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On this day: The eruption of the Yom Kippur War

October 6 1973: On the holiest day of the year Israel comes under attack.

    As Israelis marked Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack. They struck the places Israel had won in 1967; in the north the Golan Heights, in the south along the Sinai Peninsula.

    Although there had been suggestions for several years that Egypt might hit Israel again, the attack was a surprise and Israel was not prepared to fight the fourth war in its history.

    Relations between the Cold War enemies, the United States and the Soviet Union, deteriorated further with the war, as the Soviets provided assistance for the Arab nations and Israel was aided by American airlifts.

    The Arab countries, by now a coalition backed by Algeria, Jordan and Lebanon, made early gains, but after a few days the Israeli army began to push back. Three weeks later, the UN pushed for a ceasefire and on October 26 the fighting stopped, leaving an estimated 6,000 Israelis dead.

    It was not a resounding victory for either Israel or the Arab world, but the war changed the landscape of the Middle East. In Israel elections scheduled for that October were postponed, and despite the war the Labour party, under Prime Minister Golda Meir, was reelected, although she herself stepped down in April 1974.

    The Yom Kippur strikes were largely unforeseen by experts from Mossad to the CIA and some intelligence officials lost their jobs for failing to anticipate it. In particular, defence minister Moshe Dayan faced criticism for not ordering pre-emptive strikes. The hero of the Six Day War even offered his resignation, although it was not accepted.

    Israel and Syria signed a disengagement agreement in 1974. In September 1978, with the Camp David Accords, Israel agreed to withdraw fully from the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt became the first Arab country to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

    What Yitzhak Rabin said in the JC: It enabled the Soviet Union to enter the arena with a threat to intervene unless we stopped the fighting. Though we are a small nation, we can still cope with 80 million Arabs. But to cope also with the Russians is a bit too much. On lesson to be learnt from that unfinished war is that since the Arab-Israeli conflict has become so entangled with the Soviet-American conflict there can be no clear demarcation between the two.

    See more from the JC archives here

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