The Arab-Israeli wars

Five major wars define the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

The leaders of Israel and Egypt - key figures in the 1973 war

Nearly every decade of the past 60 years has seen bloodshed, with significant wars being fought in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982.

Sources have estimated the death toll at more than 200,000, while innumerable other people have been injured.

The cost of the wars has topped $300 billion. They have resulted in enormous political change and territorial and military developments, both regionally and internationally.

1948: The first Arab-Israeli war (see map)

Viewed as a “catastrophe” by the Arab world, the first Arab-Israeli war is seen by the Israelis as their war of independence.

On 14 May 1948, Britain relinquished its mandate over Palestine following a UN resolution from the previous year that called for the partitioning of the territory between the Arabs and the Jews.

Britain had emerged from the Second World war exhausted and war-weary and lacking the funds to maintain control of its colonial possessions.


1948: The first war between
Israel and Arab forces

The partition plan was accepted by the Zionist settlers who declared Israel as an independent state. Many settlers were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, along with others who had fought against Germany in the Second World war.

All Arab countries, including Palestine, rejected the plan and declared their determination to destroy any creation of Israel in the heart of Arab land.

Faced by unanimous opposition, Britain refused to implement it and set 15 May as the date for ending its mandate. On the same day regular troops from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq entered Palestine in support of the local Palestinian Arabs.

The Israelis, fighting for the existence of their new state against a poorly coordinated Arab front, proved the stronger force.

Invasion collapses

The advancing Trans-Jordanian Arab Legion managed to link up with the Egyptians near Bethlehem, but the fierce counter offensive staged by the Israelis led to the collapse of the invasion.

Arab-Israeli fighting continued up to January 1949 when an armistice agreement was finally forged in July of that year.

The outcome left the new Israeli state with 80% of the territory that was to have been divided between the two communities according to the UN partition plan.

More than 350 Arab villages were destroyed and the centre of Palestinian life shifted to the Arab towns of the eastern region, later called the West Bank, thus starting the plight of the huge number of displaced Arabs.

The number of Arabs within newly created Israel was cut from about 700,000 to 165,000. Many inhabitants fled in the face of the Israeli counter attack. More than 20% of Palestinian Arabs left Palestine altogether and resettled in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

The war was brought to an end with individual armistice agreements between Israel and the four Arab countries.

1956: The Suez War

The second Arab-Israeli war, or the Suez war, broke out on 29 October 1956 when Israel, Great Britain and France staged a joint attack against Egypt, aimed at deposing the country’s charismatic leader Gamal Abd al-Nasir.

This significant war marked the decline of Britain’s colonial powers in the Middle East – and brought home the realities of Cold war politics.

Events leading up to the hostilities started when Nasir struck an arms deal with Czechoslovakia – a move that worried Great Britain and the US who viewed it as a shift towards closer ties with the Soviet Union.

The World Bank, prodded by the US, retaliated by withdrawing a loan to Egypt for the building of the Aswan Dam. In the ongoing tit-for-tat, Nasir nationalised the Suez Canal, a vital waterway, replacing the private Anglo-French company. This came after Britain’s gradual withdrawal as colonial occupier from the country.

Israel’s invasion of Egypt was motivated by all these developments, but also Nasir had blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba, stopping Israel’s access to the Red Sea.

Great Britain saw the conflict as a means to regain lost ground.

As for the French, they were angered by Nasir’s support of the Algerian rebellion against their French colonisers.

France, Britain and Israel engineered a secret plan whereby Israel would seize the canal. Britain and France would then demand the withdrawal of both Israel and Egypt from the canal zone. If Egypt refused, as expected, Britain and France would intervene and force the Egyptians out.


1956: The Suez Canal

On 29 October 1956, Israel initiated the hostilities when it invaded Gaza and the Sinai, then, on 30 October, moved to the Suez Canal zone.

Outraged that the US was not informed of the secret attack plan and fearful that the Soviet Union – which had close ties with Egypt – would be drawn into the conflict, US President Dwight Eisenhower sponsored a UN resolution denouncing the attack. It was passed on 2 November. While the ultimatum to Israel and Egypt had been ignored as expected, British and French troops were busy trying to take control of the canal zone.

On 6 November 1956, the US threatened to cancel vital loans to Britain and the French and hostilities ended. A ceasefire came into effect and a UN emergency force was stationed in the area; the Suez was returned to Egypt.

While Nasir lost the war in military terms, he gained politically. The conflict marked the dramatic end of British and French influence in the region, and left the US poised to become the most influential power in the region.

1967: The Six-Day War (see map)

During the early 1960s, border incidents between Israel and Syria, Egypt and Jordan became more frequent, with Palestinian guerrilla groups actively supported by Syria.

Throughout the first half of 1967, tension had been building with Israel, which warned the Arab states to end their support for Arab guerrillas attacking it from neighbouring countries. Israel continued to retaliate by conducting border raids against Syria and Jordan.


Gamal Abd al-Nasir with Abd
al-Hakim Amir (L) his war minister

President Nasir, with his prestige much eroded through his inaction in the face of Israeli raids, requested the withdrawal of UN emergency forces from Egyptian territories.

Moreover, Nasir mobilised military units in the Sinai and closed the Gulf of Aqaba again cutting Israel off from access to the Red sea. Syria for its part intensified border clashes with Israel along the Golan Heights and mobilised its troops.

On 30 May 1967, a mutual defence pact was signed by President Nasir and King Husayn of Jordan and the two set up a joint command, followed on 4 June by a defence pact between Cairo and Baghdad.

Against this backdrop, the US feared a major Arab-Israeli and potential superpower confrontation and asked Israel to delay military action pending a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

Pre-emptive Assault

The escalation of threats and provocations continued until 5 June 1967 when Israel launched a massive air assault against Egyptian airfields and destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground within a few hours.

With air superiority to protect its ground forces, Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula within three days. Then, turning back to Jerusalem, Israel attacked Jordan and occupied the West Bank and the Old City before Jordan’s acceptance of a UN resolution for a ceasefire on 7 June.

Following Egypt’s acceptance of a ceasefire on 8 June, the Israelis switched their attention to the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. Quneitra in the Golan Heights was occupied and Syria accepted the ceasefire on 10 June.

The lasting legacy 

Following the adoption of the ceasefire, the Suez Canal was closed by the war. Israel declared that it would not give up Sinai and other captured territories until significant progress had been made in Arab-Israeli relations.

Many analysts believe that Arab anger arising from this defeat prompted the rise of modern radical Islamic and fundamentalist movements throughout the Middle East. Public opinion called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories of historic Palestine.


A Palestinian refugee camp

It also led to increasing anti-Western (and later anti-American) sentiments, since the US and the West were seen as supportive to Israel. The Arab guerrilla movement was subject to restructuring along with the emergence of a genuinely Palestinian resistance movement.

There was a major development in the Arab idea of managing the crisis and liberating Palestine. Thus, the option of using military force as a sole means for fulfilling these objectives was replaced by the possibility of seeking peaceful political alternatives.

Many more Palestinians became refugees in the occupied territories and other neighbouring Arab countries, posing a Palestinian refugee problem that still calls for a just settlement.

1973: The October 6 (Yom Kippur) war

Following Arab defeat in 1967 and the occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the overall consequence of the war weighed heavily on the Arab conscience.

Convinced that their complaints against Israel were falling on deaf ears, (despite their threats to cut off oil supplies) the Arab states, led by Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat, quietly prepared for war.

On 6 October 1973 – the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – a two-pronged assault on Israel was launched.

Egyptian forces struck eastward across the Suez Canal, through the sand defences built around the Israeli lines, and succeeded in crossing the waterway. Meanwhile the Syrians advanced from the north.


Egyptian forces cross the Suez
Canal in 1973

The attacks caught Israel off-guard and it took the country several days to fully mobilise its military forces. The Egyptians made some initial gains, but Israel then forced the Syrians and the Egyptians back and in the last hours of the war established a salient on the west bank of the Suez Canal. But these advances were achieved at a high cost in terms of human resources and equipment.

By 25 October, US and Soviet diplomatic pressures, along with UN efforts, were fruitful in forging a precarious ceasefire. Egypt and Israel signed a ceasefire agreement in November. Meanwhile, fighting continued on the Syrian front until a ceasefire was negotiated in 1974.

Israel withdrew from the canal several miles inland from the east bank behind a UN ceasefire zone, largely as a result of the diplomatic moves of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The territorial gains made by Israel on the Syrian front were also relinquished.

The aftermath

After the war, Egypt and Syria resumed diplomatic relations with the US, broken since the 1967 war. The 1973-74 war resulted in a major shift of power in the Middle East and ultimately led to the signing of the Camp David Accords.

The war had disclosed that the Arabs had improved their strategy since 1967. They had also obtained better weapons from their ally, the Soviet Union, including an umbrella of SAM missile defences.

The war caused an unprecedented shockwave in Israel that greatly influenced its security strategy and political set up.

Peace with Israel

Egypt had gained the political victory it needed to seek for “peace with honour”. To achieve this goal, al-Sadat flew to Jerusalem in 1977 and became the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel. Several Egyptian writers asserted that al-Sadat had actually launched the war to prepare the ground for a peace initiative.

The war also gave impetus to renewed international peace efforts. In this respect the European countries in particular began to interpret UN resolutions on the conflict in a more pro-Arab perspective.

That war had also marked the launching of an Arab symbol of solidarity as demonstrated by the Arab oil boycott and the subsequent oil price hike that brought fundamental changes to the world economy.

1982: Israel’s invasion of Lebanon

Following their expulsion from Jordan in 1970, Palestinian guerrillas and leaders made mass movements into Lebanon during the 1970s. The Palestinian objective was to strike at Israel from across Lebanon’s southern border.


Ariel Sharon, sponsor of the
massacres in Sabra and Shatila

The presence of armed Palestinians in Lebanon, with frequent guerrilla operations against Israel, had provoked Israeli retaliatory raids into Lebanon. In the process, the Palestinians became seriously involved in Lebanon’s civil war which broke out in 1975.

Under prime minister Menachem Begin and his then hawkish defence minister, Ariel Sharon, Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon on 6 June 1982.

The declared objective behind Israel’s invasion was to push the PLO guerrillas away from its northern borders beyond the range of Palestinian rockets.

A puppet regime

However, Israel’s goal was not simply to force the PLO out of Lebanon, but to establish a puppet regime in Beirut and to proceed to attack Syria and other neighbouring countries from Lebanon.

The invading Israeli forces promptly besieged Beirut and integrated their military effort with the Christian Maronite Phalangist militias, inside the predominantly Christian eastern half of Beirut.

Israel’s so called “Operation Peace for Galilee” turned into an attempt to re-carve the political map of the Middle East. The plan called for installing Bashir al-Jumail, the Phalangist leader, as president of Lebanon who would sign a peace agreement with Israel and remove the Syrian troops from Lebanon.

The Syrian and PLO forces kept the invaders out of the city’s western sector. But the Israelis finally forced the PLO and the Syrian forces out of Beirut which was then put under the supervision of American, French and Italian forces.

Jumail assassinated

Jumail was eventually elected as president in September 1982 but was assassinated shortly afterwards when a bomb was detonated in his office.

The following day Israel took over mostly Muslim West Beirut, under the pretext of maintaining law and order. Though known for their eagerness for revenge, the Phalangist militias, under Sharon’s authorisation, entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps with the stated intention of mopping-up PLO fighters on Israel’s behalf.

But when they entered the camps, the Phalangists carried out a three-day massacre of Palestinian civilians that culminated in the slaughter of at least 800 men, women and children, with most of the victims not shot dead but tortured to death.

The UN had estimated the figure at 1,500. Later investigations by the International Red Cross put the death toll at 2,750.


The victims of Sabra and Shatila

Faced with mounting casualties, as the civil war in Lebanon intensified, the Israelis pulled back from Beirut. Meanwhile, a radical Islamic Shiite Movement, Hizb Allah (stirred by the Israeli invasion) emerged as a new force that would later prove to be formidable enough to counter Israeli excesses.

In January 1985 the Peres government ordered the withdrawal of the Israeli forces to a narrow security area to occupy as a buffer zone, patrolled by Israel and its client militia, the South Lebanon Army.

Faced with Hizb Allah’s long and deadly resistance to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, the final Israeli withdrawal of the area was carried out on 25 May 2000 by the government of Ehud Barak in the face of escalating attacks. 

Palestinian villages depopulated in 1948 and 1967

Source: Al Jazeera