Bearing Witness

War of Attrition 1968 – 1970

The War of Attrition (Al-Istinsaf) was a limited war fought between Egypt and Israel from 1968 to 1970. It was initiated by Egypt as a way to recapture the Sinai from Israel, which had controlled it since the Six-Day War. The war ended with a ceasefire signed between the countries in 1970 with frontiers at the same place as when the war started.

The war began in June 1968 with sparse Egyptian artillery bombardment of the Israeli front line on the east bank of the canal. More artillery bombardments in the following months killed some Israeli soldiers. IDF’s retaliation came on the night of October 30 when heli-borne commandos destroyed Egypt’s main electricity supply. The blackout caused Nasser to cease hostilities for a few months while fortifications around hundreds of important targets were built. Simultaneously Israel reinforced its position on the east bank of the Suez Canal by constructing the Bar Lev Line, a set of thirty-five small forts running north-south along the canal guarded by infantry.

In February 1969 Egypt was ready for the next round. President Nasser declared the cease-fire from November the previous year to be null and void. On March 8 Egyptian artillery began massive shelling of the Bar Lev Line causing many Israeli casualties. Soviet MiG-21 fighters were also employed in the attack. The IDF retaliated with deep raids into Egyptian territory causing severe damage. In May, June and July 1969, 47 IDF soldiers were killed and 157 wounded. Although Egypt suffered many times more casualties than Israel, Egypt continued with its aggressive stance. Israel managed to sustain the high casualty rate but was hard-pressed to find a definite solution to the conflict.

In July Israel escalated by attacking with the Israeli Air Force (IAF). On July 20 and July 24 almost the whole IAF bombed the northern canal sector destroying anti-aircraft positions, tanks and artillery. The aerial offensive continued until December and reduced Egypt’s anti-aircraft defence to almost nothing. It managed to reduce the artillery bombardment somewhat but shelling with lighter weapons and especially mortars continued.

On October 17, 1969 talks between the Superpowers began. It led to the Rogers plan that was publicized on December 9. It called for Egyptian “commitment to peace” in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. Both parties strongly rejected the plan. President Nasser instead opted to plead for more sophisticated weaponry from the Soviet Union to withstand the IAF’s bombings. The Soviets initially refused to deliver the requested weapons.

On January 22, 1970, President Nasser secretly flew to Moscow to discuss the situation. His request for new SAM batteries (including the 3M9 Kub and Strela-2) were approved. Their deployment would require qualified personnel along with squadrons of aircraft to protect them from Israeli attacks. In effect, he needed Soviet troops in large numbers, something Moscow could not allow. He then threatened to resign, implying that Egypt might turn to Washington for help in the future.

Despite these losses the Soviets and Egyptians managed to press the air defenses closer and closer to the canal. The Soviet operated SAMs shot down a number of Israeli aircraft. Israel could not respond effectively. The SAM batteries would allow Egypt to move in artillery which in turn could threaten the Bar Lev Line. In April 1970 negotiations resumed, this time with the U.S. being the primary negotiator. A cease-fire agreement was reached on August 7. It was to last for three months and neither side was allowed to change “the military status quo within zones extending 50 kilometers to the east and west of the cease-fire line.”

* The above information was obtained at

October 29, 2008 Posted by | History of the Occupation | , , , , , | Leave a comment