A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May 1967: The Soviet Warning; Egypt Orders UNEF Out of Sinai

Part III of my posts on the origins of the ‘Aqaba campaign will appear soon, but along with the 100th anniversary of that campaign coincide with the 50th anniversary of an even more decisive moment in Middle Eastern history.

On May 13, 1967, Egyptian diplomats in the then Soviet Union communicated to Cairo stating that Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Semenov was warning Egypt (still officially known as the UAR), that the Soviets had detected a major Israeli buildup on the Syrian border, and that they expected Israel to launch a ground and air attack on Syria between May 17 and 21. While urging Egypt and Syria not to provoke Israel, there was one problem: there was no such buildup. Soon after the May 13 warning, Anwar Sadat (then Speaker of Parliament) visited Moscow with a Parliamentary delegation and received the same warning. Between May 15 and 19 Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko briefed all the Arab Ambassadors in Moscow with the same warning.

The question of what Moscow's motives were remains controversial, and I'll return to the question later. But what made the warning particularly incendiary was that it came at a particularly explosive moment.

And 50 years ago late on May 16, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sensitive to Syrian charges that he was "hiding" behind the United Nations Emergency Force in Sinai (UNEF), sent word to the UNEF Commander via the Egyptian Chief of Staff demanding that UNEF withdraw from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The UNEF Commander referred the issue to Secretary General U Thant. Even before Thant could respond, Egyptian forces began moving into Sinai.

As with many wars in history, the seeds of the 1967 War lay in the settlement of the previous war, the Suez Conflict. To facilitate the withdrawal of British, French, and Israeli forces from Sinai and Gaza, UNEF was created. Intended to deploy on both sides of the 1949 ceasefire line (roughly today's international border). Israel refused to have UN peacekeepers on their side of the border. As a result, UNEF deployed only on the Egyptian side, and when withdrawn in 1967, there was no force to separate the two sides.

While UNEF provided security on the Egyptian and Gaza fronts, Israel continued to engage on the Syrian and Jordanian fronts (Jordan was still in control of the West Bank). Each side engaged in provocation of the other. Israel periodically tested its rights in the small demilitarized zones on the Syrian border, sending armored but unarmed tractors into the zone, where they were frequently met with shelling from Syrian artillery on the Golan Heights.

The Soviets began accusing Israel of plotting an attack in the Fall of 1966. On November 8, 1966, Egypt and Syria signed a joint defense pact. Five days later, in response to a land mine attack that killed three Israeli soldiers, Israel staged a border raid against the West Bank town of al-Samu, demolishing many houses there. This in turn led to riots against King Hussein, who in turn taunted Nasser for sheltering behind his UNEF protectors. Disputes over the waters of the Yarmuk and Upper Jordan were also intensifying.

On April 7, 1967, Israel began to cultivate three plots of land in the southern Demilitarized Zone near Kibbutz Ha'on. Israel had mobilized ground troops and alerted its Air Force, expecting to provoke a response. When two tractors began plowing and the Syrians predictably responded with artillery fire, IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin was authorized to launch air strikes. The strike aircraft broke off their attack when Syrian MiGs came up to meet them and were replaced with Israeli fighters. As the day wore on the largest air dogfight since Suez ensued; at the end at least six MiGs had been shot down.

In the wake of the dogfight, both Syria and Jordan escalated their criticisms of Egypt; Nasser, the self-proclaimed prophet of Arab unity, was vulnerable on this issue.

Israeli PM Levi Eshkol issued a stern warning to Syria against further provocations.

May 15 marked Israel's 19th independence day under the Western calendar, and a military parade was scheduled in the western (Israeli) side of Jerusalem. Since no country recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, that itself elicited outrage in the Arab world, Israel sought to defuse the situation (slightly) by not parading tanks or other heavy equipment.

And it was at this exact point that the Soviet warning threw a lit match into the explosive situation, provoking Nasser to order the UNEF withdrawal.

We'll look more closely at Soviet motives in a post coming soon.

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