War of Attrition

War of Attrition

The War of Attrition (מלחמת ההתשה, حرب الاستنزاف) was a limited war fought between the Israeli military and forces of the Egyptian Republic and the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1967 to 1970. It was initiated by the Egyptians as a way of forcing the Israelis to negotiate on favourable terms the return of the Sinai from the Israelis, who had been in control of the territory since the mid-1967 Six-Day War. This objective was not realized, however, and instead the hostilities ended with a ceasefire signed between the countries in 1970 with frontiers remaining in the same place as when the war began, with no real commitment to serious peace negotiations.

Egyptian Front

The Israel Defense Force's (IDF) unanticipated victory and the Egyptian army's rout during the "Six-Day War" put the Sinai peninsula, up to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, in Israeli hands. Egypt's army, the most powerful in the Arab world, yearned for retaliation. Sporadic clashes were taking place along the cease-fire line, and Egyptian missile boats sank the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat on October 21st of the same year. Egypt began shelling Israeli positions along the Bar Lev Line, making use of heavy artillery, MiG aircraft and various other forms of assistance from the Soviets with the hope of forcing a war-weary Israeli government into making concessions. Israel responded with bombardment and ground raids on Egyptian military positions, aerial raids on strategic facilities in Egypt itself.

The rationale of the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was explained by journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal:

The international community and both countries attempted to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The Jarring Mission of the United Nations was supposed to ensure that the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 242 would be observed, by late 1970, it was clear that this mission had been a failure. Fearing the escalation of the conflict into an "East vs. West" confrontation during the tensions of the mid-Cold War, the American President, Richard Nixon, sent his Secretary of State, William Rogers, to formulate the Rogers Plan in view of obtaining a ceasefire. In August of 1970, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt agreed to a ceasefire under the terms proposed by the Rogers Plan. The plan contained restrictions on missile deployment by both sides, and required the cessation of raids as a precondition for peace. The Egyptians and their Soviet allies rekindled the conflict by violating the agreement shortly thereafter, moving their missiles near to the Suez Canal, and constructing the largest anti-aircraft system yet implemented at that point in history.

The Israelis responded with a policy which their Prime Minister, Golda Meir, dubbed “asymmetrical response,” wherein Israeli retaliation was disproportionately large in comparison to any Egyptian attacks. The strategy worked, as it showed Israel's willingness to sustain losses, and its ability to inflict greater casualties, proportionally, against Egypt and its Soviet allies. Following Nasser’s death in September 1970, his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, ceased open hostilities with Israel, focusing instead on rebuilding the Egyptian army and planning a full-scale attack on Israeli forces across the Suez Canal. The military crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian Forces took place three years later and was a complete success, and was the trigger for the fourth Arab-Israeli war, known by the Arabs as the October War or by the Israelis as the Yom Kippur War. This war was ultimately also a political success for Sadat, despite Egyptian military setbacks that occurred after the initial successful crossing, as it forced the Israelis to the negotiating table, after withdrawing all their forces from the east bank of the Suez Canal, months after the war, in 1974. Ultimately, Sinai would return to Egypt.

Jordan and the PLO

Following the Six-Day War of 1967, a wave of Palestinian refugees entered Jordan, further strengthening the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which was already powerful in Jordan at the time. King Hussein’s agreement to the Rogers Plan upset the PLO, as it constituted official recognition of the State of Israel, in breach of the terms of a prior arrangement, the Khartoum Resolution. Consequently, the PLO began fighting against the Jordanian government, and engaged in a series of terrorist attacks against Israel, including plane hijackings and the infamous "Munich Massacre" during the 1972 Summer Olympics. The Syrian Arab Republic provided aid to the PLO against the Jordanian government, but Israel, by positioning troops along the Jordan River, appeared to preempt a Syrian incursion into Jordanian territory by threatening a retaliatory invasion. This is believed by many to have averted direct Syrian involvement in the conflict. With American and Israeli assistance, the Jordanian King expelled the PLO from Jordan during 1970, in what would become known as "Black September". With the PLO expelled to Lebanon, the Jordanian front of the War of Attrition was closed.


July 1, 1967: Egyptian Army artillery fires on an Israeli armored infantry company near the Suez Canal. The Israeli unit commander is killed and thirteen Israeli troops are wounded .

October 21, 1967: Egyptian naval forces sink the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat, killing forty-seven.

June of 1968: The war "officially" begins, with sparse Egyptian artillery bombardment of the Israeli front line on the east bank of the Suez Canal. More artillery bombardments in the following months kill Israeli soldiers.

October 30, 1968: Israeli heli-borne commandos ("Sayeret Matkal") destroy Egypt's main electricity supply. The blackout causes Nasser to cease hostilities for a few months while fortifications around hundreds of important targets are built. Simultaneously, Israel reinforces its position on the east bank of the Suez Canal by construction of "the Bar Lev Line".

March 3, 1969: Nasser officially voids the ceasefire of October 1968.

March 8, 1969: Egyptian artillery begins massive shelling of the Bar Lev Line resulting in many Israeli casualties. Soviet MiG-21 fighters are employed in the attack. The IDF retaliates with deep raids into Egyptian territory, causing severe damage.

May-July 1969: Forty-seven IDF soldiers are killed and one-hundred and fifty-seven wounded. Although Egypt suffers many times more casualties than Israel, it continues its aggressive stance. Israel manages to sustain the high casualty rate but is hard-pressed to find a definite solution to the conflict.

July 20, 1969 and July 24, 1969: Nearly the entire Israeli Air Force (IAF) bombs the northern Canal sector, destroying anti-aircraft positions, tanks and artillery. The aerial offensive continues until December and reduces the Egyptian anti-aircraft defense to almost nothing. It also manages to reduce the artillery bombardment somewhat. However, shelling with lighter weapons, particularly mortars, continues.

October 17, 1969: The USA and USSR begin diplomatic talks to end the conflict.

December 9, 1969: The Rogers Plan is publicized. It calls for Egyptian "commitment to peace" in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. Both parties strongly reject the plan. President Nasser instead opts to plead for more sophisticated weaponry from the Soviet Union to withstand the IAF bombings. The Soviets initially refuse to deliver the requested weapons.

January 22, 1970: President Nasser secretly flies to Moscow to discuss the situation. His request for new SAM batteries (including the 3M9 Kub and Strela-2) is approved. Their deployment requires qualified personnel along with squadrons of aircraft to protect them. In effect, he needs Soviet troops in large numbers, something the Kremlin did not want to provide. Nasser then threatens to resign, implying that Egypt might turn to Washington for help in the future. The Soviets had Invested heavily in President Nasser's regime, and so, the Soviet leader, General Secretary Brezhnev, finally obliged. The Soviet presence was to increase from 2,500–4,000 in January to 10,600–12,150 (plus 100–150 Soviet pilots) by June 30.

March 15, 1970: The first fully-operational Soviet SAM site in Egypt is completed. It is part of three brigades which the USSR sends to Egypt.

June 30, 1970: Following the Soviets' direct intervention, known as "Operation Kavkaz", Washington fears an escalation and redoubles efforts toward a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

April 8, 1970: Israeli bombardment kills forty-seven Egyptian schoolchildren at an elementary school, putting a definite end to the campaign, the Israelis instead then concentrate upon Canal-side installations. The respite gives the Egyptians time to reconstruct its SAM batteries closer to the canal. Soviet flown MiG-fighters provide the necessary air cover. Soviet pilots also begin approaching IAF aircraft during April 1970, but Israeli pilots have orders not to engage these aircraft, and break off whenever Soviet-piloted MiGs appear.

June 25, 1970: An Israeli A-4 "Skyhawk", in an attack sortie against Egyptian forces on the Canal, is pursued by a pair of Soviet-piloted MiG-21s into the Sinai. The "Skyhawk" is shot down or, according to the Israelis, hit and forced to land at a nearby air base. In response, Israel plans and executes an ambush of Soviet-piloted MiGs.

July 30, 1970: A large-scale dogfight, involving eight to twenty MiG-21s (besides the initial eight, other MiGs are "scrambled", but it is unclear if they reach the battle in time), eight Mirage III and eight F-4 Phantom II jets takes place, west of the Suez Canal. Ambushing their opponents, the Israelis down four Soviet-piloted MiGs, and, according to some sources, a fifth is hit and crashes en route back to its base. Three Soviet pilots are killed, while the IAF suffers no casualties except a damaged Mirage.

Early August, 1970: Despite these losses the Soviets and Egyptians manage to press the air defenses closer and closer to the canal. The Soviet operated SAMs shoot down a number of Israeli aircraft. Israelis do not respond effectively. The SAM batteries allow the Egyptians to move in artillery which in turn threatens the Bar Lev Line.

August 7, 1970: A cease-fire agreement is reached, forbidding either side from changing "the military status quo within zones extending 50 kilometers to the east and west of the cease-fire line." Minutes after the cease-fire, Egypt begins moving SAM batteries into the zone even though the agreement explicitly forbids new military installations. By October there are approximately one-hundred SAM sites in the zone.

September 28, 1970: President Nasser dies of a heart attack, and his Vice President, Anwar al-Sadat, takes the reins. Sadat agrees to end the War of Attrition and almost immediately begins planning for the Yom Kippur War which would take place three years later.


  • Benny Morris. (1999). Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1999. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-42120-3.
  • Bar-Simon Tov, Yaacov. The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 1969–70. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.
  • Chaim Herzog and Shlomo Gazit. The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
  • Whetten, Lawrence L. (1974). The Canal War: Four-Power Conflict in the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  • Rabinovitch. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East.. ISBN 0-8052-4176-0.

See also



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