For events past 1973, see A Brief History of the Arab-Israeli Wars (1973 – present).
The War of Independence (May 15 ,1948 – March 10, 1949)
Following the resolution of the second World War, Palestine was still a territory under British mandate. Zionist sentiments, which have been building since the the first modern Jewish migrations into Palestine in the late 19th century, reached their zenith after the events of the Holocaust – the Jewish community at large, now including hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, wanted an independent state in Palestine. Wishing to preserve relations with the Arabs, The British opposed the creation of a Jewish state and the unrestricted immigration of Jewish refugees, a policy that contradicted their 1917 Balfour Declaration. In response, the paramilitary organizations Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi, which would later form the backbone of the Israeli military in the 1948 War of Independence, ran a series of terrorism campaigns in an attempt to force the British out of the country. These attacks culminated in the deadly 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and amidst the escalating violence, the British government announced its withdrawal from Palestine in 1947.
In November of 1947, the United Nations General Assembly recommended a plan to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, keeping the city of Jerusalem as a neutral territory. While the Jewish Agency was in support of the plan, the Arab League and Arab Higher Committee of Palestine vehemently rejected any recommendation that would grant a partition of Palestine to the Jews. Arab militants began to attack Jewish targets in force, prompting Jewish paramilitary forces to mobilize in response. The resulting military action resulted in the collapse of Palestinian-Arab society and the mass exodus of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. This purging of the Arab population remains a major point of contention that hinges on several arguments – whether the Arabs fled or were forced out, the exact escalation of the conflict, and the current status of the Palestinian refugees.
On May 14th, 1948 David Ben-Gurion, who would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Israel, declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The announcement took place just one day before the expiration of the British mandate on Palestine, and in response, the governments of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq declared war on Israel. Their intention was to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state by any means necessary, and the Israelis feared a repetition of the Holocaust if the Arab armies were to be victorious. This sobering thought is reflected in the main doctrine of the Israeli Defense Forces: “Israel cannot afford to lose a single war.”
Fighting erupted immediately on multiple fronts throughout the country – Egypt invaded settlements and kibbutzim in the Negev desert, the Arab Legion of Jordan fought Israeli forces in Jerusalem in bloody house-to-house combat, and Syrian forces attacked towns near the Sea of Galilee in the north. The first phase of the war was concluded with limited victories by the Arab forces – Israeli paramilitary forces and kibbutzim militia provided fierce resistance, and any gains were swiftly repudiated by Israeli counterattacks. The United Nations declared a 28-day truce on May 29, 1948, during which the strength of the Israeli army grew significantly from ongoing unrestricted immigration and arms import. Following the expiration of the truce, hostilities resumed and Israel launched a counteroffensive on all three fronts in an attempt to drive the invaders out of the country and relieve besieged settlements. These efforts were successful and after a year of fighting and resilient defense by a nascent country being attacked from every angle, the 1949 Armistice Agreements were signed between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, ending the first Arab-Israeli war.
The Six Day War (June 5 – 10, 1967)
On June 23 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed the office of the second president of Egypt. One of his first acts as president was to announce the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, closing the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. In reply, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom planned a clandestine joint offensive to seize control of the canal, occupy positions in the Sinai peninsula, and overthrow Nasser. The invasion was a military success, but the United States, the Soviet Union, and the rest of the international community quickly condemned the attack, forcing a stalemate and the eventual withdrawal of French, British, and Israeli forces.
Following the events of the Suez Crisis, Arab-Israeli relations turned increasingly bitter while Pan-Arabic nationalism and public opinion of Nasser skyrocketed in Egypt. On May 1967, Nasser ordered the mobilization of Egypt’s army to the Israeli border and once again blockaded the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, knowing full well that this would spark a war with Israel. With the armies of other Arab states also amassing at their borders, Israel made the difficult decision to launch a decisive, preemptive air strike on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. In one of the most brilliantly executed military operations of the 20th century, the Israeli Air Force virtually eliminated the entire Egyptian air force in a series of strafing and bombing runs on Egyptian airfields. Israeli ground crews were trained to refuel and refit their jets within an unprecedented ten minutes, allowing subsequent waves of aircraft to attack Syrian and Jordanian airfields. The results were devastating – the Israeli Air Force destroyed 452 enemy aircraft with minimal losses and had complete air superiority for the remainder of the war.
Once again, Israel was embroiled in a war on multiple fronts. After the success of the air campaign, Israeli armor and infantry invaded the Gaza Strip and pursued the disorganized Egyptian Army through the Sinai desert, eventually reaching as far as the Suez Canal. To the north and the west, Israeli forces easily routed the Jordanian and Syrian armies, which were outclassed and without air support. On June 11, after just six days of intense fighting, a ceasefire was signed. In the aftermath of the war, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights – a territory three times larger than its pre-1967 borders.
The legitimacy of these acquisitions remains controversial to this day. Certainly, right of conquest has not been recognized by the international community since the ending of World War II and the decline of imperialism – but much of that is in regards to nations that initiate aggressive action with the intent of territorial gain. This is a situation where Israel was attacked, without provocation, by multiple countries (many of which supported Nazi Germany) that just two decades ago had the expressed goal of terminating Israel’s existence. The issue is clearly complex, especially given that Israel launched the preemptive attack, but modern accusations of Israeli territorialism should at least be considered in this context.
The Yom Kippur War (October 6 – 25, 1973)
Despite a resounding victory, the Six Day War did little to change the political climate of the region. The humiliated Arab states were eager for revenge on Israel and issued the Khartoum Resolution of 1967 declaring that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.” Hostilities did not truly cease, as President Nasser ordered artillery bombardment and minor military operations on the Suez Canal in the hopes of weakening the Israeli hold on the Sinai peninsula and convincing the Soviet Union that Egypt needed more armaments. The intermission between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War also saw the creation of the militant Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, and the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich by Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad were the primary orchestrators of the Yom Kippur War, each with their own ambitions of reclaiming territory lost in the Six Day War, restoring the declining morale of their countries, and establishing themselves as important figures in the Arab world. Throughout 1973, Egyptian military exercises placed the Israeli command on high alert, but Israeli intelligence estimated that Egypt would not go to war until they received shipments of MiG-23 jet fighters and tactical ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union. The Egyptians planted false intelligence to reinforce this assumption, and the constant alarms from Egyptian training exercises lulled the Israeli leadership into a false sense of security. Although Israeli military doctrine at the time assumed a worst case scenario of 48 hours notice prior to an attack, it would only be a few hours before the joint Egyptian-Syrian invasion that the Israeli High Command finally ordered the mobilization of reserve forces.
On October 6th, Egypt and Syria launched their surprise offensive during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of prayer and fasting in the Jewish calendar. Heavily outnumbered Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights were quickly overwhelmed. Within the first few days of the war, the Egyptians were able to cross the fortified Suez Canal and easily reoccupy much of the Sinai desert. In the Golan Heights, Israeli armored divisions held valiantly against the vastly larger Syrian armor columns – famously destroying 500 Syrian tanks in what would be known as the Valley of Tears, while being outnumbered 5:1 and losing fewer than a hundred Israeli tanks. The situation was so dire that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the use of nuclear weapons against Syria and Egypt as a last resort to prevent Israel’s total defeat, a political play that forced the United States to supply them with additional supplies and armament. Within the first week though, Israeli reserve mobilization had finally achieved adequate force concentration, and the Israeli army was able to stop the Arab advances despite their initial devastating defeats. Israel then launched a counteroffensive into Arab territory, advancing as far as to threaten Damascus and Cairo. Ariel Sharon, the future 11th Prime Minister of Israel, led the decisive campaign to retake the Suez Canal and encircle the Egyptian Third Army, effectively securing victory on the Sinai front.
On October 25, a final ceasefire was issued by the United Nations, ending the third major Arab-Israeli war. Despite the outcome of the war, public confidence in the Israeli military command was shattered while the Egyptian army gained respect for its decisive action in the opening days of the war. The aftermath of the Yom Kippur War would eventually lead to Anwar Sadat’s unprecedented visit to Israel and the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, where Israel withdrew its troops from the Sinai in exchange for a lasting peace with Egypt. Much of the Golan Heights remains under Israeli control to this day, where a United Nations demilitarized zone separates the border between Israel and Syria. Although Israel has, on multiple occasions, expressed a willingness to cede the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a lasting peace, Syria has refused any formal diplomatic relations with Israel.