Suez, 1956By David Hirst, Excerpts from his book: The Gun and the Olive Branch, 1977, Futura Publications
In early 1955 Bengurion put war with Egypt on his agenda. This was a deliberate act of policy. 'It is today frankly admitted', according to the Paratroopers' Book, 'that if it had been up to David Bengurion, the Sinai War would have taken place a year earlier' than it did." Bengurion deliberately sought a showdown with the country which, as the great power of the Arab world, could bring the most decisive influence to bear for war or peace in the Middle East. He did this at a time when the young President Nasser of Egypt, for all his revolutionary idealism, was manifestly doing his best to preserve the peace. What Bengurion needed was a pretext, for, as Dayan subsequently admitted, he and his friends had decided 'not to miss any politically favourable opportunity to strike at Egypt'.16 He coolly set about manufacturing one. It grew naturally out of a 'little war', ceaseless reprisal raids Qibya-style, which had a far broader purpose than the discouragement of marauding Palestinians. In his article on 'Israel's Policy of Reprisals' Moshe Brilliant explained that the rationale behind them was deeply rooted in the Zionist experience. In British Mandate days, the Jews had won great praise with their Havlaga, their 'self-restraint', but they had courted disaster. They then turned to 'gunpowder and dynamite' and discovered that, although it earned them international censure, it also 'earned them ... ultimately the coveted prize' of statehood. The Israelis had never forgotten that lesson. These bloody 'border incidents' were seldom accidental ... they were 'part of a deliberate plan to force the Arabs to the peace table'. Since 1948 'each reluctant step the Arabs took from hot war toward peace was taken when they were held by the throat'.57
In February 1955, the Israeli army attacked Egyptian military outposts in Gaza. Thirty-nine Egyptians died. Until then this had been Israel's least troublesome frontiers. That was no accident. Just as, in earlier days, the Zionists accused the Palestinian zaims and effendis of stirring up hatred against them, so now they levelled the same charge against the Arab leaders. President Nasser, the emergent pan-Arab champion, became the obvious candidate for Israeli bogeyman. The reputation was thoroughly undeserved: the real Arab militancy was to be found, as always, among the people rather than the politicians. For six years, in the last days of Farouk and the early ones of the revolution, Egyptian rulers studiously avoided militant attitudes. Israel, it was felt, should not distract them from problems nearer home. President Nasser persuaded Western visitors, even passionately pro-Israeli ones like British politician Richard Crossman, that he really was as pacific as he sounded. 'Driving back to Cairo that night, I could not help thinking that not only Egypt, but the whole Middle East, must pray that Nasser survives the assassin's bullet. I am certain that he is a man who means what he says; and that so long as he is in power directing his middle-class revolution, Egypt will remain a factor for peace and social development.'r,"One motive for that revolution had been the hurrffliation of Egypt's defeat in 1948; Egyptian officers, Nasser among them, attributed it 'in part to the poor and malfunctioning arms with which, owing to the corruptions of the old order, they had been sent into battle. Yet I he made no serious attempt to narrow Israel's rapidly lengthening lead in armaments. He preferred to spend Egypt's meagre reserves of hard currency on the welfare of his backward and overpopulated country.
Not surprisingly perhaps, but disingenuously, Israeli leaders such as Bengurion and Dayan do not even mention the Gaza raid in their accounts of the period. Nasser called it a 'turning point' and all independent authorities agree with him. The raid brought him under intensified pressure not merely from the Arabs in general, but from quarters most directly involved his own army and the refugees in the Gaza Strip. As a soldier, General Burns, the Chief of Staff of the UN forces, had a sympathetic grasp of Nasser's problem with the army.
Shortly before the raid, he had visited Gaza and told the troops that there was no danger of war; that the Gaza Armistice Demarcation Line was not going to be a battle front. After that many of them had been shot in their beds. Never again could he risk telling the troops they had no attack to fear; never again could he let them believe they could relax their vigilance. It was for this reason that he could not issue and enforce strict orders against the opening of fire on the Israel patrols which marched along the demarcation line, a hundred metres or less from the Egyptian positions. These positions were held by the friends and perhaps the relatives of the men who had perished in the Israeli ambush of that bloody night.59
There was only one way to still his commanders' clamour for arms: to furnish them. He took that decision during the confused and sleepless night of the raid, even before the last explosions had died away.60 At first he sought Western, especially American, arms' and in such small quantities that when President Eisenhower saw his shopping list he exclaimed. 'Why, this is peanuts.'61 Western intelligence was convinced that he had no intention of attacking--even if he were sure of quick and easy victory. Nor was this conviction shaken when, rebuffed by the blundering and short-sighted Americans, he negotiated the famous Czecli arms deal which marked the Soviet Union's first great break through in the struggle to undermine Western influence in the Middle East.62
As for the refugees, there were more than 300,000 of them, living in poverty, idleness and a festering hatred for Israel, who shared the temptation of their brethren in Jordan. Hemmed in upon themselves by the sea, the desert and the armistice lines, they only had to look cast to see the broad fields, once theirs, which the Israelis cultivated from a chain of kibbutzim guarding the heights of the area beyond. They too were 'infiltrators'; and so were the 7,000 bedouins whom the Israelis had driven across the border since 1948.63 They too had crossed the lines in defiance of the official policy of the Arab country in whose territory they had found themselves. For years they had been demanding arms and the establishment of a militia. The Egyptians had done no more than make encouraging noises. The Gaza raid changed all that. For three days the Palestinians vented their indignation in riots and demonstrations which threatened the stability of as till young and none-too-secure regime. As the sun rose over the battered town of Gaza, two hundred youths stormed Egyptian and UN installations, smashing windows, burning vehicles and trampling on flags. The next day mob violence spread to Khan Yunis and Rafah, where refugees burned down the warehouse for the UN rations off which they lived. They greeted truckloads of Egyptian soldiers with stones and shouted abuse. 'Arms,' was the universal cry, 'give us arms, we shall defend ourselves.'64
The other decision which Nasser took in the wake of the Gaza raid was to turn the-hitherto discouraged, freelance 'infiltration' into an instrument of Egyptian policy. It was in August 1955 that the world first heard of the word fedayeen --'those who sacrifice themselves'-- applied to Palestinians sent on raids into Israel. On their first raid --which began on the same day that Nasser finally committed himself to the purchase of Soviet arms-- they penetrated as far as twenty-seven miles inside enemy territory on a week-long spree of ambushes, mine-laying and assaults on persons, vehicles and buildings in which five soldiers and ten civilians died.65 But even then, and subsequently, Nasser had only unleashed the fedayeen under pressure from his own public opinion in the wake of further provocations from Israel-provocations which he had at first met with conciliatory gestures 'such as the pull-back of front-line soldiers.66
The raids, and Russian weapons for Egypt, were just what Bengurion needed. The 'hosts of Amalek' were rearming in Egypt, he said;67 the 'grave and dangerous' Czech arms deal which he had virtually forced on Nasser had been concluded for one reason and one reason only -to destroy the State of Israel and the people of Israel.'68 The least sign of Egyptian activism, at a time when border skirmishing was costing five times as many Arab as Israelis lives,69 was 'a vile and nefarious conspiracy ... which would encounter a Jewish force capable of ... striking any aggressor or enemy so that they shall not rise again, as in Operation Joab [against Egypt] in 1948 and the Gaza operation a month ago.'70 In outright defiance of all the evidence he forecast that, if there were no peaceful settlement, Egypt would attack Israel within five or six months.71
The road from the 'hidden war' of border skirmishing to the topen war' of Suez was, as the Paratroopers' Book later said, a short one.72 In October 1955, Bengurion ordered his Chief of Staff, General Dayan, to prepare for the capture of the Straits of Tiran. Shortly afterwards, in the Knesset, he denounced Egypt's violations of the armistice agreements. He named three forms which these took; fedayeen marauding certainly was a violation, but there was nothing in the armistice which specifically forbade Egypt from blocking the Straits or closing the Suez Canal to Israel shipping. 'This one-sided war will have to stop', he declared, 'for it cannot remain one-sided for ever.'73 According to the faithful Dayan, this was an appeal for war within a short time; he himself urged action within a month. 'It may be, of course, that one of these days a situation will be created which makes military action possible. But this will be the fruit of chance and not the planned result of postponing it to a specific "time" and "Place".'74 Nevertheless, Bengurion had still not overcome the resistance of the 'doves' within the government who, apprised of the war plans, decided that 'the moment was not propitious'.75
In June 1956, after a long and bitter dispute, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, the leading 'dove', was driven from office. He was replaced by Golda Meir and, in the words of the Paratroopers' Book, 'Israeli foreign policy was adjusted to the hard and energetic line of the Minister of Defence."O A month later came the final, fortuitous bonus, the event which persuaded two Western powers, Britain and France, to throw in their lot with the Israelis. 'On July 27', recorded the Paratroopers' Book,' Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal before an enthusiastic crowd in Alexandria. Without knowing it, he thereby kicked off the Suez campaign.'77 On 29 October, with the secret backing of Anglo-French accomplices, the Israeli army invaded Sinai and captured the whole of it, including the island of Tiran in the Gulf of Aqaba, in four days. The British and French governments issued a hypocritical ultimatum to both sides, calling on them to withdraw from the banks of the Canal, and then sent in their own forces, ostensibly to occupy and secure the waterway for international shipping, but really in the hope of overthrowing the man who had nationalized it. If, in laying the diplomatic ground work for his all-out assault on Egypt, Bengurion had implicitly confined his aims to the ending of Egypt's armistice 'violations' and the achievement of peace, Menachim Begin and his rightwing Herut,(ex-Irgun) opposition, a hotbed of extremist pressures, had no such inhibitions. More than a year before Begin had urged on parliament a 'preventive war against the Arab states without further hesitation. By doing so we will achieve two targets: firstly the annihilation of Arab power and secondly the expansion of our territory."" After such an over-whelming victory, however, Bengurion and his ruling Labour party lost no time, characteristically, in 'catching up' with the extremists, whose leader now said that he supported the government 'with all my heart and soul.79 Even the most 'dovish' parties, such as the left-wing Mapam, were not far behind either. All, in greater or lesser degree, developed expansionist appetites. And when the United States called on Israel to withdraw, Bengurion was outraged. 'Up to the middle of the sixth century Jewish independence was maintained on the island of Yotvan [as the victors promptly renamed Tiran] south of the Gulf of Eilat, which was liberated yesterday by the Israeli army . . . . Israel terms' the Gaza Strip an integral part of the nation. No force, whatever it is called, was going to make Israel evacuate Sinai. And the words of Isaiah the Prophet were fulfilled.'80
Unfortunately for Bengurion, the pretext he had so carefully manufactured was simply not good enough for the Americans. President Eisenhower quickly secured the withdrawal of the chastened British and French by withholding oil supplies from them, but it took six months to prise Israel out of all Egyptian territory. It was only by raising the threat of economic sanctions, to be applied by all members of the UN, that he managed it. 'Should a nation', he asked in a special television broadcast, 'which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of UN disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal? If we agree that armed attack can properly achieve the purpose of the assailant, then I fear we will have turned back the clock of international order. . . .'
One condition, of sorts, Israel did get away with, the lifting of the Egyptian blockade on Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran, and this was to furnish the Arab-fighters with the pretext for the next 'big war'.