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The curse of a great war victory.


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"Sometimes I feel I am fighting windmills," the Israeli instructor of international human rights law told me. Her lessons include teaching such issues as when an order is illegal and when it may be legally permissible for soldiers to refuse a command.

But the young lawyer wearing the Israel Defense Forces uniform is no ivory-tower academic. Instead, working with the Military Advocate General, she teaches at the School of Military Law, addressing the interface between humanitarian law and the practical dilemmas faced by Israeli soldiers doing their military service in the territories captured 40 years ago in the Six-Day War. "I prefer to teach commanders," she says, "because they set the ethical tone among their soldiers."

Hers are among some of the moral questions Israel is debating as it marks the war's 40th anniversary this month.

For Israel, the first significance of victory meant escape from doom. In the month leading up to that conflict, Egypt threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Syria and Jordan joined forces with Egypt. Israelis and many around the world felt that the annihilation of the 19-year-old country was imminent. Then, against all expectations, Israel not only won the war, but acquired the Sinai Desert and Gaza from Egypt, the West Bank and Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

That summer Israel celebrated what it saw as a near-miraculous reprieve.

But its great victory on the battlefield triggered the curse of being a foreign occupier of other peoples' land and catalyzed debilitating existential questions. The most overwhelming is whether Israel missed an early window of opportunity to use the conquered lands as bargaining chips for peace.

These days the mood in the country is anything but celebratory. Tributes bear a somber undertone. A popular talk show on Israeli radio broadcast six days of interviews with army veterans of the war. Old soldiers like to brag. "Enthusiasm was our fuel," I heard one claim. But in the next breath his stories of tank and infantry victories were overshadowed by frequent allusions to the pain of comrades lost on the battlefield so many years ago.

Israel's press engages in introspection and soul-searching. The newspaper Haaretz called the June 1967 conflict "Israel's shortest – and longest – war."


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