Opinion |

1967 and the Arab Myth of Liberating Palestine

It was a time of unbridled euphoria, with Nasser as the Arab messiah. But the 1967 war, which turns 55 this week, was never meant to liberate Palestine

Seraj Assi
Seraj Assi
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Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had became the Arab messiah, prepared to risk a new war with Israel and sacrifice Egyptian blood and treasure for the sake of Arab glory
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had became the Arab messiah, prepared to risk a new war with Israel and sacrifice Egyptian blood and treasure for the sake of Arab gloryCredit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Seraj Assi
Seraj Assi

The 1967 war, which happened 55 years ago this week, is enshrined in Arab memory as a Herculean battle to liberate Palestine. But in reality, the war was meant to unite Arabs rather than liberate Palestine.

The pre-1967 Arab world was bitterly divided. The United Arab Republic (UAR), the historic political unity between Egypt and Syria, had collapsed. The Arab Cold War was brewing, pitting Nasserists and Baathists in Egypt and Syria against Hashemite royalists in Jordan and Iraq. Fearing a Hashemite plot, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser spared no effort to mobilize Jordanians against their king, deploying his most potent weapon, the transnational radio station, Voice of the Arabs.

Meanwhile Nasser got himself embroiled in a wasteful intervention on the side of the republicans in Yemen – a doomed venture dubbed “Nasser’s Vietnam” – with Jordan and Saudi Arabia on the side of the royalists. In a bid to challenge Egypt’s leadership, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen lobbied to move the headquarters of the Arab League away from Cairo.

It was a simmering Cold War, and to put an end to it, an external battle was badly needed. The shared enemy was sitting right there, in the bleeding heart of the Arab homeland.

On the eve of 1967, Arab nationalism was still dominant and alive. Nasser was still able to bolster his pan-Arab stance by championing a common cause with Palestine. He had already made the Palestinian cause his rallying cry, capturing the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs.

A veteran of the 1948 war, Nasser touted the liberation of Palestine as the path to Arab unity. He preached that Arab nationalism was inseparable from Palestinian national aspirations. In May 1964, he moved to formally share his leadership position over Palestine by initiating the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Egyptian leader was prepared to risk a new war with Israel and sacrifice Egyptian blood and treasure for the sake of Arab glory.

It was all rhetoric, of course. Nasser never intended to go to war with Israel; he was coaxed into it against his better judgment.

Initially, Nasser had a more modest goal in mind than liberating Palestine or gambling a war with Israel for the sake of Arab glory. But he assumed that a powerful display of Arab unity and solidarity would force Israel into making concessions to the Arabs at the price of avoiding direct conflict. Nasser was also held captive by his worshiping Arab masses, who expected him to flex his muscles against Israel.

Nasser’s inaction on the Palestinian front was not lost on his Arab enemies. In the months leading up to June 1967, the Hashemites and their allies cast Nasser as a coward who was hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force in Sinai. Nasser responded by portraying King Hussein as a “Hashemite harlot” and “the dwarf from Amman.” Taunted by his Arab rivals for his timid response to growing Israeli threats to Syria in May 1967, Nasser needed a showdown with Israel to pad his pan-Arab reputation. He had to act on his own rhetoric.

Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser gives a press conference in Cairo, 1960Credit: AFP

On May 18, Nasser dismissed the UN forces stationed in Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. War now loomed as inevitable. In a rare show of solidarity, neighboring Arab states, fearing the wrath of their own people, rallied behind Nasser and placed their own military forces on alert.

On May 30, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Cairo to sign a mutual defense pact with Egypt, placing Jordanian forces under Egyptian command. Shortly thereafter, Iraq joined the alliance. There was a great mobilization. Arab nationalists beat the drum of what they hailed as the “Decisive Battle” and the “Sacred March.” The Arab masses braced for a swift victory.

It was a time of unbridled euphoria. Nasser became the Arab messiah. Millions tuned in to his fiery speeches. The Voice of the Arabs, broadcast from Cairo to the Arab world, aired news of the impending victory. My father told me of a famous Egyptian broadcaster named Ahmad Said who, in a moment of sheer euphoria and unchecked enthusiasm, enjoined the fish in the Mediterranean Sea to “get hungry” because the Israelis would soon be thrown in for their dinner.

Then came that fateful week in June 1967, when a coalition of Arab armies, led by Egypt, was crushed by Israel in the span of six days. Alarmed by the mobilization, Israel had launched a surprise preemptive attack on Egyptian airfields. The Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground, and Egyptian troops were vanquished before reaching Palestine. Egyptian troops in Sinai beat a hasty and humiliating retreat, leaving behind thousands of war prisoners. Images of Egyptian soldiers fleeing barefoot in the Sinai desert shocked the Arab world.

Israeli victory is declared in Six-Day War, 1967.Credit: Avraham Vered / Bamahane

What began as a "holy march" to liberate Palestine culminated in the loss of all of Palestine. Not only did Israel occupy what remained of historic Palestine – the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem – it now seized the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Nasser, the invincible leader of the Arab nation and the paragon of Arab dreams and hopes, was hopelessly defeated. The ghosts of 1948 returned to haunt him with a tragic feel of déjà vu.

Nasser died of a heart attack three years later; he was only 52. His funeral in Cairo drew over five million mourners. As one Arab journalist bitterly lamented: “My generation was orphaned when Nasser died.”

The Voice of the Arabs, meanwhile, was silenced for good.

In hindsight, the Arab defeat was at once shocking and inevitable. As the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani would later lament in his eulogistic “Footnotes in the Naksa’s Notebook”: “Our enemies did not cross our borders / They crept through our weaknesses like ants.” Nasser received a rare salute from his old enemy, David Ben-Gurion, who said of him in the aftermath of defeat: “I have great respect for Nasser. He is a patriot who wants to do something for Egypt.”

A Palestinian family makes its way across the bombed-out Allenby Bridge over the Jordan river at Jericho, June 18, 1967 to the east bank of the riverCredit: AP

The 1967 defeat, or the Naksa (Setback), marked the death of Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, and with it, the collapse of Arab nationalism. From that day forward Arab politics was transformed beyond redemption. Arab nationalist states, Egypt and Syria, mocked as “regimes of defeat,” turned inward.

Palestinians, disenchanted, went it alone. Palestinian leaders took matters into their hands and broke free from the control of Arab states, before declaring the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The Palestinian resistance movement burst into the world stage fully armed.

The transition from Arab nationalism to Palestinian nationalism was swift and sweeping. Nationalist parties with pan-Arabist leanings quickly disintegrated. Even Nasser’s most ardent Palestinian followers jumped ship. The Nasserist Arab Nationalists Movement, founded by George Habash, became the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Habash disavowed Nasserism as a “bourgeois movement that had been destined to fail.” Palestinian patriotism thrived. A symbolic victory at the Battle of Karameh, in March 1968, convinced Palestinians that perhaps they were better off without Arab nationalism.

George Habash speaking in Beirut, 1979.Credit: AP

Egypt the revolution was dead, and Egypt the state born. In September 1971, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, changed Egypt’s official name from the United Arab Republic to the Arab Republic of Egypt. It was the end of an era.

Socialist Egypt began drifting West, and Sadat was not coy about it. To shatter any delusion about his intentions, he would make a historic visit to Jerusalem and speak before the Knesset, much to the dismay of his fellow Arabs. Sadat’s Egypt then went its way and signed a unilateral peace treaty with Israel at Camp David, culminating three decades of Arab patronage over Palestine, and leaving Palestinians to their destiny.

The treaty officially neutralized Egypt and hastened its isolation from Arab politics. Fifteen years later, the Palestinians signed their own treaty with Israel, and shortly after, Jordan followed suit.

In the wake of defeat, the Arabs turned on each other. Shortly after Nasser’s death in July 1970, a civil war erupted between Palestinians and Jordanians in Jordan, culminating in Black September. Three thousand Palestinians were killed, with thousands of others expelled from Jordan. Five years later, a civil war erupted in Lebanon, where Assad’s Syria, “the beating heart of Arabism,” conspired with Christian Maronites to slaughter Palestinians. In the words of Assad’s own biographer, “The lion of Arabism was slaughtering Arabism’s sacred cow.”

Once the dust of the last Arab-Israeli war in 1973 had settled, the saga of Arab nationalism came full circle: Arab nationalism was born and buried in Palestine.

Seraj Assi holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies from Georgetown University, and is the author of “The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimagining Nomadism in Modern Palestine” (Routledge, 2018)

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