What was the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War?

The October 1973 War, also known as the Yom Kippur War (in Israel) or the Ramadan War (in Arab countries), was a significant conflict that pitted Israel against a coalition of Arab states, primarily Egypt and Syria. The war began on October 6, 1973, and concluded on October 25, 1973, when both sides agreed to a ceasefire.

Background

Following the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had occupied the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. The territory, especially the Sinai, was of strategic importance. Despite international mediation efforts, no peace agreement or territorial compromise had been reached by 1973. Both sides were therefore preparing for conflict, albeit with different strategies and timelines in mind.

Egypt-Syria Surprise Attack

The war began with a surprise joint attack by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, which also coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Egypt launched its attack across the Suez Canal aiming to retake Sinai, while Syria attacked the Golan Heights. The choice of date was strategic, with Israel being caught off guard due to the religious observance.

Egyptian and Syrian forces initiated the conflict by crossing into the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, territories held by Israel. Egypt advanced into Sinai after crossing the Suez Canal through Operation Badr, while Syria coordinated its attack in the Golan, capturing some Israeli territory. Image: Egyptian Sukhoi Su-7 fighter jets conducting air strikes over the Bar Lev Line on October 6

Initial Success

Egypt and Syria initially made significant advances. Egyptian forces successfully crossed the Suez Canal and established a strong presence on the eastern bank.

Meanwhile, Syrian forces captured parts of the Golan Heights. The surprise attack and early successes were a morale booster for the Arab states.

In intense three-day battles, Israel stopped Egypt’s advance and repelled Syrian forces back to initial lines. Israel counterattacked into Syria, nearing Damascus. Meanwhile, Egypt aimed for key mountain passes in Sinai but faced defeat. In retaliation, Israel crossed the Suez Canal, moving towards Egypt’s Suez City. Image: IDF tanks crossing the Suez Canal

Counteroffensives by the IDF

However, Israel soon mobilized its reserves and mounted counteroffensives. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) managed to push the Syrian army out of the Golan Heights and advanced into Syrian territory, threatening the capital city of Damascus.

On the southern front, after intense fighting, the IDF crossed the Suez Canal into Egyptian territory and began encircling the Egyptian Third Army, posing a direct threat to Cairo.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was later criticized for not launching a pre-emptive strike on Egypt and Syria after gaining credible intel of the impending attacks from Egypt and Syria.

Superpower Involvement

The October 1973 War was not just a regional conflict. The Cold War dynamics played a significant role. The Soviet Union primarily backed the Arab states, while the U.S. supported Israel.

As the conflict escalated, there was a genuine fear that it might lead to a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.

The U.S. and the USSR started massive airlifts to resupply their respective allies during the war. As the conflict intensified and Israel gained the upper hand, the U.S. put its nuclear forces on alert, fearing a Soviet intervention on behalf of Egypt.

Ceasefire and Aftermath

October 24, 1973 – A UN-brokered meeting between IDF Lt. Gen. Haim Bar-Lev and Egyptian Brigadier General Bashir Sharif in Sinai.

On October 22, under pressure from both the U.S. and the USSR, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338 calling for a ceasefire. Although fighting continued for a few more days, by October 25, the war had effectively ended.

UN Emergency Forces at Kilometre 101, November 1973

The profound implications of the October 1973 War:

  • Casualties: Both sides suffered heavy casualties, with tens of thousands killed and wounded.
  • Diplomatic Shift: The war set the stage for a significant diplomatic shift in the Middle East. Recognizing that military efforts alone would not ensure its security, Israel became more amenable to diplomatic solutions. Likewise, many Arab states began to see the limits of military action against Israel.
  • Energy Crisis: In retaliation for U.S. support for Israel, Arab oil-producing countries imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. and other countries, leading to a severe energy crisis and economic downturn in many parts of the world.

Destroyed Egyptian tank

  • Peace Process: The war ultimately paved the way for the Camp David Accords in 1978, where Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations in exchange for the return of the Sinai Peninsula.
  • Changing Perceptions: The war altered perceptions on both sides. Israel realized that it could not always depend on pre-emptive strikes and had to be prepared for surprise attacks. On the other hand, the Arab states, especially Egypt, realized the importance of diplomatic engagement.

A destroyed Israeli M60 Patton tank in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War

Yom Kippur War and the creation of the International Energy Agency

The October 1973 War had significant global ramifications beyond the immediate combatants, and one of the most profound was the oil crisis that followed. This crisis eventually led to the creation of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Here’s how it unfolded:

  1. Oil Embargo: In response to the U.S. support for Israel during the war, Arab oil producers, led by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), implemented an oil embargo against nations perceived as supporting Israel, primarily the United States and its allies in Western Europe.
  2. Oil Price Hike: Alongside the embargo, OPEC nations agreed to cut oil production, leading to a quadrupling of oil prices globally. This sent shockwaves through the global economy, and countries heavily reliant on oil imports, especially in the West, faced economic recessions.
  3. Western Response: The severe disruptions caused by the oil crisis made it apparent to Western countries how vulnerable they were to supply interruptions. This realization led to the need for a collective response to reduce dependence on OPEC oil and to create a mechanism for sharing and stockpiling oil to buffer against future disruptions.
  4. Creation of the IEA: In response to this vulnerability, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) founded the International Energy Agency in 1974. The primary mission of the IEA was to promote energy security amongst its member states through collective response to physical disruptions in oil supply, information sharing, and coordinated energy policies.
  5. Key Features of IEA: One of the central measures adopted by IEA members was the agreement to hold emergency oil stocks equivalent to at least 90 days of net oil imports. This was to ensure that member countries had a buffer against any future supply disruptions.

Conclusion

The October 1973 War was a watershed moment in Middle Eastern history. While it lasted less than a month, its consequences were long-lasting, reshaping geopolitical alignments, setting the stage for future peace negotiations, and underlining the complex interplay between regional conflicts and global superpower dynamics. The war remains a testament to the volatile nature of the Middle East, where territorial disputes, religious significance, and global politics often intertwine.

Frequently Asked Questions about the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War

The Yom Kippur War was a conflict fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, primarily Egypt and Syria, in October 1973. Image: Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal

Why is the war also known as the Yom Kippur War?

The war is known as the Yom Kippur War because it began on the day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is a day of fasting, introspection, and prayer for Jews worldwide. On this day, observant Jews refrain from work and spend most of the day in synagogue services.

The choice of this specific day for launching the surprise attack was strategic on the part of the Arab states, primarily Egypt and Syria. Israel, given the religious significance of the day, was caught off guard, with many soldiers away from their posts observing the holiday, making it an opportune moment for the Arab coalition to strike. The timing was meant to maximize the element of surprise and to capitalize on a moment when Israeli defense might be at its most vulnerable.

Thus, the name “Yom Kippur War” reflects not only the date of the outbreak of hostilities but also the profound shock and significance of the attack coming on such a sacred day for Israelis.

How long did the war last for?

The October 1973 War, also known as the Yom Kippur War, lasted for 20 days. It began on October 6, 1973, and ended on October 26, 1973, with a ceasefire.

What caused the war?

The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, commonly referred to as the Yom Kippur War, was rooted in a series of complex political, territorial, and historical grievances.

Here are the primary causes:

  1. Aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War: The swift defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan by Israel during the Six-Day War left Arab territories, including the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, under Israeli control. The humiliation from this rapid defeat, termed the “Naksa” by Arabs, created a deep desire for revenge and territorial reclamation, especially in Egypt and Syria.
  2. Stalemate in Diplomacy: Before the 1973 war, diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict had stalled. Israel, feeling secure behind its fortified borders and with a superior military, was reluctant to make concessions.
  3. Arab Unity and Preparation: Arab nations, primarily Egypt and Syria, sought to rectify the losses from the 1967 war. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in particular, felt that a military action, even if not fully victorious, could shake Israel and the world into more favorable diplomatic resolutions.
  4. Strategic Surprise: Egypt and Syria chose the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (and the Muslim month of Ramadan) to launch their attack, catching the Israeli defense forces at a moment of religious introspection and lower military alertness.
  5. Soviet Influence: The Cold War politics played a role in the Middle East conflict. The USSR supplied arms to Arab states, and while they were not directly encouraging war, the availability of advanced weapons gave Egypt and Syria confidence.
  6. Economic and Demographic Concerns: Syria and Egypt felt the demographic and economic strains. They believed a successful war could rally the population around the government and alleviate domestic pressures.
  7. Palestinian Issue: The continued displacement and plight of Palestinians, especially after the territories seized in 1967, remained a significant point of contention. The Arab nations felt obligated to champion the Palestinian cause against Israel.
  8. International Politics: The U.S. was Israel’s primary ally, providing substantial military and economic support. Arab nations believed that altering the status quo through war might shift the balance and force the U.S. and other international actors to support a peace settlement more favorable to Arab interests.

The war was a culmination of unresolved territorial disputes, historical animosities, strategic miscalculations, and larger global geopolitical dynamics. The Arab nations sought to alter the unfavorable status quo post the 1967 war, while Israel was determined to retain its territorial gains and strategic advantage. Image: The October 1973 War in the Sinai, October 6–15

What countries supported Israel and its IDF?

During the Yom Kippur War, Israel primarily received support from the United States. However, other countries also provided varying degrees of assistance or political support. Here’s a breakdown:

  1. United States: The U.S. was Israel’s main ally during the war. When the war broke out, the Nixon administration, under the recommendation of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, initiated a massive airlift (Operation Nickel Grass) to resupply Israel with arms, ammunition, and other essential military equipment. This support was crucial in offsetting the initial advantages gained by the Arab states and ensuring that Israel could continue its defense and eventually go on the offensive.
  2. West Germany: While not directly involved, West Germany sent military aid to Israel during the conflict.
  3. Portugal: Portugal allowed the U.S. to use the Lajes Air Base in the Azores for the refueling of aircraft that were part of the American airlift to Israel.
  4. Netherlands: Despite facing an Arab oil embargo, the Netherlands provided Israel with essential military equipment during the war.
  5. United Kingdom: The UK was mostly neutral during the war but allowed the U.S. aircraft supporting Israel to refuel in British air bases, particularly on the Ascension Island.
  6. Canada, Denmark, and Belgium: These countries reportedly permitted arms shipments to Israel, albeit on a lesser scale.

Many countries, especially in Europe, were wary of overtly supporting Israel because they feared the repercussions of an Arab oil embargo. This was a tactic used by Arab nations during the war to deter European nations from assisting Israel. The embargo had significant economic implications for many Western countries.

It’s worth noting that while some countries might have provided covert support, overt support for Israel was limited mainly due to the global geopolitical landscape and the energy crisis linked to the war.

Which were the countries that supported Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur War?

During the Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria received support in various forms from several countries:

  1. Military Assistance and Troops:
    • Iraq: Sent troops, armored divisions, and aircraft to support both the Syrian and Egyptian fronts.
    • Jordan: Sent two armored brigades to Syria.
    • Libya: Sent an armored brigade to Syria.
    • Palestinian factions: Deployed several thousand troops to fight alongside the Syrians.
    • Saudi Arabia: Sent troops and financial support.
    • Kuwait: Sent troops to Syria.
    • Algeria: Sent an infantry brigade to the Syrian front.
    • Cuba: Dispatched a tank brigade and other troops to Syria, though their direct combat role remains debated.
  2. Financial and Material Support:
    • Saudi Arabia: Besides troops, it provided financial support to the war effort.
    • Kuwait: Provided financial aid.
    • Various Arab states: Many offered financial support or resources to aid Egypt and Syria.
  3. Weapon Supplies:
    • Soviet Union: The main arms supplier to both Egypt and Syria. They provided arms, ammunition, and military equipment. Additionally, there were reports of Soviet personnel and advisors in Egypt and Syria during the war, though they did not take part in direct combat.
    • North Korea: Sent material support and advisers.
    • China: Offered weapons to the Arab states, but to a lesser extent than the Soviets.

While the above countries provided the most direct support, many nations expressed diplomatic and moral support for the Arab cause during the conflict. The global nature of the Cold War also meant that events in the Middle East influenced, and were influenced by, the broader geopolitical strategies of the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

An M60 delivered during Operation Nickel Grass

Who were the Arab Commanders and leaders during the Yom Kippur War?

During the Yom Kippur War, the main Arab commanders and leaders were:

For Egypt:

  1. President Anwar Sadat – He was the principal decision-maker for Egypt.
  2. General Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy – Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.
  3. General Saad El Shazly – Chief of Operations.
  4. Lieutenant General Ahmed Ismail Ali – Defense Minister and commander of the Egyptian forces on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.

For Syria:

  1. President Hafez al-Assad – The primary decision-maker for Syria.
  2. General Mustafa Tlass – Defense Minister.
  3. Lieutenant General Abdul Rahman Khleifawi – Chief of Staff of the Syrian Armed Forces.
  4. Brigadier General Omar Abrash – Commander of the 7th Division.
  5. Brigadier General Ali Aslan – Commander of the 5th Division.

Additionally, other Arab states provided support to Egypt and Syria, and they had their commanders and leaders involved, but Egypt and Syria were the primary Arab participants with the most significant military engagements during the war.

Leaders and commanders of the Arab coalition during the October 1973 War: Image (Left to Right): Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Egyptian general Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and Syrian General Mustafa Tlass

Who were the Israeli Commanders and leaders during the Yom Kippur War?

During the Yom Kippur War, Israel was led by a combination of political leaders and military commanders. Here are the key Israeli leaders during the conflict:

  • Golda Meir: She was the Prime Minister of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Golda Meir played a pivotal role in making political and strategic decisions throughout the conflict.
  • Moshe Dayan: The Israeli Defense Minister during the war. As one of Israel’s most iconic military figures, Dayan was deeply involved in the country’s strategic and operational responses to the surprise attack.
  • Lt. Gen. David Elazar (Dado): He was the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the war. Elazar was the highest-ranking military officer and played a central role in directing Israel’s military operations.
  • Maj. Gen. Israel Tal: A prominent armored corps commander known for his role in developing Israel’s Merkava tank. During the war, he was involved in the southern front against Egypt.
  • Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon: A key figure in Israel’s counterattacks, Sharon eventually led Israeli forces in crossing the Suez Canal and encircling the Egyptian Third Army, which played a crucial role in bringing the war to an end.
  • Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen (Gorodish): Initially the Southern Command chief, he faced criticism for his initial handling of the war. Later, he was replaced by Gen. Chaim Bar-Lev.
  • Maj. Gen. Chaim Bar-Lev: He took over the Southern Command a few days into the war and helped stabilize the situation on the Egyptian front.
  • Maj. Gen. Benjamin Peled: The Air Force Commander during the war. The Israeli Air Force played a critical role, especially given the new challenge of advanced enemy surface-to-air missiles.
  • Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi: As the Northern Command chief, he oversaw operations on the Syrian front, where Israeli forces managed to push back the Syrians after initial setbacks.
  • Maj. Gen. Mordechai Gur: As the head of the Israeli paratroopers and infantry, Gur played a significant role in various operations during the war.

These leaders, along with many other officers and soldiers, played crucial roles in Israel’s military efforts during the Yom Kippur War. Their collective experience, leadership, and decisions during the intense weeks of fighting determined the course and outcome of the war for Israel.

Israeli leaders and commanders during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Image (left to right): Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Chief of Staff David Elazar

How did the war create the 1973 oil crisis?

In 1973, following the US’s support for Israel during the October War, OPEC, led by Arab nations, imposed an oil embargo on the US, seeking to pressure Washington into addressing the Palestinian issue and Israel’s 1967 territory occupations. Oil prices globally skyrocketed, moving from approximately $2.90 a barrel pre-embargo to $11.65 by January 1974. While the embargo was lifted in 1974 after peace discussions, Israel remained in the occupied territories. The economic shock from this crisis prompted the formation of the International Energy Agency (IEA) to ensure future oil supply security.

What were some of the major outcomes of the Yom Kippur War?

The October 1973 War, also known as the Yom Kippur War or the Ramadan War, had several immediate and long-term outcomes:

  1. Military Stalemate: While both Egypt and Syria made initial gains, by the end of the conflict, Israeli forces had pushed back and were positioned dangerously close to Damascus, Syria, and had encircled Egypt’s Third Army. However, both sides claimed victory – the Arabs because they were able to launch a surprise attack and initially inflict losses on Israel, and Israel because it managed to repel the invaders and counter-attack.
  2. Political Outcomes: The war altered the dynamics in the Middle East. It reasserted Egypt’s leadership in the Arab world, with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat emerging as a key regional player. The performance of the Israeli Defense Forces also revealed vulnerabilities, leading to political upheaval in Israel.
  3. Oil Crisis: In the war’s aftermath, Arab oil producers imposed an oil embargo against countries supporting Israel, leading to an energy crisis, especially in the West. Oil prices quadrupled, which had significant global economic repercussions.
  4. Shift in Superpower Diplomacy: The war brought the two superpowers, the US and the USSR, to the brink of confrontation, highlighting the dangers of regional conflicts escalating into major power confrontations. It led to increased diplomacy, with the US taking a more active role in the Middle East peace process.
  5. Peace Process Initiated: The war set the stage for a renewed push for peace in the Middle East. It was a precursor to the Camp David Accords in 1978, where Egypt became the first Arab nation to officially recognize Israel. The accords led to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
  6. Return of Sinai to Egypt: As a result of the peace process initiated after the war and culminating in the Camp David Accords, Israel agreed to a staged withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt by 1982.
  7. Long-Term Military and Defense Impacts: Israel re-evaluated and revamped its military strategy and defense infrastructure, considering the initial intelligence failures and the surprise nature of the Arab attack.
  8. No Resolution on the Golan Heights: Despite Egypt regaining Sinai, the status of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war, remained unchanged. Israel continued its occupation of the territory, which it later annexed in 1981, a move not internationally recognized.

While the October 1973 War did not result in a decisive military victory for either side, it significantly impacted Middle Eastern geopolitics, the global economy, and set the stage for future peace negotiations and agreements. Image: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, US President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at Camp David, 1978

READ ALSO: How did the Yom Kippur War lead to the Camp David Accords?

What price did Egypt pay for recognizing Israel?

In 1978, under US President Jimmy Carter’s mediation, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin held secretive talks at Camp David near Washington, DC. Over 13 days, they forged the Camp David Accords, delineating conditions for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace via Resolution 242, which advocated Israel’s withdrawal from territories seized in 1967’s Six Day War. Post-accords, Israel vacated the Sinai Peninsula, establishing diplomatic relations with Egypt and gaining Suez Canal access. Despite the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the broader framework remained unrealized.

After normalizing relations with Israel, Egypt faced backlash from the Arab world, resulting in its expulsion from the Arab League and severed diplomatic ties with all Arab nations. Egypt’s move was perceived as sidelining the Palestinian cause. However, the nation’s readmission to the Arab League came in 1989.

Did you know…?

  • Fast forward 50 years, and the dynamics have shifted. While Egypt faced isolation in the past, more Arab nations are now keen on forging relations with Israel, downplaying the Palestinian issue. Jordan paved the way in 1994 by signing a peace treaty with Israel.
  • Furthermore, the Abraham Accords in 2020 saw several nations, including the United Arab Emirates, officially recognizing Israel. As of October 2023, only five Arab countries—Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco—have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
  • After securing peace with Israel, Egypt distanced itself from the Soviet Union, eventually exiting its sphere of influence entirely.

Timeline of the October 1973 War

The Yom Kippur War had profound implications for both the Middle East and the world at large, reshaping regional politics and international relations. The war underlined the need for diplomatic solutions to the Israeli-Arab conflict and played a role in subsequent peace efforts.

The Yom Kippur War, also known as the October War, took place in 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. Here’s a timeline of the key events:

October 6, 1973:

  • Morning: Egypt and Syria launch simultaneous surprise attacks on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
  • Egyptian forces cross the Suez Canal, breaching the Bar-Lev Line of Israeli fortifications.
  • Syrian forces push into the Golan Heights.

October 7-8, 1973:

  • Israel mobilizes its reserves and manages to halt the Syrian advance in the Golan Heights.

October 9-10, 1973:

  • A major tank battle ensues in the Golan Heights, and Israeli forces begin pushing Syrian troops back.

October 14, 1973:

  • Egypt launches an offensive beyond its initial bridgeheads across the Suez Canal but suffers heavy losses.

October 15-17, 1973:

  • Israel counterattacks, surrounds the Egyptian Third Army, and crosses the Suez Canal, threatening the cities of Ismailia and Suez.

An Israeli Centurion tank operating in the Sinai during the October 1973 War

October 17, 1973:

  • OPEC, led by Arab nations, imposes an oil embargo on countries supporting Israel, leading to the 1973 oil crisis.

October 22, 1973:

  • The United Nations Security Council passes Resolution 338, calling for an immediate ceasefire. However, fighting continues.

October 23, 1973:

  • Israel encircles the Egyptian Third Army, leaving it stranded on the east side of the Suez Canal.

October 25, 1973:

  • After several days of continued fighting despite the ceasefire, hostilities finally come to an end.

Aftermath:

  • The war results in significant territorial gains for Israel in the Golan Heights but sees Israeli forces pull back to the east side of the Suez Canal.
  • The war leads to a renewed push for peace, ultimately resulting in the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979.

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