By Fatma Wahaidy
CAIRO – 6 October 2018: Exactly 45 years ago, on October 6, 1973, Israel was surprised by a well-coordinated Egyptian-Syrian military attack that shocked the Israeli society and political system to the core. The Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal to push the Israelis out of the Sinai Peninsula with concurrent attacks by Syria on the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967.
The war took Israeli forced by surprise by timing the attack to take place on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and during the holy month of Ramadan continued until October 26,1973. The timing of the war left little time to mobilize reserves which the Israeli army relies on heavily. No war left the Israeli society more traumatized and in search of leadership and guidance than this war. October 6, 1973, was different from any day before or after it: It is the day that the Arabs inadvertently launched the first Israeli revolution that resulted in the transfer of power from the immigrant generation of East European socialist leaders to the generation born and raised in Israel.
Backed by the air force, Egypt made spectacular advances into the territory leaving Israel traumatized by the experience of having been taken by surprise and overwhelmed by military action. On the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks were attacked by 1,400 Syrian tanks and along the Suez Canal, 500 Israeli defenders were attacked by 80,000 Egyptians on the first hours of that day. The crossing was bold and ingenious as the Egyptian forces dissolved a giant defensive sand berm, the Bar-Lev line, using high-pressure water hoses. The 100-kilometer line was built by Israel on the eastern side of the Suez Canal after the 1967 war and prevented Egyptian tanks from entering Israeli-occupied Sinai for six years. Despite their nuclear weapons, advanced intelligence and alliance with the strongest country on earth, Israel was defeated and taken by surprise.
The Arabs fought united and bravely during the October war. At least nine Arab states actively aided the Egyptian-Syrian war effort. Iraq transferred Hunter jets to Egypt a few days before the war started and during the war some 18,000 Iraqi men and several hundred tanks were deployed in the central Golan and participated in the attacks against Israeli positions. Moreover, Iraqi jet fighters began operating over the Golan Heights in the third day of the war. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait committed men to battle and Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt. In addition, Algeria sent three aircraft squadrons of fighters and bombers, an armored brigade and 150 tanks. Approximately 1,000–2,000 Tunisian soldiers were positioned in the Nile Delta. The Sudan stationed 3,500 troops in southern Egypt, and Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines, including 2,500 men to Syria. Lebanese radar units were used by Syrian air defense forces and Lebanon allowed Palestinian refugees to fight on the southern front with the Egyptians. And Jordan sent two units of Armored Brigades to Syria and three Jordanian artillery batteries also participated in the war, carried out by nearly 100 tanks.
The October victory came at a time when Arabs were feeling hopeless and ashamed by their defeat in 1967. It also drew up the Arab strategy for revenge. During the six years between the 1967 defeat and the 1973 victory, Egypt reassessed its security situation, reorganized the armed forces and planned ahead for the future in coordination with other Arab countries. This plan was not without a cost, the Egyptian people had to bear the burden of its implementation. It involved establishing a war economy, with 50 percent of the public budget dedicated to rebuilding the country’s armed forces but Egyptians were ready to sacrifice everything including their souls to protect to regain their sovereignty and dignity.
Despite all the sacrifices and the loss of thousands of lives from the Arab side during the October War , also called the Ramadan War or the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, they succeeded in embodying the military option as an another chapter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt regained it pivotal and central role in the Arab region and the Arabs regained their confidence and freed themselves from the despair of the disastrous defeat in 1967. The war also drew both the United Stated and the Soviet Union into indirect confrontation to defend their allies and forced Israel to negotiate on terms more favorable to the Arab countries. The 19-day conflict finally led to the signing of the Camp David Accords in March 26, 1979, the return of Sinai to Egypt, which had lost control of the region in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. Egypt gained back all of its territories and had the right to develop Sinai projects and the Egyptians started enjoying the beautiful areas in Sinai.
The 6th of October victory has been traditionally regarded as a national victory and a day of deep significance for Egypt and all Arabs as they were able for the first time to destroy the legend of the invincible Israeli army and to redeem themselves after a series of defeats, including in 1948 and 1967, when Israeli attacked the Arab lands and occupied Palestine, parts of Syria and parts of the Egyptian territory. It shattered the perceptions of the Israeli decision making elite regarding their neighbors capabilities and led to question of how to best guarantee the long term security of Israel. Egypt regained its territory, and more importantly, its pride as the largest Arab country and the Arab pride. The Israeli defeat was not just a defeat in battle but defeat in the face of the biggest threat to its existence, during that time Israel feared for the fate of its people and its own existence as a state.
Israeli reactions to the October war:
The Egyptian heroism in the victory of October 1973 cannot be erased by time and the Israeli memory will never forget its defeat. Renowned Israeli figures assessed the repercussions of the October war with particular emphasis on the psychological impact of this war on the participating Israeli troops and the Israeli public opinion that replaced the legend of the invincible army by the fear of being under threat at all times. They all agreed that the war was a defeat although they disagree over the reason, the consequences and the ways of facing it. The period after the October war also witnessed exchanged blaming between the government and the military for the lapse of preparation. As a result of protest movement and political realignments, the then Prime Minister, Golda Meir, was exposed as out of touch, and following a judicial inquest left government together with her Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan.
Some assessments were published a few months after the end of the October war, including a study by American Jewish psychologist, Victor Sanouh, about “the psychological effects of Yom Kippur war” where he said that five to ten percent of Israelis were traumatized after the October war, which is a high percentage compared to minimal numbers in previous wars. He noted that this might be the result of the surprise war launched by the Arabs during the holiest of the Jewish holidays. Sanouh noted that after the war, Israeli society witnessed a new trend of resorting to the services of psychic intermediates to connect with lost or killed soldiers. This trend even reached the cultivated youth.
Israeli journalist and author, Amnon Kapeliouk, said in his book “Israël: la fin des mythes” (Israel: The End of Myths) that the October war was the first war where the Israeli army had to treat many of its soldiers from shocks related to the fighting. Some of these soldiers were not able to remember their names and therefore they needed psychological treatment or transferred to specialized hospitals. Kapeliouk explains that during this war Israel fell from the tower of tranquility and reassurance that it had built for itself. The shock was very strong and the Israelis woke up to realize that the investable legends of the Israeli army is just a myth. In previous wars, the Israeli government organized grand military shows during the Independence Day to showcase the scraps of the enemy’s armor. On the contrary, a large exhibition was held in Cairo two months after the war in 1973, to showcase the Israeli weapons that were seized during the October war. He adds that the Israelis’ confidence in their permanent superiority came to an end in this war, and the lost trust in their leadership. This is the most dangerous thing that could happen in any country especially Israel. This weakness was reflected in two contradictory ways that led to the very dangerous polarization of Israel. On one hand, there were those who have begun to doubt the future of Israel, and on the other hand, extremists began to be more visible in the Israeli streets.
In 1973, the Commander of the Israeli Air Force, General Aluf Eliezer Shkedi said that the October war is different than all the wars that Israel fought against the Arabs. In the previous wars, we had the initiative but in this war we were un prepared and the Arabs took the initiative to attack us. We were surprised, shocked and confused as we were pushed to the defense corner. It is a sad day in the Israeli history.
In his book “Story of My Life”, the Defense Minster of Israel during the October war Moshe Dayan, discussed the details of the war and said that during the war he knew that Israel will not be able to push the Egyptians back from the Suez Canal again. Dayan also said that the Egyptians own different types of advanced weapons that they can operate professionally. Egyptians used anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and every Israeli tank advancing towards the Egyptian positions was attacked and destroyed. He added that the Egyptians concentrated their energies over the past years to prepare for this war, they were fully trained and ready. In his book, Dayan admits that the legend of the investable Israeli army was destroyed for ever during this war and that the Israeli claim that they can defeat all the Arabs in few hours is just a lie.
Also, Chaim Herzog, the Former President of Israel mentioned the October war in his biography as he said that the October war ended with a great shock to the Israelis, and Moshe Dayan was no longer the same as before as he was always convinced that the Arabs would never attack again after the 1967 war. This war was the beginning of the end for the Labor party that ruled Israel for twenty-five years, until then. It brought changes in the mentality of the Israeli leadership, which started looking for a new and realistic policy in dealing with the crisis through political solutions. We, the Israelis, spent too much time before the October war taking about our strengths and the victories we achieved while the Egyptians were busy planning and organizing for attacking us. They were patient and more realistic than us.
The discussion around the October war did not stop even during this decade – more than 40 years after the war. On April 12, 2012, the Canadian-born Israeli writer and public speaker, Barry Chamish, said on his blog that Israel paid a very expensive price to peace by losing 2000 soldiers in the first two days of the October war and giving back every inch of Sinai to Egypt.
In 2013 wikileaks revealed and published files related to October 1973 war including telegrams sent from the US embassy in Israel during the war to the White House. Kenneth Keating, who served as the American ambassador to Israel from 1973 to 1975, presented the White House with war strategy analyses. On October 8, 1973 Keating said, “The war could last longer and could cost more than we had thought. One thing is becoming clear: Israeli causalities (sic) on both fronts are mounting. The seriousness of this factor is implied in the fact that the GOI (government of Israel) is not telling its people secret about it (nor is it giving us hard info on the subject). I believe that when the full impact is felt in Israel on the blood this war will have cost, the GOI’s political options may be reduced: the nation will expect a decisive war outcome and a postwar situation which looks secure for Israel.” On the same day he sends anther telegram saying, “Another thing which the GOI is shielding its public from is the seriousness of the difficulties the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is facing. As soon as we have a better idea of how long the war is going to last and what it is going to cost Israel, we will be better able to judge the direction in which the USG can usefully seek to guide Israeli policy.”