Home inFocus Six Days of War and Israel’s Current Security Challenges

Six Days of War and Israel’s Current Security Challenges

Ehud Eilam Spring 2017
A soldier with the IDF's Givati Brigade. (Photo: IDF)

After the 1948-1949 War of Independence, Israel created a security policy based on several principles: 

  • Threats to the existence of the state;
  • Lack of strategic balance between Israel and the Arab states in population, size of territory and natural resources;
  • The need to depend on state power;
  • Lack of strategic depth – mostly in the center of the country.
  • After Israel’s establishment in 1948 its main national security challenge was high-intensity war. If/when war occurred, Israel had to win or face annihilation. The constraints of security policy meant the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had to win quickly and decisively. In mid-May 1967, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops entered the Sinai Peninsula and an alliance against Israel was formed between Jordan and Egypt. Syria and Egypt already had an agreement to assist each other in case of war. Both sides now prepared for conflict.

On June 5, the Israeli air force (IAF) struck first and neutralized the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian air forces. At almost the same time, Israeli ground units attacked in Sinai. After a few days of combat, Egypt’s armed forces collapsed and its soldiers fled to the Suez Canal. The IDF pursued them and took control of Sinai.

In the West Bank, after Jordan opened fire, the IDF launched an offensive on June 5th and took all the West Bank while quickly defeating the Jordanian military. On June 8th, following ongoing Syrian shelling from the Golan Heights, the IDF attacked and seized that area in two days.

After the war, Arab states refused to talk with Israel, let alone to accept its right to exist, despite Israel’s swift and decisive victory. Perhaps there had not been a clear and present danger to Israel before June 4, 1967 because the war showed that Arab militaries were no match for the IDF, but Israel could not have known that in advance.

In wars like that of 1967, Israel’s main foes were Arab states, mostly those near it, i.e. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Since 1979, there has been formal peace between Israel and Egypt and since 1994 there has been an Israeli-Jordan peace treaty also. In recent years, Syria has almost become a failed state and Iraq struggles to survive. The grim situation of Syria and Iraq has not changed so far in 2017, so Israel does not have to be as concerned about those large Arab countries as it had been in the past. Israel, even with its internal problems – including economic ones – is in much better shape than Arab states around it.

In recent decades, Israel’s main security challenge has not been a war with an Arab state but rather confrontations with Arab non-state organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Those groups have hybrid forces, mixing conventional, guerrilla, and terror capabilities. Israel fought hybrid conflicts against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and Gaza-based Hamas in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014. Israel also conducted a prolonged low-intensity war in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 2000-05 with Palestinian movements including armed groups affiliated with Fatah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In 2017, it might have to deal with hybrid and/or low-intensity war.

The West Bank and Gaza

The Palestinian Authority (PA), dominated by the Fatah organization and led by President Mahmoud Abbas, received control of most of the Gaza Strip from Israel in 1994 and the rest in 2005. In 2007, Hamas expelled the PA from Gaza in a “five day war.” Since then, Hamas has controlled the Strip. Israel could reconquer all  ofGaza and topple Hamas, which would pave the way for Abbas’ PA to regain its hold over the Strip. The PA, however, might refuse to be seen as depending on Israel’s security forces, although this is the reality in the West Bank. Even if the PA does retake control in Gaza, it might lose the area again. Given the demographic, economic, political and military headaches, Israel does not want to administer the Gaza Strip again and so it tolerates Hamas’s rule there.

Hamas is aware of its weaknesses, including military ones. Iran and Hezbollah did not support their erstwhile partner against Israel in its wars of 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014. In 2012 and 2014 they sat on their hands because Hamas had refused to help Iran’s ally, dictator Bashar al-Assad, in the Syrian civil war. In a new round against Israel, Hamas might again be without allies.

Fearing an Israeli offensive, Hamas has been trying to restrain other radical groups in the Gaza Strip from launching rockets at Israel. At the same time, Hamas has been preparing for the next round, mostly by digging tunnels and producing its own rockets. Although now neither Hamas nor Israel seeks war, it might happen because of deterioration on the border and miscalculation. In 1967, Israel (and possibly Egypt) also did not want war but it occurred regardless, following an escalation that started with Egyptian provocations, mostly the massive deployment in Sinai and blocking of the Straits of Tiran.

Outlook for 2017

The UN Security Council approved Resolution 2334 on Dec. 23, 2016, which might encourage the PA to take steps against Israel. Israel might also absorb blows at the diplomatic, economic, and legal levels. Israel will retaliate against such measures and that might exacerbate already strained relations between Israel and the PA. There could be other circumstances when, against the will of Israel and/or the PA, there might be a confrontation in the West Bank. Israel and the PA must maintain existing security coordination between them to prevent a dangerous outburst.

This might not be enough. Without some kind of a political process there will be lack of hope among Palestinian Arabs that could push some to confront Israel with violence. Considering the huge obstacles the two sides face in reaching an agreement, chances for one appear low. However, there should be an attempt, a serious one, preferably with the assistance of brokers like the United States and European Union, to try to stop the next confrontation in the West Bank.

Such a clash might resemble the 2000-2005 second intifada, which was a low-intensity war that included ambushes of Israeli vehicles and suicide bombers. A fight could also look like the first intifada, from 1987-1993, when the Palestinians relied on throwing stones and firebombs, with gunmen contributing to the upheaval. A new West Bank confrontation could also combine the effects of those two collisions.

High and Low-Intensity Warfare

In August 2015, the IDF published the “IDF Strategy.” According to this document, Israel’s strategy is “aimed at ensuring the existence of Israel, creating effective deterrence, neutralizing threats as necessary, and delaying the next conflict.” In 2017, the IDF is expected to continue to have an edge over Arab militaries, including in air power.

Since 1949, the IDF’s buildup has been based on ground and air forces as part of its offensive approach at the operational level. Although the IDF might continue to depend on offense, defense has become more and more important, and in recent years, the IDF invested heavily in developing its active defense, producing weapon systems such as Iron Dome and David’s Sling aimed at intercepting rockets and missiles. At the same time, Israel must make clear to current and potential enemies that it is willing to conduct an attack, including on the ground if necessary, and not only to conduct defensive operations and/or relying only on air power.

Since the late 1980s, Israel has fought hybrid and low-intensity wars while traditionally preparing for a high-intensity war. The latter threat has diminished to a large extent, yet Israel has never  been able to rule out a large, conventional war with Egypt – whose large, modernized, U.S.-backed military now focuses on internal and external threats from Islamists and reportedly cooperates with Israel. But under a different leadership that potentially could change. With all the importance of training for a hybrid war, the IDF should not allocate too many resources to that at the expense of preparing for a possible collision with Egypt. The latter, despite its enormous economic problems, has been pouring money into its military, including buying  24 Rafale jets from France. This effort is not meant to confront ISIS in Sinai but to get ready for a high-intensity war with Israel, if it happens. Neither state seeks war and there is tight security cooperation between Israel and Egypt against ISIS. However, Israel has been monitoring Egypt’s military buildup. It was one reason the Israeli air force has been assimilating the new U.S.-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In both a high-intensity war against Egypt and a hybrid war, the IDF will strive for a quick victory, as in 1967. The IDF might implement similar methods, such as penetrating deep into Arab territory while advancing on a wide front. There are, of course, major differences between hybrid and high-intensity wars since the capability of the Egyptian military is much bigger than any hybrid foe Israel has to deal with. Hybrid forces, mostly Hezbollah, have tens of thousands of rockets, including long-range ones, but in contrast to the Egyptian armed forces, such groups don’t possess weapon systems like tanks, let alone in large numbers. Those groups rely on light arms, IEDs, mortars and anti-tank missiles. Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and others do not possess planes, only UAVs, while Egypt has more than 200 U.S.-supplied F-16s.

Could There Be an Israeli Attack on Iran?

Since the late 1970s Iran has been a sworn enemy of Israel. The leaders of this Shi’ite theocratic police state want to destroy Israel. Possessing nuclear weapons would enable Iran to attempt to accomplish this goal. Iran might breach the July 2015 agreement [JCPOA] with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China not to produce a nuclear weapon. If that happened, The Trump administration might not act militarily against Iran but might allow Israel to do so. An Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure could ignite a war between Israel and Iran and/or the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In 1967, Arab states had bombers that could reach any spot in Israel. Hezbollah has missiles that can hit every place in Israel. Hezbollah, which has up to 150,000 rockets and missiles, could launch them at a rate of about 1,200 per day. The IDF would conduct a large-scale ground, air and sea offensive in order to suppress this fire. Israel is aware that preventing the biggest threat to its future – Iran with a nuclear weapon – might ignite a war with what is currently the greatest danger to the Jewish state – Hezbollah’s arsenal.

The Israel Air Force (IAF), during a raid on Iran, would have to overcome various challenges such as distance and Iranian air defense and fighters. Lately Iran has been assimilating the S-300, an advanced Russian anti-aircraft system. Once an Israeli raid on Iran commenced, the latter might retaliate. Both sides would calculate whether and for how long to continue striking each other, and when to return to their prolonged cold war. It is also possible that there might not be an immediate, large-scale war if Iran’s initial military retribution was minor. Instead, Iran could take its revenge by launching cyber and/or terror attacks against Israeli and/or Jewish objectives worldwide.

The Syrian Civil War

From 1974 to 2011 there was total quiet on Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights. Since 2011 and civil war in Syria there have been more than 100 incidents along that border. Most have been minor, including mortar and tank shells landing inside Israeli territory, to which the IDF responded immediately. The IDF also changed its deployment in the Golan Heights, from preparing to stop a massive Syrian land offensive to containing and getting ready to handle guerrilla and terror assaults from Syria.

In recent years Israel tried to reduce the delivery of sophisticated weapons, such as long-range surface-to-surface missiles, via Syria to Hezbollah including conducting air strikes inside Syria. Russian intervention on behalf of the Bashar al-Asad regime against both Islamist and more secular rebels has made Israeli intervention more difficult, despite certain understandings between Israel and Russia. Until now, Assad has not retaliated for Israeli air raids, but if he feels stronger after success against the rebels, he might respond militarily to future Israeli bombardments. In the worst case this could lead to a war between Israel and Assad and/or Hezbollah, which assists Assad.

Israel has been careful not to become entangled in the Syrian civil war. Some in Israel claimed the country could not ignore the large-scale suffering and massacres of Syrian civilians and therefore should act. However, Israel learned in 1982 in Lebanon that it should avoid intervention in Arab civil wars. Only if an assault from Syria inflicts heavy casualties among Israelis would Israel would hit back hard, which then might cause an escalation. Meanwhile, Israel has provided medical treatment for more than 2,600 Syrians who came to Golan Heights checkpoints seeking help.

Before the 1967 war Israel was deeply worried by the Arab coalition arrayed against it. In 2017, several Arab states are in decline and Israel has strategic superiority over both Arab states and non-state organizations. The latter, Israel’s main active enemies, could inflict casualties and damage but do not pose a threat to the survival of the country. Still, Israel should not underestimate its foes; the IDF prepares accordingly.

Ehud Eilam, Ph.D., served in the Israeli military and then worked as a private contractor for the Israeli Ministry of Defense. He has published three books and dozens of articles in his field.