The Sinai Campaign

Israel's First Military Offensive.

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Outbreak of War

"Operation Kadesh" began on October 29 as Israeli troops were parachuted to the area of the Mitla Pass, 40 miles from Suez in central Sinai. Simultaneously, an armored column advanced towards Mitla where it expected to rendezvous with the paratroopers and push on towards the Canal. During the following day, a larger Israeli force struck out from the Negev through northern Sinai towards Ismailia, at the southern end of Suez.

On October 30, the Israeli government publicized the campaign as an attack on fedayeen bases in Sinai. Immediately, Britain and France submitted an ultimatum, calling on Egypt and Israel to halt hostilities, to ‘withdraw’ to points 10 miles to the east and west of the Canal respectively, and to accept the occupation of the Canal area by Anglo-French forces in order to separate the combatants and guarantee freedom of shipping. The ultimatum was backed by threat of military action.

The Anglo-French proposal was a ruse: Egypt--the victim of the invasion--could hardly be expected to accept the calls for withdrawal to the west of the Canal while Israelis were allowed to advance through Sinai to a point close to the waterway’s eastern bank. When, as expected, Egypt rejected the proposal, Britain and France bombarded airfields in the vicinity of the Canal, destroying Egypt’s air force. On the same day, October 31, Israeli forces attacked and conquered the town of Rafah, and pushed into Gaza where they set about the destruction of the fedayun infrastructure. Next, the Israelis turned south and proceeded to conquer Sinai’s eastern coast, advancing until they reached Sharm es-Sheikh, overlooking the Strait of Tiran.

By November 4 Israel had routed the Egyptian forces in Sinai and had achieved its objectives: control of the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba coast. As a result of the fighting, 180 Israeli soldiers were killed, while Egypt suffered 2000 casualties.

The conflict then moved to the diplomatic arena.

Pressure for Ceasefire

On November 2, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an immediate ceasefire. Yet three days later Anglo-French forces began landing at Port Said and advancing southwards along the Canal. Less than 25 miles short of Suez, Britain--under the threat of Soviet intervention--acceded to the UN’s demands. The French had no choice but to comply, and at midnight on November 6, the war was over.

Compromise and Withdrawal

Israel’s clear military victory was only the start of a long political struggle. Three days after the fighting ended, Prime Minister Ben Gurion floated the possibility of annexing the peninsula. But this option was nixed by President Eisenhower’s threat of a fatal breakdown of Israel-US relations. On January 7, the UN General Assembly called for an immediate and complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.  Israel began to pull back, but insisted on retaining its presence in Gaza and at Sharm es-Sheikh. An impasse followed: the Soviet and ‘unaligned’ blocs in the UN were implacably hostile to Israel’s demands and, while sympathetic to Israel’s needs, the western nations were not prepared to damage their interests in the Arab world by countenancing the ongoing occupation of Egyptian territory.  Eventually a compromise was reached. A United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) would be posted to Gaza and Sharm, the international community led by the United States would guarantee freedom of shipping through the Strait of Tiran, and Israel would remove its forces from Sinai.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.