What was the course and result of the 1956 Sinai Campaign?
As described in Background of the Sinai Campaign, the continued blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, combined with the increased fedayeen attacks and the bellicosity of recent Arab statements, prompted Israel, with the backing of Britain and France, to attack Egypt on October 29, 1956. The Sinai Campaign of 1956 (Operation Kadesh) was a swift, sweeping operation of 100 hours, under the leadership of then Chief of the General Staff, Moshe Dayan, with the result that the entire Sinai peninsula fell into Israeli hands, at a cost of 231 soldiers killed. Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Abba Eban explained the provocations to the Security Council on October 30:
- During the six years during which this belligerency has operated in violation of the Armistice Agreement [the Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement signed February 24, 1949] there have occurred 1,843 cases of armed robbery and theft, 1,339 cases of armed clashes with Egyptian armed forces, 435 cases of incursion from Egyptian controlled territory, 172 cases of sabotage perpetrated by Egyptian military units and fedayeen in Israel. As a result of these actions of Egyptian hostility within Israel, 364 Israelis were wounded and 101 killed. In 1956 alone, as a result of this aspect of Egyptian aggression, 28 Israelis were killed and 127 wounded.
When the decision was made to go to war in 1956, more than 100,000 soldiers were mobilized in less than 72 hours and the air force was fully operational within 43 hours. These were the Israeli civilian reserve units, about which many misgivings had been uttered before the war, but in the event, they conducted themselves honorably. Between October 29 and November 1, 1956, Israel, using fast armored divisions, outflanked, surrounded, and routed the Egyptian forces in Sinai. Israel’s air force neutralized more than ninety armored vehicles that vainly tried to shore up Egypt’s defenses. Using paratroops, Israel took Egypt’s airfields in the Sinai and Israeli forces quickly advanced unopposed toward the Suez Canal. A battle plan for the operation had been adopted in early October 1956, but was revised following Israel’s secret agreement with Britain and France. Under the agreement, Israel would transfer the focus of action as close to the Suez Canal as possible. However, the Israeli government also drew up a course of action allowing it to convert the operation into a brief raid, should the British and French, contrary to the secret agreement, not intervene. In a new plan, adopted on October 25, it was decided to launch the operation with a paratroop landing, and to hold the Armored Corps back until October 31. At 17:00 on October 29, Israeli units parachuted into the eastern approaches of the Mitla Pass near the Canal – a political rather than tactical or strategic objective. The action provided the pretext for a French and British ultimatum to Israel and Egypt, calling on both sides to cease hostilities and withdraw from the Canal area. For diversionary reasons, Israeli forces also advanced on southern and central axes. On October 31 Britain and France issued their ultimatum ordering both forces to keep all fighting at least 10 miles from the Canal Zone. Israel halted in compliance with the ultimatum, but, as expected, the Egyptians ignored the Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw since they, the “victims,” were being asked to retreat from the Sinai to the west bank of the Canal while the Israelis were permitted to stay just 10 miles east of the Canal. On October 30, the United States sponsored a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate Israeli withdrawal, but England and France vetoed it. The following day, the two allies launched air operations, bombing Egyptian airfields near Suez. Given the pretext to continue fighting, the Israeli forces routed the Egyptians. Israel surrounded Gaza and wiped out the Egyptian fortifications there. The IDF’s armored corps swept across the desert, capturing virtually the entire Sinai. The Egyptian garrison at Sharm el-Sheikh was overwhelmed on November 5, ending the Sinai Campaign. The Arab world was stunned. In eight days Israel had taken all of the Sinai Desert with its touted fortifications. That same day, November 5, 1956, British and French paratroops landed near Port Said and amphibious ships dropped commandoes on shore. British troops captured Port Said and advanced to within 25 miles of Suez City before the British government abruptly agreed to a cease-fire. The British about-face was prompted by Soviet threats to use “every kind of modern destructive weapon” to stop the violence and the United States decision to make a much-needed $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund contingent on a cease-fire. The French tried to convince Britain to fight long enough to finish the job of capturing the Canal, but succeeded only in delaying their acceptance of the cease-fire. Though their allies had failed to accomplish their goals, the Israelis were satisfied at having reached theirs in an operation that took only 100 hours. By the end of the fighting, Israel held the Gaza Strip and had advanced as far as Sharm al-Sheikh along the Red Sea. A total of 231 Israeli soldiers died in the fighting. When Britain, France and Israel eventually withdrew, Nasser was honored by Arabs as a leader who had saved the Arab world. The United States and the Soviet Union both condemned the Israel attack and ordered Israel to return to its previous borders. After six months of extensive negotiations, Israel complied but only on condition that the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) would station troops at Sharm el-Sheikh, thus guaranteeing the free passage of Israels ships through the Gulf of Aqaba. The United Nations also promised to take control of the Gaza Strip, limiting the terrorist activities of the fedayeen.