Yom Kippur War: Israeli Palestinian Conflict – Part Seventeen
Yom Kippur War
The Yom Kippur War (Ramadan War, October War. 1973 Arab–Israeli War) was fought from October 6 to October 25, 1973 by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel. The war took place mostly in Sinai and the Golan—occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War—with some fighting in African Egypt and northern Israel. Egypt’s initial war objective was to use its military to seize a foothold on the east bank of the Suez Canal and use this to negotiate the return of the rest of Sinai.
During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, roughly half of Syria’s Golan Heights, and the territories of the West Bank which had been held by Jordan since 1948. After the Six Days War and prior to the Khartoum Summit and the implementation of the three nos policy in September 1967, King Hussein of Jordan stated that he could not rule out a possibility of a “real, permanent peace” between Israel and the Arab states. Armed hostilities would continue on a limited scale after the Six-Day War and escalated into the War of Attrition, an attempt to wear down the Israeli position through long-term pressure. A ceasefire was signed in August 1970.
In December 1970, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had signaled in an interview with The New York Times that, in return for a total withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, he was ready “to recognize the rights of Israel as an independent state as defined by the Security Council of the United Nations.” UN intermediary Gunnar Jarring coincidentally proposed a similar initiative four days later, on February 8, 1971. Egypt responded by accepting much of Jarring’s proposals, though differing on several issues, regarding the Gaza Strip, for example, and expressed its willingness to reach an accord if it also implemented the provisions of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
This was the first time an Arab government had gone public declaring its readiness to sign a peace agreement with Israel. In addition, the Egyptian response included a statement that the lasting peace could not be achieved without “withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from all the territories occupied since 5 June 1967.” To the dismay of the UN and the United States, Israel rejected the proposal.
Sadat hoped that by inflicting even a limited defeat on the Israelis, the status quo could be altered. Hafez al-Assad, the leader of Syria, had a different view. He had little interest in negotiation and felt the retaking of the Golan Heights would be a purely military option.
After the Six-Day War, Assad had launched a massive military buildup and hoped to make Syria the dominant military power of the Arab states. With the aid of Egypt, Assad felt that his new army could win convincingly against Israel and thus secure Syria’s role in the region. Assad only saw negotiations beginning once the Golan Heights had been retaken by force, which would induce Israel to give up the West Bank and Gaza, and make other concessions.
Egypt’s economy was in shambles, but Sadat knew that the deep reforms that he felt were needed would be deeply unpopular among parts of the population. A military victory would give him the popularity he needed to make changes. The other Arab states showed much more reluctance to fully commit to a new war.
Jordanian King Hussein feared another major loss of territory, as had occurred in the Six-Day War, in which Jordan lost all of the West Bank, territory it had conquered and annexed in 1948–49, which had doubled its population. Sadat also backed the claim of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the West Bank and Gaza and, in the event of a victory, promised Yasser Arafat that he would be given control of them. Hussein still saw the West Bank as part of Jordan and wanted it restored to his kingdom. Moreover, during the Black September crisis of 1970, a near civil war had broken out between the PLO and the Jordanian government. In that war, Syria had intervened militarily on the side of the PLO, estranging Hussein.
Iraq and Syria also had strained relations, and the Iraqis refused to join the initial offensive. Lebanon, which shared a border with Israel, was not expected to join the Arab war effort because of its small army and already evident instability.
During the months before the war, Sadat engaged in a diplomatic offensive to try to win support for military action. By the fall of 1973, he claimed the backing of more than a hundred states. These were most of the countries of the Arab League, Non-Aligned Movement, and Organization of African Unity.
Sadat also curried European favor getting Britain and France to side with the Arab powers against Israel on the United Nations Security Council. The US considered Israel an ally in the Cold War and had been supplying the Israeli military since the 1960s. Henry Kissinger believed that the regional balance of power hinged on maintaining Israel’s military dominance over Arab countries, and that an Arab victory in the region would strengthen Soviet influence. Britain’s position, on the other hand, was that war between the Arabs and Israelis could only be prevented by the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and a return to the pre-1967 boundaries.
Kissinger proposed returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control and an Israeli withdrawal from all of Sinai, except for some strategic points, but short of an American guarantee that the United States would fulfill the entire Arab program in a brief time, Sadat was determined to go to war.
From the end of 1972, Egypt began a concentrated effort to build up its forces, receiving MiG-21 jet fighters, SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and SA-7 antiaircraft missiles, T-55 and T-62 tanks, RPG-7 antitank weapons, and the AT-3 Sagger anti-tank guided missile from the Soviet Union and improving its military tactics, based on Soviet battlefield doctrines. Political generals, who had in large part been responsible for the rout in 1967, were replaced with competent ones
Several times during 1973, Arab forces conducted large-scale exercises that put the Israeli military on the highest level of alert, only to be recalled a few days later. The Israeli leadership already believed that if an attack took place, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) could repel it. The plan to attack Israel in concert with Syria was code-named Operation Badr.
The Yom Kippur War began when the Arab coalition launched a joint surprise attack on Israeli positions, on Yom Kippur, a widely observed day of rest, fasting, and prayer in Judaism, which also occurred that year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, respectively.
After three days, Israel had mobilized most of its forces and halted the Egyptian offensive, resulting in a military stalemate. The Syrians coordinated their attack on the Golan Heights to coincide with the Egyptian offensive and initially made threatening gains into Israeli-held territory. Within three days, however, Israeli forces had pushed the Syrians back to the pre-war ceasefire lines.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) then launched a four-day counter-offensive deep into Syria. Within a week, Israeli artillery began to shell the outskirts of Damascus, and Egyptian President Sadat began to worry about the integrity of his major ally.
Believing that capturing two strategic passes located deeper in the Sinai would make his position stronger during post-war negotiations, Sadat ordered the Egyptians to go back on the offensive, but their attack was quickly repulsed. The Israelis then counter-attacked at the seam between the two Egyptian armies, crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt, and began slowly advancing southward and westward towards the city of Suez in over a week of heavy fighting that resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.
On October 22, a United Nations–brokered ceasefire unraveled, with each side blaming the other for the breach. By October 24, the Israelis had improved their positions considerably and completed their encirclement of Egypt’s Third Army and the city of Suez. This development led to tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and a second ceasefire was imposed cooperatively on 25 October to end the Yom Kippur War.
The Yom KIppur War had far-reaching implications:
- The Arab world had experienced humiliation in the lopsided rout of the Egyptian–Syrian–Jordanian alliance in the Six-Day War but felt psychologically vindicated by early successes in this conflict.
- The war led Israel to recognize that, despite impressive operational and tactical achievements on the battlefield, there was no guarantee that they would always dominate the Arab states militarily, as they had consistently through the earlier 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the Suez Crisis, and the Six-Day War.
These changes paved the way for the subsequent peace process. The 1978 Camp David Accords that followed led to the return of the Sinai to Egypt and normalized relations—the first peaceful recognition of Israel by an Arab country.