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The War of Attrition

The War of Attrition was a war between Israel and Egypt, and took place in the main along the Suez Canal front.

The war began in March 1969 and ended on August 7, 1970, the date on which the two parties agreed on a cease-fire. The war began as an Egyptian initiative in order to pressure Israel to withdraw from the territories it had liberated in the Six-Day War. Egypt attempted to wage a war of attrition against the IDF forces by repeatedly shelling Israeli outposts along the Suez Canal. In addition, the Egyptians tried to maneuver the United Nations into forcing Israel to retreat from the Sinai Peninsula.

The Egyptian President Gamal Abd-el-Nasser coined the term “War of Attrition” by saying, as he did on June 23, 1969: “I am unable to conquer Sinai but I can break the Israeli spirit by means of attrition”.

Israel, for its part, attempted to preserve the achievements of the Six-Day War, and worked in the War of Attrition to prevent the Egyptians from gaining any advantage on land. During the war, the Israeli Air Force attacked a large number of targets deep in Egypt. These attacks, with which the Egyptians were unable to cope, were one of the reasons why the Egyptians finally agreed to a cease-fire. The war which began as an Egyptian initiative to break the Israeli spirit ended with Egypt itself suffering severe attrition.

The War of Attrition was different from all the other Israeli-Arab wars insofar as it was a static war, in which no territory was either lost or gained by either side. It was mostly composed of shelling exchanges and raids of a limited scope.

The Development of the War

In March 1969 Nasser announced that he was going to violate the cease-fire, whereupon the War of Attrition broke out and was waged day after day along the Egyptian front. This Egyptian activity included the heavy shelling of Israeli outposts and their approaches, air attacks, raiding the outposts and laying ambushes in Israeli territory. The IDF suffered scores of casualties. IDF forces along the Canal returned the Egyptian fire, and the Egyptian towns and villages in the Canal zone were abandoned and became ghost towns. With the intention of forcing the Egyptians to honor the cease-fire, the IDF adopted a more offensive policy and carried out raids not only at the front but also in the Egyptian hinterland. Nevertheless, the Egyptian fire did not abate.

Escalation in the war occurred on July 20, 1969. The night before Israeli naval commandos raided Green Island in the northern Gulf of Suez. The Egyptians suffered considerable dead and wounded, and by December 1969 most of the anti-aircraft missile batteries had been destroyed. As a result of this increased activity, the number of IDF casualties along the Canal decreased.

On January 7, 1970 a change took place in the War of Attrition. The Israeli Air Force began bombing military targets deep inside Egypt. Military camps and missile batteries in the Nile Delta area, in Cairo and further south were bombed. This wave of attacks compelled the Egyptians to apply to the Soviet Union for assistance. The War of Attrition was raging during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This fact had a decisive influence on the willingness of the two superpowers to help the warring parties. In February 1970, in response to the Egyptian request, some 20,000 Soviet military personnel joined in on the Egyptian side, and undertook to man Egypt’s anti-aircraft defenses, and to man missile batteries and fly jet fighters.

In April 1970, the Egyptians strengthened their offensive with artillery shelling, tank fire, air strikes, raiding Israeli outposts and laying ambushes. In mid-April Israel’s Air Force ceased its in-depth air strikes, but continued bombing targets along the Canal. At the end of May, further escalation took place along the front, when two Egyptian ambushes in Israeli territory caused a number of casualties. In retaliation the Air Force attacked the northern section of the Canal front, hit the Egyptian infrastructure and cut off land communications with Port Said. This was followed by an attack on the Egyptian lines in this part of the front. The Egyptian positions were severely hurt, and attempts to rehabilitate them were thwarted by means of firepower. Nevertheless, the Egyptians successfully moved missile batteries forward to the front. The Air Force attacked them and destroyed some of them, but itself suffered casualties. In June 1970 the Americans initiated a cease-fire, and this went into effect on August 7, and the war along the Canal ceased.

In the War of Attrition 721 Israelis were killed, of whom 594 were soldiers. On the Egyptian side the number of dead reached a few thousand.