Background & Overview
(October - November 1956)
In the fall of 1948, the UN Security Council called
on Israel and the Arab states to negotiate armistice agreements. Egypt agreed, but only after Israel had routed its army and driven
to El Arish in the Sinai. At that time, the British were ready
to defend Egypt under an Anglo-Egyptian treaty. Rather than
accept the humiliation of British assistance, however, the Egyptians
met the Israelis at Rhodes.
UN mediator Ralph Bunche brought them together at
the conference table and was later honored with a Nobel
Peace Prize. He warned that any delegation that walked out of the negotiations
would be blamed for their breakdown.
By the summer of 1949, armistice agreements had been
negotiated between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Iraq, which had also fought against Israel, refused to follow
suit. Bunche succeeded at Rhodes because he insisted on direct
bilateral talks between Israel and each Arab state.
Meanwhile, on December 11, 1948, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the parties to negotiate peace
and creating a Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC), which
consisted of the United States, France and Turkey. All Arab delegations
voted against it.
After 1949, the Arabs insisted that Israel accept
the borders in the 1947 partition resolution and repatriate the Palestinian refugees before they would negotiate an end to the
war they had initiated. This was a novel approach that they would
use after subsequent defeats: the doctrine of the limited-liability
war. Under this theory, an aggressor may reject a compromise settlement
and gamble on war to win everything in the comfortable knowledge
that, even if he fails, he may insist on reinstating the status
Egypt had maintained its state of belligerency with
Israel after the armistice agreement was signed. The first manifestation
of this was the closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping.
On August 9, 1949, the UN Mixed Armistice Commission upheld Israel's
complaint that Egypt was illegally blocking the canal. UN negotiator
Ralph Bunche declared: "There should be free movement for
legitimate shipping and no vestiges of the wartime blockade should
be allowed to remain, as they are inconsistent with both the letter
and the spirit of the armistice agreements."
On September 1, 1951, the Security Council ordered
Egypt to open the Canal to Israeli shipping. Egypt refused to
The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Muhammad Salah al-Din,
said early in 1954:
The Arab people will not be embarrassed to declare:
We shall not be satisfied except by the final obliteration of
Israel from the map of the Middle East (Al-Misri,
April 12, 1954).
A New Type of Warfare
In 1955, Egyptian President Gamal
Abdel Nasser began
to import arms from the Soviet Bloc to build his arsenal for the
confrontation with Israel. In the short-term, however, he
employed a new tactic to prosecute Egypt's war with Israel. He
announced it on August 31, 1955:
Egypt has decided to dispatch her heroes, the disciples
of Pharaoh and the sons of Islam and they will cleanse the land
of Palestine....There will be no peace on Israel's border because
we demand vengeance, and vengeance is Israel's death.
These “heroes” were Arab terrorists,
or fedayeen, trained and equipped by Egyptian
Intelligence to engage in hostile action on the border
and infiltrate Israel to commit acts of sabotage and
murder. The fedayeen operated
mainly from bases in Jordan, so that Jordan would bear
the brunt of Israel's retaliation, which inevitably
followed. The terrorist attacks violated the armistice
agreement provision that prohibited the initiation
of hostilities by paramilitary forces; nevertheless,
it was Israel that was condemned by the UN Security
Council for its counterattacks.
The escalation continued with the Egyptian blockade
of the Straits of Tiran, and Nasser's nationalization of the Suez
Canal in July 1956. On October 14, Nasser made clear his intent:
I am not solely fighting against Israel itself. My
task is to deliver the Arab world from destruction through Israel's
intrigue, which has its roots abroad. Our hatred is very strong.
There is no sense in talking about peace with Israel. There is
not even the smallest place for negotiations.
Less than two weeks later, on October 25, Egypt signed
a tripartite agreement with Syria and Jordan placing Nasser in
command of all three armies.
The continued blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf
of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, combined with the increased fedayeen attacks and the bellicosity of recent Arab statements, prompted
Israel, with the backing of Britain and France, to attack Egypt
on October 29, 1956.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Abba Eban explained
the provocations to the Security Council on October 30:
During the six years during which this belligerency
has operated in violation of the Armistice Agreement there have
occurred 1,843 cases of armed robbery and theft, 1,339 cases of
armed clashes with Egyptian armed forces, 435 cases of incursion
from Egyptian controlled territory, 172 cases of sabotage perpetrated
by Egyptian military units and fedayeen in Israel. As a
result of these actions of Egyptian hostility within Israel, 364
Israelis were wounded and 101 killed. In 1956 alone, as a result
of this aspect of Egyptian aggression, 28 Israelis were killed
and 127 wounded.
One reason these raids were so intolerable for Israel was that the country had
chosen to create a relatively small standing army and to rely primarily on
reserves in the event of war. This meant that Israel had a small force to fight
in an emergency, that threats provoking the mobilization of reserves could
virtually paralyze the country, and that an enemy's initial thrust would have to
be withstood long enough to complete the mobilization.
Earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower
had successfully persuaded the British and French
not to attack Egypt after Nasser nationalized the
Suez Canal. When the agreement on the canal’s use proved reliable over the
succeeding weeks, it became more and more difficult
to justify military action. Still, the French and
British desperately wanted to put Nasser in his place
and recapture their strategic asset.
The French had grown increasingly close to the
new Israeli government, politically, diplomatically,
and militarily. The British attitude toward Israel
had hardly changed from the mandatory
bitterness over the nearly three-decade-long battle
fought with the Zionists, combined with the ongoing
alliance with Jordan, discouraged any shift in policy.
The French concluded, however, that they could
use Israel’s fear of Egyptian aggression and the
continuing blockade as a pretext for their own strike
against Nasser. The British couldn’t pass up
the chance to join in.
The three nations subsequently agreed on a plan
whereby Israel would land paratroopers near the canal
and send its armor across the Sinai Desert. The British
and French would then call for both sides to withdraw
from the canal zone, fully expecting the Egyptians
to refuse. At that point, British and French troops
would be deployed to “protect” the canal.
When the decision was made to go
to war in 1956, more than 100,000 soldiers were mobilized
in less than 72 hours and the air force was fully
operational within 43 hours. Paratroopers landed
in the Sinai and Israeli forces quickly advanced
unopposed toward the Suez Canal before halting in
compliance with the demands of England and France.
As expected, the Egyptians ignored the Anglo-French
ultimatum to withdraw since they, the “victims,” were
being asked to retreat from the Sinai to the west
bank of the Canal while the Israelis were permitted
to stay just 10 miles east of the Canal.
On October 30, the United States sponsored a Security
Council resolution calling for an immediate Israeli withdrawal, but England
and France vetoed it. The following day, the two allies launched air
operations, bombing Egyptian airfields near Suez.
Given the pretext to continue
fighting, the Israeli forces routed the Egyptians.
The IDF's armored corps swept across the desert, capturing
virtually the entire Sinai by November 5. Former
U.S. Ambassador Parker Hart said, “We had intelligence
reports that many of the Egyptian toops just took
off their shoes and ran barefoot to get out of there
faster.” That day, British
and French paratroops landed near Port Said and amphibious
ships dropped commandoes on shore. British troops
captured Port Said and advanced to within 25 miles
of Suez City before the British government abruptly
agreed to a cease-fire.
The British about-face was prompted by Soviet threats to
use "every kind of modern destructive weapon" to stop the violence
and the United States decision to make a much-needed $1 billion loan from the
International Monetary Fund contingent on a cease-fire. The French tried to
convince Britain to fight long enough to finish the job of capturing the
Canal, but succeeded only in delaying their acceptance of the cease-fire.
Though their allies had failed to accomplish their goals,
the Israelis were satisfied at having reached theirs in an operation that took
only 100 hours. By the end of the fighting, Israel held the Gaza Strip and had
advanced as far as Sharm al-Sheikh along the Red Sea. A total of 231 Israeli
soldiers died in the fighting.
Ike Forces Israel to Withdraw
President Eisenhower was upset by the fact
that Israel, France and Great Britain had secretly
planned the campaign to evict Egypt from the Suez
Canal. Israel's failure to inform the United States
of its intentions, combined with ignoring American
entreaties not to go to war, sparked tensions between
the countries. The United States subsequently joined
the Soviet Union (ironically, just after the Soviets
invaded Hungary) in a campaign to force Israel to
withdraw. This included a threat to discontinue all U.S. assistance, UN sanctions and expulsion
from the UN (see exchanges between Ben-Gurion and Eisenhower).
U.S. pressure resulted in an Israeli withdrawal from
the areas it conquered without obtaining any concessions from
the Egyptians. This sowed the seeds of the 1967
One reason Israel did give in to Eisenhower was the
assurance he gave to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Before
evacuating Sharm al-Sheikh, the strategic point guarding
the Straits of Tiran, Israel elicited a promise that the United
States would maintain the freedom of navigation in the waterway.
In addition, Washington sponsored a UN resolution creating the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to supervise the territories
vacated by the Israeli forces.
The war temporarily ended the activities of the fedayeen;
however, they were renewed a few years by a loosely knit group
of terrorist organizations that became know as the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO).
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard,The
Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th
Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008; Parker T.
Hart, Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection
of the Association for Diplomatic Studies
and Training, (August 12, 1988).