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Suez Canal: last incident before Ever Given left canal closed for 8 years

The ship stranded in the Suez Canal that closed the route this week created an obstacle for more than 12% of world trade – a percentage that is estimated to pass through the channel and with an estimated value of US $ 9.5 billion.

Efforts to try to unseat Ever Given continue on Sunday (28). The ship is 400 meters long and over 200 thousand tons and ran aground on the channel in Egypt, with the stern buried on one of the banks.

But despite the severe economic impact the incident is having, this is not the worst obstacle to disrupting trade through the channel, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

In June 1967, 15 ships passing through the canal were caught in the crossfire of the Six Day War between Israel and the bloc formed by Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The war ended in a matter of days, but the canal was closed for years – one of the ships sank and the other 14 ran aground and were only removed 8 years later.

Understand why the blockade lasted so long.

How did the conflict start?

The Six Day War was one of the conflicts resulting from tensions between Arab countries and Israel in the decades after the state was founded in the region.

The relationship between Egypt and Israel has been tense since Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula in Egypt in 1956. The country was forced to withdraw, and a demilitarization agreement in the region was created on the condition that the Strait of Tiran stay open.

In 1967, however, tensions between the two countries peaked and Egypt, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nassar, announced that the strait would be closed to the Israelis.

After weeks of tension, on June 5, 1967, the Six Day War broke out when Israel launched a surprise air strike in which it destroyed 90% of Egypt’s military aircraft and knocked out the Syrian Air Force.

Israel’s war against Syria, Egypt and Jordan was rapid and destructive, with Arab countries losing the conflict.

The surprise bombing also hit 15 civilian cargo ships passing through the Suez Canal. The commercial ships were from different countries: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, Sweden, West Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As soon as we crossed the southern end of the channel, the captain informed me that the war had broken out between Israel and the Arab countries. As we moved forward, the planes took off from the sand, I remember clearly, and attacked the Egyptian air base, flying and his attack was very accurate, “Peter Flack, a sailor on the British ship Agapenor, told BBC Radio 4 in 2010.

Agapenor was transporting rubber from Malaysia and plastic toys to the United Kingdom and was one of the vessels trapped in the channel.

John Hughes of Melampus, who carried palm oil and nuts from China, told BBC Radio 4 that “two Israeli planes flew over the ship from the Sinai desert, and the noise was deafening.”

In the midst of the attacks, Israel sank one of the ships, which belonged to the United States.

Meanwhile, the rest of the boats had to anchor on the Great Bitter Lake, one of the lakes in the Suez Canal.

“They didn’t want to be targets, so they stayed there,” Sal Mercogliano, a specialist in maritime history at Campbell University in the United States, tells BBC Mundo.

On the second day of the conflict, Egypt sank ships at the ends of the canal and planted explosives to block the route and prevent Israel from crossing it.

The war ended on June 10, with the defeat of the Arab countries. But Egypt maintained the blockade and the 14 ships that were trapped in the channel were unable to leave.

Diplomatic negotiations and abandonment of ships

After the conflict, in about two weeks, diplomatic negotiations allowed some of the sailors on the ships to leave, explained Peter Snow, presenter of BBC Radio 4, on the 2010 program The Yellow Fleet. But the rest of the crews were stranded on the scene for three months.

“The countries to which the ships belonged have not been able to reach an agreement with Egypt or Israel that would allow them to sail,” says Mercogliano. “It was believed that at some point the blockade would end, but it didn’t.”

As the closure extended indefinitely, the shipping companies maintained crews on the ships to take care of the facilities and goods, alternating the sailors from time to time.

The crews got together and formed the Association of the Great Bitter Lake (GBLA), which served to organize activities that would allow them to “maintain sanity”, says Mercogliano.

The GBLA organized an “Olympics” parallel to Mexico in 1968, with 14 sports – such as regattas, diving, shooting, running, water polo, archery – in which crews of different nationalities competed with each other and met.

GBLA members also played table tennis and set up a soccer field, according to statements collected by BBC Radio 4.

In addition, GBLA opened a post office to receive correspondence, with its own stamps (which later passed on to collectors around the world).

But over the years, “without the end of the blockade in sight, several companies declared the ships lost and reported the losses to their insurers,” says Mercogliano.

The ships ended up covered with dust and sand from the deserts adjacent to the canal, and became known as “The Yellow Fleet”, due to the color they acquired after abandonment.

What were the consequences of the blockade?

Since it was opened to navigation in 1869, the Suez Canal “has been an important artery because it saves thousands of miles of travel for ships that avoid having to go around Africa,” says maritime history specialist Lincoln Paine.

Although the volume of goods has increased a lot today compared to the 1960s, the blockade caused by the war in 1967 was also quite severe, with long-lasting global consequences.

“The most affected was Egypt, because 4% of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) came from the fees charged for using the channel,” says Paine.

The world flow of oil has also changed, because it has become more difficult for Arab countries to export the resource. Then Russia started to send more oil to Europe, according to Paine.

“The United States and Europe were the ones that moved world trade. China was not yet a power. The ships that Europe sent, which were smaller, had to go around Africa, so the cost of transportation went up,” he explains. Paine. “As the distance across Africa was very long, it was decided that, instead of sending two small boats, it was better to send a larger one. Thus, the size of the boats started to increase.”

“When the Suez Canal was reopened in 1975, there were ships that could no longer pass, so one of the things the Egyptians have done since then is to expand the channel,” says Mercogliano.

How was the route reopened?

Paine believes that, with the closure, Egypt “was sending a message to the West that it was seen as pro-Israel”.

“They thought that interrupting the flow of oil and international trade would force Europeans and Americans to reevaluate their positions in relation to the Middle East,” said Paine.

Although the measure did not work, the blockade was extended because no one wanted to give in, explains the expert.

Until another confrontation ended up leading to the reopening of the channel: the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Arab forces led by Egypt and Syria tried to recover territories that had been occupied by Israel in the Six Day War.

“The Yom Kippur War brought everyone to the negotiating table again. The resolution of the conflict included the decision to reopen the channel. Everyone saw that the closure had only had negative consequences. So Egypt (led by Anwar al Sadat, who succeeded Nasser after his death in 1970) decided to change course “, says Paine.

After the removal of explosives and ships that Nasser had sunk, a process that lasted about a year, the channel was reopened for navigation on June 5, 1975, on the anniversary of the Six Day War.

Only two of the 14 boats that had been trapped managed to leave on their own, Münsterland and Nordwind, from Germany. The rest had to be towed or dismantled on the spot.

Blockages like this demonstrate “the vital importance of the channel and the vulnerability of the maritime supply chain,” says Mercogliano. “A ship or a conflict alone can disrupt trade around the world.”

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