THE SUEZ WAR, 1956
In the period from 1949-1956, the UNSC and the Mixed Armistice Commission (charged with monitoring the
compliance of all parties to the armistice agreements reached in 1949) condemned Israel for a series of
brutal attacks on civilian ‘targets’ across the armistice lines. At Qibya (1953), Khan Younis (1955) and
Qalqilya (1956), Israel committed massacres of the like not seen since the war.
Israeli actions troubled the US and Britain, as the Cold War gained momentum and regional tensions rose.
Britain’s pacts with Jordan and Iraq, along with US fear of Soviet penetration, left little room for the
emergence of a strong Arab leader, who might jeopardize their interests and challenge Israel’s
intransigence. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt between 1952 and 1955 was the turning point.
Britain and France controlled the Suez Canal by virtue of an 80-year Universal Suez Canal Company
concession - a remnant of Britain’s colonial arrangements that meant control of oil resources and shipping -
it was Britain’s prize in the region. At the same time it stood as a stark reminder of the territorial and
economic limitations of Arab independence.
Nasser struck a popular regional chord with his uncompromising stance against subservience to the Great
Powers and his condemnations of Israel. Calls for Arab unity and, eventually, his procurement of an arms
deal with the Soviet bloc, angered Britain, France and the US. Each had refused to supply arms and then
made loans for the construction of Egypt’s huge Aswan Dam project conditional on it surrendering its
economy to the World Bank. Nasser’s resort to the Soviets brought the Cold War to the region in force.
Israel told the ‘West’ it would invade Egypt before the Soviet arms arrived if a solution was not found.
France rushed to supply Israel with arms and vehicles while Britain counseled its regional allies.
On 26 July 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, pledging to compensate Anglo-French shareholders
and declaring his intention to use canal profits to finance the Aswan Dam. British Prime Minister Anthony
Eden told his cabinet, “...we shall never have a better pretext for intervention against him than we have as a
result of his seizure of the Suez Canal.” With the US cautious and much of the non-aligned world
supportive of Nasser’s stance, Israel, France and Britain colluded in secrecy.
On 29 October, in accordance with a prearranged pact (the Sevres Pact), Israel struck across the virtually
undefended Sinai. The first victims were not, though, in Egypt. Back in Israel, 43 Palestinian civilians were
killed in cold blood in yet another massacre, as Israel clamped down a fresh curfew on its Arab minority.
After bombing Cairo and annihilating Egyptian air defenses, an Anglo-French force landed at Port Said, 15
minutes after a UN deadline for the cessation of hostilities expired. With French naval support, Israel
consolidated its conquest of the Gaza Strip (3 November) and Sinai (5 November), and by the morning of 7
November, the war was over. Britain and France held the canal; Israel held the entire Sinai Peninsula and
the Gaza Strip.
For Israel, the Sinai represented the Straits of Tiran through which Egypt had blockaded Israel’s access to
shipping channels. A new port was under construction at Eilat, and Israel wanted to ensure access via the
Gulf of Aqaba. Thus, when worldwide criticism and US fear of regional instability eventuated in pressure
from Washington for the aggressors to yield their conquests, Israel insisted on safe-passage guarantees
from America. Britain and France left the Suez in late December 1956. Israel quit the Sinai and Gaza in
March 1957, as the UN deployed an Emergency Force (UNEF) to secure the area. UNEF remained
alongside the Egyptian authorities in Gaza until the 1967 War.
The repercussions of the Suez War were enormous. Effectively, Britain’s day in the region was over and the
US stepped in as the major player. In 1958, Britain’s regime in Iraq was dismissed in a military coup, and by
the summer, US troops were deploying in Lebanon. Nasser’s defiance won him huge popularity through
the Arab World and beyond, securing his status as ‘leader of the Arab people’ for the coming decade. The
rise of Arab unity and pride fuelled emerging Palestinian national movements, with the nuclei of the first
liberation movements established between 1957-1958.