When I was 17, I was graduating high school. My biggest concerns included finding a college roommate and deciding on a major. When my father was 17, he was pulled into the Israeli Defense Forces to fight in the Yom Kippur War (sometimes referred to in English as the October War (1973)). On the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday in Judaism, Syria and Egypt launched a joint surprise attack on the two fronts gained by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War (Sinai Desert to the south and Golan Heights to the north).
The goal was to gain the territories lost, driven by the embarrassing defeat during the Six-Day War. Egypt wanted to be seen as a powerful neighbor ready to play on the world stage, cutting ties with the Soviet Union and beginning talks with Washington, D.C. Syria, not so much. Hafez al-Assad had little to no interest in potential negotiations and wanted to make Syria the dominant military power of the Arab States. Knowing they only had a chance at succeeding if working together, Egypt and Syria launched their attacks on October 6, 1973.
The attack was truly a surprise. My mother was 14 at the time.
“I had no clue that a war is looming…The only unusual thing was a heavy traffic on the main highway nearby the night before; it was Yom Kippur eve; which is extremely quiet with almost no traffic on the roads, so there was some feeling among the adults that something is not quite right. So, for me, the war started with a loud siren in the middle of Kippur day. Everybody was shocked but we all knew very well what a siren means. It was very strange to watch my dad having a meal on Yom Kippur and then driving his car to his base. He insisted on eating something before driving to the Army (he knew that he might be without food and working hard for some time). We were not scared for him since we knew that he was based nearby (and not on the border), but I remember feeling so proud of him, thinking that he was very handsome in his uniform and I knew that he had an important job in the event of a war.”
My father had just finished high school. His IDF start date was October 16, ten days after the start of the war.
“On that day I was with my family at the synagogue and suddenly people were being called out very quietly leaving the services. Soon the understanding was that war broke out, Israel was being attacked on two fronts at once and there is a general call up of all soldiers on leave and all of the reserves. Within minutes there were only half the people in the synagogue. The fact the war broke out came as a surprise to all of us. The IDF was not on alert during the holidays and in fact many of the troops were home for the holidays. The sirens and the radio announcements (on Yom Kippur – which was unbelievable that radio would be working) brought this home right away. Everything changed at that moment. ”
“Ten days later I enlisted in the IDF and instead of going to basic training like you normally would, I was put to work unloading trucks of guns and munitions and preparing them for being sent to the front.”
After the heaviest fighting initially passed, he attended a very accelerated basic training near Ramallah (north of Jerusalem). Supplies and instructors were scarce (everyone who could fight was sent to the front). Some of the instructors were injured soldiers.
“From there we were shipped to the Giddi Passage in the Sinai desert… We did a very abbreviated tank crew training (a couple of weeks instead of three months) and I was chosen based on my skills and performance to be a tank gunner. I was very proud to have be awarded the outstanding crewman award (a ‘best in class’ designation) at the end of the course”
“We were quickly sent up to through the Golan Heights to the Syrian Enclave (a part of Syria that they lost to the IDF when Israel launched the counter attacks based on the reserves joining the regular army, pushing the Syrians back and then some). We became the newest members of the famous 7th Brigade, replacing tank crews that went through the hardest battles with the Syrian Army, including in the ‘’Valley of Tears’.
Even as we were getting off the buses that first night, and before we saw our tanks for the first time, we were shelled by Katyusha rockets, a scary thing. Of course I threw up – it was the first time I was shelled and the shelling was very close, but that was the last time I threw up in battle. Life on the front was very dynamic – there were hours where nothing would happen (but you still had to do guard duty, maintain the tank, do kitchen duty, clean the house where we lived, and in general try to stay healthy).
Staying healthy up there in the Syrian Enclave was important, as we were located in the ruins of a Syrian town, located in a swamp. The concern was malaria and we had to take two pills every Tuesday and sign we did that. These would help prevent getting sick and apparently it worked. This was a big, ongoing concern.
Other days were much more busy, from an operations standpoint. We would get shelled for a while and then Syrian commando would try to attack our line of tanks or their air force would try to cross the lines and bomb us. Mostly, these planes would be intercepted and dropped out of the sky by IAF pilots. Other times we would shoot at them, but that was never effective. It did make us feel better – that’s for sure. Once I got the chance to phone home and while talking with Savta Bev [his mother], an artillery shelling started. She heard the booms and asked me what was going on. I told her not to worry and all it was was a thunderstorm.”
As the war progressed, feelings of confidence turned into sadness, and then anger. As a 14-year-old girl, my mother said that no one really knew how bad things were at first, and they were more worried than scared (compared to the terror of the Gulf War my family also lived through in the early 90s).
“Moreover, we all felt the Israeli Army cannot be defeated and expected the war to be swift and over with a big victory. As time went on, bad news started to arrive and the mood turned very bad and depressing. Worse than that was the increasing news about people around us that died, injured, or want missing. We had one guy living not too far from our home that was never found (and presumed dead). Some just finished high school and I knew them or they were brothers or fathers of kids that I knew from school or the neighborhood.”
My father’s high school graduating class suffered greatly.
“Meanwhile, names started coming in and I learned about a large number of friends from high school and from the Scouts that fell in battle both in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. All I hoped for was for my closest friends to pull through – but there is no question, my school year paid a heavy price. “
While the war ended in victory for Israel, the Israelis lost many young men, and the feelings of anger and insecurity never really left. The government was highly criticized for its lack of preparedness. U.S. assistance may have been what allowed Israel to win the war. Syria suffered a terrible defeat, with Israel seizing even more land. In 1979, Syria was part of the successful vote to expel Egypt from the Arab League. The initial military successes of Egypt gave Anwar Sadat some prestige and allowed him to begin peace talks from a new position of global power. He was able to gain the Sinai Peninsula back from Israel (though these talks led to his assassination in 1981). This really highlights the fragmentation of this region, making it difficult for there to be an umbrella of the “Middle Eastern interests”. You can’t simultaneously have Israel as an enemy and in a peace treaty. It seems you are either isolated from the Arab World, or from the national stage. The Yom Kippur war is clearly not the first or last war of this region, but it is a great example of the complexity of both middle-eastern and international politics.
Here is a great collection of photos from the Yom Kippur War: