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Behind the Headlines: Israelis Well Acquainted with War, Having Lost 13,000 in Past Battles

January 22, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Except for recently arrived immigrants and the very young, few Israelis have not experienced the vicissitudes of war.

Israel’s military cemeteries hold the graves of 13,053 men and women soldiers who died in defense of their country since the Jewish state became independent in 1948.

The big question now is whether more names will be added to the roster of war dead.

Theoretically, Israel is not involved in the war being waged by the U.S.-led coalition to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. In fact, it has been the target of two SCUD missile attacks by Iraq in as many days and could be hit by more, possibly carrying chemical warheads.

The clear purpose of Saddam Hussein is to draw Israel into the conflict, hoping to transform it from a war to reverse Iraqi aggression to another eruption of the 43-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

It began on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. Egyptian Spit-fires attacked the Sde Dov airport in northern Tel Aviv. They destroyed three light aircraft of the Israeli air force parked on the runways.

Israel’s War of Independence was its costliest in terms of lives lost.

By the time the armistice agreements were signed in 1949, 6,074 Israelis had been killed in the assault by the neighboring Arab states.

The chief combatants on the Arab side were Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Lebanon’s attack was mainly verbal. Of the Arab countries non-contiguous with Israel, Iraq sent the largest force, but it took little part in the fighting.


Israel went to war again in 1956 as an unofficial ally of Britain and France.

They invaded Egypt in an attempt to retake the Suez Canal, nationalized by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The invasion was aborted under pressure from the United States, but not before the Israel Defense Force had captured the Sinai peninsula, at the cost of 173 Israeli lives.

At the demand of President Dwight Eisenhower, Israel eventually withdrew from Sinai.

But it recaptured the peninsula plus the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights in its pre-emptive war in June 1967. The war lasted six days and cost Israel 803 dead.

During 1969-70, Israel was engaged in a war of attrition with Egypt consisting largely of artillery exchanges across the Suez Canal and aerial engagements. That phase of combat took another 738 Israeli lives.

The traumatic Yom Kippur War launched by Egypt and Syria in October 1973 resulted in 2,569 Israeli fatalities.

But it led indirectly to Israel’s first — and so far only — peace accord with an Arab neighbor, the 1979 treaty with Egypt, which established full diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The Lebanon war of 1981-82, known officially in Israel as the “Peace for Galilee” campaign, cost 654 Israeli lives. It broke the power of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, but only temporarily.

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