Operation KADESH: Israeli Participation in the 1956 Conflict
Written for this lesson by Professor Jonathan M. House, who is the Major General William A. Stofft Chair of Military History, CGSC.
Although Israel had survived its war of independence in 1948-49, by 1956 the fledgling Jewish state felt besieged on all sides. Secret negotiations with Jordan and Syria had failed to produce any lessening in tensions, due in part to Israeli intransigence about refugees and other issues.1 Egypt prevented Israeli ships from sailing through the Suez Canal. Palestinians based in the Gaza Strip (under Egyptian control) and the West Bank (held by Jordan) continued to harass the Israeli border regions. In response, Israel had assumed a fiercely belligerent posture. Israeli troops patrolled right up to the frontier lines, leading to frequent firefights with their Arab counterparts. More seriously, Israel conducted punitive raids against Palestinian towns and government military installations along its borders; such attacks sometimes caused as many civilian casualties as the Palestinian efforts. At first, a small, ad hoc commando group known as
Unit 101, under the command of then-Major Ariel Sharon, conducted the raids. For larger operations,
Israel’s airborne troops were often used.2
On 28 February 1955, Israel conducted a large raid on the Gaza Strip, killing 36 soldiers and two civilians while wounding 80 others. The Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser had already been negotiating an alliance with Syria and Saudi Arabia; this raid was the catalyst for signing the alliance and for Egypt seeking military aid from the Soviet Union.3 While Egypt and Israel traded border provocations, the Egyptians negotiated the “Czech arms deal,” so named because Czechoslovakia acted as the agent for the Soviet Union and Poland, the primary weapons suppliers. This agreement, signed on 20 September 1955, promised to provide Egypt with 230 T-34/85 tanks, 200 armored personnel carriers
(primarily BTR-152s), 100 SU-100 assault guns, 500 other artillery pieces, 120 MiG-15 fighters, 50 IL28 medium bombers, 20 torpedo boats, two destroyers, two submarines, and large supplies of ammunition.4 In both quantity and quality, these weapons outclassed those available to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). France, Israel’s primary weapons supplier, increased the flow of such weapons to Israel during 1956, but the Czech arms deal had the potential to change the balance of power radically. Given Israel’s habitual strategy of preemptive, offensive action, its leaders naturally concluded that it must take action before Egypt was able to assimilate the new weapons.
At the same time that the Czech arms deal was announced, Egypt violated the provisions of the 1949 ceasefire by forbidden Israeli ships and aircraft from transiting the Straits of Tiran, thereby blocking any
Israeli trade in the Red Sea or Indian Ocean. In October 1955, Defense Minister (and soon to be Prime Minister) David Ben-Gurion directed the IDF Chief of Staff, General Moshe Dayan, to plan for operations to break the Egyptian blockade of the straits. Initially, however, much of the Israeli cabinet was skeptical about such an operation.5 Meanwhile, Israeli cross-border raids became so significant that Jordan invoked its defensive treaty with Britain, which went so far as to plan a contingency plan codenamed CORDAGE) by which Britain would destroy the Israeli Air Force and raid and blockade the Israeli coastline.6
The Israeli leaders were acutely aware that their limited resources in combination with international
opposition would make a definitive victory over Egypt impossible. Instead, Israel’s aims were more limited, seeking to reopen the straits while dealing a major blow against both Palestinians and the Egyptian Army. Rather than attempting to destroy their opponents, the Operations order for KADESH including a commander’s intent “to confound the organization of the Egyptian forces in Sinai and bring about their collapse.”7
When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956, Ben-Gurion’s first thought was to consider how this event might be used to overthrow the Egyptian leader. Within a few days, French Defense Minister Maurice Bourges-Manoury informed his Israeli contact, Director-General of Defense Shimon Peres, of the British-French planning to invade Egypt (Operation MUSKETEER) and inquired how quickly Israel could reach the Canal.8 Clearly, Tel Aviv was intrigued by the possibility of having one or more great powers assist in its projected attack on Egypt.
Over the next several months, France and Israel conferred at various levels about possible cooperation against Egypt. Meanwhile American diplomatic efforts sought to delay and defuse the proposed British-French invasion, to the point where the French government became impatient and searched for ways to re-energize MUSKETEER. On 7 October, the French Chief of Defense Staff, General Maurice Challe, and French Labor Minister Albert Gazier approached Prime Minister Anthony Eden with a novel pretext for invasion. According to this scenario, Israel would “independently” attack Egypt and pose an apparent threat to the operation of the Suez Canal. In order to “protect” that canal, France and Britain would issue an ultimatum to both Cairo and Tel Aviv, demanding that they evacuate the canal zone, which would then be occupied by the two great powers.9
The upshot was the secret conference held at Sevres, outside Paris, on 24-26 October 1956. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, General Dayan, and Director-General Peres traveled to Paris incognito, becoming exhausted on a circuitous 17-hour flight. When they reached Sevres, the Israelis met French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, Defense Minister Bourges-Manoury, and Foreign Minister Christian Pineau. Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd was the sole British representative for most of the talks.10 The discussions were by no means smooth. Ben-Gurion not only distrusted the British, but also professed himself angry that Israel would have to appear as the aggressor, which Britain and France would pretend to be intervening in the best interests of all concerned. He began by insisting that Britain and France should destroy the Egyptian Air Force on the ground before the Israeli attack, an action that would obviously destroy the entire deception story. Eventually, however, the participants reached an agreement, codified in a signed secret protocol. The protocol included a French promise to provide warships to protect the Israeli coast as well as several squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers to help protect Israeli airspace.11
With the Sevres protocol signed, Israel had to finalize its military plan for Operation KADESH. On
Moshe Dayan fell the delicate task of devising a plan that would simultaneously provide Britain and France with the necessary pretext to seize the canal while avoiding a major Egyptian reaction. On his own authority, Dayan had issued a warning order to the IDF on 2 October 1956, followed three weeks later by a limited mobilization. Yet, Dayan knew that Ben-Gurion would not authorize the attack unless he was reassured about the possibility of heavy Israeli civilian casualties. Dayan finally decided to begin the operation with by dropping an airborne battalion at the eastern end of the Mitla Pass, approximately 50 kilometers from the Suez Canal. This action, he hoped, would appear to the Egyptians as yet another Israeli reprisal raid rather than the start of a full-scale war. For the same reason, Dayan decided not to attack Egyptian airfields immediately, and to limit initial cross-border attacks to the area near the Gaza Strip:
In the normal course of developments, I doubt that the Egyptian General Staff, on the first night of our action, will have any precise idea of what had happened. True, they will receive information from the units under attack on the Israeli border; but these units report the presence of Israeli battalions and brigades even whey they are faced only by sections and platoons . . . Only next morning when the alarms are found to have been valid will the Egyptian High Command consider how to react. They will certainly not hesitate to throw all their forces into action against the Israel units which penetrated into Egyptian territory; but I do not think they will hasten to send their planes to bomb Tel Aviv . . . A day later, at dawn, it is expected that the Britis12h and French forces will launch their campaign.12
In the event, of course, the two great powers almost left Israel in the lurch, delaying their air strikes until the third night of the war, much to Dayan’s fury. Meanwhile, on 30 October, Colonel Sharon led the balance of 202d Airborne Brigade in a motorized advance across 100 kilometers of the central Sinai Peninsula, linking up with the isolated parachute battalion. This advance was made possible in part by a last-minute French shipment of four-wheel drive trucks for Israel. Other attacks that day were supposed to be border actions involving infantry only, so as to sustain the deception that the IDF was merely conducting a reprisal raid. This well-intentioned plan was almost derailed by Brigadier General Asaf Sinhoni, the IDF commander on the Sinai front:
The commander Southern Command considered that not a moment should be wasted . . . He accordingly resolved to send into action, already on D-Day, all the forces at his command. As for the instructions of the General Staff and the military-political considerations that called for a different approach, he . . . was not prepared to rely on the possibility that ‘someone else’ - i.e. AngloFrench forces - might go into action, and he therefore saw no justification for holding up our main attack for forty-eight hours.13
The premature commitment of 7th Armored Brigade into Sinai did allow a weak battalion task force (commanded by Lt. Col. Avraham Adan, future head of the Israeli Armored Corps) to penetrate to the rear of the Egyptian 6th Infantry Brigade’s prepared defenses at Abu Agheila. Although repeated Egyptian counter-attacks failed to dislodge Adan, it was equally true that Adan’s small force could not defeat the dug-in Egyptians. Initial frontal attacks by the Israeli 10th Infantry Brigade were even less effective against the Egyptian defenders. By 31 October, the Egyptian strategic reserve, the 4th Armored Division, was moving into Sinai, and Dayan apparently feared a counter-attack while his few mechanized forces were still dispersed. Moreover, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, who expected the British and French to attack much earlier than they actually did, was pressing Dayan for a rapid advance. The result was a confused series of Israeli attacks at Abu Agheila-Umm Katef involving elements of 7th Armored Brigade,
37th Mechanized Brigade, and 10th Infantry Brigade, on 31 October-1 November. The commander of the 37th Brigade fell in these actions, which were largely ineffective.14
Once the British-French air attacks heralded a coming invasion, on 1 November Nasser ordered a phased withdrawal from the Sinai in order to prepare for the defense of Cairo and the Suez Canal. Although numerous Egyptian units had defended their positions effectively during the first three days of the war, the order to retreat demoralized many of the defenders, who withdrew in disorder. The subsequent Egyptian collapse was due as much to Nasser’s order as to the effectiveness of the IDF. At the same time, Egyptian air power was hamstrung by the fact that only some 30 pilots were trained to fly its new MiG-15s.15
While these battles occurred in the desert, the French Navy intercepted Egyptian attacks on Israel while French fighters, as promised, operated out of Israeli airfields. However, the British government delayed its initial air attacks both to maintain the fiction that it had not colluded with Israel and to ensure that the attacks occurred at night. Indeed, it appears that the British commander, General Sir Charles Keightley, had received no advance notice concerning the Sevres protocol. Thus, when Israel sent two officers to Cyprus for liaison purposes, the French hid these officers from the British. Eventually, French officers convinced Keightley that the allies must coordinate with the Israelis for operational reasons. Even then, however, Keightley dealt with Israel only through the French staff, so that Britain could maintain deniability. In fact, when a downed British pilot bailed out near Israeli forces, other RAF aircraft fired warning shots to discourage the Israelis from helping the pilot! As Ben-Gurion remarked when Dayan questioned him about possible British actions against Israel, “about the British, I do not know, but about the British Foreign Office I am prepared to believe anything.16
With the United Nations General Assembly meeting to bring about a ceasefire, it was apparent by at least 3 November that hostilities might cease at any moment. By this time, the IDF was advancing across Sinai with little opposition, but it still needed to secure the Straits of Tiran. On 2 November, he Israeli 9th Infantry Brigade began to push south along the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba. Paratroop units, operating primarily in trucks but also conducting at least one two-company jump, protected the western flank of this advance. An Egyptian rear guard at Ras Nurzani, just north of the objective, held up part of 9th Brigade for about 18 hours on 4-5 November. However, the remainder of the exhausted brigade reached Sharm el Sheikh early on the morning of the 5th. The defenders inflicted significant casualties, including downing at least one Israeli support aircraft, but the straits were secured by noon on 5 November, the same day that the British and French began their landings at the Suez Canal. Thus, Israel had already reached its tactical objectives prior to the Soviet ultimatum warning Tel Aviv to stop its aggression.17
Operation KADESH achieved most of Israel’s short-term goals. By disrupting and disarming the Egyptian and Palestinian forces in Sinai, the IDF eliminated any immediate threat of invasion and significantly reduced the scope of Palestinian guerrilla attacks. At a cost of 177 dead, the IDF gained a worldwide reputation for military effectiveness, a reputation that helped deter attack for more than a decade.
Yet, Israel’s basic strategic situation remained unchanged. The political issues that divided Israel from the Arab states remained the same in 1957 as they had been in 1955. Ultimately, the military victories of 1956 did not resolve anything, and by 1967 Israel again felt besieged by both conventional and unconventional military threats.
- Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israeli and the Arab World (New York: W. Norton, 2001), 32, 38-39, 49-53, 62-76. Schlaim embodies the revisionist interpretation that suggests that Israeli leaders were at least as responsible as their Arab counterparts for the failure to reach a peace agreement.
- Ze’ev Schiff, A History of the Israeli Army, 1874 to the Present. (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 73-76.
- Mohamed H. Heikal, Cutting the Lion’s Tail: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes. (New York: Arbor House, 1987), 66-67, 72.
- Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 29-30, and Michael B. Oren, The Origins of the Second Arab-Israeli War (London: Frank Cass, 1992), 87.
- Moshe Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 210 (OPORD quotation), 5, 12-13.
- Motti Golani, “Chief of Staff in Quest of a War: Moshe Dayan Leads Israel Into War,” Journal of Strategic Studies 24:1 (March 2001), 54.
- Rechavam Zeevy, “The Military Lessons of the Sinai Campaign—The Israeli Perspective,” Selwyn I. Troen and Moshe Shemesh (eds.) The Suez-Sinai Crisis of 1956 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 61-62.
- Shlaim, The Iron Wall, 166-167.
- Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America into the Middle East, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), 336-337.
- , 171; see also Shimon Peres, “The Road to Sevres: Franco-Israeli Strategic Cooperation,” in Troen and Shemesh, The Sinai-Suez Crisis, 1956, 140-149. Selwyn Lloyd himself, in Suez 1956: A Personal Account (New York: Mayflower Books, 1978), indicated that he had no prior knowledge of the French-Israeli negotiations when he arrived at Sevres. It is difficult to reconcile Lloyd’s presence with Anthony Eden’s continued insistence that his government was not involved in the Sevres collusion.
- Mordechai Bar-On, The Gates of Gaza: Israel’s Road to Suez and Back, 1955-1957. Ruth Rossing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 240-243. A Foreign Office Deputy Under-Secretary, Sir Patrick Dean, signed on behalf of Lloyd, who had returned to London to brief his colleagues. Eden was reportedly furious when he learned that the conference had produced a written document, and he destroyed the British copy.
- Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, 63.
- , 91-92. Pollack, Arabs at War, 44 and endnote 42, 600, suggests that the Egyptian tendency to exaggerate the scale of Israeli attacks in effect destroyed Dayan’s deception of a limited raid.
- The best analysis of this battle is in George W. Gawrych, Key to the Sinai: The Battles for Abu Agheila in the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli Wars. Research Survey No. 7 (Ft. Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute, 1990), 42-58.
- Pollack, Arabs at War, 36, 39; see also Gawrych, Key to the Sinai, 59-60.
- Quotation in Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, 163. For the airstrike delay and liaison issues, see Motti Golani, “The Sinai War, 1956: Three Partners, Three Wars,” in David Tal (ed.), The 1956 War: Collusion and Rivalry in the Middle East (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 171-178. See also Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, 161-162.
- Bernard B. Fall, “The Two Sides of the Sinai Campaign,” Military Review 37: 4 (July 1957), 19-20; Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, 163-166, 184-186.
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