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(photo credit: IDF file Photo)
Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the jump by paratroopers from the 890th Brigade into the Mitla Pass during the Sinai Campaign.
The decision to drop 382 soldiers 270 kilometers behind enemy lines, followed by a bold - and unauthorized - assault on the strategic mountain pass led by a young Ariel Sharon, put the Arab world on its heels and further solidified the IDF's image as the new, tough kid in a rough neighborhood.
The timing of the anniversary is symbolic, coming as it does after the army's humbling at the hands of Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. With Israel's air of invincibility slipping away, the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Hizbullah, Syria and Iran is becoming reminiscent of the grandiose threats issued by Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser before - rather than after - a confrontation with the Jewish nation.
Uri Dan, 71, a senior correspondent for the NY Post and a Jerusalem Post contributor, participated in the 1956 drop. He flew home from France, where he is promoting his new book about Sharon, to participate in Sunday's ceremony at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
Dan said the decisive leadership displayed by then-prime and defense minister David Ben-Gurion in authorizing the risky operation, and the fearless leadership of Sharon inspired the young paratroopers to extraordinary achievements in the first action of the Sinai Campaign.
On October 29, 1956, the 890th paratrooper brigade under the command of then-Lt.-Col. Rafael Eitan was ferried by 16 Hercules transports to Mitla, a winding 32-km-long pass in the Sinai squeezed between mountains. The drop so close to the Suez Canal - which marked the last time IDF soldiers jumped into combat - served as a pretext for French and British forces to seize control of the waterway shortly after it had been nationalized by Nasser.
"We jumped at five in the afternoon and we landed just in time to see the sun set over the the Suez Canal to the west. After the Egyptians discovered we were there, they started to strafe us with Mig fighter jets and artillery," Dan said.
Sharon's 202nd commando unit was tasked with opening a supply route to the 890th, Uri said. "There were no helicopters back then to bring us supplies.
"I had heard Sharon swear he would reach us within 24 hours, and after defeating three major units along the way he reached us in 30 hours, but we were not mad at him for being late," laughed Dan, who was recently made Jerusalem bureau chief for Fox News.
"Sharon told us we would get a 'big star' like the sheriffs in the Wild West for being the first soldiers in the IDF to jump," said Dan. "I got a red badge instead that I cherish to this day."
Claiming enemy forces were poised to attack his flanks, Sharon defied repeated orders and sent a reconnaissance unit, including a young Dan, through the pass. Paratrooper Maj. Motti Gur commanded the patrol.
"It would be great to look back and say we were not afraid, but I was scared witless," Dan said. "The Egyptians had pulled back so that we would think they had abandoned the pass, but once we got inside they opened up on us."
Dan said the force numbered approximately 200 men; 38 paratroopers were killed and 120 were wounded by relentless Egyptian fire.
"There were Egyptians waiting on both side of the pass. We had no chance," Dan said.
With a reckless gusto that came to define his legendary military career, Sharon immediately ordered his men to storm the pass and rescue their comrades. When the shooting stopped, the paratroopers held the pass.
"And that is why Mitla is one of the most courageous, important paratrooper battles in the history of Israel," Dan said.
"Sharon saved our lives, and that was the difference from the war in Lebanon. Sharon was the guarantor of victory. Every battle he fought, he fought until we emerged victorious. This is the first war in Israel's history that he did not participate in, and you see the result."
What some called heroism, others called insubordination. Sharon infuriated his superiors by sending the patrol through the pass, and several years later his rise through the ranks was hindered when junior officers said the scouts were deliberately sent in to provoke the Egyptian fire.
In any case, the IDF's daring during the Sinai Campaign set the tone for an innovative and courageous command doctrine that peaked when the Jewish state utterly dominated multiple Arab armies in the Six Day War.
But Sharon the bulldozer is gone, and with him the offensive style that once was the trademark of the IDF, not long ago widely considered as pound-for-pound the best military force in the world. In sharp contrast to Sharon's seeming recklessness at Mitla, troubling revelations of indecisive ground commanders tip-toeing around southern Lebanon are emerging from the war that began on July 12 when Hizbullah guerrillas snatched reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and killed three of their comrades in a bold cross-border attack.
Indeed, there are voices within the ranks saying they have lost faith in the upper echelons of the military as a result of the conflict, where perceived hesitation and a defensive mentality yielded poor results in a war that remains unfinished. The soldiers say this indecision ultimately led to greater losses then would have a spirited - albeit sometimes reckless - offense like those made by the IDF of yore.
"We felt as if we had to take it upon ourselves to survive," said Daniel, 27, a reservist paratrooper in Brigade 623, which fought in the central sector in Lebanon.
With a wave of his hand he dismissed reports that reservists lacked essential equipment, food and water. "You think Hizbullah was eating any better?" he asked. "We just wanted to fight until we got our soldiers back.
"They abandoned us there. You expect your commanders to put you in a position to fight and to win. In Lebanon, we were playing for a tie."