Israeli reconnaissance forces from the “Shaked” unit in Sinai during the war.
Israeli paratroopers flush out Jordanian soldiers from trenches during the Battle of Ammunition Hill.
Most Egyptian and Israeli generals agree that had Amer decided to fight until the last bullet, the war would have ended differently. Protracted land warfare would have developed in the desert. The Israelis would have conquered part of Sinai but not the whole of it. Then a UN-sanctioned ceasefire would have been imposed. The Israelis might have been more cautious in the West Bank, biting off chunks of territory in the environs of Jerusalem. With fierce fighting still going on in Sinai, Israel would not have dared to start a campaign to take the Golan Heights.
But none of these things happened, because in the afternoon of June 6 Amer gave Fawzi a categorical order to retreat from Sinai within one night. Troops were to grab their personal weapons and flee. What increased the confusion and chaos still further was that the order was not reported in an orderly manner. Operations branch distorted what Amer said and reported that a retreat was to take place within three nights. Then it was amended to two. Different units heard different versions of the order at different times. For this reason some units fell apart while others continued to fight. On top of it all, Amer contacted his favorite officers and encouraged them to hop on a vehicle and rush back to Cairo. A young Egyptian officer described accurately what happened to the troops on the third day of the war as a result of Amer’s order: “Everyone lost their heads . . . It was a massacre, a disaster. Israel never would have achieved a quarter of its victory if not for the confusion and chaos.”
On the third day of the war, June 7, Israeli brigades conducted a frantic race against time to reach the passes before Egyptian units got there. The convoys of Israeli and Egyptian troops sped down the roads shoulder-to-shoulder and sometimes it was hard to tell which was which. Whenever possible, Israeli aircraft strafed and bombed Egyptian convoys trying to escape. The IAF had a special routine to ensure the lethality of its attacks. Aircraft would make one sortie over the convoy to assess its size and speed. In the second sortie, Israeli planes would make sure that they were bombing the head of the column to stop the movement of the whole convoy. Then they would drop napalm bombs on the vehicles. Egyptian tanks and lorries caught fire and black smoke filled the sky.
Finally, in the late afternoon, an Israeli cavalry battalion was able to reach the Mitla Pass and assume position on the slopes. As night was falling, the soldiers decided to set a lorry on fire to supply some light. Suddenly they realized that a long Egyptian column – three Egyptian divisions, totaling more than 30,000 men – was moving toward them and the Canal, trying to escape. The Israelis charged their cannon and did not stop firing until dawn broke. Another major annihilation battle took place the next day when 6th Armored Division tried to escape westwards from the south. Sharon, leading the forces of 38th Division, laid an ambush at the Nakhal oasis. The forces opened fire on the retreating Egyptians, blowing up 70 tanks and 400 lorries and killing about 1,000 Egyptians. The stench of burning bodies filled the air. At 2 p.m. Sharon could proudly report to Gavish: “We have finished off an enemy brigade . . . The enemy was totally annihilated. It’s an unusual scene. I would urge you to come and see.”
The desire to wipe out Nasser’s army was not confined to Dayan or Sharon. It percolated down to the lower echelons. A week before the war, Colonel Shmuel Gorodish, commander of 7th Armored Brigade, gave a speech before his soldiers in which he explained that “Nasser wants to annihilate us. We should therefore annihilate him . . . Do not waste cannon shells on [Egyptian] infantry! Run over them wherever they are. Kill, kill the enemy. We will not repeat the mistakes of [the 1956] Sinai [campaign], when we did not run over them.” This was something that Yael, Dayan’s daughter, who was embedded with Sharon’s division as a journalist and witnessed the battle of Abu-Ageila, also recognized:
now we were to destroy enemy forces wherever they were – another carrier, another tank, another company. An unpleasant task, perhaps, but a preventive one. Eleven years ago we were in this area and the enemy was defeated rather than fully destroyed. This time we had to ensure maximal destruction.
As one Israeli reserve corporal wrote in his diary on the third day of the war: “There’s nothing to worry. The sky is clear. The Egyptians are running toward the [Suez] canal. [We] don’t let them. [We] want to annihilate them.” Another wrote to his girlfriend: “We have turned the Sinai peninsula into a charnel house, into one big cemetery. People without weapons, who raise their hands [to surrender], are shot despite the orders . . . I saw so many instances of murder that I can no longer cry.” There were 100,000 Egyptian soldiers and officers in Sinai when the IDF began its campaign; by the end of it, 10,000 of them had been killed. One in ten Egyptians who had crossed the Suez Canal in mid-May 1967 lay dead at the war’s end.
Israel’s central command was at a disadvantage in the beginning of the campaign, as most of the IDF’s brigades were in the south. Thanks to the rapid disintegration of the Egyptian army, the southern command could let central command use some of its forces, especially Motta Gur’s paratroopers brigade. The Israelis thus reached parity with the Jordanians, with both sides commanding 56,000 troops.
What played into the hands of the Israelis was King Hussein’s decision to appoint a foreign officer, Egyptian General Abd al-Munim Riad, as commander of the Jordanian army. On the opening morning of the war, Eshkol wrote a letter to Hussein urging him to sit out the fight. For Hussein, it was too late: he was no longer in command of his troops. As the war started in the south, the Jordanian army launched its weapons from all its positions in Jerusalem. Its Long Tom gunners opened fire on Tel Aviv (although most of the shells landed in the sea). In the afternoon Jordanian troops entered the UN compound in Jerusalem at Jabel Mukaber. It was a reckless move that played right into the hands of the hawks in Israel. Dayan used Riad’s orders to convince Eshkol to authorize two attacks that would kick off the campaign to conquer the West Bank: one in Jenin, and the other in the environs of Jerusalem.
What made matters worse conflict that Riad conducted the war according to Egyptian interests. As the old guard in the Jordanian army knew, their best chance was to concentrate troops around Jerusalem and try to encircle the Jewish part of the town in order to hold it to ransom. Instead, Riad ordered Jordanian troops to deploy in the southern areas of the West Bank in expectation of an Egyptian attack on the Negev. Jordanian troops were supposed to complete a pincer movement that would cut off the southern Negev. But the Egyptian attack on the Negev never happened. Instead, this move threw the north and center of the West Bank open to Israeli attacks in Jenin and Latron. One of the veteran Bedouin officers threw down his kafiyah (a headscarf) in despair after seeing how clueless Riad was in directing the war.
By the second day of the conflict, the IDF was able to encircle Jerusalem and invade deeper into the West Bank. Inside the city, secured in their trenches and positions, Jordanian soldiers fought bravely, giving as much as they got. The Israelis were at a disadvantage here, as they dared not call in the IAF for fear of destroying holy sites. However, supplies of ammunition could not get through to the Jordanian forces and little by little the Israelis wore them down. By midday on June 6, the IDF had conquered the whole of Jerusalem except the Old City. Elsewhere, the Jordanians fared even worse, losing all key tank battles in which they engaged. When they tried to transfer their troops from the south of the West Bank to the Jerusalem area, the IAF strafed and bombed them. As with the Egyptians, the Jordanians panicked too soon. In the morning of the second day of fighting, Riad warned Hussein that “If we don’t decide within the next 24 hours, you can kiss your army and all of Jordan good-bye!” The claim was exaggerated. Hussein had enough troops to delay Israeli advances until the UN imposed a ceasefire. But, just like Amer, King Hussein was nothing without his army. Its annihilation would spell the downfall of his monarchy.
At this point, Hussein decided upon a desperate course of action: he tried to offer a ceasefire. This could have been an opportunity for Israel to avoid having to conquer the West Bank, with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in it. At that time, Dayan was insisting that Israel had to conquer the West Bank in order to bring about the fall of Jerusalem. In retrospect, this was not the case: Israel could have destroyed the annoying Long Tom cannon, whose shells reached the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Zahala, in which most senior officers resided, by bombing it from the air, and conquered Jerusalem without taking over the whole of the West Bank. Yet, Narkiss and other senior commanders had been dreaming of and planning for that goal for such a long time. Although in the first hours of the war central command did not believe that the West Bank could be taken in this round of hostilities, the plans were in place and the circumstances were propitious: an accommodating minister of defense; a hawkish cabinet now dominated by Dayan, Begin, and Allon; and a king careless enough to give Israel a perfect pretext. Israel effectively turned down Hussein’s proposal for a ceasefire. Dayan was most resolute in his opposition, telling Rabin: “First we finish the work he [Hussein] imposed on us, then we’ll send him an appropriate reply.”
By noon the next day, Motta Gur’s paratroopers were able to enter the Old City and reach the Western Wall. Lior called central command asking whether Eshkol would be able to come and make a special announcement. He was told that it would be unsafe as there were still Jordanian snipers lurking around. At about the same time, Dayan, accompanied by Narkiss and Rabin, entered Jerusalem through the Lions’ Gate and headed toward the Western Wall. Dayan, with his distinctive talent for public relations, had made sure that a gaggle of reporters and photographers accompanied his arrival at the Old City.
As in 1956, Dayan’s ability to control his troops was limited: Gaza was taken on the first day of the war despite his instructions not to waste men on that mission, and over the next two days IDF forces advanced in Sinai up to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal despite Dayan’s explicit order not to head there. But his ability to control the PR machine was unmatched. An iconic photo was taken documenting the three conquistadors – Dayan, Narkiss, and Rabin – marching side by side through the gate. Narkiss and Rabin were in uniform, of course. But so was Dayan. Since May 23, a uniform and helmet had accompanied him everywhere, even after he had become minister of defense. The picture of the three generals entering the old city symbolized where power lay in those days. It was the generals’ war, and they had won it. At the Western Wall Dayan declared: “we have reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part it again.” The paratroopers cried, ultra-Orthodox Jews danced. It was all so moving. Except for Eshkol, who sat frowning in his office. He visited the Western Wall the next day and made an anodyne speech. This event drew far less attention.
For four years, Syria had been the heart of the problem. It was unstable, and it spread its instability across the region. Its proclamations of its intentions to divert the waters of the Jordan River and the help it provided to Fatah units played into the hands of the hawks in Israel and embarrassed the doves in the Arab world. It would be wrong to suggest that the Syrians were sitting idly by, but they had not pulled out all the stops to help their Arab brothers. Syria tried to launch an offensive from the Golan Heights on the morning of the second day of the war. But its efforts in that field proved pathetic.
The Syrian attack, planned by Soviet advisers, was code-named Operation “Nasser” (victory). There was a considerable disparity between the operation’s promising name and its actual implementation. As in Egypt, the doctrine of the Syrian army was defensive. Syrian troops were trained to defend the Golan Heights. Although there had been planning for offensive operations, a drill to acquaint officers and soldiers with how to mount an attack never took place. As in Egypt, the Soviets took care to supply the Syrian army with defensive weapons and helped them build massive fortifications. Syria’s high command held little esteem for the professional abilities of its officers and did not believe Syria could emerge victorious should it launch an offensive against Israel.
A diversionary attack on the kibbutzim in the Galilee on June 6 was repulsed by groups of Israeli reserve soldiers, pensioners, and high-school students. Meanwhile, three Syrian brigades prepared for a major offensive that would begin with crossing the Jordan River and end in the Israeli city of Safad, about 20 kilometers west of the Israeli–Syrian border. Incredibly, it was at that moment that commanders of the brigades found out that their tanks were too wide to pass over the bridges. Other units that were to participate stayed in their camps and refused to leave. Accurate hits by Israeli artillery and one sortie by Israeli bombers was enough to convince Syria’s high command to order a withdrawal. Fifty-one Syrians were killed during Operation “Nasser.” After this ignominious failure, Syrian military headquarters did not try their luck again, other than to bomb nearby Jewish settlements the next morning.
David “Dado” Elazar, the commander of the northern front, continuously lobbied for permission to start activating the “Makevet” plan. Even before the beginning of the war, Dado had met with Allon and promised him that not only would he be able to break through the Syrians’ fortified positions on the Golan Heights, but he was certain he would be able to reach Damascus. Allon tried to cool the enthusiasm of his young protégé and told him that aiming for the Syrian capital was too much. On June 7, the third day of the war, Dado had secured permission to start a limited offensive but cloudy skies, which precluded air support, and the fact that two brigades that had been promised by general headquarters had failed to materialize, made him hesitate. He decided to postpone the attack until the next day – but then it transpired that Moshe Dayan was opposed. The minister of defense supported the war of annihilation in the south and the conquests in the east, but he could live with letting Syria emerge from the war unscathed. He had little sympathy for the settlers in the north: they never supported Dayan or Rafi anyway.
Angry, Dado took a helicopter to Tel Aviv to plead his case with the prime minister. Talking to Eshkol, it quickly became clear to Dado that he was preaching to the converted. The matter, however, would have to go before cabinet. For some reason, the only one manning the phones in Eshkol’s office that day was his wife, Miriam; perhaps the other secretaries needed a rest. Dado chatted with her about his predicament on his way out. Miriam tried to encourage him: “Look, I have a birthday soon and I want the Banias [River, which runs through the Heights] as a birthday present.” Dado smiled. “Miriam, I’ll do everything to make that happen but you should work for it too.”
The cabinet convened that night to discuss whether to authorize Dado’s request. Eshkol resolved that he too could be as hawkish as Dayan, and embraced the cause of the kibbutzim. To embarrass Dayan, Eshkol permitted representatives of the kibbutzim to enter the cabinet meeting and lobby for the attack on the Golan – something not done before or since. Years later, Dayan claimed that when those settlers entered the room, he could see the lust for land on their faces. Most of the ministers were for the Golan campaign. It simply seemed improbable to them that the Syrians, who did so much to destabilize the Middle East, should emerge from this war unpunished. But Dayan fought like a lion. He warned the ministers that the Soviet Union would react harshly to an attack on Syria. A more reasonable course of action would therefore be to move the settlers 10 or even 20 kilometers from the border. Dayan’s prestige was such that even though he was in the minority, the cabinet decided not to venture into the Golan Heights – a decision that effectively ended the war, as the fighting on all the other fronts had already died down.