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50 years later, looking back at what led up to the Yom Kippur War

Part 1 of a series highlighting significant moments in that fateful war in 1973

IDF military parade during Independence Day celebrations on May 7, 1973 (Photo: Central Zionist Archives, PHKH/128915)

The year 1973 was significant in Israel’s young history. 

That spring, the nation commemorated its 25th anniversary with a mighty celebration of its Independence Day. Five years had passed since Israel’s last military parade, following its victory in the Six-Day War of 1967

On May 7, 1973, the commemorative parade also served as a prime opportunity to showcase the nation’s military innovations and capabilities. 

The parade featuring more than 400 Israeli Defense Force tanks and heavy weapons wove through the streets of Jerusalem for more than six miles. More than 300,000 Israelis were in attendance, including more than 50,000 who sat in the East Jerusalem grandstands. 

Overhead the Israel Air Force awed the crowds with flyovers, breathtakingly-close acrobatics, including a pass-over formation in the shape of the Star of David.

The parade’s success was the result of nine months of planning and preparing, however, the decision to hold a massive display of Israel’s military power was not made without controversy. Even during the initial cabinet vote, several members were wary of the perceptions and potential dangers the spectacle could project. 

While the Israeli military was established as a defensive force, it was argued that a large display of soldiers and military weapons could lead to others viewing Israel as a militaristic state. 

Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War led many strategists to believe the nation had reached a turning point in its standing in the Middle East. The Jewish state's military strength had proven worthy, and most Israelis looked forward to a time of negotiating peace with Arab nations. The war had enabled Israel to expand its borders and secure a protective buffer zone in the Sinai Desert. Yet, even this protective area proved to remain a target in the ensuing months of the war. 

As early as July 1, 1967, Egyptian Ground Forces units sporadically opened fire to harass and provoke Israeli patrols along the Suez Canal. The ongoing Egyptian military provocations throughout the summer of 1967 necessitated responsive actions to be taken by the Israel Air Force and Navy. Known as the War of Attrition, Egyptian hostilities followed an ebb and flow of increased violence pocketed with moments of lull in action. 

Over the subsequent three years, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser directed a sustained, yet low-keyed, campaign against Israel’s southern border. Such offensive actions were only made possible through Soviet involvement and supplies. 

Despite the increase in foreign military aid, the War of Attrition proved devastating to the Egyptian economy. Furthermore, the inability of the Egyptian army to effectively utilize modern Soviet weapons against Israeli forces proved an embarrassment to the Soviet Union. As a result, more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers were sent to Egypt. 

By the summer of 1970, Soviet involvement in the conflict along the Suez had increased to the point of implementing SAM-2 batteries and Soviet-piloted MiG-21s over Egypt. After heavy losses suffered by Egyptian and Soviet militaries, as well as the threat of U.S. involvement, President Nasser took the world by surprise when he suddenly agreed to the terms of the U.S.-led ceasefire, known as the Rogers Plan, or Deep Strike, a framework proposed in 1969 by then-U.S. State Secretary William P. Rogers.

In retrospect, it is glaringly clear that Nasser’s acceptance of a ceasefire served as critical cover for the Egyptians to install forward missile sites near the canal. Had the Egyptian president lived beyond Sept. 28, 1970, it is likely that Egypt's treaty violations would have continued in order to expedite the movement of missiles and troops to the east bank of the Suez Canal. 

With Nasser’s death came significant changes to Egyptian military and political strategies. 

Under the leadership of the new Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the ceasefire continued for more than three years, instead of three months. 

Despite Sadat’s promise that 1971 would be a year of great decision, the attempt to reclaim Egypt’s honor and the Sinai, no action was taken. Furthermore, based on the abysmal results of the War of Attrition, evidence pointed to Egypt’s inability to attempt another large-scale assault in the Sinai. Such an attack could not take place until Egypt was able to secure greater numbers and a variety of military aircraft. 

British, American and Israeli estimates suggested the Egyptian Army could not be outfitted for a full-scale offensive until at least 1975. As a result, both U.S. and Israeli intelligence exhibited a more moderate, lax attitude in response to threats imposed by Egypt. This held true throughout the first half of 1973, particularly following the uncontested success of Israel’s 1973 Independence Day parade and celebration. 

Though an educator for more than twenty years, following her return to school to earn a master’s degree in military history at Norwich University, Tara Simpson began working as a freelance writer for both the Stars and Stripes newspaper and ABC-CLIO reference publications. Inspired by her grandparents’ service in World War II and beyond, Tara has specialized in research and writing on early twentieth century military history for over a decade. She is now as a Doctoral student at Liberty University with her dissertation research focusing on Israel’s early and modern military history.

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