Israel’s Early Years
In Israel’s early years, the economic strain caused by the War of Independence and the need to provide for a rapidly growing, primarily immigrant population required austerity and rationing at home and financial aid from abroad.
Assistance extended by the U.S. government, loans from U.S. banks, contributions of Diaspora Jews, and postwar German reparations were all used to build housing, mechanize agriculture, set up a merchant fleet and a national airline, exploit available minerals, develop industries, and expand roads, telecommunications, and electricity networks.
Toward the end of Israel’s first decade, the output of industry had doubled, as did the number of employed persons, with industrial exports increasing fourfold. The vast expansion of agriculture had brought about self-sufficiency in the supply of basic food products except meat and grains, and the area under cultivation increased dramatically.
During this time, native-born Israelis began to use the nickname sabra (literally, “prickly pear” in Hebrew)—tough on the outside (enabling survival in a harsh environment against enemies sworn to their demise) and soft and sweet on the inside.
The educational system was greatly expanded. School attendance became free and compulsory for all children between the ages of five and 14. cultural and artistic activity flourished, blending Middle Eastern and Western elements, as immigrant Jews arriving from all parts of the world brought with them the unique traditions of their own communities as well as those of the culture prevailing in the countries where they had lived for generations.
When Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president died in 1952, he was replaced by Itzhak Ben-Zvi, who served until his death in 1963. David Ben-Gurion remained prime minister until December 1953, when he temporarily retired to a kibbutz in the Negev desert area to serve as an example to Israeli youth. Foreign minister Moshe Sharett then became prime minister.
Ben-Gurion returned to the government as defense minister in February 1955 and eight months later regained the post of the prime minister, which he continued to hold until 1963. Despite crises in the governing coalition and frequent political party splits and mergers, Israel’s political system and government were remarkably stable.
Tension and Conflict with the Arabs
The armistice agreements of 1949 were not followed by comprehensive peace as intended. In general, the Arab states refused to accept their defeat, continued to regard the establishment of Israel as an injustice to be corrected, and sustained a political and economic boycott of Israel. While Israel was engaged in state-building, these efforts were overshadowed by growing and serious security problems.
The armistice agreements often were violated by the Arab states, as was a United Nations Security Council resolution of September 1, 1951, that called for Israeli and Israel-bound shipping to pass through the Suez Canal connecting the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. An Egyptian blockade of the Strait of Tiran was sustained, thus preventing shipping to and from Israel’s port city of Eilat, the country’s gateway to East Africa and the Far East. Terrorist groups engaged in sabotage and murder and launched raids into Israel from neighboring Arab states.
Following the signing of the armistice agreements in 1949, the Arab states maintained a policy of isolating Israel and of focusing their rhetoric on a “second round” of war. There was an increase in attacks against Israel, leading in 1951 to more than 150 Israelis killed or wounded, the worst attacks originating in the Gaza Strip. Israel adopted an active strategy, including a campaign of reprisal raids.
These raids had early failures, and reprisals helped little in reducing the threat of infiltrating terrorists. But planning continued, and the Israelis contemplated the occupation of Gaza, which would deny the Arabs a launching pad from which to attack Israeli population centers. The IDF created an elite force of paratroop commandos, known as Unit 101, to launch a campaign of reprisal raids into enemy territory in an effort to halt the attacks on Israel. Ariel Sharon became the commander of these special forces.
Tensions rose on Israel’s borders as Palestinians, often accompanied by other Arabs, began infiltrating into Israel from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and attacking people and property. Israel held the Arab governments responsible and launched retaliatory raids. The ensuing cycle of violence, in which Israeli and Arab civilians and soldiers were killed, escalated and encompassed Syria as well. conflicts also arose over control of DMZs along the frontiers and over projects to divert the Jordan river water for use in Israel’s more arid sectors.
In the years immediately following the 1952 Egyptian revolution, which overthrew King Farouk and brought Gamal Abdul Nasser to power, the new government continued its opposition to Israel’s existence and built its military capability. The threat to Israel grew as the Arab states established military alliances and linkages. Tensions continued to increase, and the situation was exacerbated by external arms supplies. on February 28, 1955, Israeli forces launched a raid against an Egyptian army base in the Gaza Strip.
President Nasser later argued that this raid prompted him to organize Palestinian fedayeen (Arab commando) operations against Israel. He also intensified efforts to build a strong military and to acquire arms from outside sources. Egypt concluded an arms deal with czechoslovakia (acting for the Soviet Union) to enhance its military strength that was announced on September 27, 1955. Israel found these developments, along with Nasser’s emergence as the leader of an Arab nationalist movement, threatening.
As the fedayeen actions became bolder and more Israelis were killed, Israel sought to negatively affect Egypt’s relations with the United States and Great Britain by bombing U.S. installations in Egypt in 1954 and trying to place the blame on Egypt. This would later become known as the Lavon Affair, when it was uncovered during a 1960 investigation. Israel also contemplated striking deeper into Egypt than Gaza, using a force large enough to deny the Egyptians their base of operations in the Sinai Peninsula as a whole.
By mid-1955, with the return of Ben-Gurion to the cabinet and the decline in fortunes of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, who advocated a more restrained Israeli retaliatory policy, the Israeli government moved toward war. Ben-Gurion had already decided that a war was inevitable, and on october 2, 1955, ordered the IDF chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, to prepare for a major military action. The first step was to test new tactics in an operation against Egyptian forces that had occupied the al-Auja DMZ. Unit 101, the commando/paratroops unit under Sharon, operated in coordination with regular army forces to attack and evict Egyptian forces with minimal casualties.
Nasser, nevertheless, continued to pose a threat to Israel, as well as to European nations such as Great Britain—whose presence in Egypt, especially in the Suez canal Zone, he hoped to bring to an end—and France, which had colonies in North Africa. In July 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez canal and other British and French properties in Egypt creating a congruence of interests between Israel and these two European states.
By october 1956, fedayeen raids had reached an all-time high in both violence and intensity, and the Israeli reprisals had not succeeded in preventing new ones. The Israeli objectives thus became to relieve the Egyptian stranglehold over Israel’s sea routes via the Suez canal and the Strait of Tiran to Israel and to counter Egypt’s threat by fedayeen and rearmed Egyptian forces against it on its western borders in both the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. A regime change in Egypt that would bring a less bellicose neighbor was also a desired objective.
By late october, Britain and France had agreed with Israel to launch a coordinated action against Nasser’s Egypt. The arrangement was that Israeli forces would invade the Sinai Peninsula, followed by an AngloFrench ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt to agree immediately to a cease-fire while Anglo-French troops seized the canal, ostensibly to protect it. It was anticipated that this would ensure the safety of the Suez canal, lead to the ouster of Nasser, and reduce the threat to Israel from the largest Arab state.