Myths & Facts Online:
The 1973 Yom Kippur War
INDEX OF MYTHS:
“Israel was responsible for the 1973 War.” top
Throughout 1972, and for much of 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat threatened war unless the United States forced Israel to accept his interpretation of Resolution 242—total Israeli withdrawal from territories taken in 1967. In an April 1973 interview, Sadat again warned he would renew the war with Israel.1 But it was the same threat he had made in 1971 and 1972, and most observers remained skeptical.
The U.S.-sponsored truce was three-years-old and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had opened a new dialogue for peace at the UN. Almost everyone was confident the prospect of a new war was remote.
On October 6, 1973—Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar—Egypt and Syria opened a coordinated surprise attack against Israel. The equivalent of the total forces of NATO in Europe was mobilized on Israel’s borders. 2 On the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. Along the Suez Canal, fewer than 500 Israeli defenders were attacked by 80,000 Egyptians.
The Battle for Sinai (Left) and the Battle for the Golan Heights (Right)
Thrown onto the defensive during the first two days of fighting, Israel mobilized its reserves and eventually repulsed the invaders and carried the war deep into Syria and Egypt. The Arab states were swiftly resupplied by sea and air from the Soviet Union, which rejected United States efforts to work toward an immediate cease-fire. As a result, the United States belatedly began its own airlift to Israel. Two weeks later, Egypt was saved from a disastrous defeat by the UN Security Council, which had failed to act while the tide was in the Arabs’ favor.
On October 22, the Security Council adopted Resolution 338 calling for “all parties to the present fighting to cease all firing and terminate all military activity immediately.” The vote came on the day that Israeli forces cut off and isolated the Egyptian Third Army and were in a position to destroy it.3
Despite the Israel Defense Forces’ ultimate success on the battlefield, the war was considered a diplomatic and military failure. A total of 2,688 Israeli soldiers were killed.
“Israel missed the opportunity for peace by rejecting Sadat’s 1971 peace proposal.” top
In 1971, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat raised the possibility of signing an agreement with Israel, provided that all the disputed territories were returned by the Israelis.
Contrary to revisionist histories suggesting that Israel missed a chance to make peace and avoid the 1973 war by failing to respond favorably to Sadat’s initiatives, Sadat did not sound like a leader interested in peace. He threatened to go to war if a political solution was not achieved and demanded Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, while at the same time declaring he would never establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He was also unwilling to negotiate because of fears he would anger his financial patrons in Libya and Saudi Arabia and possibly lose power. Furthermore, Sadat could not have made peace in 1971 because it would have been from a point of weakness and dishonor.4
In 1972, after Israel rejected his offer, Sadat said war was inevitable and he was prepared to sacrifice one million soldiers in the showdown with Israel.5 He carried out his threat a year later.
“All countries should wage war against the Zionists, who are there to destroy all human organizations and to destroy civilization and the work which good people are trying to do.”
— King Faisal of Saudi Arabia 6
“Egypt and Syria were the only Arab states involved in the 1973 war.” top
At least nine Arab states, including four non-Middle Eastern nations, actively aided the Egyptian-Syrian war effort.
A few months before the Yom Kippur War, Iraq transferred a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt. During the war, an Iraqi division of some 18,000 men and several hundred tanks was deployed in the central Golan and participated in the October 16 attack against Israeli positions.7 Iraqi MiGs began operating over the Golan Heights as early as October 8, the third day of the war.
Besides serving as financial underwriters, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait committed men to battle. A Saudi brigade of approximately 3,000 troops was dispatched to Syria, where it participated in fighting along the approaches to Damascus. Also, violating Paris’s ban on the transfer of French-made weapons, Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt.8
Syrian Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlas told the Syrian National Assembly in December 1973 of the following example of “supreme valor” by Syrian troops:
“There is the outstanding case of a recruit from Aleppo who murdered 28 Jewish soldiers all by himself, slaughtering them like sheep. All of his comrades in arms witnessed this. He butchered three of them with an ax and decapitated them. . . . He struggled face to face with one of them and throwing down his ax managed to break his neck and devour his flesh in front of his comrades. This is a special case. Need I single it out to award him the Medal of the Republic. I will grant this medal to any soldier who succeeds in killing 28 Jews, and I will cover him with appreciation and honor his bravery.” 9
Other North African countries responded to Arab and Soviet calls to aid the front-line states. Algeria sent three aircraft squadrons of fighters and bombers, an armored brigade and 150 tanks. Approximately 1,000–2,000 Tunisian soldiers were positioned in the Nile Delta. The Sudan stationed 3,500 troops in southern Egypt, and Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines, including 2,500 men to Syria.
Lebanese radar units were used by Syrian air defense forces. Lebanon also allowed Palestinian terrorists to shell Israeli civilian settlements from its territory. Palestinians fought on the southern front with the Egyptians and Kuwaitis.10
The least enthusiastic participant in the October fighting was probably Jordan’s King Hussein, who apparently had been kept uninformed of Egyptian and Syrian war plans. But Hussein did send two of his best units—the 40th and 60th Armored Brigades—to Syria. This force took positions in the southern sector, defending the main Amman-Damascus route and attacking Israeli positions along the Kuneitra-Sassa road on October 16. Three Jordanian artillery batteries also participated in the assault, carried out by nearly 100 tanks.11
1 Newsweek, (April 9, 1973).
2 Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1984), p. 230.
3 Herzog, p. 280.
4 Shlomo Aronson, “On Sadat’s Peace Initiatives in the Wake of the Yom Kippur War”; Mitchell Bard, Will Israel Survive, (NY: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 8–9.
5 Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 747.
6 Beirut Daily Star, (November 17, 1972).
7 Trevor Dupuy, Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947–1974, (NY: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 462.
8 Dupuy, p. 376; Herzog, p. 278; Nadav Safran, Israel The Embattled Ally, (MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 499.
9 Official Gazette of Syria, (July 11, 1974).
10 Herzog, pp. 278, 285, 293; Dupuy, p. 534.
11 Herzog, p. 300.