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(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Outrage in Egypt over a documentary on the killing of 250 commandos in Sinai at the end of the Six Day War might have been more restrained if Israel had publicized the execution by Egyptians of Israeli prisoners of war or the brutal treatment routinely rendered in Egyptian prisons to those taken into captivity.
In the film recently shown on Israel Television, veterans of the Shaked reconnaissance battalion describe their pursuit of a commando force - variously described as Egyptian or as a Palestinian unit serving in the Egyptian army. The fighting on the Sinai front had already died down, but the Israelis leapfrogged after the fleeing commandos by helicopter over the course of several days and killed them in swift encounters on the ground.
Engaging in soul-searching, participants in the documentary attribute the unit's aggressiveness to the heat of battle and the desire to settle a score with this particular unit with which they had tangled in the past. The reconnaissance men noted in subsequent interviews that they had offered water to other Egyptian soldiers fleeing westward.
"In the film, Shaked veterans who participated in the operation ask themselves whether it was necessary but no one suggests that prisoners were involved," notes an Israel Television executive.
Even though the film has not been seen in Egypt, Egyptian officials term the event a massacre of POWs and demand a cutback in economic and diplomatic ties with Israel. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit termed suggestions that Egyptians had killed Israeli prisoners "absurd."
But during the Yom Kippur War - the one war in which the Egyptian army succeeded in capturing a substantial number of Israeli prisoners when it launched a surprise attack across the Suez Canal - there were numerous instances of Israeli prisoners being executed. Most were reservists serving on the Bar-Lev Line along the canal.
AT FORT HIZAYON in the central sector of the front, the small garrison held out against an Egyptian commando force for two days, sometimes calling down artillery fire on the post itself to drive the Egyptians out. With ammunition almost gone, survivors in the command bunker called out over the loudspeaker in Arabic "we surrender" and emerged with hands up. However, a squad in a side bunker, led by Sgt. Pinhas Strolovitz of Jerusalem, did not come out.
When the soldiers did emerge to surrender the following morning, they saw the 11 men from the command bunker lying in a row in the center of the fort with their hands tied behind their backs, all shot in the back. Strolovitz and his men survived.
At Fort Milano outside the ghost town of Kantara, the garrison was ordered to pull back through Egyptian lines on the second night of the war. Coming under fire as it moved through the darkness, the force split into two. One group made it to safety but the other, burdened by wounded, was still inside the town when dawn came. Egyptian soldiers tracked them down to the house in which they had found shelter. After the sergeant in command called out that they surrender, an Egyptian officer entered and ordered the Israelis out. Ten men who did not immediately come out, including the wounded, were killed when the Egyptians threw grenades inside. (One of the dead, Baruch Picard, was a neighbor of mine. A.R.)
Dozens of crewmen of disabled tanks were also captured by the Egyptians in the opening two days of the war. One tank driver, a young regular soldier, told me that after his tank had been knocked out, it was surrounded by Egyptian soldiers. The other three tank crewmen emerged, leaving their personal weapons behind, and lined up alongside the tank where they were gunned down by the Egyptians facing them. The Egyptians tried to get to the driver as well, but he had closed his hatch. They booby trapped it but he managed to get out later.
Of the 440 infantrymen serving on the Bar-Lev Line when the war broke out, 161 were taken prisoner, 126 were killed and the rest escaped. While many of those killed died in battle, many others were killed after surrendering. Several were beaten to death in prison, according to accounts by returning prisoners. At war's end, Israel handed over 8,300 Egyptian prisoners and received back 230 Israelis. (On the Syrian front, the exchange involved 65 Israeli prisoners and 380 Syrians.)
While the killing of prisoners in the field might be ascribed to the heat of battle, there is no such excuse for the humiliation, beatings and brutal conditions that prisoners taken into Egypt were forced to endure during their interrogation and captivity.
FOR ALL its cruelty, the war was not without its humane gestures. At Hizayon, a young doctor, Avi Ohry, had remained with the wounded fort commander, a lieutenant, in the medical bunker after the rest of the garrison had surrendered. Their presence was not discovered until the fourth night. The Egyptians threw in a smoke grenade and then attacked with a flamethrower. Ohry passed out. When he woke, it was five hours later. The lieutenant, the son of a Jerusalem judge, was dead. Ohry's lungs were seared and he spent the night in the trench outside trying to seek relief by gulping in the cold air.
With dawn, the Egyptians were gone. Beset by thirst, Ohry staggered up the road leading away from the fort in search of someone to surrender to. An approaching armored personnel carrier halted 50 meters away and a squad of Egyptian soldiers descended. Forming a line, the soldiers inserted magazines into their Kalashnikovs. Ohry tried to shout that he was a doctor but no words came out of his burned throat.
Suddenly, a jeep dashed up the road and stopped between him and the soldiers. An Egyptian officer emerged. He approached Ohry, who slid to the ground, his legs no longer able to support him. The officer tossed a canteen to him and he gulped down its contents and asked for another, then another. The officer came forward and offered him a biscuit but Ohry could not get it down his throat. "More water," he whispered.
Meanwhile, the soldiers from the personnel carrier had approached. One kicked Ohry, then a second. Others were about to join in when shells exploded around them. Everyone, including Ohry, ran into the fort and took shelter in the trenches. Ohry was next to the Egyptian officer and his driver, the others some distance away. With his mouth close to the officer's ear, Ohry managed to whisper in English that he was a doctor.
"They want to kill you," replied the officer. "They may kill me too."
"But you're an officer," said Ohry. "They're just fellahin [peasants]."
The officer nodded. Then, signaling to his driver, he yanked Ohry to his feet and the three ran to the jeep amid the falling shells. As they sped off, the officer, sitting in the rear, blindfolded Ohry who was sitting next to the driver and tied his hands behind him. They reached a place where, by the sounds, there were a lot of soldiers. The officer took leave of Ohry who was led to a shell hole and told to sit. From time to time he was given water. Finally the blindfold was removed. Hundreds of soldiers, it seemed, stood around him. His face was blackened and his clothes covered with blood from the men he had treated.
Someone asked Ohry his name, rank and serial number. When he said he was a doctor, a soldier was called forward, apparently a medic. The soldier, who spoke English well, said he would ask some questions to test Ohry's medical knowledge. "What do you take for heartburn?" he began. Ohry signaled that he could not speak and asked for a pencil and paper. These were supplied and he was able to furnish answers to the medic's satisfaction.
They were near the canal and Ohry was led on foot to a boat which ferried him across. As he was being lifted out on the other side, he fell into the water, his hands still bound. Someone reached down and pulled him back up by his hair.
In a prison hospital in Cairo a few hours later, the Egyptian doctor examining him, a Coptic Christian, correctly diagnosed bronchitis. An Israeli prisoner doctor was also summoned to the bedside. After examining Ohry, he said to the Egyptian in English: "He's not going to make it." Forcing the words out of his mouth, Ohry said, "I'm going to live."
He is today professor of rehabilitation at the Tel Aviv University faculty of medicine, director of rehabilitation at the Reuth Medical Center and a resident of Savyon. Two years ago, he was chosen by his peers of the Israel Medical Association as Israel's representative in the World Medical Association publication "Caring Physicians of the World" honoring physicians in 65 countries for attributes "demonstrating humanity and the core values of medicine."
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.