U.N. Head Protests Egyptian Seizure of Cargo

April 8, 1960

U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold for the first time publicly criticizes Egypt’s confiscation of Israeli cargo on ships going through the Suez Canal.

The Egyptian closure of the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping was a major reason for Israel’s participation in the 1956 Suez War, and its freedom of navigation was its main requirement for fully withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula after that war. Even though Israel declared that violations of its transit rights would serve as a cause for war, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that the embargo of Israeli goods would continue. The United Nations helped establish informal agreements to allow Israeli shipping to continue in secret. Those agreements began to fall apart in 1959 as Egypt started confiscating the cargo of ships trading with Israel as they passed through the canal.

Hammarskjold’s public criticism and months of negotiations fail to restore Israeli canal rights. To avoid escalation, Israel stops sending cargo through the canal and instead develops Eilat on the Red Sea as a cargo hub because Egypt continues to allow ships to pass freely through the Straits of Tiran. Eilat’s port is expanded. The Eilat-Beersheba highway is improved. And an oil pipeline is built from Eilat to Ashkelon.

The closure of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping and the expansion of Eilat as a trading center increase the importance of keeping the Straits of Tiran open. Egypt’s closure of the straits in 1967 thus is seen as an act of war by Israel and is one of the main causes of the Six-Day War.