Egypt’s greatest victory, Israel’s worst defeat

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The 1973 War brought Sinai and self-esteem back to Egyptians.

Today, Monday, marks the 41st anniversary of the 1973 War launched by Egypt against Israel. The war goes by many names: the 1973 War, the October War, the 10 Ramadan War, and to the Israelis the Yom Kippur War.

Whatever name used, Egypt had two main goals when it started the war: to recapture the Sinai Peninsula, occupied by Israel six years earlier during the Six-Day War. And, just as important, Egypt sought to erase the humiliation of that horrific 1967 defeat.

Both were achieved in spades.

1973 was the only time in four Arab-Israeli wars that the Egyptians got the better of the Israelis. It was also the first war that didn’t strengthen Israel, destroying the legend of its invincible army. And it provided the foundation upon which the Egyptian Army regained its status as the nation’s vanguard.

Lasting only 19 days, the war was short lived in duration but far reaching in its affect on the Middle East, affects which are still reverberating around the world today in some form or other.

President Abdel-Nasser’s visit to the Suez front with Egypt’s top military commanders during the War of Attrition. Directly behind him is General Commander Mohamed Fawzi and to his left Chief of Staff Abdel-Minaam Riad

The background of the 1973 War can be traced back to the Six-Day War of 1967, so-called because within six days starting 5 June Israel had defeated Egypt decisively. It launched surprise strikes against Egyptian air fields after the mobilisation of Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula on the Israeli border. With Egypt’s air force decimated, Israeli forces wrested control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. One of Egypt’s sole consolations was its missile boats sinking the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat, the biggest destroyer the Israeli Navy had then.

Following the 1967 war, no serious diplomatic efforts tried to resolve the issues at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser believed that only a military initiative would compel Israel or the international community to facilitate a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, and hostilities soon resumed along the Suez Canal. Thus was born the War of Attrition — fighting between Israel and Egypt from 1967 to 1970. These battles usually took the form of limited artillery duels and small-scale incursions into Sinai. Hostilities continued until August 1970 and ended with a ceasefire, the frontiers remaining the same as when the war began, with no real commitment to serious peace negotiations.

Egyptian IL-28 strikes IDF in Sinai during the War of Attrition

In September 1970 Nasser died and his successor, Anwar Sadat, was adamant on regaining the Sinai Peninsula. Sadat said peace negotiations could only start if Israel withdrew its troops to the border line in place prior to the war. This was something the Israelis would not commit to.

By October 1967 Egypt, Syria and Jordan decided they wanted their lost lands back. Ever since the humiliation of the Six-Day War, Egyptians had longed to see their country fight back. The defeat in such fashion had been devastating. And while the Egyptian people agitated for war, the most powerful constituency of all, Egypt’s army, was also desperate to show that it could take on — and defeat — the enemy it faced across the Suez Canal every day.

Because of the situation at home and the fact that Israel declined Sadat’s peace negotiations in 1970, Sadat started a mass build up of Egyptian forces by purchasing Soviet fighter jets and tanks among other military hardware. Sadat even publicly said he would “sacrifice a million Egyptian soldiers” to gain the lost lands back.

Before the war started, Egypt relied heavily on the element of surprise. Egypt along with Syria actively deceived Israel to create false ideas of their capabilities, plans and intentions. In particular, they conducted secret negotiations, released reports that gave misleading ideas on the quality of their military and masked troop movements prior to the invasion. For instance, Egypt brought many troops up to the Suez Canal not too far from the Sinai Peninsula for a training exercise, or so it was thought. The truth was that the manoeuvre was a ruse to be able to bring thousands of troops into the area without concerning the Israelis. The trick worked. Israel was a little confused why Syrian troops were also on the move to the border but still didn’t think a conflict would start.

Egyptian military leaders during the 1973 War.  Anwar Sadat (fifth from left) flanked by Ahmed Ismail Ali, Saad Al-Shazli, Mohamed Abdel-Ghani Al-Gamasi, Hosni Mubarak, Fouad Mohamed Abou Zikri, Mohamed Ali Fahmi, Abdel-Minaam Wassel, Abdel-Minaam Khalil and Saad Mamoun

But it did, on Saturday 6 October 1973. At 2pm, Egyptian Air Force jets crossed the Suez Canal, heading for Sinai, while Syrian jets simultaneously began a massive aerial strike on Israeli positions in the Golan Heights.

On that day, many of Israel’s soldiers were away from their posts observing Yom Kippur – the Jewish holiest of holy days and hence the Israeli name of the conflict — allowing Egypt to make impressive advances with its up-to-date Soviet weaponry.

On the Israeli side there were only around 450 troops stationed in a number of small fortifications, supported by 290 tanks. They faced off against 100,000 Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal with thousands of tanks, guns and heavy mortars.

Within minutes of the first aerial attacks, a massive artillery barrage began. Under the cover of artillery fire, the first wave of Egyptian ground troops crossed the Canal – 4,000 men in 720 rafts. With the war only three hours old, by 5pm, 45 Egyptian infantry battalions had crossed the Canal.
By sunrise on day two, the war was an unequivocal success for Egypt’s armed forces. More than 100,000 men, more than 1,000 tanks and over 10,000 other vehicles had crossed the Suez Canal with only minimal losses.

At the start of the war, Egyptian troops built pontoon bridges across the Suez Canal to transport military hardware (photo: Telegraph)

Tactically, the crossing was bold and ingenious (dissolving giant defensive sand walls with high-pressure water hoses; building pontoon bridges; commandos crossing the canal in exposed rubber dinghies), and an offensive surprise afforded by attacking on the eve of a Jewish holiday.

The Israelis tried to beat the Egyptians back but because the attack was so unexpected Israel was unable to use its fighter jets to great effect and the Egyptian and Syrian forces were left unopposed from aerial attacks for the first few days. At the same time, Sadat’s close relationship with the Soviets guaranteed a supply of military hardware.

Contemporary commentators note that Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan believed that “the 1967 war was the last of wars… after which there is nothing left for the Arabs but to plead for mercy”. In the first few hours of the 1973 War, Dayan stated that it “[would] end in a few days with victory”.

Nothing of the sort happened. A week into the war, Egypt had advanced farther than could possibly have been expected. For the first time in its 25-year history, Israel was on the defensive. And, as the first week of the conflict concluded, it suffered another serious blow. On 13 October, in front of the world’s media, the last of Israel’s vaunted Bar Lev line of fortresses along the eastern coast of the Suez Canal surrendered to the 43rd battalion of Egyptian commandos.

Israeli soldiers were being humiliated. Meanwhile, the streets of Cairo filled with Egyptians revelling in their military’s triumphs which brought an enthusiastic response across the Arab world.

However, an inevitable Israeli counterattack began. Israel’s No 1 ally, the US, came to the rescue with a huge airlift of arms to Israel. The tide thus changed on 18 October when in less than 24 hours, Israel had mobilised two armoured divisions, which soon turned the Syrian advance into a retreat. The Israelis advanced, capturing territory deep inside Syria.

The Americans provided the Israeli military with weaponry, and something just as important – intelligence. The Israelis knew where to deploy their forces for maximum effect. What appeared to be intuitive devastating counterattacks by the Israelis were based on very detailed information gained from American intelligence. Basically, the Israelis knew where their enemy was and could co-ordinate an attack accordingly.

Two weeks into the war, and with the opposing forces locked in a stalemate, Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, arrived in Moscow. His goal was to agree to a UN ceasefire acceptable to Egypt’s Soviet allies. At the same time another truce initiative was in the making in New York. On 22 October, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338 calling for a ceasefire. The fighting was due to stop that day at 6.52pm Middle Eastern time. But as morning broke on 23 October, Israelis forces did not stop the battle. By the end of the day they had bypassed Suez City and got within 65 miles of Cairo. The Egyptian Third Army, dug in on the eastern side of the Canal, was surrounded by Israeli troops on every side — 35,000 men were cut off from their bases.

On 23 October the Security Council reconvened to confirm the ceasefire, this time issuing Resolution 339. This new ceasefire was scheduled to go into effect at 7am the following day. But, once again, Israel broke it. Israel’s main target appeared to be the conquering of a big city, either Ismailia or Suez, to avenge what Egyptian forces had accomplished.

On the same day, an alarming message reached Washington: the Soviets were considering taking unilateral action to impose the ceasefire. With Richard Nixon, the US president, submerged in the Watergate scandal, it was left to Kissinger to handle the crisis. He decided to respond to the Soviet threat with a show of force. The US armed forces state of alert was raised to the highest level in peacetime.

Egyptian troops in 1973 (photo: Military-Quotes)

On the Suez front, the 35,000 Egyptian troops remained in a perilous position, cut off from their supply line. But the Israelis were also facing a major problem. For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt was holding a large number of Israeli prisoners of war — 230 in total. In Israel, demonstrators took to the streets, accusing Golda Meir’s government of not doing enough to bring the captured soldiers home.

On 25 October an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire was finally secured by the United Nations. On 28 October Israeli and Egyptian military leaders met to negotiate the truce. It was the first meeting between military representatives of the two countries in 25 years. But the negotiations quickly became strained as skirmishes continued in the confusion of the battlefield. In the end, however, an agreement was reached and four days later, prisoners from both sides were exchanged.

Israel lost 2,600 men. This was three times the death rate of the Americans in Vietnam over 10 years. This Israel suffered in three weeks.

A Commission of Investigation headed by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court placed the blame for the Israeli debacle firmly on Israel’s military. Israeli Defence Force intelligence was held responsible for overlooking indications that an attack was going to be launched, resulting in the invasion coming as a complete surprise, giving Egypt and Syria the upper hand. The inquest discredited several Israeli officials, resulting in many suspensions and dismissals. It cleared Prime Minister Golda Meir and Dayan, but the Israeli public was not appeased. Demonstrations broke out and, nine days after the commission published its report, Meir resigned.

Wearing his distinctive eye patch, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan at a press conference during the war (photo: Israeled)

Meanwhile, the effects of the war began to be felt globally. Arab Gulf oil producers cut off exports to the US to protest American military support for Israel in its war with Egypt and Syria. By mid-October 1973 several of the biggest producers had unilaterally raised prices by nearly 20 percent. At their meeting in Kuwait, the OPEC oil producing countries proclaimed the oil boycott which provided for curbs on their oil exports to various consumer countries and a total embargo on oil deliveries to the United States as a “principal hostile country”. This brought to America soaring gas prices and long lines at filling stations.

By the end of the embargo in March 1974, the price of oil had risen from $3 per barrel to nearly $12.

The oil embargo contributed to a major economic downturn in the US and its shock reverberates until this day. The embargo showed Americans how heavily dependent they were on Middle Eastern oil, which in turn led the US to focus on instability in the region, which has since included multiple wars and other US military interventions.

The embargo challenged America’s position in the world, polarised its politics at home and shook the country’s confidence. In the 20 years before the war America’s energy consumption had doubled, causing an increasing dependence on imported Arab oil. Reduced imports following the 1973 War saw closure of US petrol stations, houses without heating, and a general crisis in the petroleum market. The Saudi oil minister told US congressmen that “when there is a shortage in fuel in the United States and your people begin to suffer, the change will begin”.

The crisis prompted efforts to conserve energy and find and develop other power sources, from natural gas to wind to solar. The US is less dependent on the Middle East oil today as less than 10 percent of its oil now comes from the region.

The oil embargo also created a degree of Arab unity never before achieved. Indeed, the use of Arab control of oil supplies as a political weapon was one of the most significant consequences of the war. In particular the Arab states aimed to make the United States aware of the exorbitant price the big industrial states could pay as a result of their blind and limitless support for Israel.

One consequence of the embargo was a change in US foreign policy, with a focus on achieving Middle East peace, ultimately to prevent renewal of the embargo.

Israeli POWs captured in the 1973 War

The 1973 War had far-reaching implications. Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, which had been humiliated by the lopsided rout of the Six-Day War, felt psychologically vindicated and their morale boosted considerably.  Some choice quotes from Sadat at the time:

“The Arab armed forces performed a miracle in the war as judged by a military measure.”

“Both the Egyptian and Syrian armies regained their honour and prestige.”

“The Arab world can rest assured that it has now both a shield and a sword.”

“Now the Israeli soldier is fleeing before the Egyptian solider.”

As much as they were devastated by 1967, Egyptians were ecstatic with 1973. Victory inspired the 6 October Bridge over the Nile, two new Cairene suburbs, 6 October and 10 Ramadan (the war began on the 10th day of the fasting month), a magazine, dozens of books and movies, and produced a national holiday.

In Israel, the war led to recognition that there was no guarantee it would always dominate the Arab states militarily. It left Israel militarily weakened, destroying the widely accepted myth of Israeli invincibility. The war had undermined the faith of the Israeli public in their leader’s ability to protect them. These changes paved the way for the subsequent peace process because the war resulted in a considerable shift in the regional balance of power.

Sadat gained the leverage needed to initiate peace negotiations with Israel. Before the war there had been a general reluctance to negotiate peace after the crushing defeat in 1967. Egypt had felt in a position of weakness and feared that any settlement would be entirely dictated by Israel, making it impossible for Sadat to make serious efforts towards peace. Many were of the opinion that the depth of Egypt’s sense of humiliation required a military achievement to make it possible for Sadat to offer peace. Success in the war restored Arab honour, resulting in far more public support for peace. Ultimately Egypt’s increase in stature resulting from the war was demonstrated in Sadat’s ability to pursue peace talks that in prior years had been regarded as a joke.

In Israel nobody was laughing anymore. The trauma brought on by 1973 led to a major political change in the country. Although the Labour Party won the elections that were held in December that year, new faces emerged: Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, replacing Meir and Dayan. It would be the Rabin government which eventually engaged in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Leon Mill spray paints a sign outside his Phillips 66 station in Perkasie, Pa., in 1973 to let his customers know he’s out of gas. An Arab oil embargo against countries supporting Israel during the 1973 War squeezed US businesses and consumers who were forced to line up for hours at gas stations (photo: NPR)

The full impact of what happened was felt in 1977 when, for the first time in Israel’s history, Labour lost the elections and the perennial oppositionists– the Likud under Menachem Begin – came to power. Subsequently, in 1977 Sadat paid his historic visit to Israel, leading to the 1978 Camp David accords, followed by normalised relations — the first peaceful recognition of Israel by an Arab country — then the return of the Sinai to Egypt in 1982.

On 23 December 1973 cars formed a double line at a gas station in New York City. The Arab oil embargo caused gas shortages nationwide and shaped US foreign policy to this day (photo: Lew Waters)

One of the most significant indications of a shift in power in Israel caused by the war was that the Israeli leadership felt that political settlements were now necessary to avoid future wars. Rather than being a decision where Israel had the luxury to choose peace or not, after the war Israel was in a weakened position, where it felt there were limited alternatives.

Most importantly, the war proved to most Israelis that the possession of occupied territories did not necessarily mean a more secure Israel. This conclusion led such leaders as Begin, Dayan and the pre-war hawk Ezer Weizman to do what Meir had refused to do prior to the war — give back territories in return for peace. Their readiness to return the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian hands was undoubtedly motivated to a large extent by the events of October 1973.