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The Suez Crisis: the Death of Old Colonialism, and the Rise of the Superpowers

Following the 1948 war, tension between Arabs and Israelis remained extremely high. The Arab failure to defeat the Israelis was viewed as a humiliation and bitterness over the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs lingered. Although some peace negotiations took place between 1952 and 1955, border skirmishes continued to flare up and the peace remained fragile. In 1956, a new round of fighting broke out during the crisis over the Suez Canal.

The Suez Canal is a waterway in Egypt that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. It was opened in 1869, and its construction had been financed by the Egyptian government and France. After its opening, the Egyptian share was purchased by Great Britain, and the Canal was administered by a joint British-French company. The Suez Canal was especially significant to Great Britain because it provided British access to India and oil from the Persian Gulf.

In 1956, Egyptian President Nasser put the Suez Canal under Egyptian control and seized the assets of the French-British company that had been running it. President Nasser was a major leader in the Pan Arab movement. He also clamped down further on the movement of shipments bound for Israel. Many have seen the actions of President Nasser as playing a part in the struggle against the colonial powers in the region.

The move put British and French economic and military interests in danger of deepening the conflict between Israel and the Arab countries. Israel, France, and Great Britain formulated an alliance in an attempt to secure their economic interests and hopefully cause the downfall of Nasser in the process.

Israel attacked Egypt in Sinai and the Gaza Strip on 29 October 1963. Britain and France then perpetrated a ruse disguised as an offer to enforce a cease fire. The terms of the proposed truce were purposely designed to be unacceptable to Egypt, then Britain and France joined in the attack on Egypt in an attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal.

As a military operation, the British and French fight for control of the Suez Canal was a success. Politically, however, it was a disaster. The Soviet Union professed support for Egypt and hinted that a nuclear strike on France and Great Britain was a possibility if the crisis continued. In a major humiliation for Britain, the United States refused to support the takeover of the Canal and joined the USSR in calling for the withdrawal of the European countries from the area. Great Britain, France, and Israel pulled out of the war zone, and in their place the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force, the first of its kind.

Beyond its place in history as another round in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Suez Crisis was significant in that it signaled the end of the significant influence that European powers had in the Middle East. Great Britain and France withdrew in humiliation. In their places two superpowersthe United States and the Soviet Unionbegan to exert their policies. The Middle East had shed much of its old colonial past, only to become a battleground of the Cold War.

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