people in Jerusalem
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Jerusalem is sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

CREDIT: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Six-Day War, Then & Now

Fifty years after the 1967 war that redrew the Middle East map, here’s what you need to know about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Soon after his election, President Trump declared himself ready to solve the Middle East puzzle that’s frustrated so many occupants of the White House.  

“I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. 

To Trump’s supporters, it may not seem such a far-fetched ambition; after all, the real estate mogul wrote the best-selling book Trump: The Art of the Deal. But every American president who’s tried to forge a lasting peace has run up against sharply competing claims by Israel and the Palestinians. Many of those claims stem from a war that erupted 50 years ago this June. As its name makes clear, the Six-Day War lasted less than a week. But the consequences—Israel’s occupation of Arab lands, the Palestinian clamor for statehood, and the destabilization of much of the Middle East—still resonate today.

Here’s what you need to know to understand the conflict—and the challenges Trump will face if he does get involved. 

1. Why have Israelis and Arabs been fighting all these years?

It’s really a fight over land. Jews trace their Biblical roots there; Palestinians, who’ve lived there for many centuries, say it now belongs to them. 

At the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, Jews had been vulnerable exiles without a country of their own since they were expelled from their ancient homeland by the Romans in the first and second centuries a.d. (A small community of Jews, however, remained in the area continuously since ancient times.) At the end of the 19th century, as Jews became the victims of violent pogroms across Russia, Jews known as Zionists began arguing that their people needed a state of their own. After the end of World War II (1939-45), when 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the idea gained wider support. 

The problem was that over the previous 2,000 years, their homeland hadn’t remained empty. In the early 20th century, when large numbers of Jews began moving to the area then known as Palestine, tensions erupted with Palestinians and other Arabs who lived nearby. 

Complicating matters, during World War I (1914-18), Britain made separate and conflicting promises for statehood to both Jews and Arabs.

With claims for the land still unresolved, the United Nations in 1947 voted to partition Palestine. Jews accepted the plan and the following year founded Israel. But Palestinians, who considered the deal unfair, rejected it. In 1948, Israel’s Arab neighbors attacked. Israel survived, and even gained some territory. Palestinians, on the other hand, remained stateless, with 700,000 people displaced. That set the stage for an even bigger showdown two decades later, in 1967.   

Israeli solders; Palestinian in rubble of home
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Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 9, 1967 (left); later that month, a Palestinian digs out of his family’s wrecked home in the West Bank.

CREDIT: AFP/Getty Images (Israeli soldiers); AP Photo (destroyed home)

2. What was the Six-Day War, and what were the consequences? 

The stated goal of Arab nations in the 1967 war was to destroy Israel, but it backfired: By the end of the conflict, which lasted less than a week, Israel had more than doubled the territory under its control.  

Tensions escalated in May 1967, when Egypt took actions that Israel considered hostile. Egypt expelled United Nations peacekeepers, mobilized forces in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel’s border, and blockaded the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s economic lifeline to the Red Sea (see maps)

Israel feared an invasion and staged a preemptive strike on June 5. Flying low to avoid radar, 200 Israeli jets wiped out virtually the entire Egyptian air force within hours, and soldiers conquered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.* Syria dispatched tanks and jets, but again Israel’s superior air power gave it the upper hand and it gained control of the strategic Golan Heights. Jordan entered the fray, losing its territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River. 

Israel also captured eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, including the Old City, which has sites that are holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians.** When they reached the Western Wall—a relic of the Second Temple, Judaism’s most sacred site—Israeli soldiers shed tears of joy. But with those new territories came a whole population of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Today, 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, where Israel continues to build settlements. 

“We are stuck with a very deep hangover from 1967 that’s never been fully healed,” says Anthony Wanis-St. John of American University in Washington, D.C.

*Israel later withdrew from both territories, returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and ceding control of Gaza to Palestinians.

**Most Palestinians are Muslim, but a minority are Christian.

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CREDIT: Jim McMahon

3. What is the two-state solution, and why hasn’t it happened?

Most people think that the best chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is to create an independent Palestinian state—consisting of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—alongside Israel. But translating that concept into reality has proved extremely difficult.

One of the main sticking points has been the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as their future capital. Palestinians demand that Israel withdraw from the settlements and return to pre-1967 borders. But some Israelis argue that the settlements are necessary for security along its eastern border. At the other end of the country, Israel is also concerned about Hamas. The group, which controls Gaza and which the U.S. has classified as a terrorist organization, occasionally lobs rockets into central Israel.

‘There’s a lot of fear and distrust on both sides, and rightly so.’

Several U.S. presidents have tried and failed to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a permanent peace. In 2000, at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland, President Bill Clinton came close to clinching a deal that would have given the Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank. But Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader at the time, ultimately refused. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with prodding from President George W. Bush, agreed to turn over more than 90 percent of the West Bank, internationalize Jerusalem’s Old City, and swap Israeli land in exchange for the settlements. But Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas rejected the offer, saying it didn’t allow for a contiguous state. 

The two sides also can’t agree on the status of Jerusalem, nor whether Palestinians who were displaced after the 1948 and 1967 wars should be allowed to return to their homes. 

“There’s a lot of fear and distrust on both sides, and rightly so,” says Christopher Rose, a Middle East expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “From the Palestinian perspective, they’ve been living under Israeli military occupation for over 50 years; the Israelis are very security-conscious, because they’ve lived through a few waves of Palestinian terror campaigns [intifadas].”

4. Why is peace between Israel and the Palestinians important to the U.S.?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a major destabilizing force in the Middle East for decades, fostering an environment in which terrorism can flourish. Those tensions have radiated outward, with consequences for the rest of the world, including the U.S. 

Many of the terrorists bent on destroying the U.S.—from those who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to ISIS, which has targeted Americans and other Westerners—arose out of the chaos and anti-Western vitriol in the Middle East. 

The region’s tensions also threaten the flow of Middle Eastern oil, which is essential for American and European cars, homes, and factories, and global commerce.  

If the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians doesn’t get resolved, the resource-rich Middle East may never live up to its potential. 

“Strategically, the Middle East is a hugely important part of the world,” says Rose. “The Suez Canal is there, the Persian Gulf has always been a major trading hub . . . and stability is definitely a major factor.”

5. Can President Trump help achieve peace in the Middle East?

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President Trump (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February

CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press/Newscom

Trump campaigned as Israel’s greatest friend, trying to distinguish himself from President Barack Obama, who had a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a meeting with Netanyahu at the White House in February, Trump said that he was open to any ideas that would achieve peace, including alternatives to the two-state solution—a sharp departure from decades of American policy. 

“Our current president said, Let’s erase the whiteboard and start again,” says Wanis-St. John of American University. 

Trump has also said he’d consider moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel has declared its capital, though most of the world doesn’t recognize it as such. 

Rose says it’s too early to tell whether the president who wrote The Art of the Deal will be able to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Part of the issue here is that it has to be a deal that the parties on the ground can accept,” says Rose. “If Trump can use his business acumen to make that happen, great. But they’re the ones that have to live with it and abide by it. That’s the much more complicated part.”

Joseph Berger is a former Times reporter.

TIMELINE The Arab-Israeli Conflict

    • Jews in Tel Aviv celebrating partition plan.
    • 1947-49  Partition & War

      After the U.N. votes to partition British-controlled Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, Arab leaders reject the plan. Israel declares independence in 1948, and its Arab neighbors attack. Israel survives and enlarges its territory.

      Jews in Tel Aviv celebrate after the U.N. announces the partition plan.

    • 1967  Six-Day War

    • 1973  Yom Kippur War

      On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attack Israeli forces in Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israel repels both armies and a cease-fire is declared. Israel later withdraws from parts of Sinai and the Golan Heights.

    • 1979  Israel/Egypt Peace

       

      After U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokers peace between Egypt and Israel, Egypt becomes the first Arab nation to recognize Israel, and Israel withdraws from the rest of Sinai.

    • Intifada
    • 1987-93  First Intifada 

      Angered by Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians begin an uprising. It progresses from Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers to large-scale strikes, protests, and boycotts.

      Palestinians hurl rocks at Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank.

    • Oslo Accords
    • 1993-94  Oslo Accords  

      Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, brokered in Norway, Israel turns over parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians as a step toward statehood. Israel and Jordan sign a peace treaty in 1994.

      President Bill Clinton brokers a peace deal between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat (right).

    • 2000-05  Second Intifada

      After negotiations on a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal fail, a second uprising begins. Dozens of suicide bombings in Israel and an Israeli crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza kill more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians.

    • 2005-06  Israel Leaves Gaza

      Israel evacuates its settlements in Gaza and withdraws its troops. Today, President Mahmoud Abbas heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank while Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, controls Gaza.

    • Jerusalem
    • TODAY  Trump’s Goal

      President Trump hopes to broker a peace deal and says he’s open to alternatives to the two-state solution. One of the many sticking points is the status of Jerusalem (above).

      1. The Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam; 2. The Western Wall, Judaism’s most sacred site

CREDITS: Jim Pringle/AP photo (partition vote); Max Nash/AP Photo (intifada); Cynthia Johnson/Liaison/Getty Images (Oslo Accords); Michele Falzone/Getty images (Jerusalem)

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