A tale of two wars

“The reservists during the Six Day War also complained – justifiably - about the lack of adequate supplies and conflicting orders. But we did it amongst ourselves and the main thing was that we did not think that anyone owed us anything. We were convinced that we were defending our home. We did it without whining, without counting the bodies of our friends, and without seeking blame”. Ron Ben Yishai remembers the war and his comrades of 40 years ago, and says that the Second Lebanon War was not an exception in terms of the mishaps that occurred - but we have all undergone a change.

The helicopters landed one after the other in the Shalaf fields, which served as an improvised landing strip. The sun was setting. Diagonal rays of sun illuminated the clouds of chaff and the reddish dust kicked up by the rotors. On a large stretch of dirt, next to an empty hayloft, the soldiers were organizing their supplies and weapons. The officers were learning the route on the maps and were studying aerial shots that were marked with the landing points and targets in southern Lebanon. In two hours they would land deep in southern Lebanon, in the heart of the area of Hizbullah’s rocket launchers.


On August 13, 2006, there were units from the regular paratrooper’s brigade, 35, and some units formed from the paratroopers with whom I served for many years as a reservist. Their mission was to stop or at least reduce the barrage of Katyushas on northern Israel. I joined them as a journalist. At one moment, when we were packing the supplies, I turned around and was transported back 39 years. This is exactly how we appeared on June 5, 1967, in the twilight of the first evening of the Six Day War, as the small, cumbersome Sikorsky helicopters came to retrieve us from the Nitzana dunes in the Negev to the invasion of the rear Egyptian range in Um Kataf in the Sinai. I was a platoon commander in regiment 57 of the reservist paratrooper’s unit 80. Our mission was to silence the embankment of cannons so that they would not hit the main force of Sharon’s division that had attacked the front of the range. Just like then, now there were also loading inspectors walking amongst us and updating the list of battle assignations according to the helicopters.


I was too busy and apparently also too excited to delve into the déjà vu. But while I was bending down to stuff another water bottle into my knapsack, someone stopped next to me: “What do you have to say about this blunder. This screw-up of a government is not able to do one thing correctly. This operation is unnecessary”. I look up and see the angry face of Eliad Shraga, the red head, who is the chairman of the Movement for Quality Government. We served together for years in the paratrooper’s reserves. Now he is here, the lieutenant-colonel of the forces loading us into the helicopters.


 “You are right”, I tell him. Together we listened to the officer’s briefing and did not understand how an “eleven and a half change” would stop the launching of Katyushas from the villages south of the Litani. “When we are discharged I will not let them evade responsibility”, Shraga says and disappears among the soldiers smearing green and black on their faces and fastening the “Gil” missiles to their battle vests.


Reservists praying (Photo: David Rubinger)


The redhead’s anger against the politicians and the Chief of Staff sound familiar. This is exactly how we spewed fire and brimstone while we were waiting in 1967 on the government, on Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Except it was for opposite reasons than the ones we are raising against Prime Minister Olmert and Chief of Staff Halutz.


 We were angry with Eshkol because he hesitated and deliberated and pleaded for help while Rabin was the one who truly disappointed and frightened us. The rumors spreading among the reservists were that his nerves betrayed him. As a result of the stalling and deliberations, the start of the war in 1967 was continually being pushed off. It appeared to us then as a fatal mistake on Israel’s part that would allow Nasser to accumulate more forces in the Sinai and De Gaulle to open an arms embargo against us in the most critical hour. We shouted “rotten cowards” at the Prime Minister and Chief of Staff who drafted us weeks before they finally decided to use us.


Even though we won in the end, it appears that this anger was justifiable. Investigations that were conducted in Israeli and Egyptian academic institutes in the Eighties, after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, revealed that the hesitant reaction of the Israeli government and the pleading to the international community to curb Egypt only urged Gamel Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, to intensify the provocations and to send more divisions to the Sinai. Most of the historians of that period are of the opinion that Nasser did not want a full-blown war with Israel but he was tempted and drawn to it due to the weak opinion demonstrated by the Israeli political elite, lack of confidence of the Israeli public in its leaders, and the incitement of the Soviets.


Yet, today it is clear that the long waiting period before the war was correctly utilized by the government and general staff: there was a reserves draft in three stages, the reservists trained and managed to improvise and complete the lacking military supplies, battle plans were refreshed and authorized by the full government and were not leaked, the home front was prepared for an attack (they filled sandbags), and world opinion was being properly prepared by world Jewry.


The government and the IDF in 1967 were doing everything that the Winograd Commission advised us to do forty years later. This was not because the government or army had orderly decision-making mechanisms or that they exercised restraint and did not act impulsively. Rather they erred in their evaluation of the international community’s willingness to mobilize to help the besieged Israel and underestimated the IDF’s ability to contend with the Arab armies.


It took a lot of time for Levi Eshkol, his government, and his Chief of Staff Rabin, to realize that their salvation was not going to come from America or Europe, but rather from Israeli air force planes and tank divisions. In their praise it can be said that their hesitation stemmed from the right reasons: a real, honest fear for the fate of Israel, and not for popular ratings as is the case today, and from a desire to be as sure as possible that the army was up to the task it took upon itself.


40 years back


It began with the ringing of the telephone on Thursday night May 18, 1967. The battalion liaison officer called me up and informed me that there was a general call up and that I had to report early the next morning to the base camp in Ramle. I was waiting for this phone call. Three days earlier Nasser brought two Egyptian divisions into the Sinai and the IDF was already on alert. A few of my friend’s units were already called up and my bags were already packed. I turned on the radio and before the news I already heard Daniel Pe'er reading the public draft code names for reserves units. “Spring Holiday”, the code name for division 80, was one of the first on the list.


It is hard to describe the confusion and commotion that I encountered the next morning at the base camp. Dozens of civilian cars covered in mud were parked in and out of the camp. Next to the gate women were tearfully separating from their husbands and five or six vendors were celebrating. In the office the officer told me to quickly gear up because soon there would be a subordinate’s meeting and Ephraim (Brandt, the regiment commander) was anxious.


In those days the emergency storerooms were in a distant part of the camp and the unit’s assembly area was in one of the many orchards in the area. You had to walk many kilometers or find someone with a car who would give you a lift. As I began walking the regiment commander picked me up in the command car that was carrying a few officers. The soldiers who came later had to walk.


When we arrived at the shed there were stacks of kitbags with equipment and uniforms in all sizes. The reservists who were drafted to Lebanon in 2006 had personal kitbags and their fighting supplies were at least organized separately. However when we were drafted in the Six Day War the supplies were scattered on the shelves of the storage shed, half of them covered in mud and rust because what we used during training was what we had to use during the war.


We carried all the equipment to the assembly area, and there, just as in basic training, we had to assemble the webbing that was totally dismantled (battle vests only appeared years later), clean the weapons, and exchange shirts and pants among us until everyone had two pairs of ‘work clothes’ that fit. My equipment was neglected because I had to return to the storerooms with my division sergeant, Toledo, to get the weapons needed for my division (machine guns, mortar bazookas) so that other commanders would not get there before us and take the relatively new and working equipment for their divisions and leave us the junk.


When the pile of weapons and ammunition was safely resting in our corner of the orchard under careful watch, we made a list of how we would divide the weapons to the soldiers. I left the list and the division in Toledo’s hands and ran to the first subordinate’s meeting. By the afternoon the entire division had gathered including some old-timers who had stopped serving in the reserves a while ago yet came anyway. We had to find more equipment and weapons that had already run out. I had to tell a few of them to go home only to look in their eyes and see that they had no intention of listening to me. There were some old-timers from the 101 who parachuted into Mitla during the Sinai campaign, some veterans of the retaliation campaign, and even one who had served in the French Foreign Legion.


In the meantime we heard on the radio that the President of Egypt had moved into the Sinai the best Egyptian armored battalions that until now had been fighting the royalist rebels in Yemen. The head of the division was Shazli, who was considered the Egyptian Rommel. This was bad news that just intensified the unease. For the first time we felt that the State of Israel was in immediate existential danger. Luckily we were too busy to think. At night the brigade commander, Danny Matt, gathered the soldiers and commanders of his division. He was one of the fighters from Gush Etzion, was captured by the Jordanians, and participated in the retaliation campaign and the Sinai campaign.

He had a priest’s beard and a quiet tone of voice with a slight Russian accent. I never heard him raise his voice. But when he spoke everyone was quiet.


Reservists on a lunch break (Photo: GPO)


In the history book of the division one of the soldiers described the assembly at the end of the day of conscription: “Danny Matt told all the civilians to leave. It was a strange and surreal sight; among the weapons and shells women were running around with cakes and sweets. One of them, who stood in the center with a tray full of coffee cups, tearfully begged: let me give them the coffee and then I’m leaving… we waited a few minutes until the coffee was given out and then only the soldiers were left. Danny Matt analyzed the military situation and the balance of power…We had to be ready for war in the Jerusalem area…so we spent the remaining time training in house-to-house warfare…Not knowing zero hour - the beginning of the war - forced us to stay in the improvised camp. We were not allowed to take off our clothes or shoes even while sleeping…”


It continues with a paragraph that is reminiscent of what happened to the reservists during the Second Lebanon War: “During the next few days we were summoned many times to practice on models of targets where we would be fighting. More than once, the orders to stop came in the middle of the exercise.” Sound familiar?


Eshkol spoke, soldiers burst into tears


Two days after we were drafted, my regiment was sent to the southern Negev to join the armored division under the command of Albert (who was killed in the Yom Kippur War). The division was supposed to assemble at the Kuntila plain and its purpose was to draw Shazli’s elite division south and battle with them when the war broke out so that Sharon and Talik’s divisions could attack the Egyptian army’s fortified alignments in the central and northern Sinai. We boarded the buses in Ramle, traveled to Be'er Sheva and there we received the half-tracks that we were supposed to move to the battle in the Kuntila plains and from which we would fight.


The engine of one of the half-tracks died five kilometers away from the gate of the storerooms. When we arrived at Kuntila only two-thirds of the half-tracks were usable. The half-tracks that were working were not equipped to carry weapons. So the first thing we did on our first desert night encampment, before we went to sleep, was to revise the half-tracks. We filled sandbags, tied them with ropes and metal wires to the sides of the half-tracks and we attached the machine guns and mortars to them. This is how we arrived at our first training session with Albert’s tanks. I remember how the tank crewman burst out laughing when they saw the paratrooper’s armada.


Even though the war had not yet started and no enemy was seen on the horizon, Ephraim the regiment commander, ordered us to dig deep pits as a shelter from possible attacks. Ephraim decided that every pit had to be a meter and twenty centimeters deep. It was not easy to dig such a pit in the rock-strewn plains, but we heeded Ephraim’s commands and dug and made sure that the soldiers were not careless. If someone had the fortitude and leadership to issue such a command in Kfar Giladi in August 2006 some of the fighters from that division killed by a Katyusha would still be among us.


In Kuntila we listened to that fateful speech by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that almost completely shattered our morale. It was supposed to be a political Churchillian speech that would remove the despair and strengthen the self-confidence of the nation and its soldiers. However when we turned on our small transistor radios and heard Eshkol stuttering and confused, four of my soldiers burst into tears. They sat at the edge of the pit and shed tears without shame. An atmosphere of gloom settled on the division and stormy political debates erupted. There was one who spoke of the need to remove the prime minister and chief of staff. Even through military means. Yes, we even had that then.


After a few days the division received orders to return to the center of the country. In retrospect we knew that Shazli took the bait and moved his division southward towards us and the general staff decided that the deception in the Sinai was working. As general staff reserves we were needed now for a possible battle for Jerusalem. They transferred us to an assembly area in the Elat Hamastik forest near Gimzo. We handed over the few half-tracks that were still working to a different unit that replaced us in Kuntila.


From Casablanca - to war


On Saturday I received an unexpected visit. After inquiries and an exhausting journey that took an entire day, my mother and wife were able to find the group of bushes where my unit had settled. The first cell phones only appeared three decades later so my wife, Leora, had no other way of telling me that she was pregnant, than by tracking me down in the field and speaking to me face to face.


The next day we already started training for urban warfare. We went up to Jerusalem and from the roofs of the neighborhood of Sanhedria we looked out over the police academy and the Jordanian position next to it. In those days, during the waiting period, our unit was given the assignment of preparing to conquer Ammunition Hill. We practiced and then our mission was switched again to another place in Jerusalem. We learned that new area and again our mission was switched.


During the second Saturday of the waiting period we were sent on a less than 24-hour leave and on Saturday night the whole unit gathered at the Alhambra hall in Jaffa to watch Yoram Gaon’s Casablanca. When we left the performance an improvised subordinate’s meeting was held on the spot. We were told that war would break out in a few hours and that we, meaning most of the division, would not be operating in Jerusalem but in the central area in Sinai; in an offensive by the division led by Arik Sharon on Um Kataf. We boarded the buses and went straight to the Nitzana dunes.


That entire first day of the war, during instructions and preparations for the aerial operation, we heard on the transistors that the Jordanians were shelling Jerusalem. I knew that Leora was pregnant and I wondered what she was doing with the children who came for day-care in our apartment. After the war she told me that she went down with them into the shelter until their parents, mostly my co-workers from Israel Radio came to pick them up. During the waiting period, the neighbors who were not called up for the reserves managed to prepare the shelter in the basement of our building on Brody Street in Jerusalem where we lived at the time.


All this I did not yet know nor did I know that the Arab air forces had been destroyed on the ground at that hour. The Israeli media was ordered to maintain the uncertainty and we did not immediately accept the optimism emanating from the broadcast commentary of Major-General Chaim Herzog. We listened to Cairo Radio, which recited in a mocking Hebrew and with exact details how Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were burning. We knew that they were exaggerating and yet we thought what if there is something to what they were saying…


In a strange way these propaganda broadcasts strengthened our fears and added fuel to the fire of motivation already burning in us. When we went out to our first battle of the Six Day War our only concerns were if there would be room for all of us on the helicopters and if we would be able to find the Egyptian cannon embankment among the ridges of endless sand dunes of the central Sinai.


There were mistakes, the victory erased them all


As for the war itself, I can personally testify that what the reservists experienced during the Second Lebanon War, we also experienced as reservists during the Six Day War. My unit was transferred from front to front as it fought – or almost fought - in the Sinai, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.


We arrived at every place with operation plans that were hurriedly decided upon in conversations between officers without any advance planning. The helicopters that transported my division to the rear in Um Kataf in Sinai erred in their navigation or the marking staff of the landing strip erred in their location. In addition, after a few landings the Egyptians began shelling the landing strip and the landings were halted - exactly what happened to the forces with which I was stationed as a journalist in Lebanon 2006, after a missile downed one of the helicopters. Five crewmen were killed.


The difference is that during the Six Day War the forces that landed did not stop after the landing strip was hit. Whoever managed to land set out on a long and arduous journey and carried out their mission until the end, despite the casualties and injuries and harsh physical exertion. The Egyptian cannon fire was stopped. In contrast, during the Second Lebanon War, the minute the helicopter was downed the mission was abandoned and the war was over.


The forces of two paratrooper units rotted for two days in the bushes 300 meters from the Hizbullah men in Kfar Yatar and did nothing despite the fact that the Katyushas did not stop for a minute, and were even being fired from the area where the the paratroopers were. It was not because the soldiers or officers asked to stop; rather the political and military leaders got cold feet after the helicopter went down.


Nearly all the failures and disasters that were revealed during the Second Lebanon War were also in the Israel of 1967, but most of them were discovered and fixed during the waiting period - before we set out for the Six Day War. And there was another difference. During the Second Lebanon War the Air Force functioned properly but the administration in Washington did not allow them to operate against Lebanese infrastructure; their effect was limited against an evasive enemy like Hizbullah and Katyushas.


As a result, the Air Force of 2006 did not fulfill the expectations of the chief of staff and officials, which to begin with were exaggerated and baseless. In contrast, during the Six Day War the Air Force greatly exceeded the expectations of officials. And what is less known - the success of the Air Force on the first day of the Six Day War, that stunned the Arab armies, covered up the many mistakes and failures committed by the army and its officers during the ground battles of that same war.


However, the great intoxication of victory in ’67 erased the mistakes and failures, the public criticism evaporated and the chief of staff became a idol. The failures in fighting, the missing equipment, and the officers who galloped forward into the heart of the Egyptian army’s battles without maps, suffering heavy losses escaped criticism. After the war they merited attractive, literary descriptions, glorification and mystification, which has cost us dearly until this day.


Take for example the book about my division “Derech Nesher Bashamayim”. The paragraph describing the embankment from the mortar division that was sent to assist the forces that conquered Gaza: “The assignment was hastily given and there was not even time to get area maps… coincidentally one of the officers had a Sonol map in his pocket from which they took identification details of the location of the embankment and the targets. This was how the embankment was able to find the information, fire a thousand bombs and help the armored division…”


Every gunner can begin to understand from this paragraph that tragedy was prevented by a miracle of the improvisation of a Sonol map, which has become a legend. By the way, does this paragraph sound familiar? I have no doubt that if a commission inquiry was established after the Six Day War - its results and report on the government and army would be worse than the Winograd Commission on the Second Lebanon War. As the Roman general said: “Woe to the vanquished”.


In the Six Day War we had an appetite for battle. Not just the simple soldiers and officers but also the senior officials. Whether it was because we really truly feared the destruction of the Third Temple or that we wanted to teach Nasser a lesson that he would never forget, that he should never dare raise those existential fears in us the way he did during the waiting period.


A good majority of the officers in the paratrooper’s reserves were veterans of the 101 unit, pioneers and farmer-fighters who never read Clausewitz but knew how to issue orders in a rough yet clear voice. When it was necessary to kill they called it by its name and didn’t fear to use the word conquer. They were not better soldiers than us. We, fresh products of the army, were more professional and better trained, yet we followed them without reservation because of their experience under fire that they acquired during the retaliation campaign and the Sinai campaign in ’56, but mostly because they never feared to take responsibility and led us with decisiveness.


There were a few of them that, in our young eyes, appeared strange to say the least. Their rush to have contact with the enemy, for example, bordered on a death wish. But we saw in them a model worthy of emulation. We knew that some of us would not return home after the war but we did not make a big deal of it, because we were embarrassed in front of the guys. It was not fashionable at the time to whine or openly express feelings. When we were scared - we repressed it. Another method that partly worked was the recycling of macabre jokes and songs from our unit’s rich repertoire.


The reservists from the Six Day War also complained, justifiably, about the faulty and insufficient equipment, conflicting orders… in short the same things that went wrong during the Second Lebanon War. But we did it among ourselves and did not run to every microphone or camera with our real or imagined grievances.


And the main thing: We did not think that anybody owed us anything or that we were doing someone a favor by serving in the reserves. We were drafted and fought in the Six Day War because that was the law and because we were convinced that we were defending our home. We did it without whining, without counting the bodies of our friends and without seeking blame.


It was not because the reservists then were better or more giving people. Not at all. It is that the Israeli society, government and media are now operating according to new values that are neither good nor bad in themselves, they are simply not appropriate for a nation that still has an existential danger hovering over its head, and sometimes it has to contend with this on the battlefield.


פרסום ראשון: 06.04.07, 12:15
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