On June 5, 1967, war broke out between Israel and three Arab states--Egypt, Jordan and Syria--after months of threats directed at the Jewish state. At a Palestinian refugee camp named Jalazon, chiseled out of a stony hillside not far from Jerusalem in the West Bank, then under Jordanian rule, Nazmeia was expecting a child. Her brother Abu Fady, then 9, remembers his family listening to an Egyptian radio announcer describe how Arab troops were advancing on Tel Aviv. Within hours, the radio said, the Jews would be keeping company with fishes in the sea. "We were flying with happiness," recalls Abu Fady. "We were making plans to go back to our village, which the Jews had stolen from us."
The radio was wrong. In the camp, the Palestinians could see an army approaching from the eastern hills. "We thought they were King Hussein's soldiers," says Abu Fady. A man from Jalazon ran down to greet the troops, firing his rifle in celebration--and had a surprise. "The first soldier slapped him and took away his gun, and the man cried out, 'Aiiee! They're Jews, not Arabs,'" Abu Fady recounts. Israeli fighters appeared in the skies, strafing Jordanian posts along the Samarian hills, and the family decided to flee. They were not alone; the roads were clogged with thousands of panicked families as more than 350,000 refugees left for Jordan. Within a few hours, Nazmeia fell to the ground, groaning, giving birth. The family pulled out of the stream of people, and as the bombs fell, she crept into the thornbushes and delivered a baby boy, Omar al-Nakhla.
That little boy, now a man, still lives with his family in Jalazon. His life, with hopes raised and dashed, consumed with bloody and often pointless struggle, parallels the Palestinian experience and explains what lies at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And it reveals why, 40 years on, the Six-Day War continues to shape the Middle East.
The war was a triumph for Israel. Within hours of its start, the Egyptian air force had been destroyed in pre-emptive air strikes. Israeli troops sliced through Egyptian defenses in the Sinai Peninsula, moved against the Syrians in the Golan Heights and outflanked King Hussein's Bedouin army in the West Bank. In 132 hours, it was all over. Israel had more than tripled its territory, its forces moving into ancient Jerusalem, fulfilling the age-old quest of the Jews to return to their holy city. The war changed mental maps in the Middle East as much as it did the political landscape, altering hopes and fears. In 1967, Israel as a nation was not quite 20 years old, born in the shadow of the Holocaust and a war in which Arab armies attempted to throttle the new state at birth. So for Israelis, 1967 was a time of euphoria, only to be followed by years of letdown as victory's hoped-for fruits--peace and coexistence with their neighbors--seemed ever less likely. Hardened by terrorism, many Israelis now want to wall off the Palestinians behind a mass of concrete and razor wire.
For Palestinians, the impact of 1967 was different and profound. It took the war to define a Palestinian identity. A people torn away from the Jordanians and Egyptians, under whose suzerainty they had been living, the Palestinians forged nationalism out of anger and searing loss. And gradually the vocabulary of the Palestinians' struggle changed. Today Palestinians speak less of a battle against the Israelis for land and rights than of something vaguer and more dangerous, framed in the apocalyptic terms of a holy war. The 1967 conflict, says Michael Oren of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the author of a book on the war, "hastened the downfall of Arab secularism and opened the doors to the new idea of Islamic radicalism." In Jalazon, Omar al-Nakhla saw it all.
Forty years on, Omar is entering middle age, and so is Palestinian nationalism. Omar is a butcher, with sinewy forearms, a black mustache and sad, dark eyes. He buys his meat from Jews and counts several of them as his friends. "They live in Haifa, and I was worried about them during the war last summer when the Hizballah rockets were falling," he says. "I told them that they could stay with us!" Omar likes the novel idea of his Jewish buddies taking shelter inside a Palestinian refugee camp, and I ask him if Jews and Palestinians are so different. No, he says. They're both smart, they value education, and they laugh at the same jokes. But in conversation with Omar, I realize that Jews and Arabs are fatally alike in another way: they both suffer from a powerful and justifiable sense of victimization--the Jews over the Holocaust, the Palestinians over the loss of their land--and this blinds them to the others' tragedy.
Arabs enjoy rhyming puns, and the word for the 1948 creation of Israel--nakba, meaning disaster--is only a consonant away from their word for disappointment, naksa. That is how, with crushing understatement, Arabs describe the losses of the Six-Day War. For Omar and most other Palestinians, the two words are often interchangeable, and it was no surprise that when I visited Jalazon recently, they were commemorating the nakba and the naksa rolled into one. Indeed, when I press Omar to talk about the war he was born into, his thoughts leap to 1948, as though one event were indistinguishable from the other. He lays down his butcher's knife and shows me a 2007 wall calendar with a photograph of an old stone schoolhouse in Beit Nabala, his ancestral village. "The water in Beit Nabala was sweet, and the earth was so rich that beans grew overnight like magic," he marvels. Has Omar ever visited his old village home? "No," he replies sadly. "My father went back once, in 1973. He went to our house, and some Jews answered. They asked my father, 'What are you doing?' He replied, 'This house used to be mine.' The Jews said, 'You have nothing to do here. Go away!'" After that snub, Omar's father never returned, but he still keeps the rusty key to the family's Beit Nabala house. The 1967 war was their last chance to go home, Omar says--their grand disappointment.
Omar's childhood coincided with the rise of the Palestinian resistance. After the Six-Day War, the Palestinians lost faith in the ability of other Arab states to seize back the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead, they pinned their hopes on an Egyptian-educated former civil engineer, Yasser Arafat, whose Fatah organization began carrying out raids inside the conquered territories and later committed atrocious acts of terrorism. Like other boys in the camp, Omar would listen to TV news from Jordan and Syria about their heroes--Arafat and his Palestinian fighters. They dreamed that one day Arafat would lead them back to their lost villages.