The Israeli-Arab Wars Since 1948 and the Intifadah

The political winds have shifted several times in the Middle East since 1948, but the quest of the state of Israel has remained unchanged-survival. The state has never been at peace, either internally or externally, for it has yet to truly worship its God, Yahweh, who for His own name's sake replanted it in His land.

Internally, the state has been divided both religiously and politically. Religiously, attitudes have ranged from ultra-orthodox to atheist. Politically, parties have arisen espousing varying degrees of socialism, nationalism, and Judaism. In its multi-party system, rarely has one party gained a majority of seats in the national parliament. Fragile coalition government has been the norm.

Economic factors have added strain. After Israel's currency was cut loose from the British pound, it lacked a stabilizing factor, and plummeted in value. With significant contributions from the U.S., the worldwide Jews, and West Germany (reparation for the Holocaust), the currency has gained more strength and stability, though it has caused many anxious moments.

Externally, Israel has contended with both varying degrees of Arab fervor to destroy the state, and the competing regional influence of the USA and the USSR, both attracted by the area's vast known reserves of oil.

Although the Arab League had been established in 1945, events after 1948 enhanced the desire, particularly of the masses, for a union of Arab nations styled Pan-Arabism. Many Arabs viewed the creation of the state of Israel in part as a holdover of Western control in the area. The USA was increasing its influence in Saudi Arabia. Egypt was anxious to rid the Nile Valley of the British presence. The potential for an invasion from the adjacent USSR presented an ever-present anxiety.

Some political parties espousing Pan-Arabism rose to power during this time, including the Ba'th Party in Syria and the National Union Party in Egypt, soon headed by Gamal Abd al-Nasir. (Both of these parties arose to power by force.) Monarchies which did not espouse all of the positions of the Ba'th Party and Nasir still controlled other Arab countries, such as Libya, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. However, the migration of workers to jobs in the wealthier nations spread the tenets of the Ba'th party, and helped elevate Nasir to prominence in the Arab world. New wealth from the sale of oil was directed towards improvements in national infrastructures, social services, administration, and defense systems during this era, raising the standard of living of the general populace.

The Suez Affair in 1956

For many years, the Arab nations had tried to choke the ability of Israel to trade with other countries by (1) refusing to trade with Israel, and (2) banning the use of their air space and airports to planes flying to and from Israel. Egypt, in addition, prohibited the use of the Suez Canal to ships carrying goods to Israel, and blockaded the Tiran Straits between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba (which hampered the growth of the Israeli port of Eilat).

In 1956, the United States instituted a "power play" with Egypt which backfired. It offered Nasir a loan for building a high dam on the Nile River at Aswan for an irrigation project, but suddenly withdrew the offer. In retaliation, Nasir nationalized the Suez Canal to assert his independence of the western powers. (Both England and France had a stake in the company which built and owned the canal. A large British military base in the Canal Zone, which had safeguarded the operation of the canal, had recently closed as part of a 1954 agreement with Nasir.)

England and France plotted to take back control of the canal. Israel, anxious to rid Gaza of Arab commando ("fidaiyin") bases and to break Egypt's blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, was a willing accomplice.

On October 29, Israel cut off Gaza and drove into the Sinai. In accordance with the plan, England and France then issued an ultimatum to both armies. The ultimatum dictated an immediate cease-fire and troop withdrawals to a position 10 miles east of the Suez Canal (Israel had not yet crossed the canal). As hoped, Nasir rejected the ultimatum. England and France then bombarded Egypt's air bases, landed paratroopers at (and eventually captured) Port Said in the Nile Delta, and occupied the northern portion of the Suez Canal. Israel seized all of the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations (UN), led by the USA and the USSR, condemned the invasion and sent in an emergency force to occupy the seized Egyptian lands. Britain and France gave up the canal and Israel withdrew from the Sinai. However, a UN contingent was also stationed at Sharm al-Shaykh, which kept the Gulf of Aqaba open to ships trading at the Israeli port of Eilat.

The Six-Day War in 1967

In the early 1960's, Syria was the most radical advocate of Arab nationalism, and the most anxious for confrontation with Israel. In February 1966, it became even more radical via a military coup. Nasir had no appetite for war with Israel at this time. He formed a military alliance with Syria, hoping to defuse its bellicose spirit. It was not to be.

In April 1967, the Syrian air force was defeated in a dogfight with Israel. Told by his USSR advisers that Israel was about to invade Syria, Nasir honored his alliance by dispatching troops into the Sinai and threatening Israel. On May 16, Nasir asked the UN to withdraw some of its troops stationed on the frontier between Egypt and Israel. All of the UN troops were promptly withdrawn. Egypt then re-occupied Sharm al-Shaykh, and again closed the Gulf of Aqaba to ships trading with Israel.

This closure violated a guarantee from the Western nations to Israel, but Israel sensed that it would only evoke a superficial reaction from the West. The USA was deeply mired in the Vietnam War, and Europe, with a high dependency on Arab oil, tended to be cool towards Israel. When Egypt and Jordan set up a joint military command on May 30, Israel concluded that war was inevitable. General Moshe Dayan, a hero in the 1948 and 1956 wars, was appointed Minister of Defense, in spite of his significant personal and political differences with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.

On June 5, the Israeli air force attacked the main airfields of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, swiftly wiping out almost all of the Arabs' military capability. Israel then attacked the Sinai Peninsula, and captured it in four days (the new border with Egypt was the Suez Canal, which was promptly closed). Sharm al-Shaykh was also taken, and the Gulf of Aqaba reopened. Israel also attacked the northern portion of the West Bank, and the northern section of Arab Jerusalem. On June 7, it held all of Jerusalem. By June 10, it also held all of the West Bank, as well as the Golan Heights on its border with Syria. Factions between some Arab countries prevented them from aiding one another at critical moments, and probably contributed to the speed of Israel's successes. On June 10, Israel and Syria agreed to a UN cease-fire. By that time, the Israeli troops could have pushed directly to Damascus, if they desired.

Israel's decisive victory shattered the Arab belief that their newly acquired weapons at least equalized the two sides, and gave rise to the myth that Israel's army was invincible. Israel's land area was tripled, and it now ruled over 1,000,000 additional Arabs.

The Yom Kippur War in 1973

Prime Minister Eshkol died in 1969 and Nasir died in 1970. They were replaced by Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat, respectively.

The USA (Secretary of State William Rogers), with the aid of the United Nations (Gunnar Jarring), brokered a new attempt at peace between December 1969 and 1971. The Rogers Peace Plan was based on a sense of security for both sides, and stated that (1) there would be a continuous cease-fire between Israel and Egypt, (2) borders should not reflect the "weight of conquest," (3) there would be a just settlement of the refugee problem, and (4) Jerusalem would be united, and accessible to all faiths and nationalities. Egypt and Israel never agreed in principle to the plan at the same time. In 1971, Sadat agreed to sign the peace plan, but Israel never did. Sadat branded 1971 "the year of decision" (peace or war) for Israel, yet no war developed when Israel failed to sign a peace treaty.

The failed peace process and Israel's increasing use of lands it captured in the 1967 war whet the appetites of many Arabs for another confrontation. Throughout 1973, Sadat warned Western journalists of the possibility of war with Israel in the Sinai, but few paid attention because of his unfulfilled prediction for 1971. In early September, Sadat confederated with Syria and Jordan against Israel. Days later, an air force dogfight between Syria and Israel (which Israel soundly won) prompted Syria and Egypt to begin immediate preparations for a joint invasion of Israel.

This time it was the Arabs who gained advantage through surprise. On Israel's holy day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Egypt attacked Israel's Bar Levi line east of the Suez Canal. Surface-to-air missiles effectively neutralized Israel's air force. Simultaneously, Syrian troops attacked the Golan Heights. Both forces enjoyed unexpected initial success.

Since most of its citizenry was resting at home on the holy day, Israel was able to assemble its forces quicker than it could have on a normal business day. It initially focused on Syria's invasion from the north, fearing a rebellion of its Arab citizens if Syria broke through. Israel successfully pushed Syria back beyond the 1967 Armistice Line, but did not push further. It did not wish to provoke a confrontation with the USSR, Jordan, or Iraq.

Israel's focus could now be safely transferred to Egypt's invasion in the south. Capitalizing on a weak spot detected in the Egyptian line, an Israeli tank force successfully reached and crossed the canal, although most of the advance units were killed by Egyptian fire. It then started to push southward towards Suez.

Both Egypt and Syria faced defeat by the third week of fighting. A UN resolution calling for a cease-fire was accepted by Egypt and Israel, but not Syria. The fighting continued on both fronts. Israel had Egypt's Third Army trapped, and could have crushed them. It had also taken more land around the Golan Heights. Another UN resolution was hastily passed two days later, and was accepted by all three parties. A cease-fire ensued.

The Yom Kippur War sobered many in Israel with regard to their perceived invincibility. It also introduced the concept of using oil supply as a weapon of war. In an effort to stymie aid to Israel, the oil producing Arab nations announced an immediate 5% reduction in production, with more reductions to be enacted later. They soon imposed a full embargo on oil sales to the USA and other pro-Israel nations. This tactic could only be effective because there was already a tight supply of oil in the world. On this occasion, though, it failed to stop the USA from air lifting military supplies to Israel.

The Palestinians and the Intifadah

During the 1948 war, 150,000 Palestinians heeded Israel's advice to remain in their homes. Another 550,000--800,000 heeded the advice of the Arab invaders and left. After the war, the former were allowed to become citizens of the state, and acquired more rights and educational opportunities than most of their Arab neighbors. The latter were denied the opportunity to return. Israel contended that it needed to provide for the Jews that had been expelled by the Arabs, and the Arab countries could do the same for the Palestinians. For the most part, the Arab countries refused to assimilate the refugees. In 1949, the UN Relief and Works Agency stepped in and set up refugee camps.

Between 1948 and 1967, most Palestinians thought of themselves primarily as Arabs, and championed Pan-Arabism. In a 1964 summit, the Arab leaders voted to set up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). An Executive Board and a national charter were established. The principles of the charter included:

  1. Palestinians must again control all of the land given to the Jews by the British Mandate in 1948.
  2. Palestinians alone had the right of self-determination in Palestine, although Jews of Palestinian origin could continue to live in the new country.
  3. The State of Israel had to be destroyed.

The UN later officially recognized the PLO on a limited scale, and granted them observer status in the General Assembly. The PLO attempted to assemble a regular army. However, they soon realized that Yasir Arafat's al-Fatah guerilla group waged more effective combat against Israel. Throughout the years, and primarily from bases in Jordan and Lebanon (although primarily backed by Syria), the PLO's guerilla units struck at Israel.

The 1967 war brought an increase in the number of Palestinian refugees and a decrease in their conviction that the Arab nations would secure their welfare. Since that time, the PLO has continuously demanded a separate and independent national existence. It has extended their "battleground" well beyond Israel to gain attention from the Western media. To curry sympathy, the PLO has publicly shifted its cause from the destruction of Israel to a liberation of Palestine from the "false ideology of Zionism." Arafat speaks of his "fidaiyin" as "freedom fighters."

In December 1987, there was a small uprising of children and teenagers in Gaza against Israeli soldiers. The Western media gave much attention to that uprising, and to similar uprisings in other Palestinian neighborhoods. They were labeled "inti-fadah" which means "shaking off," and have more effectively portrayed Israel as a bully (guns vs. stones) than any previous Palestinian act. Arafat and the PLO did not instigate the intifadah, but capitalized on it and encouraged it. Through it, the PLO has become a household name in many Western nations, which has bolstered Arafat's appeals for international acceptance and a state.

In 1988, the Palestinian National Council voted to declare an independent state of Palestine. Although the state does not yet exist, the West is pressuring Israel to surrender ever increasing areas of land for this purpose. Israel has continued to insist on one guarantee-security.


With the exception of Jerusalem, the land seized in the 1967 war was initially envisioned by many in Israel to merely be a valuable negotiating tool in their quest for security. Some believed that the land should be considered a permanent addition to the state, but not all. Only a few in that land have approached the issue from a scriptural perspective, and reached the conclusion that appears so evident to Bible students elsewhere.

Randy Morrissette
Richmond, Virginia

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