Yom Kippur War – The War That Israel Almost Lost

The Yom Kippur War was part of the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. It was fought between Israel and the coalition of the Arab nations from October 6 to October 25, 1973. It is also known as the “Ramadan War,” “October War,” and the “1973 Arab-Israeli War.”

Hoping to avenge their severe and bitter loss to Israel and win back their lost territories from the Six-Day War in 1967, Egyptian and Syrian forces staged a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur. The armed conflict also occurred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, hence its other moniker.

Background

Israel’s stunning victory at the Six-Day War in June 1967 enabled it to capture and occupy the Arab territories. These included the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the strategic Golan Heights from Syria.

When Anwar Sadat was elected President of Egypt in 1970, he became a leader of an economically troubled nation that could not afford to continue its conflict with Israel. He wanted to make peace, achieve economic stability for his country, and recover Sinai. But after Israel’s overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War, it would be unlikely that Israel’s peace terms would be in Egypt’s favor.

So, Sadat planned for a daring attack that, even if unsuccessful, would convince (or force) Israel to ultimately make peace with Egypt.

In 1972, Sadat expelled almost all of the 20,000 Soviet military advisers in Egypt and reoriented its policy to become more favorable to the United States, Israel’s key ally. He opened new diplomatic channels in Washington, D.C., an essential mediator in any peace talks in the future. Sadat formed a coalition with Syria, and together they began their plan on their concerted attack on Israel.

black and white photo of Israeli tanks crossing the Suez Canal

Yom Kippur War erupted in October 1973

On October 6, 1973, the Arab coalition launched a coordinated attack that took Israeli soldiers by surprise. At the time, many of the soldiers were away from their posts in observance of the Yom Kippur – a day of rest, abstinence, and prayer in Judaism. Yom Kippur (or Day of Atonement) is considered one of the most important and holiest days for the Jews. The war also occurred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Arab forces were initially victorious at the start of the war. They made impressive advances with their modern Soviet weaponry. Egyptian and Syrian troops crossed ceasefire lines to take over the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, respectively. Egyptian forces also made massive and successful crossing in the Suez Canal. Iraqi forces soon joined, and Syria got support from Jordan.

After three days, Israeli had its forces fully mobilized. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) halted the Arab offensive, beating their enemies back while rapidly and heavily exhausting their own soldiers and equipment along the way.

At the time, Israeli’s prime minister, Golda Meir, turned to the U.S. for aid while its general staff hastily improvised a battle strategy. The Americans were reluctant to aid Israel at first, but that quickly changed when the Soviet Union started its own effort to supply arms to Egypt and Syria. To counter this, U.S. President Richard Nixon established an emergency supply to Israel, even though the Arab states imposed an exorbitant oil embargo. Other U.S. allies refused to facilitate the shipment of arms.

Now with reinforcements along the way, Israel quickly turned the tables. It successfully disabled significant portions of the Egyptian air defenses, which enabled Israeli forces under Gen. Ariel Sharon’s command to cross the Suez Canal and surround the Egyptian Third Army.

Meanwhile, in the Golan Heights, Israeli forces successfully repulsed the Syrians and advanced to the Golan plateau’s edge on the road to Damascus. But they did so at a heavy cost, losing several men and equipment along the way.

On October 25, the United Nations secured an Egyptian-Israeli ceasefire, ending the Yom Kippur War.

Aftermath

Israel, once again, came victorious – but at a heavy cost. Between 2,521 and 2,800 Israeli troops were killed in action. Up to 8,000 Israeli soldiers were wounded, and 293 Israelis were captured.

Egypt’s and Syria’s casualties were much higher than Israel’s, although figures were far from accurate as these two countries never disclosed official figures.

Despite (or because of) their country’s narrow victory, Israelis blamed the government for their lack of preparedness for the war, leading to many questions and criticisms towards Meir’s leadership. In April 1974, Meir resigned from her post as Prime Minister.

Israel’s resounding victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 had somewhat made the IDF to become complacent and overconfident, leaving them unprepared at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. The shock and the sudden reversals at the beginning of the war dealt a terrible psychological blow to the Israelis who, until this point, had experienced no serious military challenges.

Although Egypt suffered another defeat at the hands of Israel, the war’s initial successes significantly enhanced Sadat’s prestige in the Middle East. It allowed him to seek peace with the Jewish state.

In 1974, the first of the two Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreements were signed, providing that Israel agree to return the portions of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. In 1979 Sadat and Israeli’s new Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, signed the first peace agreement between the two countries. In 1982, Israel fulfilled the 1979 peace treaty by returning the last portions of the Sinai to Egypt.