Myths & Facts Online
The War of Attrition, 1967-1970
Israel was responsible for the War of
Israel was responsible for the War of Attrition.
Egypt's President Gamal Nasser thought that because most of Israel's army consisted of reserves, it could not withstand a lengthy war of attrition. He believed Israel would be unable to endure the economic burden, and the constant casualties would undermine Israeli morale. To pursue this strategy of slowly weakening Israel, Nasser ordered attacks on Israel that were calibrated so that they would not provoke an all-out Israeli war in response.
As early as July 1, 1967, Egypt began shelling Israeli positions near the Suez Canal. On October 21, 1967, Egypt sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat, killing 47. A few months later, Egyptian artillery began to shell Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and ambush Israeli military patrols. This bloody War of Attrition, as it became known, lasted three years. The Israeli death toll between June 15, 1967, and August 8, 1970 (when a cease-fire was declared), was 1,424 soldiers and more than 100 civilians. Another 2,000 soldiers and 700 civilians were wounded.1
Egypt terminated the War of Attrition, and sought to reach some accommodation with Israel, only to have Jerusalem spurn these initiatives.
In the summer of 1970, the United States persuaded Israel and Egypt to accept a cease-fire. This cease-fire was designed to lead to negotiations under UN auspices. Israel declared that it would accept the principle of withdrawal from territories it had captured.
But on August 7, the Soviets and Egyptians deployed sophisticated ground-to-air SAM-2 and SAM-3 missiles in the restricted 32-mile-deep zone along the west bank of the Suez Canal. This was a clear violation of the cease-fire agreement, which barred the introduction or construction of any military installations in this area.
Time magazine observed that U.S. reconnaissance "showed that the 36 SAM-2 missiles sneaked into the cease-fire zone constitute only the first line of the most massive anti-aircraft system ever created."2
Defense Department satellite photos demonstrated conclusively that 63 SAM-2 sites were installed in a 78-mile band between the cities of Ismailia and Suez. Three years later, these missiles provided air coverage for Egypt's surprise attack against Israel.3
Despite the Egyptian violations, the UN-sponsored talks resumed — additional evidence that Israel was anxious to make progress toward peace. The talks were swiftly short-circuited, however, by UN Special Envoy Gunnar Jarring, when he accepted the Egyptian interpretation of Resolution 242 and called for Israel's total withdrawal to the pre-June 5, 1967, demarcation lines.
On that basis, Egypt expressed its willingness "to enter into a peace agreement with Israel" in a February 20, 1971, letter to Jarring. But this seeming moderation masked an unchanging Egyptian irredentism and unwillingness to accept a real peace, as shown by the letter's sweeping reservations and preconditions.
The crucial sentences about a "peace agreement with Israel" were neither published nor broadcast in Egypt. Moreover, Egypt refused to enter direct talks with the Jewish State. Israel attempted to at least transform the struggling Jarring mission into indirect talks by addressing all letters not to Jarring, but to the Egyptian government. Egypt refused to accept them.
Just after the letter to Jarring, Anwar Sadat, Egypt's new president, addressed the Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Cairo. He promised support to the PLO "until victory" and declared that Egypt would not accept Resolution 242.4
Five days after Sadat suggested he was ready to make peace with Israel, Mohammed Heikal, a Sadat confidant and editor of the semi-official Al-Ahram, wrote:
Egypt repeatedly expressed a willingness to begin peace negotiations with Israel from 1971 to 1973. Israel's rejection of these initiatives led to the Yom Kippur War.
With the collapse of the Jarring mission, the United States undertook a new initiative. It proposed an Israeli-Egyptian interim agreement, calling for the Jewish State's partial withdrawal from the Suez Canal and the opening of that waterway.
Israel was willing to enter negotiations without preconditions, but Sadat demanded that Israel agree, as part of an interim agreement, to withdraw ultimately to the old 1967 lines. In effect, Sadat was seeking an advance guarantee of the outcome of "negotiations." This was unacceptable to Israel and suggested that Sadat was not genuinely interested in peace.
1Some historians consider the starting date
of the War of Attrition in 1968 or 1969. We are using Chaim Herzog's time
frame. Chaim Herzog, The
Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1984), pp. 195-221; Nadav
The Embattled Ally, (MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p.
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