The Forgotten War, the 1956 Israeli Invasion of Egypt
Also known as the Suez Crisis or the Tripartite Aggression. This was a lovely little war, brilliant in its simplicity. Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal early in 1956, so Britain, France, and Israel came up with a wonderful plan. Israel would invade Egypt, drive the Egyptian army out of the Sinai Peninsula and across the Suez Canal. France and the UK would seize the canal, and of course the Suez Canal was way too important for the world economy to be left in the middle of a war zone, so Britain and France would have to would have to stay and keep it as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. The UK and France get to keep the canal, Egypt is eviscerated as a growing regional power, and Israel’s position in the region improves with access to the canal and Egypt’s blockade of its Red Sea port lifted. What could go wrong?
Well, militarily, nothing. Israel handily crushed the Egyptian Army, Air Force, and Navy, inflicting massive losses with almost no losses themselves. What Egyptian forces could fled back across the canal, though most simply surrendered. The Egyptian Air Force was no match for the combined Air Forces of France, Britain, and Israel, and it quickly fled to bases in Southern Egypt. In less than a week of fighting, it was all over, the three aggressors had achieved all their goals for a trivial price. A perfect victory, right?
Well, no, the three allies had made one terrible miscalculation. The clever reader may have wondered, where was the USA in all of this? Well, the USA wasn’t involved because very early on president Eisenhower had made it clear that while he wasn’t happy about Egypt’s shenanigans, he wanted nothing to do with any sort of direct intervention. The Brits, French, and Israelis had then proceeded with their plan, keeping the USA out of the loop. They figured that if the USA was presented with a fait accompli, it would have no choice but to support its NATO allies, France and Britain. (Israel wasn’t then nor has it ever been an American Allie.)
Well, they’d figured wrong. Eisenhower was not about to be buffaloed into supporting an invasion of Egypt and British/French takeover of the canal. In fact the whole world’s reaction was very negative, this was self serving aggression plain and simple. It also didn’t hurt that Russia was crushing a Hungarian revolt at the time, kinda made it hard for the USA to simultaneously condemn Russia and back France and Britain for doing basically what the Russians were doing. France and the UK vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions calling for them to withdrawal, but the USA went over their heads and convened a UN general assembly meeting on the issue, which was not subject to a veto. Britain and France tried to bluster it out for awhile, but when some NATO members started calling for them to be kicked out of NATO, the gig was up, they withdrew from Egypt. Israel continued for a week to defy the UN, but increasing world pressure became too much. Finally Russia said they would intervene on Egypt’s side and fire missiles at France, Britain, and Israel if Israel didn’t vacate the Sinai promptly. The Israelis finally realized that it was all for nought, and withdrew from Egypt. Final death toll: Egypt 3000+, Britain 16, France 10, and Israel 177.
There’s three points this little imbroglio brings to mind. The first is that this is a wonderful example of the colonial mind set. Yes, Egypt did a number of things that pissed off the French, Brits, and Israelis, leading up to the invasion. Um, so what, Egypt is a sovereign nation, if they want to piss people off by acting in their own best interests, isn’t that what sovereign nations do? In the colonial mind set, no, only western nations are allowed to act with impunity in their own best interests, countries like Egypt need to behave themselves. Which means they must acquiesce to western domination of the world.
Secondly, and it’s a point that needs to be emphasized, less than ten years after Arab armies tried to “drive Israel into the sea,” Israel easily and soundly trounced the largest Arab military power in the world. And note, Israel invaded Egypt, not vice versa. The idea that Israel is somehow in terrible danger from its neighbours is, simply, propaganda. While Israel’s neighbours can and have engaged in the worst sorts of sabre rattling, the fact of the matter is that Israel has been a military powerhouse from the very beginning, and the idea that Israel is somehow endangered by its hostile neighbours is hogwash. When a nation can win a war with its strongest neighbour in a few days, it’s the neighbour that is endangered, not Israel.
Thirdly, and this is a complicated point, this situation shows why Eisenhower is my favourite president of the 20th century. He was a man who knew the limitations of power, and that times were changing. The era of overt colonialism and gunboat diplomacy was over. Something that the politicians that followed him in office didn’t understand, especially recently as the USA wracks up failed state after failed state in its attempt to turn back the clock and recolonize the world. And of course Eisenhower tried to warn American about the increasing influence of the corporate/military lobby, again to no avail.
And yes, I know the above is all terribly simplified. What can I say, I’m writing a condensed version of the history of Israel and its wars. Coming next, well, I’m sure the gentle reader can guess what war is next. And yes, there will be a post dedicated to all the stupid, evil, and misguided things various Arab governments and factions have done along the way. As the lady in Repo Man said, “No one is innocent.”
(The above map is public domain under US copyright law: This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. I used it because, well, most people have little clue where Israel, Sinai, and the Suez Canal are in relation to each other.)