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 plan.
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 premiership of David
BEN-GURION, 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 ceasefire 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 fronts.
The Six-Day War increased severalfold 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
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
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 West Bank.