Friday, April 10, 2009

Arabs and Israelis I: The Suez Crisis

Note: This is the first in a series of Part II of my synopsis of modern Israeli history. To read Part I detailing how the modern nation of Israel came to be, go to my blog:

At the conclusion of Israel’s War for Independence, the new state of Israel signed armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Iraq was the only Arab nation that did not sign an armistice. Instead the Iraqis withdrew their forces and turned the territory that they controlled over to the Jordanians. The defeat at the hands of the Israelis is great humiliation for the governments of the Arab nations.

At the end of the hostilities on January 7, 1949, Israel had captured an additional 5,000 square kilometers over territory allotted to it by the United Nations partition. The city of Jerusalem remained divided with Trans Jordan controlling the eastern part of the city. Nevertheless, the Israelis made Jerusalem their new capitol and moved government offices to their part of the city. On May 11, 1949, Israel became a member of the United Nations.

At this point, Jewish immigrants from around the world began to converge on Israel. Between 1948 and 1951, the Jewish population of Israel doubled as over 600,000 new Israelis arrived, many from Arab countries. The influx helped to get the economy of the new nation onto its feet. In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Return, which guarantees the right of Jews around the world to immigrate to Israel and become citizens.

For the Arab population, the picture was not so bright. Many Arabs had fled the fighting, often at the urging of the Arab armies. The approximately 600,000 Arab refugees were not welcomed by the Arab countries in which they found themselves. Rather than assimilating the refugees as the Israelis had done, the Arabs segregated them into refugee camps. They were caught in a no-man’s land, not wanting to return to their homes to live under a Jewish government and not being permitted to enter society elsewhere. The problem of the Arab refugees continues to fester today.

The Suez Crisis

In spite of the armistice agreements, Israel was not at peace at this point. The Arab nations refused to negotiate permanent peace until Israel returned the land that the Arabs had lost in the 1948 War. Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping in 1949. In spite of a UN resolution ordering Egypt to allow the Israelis to traverse the canal, the Egyptians did not comply. The Egyptians also blockaded the Straits of Tiran, preventing ships from using the Israeli port of Eilat. Additionally, this period also saw attacks by fedayeen guerillas from Arab countries across the border into Israel.

On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, emboldened by an arms deal with the Soviet Union, announced that Egypt would nationalize the Suez Canal. Nasser was a former army officer who had led a coup against Egypt’s king in 1952 following Egypt’s defeat by Israel. By nationalizing the canal, Nasser was directly challenging the British and French, even though Nasser promised to compensate shareholders and not disrupt navigation.

The British and French immediately began planning Operation Musketeer to regain control of the canal. The United States, under President Eisenhower, opposed the use of force. The Soviet Union and India led several other neutral countries in supporting the Egyptians. Diplomatic efforts were made to resolve the crisis and Britain and France, while preparing for war, brought the matter before the UN Security Council. Ultimately, a Soviet veto prevented the council from reaching a decision.

The French began supplying Israel with weapons as the crisis grew, and, as diplomatic efforts failed, the two nations began to discuss joint military action. Golda Meir, the minister of foreign affairs, Shimon Peres, director-general of the Ministry of Defense, and Moshe Dayan, chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) were involved in the talks with the French.

Finally, it was decided that Israel would open the war with an attack on the Egyptians in the Sinai. France and Egypt would then demand that both Israel and Egypt withdraw from the area, so that French and British forces could take control of the canal to ensure navigational safety. The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was convinced to join in the plan on the condition that Britain’s collusion remain secret.

On October 29, 1956, Israeli paratroops assaulted the Mitla Pass forty miles east of Port Said at the northern end of the canal, while Israeli ground forces rolled into the Sinai. Britain and France, as planned, demanded that the two nations clear the canal zone. Israeli forces stopped their advance, while Nasser refused the demand. The British and French used Nasser’s refusal as a pretext to attack Egypt, launching major air strikes on October 31.

President Eisenhower, who was not privy to the plan, immediately saw through the deception and became irate. The United States, the Soviet Union, and most of the rest of the world immediately began to put pressure on England, France and Israel. Since the British and French were both members of the Security Council with veto power, a special session of the UN General Assembly was held.

On November 5, British and French paratroops dropped near Port Said and Port Tawfiq. The next day, more soldiers came ashore in amphibious landings. After advancing about thirty miles, the force stopped as Anthony Eden bowed to international pressure and domestic public opinion and ordered a ceasefire. Israeli forces had also resumed their offensive and now controlled the entire Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations formed a special Emergency Force to take responsibility for the canal zone. The British, French, and Israelis withdrew their forces on December 22. The Egyptians promptly evicted the UNEF and regained control of their territory. The Israelis attempted to hold Sharm-al-Sheikh in order to prevent a resumption of the Tiran blockade. UN sanctions and Eisenhower’s assurance that the US would maintain freedom of navigation in the straits eventually persuaded the Israelis to withdraw.

The war signaled the end of British and French prominence in the Middle East. The main winner was President Nasser. Even though his forces were militarily routed, with the help of the United States, he had come out on top. He became the father of Arab nationalism and the leader of the Arab world.

Suez Crisis

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