Israeli paratroopers dig in near the Parker Memorial.
On Monday, October 29, 1956, at 4:59 P.M., Major Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan jumped from a Dakota plane in Western Sinai and kicked off the Kadesh mission.
Three hundred ninety-four paratroopers jumped after him from sixteen aircraft. They had been preceded, two hours earlier, by two Mustang aircraft that had torn surface phone lines over Sinai with their propellers and wings, in order to disrupt the Egyptian communications systems.
In Tel Aviv, Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan dispatched an official communique to Kol Israel radio:
“The IDF spokesman announces that IDF forces entered and attacked Fedayeen units at Ras el Nakeb and Kuntila and took positions in proximity to the Suez Canal.”
The paratroopers’ drop, close to the Suez Canal, deep in Egyptian territory, was the opening shot of the Sinai campaign and the conclusion of a top-secret political operation with Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres as the main players.
In September 1955, Israel had suffered a painful blow when the Soviet Union, using Czechoslovakia as a proxy, concluded a huge arms deal with Egypt. The USSR was going to supply Egypt with about 200 MiG-15 jet fighters and Ilyushin ll-28 bombers, and training and cargo planes; 230 tanks; 200 armored troop carriers; 600 cannons; and various naval vessels—torpedo boats, destroyers and 6 submarines. The weapons Egypt was about to receive were of unprecedented quality and quantity. With them, the balance of power in the Middle East could collapse, and Israel risked losing its deterrent power, the guarantee for its existence. Another reason for worry was the establishment of a joint Egyptian-Syrian military command.
A wave of anxiety swept Israel. She had only thirty jet fighters. The numbers of her tanks, troop carriers and cannons were ridiculous when compared to what Egypt was about to receive. Distraught Israelis spontaneously donated money, jewelry and property deeds to a “defense fund” created for the purchase of weapons. Fiery Ben-Gurion wanted to launch an attack on Egypt immediately. Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, however, dovish and moderate, defeated his motion in a cabinet vote. A few months later, Ben-Gurion hit back by removing Sharett from the cabinet and appointing a new foreign minister—hawkish Golda Meir.
In the meantime, Shimon Peres invested tremendous effort in establishing an alliance between France and Israel. And in spite of the criticism, even the mockery, in government circles at home, his efforts in France bore fruit: he succeeded in obtaining large quantities of weapons and in establishing relations of trust and friendship with French cabinet ministers, army officers and members of parliament. In June 1956, Israel signed the Ge’ut (“High Tide”) deal with France for a massive supply of weapons to Israel.
A month later, in a surprise move, Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. France and Great Britain, the main holders of Suez Canal stock, immediately started planning a military operation against Egypt, to bring the canal back under their power. French and British generals debated successive invasion plans in a World War II bunker under the Thames. Soon the French leaders realized that the British wouldn’t attack Egypt without a solid pretext. Therefore, they turned to Israel.
Shortly before sunset on October 22, 1956, several cars stopped by a secluded villa in Sevres, a Parisian suburb. The passengers furtively slipped into the house gates. These were French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, Foreign Minister Christian Pineau, Defense Minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, the army chief of staff, and several high-ranking generals. Their secret guests, who had arrived by special plane, were Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, hiding his distinctive shock of white hair under a wide-brimmed hat; General Moshe Dayan, concealing his black eye patch under large sunglasses; and Shimon Peres. The two delegations met in a cordial atmosphere. Later in the evening, though, they were joined by British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd.
With Lloyd’s arrival, a cold wind seemed to penetrate the villa. The British foreign secretary apparently couldn’t forget that only eight years before, Britain was still the ruler of Palestine and Ben-Gurion was its most formidable opponent. “Britain’s Foreign Secretary may well have been a friendly man, pleasant, charming, amiable,” Dayan wrote. “If so, he showed near-genius in concealing these virtues. His whole demeanor expressed distaste—for the place, the company and the topic.”
But Lloyd was there—and the most secret summit after World War II was under way.
After a first round of talks that continued into the night, Lloyd left to report to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. “It seems that Lloyd didn’t fall in love with Ben-Gurion,” Peres noted that night, “but there is no doubt at all that this feeling was mutual from the moment they met.”
The conference continued the following day. Several ideas about an action that could justify an Anglo-French intervention were discussed. The various ploys were rejected, one after the other. The French and the British suggested that Israel attack Egypt, conquer the Sinai Peninsula and create a threat to the Suez Canal; France and Great Britain would then intervene to “protect” the canal from the fighting forces.
But Ben-Gurion refused to launch an all-out war against Egypt, just to provide France and Britain with a pretext; he also feared that Israel would have to carry the brunt of such a war on her frail shoulders for several days, perhaps a week, until the Franco-British invasion started.
The following day, while the French and the Israelis were having lunch, General Maurice Challe, the French deputy chief of staff, asked to speak. He suggested that the Israeli Air Force stage an attack on Be’er Sheva and bomb the city. Egypt would be accused, and the Anglo-French forces would intervene immediately. Ben-Gurion, his face flushed with fury, jumped from his seat. “Israel is strong because she fights for a just cause,” he said. “I shall not lie, either to the world public opinion or to anybody else.” In the sepulchral silence that settled over the room Challe sat down, his face red with embarrassment. The others buried their noses in their plates. The conference seemed about to collapse.
And then Moshe Dayan conceived the magical formula.
Dayan, born in kibbutz Degania, raised in the cooperative village of Nahalal, was a charismatic Israeli hero. A member of the Haganah—the Jewish defense organization under the British mandate—he had grown up among Nahalal’s Arab neighbors, knew them well and respected them. In War World II he had participated in a British patrol operating against the French Vichy forces in Lebanon. An enemy sniper’s bullet shattered his binoculars, driving the eye piece into his left eye socket. The eye was lost but the pirate patch that replaced it made the face of Dayan famous all over Israel and later the world. A gifted orator, a lover of poetry, an amateur archaeologist and a womanizer, he also was a fearless warrior. As chief of staff he transformed the IDF into a lean, tough force and commanded the reprisal raids against Israel’s restive enemies. Yet, he soon realized that reprisals could not solve the growing tension between Israel and her neighbors, especially Egypt. He supported the idea of attacking Egypt before it mastered the massive influx of arms from the Soviet bloc and was a willing participant in the Sevres conference.
Ben-Gurion, however, kept refusing to launch an all-out war against Egypt. So how to start a war without starting a war? At that crucial moment, when the entire conference depended on a solution to the pretext dilemma, Dayan came up with a plan.
Let’s start the war from the end, Dayan said. He suggested parachuting a small Israeli force into the Sinai, about thirty miles east of the Suez Canal, creating an apparent threat on the waterway. France and Great Britain would declare the canal in danger and dispatch ultimata to Egypt and Israel to retreat to new lines, ten miles on each side of the canal. That meant that Egypt would be asked to evacuate the entire Sinai Peninsula, allowing Israel to conquer it and reach the vicinity of the canal. Israel would accept the ultimatum, while Egypt would certainly reject it. That would be the pretext for the French and the British to launch their military operation against Egypt thirty-six hours after the Israelis.
Ben-Gurion hesitated, but after a sleepless night accepted Dayan’s plan. When meeting with Dayan and Peres in the villa garden the following morning, he asked Dayan to draw the projected campaign for him. Nobody had any paper, so Peres tore his cigarette pack, and Dayan sketched on it the Sinai Peninsula; a dotted line represented the flight of the planes that would drop the paratroopers, and three arrows showed the main axes of the subsequent Israeli offensive. Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres signed, laughing, the small piece of cardboard, and it became the first map of the Sinai campaign.
Back in the villa, Dayan’s plan was unanimously adopted and on October 24 a secret agreement was signed among France, Great Britain and Israel. On his return to Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion called a cabinet meeting. He didn’t tell the ministers about his trip to France or the agreement they had made, a copy of which he carried in his breast pocket. Yet, he obtained the cabinet consent for an operation against Egypt. As always when in a state of utter tension, Ben-Gurion fell sick with high fever. But that night Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion’s staunch rival, was invited to Ben-Gurion’s home for the first time in his life. While Begin sat on a stool beside Ben-Gurion’s cot, the Old Man described the decision to go to war, and Begin congratulated him warmly.
On October 29, Raful Eitan and his paratroopers jumped deep behind enemy lines, reached their destination and dug in for the night. In the wee hours, Israeli aircraft parachuted jeeps, recoilless guns and heavy mortars.
While Raful’s men were still in the air, Arik Sharon crossed the Egyptian border with the paratrooper brigade, riding armored troop carriers and reinforced by AMX tanks. The column advanced through Sinai, conquering several Egyptian fortresses in fierce battles and after thirty hours approached Raful’s compound.
While waiting for Arik, Raful jokingly prepared a cardboard sign: STOP! FRONTIER AHEAD! Shortly after 10:00 P.M., on October 30, the armored column reached the sign. Davidi and Sharon, covered with fine desert dust, jumped from their jeeps and hugged Raful. The mission was accomplished.
Or so it seemed. Sharon had other thoughts. In the last two years he had turned the paratrooper corps into an elite commando unit that had carried out most of the reprisal raids against Israel’s neighbors. Theprice had been heavy—many of the best fighters had been killed and Meir Har-Zion himself had almost died during the al Rahwa raid in September 1956. A bullet had blasted his throat and he was choking to death when the unit doctor, Maurice Ankelevitz, drew a pocketknife, stuck it in his windpipe, performing an improvised tracheotomy under fire, and saved his life.
Yet, in spite of the wounded and the dead, the paratrooper corps was submerged by a wave of volunteers, most of them members of kibbutz and moshav agricultural settlements. The battalion became a brigade. Sharon, now a lieutenant colonel, had become the best fighter in the IDF. Dayan liked him and Ben-Gurion admired his fighting skills, even though he criticized his integrity. On October 30, 1956, Sharon was, as always, hungry for battle.
He had barely finished hugging Raful when he decided to conquer the famous Mitla Pass—a winding canyon road in the nearby mountain ridge—and be the first to reach the canal with his paratroopers.