Guardian letter calls ’56 Suez War an ‘unprovoked’ Israeli attack and a ‘war crime’

There are many reasonable criticisms of British and French involvement in the war, but to characterize the military action to end an illegal blockade of Israeli ships as an “unprovoked” attack is just absurd.

Though much attention has been paid to the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, another anniversary was on the mind of Professor Colin Pritchard: the Suez Campaign of late Oct. to early Nov. 1956.

war-crime

Here’s the letter in full:

Sixty years ago, along with 50,000 troops, I was in Cyprus for our airborne and land invasion of Egypt on 5 November. We had been told that we needed to help little Israel against the bullying tactics of “big” Egypt, and of course we were a generation of young men for whom the Holocaust had real meaning and parallels were drawn between the Egyptian leader, Nasser, and Hitler. Furthermore, we were told we were protecting “our” Suez canal for the world. Hence we all went willingly and, as young men do, with some macho. We believed what we were told and, as there was a censorship from Britain to us, we heard nothing about the political controversy raging in the UK. Hence my surprise on returning to Blighty proud with kitbag and mementos of conflict to be told: “You’re no better than the Nazis.”

It took me 10 years before I learned that the British, French and Israeli governments had arranged for a joint attack on Egypt. Maturity brings reflection and I now appreciate that I was part of a war crime, an unprovoked planned attack. I wonder will today’s servicemen and women have the similar reasons to regret their unquestioning patriotism as active service will have taught them that war brutalises in a week?

Professor Colin Pritchard 
(Former corporal, RAF) Southampton

Leaving aside Pritchard’s bizarre charge that the conflict represented an Israeli, British and French “war crime”, here’s the background he left out:

  • On August 9, 1949, the UN upheld Israel’s complaint that Egypt was illegally blocking the Suez Canal. 
  • In 1951, the UN Security Council ordered Egypt to open the Canal to Israeli shipping. Egypt refused.
  • In 1955, Egypt started importing arms from the Soviets in anticipation of an upcoming confrontation with Israel.
  • In 1956, Egypt blockaded Israel’s shipping lane in the Straits of Tiran and nationalized the Suez Canal.
  • The blockade of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, combined with increased terrorist attacks and bellicose Arab statements [see Nasser’s threats to annihilate Israel] prompted Israel, with the backing of Britain and France, to attack Egypt on October 29, 1956.

The IDF routed the Soviet-backed Egyptian forces and, by the end of the war a week later, had taken control of Gaza and advanced as far as Sharm al-Sheikh. Though Prime Minister Ben-Gurion eventually gave in President Eisenhower’s demands to withdraw their forces, they did achieve part of their objectives with a promise that the US would ensure freedom of navigation in the waterway.

There are many reasonable criticisms of British and French involvement in the war, but to characterize the military action to end an illegal blockade of Israeli ships as an “unprovoked” attack is just absurd. 

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