44 years ago, on 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a military campaign to reclaim territories they had lost to Israel six years earlier in 1967. The countries fought for 19 days until a UN resolution brought hostilities to an end on 25 October.
What: October War
When: 6 October – 25 October 1973
Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a military campaign to liberate the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, which were occupied six years earlier during the Six Day War. The attack was launched on two fronts; Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and captured territory in the Sinai while on the eastern side, Syrian forces attacked Israeli troops in the Golan to regain strategic military positions.
The attack was authorised by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and supported by the Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. Both had been reeling from the defeat in 1967. Sadat in particular wanted to reopen the Suez Canal and ease his country’s economic woes but the lack of movement in the international community to enforce UN Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from the territory it had occupied during the Six Day War, forced him into military action.
Egyptian and Syrian forces made significant territorial gains and inflicted considerable damage to the Israeli military during the initial phase of the war. The situation became critical for the Israelis as dozens of the country’s fighter planes were shot down and hundreds of tanks were destroyed. For the first time in its 25-year history, Israel was on the defensive.
As panic set in, the country’s leaders mobilised a quarter of a million reservists to stop their enemies in their tracks. The US, believing Israel was on the verge of military defeat and fearing Russian supremacy through its client Egypt, rushed to approve $2.2 billion in military aid. The US Air Force and Navy launched an operation that would see weapons airlifted to Israel and ferried into the country by sea.
Imminent defeat was averted within a week as Israeli armoured divisions forced Syrian troops in the Golan to retreat while they advanced deeper into Syrian territory. As the balance shifted in favour of Israel, regional allies sent troops to support the Egyptian and Syria campaign.
What happened next?
The October War was Israel’s fourth major conflict with its neighbours. While it lasted for only 19 days, it had a major impact around the globe. For the first time in history, Oil was being used to pressure western governments against their support for Israel. The oil producing countries in the region led by Saudi Arabia boycotted the US and other western backers of Israel. The price of oil skyrocketed by 400 per cent from $3 per barrel to $12. Millions were badly affected by the high energy cost and the exponential rise in living cost is said to have even cost the British Conservative Party electoral victory in 1974.
Politically the region entered a new phase. Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 340 – its third in less than four days, demanded that belligerent parties cease fire immediately and completely – President Sadat would begin a series of diplomatic talks that would lead to the 1978 Camp David Peace treaty with Israel.
Meanwhile Israel set up a Commission of Investigation headed by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court. The country wanted answers; Israel lost 2,600 men. Per capita this is said to be three times the death rate of the Americans in Vietnam over ten years. But Israel suffered this loss in three weeks.