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Arab-Israeli Wars

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Since the United Nations partition of PALESTINE in 1947 and the establishment of the modern state of ISRAEL in 1948, there have been four major Arab-Israeli wars (1947-49, 1956, 1967, and 1973) and numerous intermittent battles. Although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, hostility between Israel and the rest of its Arab neighbors, complicated by the demands of Palestinian Arabs, continued into the 1980s.

THE FIRST PALESTINE WAR (1947-49) The first war began as a civil conflict between Palestinian Jews and Arabs following the United Nations recommendation of Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine, then still under British mandate, into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Fighting quickly spread as Arab guerrillas attacked Jewish settlements and communication links to prevent implementation of the UN plan. Jewish forces prevented seizure of most settlements, but Arab guerrillas, supported by the Transjordanian Arab Legion under the command of British officers, besieged Jerusalem. By April, Haganah, the principal Jewish military group, seized the offensive, scoring victories against the Arab Liberation Army in northern Palestine, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.

British military forces withdrew to Haifa; although officially neutral, some commanders assisted one side or the other. After the British had departed and the state of Israel had been established on May 15, 1948, under the premiership of David BEN-GURION, the Palestine Arab forces and foreign volunteers were joined by regular armies of Transjordan (now the kingdom of JORDAN), IRAQ, LEBANON, and SYRIA, with token support from SAUDI ARABIA. Efforts by the UN to halt the fighting were unsuccessful until June 11, when a 4-week truce was declared. When the Arab states refused to renew the truce, ten more days of fighting erupted.

In that time Israel greatly extended the area under its control and broke the siege of Jerusalem. Fighting on a smaller scale continued during the second UN truce beginning in mid-July, and Israel acquired more territory, especially in Galilee and the Negev. By January 1949, when the last battles ended, Israel had extended its frontiers by about 5,000 sq km (1,930 sq mi) beyond the 15,500 sq km (4,983 sq mi) allocated to the Jewish state in the UN partition resolution. It had also secured its independence. During 1949, armistice agreements were signed under UN auspices between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The armistice frontiers were unofficial boundaries until 1967. SUEZ-SINAI WAR (1956) Border conflicts between Israel and the Arabs continued despite provisions in the 1949 armistice agreements for peace negotiations. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who had left Israeli-held territory during the first war concentrated in refugee camps along Israel’s frontiers and became a major source of friction when they infiltrated back to their homes or attacked Israeli border settlements. A major tension point was the Egyptian-controlled GAZA STRIP, which was used by Arab guerrillas for raids into southern Israel. Egypt’s blockade of Israeli shipping in the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba intensified the hostilities.

These escalating tensions converged with the SUEZ CRISIS caused by the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian president Gamal NASSER. Great Britain and France strenuously objected to Nasser’s policies, and a joint military campaign was planned against Egypt with the understanding that Israel would take the initiative by seizing the Sinai Peninsula. The war began on Oct. 29, 1956, after an announcement that the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were to be integrated under the Egyptian commander in chief.

Israel’s Operation Kadesh, commanded by Moshe DAYAN, lasted less than a week; its forces reached the eastern bank of the Suez Canal in about 100 hours, seizing the Gaza Strip and nearly all the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai operations were supplemented by an Anglo-French invasion of Egypt on November 5, giving the allies control of the northern sector of the Suez Canal. The war was halted by a UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all occupying forces from Egyptian territory. The General Assembly also established a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to replace the allied troops on the Egyptian side of the borders in Suez, Sinai, and Gaza. By December 22 the last British and French troops had left Egypt.

Israel, however, delayed withdrawal, insisting that it receive security guarantees against further Egyptian attack. After several additional UN resolutions calling for withdrawal and after pressure from the United States, Israel’s forces left in March 1957. SIX-DAY WAR (1967) Relations between Israel and Egypt remained fairly stable in the following decade. The Suez Canal remained closed to Israeli shipping, the Arab boycott of Israel was maintained, and periodic border clashes occurred between Israel, Syria, and Jordan. However, UNEF prevented direct military encounters between Egypt and Israel.

By 1967 the Arab confrontation states-Egypt, Syria, and Jordan-became impatient with the status quo, the propaganda war with Israel escalated, and border incidents increased dangerously. Tensions culminated in May when Egyptian forces were massed in Sinai, and Cairo ordered the UNEF to leave Sinai and Gaza. President Nasser also announced that the Gulf of Aqaba would be closed again to Israeli shipping. At the end of May, Egypt and Jordan signed a new defense pact placing Jordan’s armed forces under Egyptian command. Efforts to de-escalate the crisis were of no avail.

Israeli and Egyptian leaders visited the United States, but President Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to persuade Western powers to guarantee free passage through the Gulf failed. Believing that war was inevitable, Israeli Premier Levi ESHKOL, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, and Army Chief of Staff Yitzhak RABIN approved preemptive Israeli strikes at Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi airfields on June 5, 1967. By the evening of June 6, Israel had destroyed the combat effectiveness of the major Arab air forces, destroying more than 400 planes and losing only 26 of its own. Israel also swept into Sinai, reaching the Suez Canal and occupying most of the peninsula in less than four days. King HUSSEIN of Jordon rejected an offer of neutrality and opened fire on Israeli forces in Jerusalem on June 5. But a lightning Israeli campaign placed all of Arab Jerusalem and the Jordanian West Bank in Israeli hands by June 8.

As the war ended on the Jordanian and Egyptian fronts, Israel opened an attack on Syria in the north. In a little more than two days of fierce fighting, Syrian forces were driven from the Golan Heights, from which they had shelled Jewish settlements across the border. The Six-Day War ended on June 10 when the UN negotiated cease-fire agreements on all fronts. The Six-Day War increased severalfold the area under Israel’s control. Through the occupation of Sinai, Gaza, Arab Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Golan Heights, Israel shortened its land frontiers with Egypt and Jordan, removed the most heavily populated Jewish areas from direct Arab artillery range, and temporarily increased its strategic advantages.

OCTOBER WAR (1973) Israel was the dominant military power in the region for the next six years. Led by Golda MEIR from 1969, it was generally satisfied with the status quo, but Arab impatience mounted. Between 1967 and 1973, Arab leaders repeatedly warned that they would not accept continued Israeli occupation of the lands lost in 1967. After Anwar al-SADAT succeeded Nasser as president of Egypt in 1970, threats about “the year of decision” were more frequent, as was periodic massing of troops along the Suez Canal. Egyptian and Syrian forces underwent massive rearmament with the most sophisticated Soviet equipment. Sadat consolidated war preparations in secret agreements with President Hafez al-ASSAD of Syria for a joint attack and with King FAISAL of Saudi Arabia to finance the operations.

Egypt and Syria attacked on Oct. 6, 1973, pushing Israeli forces several miles behind the 1967 cease-fire lines. Israel was thrown off guard, partly because the attack came on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the most sacred Jewish religious day (coinciding with the Muslim fast of Ramadan). Although Israel recovered from the initial setback, it failed to regain all the territory lost in the first days of fighting. In counterattacks on the Egyptian front, Israel seized a major bridgehead behind the Egyptian lines on the west bank of the canal. In the north, Israel drove a wedge into the Syrian lines, giving it a foothold a few miles west of Damascus.

After 18 days of fighting in the longest Arab-Israeli war since 1948, hostilities were again halted by the UN. The costs were the greatest in any battles fought since World War II. The Arabs lost some 2,000 tanks and more than 500 planes; the Israelis, 804 tanks and 114 planes. The 3-week war cost Egypt and Israel about $7 billion each, in material and losses from declining industrial production or damage.

The political phase of the 1973 war ended with disengagement agreements accepted by Israel, Egypt, and Syria after negotiations in 1974 and 1975 by U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. KISSINGER. The agreements provided for Egyptian reoccupation of a strip of land in Sinai along the east bank of the Suez Canal and for Syrian control of a small area around the Golan Heights town of Kuneitra. UN forces were stationed on both fronts to oversee observance of the agreements, which reestablished a political balance between Israel and the Arab confrontation states.

Under the terms of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed on Mar. 26, 1979, Israel returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt. Hopes for an expansion of the peace process to include other Arab nations waned, however, when Egypt and Israel were subsequently unable to agree on a formula for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the 1980s regional tensions were increased by the activities of militant Palestinians and other Arab extremists and by several Israeli actions. The latter included the formal proclamation of the entire city of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital (1980), the annexation of the Golan Heights (1981), the invasion of southern Lebanon (1982), and the continued expansion of Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

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Arab-Israeli Wars. (2019, May 26). Retrieved from