The Sinai Campaign, Lessons From A Forgotten War

The folly of international guarantees.

Sixty-two years ago, on October 29, 1956 sixteen Israeli Air Force C-47 Dakota transport planes (one piloted by a woman) dropped 395 paratroopers deep behind Egyptian lines in the Sinai Peninsula, just outside the Mitla Pass. Hours earlier, Israeli P-51 Mustangs cut Egyptian phone lines in Sinai with their wings and propellers severely disrupting Egyptian military communications. These actions represented the opening shots of the Sinai Campaign, codenamed Operation Kadesh, a large-scale Israeli military undertaking directed at Israel’s main antagonist at the time, Egypt. The paradrop was followed-up by land thrusts.

The reasons for the attack were four-fold. First, Egypt led by its belligerent pan-Arabist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, blockaded the Straits of Tiran, an international waterway, to Israeli shipping. As a result, Israel’s southern port city of Eilat was rendered useless and its maritime access to parts of Asia and Africa was cut off.

Second, since the early 1950s, Egypt had been sponsoring Fedayeen attacks against Israel. The Fedayeen were largely Palestinians, armed, trained and paid by Egypt. They launched their terrorist attacks mostly from Egypt and Jordan. One of the most notorious of these was known as the Scorpion Pass Massacre, a deadly ambush attack that left 11 Egged bus passengers including women and children, dead. At least one female passenger was raped before being murdered. Kadesh was aimed at punishing Egypt for its role in the Fedayeen attacks and destroying Fedayeen bases in Gaza and Sinai.

Third, in 1955 Egypt concluded a major arms purchase with the Soviet Union which in turn utilized Czechoslovakia as its convenient interlocutor. The deal involved the sale to Egypt of hundreds of T-34 tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, MiG-15 fighters, Ilyushin ll-28 bombers, and naval vessels. Such a large-scale transfer of weapons altered the balance of power in favor of Egypt. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan estimated that it would take a year for Egypt to absorb this massive amount of hardware and when it did, it would strike at Israel. Nasser never missed an opportunity to proclaim his nefarious intentions to his base and the Arab world at large and Israel took his threats seriously. As such, Israel determined that if war was inevitable, it was better if it occurred before the Egyptians learned how to use their new toys.

Finally, just days before the outbreak of hostilities, Nasser signed mutual defense treaties with Syria and Jordan. Israel was now surrounded by hostile foes from all borders. Nasser’s provocative actions convinced Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Israel had no choice.

One Israeli column linked up with the paratroops dropped at Mitla while another dealt with Egyptian and Fedayeen concentrations in northern Sinai. A third column headed toward Sharm el-Sheikh to open the Straits and free the Gulf of Eilat from the Egyptian stranglehold.

It was a lightening operation and classically Israeli involving skillful and rapid maneuver as well as multiple feints designed to further confuse and disorient the enemy. Within one week, it was all over. The Egyptian army in Sinai had been destroyed and the Fedayeen bases, obliterated. Large quantities of Soviet equipment fell into Israeli hands. The Israelis even managed to seize an Egyptian destroyer which Israel promptly pressed into service. Most importantly, Israel’s ships could now pass through the Straits of Tiran without fear of being shot at.

Egypt never disclosed an official casualty count but it is estimated that the Egyptian military lost approximately 3,000 soldiers while an additional 5,000 were taken prisoner. Israel suffered 177 killed in action. Israel’s victory represented the continuation of a pattern that began with the first Arab-Israeli war, and which endures to this very day.

Egypt somewhat disingenuously refers to the Sinai Campaign as the Tripartite Aggression because Israel had coordinated some of its activities with France and Britain. But the Egyptian naming overlooks the fact that the Anglo-French military campaign, codenamed Operation Musketeer, did not even begin until Israel’s Operation Kadesh was completed. In other words, Israel alone faced Egypt, and soundly defeated it. As an aside, Musketeer will be remembered as an Anglo-French debacle, marred by political and military indecisiveness.

Due to pressure from the Eisenhower administration, Israel was compelled to relinquish its territorial acquisition but the Israelis did secure some breathing space. A multinational force acting under the auspices of the United Nations deployed in areas vacated by the Israelis. Israel also secured a guarantee from the United States and the world powers that Israel’s maritime rights at the Straits of Tiran would be protected.

Eleven years later, in May 1967 those guarantees proved to be worth no more than the paper they were written on. And the UN force, deployed to secure the peace, scattered without even a whimper at Nasser’s demand to leave. On June 5, 1967 Arab belligerence compelled Israel to once again, mow the lawn.

The Sinai Campaign is now a distant memory and all but forgotten but an important lesson can nevertheless be drawn. Israel can never allow itself to rely on international or third-party guarantees for its security. Circumstances change with time and the party issuing the guarantee, no matter how benevolent or well-intentioned may no longer be in a position to enforce those guarantees or may be distracted by other obligations. In the case of Egypt’s renewal of its blockade over the Straits, Lyndon Johnson was too distracted by Vietnam to worry about a tiny strait in a distant land. As for the UN, it has proven to be as useless as it is corrupt. Israel can never allow itself to subordinate its security to anyone other than its defense forces. In 1967, Israel learned that the hard way.

Tags: Israel