CNN’s “Jerusalem” Series on the Six Day War: When Jews Are Shelled, Arabs Suffer

[This article is part of an ongoing series of analyses of CNN’s recent six-part show, “Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury.” You can find the first critique of the CNN series here: CNN Mangles Jerusalem’s History.]

On August 22, CNN finished airing a six-part series on “Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury,” concluding with a distorted narrative of the Six-Day War, a topic CNN has a history of rewriting. As CAMERA has already documented, and will document further in the coming days, the series has been full of factual errors and historical revisionism.

In addressing the Six-Day War, CNN accentuated even further its habit throughout the series of distorting events to portray Arabs as powerless victims. In some cases, this narrative is laid absurdly bare, such as when the narrator tells viewers “[t]he [Jordanian] shelling is meant to target Jews in West Jerusalem, but it’s the Palestinian Arabs living in the area that are left defenseless.” Yes – CNN suggested that when Arabs were trying to kill Jews, it was really Arabs who were the victims.

Just minutes later the same kind of inversion occurs again:

(Narrator) “Once Ammunition Hill is under Israeli control, the Israeli Army brings their fight deeper into Jerusalem. But it’s the Palestinian Arabs that are left vulnerable.”

(Fadi Elsalameen) “They see, contrary to what they were hearing on the radio at the time, you know, ‘we will defeat the Israeli presence,’ and all of a sudden it’s completely the entire opposite. People started getting frantic, and again another wave of refugees started marching towards Jordan.”

Again, CNN portrays the Arab attempt to remove Jews from their presence in Jerusalem – for that’s what happened in parts of the city conquered by Arab armies – as truly a tragedy for the Arabs since they failed in the mission. The question is why CNN would create a narrative in which Arab attempts to drive the Jews into the sea as unproblematic, but Jewish survival and self-defense as a tragedy for the Arabs.

Beyond creating perverse concepts of victimhood, CNN butchers and slants the history in a number of other ways, including the below examples.

CNN’s Omissions on the Origins of the War

If one was to explain what events led to the Six-Day War based only on the CNN series, the answer would be: (1) some Palestinian terrorists placed a mine and killed 3 Israeli soldiers; (2) Israel responded with a retaliation raid into the West Bank that escalated into a battle between Israeli and Jordanian forces; and (3) Egypt felt it had to defend Jordan’s honor and thus responded by closing the Straits of Tiran.

It should go without saying that this narrative is laughably absurd. It leaves out not only the context of just how prevalent and serious the attacks were against Israel at the time, but also other crucial events leading up to the Six-Day War.

CNN begins the narrative with the November 13, 1966 retaliation raid carried out by the IDF, which targeted Palestinian Arab terrorists in the Hebron Hills. The operation resulted in a battle between Israeli and intervening Jordanian forces.

That CNN acknowledges there had been Palestinian terror attacks prior to the retaliation raid might seem to be a positive. But it casts focus on a single incident. The reality at the time had been characterized by near constant attacks from both Palestinian Arabs and neighboring Arab state forces. At least 35 such attacks were carried out in 1965 by Fatah alone (Palestinian sources claimed as many as 110).[1] The sole incident mentioned by CNN – the landmine attack on November 12 that killed three IDF soldiers – was actually the seventieth terrorist incident since January 1965.[2] Such attacks had been killing Israeli civilians and soldiers alike.[3]

It was also not just Palestinian Arabs involved in the violence. Syria served as a sponsor for much of the terrorism.[4] As a part of its “Popular Liberation War,” Syria provided operational assistance to and endorsement of these attacks, including by providing training camps and command posts on its border with Jordan.[5] This enabled Fatah to “us[e] the territory of weaker states bordering Israel – Lebanon and Jordan – to deflect reprisals from itself.”[6]

While the November 12-13 incidents are notable in that it resulted in a direct clash between an Arab state and Israel, CNN omits that it was far from the first such direct clash. Syria had been shelling Israelis towns and vehicles along the border in the north for years. One such incident occurred 2 years earlier, on November 3, 1964, when Syrian tanks fired on an Israeli tractor. This was followed up 10 days later in a border battle that was “the biggest confrontation between Syria and Israel in years” that many feared “heralded a new round of hostilities that would eventually lead to a general war…”[7]  The months preceding the November 1966 Israeli-Jordanian battle had also witnessed several serious incidents of Syrian forces shelling Israeli communities.[8] These attacks only grew in intensity as time went on and even led to a massive air battle on April 7.[9] Six Syrian fighter jets were shot down when the Israeli Air Force finally acted to try and silence the artillery shelling Israeli civilians. 

Another serious issue inexplicably ignored by CNN is the deliberate Arab League plan, adopted in 1964 in Cairo, to divert water away from Israel via the Banias and Hatzbani Rivers (which feed the Jordan River – a major source of water for Israel).[10] A “United Arab Command” was created alongside the plan to “protect the project and to prepare for an offensive campaign” with a $345 million budget.[11]

CNN does address the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran. However, the network once again manages to omit crucial context necessary for viewers to understand the incident. In reference to the closing of the Straits of Tiran, CNN repeatedly suggested that Nasser didn’t really want war, and even suggests it was the Israelis who were itching for war:

  • “Nasser didn’t really want to go to war.” (Uri Bar-Joseph)
  • “Nasser thought that he could employ new tactics by closing the Straits of Tiran, where 90% of the oil at the time was coming in. He could pressure the Israelis into caving. And so his assessment at the time was war would not happen. There’s no way the Israelis would declare war.” (Fadi Elsalameen)
  • “From the Israeli perspective, we declared that if he closes the straits, we go to war.” (Uri Bar-Joseph)

Put aside that the blockading of the Straits of Tiran was itself an act of war.[12] A week before Egypt closed the straits, Nasser ordered the United Nations peacekeeping force, UNEF – which had been stationed in the Sinai between Egyptian and Israeli forces – to leave. With this fact alone, the implication that Nasser really didn’t want or expect war begins to look less credible, while the urgency felt by Israel in launching a preemptive strike looks more justifiable.

But that was not all that characterized the period before the 1967 War, or even the period before the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. At the same time that Egypt demanded UNEF get out of the way, it was also massing troops in the Sinai. By May 20 – days before the Straits of Tiran were closed – some 100,000 troops, including over 1,000 tanks, were already concentrated along the border between Israel and Egypt.[13] Before long, other Arab states joined in, massing a force of “some 250,000 troops, over 2,000 tanks and some 700 front-line fighter and bomber aircraft” that surrounded Israel.[14]

All the while, warlike rhetoric from Arab leaders, especially Nasser, had been blasting the airwaves. For example, Egyptian President Nasser spoke on Cairo Radio on May 15, declaring “our forces are in a complete state of readiness for war… Brothers, it is our duty to prepare for the final battle in Palestine.”[15] On May 18, Egyptian radio was declaring “[t]he sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.” Then Syrian Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad announced it was high time to “take the initiative in destroying the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland.”[16] A month earlier, the Syrian regime had already declared “Our known objective is the freeing of Palestine and the liquidation of the Zionist existence there.”[17] On May 27, just several days after closing the Straits, Nasser also laid out the same objective, stating “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.”

That CNN presented a history of the lead-up to the Six-Day War without mentioning Egypt’s removal of peacekeepers, and only mentioning in passing the massing of Arab troops on the border and the genocidal rhetoric, is problematic enough. That CNN instead used the time to imply Nasser was actually just bluffing when he closed the Straits of Tiran is even worse. It’s doing a disservice to the network’s viewers by presenting them with a narrative that can hardly even be called a “half-truth.”

Exaggerating the American & Downplaying the Soviet Roles

There are multiple attempts in the final episode to portray the conflict as one in which Israel is a heavily armed American ally. All the while, no mention is made of Soviet military assistance to the Arab armies. Among the descriptions of the U.S. and Soviet roles in the conflict:

  • “The United States becomes much more interested in the Middle East around the mid-1940s to secure oil access. But with World War II and the ascendance of communism, you have a cold war in the Middle East emerge and you see the United States playing a much more pivotal role.” (Amaney Jamal)
  • “So the United States started giving Israel tremendous powers both in terms of financial support, but more importantly through weapons.” (Suleiman Mourad)
  • “So the Cold War played a very important role in defining the alliances in the Middle East. It gave Israel a chance to present itself as a friendly ally of the United States of America. It made it clear to Nasser that his closeness with the Soviet Union was seen as an invitation for the Soviet Union to have influence and presence in the Middle East.” (Fadi Elsalameen)
  • “For those of us who didn’t really grow up in the Cold War, it’s hard to think of a time where a war in the Middle East could’ve led to nuclear annihilation. But at that time, in 1967, the two great super powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, would use these regional struggles to advance their position.” (Shadi Hamid)

The reality: the United States barely provided any military equipment to Israel prior to or during the Six-Day War. Other than the occasional modest sale of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles or some old, dismantled Sherman tanks that Israel was forced to refurbish at great cost,[18] U.S. military sales to Israel were minimal. In fact, it wasn’t until a year after the 1967 war that the precedent began being set in the United States to provide greater military support for Israel. As written by Michael Oren:

“[President] Johnson understood and gave $52 million in civilian aid, but military support was another story. American M-48 Patton tanks had been sold to Israel – albeit indirectly, through Germany, with a counterbalancing tank sale to Jordan-and forty-eight A-4 Skyhawk fighters, due for delivery in December 1967 [six months after the war]. But Germany succumbed to Arab pressure to stop selling Israel arms while Egypt’s acquisition of long-range Soviet bombers meant Israel needed the planes at once. While American arms sales to the Middle East multiplied during the Johnson administration from $44.2 to $995.3 million, Israel’s share was negligible. ‘The United States had much good will for Israel and desired Israel to have an adequate deterrent,’ read a joint memorandum of February 1965, but Johnson refused to be Israel’s primary arms’ supplier.”[19] [Emphasis added]

Meanwhile, the Soviets had “invested massively in the Middle East, about $2 billion in military aid alone-1,700 tanks, 2,400 artillery pieces, 500 jets, and 1,400 advisers since 1956, some 43 percent of it to Egypt.”[20] Even during the war, the Soviets threatened direct intervention against Israel as the Syrian military was collapsing on June 10.[21]

CNN also ignores the way in which the Soviet Union “consciously added fuel to the fire” prior to the outbreak of the Six Day War.[22] In mid-May 1967, the Soviets fed to the Arabs claims that Israel was massing forces on the Syrian border for a “large-scale attack.”[23] Egyptian leadership would meet on May 14 to discuss the Soviet intelligence reports. As mentioned above, two days later Nasser would order the UNEF peacekeepers to leave.[24]

The way in which the role of the Soviets is glossed over, all while making highly-exaggerated claims of the U.S. giving “tremendous powers” to Israel and playing a “pivotal role” in the conflict, creates a false narrative once again that somehow the Jews/Israelis were dictating the course of events.

Mistreatment of Prisoners

As a final example of the concerning ways in which CNN twists the Six-Day War into a narrative of Arab victimhood while brushing to the side any facts to the contrary, a bizarre moment occurs during the episode regarding prisoners of war. As almost an afterthought, thrown in out of place and with little relevance to the plot of Jerusalem, the series states:

(Suleiman Mourad) “As the Israeli army started to advance towards Gaza, the first encounters with Egyptian forces was extremely bloody, and Israel lost several battalions. The casualties was extremely disheartening and this could have fueled lots of acts of vengeance on the part of Israeli soldiers.” 

(Fadi Elsalameen) “But the Israeli army did move into the Sinai. They created what they call a box fire. Basically, soldiers standing on this side of the box [motions one arm], soldiers standing on this side of the box [motions the other arm], and shooting everybody that stands right in the middle of that box or in the way of that box. So they showed no mercy to the Egyptian soldiers.”

(Uri Bar-Joseph) “I know that there were cases like this. There were prisoners that didn’t know what to do with because they had to move on. And there were cases where they shot prisoners. Compared to what the Egyptian and other Arab armies did to Israeli prisoners, it wasn’t so bad.”

It should be stated that while atrocities may have happened during the Six-Day War, it was hardly a theme, let alone one in which to characterize the war. As Michael Oren wrote in Six Days of War: “Though accusations of beatings and even executions were traded by both sides, prisoners were generally well treated.”[25]

Furthermore, it’s difficult to know with any certainty what specific incident(s) CNN might be referring to, as it presents only vague language or, in the case of the Mourad quote, speculative statements. It seems CNN might be alluding to an already debunked claim that a “massacre” of prisoners occurred near El Arish, a city in the Sinai near the border with Gaza.

What’s especially problematic, though, is the seemingly forced nature of this subplot that is presented in a way that depicts Israelis as cruel and barbaric. The brief segment begins with Mourad speculating that Israelis “could have” engaged in “acts of vengeance” after a battle in Gaza. Immediately after, CNN fits in a line from Elsalameen, apparently about a particular military tactic Israel used against Egyptian forces, but which Elsalameen never directly connected to the issue of prisoners. Nonetheless, it included Elsalameen stating “they [Israelis] showed no mercy to the Egyptian soldiers.” This is followed by Bar-Joseph making a general statement that “there were cases where they shot prisoners.”

Only two likely explanations emerge for this segment. Neither explanation is positive.

The first: CNN is refencing the debunked claim of a “massacre” near El Arish.

The other possibility: CNN inexplicably juxtaposed ElSalameen’s explanation of the “box fire” tactic in such a way as to imply this tactic was used to show “no mercy” in “acts of vengeance” against Egyptian “prisoners.”

In either case, CNN owes its viewers a correction and an explanation.

 

Footnotes

[1] Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Presidio Press 2017), p.24.

[2] Eric Hammel, Six Days in June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (Charles Scribner’s Sons 1992), p.19.

[3] Hammel, p.10-11.

[4] Barry Rubin, Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO (Harvard University Press 1994), p.11.

[5] L. Carl Brown, Origins of the Crisis, in The Six Day War: A Retrospective (Richard B. Parker, ed., University Press of Florida 1996), p.25; see also Rubin, p.11.

[6] Rubin, p.11.

[7] Hammel, p.6.

[8] Oren, p.23-24, 29.

[9] Oren, p.46-49.

[10] Oren, p.20.

[11] Oren, p.20.

[12] Julius Stone, Israel and Palestine: Assault on the Law of Nations (John Hopkins University Press 1981), p.46 (“…by way of legitimate self-defense, as with Israel’s response in 1967 to the closing of the Straits of Tiran…”).

[13] Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East from the War of Independence through Lebanon (Random House 1982), p.149; see also Hammel, p.143 (Noting that by June 4, the Egyptians had deployed “four infantry divisions, one tank division, one mechanized division, and one division-size task force,” the “20th Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) light-infantry division” in Gaza, and an independent Egyptian infantry brigade in Sharm el-Sheikh).

[14] Herzog, p.149

[15] Oren, p.63.

[16] Oren, p.78.

[17] Oren, p.45.

[18] Hammel, p.65.

[19] Oren, p.26.

[20] Oren, p.27.

[21] Oren, p.297.

[22] Daniel Gordis, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (HarperCollins 2016), p.262.

[23] Oren, p.54-57.

[24] Oren, p.63.

[25] Oren, p.305.