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Between victory and defeat in the October War

An Egyptian soldier stands guard at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel [MAHMUD KHALED/AFP via Getty Images]
An Egyptian soldier stands guard at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel [MAHMUD KHALED/AFP via Getty Images]

It has been 49 years since the October War, as it is called in Egypt, the October Liberation War as it is called in Syria, or the Yom Kippur War as it is called in Israel. Whatever it is called, the result was the same: the war was a turning point in Arab history and the struggle against the Zionist enemy, crossing from defeat to victory, and from humiliation to honour.

It was the fourth war between the Arabs and Israel, following the 1948 Palestine War, the 1956 Suez War and the 1967 Six Day War, in which we were defeated and occupied by the Zionist enemy in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the Golan Heights in Syria, the Palestinian West Bank, which was under Jordanian rule, and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, which was then under Egyptian military rule. The October War redeemed the Egyptian army, as it was the only war in which it was victorious over the Zionist occupation army.

Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal, demolished the Bar Lev defensive line and liberated hundreds of kilometres along the east of the canal. It was meant to be the first stage of the complete liberation of Sinai. They advanced 20 kilometres into Sinai, as the Syrian army entered the Golan Heights to the Hula Plain and Lake Tiberias. The Egyptian and the Syrian armies achieved a military miracle that is still taught in military colleges and institutes across the world, and shattered the myth of Israel's "invincible" armed forces. This prompted the then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to call US President Richard Nixon and ask for help, as they fully expected to lose Israel.

"The Egyptians had crossed the canal, and our forces in the Sinai had been destroyed…" Meir wrote in her memoir My Life. "The Syrians had penetrated deep into the Golan Heights… The losses on both fronts were very high, and a fatal question arose: Shall we inform the nation of the extent of the situation?"

This was also expressed by Defence Minister Moshe Dayan to the editors-in-chief of the Israeli newspapers at the time. "We are now paying a heavy price every day in this war. Every day we are losing dozens of planes, pilots, and equipment, and hundreds of tanks. Some of these tanks fell into the hands of the Egyptians. This is a hefty price for Israel to pay. The Egyptians succeeded in passing through with more tanks and armoured vehicles than we have in the Sinai. The Egyptians have a lot of armoured vehicles, and they are strong. We withdrew from the Bar Lev line because of the severity of the Egyptian attack. The Bar-Lev line is no longer a reality for us, and we do not have the power to expel the Egyptians who destroyed it."

Dayan admitted that it had become clear that Israel was no stronger than the Egyptians. The belief that Israel was militarily superior to the Arabs was ended, and the theory that the Arabs would be defeated in hours if they declared war on Israel was proven wrong. With Egyptian military superiority in Sinai unable to be confronted, Israel and its supporters had to accept that the occupation state was not the only military force in the Middle East; that there were other facts to be taken into account.

If the US had not intervened directly and established an air bridge sending tens of thousands of tonnes of military aid to Israel — including aircraft and tanks — the Egyptians would have retaken all of the Sinai. No peace negotiations would have been needed to recover Egypt's sovereign territory in the peninsula.

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The course of the war thus changed, and the enemy became the US as well as Israel. This prompted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to say at the time, "We almost achieved complete victory if the US had not intervened against us in the war. I cannot fight America; I fear for my children."

It was not possible for the Zionist generals to accept that the war would end with a crushing defeat for their army. Their arrogance refused to consider this possibility. They were able to push back against the Syrian forces and reoccupy the Golan Heights. Indeed, they took even more land, with an additional 500 square kilometres in what was known as the Sa'sa' pocket.

On the Egyptian front, Israel was able to open the Deversoir loophole, cross to the western bank of the canal and besiege the Third Field Army and the city of Suez. However, the Israeli army failed to achieve any strategic gains, whether by occupying Ismailia or Suez, destroying the Third Army, or attempting to push the Egyptian forces back across the Suez Canal.

The issue of the loophole is a thorny subject with a lot of ambiguity. The Zionists saw it as a victory, while Sadat saw it as a TV propaganda opportunity and nothing more. Many books and analyses have looked at this matter. Some saw it as costing Israel a lot financially and putting its army in a dangerous military situation with nothing gained except propaganda to raise morale. Others saw it as a major blow to the Egyptian army, cancelling out the impressive victories it achieved at the beginning of the war. I will leave this discussion to the military experts.

What concerns me here is that it led to agreements to disengage the Egyptian and Israeli forces, and start indirect negotiations between the two sides. The latter deal, which was signed in Geneva on 1 September, 1975, stipulated in its first article that the dispute between Israel and Egypt should not be resolved by force or by arms, but by peaceful means. It stressed the need to reach a just and lasting peace within the framework of the Geneva Peace Conference, in accordance with the provisions of Security Council Resolution 338 issued on 22 October, 1973, for a peaceful settlement through negotiations.

Such negotiations between Egypt and Israel led to the Camp David talks in 1978, and culminated in a peace treaty on 26 March, 1979. The Arab-Israeli conflict took a new turn, away from the armed struggle to liberate occupied Palestine.

Subsequently, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat went on to sign the Oslo Accords in 1993, followed by King Hussain of Jordan signing the Wadi Araba agreement on 26 October, 1994. The then Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad began negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and so the Arab rulers began normalising relations with Israel overtly as well as covertly. Sadat invited the Palestinian Authority, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan to attend the Mena House Conference in Cairo in December 1977 to discuss and solve the problems of the final settlement of Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees, but they did not all attend. The Palestinian flag was raised, but the Palestinian seat was empty.

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Sadat went to Syria and met Assad and asked him to join the peace conference in Geneva to recover the Golan Heights, but he refused and attacked him alongside the rest of the Arab rulers. They accused the Egyptian president of treachery after he visited Israel and gave a speech in the Knesset (parliament). The Arab countries boycotted Egypt, suspended its membership of the Arab League, and moved their headquarters to Tunisia. Fifty years later, they are following the same path that they had refused to follow with Sadat, to be a strong front in negotiations with Israel instead of going individually and being cornered. Despite being the "steadfastness and confrontation front" against Sadat, we did not see any liberation from them. Now, after almost half a century, they are rushing to Israel's doorstep to collect some crumbs off the Zionist table. Israel, of course, annexed Jerusalem and made it the "undivided" capital of the occupation state, just as it annexed the Syrian Golan Heights.

Ever since the peace treaties were signed, Israel has been gloating that the Egyptian armed forces were not able to liberate Sinai completely, just a few kilometres, and Egypt was forced to negotiate and make peace to recover the whole peninsula. "The Arabs learned their lesson that Israel is good at fighting and that they can get nothing from it except through negotiations," is the oft-heard refrain.

Unfortunately, today's Arab Zionists identify with this speech. When they talk about the wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, they do not refer to it as an enemy, simply the other party or side. More unfortunate still, the official and media discourse on the anniversary of the October War avoids mentioning Israel, the enemy that occupied our land and against whom we fought a war and won. It's almost as if we defeated an imaginary entity, or an unidentified enemy that was occupying our land. This of course aims to erase Israel as the enemy in the Arab consciousness, in line with the normalisation path followed by Arab governments.

This is a major crime against the nation and its peoples, its history of struggle, its military heroism, its national security and its greater interests. It also breaks nations, weakens their self-confidence and hits their morale in order to exaggerate the strength of the Zionist enemy. Israel will remain the historical enemy of the nation, no matter how much the Arab rulers cosy up to it, and the Arab people will continue to reject normalisation with the Zionist occupation state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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