Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Arab-Israeli War (Suez War, Sinai War) (1956)

Arab-Israeli War (Suez War, Sinai War) (1956)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Egypt vs. Israel, Great Britain,
and France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Sinai Peninsula and the Suez
Canal zone in the Middle East


president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez
Canal, Britain and France, Egypt’s former imperial
overlords who were dependent on the canal for oil,
secretly conspired with Israel to take back control of
Suez by force and depose Nasser.

OUTCOME: Shortly after 10 Israeli brigades invaded Egypt
on October 29, 1956, and routed Nasser’s army, the two
European nations on schedule and according to plan
demanded that both Israel and Egypt withdraw from the
canal zone and announced that they intended to intervene
and enforce the cease-fire already called for by the United
Nations. Under strong pressure from the United States,
the French and the British, and then the Israelis, meekly
abandoned their adventure. Nasser emerged from the
crisis not merely a victor, but a national hero and leader
of the so-called Third World of nonaligned nations.

Egypt, 150,000; Israel, 100,000; Anglo-French force,
about 15,000

CASUALTIES: Israel, 189 killed, 899 wounded, 4 captured;
Egypt (against Israel), 1,000 killed, 4,000 wounded,
6,000 captured; Egypt (against Anglo-French), 650
killed, 900 wounded, 185 captured; Great Britain, 16
killed, 96 wounded; France, 10 killed, 33 wounded.

TREATIES: None; ended with a UN-sponsored cease-fire
between Egypt and Israel.

Modern Egypt achieved nominal independence after centuries
of foreign rule in 1922. Until Britain invaded and
occupied the country in 1882, the land of the pharaohs
had been—except for a brief period of occupation by
Napoleon’s army—a self-governing province of the Ottoman
Empire. In 1914, as Ottoman rule collapsed in the
wake of a series of petty Balkan wars, Britain deposed the
Turkish lackey of a viceroy (called the “khedive”) who ran
Egypt and put his uncle, Husayn Kamil (1853–1917), in
charge. Calling Kamil the “sultan,” the British imposed
martial law to protect the strategically vital flow of oil
from the Middle East for the duration of WORLD WAR I.
Kamil died in 1917, and his ambitious and lascivious
brother, Ahmad Fuad (1868–1936), became sultan at a
time when, fueled by British wartime repression and warspawned
deprivations, Egyptian nationalism was reaching
a fevered pitch. The Ottoman Empire disappeared during
the war, and afterward Egypt proposed sending a nationalist
delegation to London to petition His Majesty for autonomy.
Not only did Britain reject the delegation out of
hand, they arrested and threw its leader, the charismatic
Zaghlul Pasha (c. 1850–1927), in jail. When the nationalists
in response launched industrial strikes against the
British colonial government and terrorist attacks against
its personnel, Lord Allenby (1861–1936)—the general
who had defeated the Ottomans in Palestine—negotiated
a settlement and declared Egypt independent “with reservations”
in February 1922. The reservations were that
Britain intended still to protect foreign interests, meaning
the Suez Canal and the oil companies, and to supervise
Egyptian defense. Sultan Fuad became King Fuad I and
Egypt a constitutional monarchy, at least on paper, which,
given that British troops remained in the country and
Fuad remained the same old autocrat he had always been,
did not mean much at all.
Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–70) was four years old at
the time, having been born in January 1918 in the village
of Bani Morr in the Upper Egyptian province of Asyut to a
middle-class family. Nasser began his rise to power in
1937, when he entered the military academy. During a
short stint in the army as a second lieutenant, he met and
befriended two other recent graduates, Zakaria Mohieddin
(b. 1918) and Anwar al-Sadat (1918–81), who, with
Nasser, would become prominent in the Nazi-backed Free
Officers movement, which secretly campaigned against
corruption and for the withdrawal of British troops. In
1941, he returned as an instructor to the academy, where
he recruited members for the Free Officers Corps. During
the 1940s and early 1950s, deep social unrest spread
through Egypt under the rule of the sybaritic King Farouk
(1920–65), Fuad’s son and successor. Land was concentrated
in the hands of the rich, malnutrition and disease
were rampant, and peasants fled the dismal rural areas for
the cities, where prices and unemployment were driven
steadily higher. The time was ripe for action by the Free
Officers. Led by 200 officers, 2,000 troops stormed army
headquarters in Cairo during the night of July 22–23,
1952. By morning Farouk had abdicated, and a new political
order was in place under Major General Mohammed
Naguib (1900–84) as its head. Nasser remained in the
background as the Revolutionary Command Council
took control, but in the spring of 1954, in a reaction
against left-wing radicalism, Naguib was deposed, and it
was Nasser who emerged as the self-proclaimed prime
Land reform was Nasser’s first order of business, but
he knew that land reform was not enough to shake Egypt
out of its downward economic spiral. A special stimulus
was needed as well, and Nasser seized on the construction
of the massive Aswan Dam on the Nile as a vehicle for
economic recovery. He first negotiated with Britain and
the United States for financial backing for the project.
Uneasy about Nasser’s courting of Eastern bloc and Soviet
support (he had signed an arms deal with Czechoslovakia
in 1956), Britain, the United States, and the World Bank
withdrew from the project. On July 26, 1956, an undaunted
Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, whose proceeds had
previously gone to European bondholders, and stated that
use fees would be dedicated to constructing the new dam,
predicting they would pay for it in five years. Fearing that
the unpredictable Nasser might close the canal and cut off
oil to western Europe, Britain and France began making
plans to get it back and, if possible, depose Nasser. When
diplomatic efforts appeared unlikely to settle the crisis,
they struck.
After Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the
British government ordered General Sir Hugh Stockwell
(1903–86) to come up with a plan for seizing the canal
using a joint Anglo-French expeditionary force. Understanding
the impatience of the U.S. administration under
President Dwight David Eisenhower (1890–1969) with
British and French colonialism, the two powers sought to
avoid at least the public appearance of imperialist aggression
by entering into secret negotiations with Israel,
exploring the potential to mask their planned invasion as
a renewal of Arab-Israeli conflict (see ARAB-ISRAELI WAR
Ultimately, the three countries came up with a modified
version of such a plan: Israel would threaten the Suez
Canal, and the Europeans would use that as an excuse to
intervene. Britain and France would demand that both
Israel and Egypt withdraw 10 miles from the canal.
Counting on Egypt to refuse, the allies then planned to
seize the canal. They code-named the operation “Musketeer.”
Once agreement had been reached, the French and
English had to delay their invasion two months, from
early September to early November, in order to coordinate
their mobilization with Israel. For their part, the Israelis
called the Sinai campaign “Operation Kadesh,” and its
stated objectives were to mount a military threat to the
Suez Canal by occupying the high ground to its east and
by capturing the Strait of Tiran. They hoped to create confusion
in the ranks of the Egyptian army, thereby bringing
about its collapse and the fall of President Nasser.
Nasser was aware that something was afoot, but he was
ignorant of its extent. When he received reports of Anglo-
French forces massing on Malta and Cypress, he promptly
withdrew nearly half his Sinai garrison to the Canal Zone
Delta, leaving behind only some 30,000 men under the
Eastern Command of Major General Ali Amer (active
1940s–60s). Most of these were deployed in the northeast
in static defense of the triangle formed by Rafah, Abu
Ageila, and El Arish—easy targets for the Israeli juggernaut.
As prearranged, on October 29, 1956, the Israelis
attacked. They captured the Gaza Strip, Sharm el-Sheikh,
and several other major spots before the British and the
French—still according to plan—ordered both Israel and
Egypt to cease fire and withdraw from the war zone. Following
the script, Israel complied, and as expected the
Egyptians refused, giving the allies their excuse. On
November 5, 1956, Anglo-French paratroopers dropped
near Port Said and attacked, killing Egyptian soldiers.
There was little Nasser could do. The next day Egypt and
Israel officially accepted a cease-fire arranged by the
United Nations, which sent an emergency force (UNEF)
to oversee the situation.
The fallout from the plan, however, was not what the
English and French expected. The Soviet Union was not
fooled by the ruse and threatened to intervene, and President
Eisenhower, furious with Britain, France, and Israel,
indicated that he would let the Russians bomb them to
kingdom come if it came to that. As it had been the U.S.
withdrawal of its promised aid to Egypt for the Aswan
Dam project back in July that had led an angry Nasser to
nationalize the Suez Canal in the first place, it was now
pressure from the United States that forced the Anglo-
French forces to back out. The imbroglio cost British
prime minister Anthony Eden (1897–1977) his job, as he
resigned under pressure. It took the United States another
year and even more trenchant diplomatic pressure to
make Israel give up the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh,
and even then the Israelis did not return the land to Egypt
but turned it over to the UNEF.
Despite his military defeat, Nasser’s reputation soared
after the Suez crisis. He proceeded with the construction
of the Aswan Dam, aided now by the Soviet Union, and he
set out to realize yet another goal, the unification of Arab
countries. In 1958 the government of Syria merged with
Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. It was Nasser’s
goal to recruit all the other Arab countries into the fold.
The republic was short-lived, however. Not only did the
another nations fail to join, but Syria withdrew in 1961.
Nevertheless, Egypt became a haven for Arab radicals and
anticolonial revolutionaries as Nasser welcomed political
refugees from other Arab countries. Even as he embraced
foreign radicals, he cracked down on civil freedom in his
own country. The end seemed to come in 1967, when
Nasser called for the withdrawal of United Nations Emergency
Force troops from the Gaza Strip and instituted a
blockade of Eilat, precipitating a preemptive war by Israel
that destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground (see ARABISRAELI
WAR [1967]).

Further reading: Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, Elusive Victory:
The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947–1974 (New York: Harper-
Collins, 1978); Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, Land of Darkness,
Shadow of Death: A Military History of the Arab-Israeli
Wars, 1947–1973 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976);
Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars 1949–1956 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1997).

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