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.

Israeli Interests

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.

israel-egyptian border

Israeli-Egyptian Border

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.

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.

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.

This debate between activist and conciliatory approaches had deep roots. Zionists had always bemoaned the powerlessness of Diaspora Jews and tended to idolize military heroes from the ancient past: King David, the Maccabees, Bar Kochva. As far back as the 1890s, Zionist leader Max Nordau had called for the raising up of a new generation of proud, physically powerful “muscular Jews” as a means of regaining national self-respect. In the 1920s, Vladimir Jabotinsky argued for the creation of an unassailable military force–an “iron wall”–as the indispensable first step in the establishment of a Jewish State. The emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict added resonance to the idea – pervasive and controversial today no less than in 1956–that complex political problems are amenable to simple military solutions.

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