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Myths & Facts
The 1956 Suez War and the 1967 Six-Day War

By Mitchell Bard

Arab governments were prepared to accept Israel after the 1948 war.
Israel’s military strike in 1956 was unprovoked.
The United States’ blind support for Israel was apparent during the Suez War.
Arab governments recognized Israel after the Suez War.
Israel’s military strike in 1967 was unprovoked.
Nasser had the right to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
The United States helped Israel defeat the Arabs in six days.
During the 1967 War, Israel deliberately attacked the USS Liberty.
Israel attacked Jordan to capture Jerusalem.
Israel expelled peaceful Palestinian villagers and prevented their return.

MYTH

Arab governments were prepared to accept Israel after the 1948 war.

FACT

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, Lebanon, and Syria were concluded by the summer of 1949. Iraq, which had also fought against Israel, refused to follow suit.

Later, on December 11, 1948, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the parties to negotiate peace; 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.

MYTH

Israel’s military strike in 1956 was unprovoked.

FACT

Egypt had maintained its state of belligerency with Israel after the armistice agreement had been 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.[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:

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, 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]

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 withstand the worst 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, the UN Security Council condemned Israel for its counterattacks.

The escalation continued in July 1956 with Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran which interfered with Israel’s access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, impeded communication with Asia and East Africa, and violated Israel’s right to freedom of navigation.

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. Estimates of casualties range from 171 to 231 Israelis and 3,000 Egyptians.

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, [and] 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]

MYTH

The United States’ blind support for Israel was apparent during the Suez War.

FACT

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.

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 deter future hostilities, assure freedom of navigation of the Straits of Tiran, and prevent fedayeen raids from Gaza.

MYTH

Arab governments recognized Israel after the Suez War.

FACT

Israel consistently expressed a desire to negotiate with its neighbors. In an address to the UN General Assembly on October 10, 1960, Foreign Minister Golda Meir challenged Arab leaders to meet with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to negotiate a peace settlement. Egyptian president Nasser answered on October 15, 1960, reiterating that his country would never recognize the Jewish State.[8] “The danger of Israel,” he said four years later, “lies in the very existence of Israel as it is in the present and in what she represents.”[9]

Meanwhile, Syria used the Golan Heights, which tower three thousand feet above the Galilee, to shell Israeli farms and villages. Syria’s attacks grew more frequent in 1965 and 1966, while Nasser’s rhetoric became increasingly bellicose: “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand,” he said on March 8, 1965. “We shall enter it with its soil saturated in blood.”[10] A few months later, he declared, “we aim at the destruction of the State of Israel.”[11].

 

MYTH

Israel’s military strike in 1967 was unprovoked.

FACT

A combination of bellicose Arab rhetoric, threatening behavior, and – ultimately – an act of war left Israel no choice but preemptive action. To do this successfully, Israel needed the element of surprise. Had it waited for an Arab invasion, Israel would have been at a potentially catastrophic disadvantage.

In addition to Nasser’s verbal threats, Israel was under attack by Arab terrorists. In 1965, 35 raids were conducted against Israel. In 1966, the number increased to 41. In just the first four months of 1967, 37 attacks were launched.[12]

Meanwhile, Syria’s attacks on Israeli kibbutzim from the Golan Heights provoked a retaliatory strike on April 7, 1967, during which Israeli planes shot down six Syrian MiGs. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union – which had been providing military and economic aid to both Syria and Egypt – gave Damascus and Cairo information alleging a massive Israeli military buildup in preparation for an attack. Despite Israeli denials, Syria decided to invoke its defense treaty with Egypt.

On May 15, Israel’s Independence Day, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai and massing near the Israeli border. By May 18, Syrian troops were prepared for battle along the Golan Heights.

Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force, stationed in the Sinai since 1956, to withdraw on May 16. Without bringing the matter to the attention of the General Assembly, as his predecessor had promised, Secretary-General U Thant complied with the demand. After the withdrawal of the UNEF, the Voice of the Arabs proclaimed (May 18, 1967):

As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain anymore to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.[13]

An enthusiastic echo was heard on May 20 from Syrian defense minister Hafez Assad:

Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression but [also] to initiate the act of liberation itself and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united…I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.[14]

On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and all ships bound for Eilat. This blockade cut off Israel’s only supply route with Asia and stopped the flow of oil from its main supplier, Iran. The following day, President Johnson declared the blockade illegal and tried, unsuccessfully, to organize an international flotilla to test it.

 

Nasser was fully aware of the pressure he was exerting to force Israel’s hand. The day after the blockade was set up, he said defiantly: “The Jews threaten to make war. I reply: Welcome! We are ready for war.”[15]

Nasser challenged Israel to fight almost daily. “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight,” he said on May 27.[16] The following day, he added, “We will not accept any…coexistence with Israel…Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel…The war with Israel [has been] in effect since 1948.”[17]

King Hussein of Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt on May 30. Nasser then announced:

The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel…to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle [and that] the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations.[18]

President Abdur Rahman Aref of Iraq joined in the war of words: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear—to wipe Israel off the map.”[19] On June 4, Iraq joined the military alliance with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

The Arab rhetoric was matched by the mobilization of Arab forces. Approximately 250,000 troops (nearly half in Sinai), more than two thousand tanks, and seven hundred aircraft ringed Israel.[20]

By this time, Israeli forces had been on alert for three weeks. The country could not remain fully mobilized indefinitely, nor could it allow its sea lane through the Gulf of Aqaba to be interdicted. Israel’s best option was to strike first. On June 5, 1967, the order was given to attack Egypt.

By using the element of surprise, Israeli forces managed to break through the enemy lines after just six days of fighting and were in a position to march on Cairo, Damascus, and Amman. A cease-fire was invoked on June 10.

The victory came at an extremely high cost. In storming the Golan Heights, Israel suffered 115 dead—roughly the number of Americans killed during Operation Desert Storm. Altogether, Israel lost twice as many men—777 dead and 2,586 wounded—in proportion to her total population as the United States lost in eight years of fighting in Vietnam (approximately eighteen thousand Arab fighters died).[21] Additionally, despite the incredible success of the air campaign, the Israeli Air Force lost 46 of its 200 fighters.[22]

MYTH

Nasser had the right to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

FACT

In 1956, the United States gave Israel assurances that it recognized the Jewish State’s right to access the Straits of Tiran. In 1957, at the UN, 17maritime powers declared that Israel had a right to transit the Strait. Moreover, the blockade violated the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which was adopted by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea on April 27, 1958.[23]

The closure of the Strait of Tiran was the casus belli in 1967. Israel’s attack was a reaction to this Egyptian first strike.

President Johnson acknowledged as much after the war (June 19, 1967):

If a single act of folly was more responsible for this explosion than any other, it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision that the Strait of Tiran would be closed. The right of innocent maritime passage must be preserved for all nations.[24]

MYTH

The United States helped Israel defeat the Arabs in six days.

FACT

The United States tried to prevent the war through negotiations, but it could not persuade Nasser or the other Arab states to cease their belligerent statements and actions. Still, right before the war, President Johnson warned, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.”[25] Then, when the war began, the State Department announced, “Our position is neutral in thought, word, and deed.”[26]

Moreover, while the Arabs were falsely accusing the United States of airlifting supplies to Israel, Johnson imposed an arms embargo on the region (France, Israel’s other main arms supplier, also embargoed arms to Israel).

By contrast, the Soviets were supplying massive amounts of arms to the Arabs. Simultaneously, the armies of Kuwait, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq were contributing troops and arms to the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian fronts.[27]

MYTH

During the 1967 War, Israel deliberately attacked the USS Liberty.

FACT

Besides not aiding Israel in the war, the United States and Israel actually came into direct military conflict as a result of a series of errors. On June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the war, the Israeli high command received reports that Israeli troops in El Arish were being fired upon from the sea, presumably by an Egyptian vessel, as they had a day before. The United States had announced that it had no naval forces within hundreds of miles of the battlefront; however, the USS Liberty, an American intelligence ship under the dual control of the Defense Intelligence Agency/Central Intelligence Agency and the Sixth Fleet, was assigned to monitor the fighting. As a result of a series of US communication failures, whereby messages directing the ship not to approach within one hundred miles were not received by the Liberty, the ship sailed to within fourteen miles off the Sinai coast. The Israelis mistakenly thought this was the ship shelling its soldiers and warplanes, and torpedo boats attacked, killing 34 members of the Liberty’s crew and wounding 171.

The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was a grievous error, largely because it occurred in the “fog of war.” Ten official U.S. investigations, and three official Israeli inquiries, all concluded the attack was a tragic mistake. Israel apologized and paid nearly $13 million in humanitarian reparations to the United States and to the families of the victims. The matter was officially closed between the two governments by an exchange of diplomatic notes on December 17, 1987.[28]

MYTH

Israel attacked Jordan to capture Jerusalem.

FACT

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein saying Israel would not attack Jordan unless he initiated hostilities. When Jordanian radar picked up a cluster of planes flying from Egypt to Israel, however, the Egyptians convinced Hussein the planes were theirs prompting the king to order the shelling of West Jerusalem. It turned out the planes were Israel’s and were returning from destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. Had Jordan not attacked, the status of Jerusalem would not have changed. Once the city came under fire, however, Israel needed to defend it, and, in doing so, took the opportunity to unify the city, ending Jordan’s 19 year occupation of the eastern part.

MYTH

Israel expelled peaceful Palestinian villagers and prevented their return.

FACT

After Jordan launched its attack on June 5, approximately 325,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank fled.[29] These were Jordanian citizens who moved from one part of what they considered their country to another, primarily to avoid being caught in the crossfire of a war.

A Palestinian refugee who was an administrator in a UNRWA camp in Jericho said Arab politicians had spread rumors in the camp. “They said all the young people would be killed. People heard on the radio that this is not the end, only the beginning, so they think maybe it will be a long war and they want to be in Jordan.”[30]

Some Palestinians who left preferred to live in an Arab state rather than under Israeli military rule. Members of various PLO factions fled to avoid capture by the Israelis. Nils-Göran Gussing, the person appointed by the UN secretary-general to investigate the situation, found that many Arabs also feared they would no longer be able to receive money from family members working abroad.

Israeli forces ordered a handful of Palestinians to move for “strategic and security reasons.” In some cases, they were allowed to return in a few days; in others, Israel offered to help them resettle elsewhere.[31]

Following the war, Israel ruled more than three-quarters of a million Palestinians – most of whom were hostile to the government. Nevertheless, more than 9,000 Palestinian families were reunited in 1967. Ultimately, more than 60,000 Palestinians were allowed to return.[32]

 

[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] Yehoshafat Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), p. 28.

[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] “President Eisenhower & PM Ben-Gurion on Israeli Withdrawal from Sinai (November 7–8, 1956),” Jewish Virtual Library.

[7] Janice Gross Stein and Raymond Tanter, Rational Decision Making: Israel’s Security Choices, (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1976), p. 163.

[8] Encyclopedia Americana Annual 1961, (NY: Americana Corporation, 1961), p. 387.

[9] Speech by Nasser to the United Arab Republic National Assembly, March 26, 1964, quoted in Yehoshafat Harkabi, Arab Attitudes To Israel, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), p. 27.

[10] Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 616.

[11] Samuel Katz, Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, (NY: Bantam Books, 1985), pp. 10–11, 185.

[12] Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1976), p. 110.

[13] Isi Leibler, The Case for Israel, (Australia: The Globe Press, 1972), pp. 60–61.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Abba Eban, Abba Eban, (NY: Random House, 1977), p. 331.

[16] Leibler, p. 60.

[17] Leibler, p. 18.

[18] Leibler, p. 60.

[19] Leibler, p. 61.

[20] Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1982), p. 149.

[21] Katz, p. 3.

[22] Gerald M. Steinberg, “The Palestinian Time Machine,” Jerusalem Post, (April 23, 1999).

[23] United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, (Geneva: UN Publications, 1958), pp. 132–34.

[24] Yehuda Lukacs, Documents on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1967–1983, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 7–18; Eban, p. 358.

[25] Eban, p. 358.

[26] Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963–1969, (NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971), p. 299.

[27] Sachar, p. 629.

[28] Hirsh Goodman, “Messrs. Errors and No Facts,” Jerusalem Report, (November 21, 1991); Arieh O’Sullivan, “Exclusive: Liberty Attack Tapes Revealed,” Jerusalem Post, (June 3, 2004); “Attack on a SIGINT Collector, the U.S.S. Liberty,” “Special Series Crisis Collection,” National Security Agency, p. 64; Dan Kurzman, Soldier of Peace: The Life of Yitzhak Rabin, (NY: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 224–27; Yitzhak Rabin, The Rabin Memoirs, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co., 1979), pp. 109–11; Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Remembering the Liberty,” Washington Post, (November 6, 1991); L. Wainstain, “Some Aspects of the U.S. Involvement in the Middle East Crisis, May–June 1967,” Institute for Defense Analysis, (February 1968); “Pilot Who Bombed ‘Liberty’ Talks to Post,” Jerusalem Post, (October 10, 2003); Jerusalem Post, (January 13, 2004). See also, Nathan Guttman, “Memos Show Liberty Attack Was an Error,” Haaretz, (July 9, 2003); Hirsh Goodman and Zeev Schiff, “The Attack on the Liberty,Atlantic Monthly, (September 1984); The Larry King Show,” (radio), (February 5, 1987); Washington Times, (January 12, 2004). For a detailed discussion, see “The USS Liberty Incident,” in the Jewish Virtual Library.

[29] Encyclopedia Americana Annual 1968, p. 366.

[30] George Gruen, “The Refugees of Arab-Israeli Conflict” (NY: American Jewish Committee, March 1969), p. 5.

[31] Gruen, p. 4.

[32] Encyclopedia Americana Annual 1968, p. 366.