Commentary Magazine

Israel's Self-Defense

To the Editor:

In “Why Israel Is Free to Set Its Own Borders” [July-August], Michael I. Kraus and J. Peter Pham do an admirable job of establishing the legitimacy of Israel’s seizure of the West Bank and other Arab territories during the 1967 Six-Day war. But they make a small error when discussing the fighting with Syria by confusing the 1967 campaign with the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

They write that “a small unit of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) heroically held off Syrian troops entrenched on the Golan Heights and then pushed them back.” In fact, the Israeli attack on the Golan in 1967 occurred on the last day of the war, was conducted by a large Israeli force, and was quite deliberate. This does not in any way invalidate the arguments of the authors, but it does bear directly on Israel’s situation with the independent Palestinian entity that exists in Gaza today.

Syrian policies—constant shelling of the Galilee, attempts to divert Israel’s water sources—more than anything else precipitated the Six-Day war. Syria was spared in the first days (other than from Israeli air attack) only because Egypt posed a greater threat and, as the authors point out, Jordan launched an unprovoked assault on Jerusalem from the West Bank. Syria continued desultory shelling of northern Israel in the first days of the war, but otherwise watched the defeat of its Egyptian and Jordanian allies in relative quiescence.

But Israel could not allow a return to the status quo ante that existed prior to June 5, 1967, when Syrian artillery batteries shelled Israeli communities from the Golan Heights at will and Syrian-sponsored terrorists regularly committed cross-border raids. Thus, Israel seized the Golan in a ferocious battle on June 9-10, even though an immediate military crisis did not exist. Israel’s seizure of the Golan in this context, as the authors point out, was accepted by the international community via UN Resolution 242.

This outcome bears directly on Israel’s current situation with respect to Gaza, from which a de-facto Palestinian state launches regular artillery and terrorist attacks against southern Israel. By the same principles and logic that justified Israel’s attack on the Golan in 1967, Israel would be quite entitled to act against Gaza today, despite the predictable protests of the “international community” citing “international law.” Israel, as a matter of policy, has no desire to reoccupy Gaza, but could do so without legal or moral qualm.

Jonathan F. Keiler

Bowie, Maryland



Michael I. Krauss and J. Peter Pham write:

Jonathan F. Keiler rightly highlights the role played by Syria’s provocations in the Six-Day war of 1967. We were referring to that war—and not the Yom Kippur war—when we wrote that “a small unit of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) heroically held off Syrian troops entrenched on the Golan Heights and then pushed them back,” but perhaps our brief summary could have been clearer.

Syria had assembled troops in the Golan Heights in the weeks preceding the war, and in the first days of hostilities bombarded Israeli villages in the Hula valley and the Galilee. Israel’s response was initially restrained because the forces of its northern command were confined to the eastern front following Jordan’s unexpected entry into the war. The IDF’s famed Golani brigade had to tend to the northern border by itself during the war’s first five days. On June 9, the IDF transferred three more brigades from the victorious Egyptian and Jordanian fronts. The supplemented force was then able to break through to rout six heavily fortified Syrian infantry brigades ensconced on the Heights.

Mr. Keiler is also correct to note that the Palestinian Authority has waged war on Israel from its Gaza territory, and that Israeli action in self-defense is legitimate there, too. In passing, we should note that Israel’s control over the Golan is frequently described as an “annexation,” but the real legal status of the Golan is less clear; the word “annexation,” or equivalent language like “extending sovereignty,” is not used in Israel’s 1981 Golan Heights Law, which states merely that the “jurisdiction and administration of the state shall apply to the Golan Heights.”

In any event, the result of the law has been an end to the application of military regulations to the populace, though clearly the Golan would be part of peace negotiations between Syria and Israel if the former were ever liberated from its current dictatorship. Meanwhile, wholesale incorporation of Muslim Gaza into Israel would raise political and demographic issues far different from those involved in the Golan, which in 1967 was largely deserted or inhabited by Druse sympathetic to the Jewish state.

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