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What Was the War of Attrition Between Egypt and Israel (1968-1970)?

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sinai space satellite

Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Nile River Delta seen from space. The region was the site of ceaseless raids and counter-raids between 1968 and 1970, the so-called War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel.

Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Science Team / NASA
Question: What Was the War of Attrition Between Egypt and Israel (1968-1970)?
The 1967 war between Israel on one side and Egypt, Jordan and Syria on the other--also known as the Six Day War--ended with Israel defeating the three Arab nations' armies and occupying Syria's Golan Heights, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, and Arab East Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank, at the time under Jordanian control. United Nations Resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories and, implicitly, for Palestinians and Arab nations to recognize Israel's right to exist. Rather than an incentive for the peace process, the resolution led to the war of attrition.
Answer: The War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt lasted from 1968 to 1970 and was fought along the cease-fire lines that ended the 1967 Six Day War.

Both sides intended the war of attrition to weaken the other as much as possible in hopes of gaining advantages in subsequent negotiations. Egypt in particular sought to regain territory it had lost in 1967. Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, calculated that by waging a low-grade war on Israel over territory belonging to Egypt, international pressure would force Israel to withdraw. Nasser was also intent on redressing the humiliation he and Egypt had suffered in the 1967 war. Israel, for its part, attempted to solidify its hold on Sinai as some members of the Israeli cabinet and Knesset believed the Peninsula should be annexed to Israel--a step toward achieving the old Zionist vision of Greater Israel.

In the end, the war achieved none of those objectives. Egypt did not force an Israeli withdrawal. Israel, after the disengagement treaties of the mid-1970s and the Camp David accords of 1979, surrendered Sinai back to Egypt in exchange for peace.

Abdel Nasser's Calculations

The war of attrition inflicted a heavy price in casualties and weapons for both sides. While the war was initiated by Egypt, Israel welcomed the opportunity to continue to demoralize its opponent while pressing the advantages of the 1967 war.

"We will listen to the U.S.," Nasser told his cabinet in February 1968, "we will work with the devil himself, [but] we know from the start that we must be the ones to liberate our land by the force of arms." As Israeli historian Benny Morris writes in Righteous Victims, "Cairo opted for a form of limited warfare, dubbed a 'war of attrition,' based on intermittent, staggered artillery bombardment of IDF front-line positions, leavened by occasional cross-Canal commando raids. The Egyptians would enjoy the twin advantages of superior firepower--they had far nm,ore artillery pieces than the IDF--and the ability to dictate when and where there would be a flareup. By the autumn of 1968 they felt that they were ready. They had deployed two armies, althogether about one hundred thousand troops, with hundreds of tanks and guns along the Canal, dug in in depth."

The war of attrition began in June 1968 with an Egyptian bombardment of Israeli positions. For the next two years, the two sides exchanged fire and alternated artillery barrages and assaults, including commando assaults that struck deep inside each other's positions. The number of firing incidents approached 600 in some months.

Daring Raids

Operations included daring raids on both sides.

On the night of Sept. 9, 1969, for example, Israel launched Operation Raviv. It landed six Soviet-built tanks and three armored personnel carriers on the Egyptian coast across the Gulf of Suez, some 17 miles deep inside Egyptian territory. The tanks and carriers were painted in Egyptian colors. For seven hours, they drove along Egyptian roads, destroying Egyptian military installations that included radar posts and listening stations and killing about 100 Egyptian troops before being picked up and ferried back to the Israeli side. In November 1969, Egypt launched its own daring raids, including the bombing by frogmen of a civilian boat in the Israeli port of Eilat by and the sinking, the following February, of armed Israeli ships in the same port.

Targeting Civilians

Atrocities were also part of the war. On April 8, 1970, the Israeli air force launched a raid on Salahiya, deep inside Egyptian territory. Israel claimed the target was military. Egypt said it was a school. The tally told the story: Some 47 Egyptian children were killed and 30 wounded. Israel subsequently justified the bombing by claiming that Egyptians had deliberately put the school inside a military camp.

Cease-Fire: the Rogers Plan

On April 23, 1970, Abdel Nasser agreed to a three-month cease-fire. The cease-fire was known as the Rogers Plan, after its Nixon administration architect, U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers. The plan called for an end to hostilities and a United Nations-mediated peace process framed by the principles of U.N. Resolution 242.

"This is a last chance," Nasser said. "While we inform the United States that we have accepted its proposals, we also tell them that our real belief is that whatever is taken by force cannot be returned except by force." Nasser never had a chance to make good on his promise. He died two months later of a heart attack. But the man who took his place, Anwar Sadat, did, launching the surprise October War in 1973.

Total Losses of the War of Attrition

Over the course of the war of attrition, Israel lost 14 military aircraft. Egypt lost 98, according to an Israeli tally.

Egypt never held a full accounting of its war dead, hiding much of the war's losses from the Egyptian public. Israeli estimates put Egyptian losses at 10,000 military and civilian deaths between the end of the 1967 Six Day war and August 1970, when the war of attrition ended. Israel lost 367 soldiers on the Egyptian front and no civilians.

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