weren’t just any flour sacks — they had been part of U.S. aid to Palestinian refugees. The front of the suit still bore the phrase “A gift from the American people to the Palestinian people.”

This is just one of the many stories compiled by Lama Rabah in the intriguing article “How the Palestinians remember Arab soldiers during the Naksa” — the Arab defeat in 1967. The article was published on June 5 in the Palestinian magazine Itijah (Direction) as part of a special supplement, an extraordinary project by eight publications from Arab countries.

In strokes too broad, one could describe these publications as “oppositionist,” not in the sense of direct political opposition but in their criticism of society, critical art, reexamination of conventions and historical criticism.

There are dozens of books about the Arabs’ political and military soul-searching after 1967 by Arab historians, military experts and intellectuals. The narrative of defeat has also received popular interpretations as in the verse of Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Nigm, feature films like “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Youssef Chahine and reference works like Asam Daraj’s “The Officers of June Speak.” That work, published in 2000, includes testimonies from Egyptian soldiers about the orders they received and the  battlefield conditions.

But the new special supplement broadens the analysis by analyzing the analyses. It revisits the narratives that have become fixed on both the right and left and lets new voices be heard, particular those of ordinary people or simple soldiers offering a new perspective on the war experience.

In one article, Shekhar Jarar of Amman takes issue with the “we’re all to blame” approach on the war that has become entrenched in Arab society, particularly in Egypt. He addresses two trends: The secular approach that blames the Arab character and lack of culture, and the religious approach that blames the abandonment of religion, apostasy and the adoption of Western culture.

Both these interpretations, notes Jarar, are very convenient for Arab regimes because both absolve the leaders of responsibility for what happened – the unpreparedness, the lies and the lack of intelligence.

As an example, Jarar cites Egyptian historian Louis Awad, who at a conference of Arab intellectuals tried to explain why Egypt was defeated in 1967. “During the 1967 war, the soldiers and officers fled and gave up their weapons because they were the children of the [lowest levels of society], while in the 1948 war the fighters were the children of people with status, including the children of pashas and other high officials, who were ashamed  to surrender and return defeated and thus lose face in front of their families and other citizens.”

This sociopsychological explanation infuriates Jarar, who also aims his barbs at the flood of pseudo-intellectual writings that, he says, adopted the “we’re all to blame” approach and dissected “the Arab personality,” “the Arab way of thinking” and “the Egyptian man.”

The war receives different treatment in a series of articles by Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy in the online journal Mada-Masr (which is also considered anti-establishment and was shut down a few times by the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi). Though five decades have gone by, the war’s main events remain shrouded in mystery “by the will of the ruling powers in all Arab countries, especially in Egypt,” Fahmy told the site.

Did Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser not receive accurate, timely reports because his officers, especially his right-hand man Abdel Hakim Amer, bickered with him before the war, or simply because Egyptian intelligence didn’t perceive Israel’s intentions? Fahmy asks. From “The Officers of June Speak” he quotes the testimony of pilot Hisham Hassan, who went over the target bank with the commander of the Egyptian forces at El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula. “The aerial photographs of these targets were blurry, and when I asked when the pictures had been taken, the commander said ‘during the ’48 war.’”

Fahmy recently published the testimony of Egyptian soldiers who were stationed on the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir before the war and weren’t even aware that it had broken out. These statements could help in the debate in Egypt’s parliament on the ownership of these islands, which have become a national controversy following the deal to give them to the Saudis.

It’s interesting that after 50 years the defeat of 1967 is receiving such merciless surgical treatment by intellectuals while the official media remains silent, apparently waiting for the anniversary of the October 1973 war so it can claim victory.