Since the United Nations partition of Palestine in 1947 and the
establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, there have been four
major Arab-Israeli wars (1947-49, 1956, 1967, and 1973) and numerous
intermittent battles. Although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979,
hostility between Israel and the rest of its Arab neighbors, complicated by the
demands of Palestinian Arabs, continued into the 1980s.
THE FIRST PALESTINE WAR (1947-49)
The first war began as a civil conflict between Palestinian Jews and
Arabs following the United Nations recommendation of Nov. 29, 1947, to
partition Palestine, then still under British mandate, into an Arab state and a
Jewish state. Fighting quickly spread as Arab guerrillas attacked Jewish
settlements and communication links to prevent implementation of the UN
Jewish forces prevented seizure of most settlements, but Arab
guerrillas, supported by the Transjordanian Arab Legion under the command
of British officers, besieged Jerusalem. By April, Haganah, the principal
Jewish military group, seized the offensive, scoring victories against the Arab
Liberation Army in northern Palestine, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. British military
forces withdrew to Haifa; although officially neutral, some commanders
assisted one side or the other.
After the British had departed and the state of Israel had been
established on May 15, 1948, under the guidance of David Bemgurion, the
Palestine Arab forces and foreign volunteers were joined by regular armies of
Transjordan (now the kingdom of Jordan), Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, with
token support from Saudi Arabia. Efforts by the UN to halt the fighting were
unsuccessful until June 11, when a 4-week truce was declared. When the
Arab states refused to renew the truce, ten more days of fighting erupted. In
that time Israel greatly extended the area under its control and broke the siege
of Jerusalem. Fighting on a smaller scale continued during the second UN
truce beginning in mid-July, and Israel acquired more territory, especially in
Galilee and the Negev. By January 1949, when the last battles ended, Israel
had extended its
frontiers by about 5,000 sq km (1,930 sq mi) beyond the 15,500 sq km
(4,983 sq mi) allocated to the Jewish state in the UN partition resolution. It
had also secured its independence. During 1949, armistice agreements were
signed under UN auspices between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and
Lebanon. The armistice frontiers were unofficial boundaries until 1967.
SUEZ-SINAI WAR (1956)
Border conflicts between Israel and the Arabs continued despite
provisions in the 1949 armistice agreements for peace negotiations.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who had left Israeli-held territory
during the first war concentrated in refugee camps along Israel\'s frontiers and
became a major source of friction when they infiltrated back to their homes
or attacked Israeli border settlements. A major tension point was the
Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip, which was used by Arab guerrillas for raids
into southern Israel. Egypt\'s blockade of Israeli shipping in the Suez Canal
and Gulf of Aqaba intensified the hostilities.
These escalating tensions converged with the Suez crisis caused
by the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian president Gamal Nasser.
Great Britain and France strenuously objected to Nasser\'s policies, and a joint
military campaign was planned against Egypt with the understanding that
Israel would take the initiative by seizing the Sinai Peninsula. The war began
on Oct. 29, 1956, after an announcement that the armies of Egypt, Syria, and
Jordan were to be integrated under the Egyptian commander in chief. Israel\'s
Operation Kadesh, commanded by Moshe Dayan, lasted less than a week; its
forces reached the eastern bank of the Suez Canal in about 100 hours, seizing
the Gaza Strip and nearly all the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai operations were
supplemented by an Anglo-French invasion of Egypt on November 5, giving
the allies control of the northern sector of the Suez Canal.
The war was halted by a UN General Assembly resolution calling for
an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of all occupying forces from
Egyptian territory. The General Assembly also established a United Nations
Emergency Force (UNEF) to replace the allied troops on the Egyptian side of
the borders in Suez, Sinai, and Gaza. By December 22 the last British and
French troops had left Egypt. Israel, however, delayed withdrawal, insisting
that it receive security guarantees against further Egyptian attack. After
several additional UN resolutions calling for withdrawal and after pressure
from the United States, Israel\'s forces left in March 1957.
SIX-DAY WAR (1967)
Relations between Israel and Egypt remained fairly stable in the
following decade. The Suez Canal remained closed to Israeli shipping, the
Arab boycott of Israel was maintained, and periodic border clashes occurred
between Israel, Syria, and Jordan. However, UNEF prevented direct military
encounters between Egypt and Israel.
By 1967 the Arab confrontation states--Egypt, Syria, and Jordan
became impatient with the status quo, the propaganda war with Israel
escalated, and border incidents increased dangerously. Tensions culminated
in May when Egyptian forces were massed in Sinai, and Cairo ordered the
UNEF to leave Sinai and Gaza. President Nasser also announced that the
Gulf of Aqaba would be closed again to Israeli shipping. At the end of May,
Egypt and Jordan signed a new defense pact placing Jordan\'s armed forces
under Egyptian command. Efforts to de-escalate the crisis were of no avail.
Israeli and Egyptian leaders visited the United States, but President Lyndon
Johnson\'s attempts to persuade Western powers to guarantee free passage
through the Gulf failed.
Believing that war was inevitable, Israeli Premier Levi Eshkol,
Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, and Army Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin
approved preemptive Israeli strikes at Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi
airfields on June 5, 1967. By the evening of June 6, Israel had destroyed the
combat effectiveness of the major Arab air forces, destroying more than 400
planes and losing only 26 of its own. Israel also swept into Sinai, reaching
the Suez Canal and occupying most of the peninsula in less than four days.
King Hussein of Jordon rejected an offer of neutrality and opened fire
on Israeli forces in Jerusalem on June 5. But a lightning Israeli campaign
placed all of Arab Jerusalem and the Jordanian West Bank in Israeli hands by
June 8. As the war ended on the Jordanian and Egyptian fronts, Israel
opened an attack on Syria in the north. In a little more than two days of
fierce fighting, Syrian forces were driven from the Golan Heights, from
which they had shelled Jewish settlements across the border. The Six-Day
War ended on June 10 when the UN negotiated cease-fire agreements on all
The Six-Day War increased buffer zone the area under Israel\'s control.
Through the occupation of Sinai, Gaza, Arab Jerusalem, the West Bank, and
Golan Heights, Israel shortened its land frontiers with Egypt and Jordan,
removed the most heavily populated Jewish areas from direct Arab artillery
range, and temporarily increased its strategic advantages.
OCTOBER WAR (1973)
Israel was the dominant military power in the region for the next six
years. Led by Golda Meir from 1969, it was generally satisfied with the
status quo, but Arab impatience mounted. Between 1967 and 1973, Arab
leaders repeatedly warned that they would not accept continued Israeli
occupation of the lands lost in 1967.
After Anwar al-Sadat succeeded Nasser as president of Egypt in 1970,
threats about \"the year of decision\" were more frequent, as was periodic
massing of troops along the Suez Canal. Egyptian and Syrian forces
underwent massive rearmament with the most sophisticated Soviet
equipment. Sadat consolidated war preparations in secret agreements with
President Hafez al-Assad of Syria for a joint attack and with King Faisal of
Saudi Arabia to finance the operations.
Egypt and Syria attacked on Oct. 6, 1973, pushing Israeli forces
several miles behind the 1967 cease-fire lines. Israel was thrown off guard,
partly because the attack came on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the
most sacred Jewish religious day (coinciding with the Muslim fast of
Ramadan). Although Israel recovered from the initial setback, it failed to
regain all the territory lost in the first days of fighting. In counterattacks on
the Egyptian front, Israel seized a major bridgehead behind the Egyptian lines
on the west bank of the canal. In the north, Israel drove a wedge into the
Syrian lines, giving it a foothold a few miles west of Damascus.
After 18 days of fighting in the longest Arab-Israeli war since 1948,
hostilities were again halted by the UN. The costs were the greatest in any
battles fought since World War II. The Arabs lost some 2,000 tanks and
more than 500 planes; the Israelis, 804 tanks and 114 planes. The 3-week
war cost Egypt and Israel about $7 billion each, in material and losses from
declining industrial production or damage.
The political phase of the 1973 war ended with disengagement
agreements accepted by Israel, Egypt, and Syria after negotiations in 1974
and 1975 by U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. The agreements
provided for Egyptian reoccupation of a strip of land in Sinai along the east
bank of the Suez Canal and for Syrian control of a small area around the
Golan Heights town of Kuneitra. UN forces were stationed
on both fronts to oversee observance of the agreements, which reestablished a
political balance between Israel and the Arab confrontation states.
Under the terms of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed on Mar. 26,
1979, Israel returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt. Hopes for an expansion of
the peace process to include other Arab nations waned, however, when Egypt
and Israel were subsequently unable to agree on a formula for Palestinian
self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the 1980s regional tensions
were increased by the activities of militant Palestinians and other Arab
extremists and by several Israeli actions. The latter included the formal
proclamation of the entire city of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital (1980), the
annexation of the Golan Heights (1981), the invasion of southern Lebanon
(1982), and the continued expansion of Israeli settlement in the occupied