In the years following the Six Day War, the Arab states tried to achieve in isolated attacks what they had failed to achieve in all-out war. The IDF had to accommodate itself to terrorism and guerrilla warfare, as well as static artillery exchanges. While the new challenges were met adequately, little progress was made in preparing for conventional warfare. The consequences of this neglect were felt during the Yom Kippur War.
In March 1969, Nasser publicly repudiated the cease-fire of June 1967, triggering daily clashes between Israeli and Egyptian forces. Sporadic flare-ups began almost immediately after the end of the Six Day War. The fighting was concentrated along the Suez Canal and the Jordan Valley, and, to a lesser degree, along the cease-fire lines on the Golan Heights, as well as in Lebanon, Judea and Samaria. The terrorist war against Israel was an integral element in this Arab offensive, extending the fighting to the Lebanese border, to areas inside Israel, and even against Israeli targets overseas.
Along the Suez Canal
Coordinated by Egypt, the War of Attrition (as it was soon named) was aimed at engaging Israel in a drawn-out and bloody conflict which would make optimal use of the Arab world’s massive resources. Heavy artillery attacks were launched on Israeli positions along the Suez Canal, accompanied by sporadic incursions into Israeli-held territory. After almost ten months of responding in kind, the IDF decided to utilize its superior air power. In December 1969, the IAF was employed against Egyptian anti-aircraft installations, and in January 1970 against strategic targets deep within Egyptian territory.
A new stage in the fighting began when the Egyptians, relying on cover provided by Soviet forces in Egypt, moved their anti-aircraft missile system toward the Canal. Egyptian artillery bombardment was intensified, along with land, sea, and air attacks on Israeli positions. Israel responded by continuing to employ the IAF against Egypt, and tank forces on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. In August 1970, Egypt and Israel agreed on a cease-fire.
The Egyptian front was the main theater in the War of Attrition. About 10 percent of the confrontations took the form of border crossings, for the most part along the Jordan River. Between 1968-1972, the IDF engaged in 5,270 operations across land, air, and sea borders.
Syrian and Lebanese Fronts
The IDF’s presence on the Golan Heights provided a degree of strategic depth while bringing Israeli forces within 60 kilometres of Damascus. The Syrian border was relatively quiet during 1967-1968. But in February 1969, terrorists began infiltrating across the border in large numbers, and the IAF struck back forcefully at Fatah bases inside Syria. In July of that year the Arab states resolved to revive the eastern front against Israel, and there were exchanges between the Syrian Army and the IDF. In March 1970, the Syrians began sending commando units to operate behind Israeli lines. This time Israel replied with in-depth air strikes, but the Syrians, far from being deterred, actually stepped up their attacks. In August, in an effort to stop the continuing deterioration toward full-scale hostilities, the IDF lashed out strongly against the Syrian Army. This time the desired effect was achieved, and a cease-fire came into effect on August 7. Terrorist incursions on the Golan front also declined.
In 1968, the PLO began to establish bases along the southwest slopes of Mt. Hermon in southern Lebanon, an area subsequently known as “Fatahland.” The entire sector soon became a permanent terrorist base. In 1969, the area served as the staging ground for ninety-seven terrorist operations. Gradually, the PLO entrenched itself in Fatahland, taking over villages and setting up a network of bases and supply lines in this mountainous terrain. Initially the Lebanese Army did not intervene, and it was only when the terrorists tried to expand their influence that Beirut grew alarmed. The ensuing bloody confrontations between the Lebanese Army and the PLO sparked a prolonged political crisis between Lebanese Christian and Muslim communities. The crisis was finally resolved by the secret “Cairo Accord” of October 1969, whereby the terrorists acknowledged Lebanon’s sovereignty over Fatahland, while the Lebanese government guaranteed them freedom of action against Israel.
In response to the terrorists’ growing strength in Lebanon, the IDF established forward positions and improved road access to the area. Israeli units crossed the border and engaged the terrorists on a number of occasions.
Unrest in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip
Immediately after the Six Day War, the Palestinian terrorist organizations announced their intention of fomenting a popular uprising in the administered territories against the Israeli presence, concurrent with increased terrorist attacks against targets inside Israel. The first concrete act was a strike organized by lawyers in Judea and Samaria in July 1967, followed by a school strike and the closing of shops as well as a cessation of public transportation. The Israeli military administration responded with economic sanctions and expelled the leaders of the unrest to Jordan. Within a month, the most serious unrest declined. The following years saw strikes and demonstrations on dates of symbolic significance to the Palestinian population, but these had abated by 1969 in Judea and Samaria and by 1972 in the Gaza Strip.
The military administration pursued four policy principles: limited physical presence, non-intervention in and normalization of daily life, open bridges with Jordan, and improving the standard of living. The ongoing implementation of these principles, which were clearly in the interests of the local population, was directly linked to maintaining law and order.
From September 1967 to February 1968, the IDF engaged in an energetic campaign to clear terrorist cells out of Judea and Samaria, block infiltration routes, and prevent the smuggling of arms. In short order the General Security Service established a network of agents and informers in the occupied territories who provided detailed, accurate information. Captured terrorists also identified their accomplices and supporters, whose homes were then demolished.
As a result of these measures, the local population minimized its contact with the terrorist organizations. By the end of 1967 the Fatah command unit in Nablus had been eliminated, while in the Hebron area the main network of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was eradicated. Other groups were captured in various West Bank towns. Some 200 terrorists were killed and 1,000 arrested. By January 1968 the PLO presence in Judea and Samaria had been effectively destroyed, forcing the organization to withdraw to bases in Jordan.
The focus of terrorist activity in areas under Israeli control then moved to the Gaza Strip, where large-scale unemployment and absence of local political leadership created a fertile breeding ground for the PLO. Mines taken from remaining Egyptian minefields were planted along roads, and hand grenades were frequently used in attacks on Israelis. In 1969 alone there were 700 such incidents, in which nine Israelis were killed and eighty wounded.
Terrorist activity reached a peak in Gaza during 1970. The PFLP effectively gained control of the Shati and jabilyah refugee camps, killing anyone they suspected of cooperating with Israel or of belonging to rival terrorist organizations. There were 445 security incidents during the year, in which sixteen Israelis and forty-five Arabs lost their lives, in addition to 144 Israelis and 667 Arabs being wounded. Throughout 1971, the IDF conducted intensive operations to uproot the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. Security roads were laid, and access to and from the area was rigidly controlled. Regular Army units were stationed in Gaza for longer periods, and in smaller, dispersed groups enabling them to familiarize themselves with the territory. Widespread and sporadic patrolling forced the terrorists to concentrate on finding cover instead of attacking Israeli targets. In July 1971, steps were taken to reduce the overcrowding in the refugee camps and broaden their road network. More than a hundred terrorists were killed and hundreds arrested during the year. The number of incidents decreased dramatically: in 1972, only sixty incidents were registered. In the years following, the Gaza Strip remained one of the quietest areas under Israeli military control.
During this period, infiltration from across the Jordan became a significant source of terrorist activity. The IDF stepped up its presence along the Jordanian border, and a sophisticated system of electronic fences and warning devices was installed. Between 1967 and 1970, 5,840 incidents were recorded along the eastern front, mostly artillery and gun- fire from Jordanian territory. The terrorists enjoyed the active collaboration of the Jordanian Army. However, in September 1970 – “Black September”, as it became known – the Jordanians, fearful that the Hashemite regime might not survive, turned against the terrorists and expelled them from the country. This development stabilized the security situation along the eastern border.