Six days that changed Israel forever

The most obvious and visible result of the post-1967 occupation is the mushrooming settlements

Yossi Mekelberg

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Childhood memories can be dangerously deceptive, however, I can vividly remember my mother, this week 48 years ago, standing in our tiny kitchen in a flood of tears. These were tears of joy in response to an announcement on the Israeli radio that “Har habayit beyadeinu,” “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” Israeli forces had just taken over the Old City of Jerusalem after some harsh battles. For her generation of Holocaust survivors this conquest represented a mixture of relief from an embedded fear of the horrors of war, along with an atavistic reaction to a place that carries with it an enormous symbolism. The tears of joy for an Israeli military victory on three fronts, turned into decades of sorrow - the sorrow of war, terrorism, bloodshed and an oppressive occupation with no peaceful end in sight. For a five-year-old boy the days leading up to the Six Day War were full of excitement and heroism. I was filling bags of sand, painting light bulbs in blue, and crisscrossing windows with sticky tape as part of the home front effort. The dangers of war and their ghastly impact on the lives of millions of people were beyond my comprehension. It took me the better part of growing up to understand, that this hailed military success would turn into Israel’s biggest single curse in its short history. It ushered in an era of misguided heroism and false perception of invincibility, marred by religious nationalism and even messianism. In the process, Israel would lose some of its core values of social justice that were part of the country’s ethos in the pre-1967 era, though even then not all of its citizens were able to equally benefit from these ideas.

Deep-rooted conflict

Numerology might hold little significance, however, this year marks 67 years since Israel declared its independence in 1948, and 48 years since Israel occupied large parts of Arab territory in 1967. Conveniently, many observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict divide the history of modern Israel into the period that preceded the Six Day War and the years thereafter. There is a degree of justification in this dichotomy, however, the causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict are rooted long before Israeli independence. For instance, the conflicting narratives about whether the Jewish people were returning to their ancient homeland, or the contrasting view that they were invaders to Arab land, were argued long before the Six Day War. In addition The Palestinian refugees’ tragedy dates back to 1948, though it was made worse during the 1967 war.

The most obvious and visible result of the post-1967 occupation is the mushrooming settlements. From the very modest beginnings of a few Jewish religious fanatics attempting to settle in Hebron back in 1968, today more than half a million settlers live in the West Bank

Yossi Mekelberg

Paradoxically, the military success within a space of six days which led to the acquisition of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, did not change Israeli’s sense of insecurity but added to it a perception of invincibility, and, one might even argue, arrogance. A combination of rapid geographical expansion through military superiority and the domination of a large proportion of the Palestinian population contributed to the feeling of infallibility, without eradicating a deep-seated perception of vulnerability and threat. This in return left the country and its leaders with no psychological capacity to be magnanimous in victory, and to appreciate the scars left on the defeated sides. The discourse in Israel did not reflect on the long term implications of hanging on to occupied territories, and denying other people their right to self-determination as well as their human and political rights.

Deep scars

Nearly five decades of occupation left deep scars on the Palestinian society. The loss of lives, the physical and psychological injuries, the lack of freedoms, the daily humiliation at the military checkpoints and the taking over of part of the land by Jewish settlements is all well documented. Nevertheless, controlling the lives of another nation has also eroded the Israeli society itself. It has cemented the perception in the minds of the occupiers that there are people who are inferior to them; a group of human beings to whom different laws and rules of behavior are applied. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the use of excessive force, which are illegal within Israel, are a common practice in the occupied territories. Applying two different legal systems, one ostensibly democratic, on one side of the border, while subjecting millions of Palestinians to the mercy of military courts on the other side of the border, casts doubts on Israel’s claim to belong to the democratic family.

In the post 1967 era, the Israeli economy discovered the supposed benefits (although this is not what I’d call it) of cheap and available labor, depriving many Palestinians of economic and social rights in the process. This created an economic regime which embraces the exploitation of the most vulnerable, with one of the worst wealth distributions in the developed world. This economic approach stuck with the Israeli economy long after the Palestinian work force in Israel shrunk dramatically following two Palestinian Intifadas. Tragically the majority of Israeli citizens knowingly live in complete denial and deliberate ignorance of what is done in their names on the other side of the Green Line. An Israeli society that became desensitized towards the Palestinians, became also insensitive to injustices within its own society, allowing racism, poverty and violence to spread. Undeniably, there is a direct correlation to the Israeli behavior in the occupied territories and the deterioration of values within the Israeli society.

Mushrooming settlements

The most obvious and visible result of the post-1967 occupation is the mushrooming settlements. From the very modest beginnings of a few Jewish religious fanatics attempting to settle in Hebron back in 1968, today more than half a million settlers live in the West Bank. This population increasingly grabs more Palestinian land, triggering deep nationalistic-religious-economic frictions with the Palestinian population. Discrimination agianst Arabs also took place inside Israel in the years preceding the Six Day War, but the settlements of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in the West Bank created a clear separation between a population which is privileged and secure, in comparison to the Palestinians which are exposed to the whims of the occupying force and deprived of resources. Much of the settlement project is irreversible, making a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians harder than ever. Even if an agreement is reached, it is bound to be different from what it would have been had the settlements never existed. In other words, the June 4, 1967 border is still the benchmark for any future peace agreement based on a two-state solution. However, even in the best case scenario it would require major adjustments as the border between Israel and an independent Palestinian state.

David Ben Gurion, a founding father and the first Israeli prime minister, warned immediately after the end of the Six Day War, against the euphoria that engulfed the Israelis. At that point he was no longer in a position of power and was not known for his dovish opinions. Yet, he forewarned the Israelis that this famous military victory would become destructive for the Jewish state unless it returned the land captured during the war. Not many took notice of these words of wisdom. Consequently, despite continued prosperity and development, the curse of the military victory of 1967 is haunting the country, eroding it from within, and also strains relations with its closest allies around the world to a breaking point.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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