Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Setting the stage

By Gamal Hammad *

Gamal Hammad

Gamal Hammad

In the wake of defeat in the 1967 War, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser outlined Egypt's primary political and military objective as "liquidating the consequences of the [Israeli] aggression". Devolving from this objective was the working target of the Egyptian armed forces -- to liberate the occupied territory. President Abdel-Nasser specified a time-frame of three to four years to achieve this goal.

Military strategic planning towards this objective comprised three major phases prior to the war of liberation: steadfastness, active defence and war of attrition.

In the phase of steadfastness, which lasted 14 months, from July 1967 to August 1968, the armed forces were entirely overhauled from top to bottom. This period saw three engagements with the enemy: the Battle of Ras El-Ish on 1 July 1967, an air skirmish on 14 and 15 July 1967 and the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat on 21 October 1967. The results of these engagements far exceeded the material losses inflicted upon the enemy. They contributed greatly to lifting the morale of the armed forces and of the Egyptian and Arab peoples.

The second phase, active defence, lasted from September 1968 to February 1969. During this six-month period attention was focused primarily on safeguarding our armed forces from surprise attacks. The main means employed was intelligence gathering, but it was also necessary to conduct some interceptive operations both to harass the enemy and to break the barrier of fear that inhibited the Egyptian soldier. Armed patrols were sent on guerrilla-type missions on the east bank of the canal, conducting minor night raids or laying ambushes on roads.

The War of Attrition lasted 17 months, from March 1969 to August 1970. This phase saw an escalation in scale from individual missions to carefully prepared operations with specific tactical and strategic objectives. There was a gradual increase in intensity both along the front and in the interior, particularly once the air forces of both sides were brought into action. The fighting during this phase continued unabated until the internationally-sponsored cease-fire was declared on 8 August 1970.

The War of Attrition was a declaration to the world that Egypt refused to admit defeat and a warning to Israel that it would have to pay a heavy price for its occupation of part of the nation's territory. As such it was very effective. It was a powerful means of exerting psychological pressure, as well as forcing Israel to maintain high levels of military mobilisation and expenditure.

The last year of the War of Attrition was the most dangerous period for Egypt. Israel engaged its air force intensively, threatening the Egyptian interior. The bombing of the Abu Zaabal factory and the Bahr El-Baqar elementary school, the two Israeli operations that stand out during this time, were instrumental in strengthening Egyptian resolve to establish a wall of anti-aircraft missiles along the canal. Thus, in July 1970, Egyptian air defence was able to down 15 Phantom planes and a Skyhawk and capture five Israeli pilots.

* Maj. Gen. [retr'd] Gamal Hammad is a military historian.