Six Day War--Watershed Event of Middle East Conflict

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From both perspectives, 1967 became the defining moment in the Middle East Conflict

Last month on Jerusalem Day and in line with the Hebrew calendar, Israelis remembered the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War and their capture of East Jerusalem, including the prized Old City. On the Roman calendar, Thursday, June 7th marks the same event. While there is little acknowledgment of that date in Israel, the Palestinians mark their considerable loss, known as al-Naksa ("the setback"), one day earlier.

From both perspectives, 1967 became the defining moment in the more than century old Middle East conflict. More so even than the 1947-49 Palestinian exodus, referred to recently by Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, as "ethnic cleansing" and referred to by the Palestinians more opaquely as al-Nakba ("the catastrophe"). In that period, between 750,000 and 800,000 Palestinians either fearfully fled their homes (temporarily they thought) or were driven out by Israeli forces. Since then precious few have been able to return.

But what happened over just a few days in June 1967 created a problematic new reality for Israel and the remaining Palestinians that only extended the seething and suffering.

While the Israelis' unforeseen capture of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights gave them 30% more territory, it created infinitely more potential for conflict with its additional one million Arab residents.

Journalist and historian Tom Segev (1967, Israel, The War And The Year That Transformed the Middle East) played "what if?" this week in the New York Times, when he speculated about a different outcome to the war. What if Israel had turned back from taking East Jerusalem and the West Bank? After all, recently released documents show that Israeli strategic thinking six months before the war, precluded such capture. If that course had been followed on June 6th, four decades of Israeli oppression and Palestinian terrorism might never have happened.

As a journalist, Segev claims the right to speculate. But as a historian, he knows he cannot.

The fact is that once Jordan had attacked West Jerusalem, the stage was set for retaliation. Once retaliation brought Israeli forces within reach of East Jerusalem and the Old City, deep-seated identity played its role. Segev notes, "Acting under the influence of the age-old dream of return to Zion as well as Israel's spectacular victory over Egypt's forces a few hours previously, the ministers decided with their hearts, not their heads, to take East Jerusalem." And the rest is history.

But what of the future? Pappe is pessimistic, Segev slightly less so.

It seems to this observer that only when moral responsibility for actions taken by both sides and collective identities and ideologies are opened up to sensible change can there be realistic hope for an end to the conflict in the Middle East

Dr. David Hulme's Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem was published last September by Palgrave-Macmillan. His blog, Causes of Conflict, is at http://blog.vision.org/

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Edwin Stepp
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