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A new nation
     Yom Kippur War
     Labour and Likud
     Begin and Sadat
     Iraq and Lebanon
     Sabra and Chatila

Settlement and Intifadas

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The Yom Kippur or October War: 1973

Violent cross-border incidents remain an unpleasant but soon almost normal feature of the life of Israelis in the years after the Six-Day War in 1967. On either side of the new border between Israel and Egypt, along the Suez canal, are extreme incidents involving even artillery bombardments. These derive from Nasser's determination to regain the Sinai peninsula from Sinai, and in 1969 he escalates the conflict by declaring a War of Attrition. The following months are indeed a war, with full-scale aerial attacks across the canal by both sides. This confrontation continues until the death of Nasser in September. His successor, Anwar Sadat, rapidly agrees to a ceasefire and the next three years become relatively calm.

But in the early autumn of 1973 there are alarming movements of Egyptian and Syrian troops towards the borders of the neighbouring occupied territories, Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israel decides against immediate call-up of its reserve forces for two reasons: a determination not to be seen as the aggressor if there is an invasion and war; and a degree of complacency resulting from the massive Israeli superiority in the 1967 war, leaving the conviction that an effective invasion by the Arab nations is unlikely. Nevertheless, in the first days of October, a degree of mobilization is authorized by the prime minister, Golda Meir.

The sudden attack by Egyptian forces on the afternoon of Saturday October 6 is therefore not quite the total surprise it is sometimes described as being. Nevertheless it is met by Israeli forces inadequately prepared, and it has been carefully scheduled to take place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when most Israelis will be at home.

A massive Egyptian air strike and artillery bombardment on Sinai is immediately followed by 8000 assault troops crossing the Suez Canal and advancing into Sinai. At the same time, in the north, 1400 Syrian tanks advance into the Golan Heights. In both regions there is an immediate and significant advance on the first day of the war. But Israel achieves full mobilization and moves new troops to both fronts with extraordinary speed.

By the end of October 10, four days after the invasion, the Syrian troops have been driven back to the border. In the south the powerful Egyptian forces by now on the east bank of the Canal prove impossible to dislodge, but the Israelis establish a relatively secure line a few miles to the east of the Canal.

The war turns now into an extremely violent and destructive series of battles on both fronts, fought mainly with tanks but also in the air and with sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Casualties are high and a vast number of tanks are destroyed, in both cases the loss being very much greater on the Arab side. But armaments are rapidly and immediately replaced by air lifts from the Soviet Union, and the USA soon provides the same support for Israel. As a result there is a fear that the two nuclear nations may become more actively involved, but both governments cooperate fully in a frenzy of diplomatic activity. On October 16 the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, asks the Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin. to seek a resolution from the UN Security Council calling for a cease-fire.

Six days later this is achieved, and by the afternoon of October 24 it has come into effect. But in terms of the borders being fought over, the massive human and financial cost of the war has resulted in very little change. Israel still holds the Golan Height and the Sinai peninsula (though accepting here that Egypt will control the east bank of the Suez Canal, with Israel withdrawing to a line five miles to the east). And the West Bank remains unchanged, having not been involved in the war. One of the main Israeli fears during the conflict has been that King Hussein may align Jordan as a participant with Egypt and Syria, thus vastly increasing the scale of the conflict. But, with memories of 1967, he chooses caution and abstains.


Labour and Likud: 1973-77

In 1973 a new political alliance is formed through a merger of several right-wing parties so as to provide a viable opposition to the ruling left-wing Labour coalition (known now as the Alignment). It takes the name Likud, meaning 'Consolidation' Its leader is Menachem Begin, a veteran of the terrorist campaign against British rule in the 1940s. In the 1973 general election, within months of being founded, Likud wins 39 seats in the Knesset. It immediately becomes the second largest party after Golda Meir's which has 51 seats. Begin becomes leader of the opposition,

In October of that year a commission is set up to discover why Israel was so unprepared for the recent invasion and the Yom Kippur War. It delivers a terse 40-page report published on 1 April 1974. Its criticism of the incompetence of Israeli military intelligence is extremely severe, reinforcing the outraged sense of betrayal felt by the public. Although not personally criticized in the report, Golda Meir resigns as prime minister that same month. There is a bitter struggle between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to succeed her as leader of the Alignment. In the event Rabin wins narrowly, becoming prime minister. Peres, although from now on finding it difficult to work with Rabin, accepts the important role of minister of defence.

The most dramatic event of the three remaining years of this Labour government, one that astonishes the world and greatly boosts the morale of Israelis, takes place in July 1976. An Air France airliner is hijacked by Arab terrorists and is flown to Libya. There the ninety-eight Israeli and Jewish passengers are identified and are flown on, as hostages, to be held at Entebbe airport in Uganda The demands of the hijackers include the release of terrorist prisoners held in Israel.

Israeli public opinion is on balance in favour of submitting to this blackmail, but Rabin and Peres set in motion an extraordinarily bold cross-party plan (Begin is kept informed at all stages). After a week of highly secret planning four aircraft, with heavily armed troops on board, take off for Entebbe, 2500 miles from Israel. In a battle at the airport three of the hostages are killed in crossfire. The rest board the four planes, which arrive safely back in Israel. The only Israeli soldier killed is the commander of the operation, Yonatan Netanyahu. Twenty years later his brother Benjamin becomes the Israeli prime minister.

The election due in the following year, 1977, brings the first major political upheaval in Israel's history. Likud becomes the largest party in the Knesset with 43 seats. The alignment, by now led by Shimon Peres, has 32. Begin becomes prime minister and thirty years of rule by Labour come to an end,

In broad terms the difference is that Labour has been left-wing and secular and judges relationship with the Palestinians in practical terms of Israel's security. The party is therefore willing to make compromises where they coincide with that overriding purpose. Likud is more right-wing and dogmatically more religious, in the sense of seeing the Jewish homeland as the entire area described in the Bible as comprising Judah and Israel three thousand years ago. Indeed one of Begin's first acts on coming to power is to make it government policy always to refer to the West Bank as Judaea and Samaria.

This territorial imperative means that compromise with the Palestinians is virtually impossible. It is Likud party doctrine that Palestine has been and is the region east of the Jordan and that the Palestinian refugees should move there. Alternatively Likud will accept them deciding to stay in the West Bank where they may be granted a measure of autonomy within the state of Israel and indeed certain limited rights as citizens. But the two-state solution, strongly advocated in Washington, is clearly out of the question.

In private. however, Begin is slightly more flexible. He shares Labour's view that a relationship with Egypt, by far the most powerful Arab nation, is in Israel's interest. And he lets it be known, discreetly, that he would welcome a meeting with Sadat.


Begin and Sadat: 1977-8

Sadat has said in private that he is eager to talk, and he goes public on the issue on 7 November 1977, amazing the world with a statement in a speech to the Egyptian parliament: 'I am willing to go to the ends of the earth for peace. Israel will be astonished to hear me say now, before you, that I am prepared to go to their own house, to the Knesset itself, to talk to them'. Begin announces that same evening that Sadat will be welcome, and an official invitation soon follows.

There is a huge public welcome for Sadat when he arrives, and much waving of Egyptian flags on the streets of Jerusalem, but he pulls no punches in his speech to the Knesset. He says his purpose in coming is to prevent ongoing war between their two countries but emphasizes that a solution needs to include the withdrawal of Israeli troops from all the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. His visit is followed in the following months by several other meetings between Egyptian and Israeli officials, but it soon becomes evident that a compromise is impossible and the negotiations grind to a halt.

They are dramatically revived by President Carter in 1978. All the relevant parties are invited to a conference at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, with himself acting as mediator. The participants, gathering at Camp David on September 4, include Begin and Sadat with senior members of their cabinets. After intense negotiations, eased forward thanks to shuttle diplomacy between meeting rooms by President Carter, the seemingly impossible has been achieved.

There is agreement on a 'Framework for Peace in the Middle East'. This includes several remarkable concessions by Begin. One is the first formal Israeli acceptance of 'the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people'. Others relate to the Sinai Peninsula, where he agrees to withdraw completely as far as the original border with Palestine and to give up all the settlements and airfields built since 1967 in Sinai (including even the one at Sharm el-Sheikh where Egypt had triggered the Suez crisis by using it to seal off Israel's access to the Red Sea.)

The prize for agreement at Camp David is a peace treaty between the two countries, which have technically remained in a state of war ever since the hostilities of 1948. The treaty is included in the Camp David Accords, signed on September 17 by Begin, Carter and Sadat. Within weeks the Nobel Peace Prize hss been awarded to Begin and Sadat.

But compromise of this kind enrages the extremists. Three years later, in 1981, Sadat is assassinated, by a group of Muslim fundamentalists firing automatic weapons, while taking the salute at a military parade.


Iraq and Lebanon: 1981-3

The remaining years of Begin's period as prime minister are marked by two highly controversial military decisions. The first is the result of mounting concern that a nuclear reactor being developed by Iraq, officially and by international agreement limited to peaceful purposes, may have as its ulterior motive the development of nuclear weapons capable of reaching Israel. In the summer of 1981 Begin decides to send Israeli planes to destroy the reactor. This is achieved with pinpoint accuracy on June 7 and is greeted by widespread international condemnation, including a resolution passed unanimously by the UN Security Council. Israel itself is divided, with Peres and Rabin expressing opposition.

In the following year Begin authorizes another military excursion against hostile neighbours, this time with ground troops across the border into Lebanon. The main reason for the invasion is the powerful presence in southern Lebanon of Israel's most active enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization. It has been building fortified positions north of the Israeli border, from which it is able to shell settlements in northern Israel.

The official Israeli plan, as declared to the Knesset and the public, is to occupy the territory within Lebanon up to 25 miles from the border with Israel. But the commander of the enterprise, Ariel Sharon, has already given orders for Israeli troops to carry on towards Beirut where the PLO now has its headquarters. The purpose is to attack these as well as the command posts in the countryside, and thus to damage the PLO so severely that it is driven out of Lebanon.

The PLO. with its thousands of guerrilla fighters, has already been forcibly removed from one country in the region. In September 1970 it was expelled from its previous base in Jordan, after months of violent civil war between it and the Jordanian army. Sharon's intention is to achieve the same in Lebanon. As a result Beirut is reduced to a state of siege and from 14 June 1982 hundreds of PLO buildings in the western Muslim area of the city are subjected to heavy Israeli bombardment from land, sea and air. Finally Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, accepts on August 11 that his forces will withdraw from the country. US marines and other foreign troops arrive to secure a peaceful departure from Beirut for Arafat and his men. This is completed by September 4. No longer welcome anywhere in the Middle East, the PLO finds its third home in north Africa, in Tunis.

Meanwhile the Israeli presence in the Lebanon has also escalated to become a full-scale war with Syrian forces, referred to now as the Lebanese War, the fourth war in Israel's twenty-two year history. After a large loss of life in every participating group, but particularly in the PLO, agreement is finally reached in May 1983 that both Israeli and Syrian troops will leave the country. This leaves the Phalangists (the militia of the Phalange, the political party of right-wing Lebanese Christians and an ally of Israel) as the only powerful military force in the region. And they, on 17 September 1982, have been responsible for the most shocking event of the entire war.


Sabra and Chatila: 1983

After the departure of the PLO from west Beirut, the part of the city with the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees, Israeli troops move into the area. It contains two large refugee camps, at Sabra and Chatila, which are believed to be providing a safe haven for Palestinian terrorists.

The Israelis therefore seal off the camps, allowing access only to the Christian Phalangist militia in the expectation that they will identify the active militants. Instead the Phalangists, entering the camps on September 17, carry out a massacre. This has a strong element of revenge. Only three days earlier the Christian leader Bashir Jemayel, recently elected to be the next president of Lebanon, has been assassinated an atrocity blamed at first on the Palestinian Muslims but in fact a plot planned in Syria. When the camps at Sabra and Chatila are opened, 2300 Palestinian bodies are found, among them some militants but mainly ordinary refugees, men, women and children alike.

The Lebanese adventure has been profoundly controversial within Israel as well as abroad. On July 3, a month after the invasion and with Beirut under continuous bombardment, the Israeli pressure group Peace Now organizes a protest demonstration in Tel Aviv with an estimated 100,000 participants. But opposition turns to outrage, both internally and international, when the details of Sabra and Chatila become known. On September 25 another mass demonstration in Tel Aviv numbers 400,000 people, more than 10% of the country's entire population. The government is forced to set up an immediate inquiry into the massacre.

When the commission presents its report, in February 1983, its conclusions are devastating. It is acknowledged that there had been no Israeli intention for this disaster to happen, but there is strong criticism of the failure to anticipate or prevent it and for not intervening while it is occurring. Sharon is singled out for special blame for not foreseeing the dangers of letting the Phalangists into the camp and for giving them no precise instructions as to what was expected of them. And Begin is judged to have been irresponsibly 'indifferent' to the situation, in spite of having earlier justified the Israeli occupation of west Beirut as being necessary 'to protect the Muslims from the vengeance of the Phalangists'.

Sharon resigns as minister of defence but Begin is also criticized for allowing him to stay in the cabinet as minister without portfolio. Begin himself retires from politics in August 1983 and is succeeded as prime minister by Yitzhak Shamir, his old colleague from the days of terrorist activities against British rule.


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