The Sinai Campaign
Israel's First Military Offensive.
In the final days of October 1956, Britain, France, and Israel, in a coordinated military and diplomatic campaign, invaded Egypt. The Suez War, as it came to be known, was triggered by Egyptian President Gamal abd-al Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956. Nasser aspired to leadership of the entire Arab world; his seizure of Suez was part of an orchestrated campaign against western imperialism. The Canal was partly owned by British and French interests and the two countries relied on it for the majority of their international trade, especially the transport of oil. The nationalization thus posed an economic threat. Moreover, the Allies were keen to depose Nasser, a Soviet client, and preserve western hegemony in the Middle East.
British and French Interests
Britain and France needed an internationally acceptable reason for military action. To this end, they secretly invited Israel to take part in the operation. Israel would invade the Sinai peninsula, creating the impression of a threat to Suez. This would justify Anglo-French intervention, aimed at separating Egypt and Israel and safeguarding Britain and France's freedom of shipping through the Canal.
Israel’s motives were different. Since its creation, Israel had suffered from border incursions by Palestinian refugee guerillas--fedayeen--whose destruction of life and property posed an existential threat to the fledgling Jewish state. Since 1954, Nasser-- assuming an uncompromisingly anti-Israeli stance--had adopted the fedayeen, transferring the bulk of their operational bases from Jordan to Egyptian-controlled Gaza. Nasser compounded border incursions and anti-Israel rhetoric with economic action: he closed the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba--both international waterways--to Israeli shipping, paralyzing Israel’s commerce and embryonic economic development. Moreover, in 1956, Nasser was preparing to receive a large shipment of Soviet arms. Israel believed that a successful military campaign had to be launched before the new weapons could be assimilated by the Egyptian army.
On October 22, at a secret conference in the French town of Sèvres, the Anglo-French pact with Israel was finalized. Israel agreed to launch "more than a raid, less than a war," advancing across Sinai to within 10 miles of Suez, thereby justifying Anglo-French intervention. France and Britain would then attack the Egyptian airforce, destroy it on the ground, and clear the way for their occupation of the Canal. The French promised to deploy their navy and airforce to defend Israel’s cities and to parachute supplies to Israeli troops in Sinai.