In late October 1956, the combined forces of Israel, France, and Britain launched a war against Egypt. They scored quick military successes but were checked by international pressure brought to bear by both the United States and the Soviet Union. The war—known as the Tripartite Aggression—demonstrated Britain’s diminished imperial power, Cairo’s emergence as a symbolic center of Arab resistance, Israel’s natural alliance with fellow colonial states, and the Palestinians’ continued determination to resist their dispossession.
Despite their devastating military and social pulverization in the 1948 War, the Palestinians refused to meekly surrender to the postwar reality. Palestinians who had fled or been forced from their homes during the war made their way back to the lands and family members in Palestine from which they had been separated. Despite a lack of coordination and institutional support, and the brutal and often deadly Israeli attempts to halt or reverse such efforts to return, these returnees increased the Palestinian population inside the post-1948 borders of Israel by as much as 30 percent by the early 1950s. As Israel waged what David Ben-Gurion called the “war on infiltration,” Palestinians began to organize their resistance into paramilitary groups, known as fedayeen, which established themselves around Israel’s borders, with the ultimate goal of reclaiming their rights within their homeland.
Israeli reprisals became increasingly brutal. In August 1953, Israeli forces led by Ariel Sharon attacked al-Bureij refugee camp in Gaza and killed at least 50 Palestinians. Also under Sharon’s command, an Israeli unit raided the West Bank town of Qibya in October 1953, killing sixty-nine men, women, and children. In March 1954, Israeli forces attacked the West Bank village of Nahalin, destroying seven houses, including the village mosque, and killing five Palestinian national guardsmen, three members of Transjordanian Arab Legion, and a Palestinian woman. Throughout 1955 and 1956, Israel launched a number of large-scale attacks on the Gaza Strip, the first of which, in February 1955, took the lives of thirty-eight Palestinians. Still, the Palestinians fedayeen continued their resistance, and in 1955 the Egyptian government began to supervise the training of fedayeen operating out of Gaza and the eastern Sinai.
The desire to punish the fedayeen, combined with the assumption that Egypt was the linchpin whose submission would lead to a broader regional capitulation, led Israel to begin planning for an attack on Egypt. It found allies in France, which had tightened its relationship with Israel after the outbreak of Algeria’s anticolonial war in 1954, and Britain, whose long-standing dominance in Egypt had been shaken by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in 1952.
The Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond it, was central in the lead-up to war. Egyptian-British confrontation over the canal, and Britain’s massive military base there, preceded and precipitated the 1952 Free Officers’ movement that brought Nasser to power. Following the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, Nasser continued to antagonize Britain, France, and the United States through his refusal to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact, his purchase of weapons from the Eastern bloc, his support of Algeria’s anticolonial revolutionaries, and in general his attempt to play cold war powers against each other for his own interests. On 26 July 1956, Nasser announced Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and closed the canal to Israeli shipping.
France and Israel began planning for war against Egypt, and by the end of September the two began to collaborate on drawing up battle plans. Both hoped to involve the British, and a secret meeting held between 22 and 24 October in Sèvres, France, concretized the joint Israeli-French-British political and military plans to overthrow the Nasser regime. Israel was to invade the Sinai, after which Britain and France would intervene and force the two sides to withdraw from the Canal Zone on the pretense of bringing the hostilities to a halt. On 29 October, the Protocol of Sèvres was put into action: Israeli forces occupied the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal, after which Britain and France bombed Cairo and landed troops at the northern end of the canal.
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower applied immediate diplomatic pressure, through the UN and outside it, to bring the conflict to a halt. For his part, USSR Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin sent warning messages to British, French and Israel leaders on 5-6 November. The British government, under significant domestic in addition to international pressure, announced a cease-fire on 6 November. British and French forces withdrew by the end of December 1956, replaced by units from the UN Emergency Force. The Israeli government was resistant to withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza, which it had hoped to annex, but international pressure eventually led to Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip in March 1957.
With the launch of military operations against Egypt, Israel also conducted massacres of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and inside Israel itself. On 29 October 1956, in an attempt to preempt the involvement of Palestinian and Jordanian fighters from the West Bank, Israel imposed a curfew over seven villages, including Kafr Qasim, in the border region known as the Triangle, to begin at 5 p.m. Having not received notice of the curfew starting time until they were already at work, many villagers hastily returned to the village but arrived after curfew and were shot on sight by the Israeli Border Police. In total, 48 Palestinian villagers were murdered, including 6 women and 23 children. On 3 November, under the cover of war, Israeli forces killed 275 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis. After fighting had ended, Israeli forces killed another 110 Palestinians in Rafah, on the Gaza–Egypt border. During its withdrawal from the Sinai, the Israeli military also destroyed infrastructure in the areas it had occupied.
Despite their initial military success, the three aggressors against Egypt suffered a significant diplomatic defeat by the war’s end. The colonial order—exemplified by the British, French, and the young protégé, Israel—was seen as having given way to a new cold war order, in which the United States and the Soviet Union would shape global affairs. One sign of this shift was President Eisenhower’s special message to Congress on 5 January 1957 concerning American readiness to defend the Middle East against any threat from “international communism” (“Eisenhower Doctrine”).
Egypt under Nasser emerged as a leader within the Non-Aligned Movement globally and as an exemplar of Arab nationalist resistance to Israel regionally. This confirmed many Palestinians’ belief that the Arab states would lead them to liberation. At the same time, however, the fedayeen’s localized struggles against Israel’s war on the Palestinian people became increasingly organized, as exemplified by the informal foundation of Fatah—which would become the preeminent Palestinian guerrilla group—in 1957, in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 war.
Khouri, Fred J. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, 3d ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Robinson, Shira. Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Sacco, Joe. Footnotes in Gaza. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.
Shlaim, Avi. “The Protocol of Sèvres, 1956: Anatomy of a War Plot.” International Affairs 73, no.3 (Jul. 1997): 509–530.