War of Attrition

From Academic Kids

This is about the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition For the military strategy, see war of attrition.

The War of Attrition was a limited war fought between Egypt and Israel from 1968 to 1970. It was initiated by Egypt as a way to recapture the Sinai from Israel that had controlled it since the Six-Day War. The war ended with a cease-fire signed between the countries in 1970 with frontiers at the same place as when the war started.



President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt's rationale was explained by journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal:

If the enemy succeeds in inflicting 50,000 casualties in this campaign, we can go on fighting nevertheless, because we have manpower reserves. If we succeed in inflicting 10,000 casualties, he will unavoidably find himself compelled to stop fighting, because he has no manpower reserves.

Template:Israelis The Israel Defense Force's (IDF) unprecedented victory and the Egyptian army's rout in the 1967 Six-Day War put the Sinai peninsula, up to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, in Israel's hands. Egypt's army, the most powerful in the Arab world, had not only been thoroughly defeated, but also severely humiliated. A strong feeling of shame and a craving for revenge was present. The UN and both superpowers tried to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict to no avail. UN Security Council Resolution 242 was adopted on November 22, 1967 and called for Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peace. However, the diplomatic efforts failed to produce any results. To President Nasser, it was clear that "What was taken by force must be restored by force."

Thanks to some very generous supplies of weaponry from its ally, the Soviet Union, Egypt managed to redeem its material losses from the Six-Day War much quicker than Israel had expected. Additionally, hundreds of Soviet military advisors poured in and at the beginning of the war 1500 advisors were stationed in the country. Their presence, along with Soviet pilots and ships, threatened to escalate the conflict into an East-West confrontation.


The war of attrition began in June 1968 with sparse Egyptian artillery bombardment of the Israeli front line on the east bank of the canal. More artillery bombardments in the following months killed some Israeli soldiers. IDF's retaliation came on the night of October 30 when heli-borne commandos destroyed Egypt's main electricity supply. The blackout caused Nasser to cease hostilities for a few months while fortifications around hundreds of important targets were built. Simultaneously Israel reinforced its position on the east bank of the Suez Canal by constructing the Bar Lev Line, a set of thirty-five small forts running north-south along the canal guarded by infantry.

In February 1969 Egypt was ready for the next round. President Nasser declared the cease-fire from November the previous year to be null and void. On March 8 Egyptian artillery begun massive shelling of the Bar Lev Line leaving many Israeli casualties. Soviet MiG-21 fighters were also employed in the attack. The IDF retaliated with deep raids into Egyptian territory causing severe damage. In May, June and July 1969, 47 IDF soldiers were killed and 157 wounded. Although Egypt suffered many times more casualties than Israel, Egypt continued with its aggressive stance. Israel managed to sustain the high casualty rate but was hard-pressed to find a definite solution to the conflict.

In July Israel escalated by attacking with the Israeli Air Force (IAF). On July 20 and July 24 almost the whole IAF bombed the northern canal sector destroying anti-aircraft positions, tanks and artillery. The aerial offensive continued until December and reduced Egypt's anti-aircraft defence to almost nothing. It managed to reduce the artillery bombardment somewhat but shelling with lighter weapons and especially mortars continued.

Without the air defence system the IAF could operate at will over Egyptian territory. On October 17, 1969 talks between the superpowers began. It led to the Rogers plan that was publicized on December 9. It called for Egyptian "commitment to peace" in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. Both parties strongly rejected the plan. President Nasser instead opted to plead for more sophisticated weaponry from the Soviet Union to withstand the IAF's bombings. The Soviets initially refused to deliver the requested weapons.

On January 22, 1970, President Nasser secretly flew to Moscow to discuss the situation. His request for new SAM batteries (including the 3M9 Kub and Strela-2) were approved. Their deployment would require qualified personnel along with squadrons of aircraft to protect them from Israeli attacks. In effect, he needed Soviet troops in large numbers, something Moscow couldn't allow. He then threatened to resign implying that Egypt might turn to Washington for help in the future. The Soviets had invested heavily in Presisdent Nasser's regime and so Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev finally obliged. By June 30 the number of Soviet personnel had increased from 2,500-4,000 in January to 10,600-12,150 and 100-150 pilots.

The Soviets direct intervention, known as Operation Kavkaz, proved to be troublesome for Israel. Washington feared an escalation and strongly disapproved of Israel's bombing campaign. On April 8, the deaths of 47 Egyptian schoolchildren, at an elementary school inside a military compound, put a definite end to the bombings. Israel would instead concentrate on canal-side installations.

The respite gave Egypt time to reconstruct its SAM batteries closer to the canal. Soviet flown MiG-fighters provided the necessary air cover. Soviet pilots also began approaching IAF aircraft during April 1970 but Israeli pilots had orders not to engage these aircraft, and broke off whenever Soviet-piloted Migs appeared.

The initial Israeli policy was to avoid direct confrontation with the Russians. On June 25th an Israeli Skyhawk, in an attack sortie against Egyptian forces on the Canal, was pursued by a pair of Soviet-piloted Mig-21s into the Sinai. The Skyhawk was hit and forced to land in a nearby air base. In response, Israel planned and executed an ambush of Soviet-piloted MiGs. On April 30th, 1970, a large-scale dogfight, involving 24 MiG-21s, 8 Mirage and 4 F-4 Phantom jets took place west of the Suez Canal. The Israelis downed 4 Soviet-piloted MiGs, and a fifth was hit and crashed en route back to its base. Three Soviet pilots were killed, while the IAF suffered no casualties.

Despite these losses the Soviets and Egyptians managed to press the air defenses closer and closer to the canal. Israel could not respond effectively. The SAM batteries would allow Egypt to move in artillery which in turn could threaten the Bar Lev Line. In April 1970 negotiations resumed, this time with the U.S. being the primary negotiator. A cease-fire agreement was reached on August 7. It was to last for three months and neither side was allowed to change "the military status quo within zones extending 50 kilometers to the east and west of the cease-fire line."

Minutes after the cease-fire Egypt begun moving SAM batteries into the zone even though the agreement had explicitly forbidden new military installations. By October there were about 100 SAM sites in the zone.

President Nasser had his mind set on a "war of liberation" of the canal but died of a heart attack on September 28 and vice-president Anwar Sadat took over.

During the war, 367 Israeli soldiers were killed and over three thousand were injured. The Israeli air force admits to the loss of fourteen aircraft. Egyptian estimates are much higher. There are no officially published casualty figures for the Egyptian side, but Israeli historian Benny Morris claims in Righteous Victims (Morris, 1999) that about 10,000 Egyptian soldiers and civilians died and that 98 planes were downed (according to IDF statistics).

Both sides considered the end of the War of Attrition a "victory". In Egypt, the war was considered a victory because three previous wars in 1948, 1956 and 1967 had been lost to Israel. This time their army had held their own. The Israeli establishment considered that they had held off the Egyptian offensive and thought that Egypt had realized that it could not beat Israel in conventional warfare.

Anwar Sadat almost immediately began planning for the 1973 Yom Kippur War that would take place three years later.

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