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Six days that entrenched imperialism

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Issue 2557
Israeli tanks rolling into position in 1967
Israeli tanks rolling into position in 1967 (Pic: Israeli government press office)

It’s 50 years since Israel invaded the remaining Palestinian land it hadn’t already robbed in 1948.

The Six Day War in 1967 began Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

That’s 50 years that Palestinians living there have been under hellish military occupation.

It’s also 50 years since Israel proved its worth to the US—a relationship that’s shaped war and politics in the Middle East ever since.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the rise of national liberation and anti-colonial movements threatened to weaken the West’s grip on the Middle East.

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The anti-colonial movements had gradually forced Britain out of the Middle East. The US gladly took Britain’s place, but it faced the same problems.

Two of the biggest threats came from Egypt and Syria.

In 1956 Egypt’s nationalist government, led by president Gamal Abdel Nasser, took control of the Suez Canal—denying Britain control of a key trading route.

The following invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel ended with Britain humiliated.

The US had demanded that Britain pull out, but it was seriously worried by Nasser.

In 1966 a new nationalist Baath party government in Syria not only nationalised its oil industry, but linked itself to the US’s imperialist rival Russia.

Egypt, Syria and other growing anti-colonial movements began to look more like a threat to US control.

Israel wanted to show the US that it could be the answer, and set about provoking confrontations and clashes along its borders with Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The Zionist ideology used to justify Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians demanded that the whole of Palestine should belong to Israel.

After Israel was founded in 1948, Israeli governments snatched land bit by bit through invasions and incursions into Palestinian villages in the “demilitarised zones” along its borders.


Israel stepped up these incursions after the Suez war. In 1966 Egypt and Syria, followed shortly by Jordan and Iraq, agreed to defend one another if attacked.

In April 1967 Israel sent a tractor into the demilitarised zone along the Syrian border as part of a plan to cultivate the area. Syria launched a mortar attack. Israel responded with tanks, artillery and airstrikes.

Shortly afterwards Israeli general Yitzhak Rabin declared, “The moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government.”

Reports reached Nasser that Israeli forces were building up on the Syrian border.

Nasser sent soldiers into the Egyptian Sinai desert which borders Israel. Shortly afterwards he closed the Straits of Tiran, which are to the east of Egypt and south of Israel, to Israeli ships.

Israel obliterated Egypt’s air force with a surprise airstrike on 5 June. It followed the airstrike up by invading Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Within six days Israel occupied the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

It was a huge victory for Israel—it finally controlled the remaining Palestinian land it had always wanted. Israel had also won the close relationship with the US that it had been after for almost 20 years.


Israel has always relied on Western imperialism to survive. Even before Israel was founded, Zionist settlers in Palestine looked to colonial powers for support. That support eventually came from Britain.

As part of the great carve-up of the Middle East during the First World War, British diplomats gave themselves the “mandate” to govern Palestine.

The leaders of the Zionist movement offered to help Britain put down any revolt by the Palestinian people.

In return, Britain had to promise the settlers it would help them set up their own state—the state of Israel—on Palestinian land.

British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised just that with a declaration in November 1917.

Ironically it was the Zionist movement that eventually forced Britain out of Palestine in 1948. Armed Zionist gangs, fed up with waiting for their own state, launched attacks on British soldiers.

So the new Israeli state needed a new imperialist sponsor. Most of Israel’s funding came through donations and grants from Western sponsors.

Huge amounts were spent on its military. But Israel’s weak economy meant it needed a much more stable relationship with the West.

Yet the US was wary of tying itself too closely to Israel. The US ruling class wanted to build links with several states in the Middle East against Russia, and Israel was just one among many.

And most ordinary people in Arab countries supported the Palestinians.

The US worried that appearing too friendly to Israel would scupper its deals with Arab leaders.

So Israel had to make itself indispensable to the US. It had to show it could play a unique role in defending US imperialism that no other state could.

In 1951, after the Iranian government nationalised its oil industry, Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained the role Israel’s leaders hoped they could play.

“Strengthening Israel helps Western powers maintain stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog,” it wrote.

“There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain.


“But if the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.”

Israel—armed to the teeth by the West—would always go to war for the US when the US would rather keep its hands clean. The rise of Arab nationalism gave Israel the perfect opportunity to show how this could be done.

The US was already increasing its funding to Israel in the run up to the Six Day War.

It was worried by the growing threat from Egypt and Syria. Yet it was too bogged down in Vietnam to fight another war.

But it was Israel’s thumping victory that really changed the game. After the Six Day war the US began to ply Israel with the most sophisticated weaponry.

US funding for Israel skyrocketed. During the 1960s, US military loans to Israel averaged £17 million a year. Between 1970 and 1974, that rose to £345 million.

Israel still gets staggering amounts of cash from the US today. One of the final things US president Barak Obama’s government did in 2016 was promise Israel’s military a record £29.5 billion over the next ten years.

That’s the largest amount of military funding the US has ever given any state.

Israel’s new role as imperialism’s “watchdog” changed the shape of politics in the Middle East. Israel heavily defeated Syria and Egypt again in another war in 1973.

A few years later in 1978 Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat signed a peace deal with Israel—the Camp David Accords—that transformed Egypt into an ally of US imperialism. After Israel, Egypt is now the second largest receiver of US military cash.

But the Six Day War also threw up fresh problems for the US and Israel.

Today the US’s strategy in the Middle East involves trying to co-opt Palestinian politicians with false promises of a Palestinian state based on the borders before the Six Day War.

But just as it did for Britain, Israel’s insistence on owning the entire of Palestine has put it at odds with its main imperialist backer.

Israel’s aim of owning all of Palestine—through settlement building and insisting on military control over any Palestinian state—has exposed the “two state solution” as a sham.

Now the Palestinian government is finding it harder to contain resistance to Israel’s occupation.

Donald Trump’s recent visits to Israel and the West Bank are part of the latest attempt to patch it up.

And the Arab revolutions of 2010 and 2011 showed that the US’s grip on the Middle East could still be shaken. The Egyptian revolution in 2011 threatened to end Egypt’s support of the Israeli siege on Gaza.

Even last year there were still mass protests against the Egyptian government’s attempt to hand two Red Sea islands to US ally Saudi Arabia.

These were the same Islands Egypt had used to block Israeli shipping in 1967.

Recent mass protests across the West Bank and Gaza have shown the Palestinian people are prepared to resist the might of Israel.

Their victory depends on whether that resistance can spread across the Middle East.

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