The war, which started on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement, was the fiercest Arab-Israeli war since the 1948 War of Independence. Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, catching Israel off guard.​​

 The Yom Kippur War (October 1973)


Long range guns firing at Syrian targets on the northern front (Photo: GPO)

The war was so called because it started on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement (October 6, 1973). It came almost as a complete surprise and warning notice was given too late for an orderly call-up of the reserves before zero hour.

The Egyptians and the Syrians made some significant initial gains: the former crossed the Suez Canal and established themselves along its entire length on the east bank; the latter overran the Golan Heights and came within sight of the Sea of Galilee. However, the wheel turned very quickly. Counterattacking swiftly, sometimes even foolhardily, within a few days the IDF was on the west bank of the Suez Canal, at a distance of 100 kms from the Egyptian capital, Cairo, and within artillery range of the airfields around the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Egypt, which at first had refused a cease-fire, now accepted it avidly, as did Syria. Considering the adverse initial circumstances, the speed and the thoroughness with which the IDF had been able to reverse its fortunes was remarkable. Yet the Yom Kippur War went down in Israel’s history as a qualified failure. The surprise rankled; and the cost was heavy: 2,688 soldiers fell.

Intelligence was faulted for failing to sound the alarm in time – the Chief of Staff, David (Dado) Elazar and his Chief of Intelligence had to resign. Too many airplanes were lost to Russian-made SAM-missiles. Some experts reached the sweeping conclusion that the tank had seen its day, in view of its vulnerability to Sagger missiles and infantry-operated RPGs. Of 265 Israeli tanks in the first echelon, only 100 survived.

The branch that distinguished itself during the Yom Kippur War was the Navy, which only now came of age: without a single loss of its own, it had sunk 34 enemy vessels; had secured the coasts of the country; and had succeeded in restricting the enemy to his bases. This was indeed the Navy’s War.

The IDF deterrent capacity had been weakened as a result of the war. It was, however, partially restored in a spectacular and successful operation: the Entebbe Raid of 1976 – renamed Operation Jonathan, after the young commander of the ground forces who was its only military casualty. The Jewish and Israeli passengers of a hijacked Air France liner – carefully selected by the hijackers – were rescued from the hands of a German group of terrorists, in far-away Uganda. The resourcefulness and daring of the operation – down to transportation by plane of a black Mercedes of the sort used by Uganda’s dictator, to confuse the enemy – aroused the imagination of the world.

The Yom Kippur War was followed by a series of Separation-of-Forces Agreements with Egypt and Syria. These envisaged a strip of territory in which no troops would be allowed, backed by another strip, where the presence of troops was carefully restricted.

The agreement with Syria is still in force and UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, is still there to supervise its implementation. The agreement with Egypt has been replaced – after lengthy negotiations which began with the dramatic visit to Jerusalem of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (November 1977) – by the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the first to be signed between Israel and one, the most important, of its Arab neighbors. It was based on the withdrawal of Israel from the whole of the Sinai peninsula and its demilitarization in return for full recognition of Israel by Egypt and establishment of embassies and full trade and tourist relations.

The Palestinian terrorist organisations again came to the fore. They were able to establish their bases in Lebanon. Not that Lebanon was more hostile to Israel than other Arab countries, on the contrary; but the central government of Lebanon was too weak to prevent the establishment of "a state within a state". After a particularly bloody terrorist raid on two civilian passenger buses travelling on the coastal road near Tel Aviv, which resulted in 37 killed and 76 wounded (March 1978), the IDF undertook a swift operation: Operation Litani (March 1978) against terrorist bases in Lebanon. Its impact, however, did not last very long.

From "The Arab-Israeli Wars" by Netanel Lorch