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This week in Jewish history | Egypt and Syria launch Yom Kippur War

06 Oct 2020

On 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise coordinated attack against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Caught off guard, the Israeli army quickly tried to mobilize its reservists, as men literally dropped their prayer shawls and prayer books to return to their bases, and from there, to the front lines. In the face of dire news of initial Arab successes in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, the Israeli public prepared itself for a grim outcome and some feared a catastrophic end.

The Yom Kippur war occurred six years after the Six-Day War, when Israel roundly defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and overran the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem.

In 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces vastly outnumbered the Israelis. Along the Suez Canal, around 100,000 Egyptian troops, and over 1,300 tanks faced some 450 Israeli infantrymen scattered among the forward positions. On the Golan Heights, there were 1,400 Syrian tanks ranged against 160 Israeli ones. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and Syrian forces came within sight of the Sea of Galilee. Israeli forces were forced to withdraw from key positions in the Golan Heights after sustaining heavy casualties.

Eventually, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were able to cross the Suez Canal and entrap the Egyptian Third Army. The Syrians were also repelled, and the Israelis wound up within artillery range of the airfields around the Syrian capital of Damascus. On 22 October the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 338, which called for an immediate end to the fighting. The war would continue for several days thereafter, prompting the UN to reiterate the call for a ceasefire with Resolutions 339 and 340 before the war finally ended on 26 October. Despite Israel’s remarkable comeback, the war was largely viewed as a failure by the Israeli public and cost the lives of some 2,680 soldiers and airmen.

The Yom Kippur War dramatically changed the narrative about Israel’s military might and weakened the IDF’s deterrent capability, which had largely resulted from the Six-Day War. Upon the war’s conclusion, Shimon Agranat, the president of the Israeli Supreme Court, was tasked with investigating the military’s lack of preparation for the war. Although the Agranat Commission did absolve Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan of responsibility, the two resigned in 1974 due to widespread public criticism and complaints of glaring intelligence failures. 

Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, the Defense Ministry declassified details of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s testimony to the Agranat Commission. Meir described her concerns leading up to the war and discussions she conducted with the military leadership. She concluded that “the headline for what happened to us on the eve of Yom Kippur would be ‘mistakes.’” 

In a dramatic turn of events in 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel and spoke at the Knesset about achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace deal between the two countries — a move endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. On 17 September 1978, the two leaders signed the Camp David Accords at the White House. The agreement formed the foundation for a comprehensive peace agreement, which would be formalized in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty that provided for a full Israeli withdrawal from the entire the Sinai Peninsula.