Dozens of veteran French and British parachutists recently declared their intention to come to Israel in June to participate in the events marking the historic Israeli parachute jump east of the Suez Canal 50 years ago.
When the parachutists of the 890th Brigade jumped in the Sinai desert near the Mitla Pass, they were carrying out the first step in the war against the Egyptian dictator, president Gamal Abdul Nasser, in which France and Britain also took part. It should come as no surprise that, in one of his last decisions as prime minister, Ariel Sharon asked his devoted and loyal spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, a paratrooper in his own right, to organize - together with the IDF - the events to mark and commemorate the Israeli paratroop jump on October 29, 1956.
Sharon was a lieutenant-colonel in the paratroopers' unit, which at the time comprised three brigades. In his capacity as prime minister too, Sharon was very much aware of the importance of military heritage, and of passing that heritage on to the next generation of Israeli soldiers. After all, it will not be long before they will be forced, sword unsheathed, to defend the very existence of the Jewish state, since Israel has no "Palestinian partner" for peace negotiations at this time, and nor does it appear that such a partner will emerge in the foreseeable future. This of course does not prevent Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his political clowns from frantically creating one in their own minds.
I HAD the immense privilege of jumping together with the 890th Paratroopers' Brigade during that war. There were about 380 of us in all, in a country with a population of slightly more than one million, about a half of whom were Holocaust survivors or refugees from Arab countries. Helicopters were a distant dream, and only at the last moment did we secretly - everything was hush-hush - receive cargo planes from France that made it possible for paratroopers to jump from 16 planes at the same time at a spot about 30 kilometers from the Suez Canal. The French dropped jeeps and anti-tank 106-millimeter recoilless guns from planes. We even received field rations dropped by the French. How surprised we were to find that they contained small bottles of cognac and Gauloise cigarettes at a time when our IDF rations contained only rusty cans of orange juice.
Lt.-Col. Sharon promised prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion and chief of General Staff Moshe Dayan that his paratroopers would carry out the mission and jump far behind the enemy lines, 270 kilometers into the Egyptian hinterland. And indeed, the IDF, which was still just taking its first steps back in 1956, swept through the Sinai desert in 100 hours and defeated the Egyptian brigades, which were equipped with Soviet arms and tanks.
The Sinai War - or the Kadesh Campaign, as it was called in Israel - stopped the Palestinian terror coming from the Gaza Strip, which was under Egyptian control, and the Straits of Tiran were finally opened to enable ships to enter the port of Eilat, which until then had been a tiny, miserable harbor.
BEAR IN mind that at that time, and for many years to come, the United States enforced an absolute embargo on the sale of arms to Israel. Britain, which had been expelled from Israel in 1948, and which completely controlled Jordan, bore a considerable grudge toward the Jewish state, so much so that Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, told his own personal physician on November 18, 1953: "There is the news from Egypt, and now the Foreign Office wants a war with Israel. Ernie Bevin apparently made a treaty with Jordan. I don't want war." (Quoted from Churchill: 1945-1960 by Churchill's personal physician, Lord Moran.)
But Israel had a daring leader, Ben-Gurion, and inspired military commanders like Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon. And consequently, Ben-Gurion decided to make the most of the opportunity that came his way when he learned that France and Britain were about to engage in a war in 1956 against Nasser after he nationalized the Suez Canal, an international waterway. In a secret visit to France, Ben-Gurion reached an agreement with the French and British, who had planned to drop their fighters near the Suez Canal using cargo planes taking off from the Akrotiri base in Cyprus, and that Israel would carry out the first stage in the war. That is how the parachute jump of our brigade, the 890th, was born.
It would be an injustice not to mention the instrumental role played by Shimon Peres, in his capacity as the very young director-general of the Defense Ministry at the time. He was the one that wove the secret ties with the French government that eventually led to Ben-Gurion becoming part of the well-known French-British-Israeli "tripartite collusion."
About six million Jews live in Israel today. The IDF has not only helicopters, but also the newest and most sophisticated piloted and unpiloted planes available. But what we lack is leadership capable of putting an end to the terror of the Kassam rockets coming from Gaza. And Shimon Peres? After bringing us his "peace partner" Yasser Arafat, he is now trying to clutch at the galabiya of the hapless Abu Mazen.