A war that started 60 years ago provided Canada with its now familiar role as a peacekeeping force on behalf of the United Nations.
On October 29, 1956, Israeli forces invaded the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. In a swift, sweeping operation of 100 hours, under the leadership of then chief of the General Staff, Moshe Dayan, the Sinai fell into Israeli hands.
A reserve brigade captured Sharm el-Sheikh at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. Israeli troops were soon within 42 kilometers of the Suez Canal.
The Sinai campaign was designed to put an end to Palestinian incursions into Israel from the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip and to remove the Egyptian blockade, at the Straits of Tiran, of the Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat
The action provided the pretext for a French and British ultimatum to Israel and Egypt, calling on both sides to cease hostilities and withdraw from the Suez Canal area.
On November 5, Britain and France landed paratroopers along in the Suez Canal Zone, and its Egyptian defenders were quickly defeated. British casualties stood at 16 dead, French casualties at 10, while the Israeli losses were 231 dead. A ceasefire was called on the insistence of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold on November 6.
It became clear that the Israeli invasion and the subsequent Anglo-French operation had been planned beforehand by the three countries. They had, in fact, during discussions held between October 22 and 24, 1956, reached a secret agreement, the Protocol of Sèvres, to attack Egypt.
The British and French aims were to regain western control of the Suez Canal, and to remove Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized the waterway July 26, from power.
This was perceived as a direct threat to their interests. The canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, was of strategic importance as it had become the main passageway for oil to get to Europe from the Middle East.
France was, as well, engaged in a ruthless war in Algeria and hoped the overthrow of the pan-Arab nationalist Nasser, whom they believed was aiding the National Liberation Front (FLN) rebels, might help defeat the insurgency.
But the British and French would lose the political war that followed. Nasser responded by sinking ships in the canal and effectively closing it to shipping from October 1956 until March 1957. The crisis greatly improved his standing in the Arab world.
On the other hand, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign, and Guy Molet’s French government was brought down because of rightist criticism of his push for social reform on a budget badly depleted by the Suez invasion.
Their campaign failed because the two major powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, adamantly opposed it. The Soviets threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side, and to launch rocket attacks on Britain, France and Israel.
In turn, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower feared this might start a major conflagration and put pressure on Britain and France to cease hostilities. Also, Washington, locked in a Cold War with the USSR, was eager to appear to the post-colonial world as an ally rather than an accomplice of two dwindling empires.
The two European countries withdrew their militaries by the end of the year, though Israel did not leave the Sinai until March 1957.
Canada, too, had strongly objected to the military action out of concern that it was damaging relations between the western allies, and risking a wider war.
Lester B. Pearson, then Canada’s minister for external affairs, developed the idea for the first large-scale United Nations peacekeeping force. Addressing the UN General Assembly, Pearson declared, “Peace is far more than ceasing to fire.”
A United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was in place by late November 1956, where it would remain until the Six Day War of June 1967. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.