Wars and the Quest for Peace
Israel is a tiny country—290 miles long and 85 miles across its widest point, approximately the size of the state of New Jersey. It is barely a speck in a vast region composed of Arab states that for most of the twentieth century were dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish enclave. Even the current record-high Jewish population of 5 million pales in comparison to the 100 million Arabs who are its nearest neighbors.
Compounding this precarious state of existence is the knowledge that should the Arab world decide upon another coordinated attack on the Jewish state, given past experience, Israel can't expect direct help from any other nation, except perhaps the United States. Add to that the frequent terrorist attacks conducted by Palestinians, and you can begin to understand why Israel is a country with a “living under a siege” mentality.
Following the signing of several armistice agreements and the restoration of calm in 1949, the Arabs insisted on two preconditions before they would even discuss peace. First, Israel had to return to the 1947 borders set up in the Partition Resolution that the Arabs had rejected to begin with. Second, the Arabs insisted that Israel repatriate the Palestinian refugees who had left Israel after it declared independence and lived in refugee camps of the West Bank, then belonging to Jordan. With neither condition satisfied, Egypt led the way in maintaining a state of belligerence against Israel.
The Suez War
It was no surprise, then, that fighting broke out in 1956 over the matter of the Suez Canal. The canal had been constructed by the British, and Britain continued to rely on it for a quick passage to the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia. Israel relied on the canal as well, but it was frequently denied passage.
Meanwhile, tensions mounted when the Soviet Union abandoned its support for the Jewish State and aligned itself with the Arab nations. In 1955, Egypt received a shipment of heavy armaments from the Russians. Israel was also suffering from terrorist attacks launched by fedayeen, who were trained in Egypt and dispatched from Jordan.
In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran and nationalized the Suez Canal. In October, he signed an agreement with Syria and Jordan, placing their forces under his command. It looked like the Arab nations were once again preparing for war.
To pre-empt the attack, on October 29, 1956, Israel attacked Egypt; Britain and France, concerned over blockades of the Suez Canal, joined Israel in the fight. The IDF routed the Egyptians and captured almost the entire Sinai Peninsula. When the United States and the Soviet Union learned of the attack, they pressured Israel, Britain, and France through the United Nations to return the conquered territories. In its place, the United Nations dispatched the U.N. Emergency Force to supervise the vacated territories and guarantee international shipping.
The Six-Day War
In just eleven years, fighting erupted again. In May of 1967, Egypt ordered the U.N. Emergency Force out of the Sinai, and it quickly obliged. Egyptian troops gathered in the Sinai, near the border with Israel, and Syrian troops assembled on the Golan Heights. Approximately 250,000 Arab troops from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and 2,000 tanks stood at Israel's borders. Other Arab countries committed troops to the battle, and the Soviet Union was supplying the Arabs with weapons.
What are the Golan Heights?
The Golan Heights, an area that towers 3,000 feet above the Jewish Galilee, was controlled by Syria, who used this strategic parcel of land to shell Israeli settlements and kibbutzim in the valley.
On May 22, the Straits of Tiran (Israel's only supply route to Asia) was once again closed to Israeli shipping. On June 5, 1967, Israel executed a pre-emptive strike. Israel's victory was swift and overwhelming—stunning the Arab nations and the entire world. The IDF captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai, Gaza, and the West Bank, increasing Israel's territory from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles. The Old City of Jerusalem was seized from Arab control. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled, but three-quarters of a million remained in these territories.
Israel had come within marching distance of the capitals of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan when a cease-fire was invoked on June 10, after six days of fighting. In November 1967, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 242, establishing the principle that Israel would return conquered territories in exchange for peace with its Arabs neighbors. This worked with some countries, though not with others. In 1977, the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in return for the return of the Sinai Peninsula.
The Yom Kippur War
Although the 1967 war proved to be a failure for Arab nations, they refused to give up. On October 6, 1973, while the Jewish people were observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the forces of Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Eighty thousand Egyptian troops stormed the Sinai at a point where 500 Jewish soldiers were positioned. Many Arab and non-Arab nations actively aided the Egyptians and Syrians, with Jordan joining the fighting. Efforts led by the United States to arrange an immediate cease-fire were unsuccessful.
However, once it recovered from the shock, Israel mobilized its reserve forces and recaptured the territory it had lost. Indeed, by the time the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire, Israel had encircled the entire Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai Peninsula.
The Yom Kippur War was the last war Israel fought in the twentieth century. However, in spite of peace treaties signed with Egypt and Jordan, military campaigns and incursions have continued to occur, particularly with Syria and Lebanon. And during the Gulf War, Israel was bombed by the Iraqis, though it made an agreement with the United States not to retaliate.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the population of Israel stood at 6.3 million. Of the total populace, there were more than 1.1 million Arabs (81 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian, and 9 percent Druze) and almost 5 million Jews, representing more than a third of the total world Jewish population.
Today, the threat to Israel comes from within. So far, the peace process between the Jews and the Palestinians has failed to bring about a long-term solution. The First Intifadah erupted in 1987 in Gaza and the West Bank; the Second Intifadah followed in 2000. In a perpetual circle of violence, as acts of terrorism are perpetrated upon Israeli civilians, the Israeli government takes repressive measures against the Palestinians living in the territories, which in turn leads to further violence. Although Israel has fulfilled the dreams of Herzl and the early Zionists, so far its quest for peace has proved elusive.