This day Israel marks 60 years to the 1956 war, which lasted from October 29 to November 6, an opportunity to examine its linkage to Israel’s new wars.
In 1956 Israel fought Egypt. since 1979 there has been peace with Egypt but in recent years the two states have been collaborating with each other against ISIS in Sinai. In 1956 Israel saw the deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai as a threat while in recent years Israel approved their presence in the peninsula in order to fight ISIS.
In 1956 Israel was part of a secret alliance with two foreign powers, France and Britain. It was the only time when such a pact occurred during Israel’s wars. For example, French aircraft were scrambled from Israeli airfields. In 1991 American troops stationed in Israel tried together with their Israeli counterparts to intercept Iraqi Scuds. Such cooperation might happen in the future against other enemies.
In the past decade Israel’s wars have been against nonstate organizations, mostly Hamas. Obviously there is a huge difference between the Egyptian military and Hamas. Even in 1956 the former was much more powerful than Hamas today. Hamas has light arms while in 1956 the Egyptian forces had hundreds of armored vehicles, including tanks. Hamas’s most powerful weapons are the rockets but Egypt’s bombers in 1956 could have inflicted more casualties.
Before the 1956 war Egypt blocked the Tiran Straits to Israeli ships after Egypt already did the same with the Suez Canal. The closing of the Tiran Straits was one of the reasons Israel went to war. Since 1979 Israeli civilian and military vessels have crossed the Suez Canal.
Another reason for the 1956 war was the huge arms deal Egypt signed with the Soviet Union in late 1955, which caused Israel to suspect that Egypt was planning to attack Israel. Therefore, Israel decided to strike first. In the past decades Israel has tolerated the massive buildup of the Egyptian military, which possesses many sophisticated American weapon systems, among them more than 200 F-16 and a thousand M1A1 tanks. Israel accepts that as part of the price of keeping the peace with Egypt.
The 1956 war lasted only a week, shorter than Israel’s wars in the past decade. The second Lebanon war in July–August 2006 continued for 34 days. The campaign in the Gaza Strip in December 2008–January 2009 went on for 22 days while the one in 2014 stretched up to 50 days. Ironically Israel managed to win faster when it faced a stronger enemy.
In 1956 Israeli troops were willing to risk their lives in order to stop in advance what they saw as a potential danger to their state. The IDF proved itself like when its 1st infantry brigade captured a series of fortified posts in Rafih, in the northeast of Sinai.
In the 1956 war there were also setbacks, like when Israel’s 10th infantry brigade failed in quickly seizing Um Katef, a key post in northeast Sinai. Israeli troops were not determined enough in that battle. The IDF also found other weak spots in its performance such as in the command and control of a division.
Although the IDF won the 1956 war, it could not ignore its mistakes and blunders. In the last war, in 2014 in the Gaza Strip, the IDF gained successes, like intercepting rockets and deterring Hamas, but the IDF has been aware of the need to improve, like in dealing with tunnels.
In 1956, for the first and last time, the IDF parachuted an entire battalion, the 890th paratroopers’ battalion, in combat. They landed deep inside Sinai, and then the 202nd paratroopers’ brigade reached them. In recent years the 35th paratroopers’ brigade conducted several drills, in which more than a battalion was parachuted. It was part of the preparations for a future war, like against Hezbollah.
In 1956 the Israeli air force did not have enough advanced fighter jets. Without the assistance of Britain and France, which destroyed the Egyptian air force at the beginning of the war, Israeli cities and military camps would have been quite exposed. In more than a decade now, Israel and the United States have been working together like in carrying out exercises to defend Israel from missiles and rockets.
In the 1956 war an Egyptian destroyer was captured, but only after that ship shelled Israel’s naval port in Haifa. In the 2014 war and in the future as well, the IDF has to be ready to stop naval incursions from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
All in all, although the 1956 war was quite different from Israel’s new wars, there are all kinds of lessons Israel can learn from that old war.