Middle East: The Quickest War

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Inevitably, the fact that so many Arab planes were trapped in their parking area—strung out wingtip to wingtip—suggested that Israel must have struck the first blow. The stunned Arabs, of course, said that it had, and Moscow angrily concurred. But, as Israel first told it, the Jewish jets scrambled only after early-warning radar picked up several waves of Arab planes headed straight for Israel. At the same time, a massive Egyptian armored column was reported to be rolling out of its base at El Arish and steering toward the Israeli border.

Historians may argue for years over who actually fired the first shot or dropped the first bomb. But the Realpolitik of Israel's overwhelming triumph has rendered the question largely academic. Ever since Israel was created 19 years ago, the Arabs have been lusting for the day when they could destroy it. And in the past month, Nasser succeeded for the first time in putting together an alliance of Arab armies ringing Israel; he moved some 80,000 Egyptian troops and their armor into Sinai and elbowed out the U.N. buffer force that had separated the antagonists for a decade. With a hostile Arab population of 110,000,000 menacing their own of 2,700,000, the Israelis could be forgiven for feeling a fearful itch in the trigger finger. When Nasser closed the Gulf of Aqaba, a fight became almost inevitable.

Death in Zagazig. It was radio, rather than air-raid sirens, that delivered the full realization of war to the people on both sides. A full hour after the first sirens and some four hours after the attack, Radio Cairo got around to announcing the Israeli air raids, and then the martial music and martial pep talks began. "Our people have been waiting 20 years for this battle," roared Cairo. "Now they will teach Israel the lesson of death! The Arab armies have a rendezvous in Israel!"

The first day's battle bulletins teemed with false reports of victory, including the claim of 86 Israeli planes shot down. At each fresh bit of wishful reporting, the Cairo mobs that were gathered around transistor radios on every street corner erupted in excited yells and jubilant dances. They chanted such ditties as "We shall fight, we shall fight, our beloved Nasser; we are behind you to Tel Aviv!"

Whenever black puffs of antiaircraft fire blossomed above the horizon, crowds clinging precariously to trucks careened off towards the action, hoping to see a captured Israeli pilot. Radio Cairo reported that one downed pilot had pulled his pistol to threaten a band of fellahin in the delta town of Zagazig; the fellahin chopped him to pieces with their field axes. As night fell, thousands of youth volunteers, self-consciously aware of their new authority, poured into the streets to enforce a complete blackout on the capital.

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