Myths & Facts Online:
The 1956 Suez War
INDEX OF MYTHS:
- “Arab governments were prepared to accept Israel after the 1948 war.”
- “The threat from Israel, and the withdrawal of the United States’ offer to build the Aswan Dam, drove Egypt to seek arms from the Soviet Union in 1955. This started the Middle East arms race.”
- “Israel’s military strike in 1956 was unprovoked.”
- “The United States’ blind support for Israel was apparent during the Suez War.”
“Arab governments were prepared to accept Israel after the 1948 war.” top
In the fall of 1948, the UN Security Council called on Israel and the Arab states to negotiate armistice agreements. Thanks to UN mediator Ralph Bunche’s insistence on direct bilateral talks between Israel and each Arab state, armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria were concluded by the summer of 1949. Iraq, which had also fought against Israel, refused to follow suit.
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, aggressors may reject a compromise settlement and gamble on war to win everything in the comfortable knowledge that, even if they fail, they may insist on reinstating the status quo ante.
“The threat from Israel, and the withdrawal of the United States’ offer to build the Aswan Dam, drove Egypt to seek arms from the Soviet Union in 1955.
This started the Middle East arms race.” top
In 1955, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union in anger because the United States had armed Iraq, Egypt’s hated rival, and promoted the Baghdad Pact. Nasser opposed that agreement, as he did any defense alliance with the West.
Egypt began to receive Soviet Bloc arms in 1955. The United States, hoping to maintain a degree of influence in Egypt and to induce Nasser to reduce his arms acquisitions, offered to build the Aswan Dam. But Nasser increased his arms orders and spurned a U.S. peace initiative. Egypt had embarked on a policy of “neutralism,” which meant that Nasser intended to get aid from both East and West if he could, while maintaining his freedom to attack the West and assist Soviet efforts to gain influence in the Arab and Afro-Asian worlds. As a result of these actions, and Nasser’s increasing hostility to the West, the United States withdrew the Aswan offer. Egypt then nationalized the Suez Canal.
Immediately after Nasser made his 1955 arms deal, Israel appealed to the United States—not for a gift of arms, but for the right to purchase them. The U.S. recognized the need to maintain an arms balance, but it referred Israel to France and other European suppliers. It was not until 1962 that the United States agreed to sell Israel its first significant American system, the HAWK anti-aircraft missile.
“Israel’s military strike in 1956 was unprovoked.” top
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.”1
On September 1, 1951, the Security Council ordered Egypt to open the Canal to Israeli shipping. Egypt refused to comply.
The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Muhammad Salah al-Din, said early in 1954 that:
“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.”2
In 1955, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser began to import arms from the Soviet Bloc to build his arsenal for a future 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. 3
Israeli Advance into Sinai
These “heroes” were Arab terrorists, or fedayeen, trained and equipped by Egyptian Intelligence to engage in hostile action on the border, and to 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 Israel’s shipping lane in 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. 4
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 blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, combined with the increased fedayeen attacks and the bellicosity of Arab statements, prompted Israel, with the backing of Britain and France, to attack Egypt on October 29, 1956. The Israeli attack on Egypt was successful, with Israeli forces capturing the Gaza Strip, much of the Sinai and Sharm al-Sheikh. A total of 231 Israeli soldiers died in the fighting.
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. 5
“The United States’ blind support for Israel was apparent during the Suez War.” top
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 6 ).
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 war.
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.7 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 later by a loosely knit group of terrorist organizations that became known as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
1 “Israel’s Complaint to the U.N. Security Council on the Suez Canal Blockade; S-2241,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (July 11, 1951).
2 Al-Misri, (April 12, 1954), cited in, “Mideast-History’s Lesson,” Florida Times Union, (May 7, 2002).
3 Middle Eastern Affairs, (December 1956), p. 461.
4 Middle Eastern Affairs, (December 1956), p. 460.
5 Security Council Official Records, S/3706, (October 30, 1956), p. 14.
6 Jewish Virtual Library, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/bgiketoc.html.
7 Janice Gross Stein and Raymond Tanter, Rational Decision Making: Israel’s Security Choices, (OH: Ohio State University, 1976), p. 163.