112. Israel: A nation always faced with war – I

After a long struggle, the nation of Israel came into existence. Before it, for about three thousand years, the Jews had to face conflicts and suffer under the slavery of various mighty powers.

In 1948, Israel achieved independence. However, even after it, there was hardly a moment when Israel could not see peace. After 1948 as well, Israel always faced some or the other conflict – in the form of a conventional war or some military engagement at times. During all these conflicts, the almost-unbeatable Israeli Defense Forces or the IDF have defended their country staking their lives.

War broke out within no time after Israel declared its freedom. It is also referred to as ‘Israel’s War of Independence’. The war was, in fact, the next phase of the Arab-Jew civil war that was on-going in Mandatory Palestine, much before the Israeli independence.

In this land, conflicts and skirmishes between the Arabs and the Jews are a regular affair for the last thousands of years. The Jews considered the land of Israel, roughly the area of Mandatory Palestine, as their ‘Promised Land’ which was promised and subsequently given by God to the Israelites. The intensity of the Arab-Jew clashes greatly increased when in the decades of the 1930s and 40s, the efforts to establish a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine gained steam. In November 1947, the United Nations ruled in favour of partitioning the land under Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The ruling sparked off a new chapter in the Arab-Jew conflict. The Arabs did not accept even the existence of the Jewish people, let alone the creation of a Jewish state. Consequently, from the very next day of the UN resolution, the region saw skyrocketing in the Arab attacks against the Jews. When the Jews resisted the attacks, it led to a civil war in Palestine.

In May 1948, Mandatory Palestine was already suffering violence, when Israel declared its independence, a day before the end of the deadline of the ‘British Mandate for Palestine’. Thereupon on the same night, the five Arab neighbouring nations of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq together attacked Israel.

In the beginning, the Israeli forces had to suffer losses at the hands of the Arabs forces, which not only outnumbered them but also were better equipped. However, the flow of arms reinforcements from foreign nations to Israel and the number of Jews joining the military service picked up. It raised the morale of the Israeli forces and boosted them to fight a fierce battle which ultimately led to Israel defeating all the five Arab nations at war. The five countries had to sign ceasefire agreements with Israel. This way, the war which had started in November 1947 ended in July 1949.

Though the war ended, the Arab-Jewish confrontation had not. Various armed Arab militias continued their activities to wipe out the Jews and conquer Israel. They received tacit as well as open support from several Arab nations. New armed Arab groups continued to take birth. Importantly, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, also called the First Arab–Israeli War, some 700 thousand Palestinians left their houses and fled for refuge to other Arab countries or other Arab settlements in Palestine. It led to the creation of the ‘Palestinian refugee crisis’.

Besides, in the decades of the 1950s and 60s as well, Israel had to face wars. However, apart from these battles, the IDF continuously faced the challenge of containing the armed Arab intruders who tried to infiltrate into Israel to disturb peace secretly. The action taken by the IDF is called ‘Reprisal operations’.

After the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the incidents of infiltration saw an increase. The infiltrators came from within the Arab refugees and were called ‘Fedayeen’. These were armed Arab guerrillas, burning with a desire to take revenge on Israel. They mainly intruded into Israel from Syria, Egypt and Jordan, and executed violent acts. However, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had firmed upon giving them a fitting reply.

nation, War, Mandatory Palestine, IDF, Jews, Reprisal operations, Israel, United Kingdom, Russia
A Palestinian caught by Israeli forces at the border

Ben-Gurion had sternly warned that anyone who tries to harm Israel, we promise them that they should be sure of paying a huge cost for their act. The cost would such that not just the armed Arab groups or the regular Arab armies but even the Arab nations will not be able to bear it.

Various ‘Reprisal operations’ carried after the warning proved that it did not go futile. There are examples in which for killing just one Israeli citizen, the Israeli forces attacked the Arabs village or settlements from where the perpetrator was found to originate and killed several Arabs there. Also, there were many cases of killing of the Arab military commanders, who aided incursions into the Israeli territory. Such incidents led to widespread criticism of Israel at the international level. However, the Israeli establishment had pursued such operations, with a keen and constant intent to deliver a stern message to the terrorists – ‘think hundred times before attacking Israel’.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was next to follow in the year 1956. It is also referred to as the Second Arab–Israeli war. Humiliated by Israel at the First Arab-Israeli War, Egypt was in search of an opportunity to seek revenge. From 1950 onwards, Egypt blocked access of the Israeli ships to the Straits of Tiran. Later, Gamal Abdel Nasser and others engineered the Egyptian revolution of 1952. The coup ended with Nasser appointed as the deputy prime minister. Further, in 1956, Nasser went on to become the President. On assuming the presidency, Nasser aided and abetted the Fedayeen attackers in all possible ways. Then, in the same year, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Subsequently, it added to the harassment at the hands of the Egyptian officials of the Israeli ships which plied through the Canal. In addition to it, large-scale weapon purchases by Egypt from the Soviet Union made Israel uneasy.

nation, War, Mandatory Palestine, IDF, Jews, Reprisal operations, Israel, United Kingdom, Russia
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Egypt’s leaning towards the communist regime of the Soviet Union did not go down well with the United Kingdom and France. Consequently, they stopped financial aid to Egypt’s ambitious Aswan Dam Project so as to choke the country. Agitated at the decision, Nasser had decided to nationalize the Suez Canal as until then the Suez was under the control of the UK and France. The two European nations were also awaiting a chance to take revenge on Egypt with the loss of their sway. Hence, they began to cooperate with Israel secretly. France had one more reason to hate Nasser as he covertly aided the rebels and their independence struggle on-going in Algeria, then a French colony. Of course, the United Kingdom, France and Israel wanted to do away with Nasser for various different reasons.

As a result, the United Kingdom and France agreed to help Israel by all means in case of war with Egypt. With it, in 1956, Israel declared war on Egypt and attacked its territory of the Sinai Peninsula. The Israeli forces made the Egyptian army to retreat. Within a few days, the Israeli army stood at just 10 kilometers from the Suez Canal. Then, as per the clandestine cooperation worked out between the UK, France and Israel, UK and France militarily intervened into the crisis to protect the Suez Canal from warring Egypt and Israel.

nation, War, Mandatory Palestine, IDF, Jews, Reprisal operations, Israel, United Kingdom, Russia
Map of the Suez Crisis or the Second Arab–Israeli war

However, fearing entry of Russia into the region to aid Egypt, the United States started to mount pressure on the United Kingdom and France. Considering the importance of the Suez Canal for international trade, the United Nations also passed a resolution for peace in the area. Thus, the UK, France and Israel were forced to pull back their forces.

nation, War, Mandatory Palestine, IDF, Jews, Reprisal operations, Israel, United Kingdom, Russia
Oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the Anglo-French attack on Port Said during the Suez Crisis

The withdrawal dented the international standing of the United Kingdom and France. However, it added to Israel’s weight and prominence. The global community had realized that no step in the Middle East could be taken without taking Israel into consideration.  (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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