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The Political Situation In The Middle East 1956 - 1967

Arab – Israeli Relations and General Nasser

The Arab refusal to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state called into question the legitimacy of the state.  Hostility towards Israel in Arab lands increased during the early fifties and was intensified by the arrival of General Gamal Abdel Nasser, as a result of a military coup, in Egypt in July 1952.  He became the catalyst for pan-Arabism.  Israel became sufficiently worried to become increasingly active in Arab lands.  However, in 1954, a disastrous sabotage operation conducted by Israeli Intelligence in Egypt exacerbated Egyptian relations with the Western powers and Israel.

In October 1954 the Egyptian Treaty provided for the withdrawal of British Forces from the Suez Canal Zone as originally agreed by the British Post-War Government in 1946.  The last of 80,000 British Troops were not withdrawn until 1956, yet the huge base at Ismailia remained, plus its British technicians and its £40 – 50 million worth of stores.  About 60,000 British troops travelled through the Suez Canal annually.

Egypt was turning more and more to the Eastern Bloc countries for aid.  Until July 1955 Egypt’s armed forces were equipped with old British armaments, but now General Nasser ordered Stalin tanks, MiG 15 fighters, Ilyushin Il-28 bombers and Czech rifles.  Sums over £12 million and perhaps as high as £30 million were involved in the procuring of new equipment – the first shipments of arms being of Czechoslovakian origin.  Andrei Shepilov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, offered an interest-free loan of £50 million.

The Suez Crisis

A Royal Navy Battleship (King George V Class) transiting the Suez Canal en-route for Aden
This strategic waterway was vital to British military and economic interests.
(Associated Press)
Click Image to Enlarge

On 26 July 1956, the Egyptian Government nationalised the Suez Canal Company, stating that the resulting revenue would be used to build the High Dam.  Four days later, the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, ordered a ban on the export of war material to Egypt, and on 4th August, 20,000 army reservists were called up.  Naval, air, and military reinforcements were sent to the Eastern Mediterranean, specifically to Malta and to a lesser extent, Cyprus.  Egypt’s capacity to use weapons was exaggerated, yet her sheer weight of materiel was impressive: a hundred MiGs, a hundred medium tanks and thirty Ilyushins.  She had better rifles than Britain (Czech semi-automatics) while Britain had no airborne battalion anti-tank guns.

Britain believed that if the Canal fell under Egyptian control, major routes to Australasia and the Far East could be threatened and oil supplies from the Persian Gulf severed, resulting in a five weeks longer sea route round the Cape.  Thus on 13th October Britain and France adopted a joint resolution which provided for free open transit through the Canal; Egypt’s sovereignty to be respected; and the operation of the Canal to be insulated from the countries politics.  But secretly, Israel had been promised the military support of the two major powers in an attack on Egypt, jointly planned and executed.  Egypt did not respond to the demands of Britain and France on the future of the Canal and so the joint plan went into action.

The Military Campaign

On 29th October, Israeli paratroops were dropped at the Mitla Pass in Sinai – thirty miles east of Suez, and Israeli fighter-bombers patrolled Suez air space.  Seventy-two French combat aircraft were flown to Israel.  Sixty-one British and Fifty-three French pilots were already stationed in the Canal Zone.  By 30th October all border posts between Egypt and Israel had been captured.

When Anglo-French bombing commenced on 31st October, Cairo West was the chief target as it was Egypt’s main Ilyushin bomber base although bomb sizes were limited for humanitarian reasons.  The bombing demonstrated to Nasser that Britain and France were not bluffing.

At dawn on 5th November six hundred British and 487 French paratroopers were dropped outside Port Said.  The RAF, RN and French aircraft gave effective support.  On 6th November a sea-borne assault of Royal Marines and French commandos landed at Port Said and Port Fouad respectively.  There were heavy casualties.  Four hundred men of the 45th Commando Battalion were landed by helicopter.

The Anglo-French troops advanced 23 miles down the canal, but on the 7th November, as a result of pressure from the United Nations and world opinion – in particular the United States – Britain and France had ignominiously to halt and then withdraw their forces.  In their place came a UN Emergency Force, which was built up to 4,000 men by the end of November.  Israel withdrew from its conquests in Sinai three months later.

By mid December 1956, 2,500 British and 3,500 French citizens had to leave the country and abandon their possessions.  In the post Suez era, unrelenting Arab hostility engendered Israeli attitudes and policies, which further exacerbated the situation.  The major penetration of Soviet power into the Middle East, as proved by the massive increase in arms shipments, drove the United States to seek in Israel a military counter-weight.

The Yemeni Civil War

In 1956 the Imam of the Yemen had concluded a tripartite military alliance with Egypt, which had already agreed to supply military hardware, and Saudi Arabia.  Economic relations were strengthened with the Soviet Union.  However, in 1962, the Imam died and his son succeeded to the title.  Egypt immediately supported an armed insurrection, which resulted in a new regime.  Saudi Arabia backed the Imam: an act that resulted in the severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries for a short period.

The Yemen was divided into areas: the north controlled by the deposed Imam, and areas to the south, including the capital, controlled by the new regime.  Fierce fighting continued until a 1970 agreement between the two sides brought an uneasy peace.

Terrorism in Aden

British Troops search Terrorist Suspects
The Crater District of Aden 1967
(Associated Press)
Click Image to Enlarge

During these years of tension in the Middle East, the Yemeni civil war overlapped with a campaign of terrorism being waged by Arab nationalists within the Federation of South Arabia, which had been formed in 1962.  Yemen had opposed the creation of the Federation and regarded it as a breach of a 1951 agreement that maintained the status quo in the disputed frontier area.  In 1964, Britain proposed a new self-governing federation with the promise of independence by 1968.

The Federal Government, which consisted of many local rulers and four Adenis, had its authority challenged by three nationalist groups: The National Liberation Front (NLF), the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY) which was backed by Egypt, and the South Arabian League.  Civil war broke out and by 1967 nationalist groups controlled several states.  British troops were used to restore order in Aden.

Britain eventually reached agreement with the NLF, which was pressing for immediate independence; the other two nationalist parties had been suppressed.  British forces were withdrawn although civil disturbances continued until independence in November 1967.