Today in History: The War Of Attrition

The War of Attrition involved the exchange of artillery fire between Egypt and Israel along the battle line of the Suez Canal.  This military conflict began in the fall of 1968 and lasted until August 1970. Egypt first bombed Israeli military locations in the Sinai Peninsula, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, which led to an escalation of strikes and counterstrikes between the two sides, and the beginnings of an arms race featuring more sophisticated military technology supplied by the superpowers backing the two countries. 

The war reflected the political, military, and strategic considerations facing Egypt in the wake of its devastating defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six-Day War of June 1967.  Due to Egypt’s enormous loss of soldiers and artillery, President Nasser could not mount a full-scale war against Israel, and therefore possessed no way to recapture the Sinai Desert, which Israel had taken control of during the war.  Instead, this limited, "static" war demonstrated Egypt’s continuing mission to resist and exhaust Zionism and Israel.  Nasser was committed to projecting this goal to his own populace, to the Arab world, and to the Soviet Union, his patron.  The war perpetuated the Arab-Israeli conflict as local, regional, and global - yet another locale in the context of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the U.S.S.R. 

For Israel life after 1967 brought new challenges. The country's political and military leadership initiated a strategic debate about the country's diplomatic and military strategy in the wake of capturing and holding new territory. This internal Israeli conversation reflected the indeterminate nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the wake of the 1967 war.  On the one hand, Israel’s dramatic and seemingly complete routing of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt seemed, in the minds of Israelis, to presage Arabic acceptance of their inability to defeat Israel militarily and therefore, their willingness finally to negotiate peace treaties.  On the other hand, the confidence Israelis felt about their superiority in the wake of the June war led them to stake out security positions that exposed their armed forces.  

The government elected to engage in static rather than offensive war, retaliating when attacked, and constructing a series of connected but quite modest forts running North and South along the eastern shore of the Suez Canal.  Dubbed the Bar Lev line after Israel's commander, this consisted of a string of thirty small forts—not much larger than bunkers—all of which the Israeli army populated with only skeleton forces. The Egyptian shelling of those forces suggested—along with the collective Arab rejection of negotiations or recognition of Israel at the Khartoum Conference—that Israel would need to continue to contend with Arab military as well as political opposition. 

This campaign produced an arms race as well. As Egypt escalated its artillery attacks against Israel’s Canal positions, Israel, in turn, increased its military presence, undertaking both ground operations in Egypt (including seizing a Russian supplied radar facility) as well as IAF bombing raids. Israel watched with alarm as Egypt received state of the art Russian anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. That phenomenon not only threatened to weaken Israel's military advantage, it also had the effect of changing the Israeli view of the relative importance of Israel's citizen army vis a vis the more technocratic view of warfare as increasingly about technology.

That dynamic threatened to spin out of control with Egypt requesting and the Soviet Union sending its own troops as well as equipment, and the United Soon contemplating doing the same to support Israel, its proxy state. The fear of this local conflict morphing into a direct encounter between the two global superpowers and the possibility of that leading to a nuclear scenario led the United States and the Soviet Union to push their proxies to stand down under the "cease-fire stand-still" formula of the Security Council (July 1970). 1,424 Israeli soldiers were killed in action between 15 June 1967 and 8 August 1970.

The number of casualties Israel sustained revealed its continuing vulnerability to Egyptian military operations. Warfare always reflects political objectives:  in this case the Egyptian goals and tactics must be seen in the context of the broader Arab conversation about how best to oppose Israel. A state possessing conventional arms could wage this sort of minor but not insignificant campaign. Other Arab political groups, like various Palestinian entities, lacked the machinery of a sovereign state. Instead they resorted to other violent means like local and especially foreign terrorism to oppose Israel and create a new Palestinian political identity and reality in the eyes of its own populace and in the eyes of the international community.  

Taken together these instances of violent resistance failed to restore Arab lands seized by Israel in 1967. These actions and attitudes continued to focus the Arab street on the conflict, even as future strategies for dealing with Israel remained unclear given its military strength. 

On the other hand, Israel seemed to pay less heed to this indecisive conflict. Despite the casualties of this inconclusive conflict, the country felt euphoric over its great triumph in 1967, the restoration of lands in the occupied territories in the West Bank and newer lands like the Sinai Peninsula, and the confidence that the Arabs represented no very real threat. The beginnings of a messianic religious politics even endowed this period with a spiritual dimension that gave at least some Israelis a different sort of certitude about the positive direction of Israel’s future.

Viewed strategically that confidence seemed at odds with the actual losses of the War of Attrition, which in retrospect served as a kind of interregnum between the ’67 and ’73 wars. Israel's reluctance to use its overwhelming military superiority meant that Egypt could move its forces closer to the canal and to engaging Israel. This tactic combined with increasing Arab technological sophistication thanks to Russia's missile technology meant that over time the Arab countries would feel greater confidence about their chances in a larger war with Israel.

Seen in the context of Israel's history, the War of Attrition highlights the strategic questions raised not settled by the Six-Day War. As a small state Israel felt itself weak and powerful vis a vis its larger more powerful Arab neighbors. It therefore took a hawkish view about the need to retaliate against incursions. After 1967 Israel now stood larger and felt more secure. Its strategy evolved toward a more nuanced approach to questions of when to be on the offensive and when to hunker down on the defensive. On the highest level in political and military circles leadership disagreed about what course seemed best to pursue. It also raised the question of what it meant to win a conflict such as this, one without clearcut battles. Put simply: was Israel winning this conflict? It exposed an unintended consequence of the Six-Day war: how does strength affect each side's objectives and views about the relationship between strength and victory? As is the case in the Israel of today, on issues from Iran to Hezbollah to Hamas.   

Ezer Weizman, On Eagles' Wings:  a Personal Story of the Leading Commander of the Israeli Air Force