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The Sinai War

The Sinai War (known also as the Sinai Campaign or the Kadesh Campaign) was waged between Egypt and Israel between October 29 and November 5, 1956. In this war Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula – and after its conclusion evacuated it. The war was waged on Israel’s part with both political and military coordination with Great Britain and France.

The Anglo-French campaign against Egypt which was waged simultaneously with the Sinai Campaign was called Operation Musketeer. Its aim was to capture the Suez Canal and take control of it in order to restore their control of it – after Egypt had nationalized the Canal.


Israel’s War of Independence ended in the signing of armistice agreements, rather than peace treaties, between the states involved. The obscure wording of these agreements and their lack of clarity regarding the “demilitarized zones” led to increased friction in Israeli-Arab relations: ever since the end of the War of Independence, Israel suffered some 1,300 civilian casualties at the hands of infiltrators and terrorist gangs that penetrated the country from the Gaza Strip. In August 1955 the Egyptians made use of the feda’iyun, small Arab raiding units, in carrying out deeds of murder and sabotage inside Israel’s borders.

In September 1955, Egypt signed a large armament deal with Czechoslovakia with the encouragement of the Soviet Union. This deal changed the balance of power in the Middle East, and consequently Egypt felt itself militarily strong and began to develop its armored, naval and air forces.

On October 24, 1956 a unified Arab (Egyptian-Jordanian-Syrian) military command was established, and the declarations voiced by Arab leaders provided grounds for Israeli fears that they intended to destroy Israel when the appropriate hour arrived.

Another reason for the outbreak of war was the harm caused by Egypt to Israeli shipping.

Egypt blocked Israeli use of the Suez Canal as early as 1951, and two years later prevented the passage through the Canal of goods intended for Israel in ships flying foreign flags. In 1953 the Egyptians blocked Israeli shipping attempting to pass through the Tiran Straits, and in September 1955 they expanded this blockade to the airspace of the Straits as well. These Egyptian acts were violations of international law, but Israel’s attempts to counter them politically were unsuccessful.

Great Britain and France initiated the war in reaction to the Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal on July 26, 1956. The Suez Canal Company had been under the control of Great Britain and France. As a result of this act, Egypt expected the intervention of Western forces against her.

In this way a tripartite coalition came into being – France, Britain and Israel – crystallizing at the Sèvres Conference in France, attended by the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and the British Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd. After serious discussion it was agreed that Israel would carry out a military operation near the Suez Canal, at which point France and Britain would give Egypt and Israel an ultimatum – to withdraw their forces to a line about 10 miles from either side of the Canal. Israel would agree to this demand, and if Egypt rejected it, France and Great Britain would declare war against her and capture the Canal Zone. It was furthermore agreed that the military operation would begin on October 29, and that France would dispatch three air squadrons to defend Israel’s skies and would speed up the shipment of the equipment which she had undertaken to supply to the IDF. Britain and France promised that the arrangements after the conclusion of the war would ensure the free passage of Israeli shipping through the Tiran Straits and that the Gaza Strip would no longer serve as a base for terrorist operations in Israel. It was hoped that the conquest of the Canal Zone by the Western allies and the conquest of Sinai by Israel would lead to the fall of the Nasserist regime and the establishment of a new regime in Egypt, more amenable to the West and to Israel.

The Events of the War

Stage I (October 29-30 1956) – the Beginning

On October 29 a paratroop unit was dropped at the eastern opening of the Mitle Pass, some 50 km. east of the Suez Canal. On the night between the 30th and 31st of October paratroop units moving under armored cover joined the first unit, thus outflanking the Egyptian positions in northeast Sinai and directly threatening the Suez Canal.

On October 30 Britain and France presented Egypt and Israel with the demand (previously agreed upon at the Sèvres Conference) to withdraw their troops from both banks of the Suez Canal to positions ten miles from the Canal.

Israel replied favorably while Egypt rejected the demand. On November 1 Britain and France entered the war and paralyzed the Egyptian Air Force which had up until then battled the Israeli Air Force over the Sinai Desert.

Stage II – The Decisive Stage (October 31 – November 1 1956)

Between the 31st of October and the 1st of November, the IDF surrounded the Egyptian forces at Umm-Katef and Abu-Ageila, thus opening the road to the Suez Canal along the northern route. The paratroopers penetrated into the Mitle Pass and in the battle that developed there (the Mitle Battle) suffered many casualties at the hands of a large Egyptian force. The Israeli Air Force caused the retreating Egyptian forces considerable damage, as well as the Egyptian forces that attempted to come to their assistance. On November 1, the Egyptian Command ordered its forces to withdraw from Sinai in an orderly fashion, but most of the soldiers simply fled in disorder and in panic. The Israeli Navy and Air Force captured the Egyptian destroyer “Ibrahim el-Awal” which had attacked Haifa.

Stage III – Exploiting the Success (November 2-5, 1956)

The IDF halted 16 km. from the Canal, in accordance with the demands made by the British and the French. Between the 2nd and 3rd of November IDF forces cleaned out the Gaza Strip. Between November 2-5 the Ninth Division moved from Ras-al-Naqeb to Sharm-esh-Sheikh and captured it. Paratroopers moved south along the west coast of Sinai and they, too, reached Sharm-esh-Sheikh. The Israeli Navy took the islands of Tiran and Snapier, thus completing the stages of the war in Sinai. The entire Sinai Peninsula, as well as the Gaza Strip, were in the hands of the IDF.

The IDF casualties in the Sinai War were 171 killed, hundreds of wounded and four in captivity.

The Egyptians suffered thousands of killed and wounded, about 6,000 Egyptian soldiers were taken captive, and large amounts of military equipment fell into the possession of the IDF.

In the Wake of the War

The Soviet Union, an ally of Egypt, expressed opposition to the Israeli conquest in Sinai and to the invasion by Britain and France of the Suez Canal Zone, and threatened to use nuclear warheads if the invading forces did not withdraw. The USA supported the Soviet demands of Great Britain, France and Israel and demanded that the territory taken in the war be evacuated. France and Britain quickly agreed and pulled out their troops by the end of 1956.

The Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, realized that Israel could not stand alone against the American and Soviet pressure and agreed to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza in March 1957, but declared that any blockade of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships would be considered a casus belli.

The international arrangement under which Israel withdrew her forces included the demilitarization of Sinai regarding Egyptian forces and the stationing of a UN Emergency Force at the straits at the entrance to the Gulf of Eilat (Gulf of Aqaba), which were now once again open to Israeli shipping, and also along the international border and in the Gaza Strip.

From the standpoint of Israel, the direct objectives of the war had been achieved: the Sinai Peninsula had been captured in its entirety, the deterrent force of the IDF was strengthened, thus giving Israel a decade of relative quiet along her borders. From the viewpoint of Great Britain and France, the war had been a complete failure: they had not succeeded in deposing Nasser, nor had they taken control of the Suez Canal; they exposed themselves to heavy international pressure, and lost a lot of their prestige in the Arab world, as well as elsewhere.