In the years and months leading up to the 1967 war, Syria had played a crucial role in raising tensions by engaging in acts of sabotage and incessantly shelling Israeli communities. The second half of 1966 and spring of 1967 saw increasing friction and incidents between the IDF and Syrian forces. In response to a false Soviet warning on May 13, 1967 that Israel was preparing for an imminent attack on Syria, Egypt and Syria activated a mutual defense pact, and Syria massed troops on its border with Israel.
That border ran some 40 miles, from Kibbutz Tel Dan in the north down to the Sea of Galilee, with the Syrians occupying the high ground. In the northern half the terrain was extremely steep, rising up at the border or just after the border, while in the south the rise was a little slower at first. The escarpment and the plateau behind it, at an elevation of about 2000 feet, are known as the Golan Heights, and the Syrians had been fortifying it for 18 years. Over most of that time Syria had also often shelled Israel’s northern communities.
By 1967 more than 265 artillery pieces were aimed down at Israel, and on the plateau itself Syria had constructed a dense network of fortifications, trenches and concrete bunkers with overlapping fields of fire, all sitting behind dense mine fields. Just before the outbreak of the war the Syrians forces in the Golan totaled over 40,000 troops with 260 tanks and self-propelled guns, divided up among three armored brigades and five infantry brigades. Facing them, the Israelis were heavily outgunned, with just one armored brigade and one infantry brigade.
Although Syria maintained a radical and aggressive posture towards Israel, it counted heavily upon the initiative and success of the larger and better trained Egyptian army. During the first day of the war, on June 5, Syrian planes attacked communities in the north of Israel, including Tiberias, and attempted to attack the Haifa oil refineries. The Israeli air force responded later that day with an attack on Syria’s airbases, destroying 59 Syrian aircraft, mostly on the ground.
In the early morning hours of June 6, however, Syria intensified its attacks, launching a heavy artillery barrage against Israeli civilian communities, and then sending two companies of infantry across the border to attack Kibbutz Tel Dan. The Kibbutz’s defenders held off the attack, and twenty minutes later the Israeli airfare arrived and drove the Syrians back over the border. Despite other incursions into Israeli territory, which were also driven off, with the bulk of Israeli troops still fighting in the Sinai and the West Bank the Israeli army could not go on the attack against Syria.
On June 8, the fourth day of the war, Syria accepted a UN cease-fire, and for five hours there was a lull in the shelling. But then the barrages resumed, and state radio announced that Syria did not consider itself bound by any cease-fire. Apparently their formidable defenses in the Golan and the fact that Israel had not yet attacked led the Syrian regime to the false conclusion that their positions were impregnable. (Arab-Israeli Wars, A.J. Barker, p. 90)
With the renewed Syrian barrages, and battles on the southern and eastern fronts winding down, some Israeli leaders began to lean towards an offensive against Syria. Israeli forces began to move north in huge convoys, creating massive traffic jams in Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv. Then came a hint from the United States that made the offensive a certainty: speaking to Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, McGeorge Bundy, the US National Security Adviser, voiced surprise that so far Syria had escaped any serious damage:
Bundy went on to reflect, in a tentative voice, that it would seem strange that Syria – which had originated the war – might be the only one that seemed to be getting off without injury. Might it not turn out, paradoxically, he said, that less guilty Arab states, such as Jordan, had suffered heavy loss, while Syria would be free to start the whole deadly sequence again. (Personal Witness, Abba Eban, p 423)
An apparent element in the US thinking was that Syria was the key Soviet ally in the region, and a Syrian defeat would therefore do much to further discredit Soviet prestige in the Arab world. On the other hand, were Syria to be left unscathed this would be portrayed as a reflection of Soviet power and good reason for other Arab countries to also move into the Soviet orbit.
The die was cast – Israel would launch an offensive aimed at driving the Syrians from the Golan Heights. On the morning of June 9 the Israeli air force began an intensive three hour bombing of Syrian positions in the Golan, and before noon Israeli forces under the command of Major General David Elazar crossed the armistice line into Syrian territory.
Elazar decided to launch five attacks, each along a narrow axis. The key attack would be where the Syrians least expected it, in the north, centered on the town of Q’ala, where the terrain most favored the defenders, and which the Syrians had consequently left the least strongly fortified. Also favoring a northern attack was that the distance there to the key Masada/Quneitra road was the shortest, only 2.4 miles. Once this road was taken Israeli forces could rapidly attack Syrian front line positions from the rear, while other Israeli forces could advance to the center of the Golan plateau and the key town of Quneitra. Syria’s regional military headquarters were there, and through Quneitra passed all the major roads on the plateau, including the road to the Syrian capital of Damascus.
The Q’ala attack was entrusted to two brigades, one armored and one infantry. Leading the way were sappers to clear mines, followed by armored bulldozers to create a road up the mountain. Immediately following were tanks and armored infantry. The Israeli armored brigade moved up in single file, making inviting targets for the Syrian guns, which took a terrible toll, knocking out most of the bulldozers and tanks. But the Israeli armor pressed the attack, and moved foot by foot up the mountain. When they were about half way up, the brigade split its forces, half moving to flank the Syrian defenders, the rest continuing directly towards the target. After five and a half hours of fighting the brigade had covered the three miles to the target.
At the same time as the armored attack, the infantry brigade with some supporting tanks attacked about a mile to the north, aiming to protect the flanks of the armored attack by taking thirteen Syrian positions, centering on the fortified outpost of Tel Fakhir (in both Arabic and Hebrew the word tel signifies a hill).
The battle for Tel Fakhir raged for more than seven hours, ending with a costly Israeli victory in which only four soldiers of the entire attacking battalion (about 800 men) remained alive and uninjured. Syrian positions in Dardara and Tel Hilal also fell after hard fighting. On the Syrian side, individual soldiers fought bravely, but unit cohesion broke down and many soldiers, including officers, simply disappeared.
The three other Israeli attacks, further south, also made headway, in preparation for larger assaults by the Israeli troops coming up from the earlier battles with Egypt and Jordan.
On the morning of June 10 a fresh armored brigade advanced through the breach in Syrian lines in the north, took the town of Banias and then wheeled south-east to take Masada. That accomplished, the advancing Israeli forces on the heights prepared for a multi-pronged assault on Quneitra.
At 8:45 in the morning on June 10, however, Damascus radio announced the fall of Quneitra, while the Israelis were still about 10 kilometers from the town. This was apparently intended to provoke Soviet intervention by suggesting an Israeli advance to Damascus, but it backfired. Hearing that the town had fallen, Syrian defenders throughout the Golan feared that they would soon be cut off, and they panicked and fled. By nightfall all Syrian resistance on the Golan Heights had collapsed.
Israeli losses during the Golan operation were 115 killed and 306 wounded. Syrian losses are estimated to have been 2500 killed and 5000 wounded, with another 591 taken prisoner.
With the end of fighting on the Golan Heights the Six Day War was over.
- Israel: The Embattled Ally, Nadav Safran, Harvard University Press
- The Arab-Israeli Wars, Chaim Herzog, Random House
- Six Days of War, Michael Oren, Oxford University Press
- Arab-Israeli Wars, A.J. Barker, Hippocrene Books
- Personal Witness, Abba Eban, Putnam
- Six Days in June, Eric Hammel, Scribner’s
- The Tanks of Tammuz, Shabtai Teveth, Viking Press