The Yom Kippur War of 1973, the most recent ‘full’ war in Middle East history, is so-called because it began on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of prayer and fasting in the Jewish calendar. The Yom Kippur War is also known as the October War. At the time of Yom Kippur, Israel was led by Golda Meir and Egypt by Anwar Sadat.
The Yom Kippur War started with a surprise Arab attack on Israel on Saturday 6th October 1973. On this day, Egyptian and Syrian military forces launched an attack knowing that the military of Israel would be participating in the religious celebrations associated with Yom Kippur. Therefore, their guard would temporarily be dropped.
The combined forces of Egypt and Syria totalled the same number of men as NATO had in Western Europe. On the Golan Heights alone, 150 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syria tanks and in the Suez region just 500 Israeli soldiers faced 80,000 Egyptian soldiers.
Other Arab nations aided the Egyptians and Syrians. Iraq transferred a squadron of Hunter jet fighter planes to Egypt a few months before the war began. Iraqi Russian-built MIG fighters were used against the Israelis in the Golan Heights along with 18,000 Iraqi soldiers. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait effectively financed the war from the Arabs side. Saudi troops – approximately 3,000 men - also fought in the war. Libya provided Egypt with French-built Mirage fighters and in the years 1971 to 1973, Libya bankrolled Egypt’s military modernisation to the tune of $1 billion which was used to purchase modern Russian weapons. Other Arabic nations that helped the Egyptians and Syrians included Tunisia, Sudan and Morocco. Jordan also sent two armoured brigades and three artillery units to support the Syrians, but their participation in the war was not done with vast enthusiasm – probably because King Hussein of Jordan had not been kept informed of what Egypt and Syria planned.
Facing such an attack, the Israeli forces were initially swiftly overwhelmed. Within two days, the Egyptians had crossed the Suez Canal and moved up to 15 miles inland of the most advanced Israeli troops in the Sinai. Syrian troops advanced by the same distance into the strategic Golan Heights in north Israel. By the end of October 7th, the military signs were ominous for Israel.
However, on October 8th, Israeli forces, bolstered by called-up reserves, counter-attacked in the Sinai. They pushed back the Egyptian military and crossed the Suez Canal south of Ismailia. Here, the Israelis used the Suez-Cairo road to advance towards the Egyptian capital, Cairo, and got to within 65 miles of it.
The Israelis experienced similar success in the Golan Heights where the Syrian forces were pushed back and Israel re-captured lost land. Using the main road from Tiberias to Damascus, the Israelis got to within 35 miles of the Syrian capital.
On October 24th, a cease-fire was organised by the United Nations. The United Nations sent its own peacekeepers to the highly volatile regions affected by the fighting. Between January and March 1974, Israeli and Egyptian forces disengaged along the Suez Canal region. Here, the Israelis managed to keep control over the strategic Sinai Desert – an area that allowed Israel a buffer to ensure any fighting there did not spill over into Israel itself. In the Golan Heights, 1,200 United Nations troops were sent to keep the peace there in May 1974. They effectively formed a United Nations buffer between Syria and Israel.
The American Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissenger, acted as a peace broker between Egypt and Israel. In September 1975, Egypt and Israel signed an interim agreement which declared their willingness to settle their differences by peaceful means rather than by military. This was to lead to the American sponsored talks at Camp David that followed the 1977 ‘Sadat Initiative’.
To some Arabs, Anwar Sadat, leader of Egypt, seemed to have betrayed their cause and it was to cost him his life when he was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in 1981. In October 1973, Sadat had adopted a warlike approach to Arab relations with Israel – he was seen by many Arabs to be the spiritual successor to Nasser and the saviour to the Palestinians in Israel. His adoption of a diplomatic approach to solving the region’s problems was too much for some Arabs.
The United Nations had played a muted part in the whole war. At the moment of the war, the United Nations was in a difficult position as its Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, had been implicated in war crimes in the Balkans during World War Two. Such an association did little to enhance the reputation of the United Nations.
What did Israel get out of the Yom Kippur War?
Despite the initial successes of the Egyptian and Syrian forces, the war proved once again how effective the Israeli military could be. After the initial set-backs, the war served as a huge morale boost to Israelis. Despite a co-ordinated attack on two fronts, Israel had survived and had pushed back the nations that had initially broken through Israel’s defences.
Though the Americans provided the Israeli military with weaponry, they also provided Israel with something far more important – intelligence. Documents relating to the American spy-plane, the ‘SR-71 Blackbird’, show that the Israelis knew where major concentrations of Arab forces were as they were supplied with this information as a result of a SR-71 flying over the war zone. With such knowledge, the Israelis knew where to deploy their forces for maximum effect. What appeared to be intuitive devastating counter-attacks by the Israelis, were based on very detailed information gained from American intelligence. Basically, the Israelis knew where their enemy was and could co-ordinate an attack accordingly.
The war also served as a salutary lesson to the Arab nations that surrounded Israel in that initial victories had to be built on. The failure of the Egyptian and Syrian forces to defeat Israel pushed Sadat towards adopting a diplomatic approach. It also encouraged some Palestinians to more extreme actions. On the diplomatic front, the Camp David talks took place while the actions of the PLO became more violent.
Why didn’t the Arab nations build on their initial successes?
Clearly, the use of intelligence massively benefited the Israelis. However, as in 1948, the Arab nations did not fight as one unit. Their command structure was not unified and each fighting unit (in the Sinai and the Golan Heights) acted as individual units. With up to nine different nationalities involved on the Arab side, mere co-ordination would have been extremely difficult.
Secondly, the Israelis had to work to one simple equation: if they lost, the state of Israel would cease to exist. Therefore, for Israel it was a fight to the finish – literally "death or glory". If the various Arab nations lost, they could survive for another day.