What Was the Yom Kippur War?

Trenches from the Yom Kippur War at Golan Heights, Israel.
Trenches from the Yom Kippur War at Golan Heights, Israel.

Also known as the October War, the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, or the Ramadhan War in the the Arab World, the Yom Kippur War took place from October 6-25, 1973. The war pitted an alliance of Egypt and Syria supported by an expeditionary force from Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Cuba with the support of the Soviet Union, against Israel which had the US’ support. It took place in the Sinai and the Golan Heights territories that Israel occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Taking advantage of the religious nature of Israel and their own, the Arab coalition launched a surprise attack during Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest holiday and during their own holy Ramadhan month.

Background of the War

The Yom Kippur War was part of the Arab-Israeli conflict that started during 1948’s Israel declaration of independence and continues to date. After the Six-Day War, Israel occupied half of Syria’s Golan Heights, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and parts of Jordan’s West Bank territory. Although Israel voted to return the Sinai and Golan Heights to their respective owners with few strategic exceptions, it did not make this decision known to the Arab Nations. This vote was for an anticipation that it would provide Israel permanent peace. Apparently, the Arab Nations had voted to reject any peace deal with Israel during the Khartoum Arab Summit in a decision famously known as the Three No’s - no peace, no recognition, and no negotiation with Israel. After the Six-Day War, small-scale conflicts continued and heightened into the War of Attrition and thereafter a ceasefire in 1970.

In late 1970, Egypt, under Anwar Sadat, went public for the first time stating that it was ready to recognize Israel as an independent state if Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir examined Egypt’ full proposal but did not agree with parts that wanted Israel to return most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meir’s response led Syria to initiate a military mobilization as the country believed they could only recapture the conflicted territories through military action. The other Arab nations were reluctant to wage another war for fear of losing more territory to Israel. The Arab nations also had internal divisions among themselves. Egypt and Syria Supported the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) claim to the West Bank and Gaza although Jordan also claimed West Bank. Iraq and Syria were not comfortable with each other and all the Arab nations appeared to sideline Lebanon because of its small army and instability.

In 1973, Egypt went on a diplomatic offensive seeking support for a war against Israel and claimed to have received support from over 100 nations allied to the Arab League, Non-Aligned Movement, and Organization of African Unity.

Pre-War Events

Henry Kissinger tried to mediate but Egypt had made up its mind about going to war and by that time, it had built up a strong army with little support from the Soviet Union. Prior to this, the Soviets’ decision to take a back seat in an Arab-Israeli conflict angered Egypt and led to the expulsion of thousands of Soviets from the country although Syria remained allies with the Soviet Union. For months, Egypt and Syria planned for the war in utmost secrecy and the upper-echelon commanders only knew of the plans a week to the attack and the soldiers learned of the same a few hours before the attack. They code-named the attack “Operation Badr,” Arabic for "full moon".

Israeli intelligence, Aman, correctly predicted that Syria cannot wage a war without Egypt. Aman also assumed correctly that although Egypt wanted to take Sinai, they would not go to war until they had MiG-23 fighter-bombers and Scud missiles to destroy Israeli Air Force and cities. Egypt received these supplies in late August and Israel predicted that it would take them four months to train. Based on these factors and with intelligence on Syrian and Egyptian war plans as well as Egypt’s disagreements with the Soviets, Aman assumed that war was not immediately imminent and dismissed all warnings. Israel ignored several other warnings from its intelligence and from Jordan.

Egypt waged propaganda frequently making false information about lack of personnel, skills, and maintenance issues. On May 15, Egypt and Syria conducted joint military exercises duping Israel into believing that they were ready to attack. When nothing happened, Aman cemented its belief that Egypt was not ready for war and ignored such exercises but sent few reinforcements to the Golan Heights. Two days before the war, Egypt conducted a mock military demobilization to lull Israeli suspicions after collecting all technical and physical characteristics of the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea. A day to the attack, concrete Israeli intelligence indicated that attack was imminent any time, but the information took long getting up the chain of command and when it finally did, six hours before the war, Israel did partial mobilization of its military but failed to launch a pre-emptive attack for fear of being accused of starting the war. Furthermore, most western powers sat on the fence for the fear that supporting Israel would lead to OPEC putting on them an oil embargo.

The Beginning of the War

Operation Badr began at 2:00 pm with more than 200 Egyptian planes conducting airstrikes. Israel describes what followed in the coming days of war and ceasefires as an act of God. They were heavily outnumbered, out armed, and surprised on land, in the air, and at sea but against all odds, they won the war.

Egyptian attack and advancement proved successful for the first few days when Israel had fewer supplies, less personnel, and less air support as their air force prioritized the Golan Heights rather than the Sinai. Israeli troops on this end got a relief when the US started supplying Israel with weapons and other military infrastructure after it became clear that the Soviet Union was supplying Syria and Egypt. A series of Egyptian tactical mistakes leveled the grounds and before long, Egypt found itself on the defensive side with the most loss. Soon enough, Syria posed less threat and Israeli Air Force focused operations in the Sinai. Both sides failed to honor ceasefire agreements and at the end, Israel advanced deep inside Egypt and occupied a bigger territory while Egypt held on to a small area on the East Bank. In the end, Egypt wished to end the war.

The situation was the same at the Golan Heights where Syria heavily outnumbered Israel, however, Israel concentrated its operations here because it was close to Israeli populations. Israeli reserves reached the region faster than Syria expected and although initially outsmarted, Israel’s quick repair and redeployment of tanks made Syria believe that those were reinforcements and therefore retreated. Being a small region, the Golan Heights provided less space for Syria to maneuver, furthermore, Israel destroyed command headquarters inside Syrian territories and turned the tables on them. Sometime during the conflict, the neutral Jordan deployed its troops to the Jordanian-Syrian frontier to buttress Syrian and Iraqi troops. Historians saw Jordan’s move as an attempt to remain relevant in the Arab World.

Other battles involved naval forces of Israel, Egypt, and Syria in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. These battles include the Battle of Latakia, the Battle of Baltim, and the Battle of Marsa Talamat.

Outcomes of the War

Independent witnesses and some Syrian officials accused the country of committing war crimes by torturing and killing Prisoners of War (POWs) and some of its own soldiers. Egypt also killed hundreds of Israeli POWs and including those who surrendered. Israel lost approximately 2,800 soldiers and the wounded amounted to approximately 8,800 while 293 became POWs. Israel also lost 102 airplanes and 400 tanks. Although Arab casualties and other losses were more, Syria and Egypt refused to reveal the official figures, however, most sources quote a total of at least 18,500 casualties, 2,300 and 514 tanks and airplanes destroyed respectively.

Politically, both Israel and Egypt gained a lot and culminated in the 1978 Camp David Accords. Egypt occupied the east coast of the Suez Canal while Israel occupied a bigger territory in the southwestern coast of the Suez Canal and the Syrian Bashan. For supporting Israel, OPEC declared an embargo against the US and Holland causing the 1973 energy crisis. In 1974, Golda Meir and her cabinet resigned, and Israel formed a new government. In the years after the war, Egypt became the first Arab Nation to negotiate with Israel and consequently, Islamist army members assassinated President Sadat.


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