1967: why Israel entered the West Bank

London - published on 21 October 2004
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It is often alleged that Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967 in an act of premeditated territorial expansion. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Israel only entered the West Bank when Jordan ignored its appeals to avoid hostilities on the first day of Israel’s war with Egypt, and instead began intensive bombardment of Israeli civilian locations. Israel’s entry into the West Bank in 1967 was an act of self-defence. Its presence there originated as a result, not of Israeli aggression, but of Jordanian aggression.

This Briefing elaborates on the points made above. The information is extracted from Dr Michael Oren’s book ‘Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East’ (Oxford University Press: 2002), which has been hailed as a definitive historical account of the war. The book is based on an exhaustive analysis of the archives, the published literature, and interviews with many of the main players, in Israel, Arab states, the USA and Russia.

The West Bank 1949 – 1967

  • After Israel’s War of Independence against several Arab states (1948-9), the West Bank and East Jerusalem came under the control of Jordan.

  • In 1950 Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which became sovereign Jordanian territory. Only Britain and Pakistan recognised this annexation.

  • Many infiltrations by Palestinian terrorist groups into Israel occurred from the West Bank before 1967.

  • Despite these attacks, Israel never permanently moved into the West Bank for security reasons, let alone to fulfil expansionist ambitions. (Indeed its counter-terrorist operation in the West Bank village of Samu in November 1966 was controversial both in Israel and outside).

The build-up to the Six-Day War of June 1967

Israel’s war against Egypt and Syria in June 1967 was the culmination of several years of tension, including sustained shelling by Syria of civilian Israeli targets in the Galilee and unrelenting terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian groups operating from Syria.

The immediate causes of the war were, however, various steps taken by Egypt, led by President Gamel-Abdel Nasser, in May 1967:-

  • he demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the Sinai desert (the UN complied). These peacekeepers had been there since shortly after the Suez war of 1956, acting as a buffer between Egypt and Israel;

  • he ordered a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, preventing ships from accessing Israel’s southern port of Eilat; and

  • he ordered a massive Egyptian army to take up forward positions in the Sinai desert, and accompanied this with frenzied public speeches against Israel – “we know that closing the Straits of Tiran meant war with Israel…. If war comes it will be total and the goal will be Israel’s destruction…”

Israel perceived these moves to be a prelude to war. Diplomacy aimed at averting war failed. By 4 June 1967 combined Arab forces confronting Israel numbered 900 combat aircraft, 5,000 tanks and 500,000 soldiers. War between Egypt and Israel broke out on June 5 1967.

Moshe Dayan’s Order: no war with Jordan

Days before the outbreak of the war, Jordan entered into a mutual defence treaty with Egypt, and also permitted thousands of Iraqi soldiers to mass on its territory (Iraq and Israel do not share a border). Said Iraqi President Ar’ef: “our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the face of the map….”

Yet Israel’s newly-appointed Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, wishing to confine hostilities if possible to the imminent battles against Egypt, ordered the Israeli Army not to open a second front with Jordan in the West Bank in the event of war.

On 3 June he instructed the head of the Israeli Army Central Command: “You must not do anything to entangle Israel with the Jordanians…..” (Oren p155)

Israel’s appeals to Jordan to avoid war

War broke out on 5 June when Israel responded to the Egyptian military build-up by launching a surprise attack on Egypt’s air force, destroying most of it on the ground within a matter of hours.

That same morning, Israel sent a message to Jordan’s leader King Hussein via the US State Department, the UN and the British Foreign Office, saying that, despite the outbreak of war, it would not attack the West Bank if Jordan maintained quiet on that front.

Jordan’s offensive against Israel on the first day of the war

Jordan ignored Israel’s appeal to avoid conflict.

That morning, King Hussein received false information from Egypt denying Egyptian losses and claiming a massive and successful Egyptian attack against Israel. Emboldened by this information, Jordan launched immediate multiple attacks on Israel:-

  • civilian suburbs of Tel-Aviv were shelled by artillery;

  • Israel’s largest military airfield, Ramat David, was shelled;

  • Jordanian warplanes attacked the central Israeli towns of Netanya and Kfar Sava;

  • thousands of mortar shells rained down on West Jerusalem hitting civilian locations indiscriminately, including the Hadassah Hospital and the Mount Zion Church;

  • Israel’s parliament building (the Knesset) and the Prime Minister’s office, each in Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem, were targeted;

  • 20 Israelis died in these attacks; 1000 were wounded. 900 buildings in West Jerusalem were damaged.

“Jerusalem is totally engulfed in war…” reported the British Consul-General that morning.

All this happened before Israel reacted militarily against Jordan, or moved at all into the West Bank.

Israel responds

In face of this intensive bombardment that Israel responded, launching attacks on Jordanian airfields and on Jordanian forces in the Northern West Bank, and in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Thus Israel had to open a second front in the war, while still fighting the Egyptian army in the Sinai desert.

After three days of fighting between Israel and the Jordanians, Israel conquered the West Bank, and East Jerusalem (including the Old City). It destroyed much of the Jordanian army and air force and drove the remainder of the Jordanian military from the West Bank across to the East Bank of the Jordan. Thousands of West Bank Palestinians came under Israeli military control.


Israel’s entry into the West Bank in June 1967 was not part of a premeditated Israeli plan for territorial expansion. Quite the opposite: Israel’s own Defence Minister instructed the army not to fight the Jordanians, or move into the West Bank.

That position only changed as a result of Jordan’s disregard for Israeli appeals to avoid hostilities, and by its intensive bombardment of Israeli targets.

Israel’s entry into the West Bank was an act of self-defence. Its presence there originates as a result, not of Israeli aggression, but of Jordanian aggression.