November 11, 2016

1955. Standoff Between Egypt and Israel

The Arab-Israeli Standoff
Bill Downs (right) preparing for an interview with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954
These reports to Edward R. Murrow in New York were originally written in telegram style:
Bill Downs

CBS Tel Aviv

November 1955

For Murrow et al:

All personal attempts to find any extraordinary evidence of tension among the Jewish people during the Middle East crisis have completely failed.

The surest barometer and worldwide expert on any public psychosis is my good friend and benefactor, a Tel Aviv bartender named Fritz who fled the Nazis. He explained the situation this way: "We all got relatives in the United States and all over the world, so there's a bit of a showdown in the desert. Relatives all write back to Israel and ask us 'Are you tense?' A customer comes in and asks me the same question, then others follow. Now I get tense worrying about whether I really ought to be tense."

As actually happened during the London bombings and the Berlin blockade, the calmest place is where danger is the greatest, and no Israeli ever forgets the spot he's in. The trouble is that he's been living in that spot for eight years, and it takes more than a border skirmish to scare him. As a matter of fact, there was more public concern evident when I was here three months ago and the first fedayeen activity began.

There is general mystification about what Jewish authorities call "Goebbels' big lie technique" in Egypt's tremendous claims of victory in battles which never happened. The public is generally happy that "Nasser wants to fight his battles in Cairo newspapers. It saves us lives and ammunition."

However, Jewish authorities privately express disappointment and worry over Nasser's maneuvering. They recognize Nasser's Communist arms coup as the greatest psychological lift the Arab World has received, possibly surpassing the effects of the ouster of the British from the Suez. They say that if Nasser and the Revolutionary Council feel they are now strong enough to deceive their own people and throw doubts around the rest of the world, then the character of the Egyptian Revolution has completely changed. Some officials earlier expressed frank hopes that the Egyptian Revolution will concentrate on bettering standards and improving the economies of their own people, wherefore eventually Israel and Egypt will come to some settlement. Now they fear Nasser going down a familiar path of dictatorship—using totalitarian arms.

The clearest evidence is that Israel has not suffered any defeat costing two hundred dead, as the Egyptian government claims to its people. This country is so small that even a serious bus accident can cast a pall on the nation. Various communities quietly buried their six dead from the Nitzana action last Wednesday. It would be impossible to conceal two hundred funerals. (Informatively, off the record, United Nations observers say the attack never occurred.)

On the question of tensions, it must be pointed out that the official posture of the Ben-Gurion government is one of no relaxation, and there may be retaliation for yesterday's Egyptian ambush of Israeli patrol, plus retaliation for fedayeen attacks in the North. But the current guess is that Israel will again wait and see if the United Nations can be effective this time.
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Bill Downs

CBS Jerusalem

November 1955

With all of Israel keeping its fingers crossed, there is a high level of speculation here that the Israeli army's November 2 attack in the Sinai Desert at Nitzana might have achieved what Israel retaliatory policy has long aimed for—to convince Arab states that any action against Israel's borders will result in a reaction ten-fold in violence.

The reason for this comparative optimism is that it has been almost a week now without a major Muslim move, although minor probes continued in the Gaza area and in the North. Also, there has been a series of Egyptian announcements claiming victories in the Sinai border area which Israelis claim never occurred and are propaganda fantasies devised by the Cairo government to save face and prevent political reaction from the Egyptian people.

Military sources here also regard last Wednesday's Nitzana action as a significant test of man-for-man training, skill, and courage. As outlined by authoritative Israeli sources, here's what happened:

Israelis claim that several weeks ago the Egyptian army's Eleventh Battalion—one of the best in the area—moved on to dominating the hill in the so-called demilitarized area. They not only occupied the hilltop, but also the northern slope of the hill which actually extends over the international border into Israel. Israelis protested to the United Nations Armistice Commission and requested Egyptian withdrawal. Nothing happened, and the decision was made to attack.

The Israelis moved up a reinforced battalion and under cover of darkness began an attack Wednesday night, with two hour artillery mortar preparation. The Egyptians were well dug-in and had mortars, antiaircraft, and antitank weapons. The actual battle took one hour, wherein Israelis infiltrated the position and drove the Egyptians back, killing some fifty and capturing about forty Egyptians. During the action, the Egyptians brought up eight tanks. Two were knocked out; others dispersed. Among the booty captured or destroyed were twenty American trucks, two Brengun carriers, two antiaircraft guns, various machine guns, and small arms of various makes including Swedish, British, French, and some old Czech weapons. There was no evidence of new Czech arms being received at Alexandria.

Israeli military officials say that there is evidence that the Egyptian commanding officer on the Nitzana hill left his command. They claim that only regular Israeli troops were employed, including recent recruits who performed notably.

The obvious inference is that Nasser has a long way to go before he builds up the quality of his army to match Jewish forces.

Although neutral military sources estimate that it will take a maximum of two years for new Czech arms deliveries to Egypt to reach peak effectiveness, Israeli authorities are less optimistic. They say it's possible that the Egyptians will undertake special air force and tank training and attempt a blitzkrieg to overrun this beachhead country. It could be done in much less than two years—possibly six months.

There is also concern that, even if Arabs withhold large scale retaliatory attempts, fedayeen infiltration for attacks against civilian targets will be stepped up.

Regarding Egyptian victory claims in battles which the Israelis say never happened, the authoritative newspaper The Jerusalem Post says the situation presents two serious dangers: "That the outside world may believe these stories—or part of them—and that Israel is working up for a war that everyone expects, and thus Nasser's political path will become smoother. At the same time, Israel would be branded the aggressor and thus prevented from obtaining defensive weapons if Nasser can make it appear that we already engaged in preventative war."

Neutral observers agree that even if the shooting quietens, the war of nerves will intensify.