The Sinai Campaign

Israel's First Military Offensive.

Print this page Print this page

On March 4, Israel began its withdrawal. Later the same month, the Palestinian leadership in Gaza demanded the return of an Egyptian administration. Nasser dispatched a governor--unaccompanied by any military force--to the area. Israel and the international community acquiesced, and Gaza and Sinai remained under Egyptian control until 1967.

Making Sense of a Puzzling War

The Sinai campaign comprised an unexpected combination of events. First, the Israelis, less than a decade after achieving liberation from imperial rule, found themselves collaborating with colonial powers, one of which--Britain--had been the main obstacle to Jewish independence in the 1940s. Next, Israel’s striking military victory was followed by diplomatic isolation and, some might argue, political defeat. Finally, Israel--a country whose Declaration of Independence committed it to the values of peace and good-neighborliness--became involved in a pre-emptive, invasive strike against another country. How are these inconsistencies to be understood?

An Alliance of Convenience

Israel’s cooperation with Britain and France represented a temporary confluence of interests. During the Cold War, the West sought to construct an alliance of conservative Arab states in the Middle East. Nasser’s anti-imperialist radicalism and his pact with the Soviets threatened this hegemony and made Egypt a military target. The Egyptian threat to France and Britain was particularly sharp: the French feared Nasser’s destabilizing influence in North Africa, and the British were concerned for their economic interests, in particular their oil supplies. As part of his campaign for pan-Arab leadership, Nasser attacked Israel; his aggression necessitated an Israeli response. Thus France and Britain supplied Israel with indispensable military and diplomatic cover for its attack on Gaza and Sinai, and Israel supplied France and Britain with a pretext for their own operation at Suez.

Repercussions for Israel

Israel’s decision to operate alongside Britain and France, albeit expedient from a military perspective, generated serious political fallout. Cooperation with the colonial powers opened Israel to diplomatic attacks not only from the Arabs, but from the African and Asian ‘non-aligned’ nations and from the Soviet bloc. More dangerously, the Sinai campaign also alienated the Eisenhower administration which, while sharing the goal of stemming Soviet influence, was not prepared to countenance the flouting of international law and a return to unilateralist gunboat diplomacy. 

Victory for the Activist Camp

So why did Israel embark on this politically problematic, perhaps reckless, course of pre-emptive military action?  During the 1950s, two competing approaches to the fedayeen threat had emerged in government circles. Foreign Minister (and briefly Prime Minister) Moshe Sharett adopted a conciliatory line, pointing out the dangers of military escalation for Israel’s diplomatic position. David Ben Gurion, influenced by Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, took an activist position, arguing that only tough reprisals and the creation of a deterrent could solve the fedayeen problem.  The war was the outcome of the activist camp’s victory, represented by the ousting of Sharett from the premiership and, in June 1956, from the government.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.