Tel Aviv Diary: Where Did the Six Day War Leave Us?

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An Israeli soldier studies an oil refinery at Port Suez set alight by Israeli shelling during the Six-Day War. He views it from the other side of the Suez Canal. Central Press/Getty

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.

Most of Tel Aviv's citizens are too young to remember an Israel before the Six Day War, an Israel that felt fragile and unsure of itself.

Most of the residents of Tel Aviv cannot imagine a country where in the days leading up to the War, graves were being dug in public parks and the images of a second Holocaust were on many minds.

Most Israelis only know secondhand from their parents or their history books that the war was decided in the first hour when the Israeli Air Force destroyed the air forces of Israel's opponents.

But, all Israelis have lived with the war's consequences, both good and bad.
 

For Israel, most of the immediate results of the war were positive (with the exception, of course, of the loss of 796 lives); Israel achieved a level of security it could not have previously imagined. No longer was the country twelve miles wide at its narrowest point.

Suddenly, the Israeli army was recognized as the strongest in the Middle East and Israel was able to play the role of an important Western ally on the world stage.

However, with the pluses came two very significant negatives.

First, Israel found itself in control of almost a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Second, the war and its victory ignited a messianic element in the Orthodox Zionist community who believed it was their religious duty to settle the newly conquered West Bank.
Before the Six Day War, Israel's “Palestinian” problem consisted of refugees from the 1948 war (which were, to be truthful, largely considered Arab refugees. The fact that that the Arab states refused to resettle them was viewed as a significant problem, but it was an “Arab” problem.)

With Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza, many of those refugees came under Israeli control — over half the population Gaza were refugees.

With the Arabs' military loss came a realization among Palestinian Arabs that the Arab armies were not likely to eliminate Israel and restore them to their lost homes.  

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The Palestinian Liberation Organization had been founded in 1964 with the goal of “liberating” Palestine and the group's significance grew exponentially after the Six Day War. When its attempt at armed resistance in the territories captured by Israel in 1967 failed, it invented modern terrorism, hijacking aircraft, bombing aircraft and attacking Olympic games.
Prior to 1967 the Palestinian identity was unformed and amorphous. That identity strengthened over time, and as the occupation has lasted it has spread to Arab Israelis, many of whom today define themselves as Palestinian Israelis – or Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Today there are 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and another 1.6 million in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew twelve years ago.

Israel does control most of the border crossings to the Strip, thus maintaining some level of responsibility for the area.

Over the years Israel has spent billions and billions of dollars in the West Bank, money that could have been spent building hospitals, schools and roads in Israel and two generations of Israeli soldiers spent a substantial portion of their military service being policemen instead of training to be better soldiers.

During the course of the 50 years of occupation, 700,000 Palestinians have seen the inside of Israeli jails, primarily for security-related offenses including terrorism. Yet regardless of the reasons for the arrests, this has no doubt contributed to the ongoing hostility towards Israel.

One of the tragedies of the past 50 years is that Israel never planned for the future. No one expected the occupation to last 50 years. Little consistent effort was expended to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinians. The only group planning for the long-term were the settler movement, resulting from the emergence of a new form of religious Zionism.
In the years prior to the Six Day War, the Religious Zionist political party Mafdal was one of the most pacifist in the government. From a review of the transcripts of government deliberations, it is clear that Mafdal was the most reluctant to go to war. After the war, the party was slowly transformed into one that subscribed to the notion of a religious significance to the victory, specifically that the land captured during the war must remain part of Israel.

Mafdal's offspring, Gush Emunim led the settlement movement and established almost all of the settlements in the heart of the West Bank (or, Judea and Samaria, as it is commonly called.)

The Religious Zionists (as opposed to those called Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox) represent approximately 10 percent of the population, but the strength of their beliefs combined with Israel's coalition governing system has allowed them to drive the national agenda, committing the government to spend billions on their settlements (many  of which are now veritable cities.)

One of the biggest secrets in Israel is how much money is spent in the West Bank.

It was the belief that holding on to all of the “Land of Israel” is a value of the highest order that led to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by an assassin who feared that Rabin’s policies would lead to an Israeli withdrawal.

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Today, there is a genuine concern that turning over a significant part of the West Bank to the Palestinians now could lead to civil war.
When the Six Day War ended, the Israeli government indicated that in exchange for peace it was willing to return all of the land conquered with the exception of East Jerusalem.

Twice in the last 20 years, once by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the second time by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Israeli government presented plans that would give 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians in return for permanent peace.

Both times the Palestinians continued their unbroken history of rejection that began with the Peel Commission in 1936.

The Oslo Accords of 1995 established the Palestinian Authority and ceded to the control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza. One of the key provisions of the agreement was that all disputes would be decided by negotiations and not violence.

However in 2000, after the Palestinians rejected the agreements presented to them by Barack at Camp David, the Palestinian Authority launched the Second Intifadah, a period marked by suicide bombings that left over 1,000 Israeli dead on buses and in cafés  throughout Israel.
In addition, Israel pulled out of Lebanon with the hope of achieving peace with Lebanon but has instead been forced to deal with Hezbollah, which has built a arsenal of 100,000 missiles which they used in the summer of 2006 against Israel.

Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in the hope that this would bring about peace with the residents of the Strip. Instead, Hamas came to power and rejected all previous agreements with Israel.

Hamas soon started firing missiles into  Israel that led to three mini-wars. Despite all of this ugly history, a plurality of Israelis still support the idea of a two-state solution.  
Unfortunately, 67 percent of Israelis also believe that the Palestinian are not ready to make the concession required to achieve that two-state solution. Public opinion polls of the Palestinians are not as reliable and almost never include the residents of Gaza, but what these have shown mirrored the Israeli results.

In-depth discussion with Palestinians unearth two very conflicting views. One, that the Palestinians are finally ready to make the painful concessions (no return of the refugees and an  end to conflict) that they were unwilling to make until now.

Others believe, 50 years after Israel defeated the combined army armies surrounding it, that Israel is a transitory crusader state, and like the crusaders, will disappear eventually.
So, this is where we stand 50 years later. A plurality of Israelis favor an agreement that would end the occupation and result in a two-state solution, while the overwhelming majority do not believe that to be an option at present.

A very vocal and powerful minority of Israelis oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and any withdrawal from “Biblical Israel.” The occupation that was suppose to be temporary has become nearly permanent.

In recent years some have brought up the idea of a one-state solution, but most Israelis realize that implementation of a one-state solution means the end of the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish State.
42 year ago I was a young Israeli soldiers tasked with guarding the Tomb of Joseph in the Arab city of Nablus or Shechem. Young Palestinian kids threw a few small rocks at me and my small contingent of fellow soldiers. I could not have imagined that this many years later little would have changed.
The conflict that exists between Israelis and Palestinians has been going on for over 100 years and did not start with the Six Day War. Two people claim the same land.  

The essence of a solution has been clear from the beginning — a partition of the land.

However, a significant part of the Palestinian population and growing part of the Israeli population have always rejected that solution. Until they do — peace will remain as elusive as ever.
Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.