6-day war begets 50 years of strife for Israel

DAN PERRY
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File - In this June 6, 1967 file photo, Israeli troops are seen at Government House in the old city of Jerusalem after they had taken over the Jordan held part of the city following heavy fighting. It may well be remembered as a pyrrhic victory for Israel: a six-day war in which it vanquished several Arab armies, only to be saddled with a 50-year fight with the Palestinians for the Holy Land. A half century after the watershed 1967 Mideast war, many in Israel think the lighting victory planted the seeds of doom. (AP Photo/Israel Army, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — It may well be remembered as a pyrrhic victory for Israel: in six days it stunned the world by vanquishing several Arab armies, only to be saddled with a deeply corrosive 50-year fight with the Palestinians for the Holy Land.

For several weeks in 1967, the underdog Israelis genuinely feared their young Jewish state would be wiped out. They mobilized reserves to face Egyptian troops arrayed at the border and barricaded the streets with sacks of sand.

Then it was over in a shocking flash. A pre-emptive airstrike on June 5 destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground, and the Israeli army also pushed back Jordan and Syria. Israel was crowned a regional power.

"The Six Day War was one of the greatest victories in the history of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a nationalist, recently said.

But there is another view: many in Israel are coming to the conclusion that the "Six Day War" may have planted the seeds of doom. That's because Israel seized the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, now ruling over a Palestinian population roughly equal in number to that of the Jews. It has since faced charges that its treatment of the Palestinians is a form of apartheid, and has gone from being a darling of the West in the 1960s to one of the world's most ostracized nations.

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This is part of a series of stories marking the 50 years since Israel took over the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967.

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The mainstream Palestinian leadership still says it wants a two-state solution, and polls suggest most Palestinians agree. But they are playing hardball on terms, maybe because they feel time is on their side. A default one-state outcome would be a half-Arab country and not a Jewish state, which the Palestinians may be able to live with more comfortably than the Israelis.

How to resolve Israel's occupation over millions of Palestinians, and whether peace is possible, are the defining question of Israeli politics today.

There have been failed peace talks with the Palestinians and rounds of violence. There has been military oppression of an occupied population — unjust for the Palestinians, embarrassing for an Israel that thinks of itself as a democracy, and after a half-century not looking very temporary.

Israeli proponents of partition used to speak the language of peace: the Palestinians deserve their own state, and their oppression is a bad thing. Now they tend to talk demographics: Israel must get rid of the territories to stay Jewish and democratic.

Jews continue to settle the occupied lands in a way that makes a future partition difficult, perhaps impossible.

There are about 8 million citizens of Israel — roughly 6 million Jews and 2 million Arabs.

But the West Bank, which surrounds Jerusalem from the north, east and south, has more than 2 million Palestinians in disconnected islands of autonomy set up in the 1990s and controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Once envisioned as a state in waiting, the authority now seems like more of a municipal government. Israel remains in charge of overall security, including travel within the territory and all entry and exit.

Even though much richer Israel has not annexed the West Bank — which in theory would force it to offer citizenship to Palestinians there — some 400,000 Jewish settlers now live in dozens of communities strewn about the territory, some near the Israeli frontier, others deep inside.

Then there is the Gaza Strip, home to 2 million more Palestinians. Israel pulled out troops and settlers in 2005 but the strip was swiftly seized from the Palestinian Authority by the Hamas militant group, implacably opposed to Israel's existence.

Israel continues to blockade the area, controlling the skies, sea access and most land crossings while supplying Gaza with limited electricity and other lifelines. Although the occupation is gone on the ground, it remains in effect in the eyes of Gazans and much of the world.

With Gaza as part of the equation, Jews and Arabs have a roughly equal share of the Holy Land population. With Gaza removed, the Jews are hanging on to a small majority. The place remains Jewish-majority only through the non-annexation of the West Bank.

But Israel is building towns in this territory it has not annexed. The Jews there can vote in Israeli elections but Palestinians cannot. The arrangement has stretched the idea of Israel as a democracy to the breaking point.

On several occasions, Israeli governments have offered peace deals that would give the Palestinians a state in the vast majority of the lands captured in 1967. But it never went quite far enough to entice the Palestinian leadership to dive in.

A key obstacle was Jerusalem, where no one can quite explain how the countries will live without a border, or how a border could possibly snake around the various Jewish and Arab enclaves in a reasonable and enforceable way. The Palestinians have also yet to formally drop their demand for a right of descendants of refugees to return to ancestral places of residence in Israel.

Some Palestinians are starting to openly speak of a one-state outcome in which they would demand equal voting rights. Israel would surely resist such a version of annexation, but what would be the alternative? Even many Israelis have increasingly started to liken the dual systems in the West Bank to apartheid.

Some in Israel want to just pull out without a deal. Meanwhile, the government continues to build in the settlements, opposed by most academics, professionals and the security establishment. Increasingly they project despair and many of them will not be celebrating the anniversary of the "Six Day War."

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Follow Dan Perry on Twitter at @perry_dan

This is part of a series of stories marking the 50 years since Israel took over the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967.

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