Soldiers Guarding Egyptian Prisoners on November 13, 1956 in Port Fouad (AFP)

The Suez canal was originally run by a French and English conglomerate but was nationalized and incorporated into an Egyptian Charter company. It became strategically important as it provided the shortest route between the Mediterranean Sea and The Indian ocean.

The canal eased commerce for trading nations and became a significant transport route for oil during the Second World War. After the war, the British installed forces in the Suez region which created tensions within Egypt, which at the time was under the rule of President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Nasser had one goal in mind which was for Egypt to fill a void he believed existed after the Ottoman Empire fell, to become the leader of the Muslim world, something most Arab states did not want as they found independence from a Caliphate to be more rewarding. Meanwhile, the cold war ensued and many of the world superpowers desired control of the Middle East and were competing for Nasser’s friendship which Nasser played to his advantage. To prove his strength in fulfilling his dream of rebuilding a Caliphate, Nasser really wanted to purchase modern weapons that would serve to show the Arab world his power.

Understanding the danger of allowing some weapon systems into the hands of a dictator, the United States refused Nasser's request. The Soviet Union saw an opportunity to gain a foothold in the region with what they thought was a major player, agreed. This triggered rage in the West and marked a milestone of Soviet influence in the Middle East that would include a misinformation campaign that would lead to the creation of a 'Palestinian Nation' of Arabs that until this point, had never existed. 

Meanwhile, Nasser desperately wanted to make peace with Israel to prevent cross-border attacks. However, Israel's Unit 101, a clandestine commando unit formed in 1953 at the request of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and headed by future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, still proceeded to conduct raids. The unit was created to combat infiltrations from Egypt and Jordan that was common after the 1948 war of independence. Instead of waiting for these incursions, Unit 101 was proactive and relied on intelligence about impending attacks, and acted before it came to Israel's border which posed a political problem for Nasser who was viewed as weak, which undermined his desire to rule the Arab world. Nasser felt that peace with Israel would show strength but he never was able to get that far.

As a result of his acquisition of Soviet weapons systems and his desire for more, the goal of most Western countries and the surrounding European nations was to remove Nasser from power. They ran clandestine operations meant to undermine Nasser within Egypt and turn the people against him. Meanwhile, Israel was also deeply troubled by the Egyptian purchases of Soviet arms and systems. Despite being a socialist society with many communist elements, THe Soviet Union was seen as a threat due to their banning of religion and the treatment of Jews within the Iron Curtain. After a shipment of missiles was delivered to Egypt, the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff advised Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to attack Egypt and enlisted the help of France in order to do so.

In 1956 Israel and France began planning a joint war effort against Egypt, however, fearing how it would be viewed by the Arab partners they installed when they divided up the Ottoman land, the British were opposed to Israel being involved. essentially, England had carved up the Arab world and installed its allies as rulers of much of the Middle East. They felt the optics of them allowing the Jewish state, the one thing that had unified the Arab world against since the end of World War Two, to attack A country with the status of Egypt would undermine those relationships. Eventually, France which carved up the African part of the Ottoman Arab world convinced England to allow Israel to join the operation as an ally, against Egyptian forces arguing that Israeli deaths in the conflict would be more palatable than British soldiers dying to the British public.

Meanwhile, Israel had been planning 'Operation Kadesh', which involved the invasion of Sinai and securing Egyptian airspace dominance. Before the French and British troops could organize and move into the region, in October 1956, Israel intercepted and destroyed an Egyptian convoy that killed 16 senior Egyptian officers.  In tandem to the convoy attack, Israel launched a series of attacks all over Sinai and had made significant advances into the territory. 

After an extensive and lopsided battle that saw over 3000 Egyptian soldiers killed, and 4000 injured compared to 172 Israeli deaths and 817 injuries, a ceasefire came into effect. Had France and England not intervened, Israel could have easily marched on Cairo which they were prepared to do. The effort to take control of Gaza, the Suez Canal, and parts of Sinai was successful from the Israeli point of view. Ultimately, deferring to France and England so as not to cause instability in the wider Arab world, Israel allowed Egypt to maintain control of the Suez Canal. The operation solidified Israel’s reputation as the strongest military power in the Middle East capable of executing large-scale operations.

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