Israel and the United States have been allies for decades. However, during the 1967 Six-Day War, a conflict in which the U.S. vowed to remain neutral, Israel launched a devastating strike on a U.S. naval vessel in international waters. Thirty-four were killed, 171 injured, and the ship suffered severe damage. Both countries officially labeled the attack an accident, but questions have surrounded the event ever since.
The Six-Day War was the result of longstanding disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Despite winning two wars in 1948 and 1956, Israel continued to face existential threats from a coalition of nations led by Egypt. In early 1967, Israel engaged in several border clashes with Syria and Jordan. Egypt, which entered a mutual defense pact with Syria and Jordan, blocked Israeli access to the Straits of Tiran in May and massed its forces in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel’s border. On June 5, Israel launched a surprise attack against Egyptian troops in the Sinai, and war began.
The United States vowed to remain neutral in the conflict, but kept a military presence in the region. The USS Liberty, a World War II-era cargo ship refitted as a surveillance vessel, was deployed to the eastern Mediterranean in the days leading up to the war. Its mission was to gather signals intelligence on Israel’s Arab opponents and their Soviet advisers and monitor the situation from international waters off the coast of Sinai, Egypt.
In the morning hours of June 8, 1967, the Israeli aerial reconnaissance spotted an unidentified ship 70 miles off the coast of Gaza. Three hours later, a second reconnaissance flight spotted an unidentified ship 20 miles off the coast of nearby El-Arish. The Israeli Air Force notified the Israeli naval command that these two sightings were the USS Liberty. The ship was marked as neutral and removed from the threat board.
Shortly afterward, the Israeli military received word that El-Arish was under naval bombardment. This report turned out to be an error, but that was not discovered until long after three torpedo boats were dispatched to investigate. The boats spotted a vessel in the vicinity of El-Arish and, based on its speed and its profile, assumed it was an unmarked Egyptian destroyer. The boats called in the ship’s position to the Israeli Air Force.
The vessel in question was, in fact, the Liberty. The crew had just finished a routine attack drill, and was in stand-down mode. At just before 2 p.m. local time, four Israeli fighter planes strafed the Liberty with 30-mm cannons and rocket fire. Several crew members were killed, communications equipment was damaged, and the ship’s flag was knocked down.
The aircraft disengaged, receiving word that the ship was “apparently American,” according to declassified transcripts from the incident. The torpedo boats, however, continued their approach.
The Liberty spotted the torpedo boats and prepared to mount a defense. Captain William McGonagle spotted the Israeli flag on the boats and ordered his men not to fire, but the order was not received by all the ship’s gunners. The torpedo boats took a burst of machine gun fire and responded with several torpedoes and cannons.
When the air and sea attack was over, 34 crew members of the Liberty were dead, and 171 more were wounded, including McGonagle. The ship sustained major damage and barely escaped being sunk.
Once communications were back on line, it was confirmed that the Israelis had attacked an American ship. The Israeli government promptly apologized for the attack and paid millions of dollars to the U.S. government and to the men wounded in the attack.
There were several investigations conducted into the incident by the U.S. Navy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, the U.S. House and Senate, and the NSA. Most of the final reports avoid assigning culpability for the incident and focus on communication breakdowns and matters of protocol. Israeli investigations into the matter similarly blamed lack of communications and found no reason for anyone involved to face criminal charges.
Some veterans of the USS Liberty and other investigators reached a different conclusion. They believe that the Liberty was deliberately attacked and that both the U.S. and Israel covered it up in a hasty investigation. They point to several holes in the official story based on the published reports and declassified communications.
In the days leading up to the attack, Israeli officials claim that they repeatedly warned U.S. ships to steer clear of the coast because any unidentified ships would automatically be considered hostile. American naval and government officials claim that no inquiries were made about the position of American ships until after the attack on the Liberty.
Israeli pilots who flew over the Liberty during the reconnaissance and the attack claim that they did not see any identifying markings on the ship. Liberty crew members maintain that the ship’s designation as an American vessel was plain by her hull markings and that the American flag was flying at full mast when the aerial attack began. Visual confirmation by the Israelis also suggested that the Liberty looked very similar to the Egyptian ship El Quseir. See if you can spot the difference between the two boats.
The Israeli torpedo boats believed that the ship was a combat vessel because they tracked it at a speed of 28 knots. The Liberty’s top speed was well below that, and its standard cruising speed during signal work was close to 5 knots.
Records indicate that Israeli Naval Operations ordered the torpedo boats to halt to the attack because the target had been incorrectly identified. The commander of the torpedo boat division claimed that he never received the order, although the deputy commander testified to having relayed the halt order to him.
There is a broad contemporary consensus that the reports conducted at the time were based on shoddy investigations. However, the question remains: Why would Israel deliberately attack the vessel of a neutral ally. Some say it was an attempt to bring the U.S. into the war on Israel’s side. Perhaps, but why? By June 8, Israel’s victory was almost assured. It did not need America’s help. Other theories include that Israel believed that America was sharing its signal information with the Egyptians, or that America had evidence of Israeli atrocities, and the attack was meant to force the U.S. to keep the information secret.
It is quite possible that what happened to the USS Liberty on June 6, 1967 was just what the Israeli and U.S. governments say it was, an accident. It wouldn’t be the first time human error led to tragedy. Sadly, it won’t be the last.