113. Israel: A nation always faced with war – II

After the end of the Suez Crisis of 1956, Israel’s weight and prominence at the international stage had considerably increased. However, attacks by armed Palestinian Arabs against Israel, rather than abating, were gradually on a rise. As a result, like the earlier decades, the Israeli Defense Forces had to continue with ‘Reprisal operations’ during the intervening period between wars.

However, Egypt awaited an opportunity to take back the Sinai Peninsula from Israel. Israel continued to hold sway over the Sinai Peninsula which it had taken over from Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis or the Second Arab-Israeli War. Finally, Egypt got this opportunity in 1967 during the ‘Six-Day War’ also known as the Third Arab-Israeli War.

There were many reasons for the war between Israel against Egypt, Syria and Jordan to have started. Firstly, Israel and Egypt locked horns over the control of the Sinai Desert. Secondly, Israel and Syria were in disagreement over the control of the Golan Heights. Thirdly, Israel and Jordan were at loggerheads over the issue of sharing the waters of the Jordan River. Also, the use of the territories of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan by the armed Palestinian Arab groups for creating violence in Israel was another key point of contention.

One such incident happened in November 1966. An armed Palestinian Arab group carried out an act of terror in Israel. The perpetrators of the attack were traced to a village in the West Bank, which was then under Jordan. The IDF took to direct retaliation and attacked the hamlet. The action led to deaths of 18 Arabs while 54 were injured. The Jordanian forces deployed there had to run for their lives literally. It proved to be the immediate flashpoint for Jordan to step into the war.

Besides, the Israeli Air Force shot down six fighter jets of Syria in a dogfight.

Later, Syria and Jordan, who had military cooperation agreements with Egypt, began criticizing Egyptian President Nasser for not helping them in the conflict against Israel. Upset at the criticism, Nasser began taking aggressive steps. On 23rd May 1967, once again, Egypt announced a blockade on the Israeli ships from sailing in the Straits of Tiran and also began assembling forces at the border of the Sinai Desert. Nasser took the step despite Israel having warned a number of times against closing of the Straits of Tiran calling it to be an act of war. Incorrect information provided by the Soviets to Egypt concerning the movements of the Israeli forces is also believed to be one of the immediate reasons behind Nasser taking such a step.

On 5th June 1967, Israel mounted air attacks against Egyptian airbases and destroyed most of their fighter planes. Following this, when Syria and Jordan stepped into the war on the side of Egypt, within just six days, the IDF also bashed them severely. In these six days, Israel took over almost all the land upto Sinai’s Suez Canal and the Gaza Strip as well from Egypt. The Israelis won most of the area of the Golan Heights from Syria. They also conquered a large part of the West Bank which was under the control of Jordan since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Most importantly, they regained East Jerusalem from Jordan. By 10th June 1967, the war had ended!

Israeli Defense Forces, Reprisal operations, Suez Crisis, Middle East, Golan Heights, IDF, retaliation, Israel, Syria, Egypt
Six-Day War, 1967: Egyptian prisoners of war rounded up by the IDF

Thus, the Israel Defense Forces had exhibited unparalleled bravery and within just six days had expanded the boundaries of Israel considerably. The victory had turned into an incredible morale booster for the Israel forces while it was the opposite with the Arabs. The war is believed to have claimed lives of about 800-900 Israeli soldiers while the number of fatalities the Arab troops suffered is thought to be around 10-15 thousand.

The war had only increased hostility in the minds of the Arab nations towards Israel. In September 1967, during the Arab League Summit in Khartoum, the Arab countries declared their ‘3 No’s Policy’ concerning Israel under which they would have – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

Israeli Defense Forces, Reprisal operations, Suez Crisis, Middle East, Golan Heights, IDF, retaliation, Israel, Syria, Egypt
Heads of state at the Arab League Summit in Khartoum, 1967

Restless and uneasy at the defeat, Egypt started skirmishes against the Israeli army at several places along with the Suez Canal and made numerous attempts to infiltrate into the Sinai Peninsula. Many such petty incidents later snowballed into a full-fledged war. On 8th March 1969, Nasser made a formal declaration of war which is called ‘War of Attrition’. It aimed to compel the Israel forces to vacate Sinai by wearing them down with a slew of attacks. The war went on for three years – from 1967 to 1970. Later, with mediation from the United States, a ceasefire agreement was reached.

However, the Arabs, especially Egypt, was not going to sit doing nothing. Nasser died in 1970. Anwar Sadat succeeded him as President. He took a cautious approach and rebuilt the Egyptian forces over the next 2-3 years. He also reached out freshly to other Arab countries and began preparing them for a possible war with Israel. Considering past experiences, no Arab nation was ready to fight a direct, conventional war with Israel. However, a word from the Soviets about supplying MiG-21 fighter aircraft, tanks and other weapons on a large scale to Egypt boosted their morale.

On 6th October 1973, the Egyptian forces attacked Israel. It was the day of ‘Yom Kippur’, the holiest day for the Jews. The whole of Israel was in the midst of observing the holiday. Unaware that Egypt would choose this very day for the attack, understandably, the Israeli forces were not much prepared. Simultaneously, Syria too launched an offensive against Israel from the Golan Heights. The sudden attacks delivered initial success for the Arab armies. However, Israel recovered within a short interval of time, prepared its Reservist forces and launched a counter-offensive. But just within a few days, they neared running out of resources. The then Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, appealed to the United States for help. Even so, with Arabs threatening an oil embargo, the United States had to ignore the Israeli demand at the start. However, on learning about the Soviet Union aiding Egypt, the United States began supplying help to Israel. It boosted IDF morale, and they started forcing the Egyptian and Syrian forces to pull back. On the Egypt front, the IDF not only captured the Suez Canal but also reached a distance of just 100 kilometres from the Egyptian capital of Cairo. Even on the Syrian front, the IDF took over the Golan Heights. Moreover, advancing further, they reached a striking distance from the Syrian capital of Damascus. The position brought Damascus within the range of IDF canons.

Israeli Defense Forces, Reprisal operations, Suez Crisis, Middle East, Golan Heights, IDF, retaliation, Israel, Syria, Egypt
Yom Kippur War, 1973: the Syrian General Staff headquarters in Damascus destroyed in an Israeli airstrike

As the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, the two superpowers began behind the scene talks and made proposals for a ceasefire. The backchannel diplomacy succeeded, and the war stopped on 26th October 1973. Egypt and Israel signed the disengagement agreement in January 1974. The war had weighed heavy on the exchequers of all the three belligerent nations – Egypt, Syria and Israel.

It made both Egypt and Israel mull over establishing peace, and accordingly, diplomatic efforts started publicly as well as behind closed doors. It led to the signing of the ‘Camp David Accords’ between Israel and Egypt in 1978. At the behest of US President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the accords at the White House. Taking a step further to it, the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty was signed in March 1979. Under the treaty, Israel agreed to completely withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula while Egypt consented to leave the area demilitarized. For signing an agreement that could bring peace to the Middle East, the Nobel Prize for Peace for 1979 was jointly conferred on Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.

Israeli Defense Forces, Reprisal operations, Suez Crisis, Middle East, Golan Heights, IDF, retaliation, Israel, Syria, Egypt
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, US president Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the Camp David Accords, 1978

It was the first time in history for an Arab nation to negotiation with Israel, officially recognize Israel as a ‘nation’ and to sign a peace deal with Israel!  (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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