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What we choose to ignore about the 1967 War

The sins of the 1967 War are still with us. Not only in the continuing crime of the occupation and the new victims it takes, but also in the unanswered questions and the still unaccounted for victims.

By James J. Zogby

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (second from left) and Min. Menachem Begin (second from right) watch an army parade in occupied Sinai, a number of days after the Six Day War, June 13, 1967. (Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO)

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (second from left) and Min. Menachem Begin (second from right) watch an army parade in occupied Sinai, a number of days after the Six Day War, June 13, 1967. (Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO)

In June of 1967, I was in the midst of my final weeks in college when the war broke out. At the time, I knew little about the Middle East, since I was more engaged in the anti-war and civil rights movements. And so as I watched the UN Security Council debates that preceded and followed the war, I saw what was unfolding through the prism of those struggles with which I was more familiar—the one in opposition to the war in Vietnam and the other for civil rights and justice in America. As a result, I was skeptical both about the U.S. and Israel’s justifications for the war and the reporting and political commentary that followed. The story, as it was being told, was too simple and, therefore, it just didn’t ring true. I knew there had to be more.

The war started and ended quickly and in the U.S., the media and political establishment were quick to celebrate the Israeli victory. It was, we were told, “clean and quick” and “miraculous.”

There were two haunting photos from that period that were intended to capture the essence of the war. One featured handsome and hopeful young Israeli soldiers standing next to Jerusalem’s Western Wall. It was meant to convey their joyous victory and their conquest of Jerusalem. The other was a more ominous picture of shoes in the Sinai’s desert sand. We were told that they had been left by fleeing Egyptian soldiers, clearly intending to portray Israel’s enemies as vanquished cowards.

I knew enough about the “fog of war” to know that we didn’t know the whole story, but it wasn’t until years later that the bloody horrors that accompanied these pictures became known establishing that this war had neither been “clean” or had it been “miraculous.”

50 Years Too Many in-text banner

In September of 1995, The New York Times ran a story under the headline “Egypt Says Israelis Killed POW’s in the ’67 War.” The story reported on the discovery of mass graves in the Sinai desert containing the bodies of Egyptian soldiers, together with eye witness accounts of the killings. One former Egyptian soldier reported, “I saw a line of prisoners, civilian and military, and they [the Israelis] opened fire at them all at once. When they we’re dead, they told us to bury them.”

While this crime was news to readers of the Times, it had been known in Israel for years, since Israeli officers had, previously admitted to killing unarmed prisoners. Nevertheless, the story died because neither the US nor the Egyptian government wanted to pursue it out of fear that it would disrupt the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” For their part, the Israelis being masters at brushing off bad news, as if it didn’t happen, knew that it would go away. And it did.

The story of the Western Wall was no less troubling. Here, too, what happened to the Palestinian inhabitants of the Mughrabi neighborhood that was adjacent to the Wall has long been known and long been ignored.

Jerusalem's Mughrabi Quarter, 1917. (New York Times photo archive)

Jerusalem’s Mughrabi Quarter, 1917. (New York Times photo archive)

Just last week, an Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published an account of the way Israel quickly moved to consolidate its hold over Jerusalem by demolishing the entire neighborhood of 135 Palestinian homes that bordered the Wall, forcibly evicting its residents.

The story’s intent was to romanticize how 15 Israeli contractors came together quickly to plan the demolition of the Arab homes in order to create a plaza where Jewish worshipers could come to pray at the Wall. Their goal, as they described it, was to “purify” the area. They called it a “great and glorious mission.” In reality it was neither great nor glorious.

One of these contractors related, with chilling calm, how they went into the neighborhood with a megaphone and “asked the people [the Palestinian inhabitants] to gather” and then ushered them out as the bulldozers began their work. Some “residents refused to leave and left only when the bulldozers rammed” into their homes. One old woman was buried alive in the rubble of her home. The article describes a picture, from that time, showing a demolished home “with furniture, curtains, and a vase with flowers inside.” It was “ethnic cleansing” of innocent Palestinians to “purify” an area in order to provide Israelis a place to pray.

Israeli bulldozers clear what remained of the Mughrabi Quarter, which was destroyed by the Israeli army following the capture of Jerusalem's Old City. (Olevy/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Israeli bulldozers clear what remained of the Mughrabi Quarter, which was destroyed by the Israeli army following the capture of Jerusalem’s Old City. (Olevy/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even with these accounts, there is still so much we don’t know and so many more stories that need to be told.

Looking at the official records of the deaths of the 1967 War, we are told that 10,000 Egyptians died while another 5,000 were listed “missing.” Why was there no accounting for this large number? What other secrets still reside beneath the Sinai’s sands? And it wasn’t only the families from the Mughrabi neighborhood who were “gloriously” removed to “purify the area.” A total of 300,000 new Palestinian refugees were created by that war—losing their homes and belongings, retaining only their memories.

Celebrating victories while ignoring the victims, and our responsibilities to them, only insures that no lessons will be learned, thereby only serving to lay the predicate for the next war.

As it is, the sins of the ’67 War are still with us. Not only in the continuing crime of the occupation and the new victims it takes daily, but also in the unanswered questions and the still unaccounted for victims of the horrors that occurred 50 years ago.

If we don’t commit ourselves to finding the “missing,” providing the displaced with the justice they deserve, and calling to account those who committed these crimes, we will stand as failures in the eyes of history and our fellow man.

James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Tom

      James, i have to be honest with you that assuming that (“neither the US nor the Egyptian government wanted to pursue it out of fear that it would disrupt the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”) shows that either you dont undersatnd nothing about the Israely Arab relationship, or you are just pretanding to. The Israeli Egyptian peace looks strong on paper, but the hate between the to nations cannot be iggnored.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ellyn Hartis

      I was in Israel vacationing with my family a week after the 6 Day war. The freeing of the Western wall was part of a war effort. To blame the victor to be responsible for a war is rediculous. War sucks, it is messy, people lose their homes, are injured & die.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        “The freeing of the Western wall was part of a war effort.”

        Rubbish, utter rubbish: it was a war crime (amongst many others) in which people’s homes, chattels and goods along with an ancient mosque were destroyed, and in a few cases, with the residents in them. It doesn’t “suck”, and it wasn’t “messy”. It was obscene and illegal: an arrogant show of strength by the victors who cared nothing for the human rights of the conquered indigenous people, not even for their right to life.

        It’s your excuses that suck.

        Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      What Zogby chooses to ignore is that Nasser and all his Arab allies said they were going to get rid of Israel once and for all and slaughter the population of Israel. If you read his piece, the war simply “just happened”. Typical “progressive” obfuscation.

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        You are really scraping the bottom of the barrel when you quote this piece of garbage-propaganda. I am aware of Matti Peled’s comment. He was a fanatic, just like his son Miko who has become a virulent anti-Israel propagandist. Israeli generals have made many idiotic statements and even decisions over the years. There were lots of “intelligent” people, like Nobel Prize Winner Joliot-Curie who loved Stalin and believed all his lies, or another Nobel Prize Winner Phillippe Lenard who became a Nazi. Arab propaganda, led by Nasser but also including our “peace partner” King Hussein who said their goal was to kill everyone. They didn’t hide it, it was broadcast on their TV and radio. We just simply have to be grateful that they didn’t properly utilize their numerical advantages in planes, tanks and me against us. Enough with these lies.

        The “progressives” simply demonize Israel and so they have to claim that EVERYTHING it does is criminal. Can you maybe be honest and say it is the Balfour Declaration that is the original crime and that the Arabs have every right, in the “progressives” eyes, to wipe out Israel and Nasser was right to make the threats he did.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Lewis from Afula

      The main problem of the 6 day war was allowing the Jordanians to magically transform themselves into “fakestinyans”. That was a major sin. We must correct this sin by expelling the Jordanians home.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Well, the Soviet occupiers too tried to colonize the East Germans’ minds as well as their land but in the end it didn’t work out so well for the Soviets.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          The Jordanians transmuted into fakestinyaans overnight. My solution will be to send the Jordanians home to the East Bank. Let them be Jordanians / Fakestinyans / South Syrians or whatever they choose in their own country, NOT OURS !

          Reply to Comment
    5. Bruce Gould

      There’s the Exodus version of Israeli history (Paul Newman vs. the semi-human Arabs) and then there’s the actual history. For the actual history of 1967 try Ilan Pappe’s “Ten Myths About Israel”, chapter 6, “The June 1967 War Was a War of No Choice”, and Baruch Kimmerling’s “Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against The Palestinians”.

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        As a “progressive” you are not showing much gratitude to Sharon. He did more than anyone to strengthen HIZBULLAH and HAMAS, and he is the one who enabled them to take over Lebanon and Gaza, where they are working assiduously in order to confront Israel and “liberate” the Palestinians. You should thank him for what he did.

        Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Oh my God, you listen to the criminal liar, Pappe?
        That dude is a Saudi-paid psychopath and malignant crook. His tales represent half-truths, misquotes and historical distortions. No wonder your posts make no sense !

        Reply to Comment