1956 Suez War: Turning point in Middle East balance of forces

November 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the Suez War, the combined surprise attack by Britain, France and Israel against Egypt. Also known as the Tripartite Invasion, the operation nearly triggered a much wider war in the region.

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Gamal Abdel Nasser greeted by excited crowd after nationalizing Suez canal.

It was a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East. It signaled the setting of the British and French sun in a region that the two colonial powers had dominated since World War I.

Despite having overwhelming military power on their side, the assault ended as a fiasco for the invaders. Egypt and its president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, scored a major political victory. The outcome of the war elevated Nasser’s status to that of unquestioned leader of the Arab national movement.

The 1956 war was the product of a secret plot hatched by top officials of the three aggressor states. Like most actual conspiracies, its details did not stay secret for long. As is almost invariably the case when more than a handful of people are involved, some of the participants in the planning for the 1956 war soon leaked information to the media. A week after it ended, Time magazine was able to print many details of how the invasion had come about.

The invading powers had separate but complementary reasons for launching the war. The British wanted to reassert their control over the recently nationalized Suez Canal and restore their domination over their former colony Egypt.

France’s priority was crushing the Algerian revolution, which had begun two years earlier. The French imperialist government, then headed by the Socialist Party, believed that the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) would collapse without Egyptian support. Success would also mean the restoration of the French share in the Suez Canal, which it had previously co-owned with the British.

Israel’s main objective was to vastly expand its territory by conquering the entire Sinai Peninsula.

All three powers agreed that Nasser’s nationalist government should be overthrown and replaced by a puppet regime. They essentially sought a repeat of what the U.S. CIA had done three years earlier when it engineered the overturn of the Iran’s nationalist government led by Mohammed Mossadegh and put the shah—the king—back in power.

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Map of region and battles during the 1956 Suez War.

In search of a new war

From the creation of Israel in 1948, a powerful grouping in the Israeli leadership considered their territory to be unacceptably limited. This was despite the fact that the Zionist military had conquered 78 percent of Palestine in the 1948 war, expelling more than 750,000 Palestinians in the process. The U.N. General Assembly had voted in late 1947 to allocate 55 percent of the territory to Israel, and 44 percent to a Palestinian state.

That vote took place without consulting the residents of the British colony of Palestine. At the time, the Jewish population made up about 35 percent of the population—the vast majority of whom had settled there in the two prior decades. These settlers owned just 6 percent of the land.

But the Israelis had military superiority, thanks to support from Europe and the United States. They ended up taking over nearly four-fifths of Palestine. Only the West Bank, annexed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, administered by Egypt, were not incorporated into the new Israeli state.

The events of 1948 are called the “war of independence” by Israelis. But Palestinians and all Arabs know it as An-Nakbah—the catastrophe.

For a number of Israeli leaders, including the dominant figure in government, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, even this outcome was viewed as only temporarily acceptable.

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British soldier stands guard in Egypt during Suez War.

Moshe Dayan, then a rising military officer and favorite of Ben-Gurion, was quoted by a Tel Aviv-based U.S. diplomat in 1949 as saying: “Boundaries—Frontier of Israel should be on Jordan [River]. … Present boundaries ridiculous from all points of view.”

In other words, from Dayan’s and Ben-Gurion’s perspective, the West Bank and more would have to be conquered as well.

In the early 1950s, Dayan directed a policy of massive “retaliation” against the recently dispossessed and exiled Palestinians who attempted to return to their homeland. Most of the “infiltration,” as it was labeled, consisted of Palestinian farmers trying to come across the artificially created 1948 border to tend their fields and harvest crops.

In much smaller numbers, small and poorly armed groups of guerrilla fighters crossed the border to resist displacement. The Israel army would cross into the West Bank or Gaza to carry out ruthless retaliation—vicious attacks on the population.

The most notorious of the massacres carried out in this period was in the West Bank village of Qibya, where 69 people, mostly women and children, were burned alive and machine-gunned in their homes by paratrooper Unit 101. The commander of the unit was a young military officer named Ariel Sharon, until last year Israel’s prime minister. It was only one in a long career of war crimes for Sharon.

The aim of the “retaliation” was not just to deter border crossing. It was to eventually provoke a new war, a desired “Second Round,” as it was referred to in private by Israeli officials. Those officials hoped that Jordan’s or Egypt’s military would react to the atrocities. That could serve as a pretext for the Israeli conquest of new territories. (Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-56)

Despite the atrocities, Israeli leaders were not able to draw the Jordanian army, which still had British commanders, into a war. The Jordanian military was far weaker than Israel’s. In addition, Jordan’s British-installed monarchy had always sought a mutually beneficial accommodation with the Zionist regime.

The French connection

In the mid-1950s, Israel’s expansionist aspirations shifted toward Egypt. In 1955, France became Israel’s main state ally and arms supplier. Massive outside economic support came from the United States, mostly through private sources, and from West Germany.

From the beginning, Israel required vast amounts of outside economic and military aid to survive. In 1950, its imports exceeded its exports by a ratio of 10 to one. Israel’s existence was made possible only by a non-stop infusion of aid on an extraordinary scale.

In October 1955, France agreed to provide warplanes, artillery and other weapons to the Israeli army. At the time, much of the Middle East was still governed by pro-Western regimes. Neither the U.S. nor the British government wished to appear too closely tied to Israel.

But France and Israel shared a common enmity toward Egypt. The old order in Egypt was overthrown along with King Farouk in 1952. The Free Officers movement sought to free the country from British domination and embark on a course of modernization.

By 1954, Nasser had emerged as the leading figure of both the new government and the Pan Arab national movement that was sweeping the region. By 1955, Nasser was providing assistance to Algeria’s FLN in its struggle against French colonialism.

The French and Israeli ruling circles were united in wanting to destroy the Nasser government. In 1956, France greatly increased its military aid to Israel. It sent, for example, 72 high-tech Myst?re fighter-bombers. By early summer of that year, joint planning for an attack was moving forward. Both France and Israel wanted to bring Britain into the plan, in order to cover themselves.

When Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956, the British ruling class’s reaction was hysterical. The canal was a symbol of British imperial power. More importantly, it was the key economic route to the British colonies and neo-colonies in Asia and East Africa.

Nasser’s takeover of the Suez Canal Company, in which both Britain and France held major shares, was done within the bounds of bourgeois legality. The shareowners were compensated. But this did nothing to calm the hysteria in the British and other capitalist media. A typical reaction was a full-page headline in the New York Daily News that blared, “Hitler of the Nile.”

Inside Egypt, meanwhile, huge crowds celebrated the break with imperialism.

Ben-Gurion’s ‘Fantastic Proposal’

From Oct. 22 to Oct. 24, a secret conference was held in Sevres, near Paris, to plan the war. Among those in attendance were the French prime minister, Guy Mollet, Israeli prime minister Ben-Gurion along with Shimon Peres and Gen. Moshe Dayan, and British foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd.

Ben-Gurion led off the meeting with what he called a “fantastic” proposal for the complete reorganization of the Middle East. Jordan, he suggested, was not a viable state and should become part of Iraq, still under British domination—with one condition: The new Iraq would have to agree to re-settle all the Palestinian refugees from 1948 on the East Bank of the Jordan River. The West Bank, presumably minus the Palestinians living there, would become part of Israel.

Next, Ben-Gurion proposed, Israel would take over southern Lebanon up to the Litani River. The rest of Lebanon would become a “Christian state” with the restoration of French domination. Lebanon had been a French mandate colony until 1943.

The Nasser government would be overthrown, the Suez Canal would be “internationalized,” and British influence would be restored in Egypt. This would mean, in effect, British control of the canal. Israel would take over the Sinai Peninsula, the Straits of Tiran, and the Gulf of Aqaba leading to the Red Sea.

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David Ben-Gurion speaks in Israel.

The downfall of Nasser, according to this plan, would undermine both the Pan Arab movement and the Algerian revolution, to the benefit of all three conspiring states.

Israel’s territory would be quintupled in size by this plan. And while Ben-Gurion himself called the plan “fantastic,” he was serious about it. (Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall)

But it was a little too much, even for the imperial leaders of Britain and France. The plan they agreed on, however, was only slightly less ambitious. On October 24, they signed a 7-point document known as the Protocol of Sevres.

According to the protocol, on Oct. 29, 1956, Israel would launch a full-scale invasion of Egypt, seeking to reach the Suez Canal as quickly as possible. The pretext for the invasion was to be the familiar excuse of “retaliation.” Then, as the Israelis neared the canal, the British and French would issue an “appeal” to Israel and Egypt to withdraw their forces to 10 miles from the canal, so as to “protect” the waterway.

To make sure that Egypt couldn’t accept this, an additional insulting demand was made that British and French troops be allowed to occupy the Canal Zone. Finally, if Egypt failed to accept the terms within 12 hours, there would be a joint Anglo-French attack on Egypt on Oct. 31, including bombing of cities and a ground invasion.

Outside the formal negotiations, the Israelis offered the French a joint oil venture in the to-be-conquered Sinai. France agreed to provide Israel with the technology to launch its nuclear power and weapons program.

All of these steps were implemented, but the collusion between the three attackers became apparent almost immediately. For one thing, the “appeal” to “protect” the Suez Canal was issued before the Israelis had even gotten close.

Despite facing overwhelming military superiority, the Egyptian army and civilians inside the Canal Zone fought fiercely against the British and French invaders. An estimated 2,700 Egyptians were killed and wounded in the battle for Port Said.

Egypt suffered total casualties of more than 1,600 killed and 5,000 wounded. Both military and civilian facilities were destroyed, especially in the cities within the Canal Zone.

Euphoric in his seeming victory, Ben-Gurion wrote that the newly conquered lands would become “part of the third kingdom of Israel.” But it was not to be.

Soviets, U.S. intervene for different reasons

The British-French-Israeli victory did not stand. There was worldwide outrage at the invasion. The 1956 war was seen by wide sectors of the world as a blatant attempt to resurrect colonialism—especially in the Middle East, but also across Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Israel was widely condemned as a pawn of imperialism.

Both the United States and Soviet Union responded swiftly and strongly to the Tripartite Invasion—but for very different reasons. The Eisenhower administration reacted furiously to not being informed in advance by either its imperialist allies or Israel. On Oct. 30, the United States introduced a resolution condemning the invasion at the U.N. Security Council. Britain and France both used their veto power to defeat it.

More fundamental was the U.S. ruling class’s opposition to the restoration of British or French imperial power in the strategically key oil-rich Middle East. From World War II to the present day, every administration has had as a central objective U.S. domination in the region.

Washington would not tolerate Israel serving as proxy for any other imperialist power—that was made clear. The message was sent to the Israeli government that if they did not withdraw from Egypt all aid from official sources and private fundraising efforts in the United States would be cut off. Further, the United States would allow Israel to be expelled from the United Nations. (Shlaim, p. 181)

Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin warned the British, French and Israeli governments that his country would unleash rocket attacks on their cities if they did not immediately withdraw. These warnings had to be taken very seriously, particularly because the Pentagon had withdrawn its protective shield over the three states.

The Soviet leadership also stated that if the war continued, Soviet volunteers would join the fight on the side of the Egyptians. Egypt and the Soviet Union had just entered into the first economic and military relations in the months before the invasion. Those relations were vastly expanded after the 1956 war.

Facing such irresistible pressures, the invading powers were forced to leave. As they withdrew, the Israelis waged a scorched-earth policy, destroying every road, railroad and structure of any value.

The outcome of the war was a humiliating defeat for the aggressors, especially the British and French.

For the Israelis, while their “third kingdom” would have to be put on hold, significant gains were made from the episode. Israel gained both vital military aid and the beginning of a nuclear weapons program.

The 1956 war led within a very short time to Israel being brought fully into the U.S. camp. By the time of its next war against the Arab world in 1967, Israel was closely aligned with and supplied by the U.S. military. In the 1967 war, Israel again conquered Sinai, along with the West Bank, Gaza and Syria’s Golan Heights.

The 1956 war, rather than defeating the Arab national liberation movement, propelled it forward. The prestige of Nasser and Egypt was greatly enhanced. Less than two years later, the pro-British monarchy in Iraq was overthrown by another movement of nationalist military officers.

And in 1962, after an eight-year struggle that took over 1 million lives, Algeria won its independence from France.

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