The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, and thus to the Indian Ocean, was built in the 1860s through a French-Egyptian partnership. In 1875, debt forced the Egyptians to sell their share in the canal to the British (who subsequently occupied Egypt in 1882). The Convention of Constantinople (1888) and the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 declared the canal to be a neutral zone under British control.

Following the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Egypt unilaterally closed the canal to Israeli shipping. Egyptian president Gemal Abdel Nassar had two major nationalistic goals. The first was to demonstrate Egypt’s ability to harm Israel by hurting its economy. The second was his desire for Egypt to become the leader of all the Arab nations. In 1949 and 1951, the UN ordered the canal open to all. The Egyptians did not comply, and, in July 1956, Nasser declared that the canal belonged to Egypt and blockaded the Straits of Tiran. (In addition to the blockade, there were regular incursions of Egyptian fadayeens – terrorists – into Israeli territory)

Needing to defend itself, Israel agreed to the proposed military plan of the French and British to respond to the closing of the canal and the straits. On October 29, 1956, the Israelis attacked across the Sinai Peninsula. Within one week, Israel had successfully swept across most of the Sinai desert. Their European allies then demanded that the two sides disengage. When the Egyptians refused, the French and British used this as an excuse for adding their own military forces to protect the canal. After they took Port Said, however, the British unexpectedly agreed to a cease fire, imposed upon them by the threat of Soviet retaliation.

On November 7, 1956, the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was established by United Nations General Assembly to secure an end to the 1956 Suez Crisis. Following the hostilities, Israel was forced by international pressure to withdraw from the territory they had captured in the Sinai Peninsula. However, Israeli access to the canal has, by and large, remained open.

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