Discussions of the origins of the conflict are generally resolved with the standard IsraelForum retort – they started it.
I’ve presented a more realistic version of events leading up to the Six Day War, but here I’ll look a bit more closely at the region that was pivotal in 1967 – the Israeli-Syrian border.
This is a fairly typical statement from the IsraelForum fanatics on the topic,
Arab attacks from Jordan and Syria had been ongoing pre 1967 - and Israel responded. But, in terms of excalation[sic] of the conflict, it is undisputed that at the start of what is called the 6-day war, Syria and Jordan fired first, declaring war.
Some people refer to the on-going shelling by Syria into northern Israel as an example of the belligerency of Israels' neighbours leading up to Israels' so-called pre-emptive war. As usual it’s not as simple or as convenient as Israel’s apologists make out.
Let’s start with the situation on the ground as it was in the aftermath of the 1948-49 war. After the war, Israel found itself with 5791 sq. km more land (40% more) than was allocated under the UN Partition Plan. Israel occupied extensive areas of territory that were meant to be an Arab state and all of the land allocated to the Jewish state. Well, almost all. In the new state’s north, there were 3 small patches of land occupied by Syria that under Partition, were allocated to Israel. They comprised 0.4% (66.5 sq. km) of the land that the UN had allocated it. And this 0.4% was to be the source of trouble out of all proportion to its size.
The Syrian-Israeli Armistice agreement of 1949 was meant to freeze the position of troops as at April 13, 1949, the date of the last cease-fire. Israel signed the armistice on condition that those 66.5 sq. km’s captured by Syria were included in the Israeli-Syrian demilitarized zone, over which neither were to have legal sovereignty pending a final settlement. Israel rejected similar proposals for land it had captured from the proposed Arab state, to be incorporated into a DMZ.
The DMZ was to be supervised by the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) and the Israeli-Syrian Mixed Armistice Committee (MAC).
The next year, the first problems emerged. Israel began draining a lake adjacent to the DMZ, which involved moving onto Arab-owned land inside the DMZ. The farmers shot at the Israeli workers inside the DMZ. Israeli border police and armed settlers fired back, with tensions escalating over following months.
Syria filed a complaint with the MAC, which ordered Israel to cease the work. Israel refused and in March 1951 declared that the land in the DMZ belonged to Israel, and expelled around 2000 Arab residents of the three villages in the DMZ, then bulldozed their homes. Armed Syrian irregular forces continued to fire on the Israels working in the DMZ. Israel responded by bombing nearby villages in Syria.
This lead to a new UNSC Resolution (93) requesting Israel to cease its activities in the DMZ. Resolution 93 also called for the return of the 2000 expelled villagers. Israel refused to comply, but eventually a few hundred returned. Israel then effectively withdrew from the MAC.
In 1953 Israel once again commenced irrigation works in the DMZ to divert water from the Jordan River. The UNSC once again passed a resolution (UNSC Res.100) requesting that Israel cease the work. Eventually, Israel complied after the US suspended economic assistance over the works.
In December 1954, a small squad of Israeli soldiers entered Syrian territory to tap Syrian military communications. They were captured and held by Syria, resulting in an Israeli raid aimed at capturing Syrian soldiers for an exchange. Five Syrian soldiers were captured, but no prisoner exchange took place. Clashes continued. On December 11, 1955 an Israeli force crossed into Syria attacking 2 Syrian positions, killing 56 Syrian troops. The day before Israel claimed that a ‘police’ boat had come under fire from the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias. Israel used armoured landing craft to patrol the waters of the lake, sending the boats close to the Syrian shore-line to assert Israel’s claim to the entire lake.
A UNTSO officer described it as,
a premeditated raid of intimidation, motivated by Israel’s desire to test the strength of the Egyptian-Syrian mutual defence pact [signed in Oct. 1955] ……to bait the Arab states into some overt act of aggression that would offer then the opportunity to overrun additional territory without censure.
The UNSTO chief-of-staff commented on the Syrian policy towards Israel in the DMZ,
….policy as regards Israel was to avoid incidents and situations which might involve Syria in active hostilities, for he [Syrian CoS] realized his army’s weakness in the face of the Israelis’ superior armament, training and organization
The UNSC again passed a resolution (UNSC Res. 111) noting Israels “flagrant violation” of the armistice. Not long after Israel invaded Egypt.
There was again trouble in the southern DMZ in 1957. Israeli border police and settlers began working on an irrigation project in one of the Syrian villages in the DMZ. Israeli border police prevented Arab farmers from working in their land. UN pressure forced Israel to relent, but in the next year they recommenced similar work in the same area, with the result that villagers opened fire on the Israeli border police, whose presence was another violation of the armistice. Efforts by the villagers to work their own fields led to exchanges of gun fire with the border police. Israeli fire came in from nearby settlements and Syrian gunners began shelling from the Golan Heights. Then in January 1960, Israel conducted a major offensive, capturing the village and blowing up the homes, with Syrian artillery again responding, forcing an Israeli withdrawal.
Shooting on the lake occurred again in March 1962, between Israeli parol boats and Syrian positions on the shore. Israeli troops entered Syrian territory attacking villages and military positions. The UNSC passed another resolution (UNSC Res.171) condemning Israels violation of Resolution 111.
In December, Israeli tractors began ploughing Arab-owned land in the DMZ. Syrian positions fired at the tractors and shelled the nearby settlement where they came from.
In 1964 an Israeli irrigation project began diverting water from the Jordan River. No agreement had been made on water-sharing so both Syria and Lebanon began their own projects to draw water from streams feeding into the Jordan. Israel responded with artillery shelling of the facilities and work areas. In 1966 the Israeli air-force bombed areas 12 kms inside Syria to prevent the diversion projects completion.
Further significant incidents involving disputed work inside the DMZs continued in ’64 and ’66, the latter turning into a major battle involving aircraft and artillery . Attempts were made through the MAC to resolve the issues, but Israel claimed sovereignty over the entire DMZ, and Syria called for the expelled villagers to be allowed to return to their homes.
January 1967 saw Arab farmers again fired on by Israeli border police as they attempted to work their fields in the southern DMZ. Syria responded by shelling the Israeli settlements in the DMZ. On April 3, the Israeli Govt announced that it would cultivate the entire DMZ, as it was part of Israel. On the 7th Israeli armoured tractors moved into the area and began ploughing. They were fired on by Syrian troops, the fighting escalated with Syrian artillery firing into the area and then with Israeli aircraft bombing Syrian villages and military positions in the Golan Heights. The Syrian air-force sent six planes, but all where shot-down inside Syria.
And so began the series of events that would lead to the Six Day War. Egypt was heavily criticised for not coming to the aid of Syria. The USSR informed Egypt that Israel was planning a full-scale attack on Syria in mid-May. Nasser moved, and the rest is history. Israel launched its “defensive war” on June 5, claiming imminent attack from Egypt. Israel wiped out the Egyptian and Syrian air forces, invaded Jordan and then when that was finished, 3 days later on June 8, invaded Syria capturing the Golan Heights (but not before attacking and trying to sink the USS Liberty on June 7).
That it was simply “Syrian shelling” from the Golan that lead to conflict between Israel and Syria is far too simple. The head of UNSTO gave a fair summary of the situation on the Israel-Syria border between 1949-1967,
The Israelis claimed sovereignty over the territory covered by the DMZ……They then proceeded, as opportunity offered, to encroach on the specific restrictions, and so eventually to free themselves, on various pretexts, from all of them…………The Israelis in fact exercised almost complete control over the major portion of the DMZ through their frontier police in the area. This was directly contrary to Article V of the General armistice Agreement...
A view that was confirmed by famous Israeli General and later Defence Minister Moshe Dayan,
I know how at least 80% of all these incidents there [border with Syria] started. In my opinion, more than 80%, but lets speak about the 80%. It would go like this: we would send in a tractor to plow…..in the de-miltarised area, and we would know ahead of time that the Syrians would start shooting. If they did not start shooting, we would inform the tractor to progress farther, until the Syrians in the end, would get nervous and would shoot. And then we would use guns, and later even the airforce, and that is how it went….We thought that we could change the lines of the ceasefire accords by military actions that were less than war. That is, to seize some territory and hold it until the enemy despairs and gives it to us.