(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A special connection between Ariel Sharon and Meir Dagan was forged in the groves of the Gaza Strip. In the early 1970s, Palestinian terrorism raised its ugly head in the Strip. It began with the murder of Gazan laborers working in Israel, and soon had the whole of the local population living in fear. The shocking brutality with which Palestinians treat each other, like the brutality we are seeing from Arabs and Muslims in general, raises painful questions about the possibility of our ever being able to live in this region without having to keep our weapons close at hand.
Anyone suspected of collaborating with Israel was executed barbarically.
Some of the bodies were left hanging on a pole in the middle of a refugee camp as a potent warning. Gazan prostitutes were charged with collaboration and murdered as well.
That was the setting that brought Meir and Arik together. If it weren’t for the complex military action required, for which no conventional strategy was suitable, it’s doubtful they would ever have met. The situation made it imperative to come up with new tactics for striking at terrorists who were hiding among a dense civilian population.
That need led to the encounter between Sharon, the head of the army’s Southern Command, and Dagan, the young captain he assigned to lead the undercover Rimon Unit, whose soldiers disguised themselves as Arabs. The connection between them would last for decades to come, and was based not only on friendship but on deep mutual respect and absolute trust born on the battlefield.
Under Dagan’s command, the Rimon Unit sent out squads of four to five soldiers each, consisting both of Jews and of Israeli Beduin or Druze, and even some former terrorists who had switched sides. Dagan and his men displayed enormous courage, spending long periods among the terrorists, supposedly in hiding after avoiding capture by the Israeli army.
Claiming to have come from Lebanon by boat, they made contact with the terrorists and took them out.
It took seven months for the Rimon Unit and the Sayeret Shaked special forces unit to complete the mission.
Each commander had a list of names of wanted terrorists in his pocket. At the start of the operation there were 110 names on the list; at the end only 10 had not been crossed off. Altogether, 104 terrorists were killed and over 700 captured. The injury to civilians was minimal. To the best of my knowledge, in the course of the seven months of combat in harsh conditions, fighting in densely populated areas and thick groves, only two civilians were killed. One was a suspected terrorist, but it was later learned that he was deaf and had not heard the order to halt; the other was a woman used as a shield by a terrorist who was firing on the soldiers from behind her.
As of February 1972, the Gaza Strip was quiet, and remained so for many years, in fact until December 1987.
The second dramatic encounter between Arik and Meir was in the Yom Kippur War. When the war broke out, Meir was a student at the Command and Staff College. Together with Amatzia Chen, known as Patzi, he arrived at the front in an Israeli-made fiberglass Carmel car, and they took their places in the command post of Sharon’s division. Nobody called them, but they came. That was the sort of people they were; that was the sort of man Meir was.
The “Patzi Force,” led by Chen, Meir and Danny Wolf, was an ad hoc team of outstanding soldiers who wiped out Egyptian artillery officers and commandos.
They were available for whatever Sharon needed from them. At the very start of the fighting, Patzi, Dagan and Wolf, on their own, attacked and killed eight Egyptian soldiers who were shelling the command post. Five days later, together with their men, they brought down 100 commandos in a single night.
Arik believed in Meir. Trusting in his sharp mind, abundant experience, integrity and courage, he appointed him head of the Mossad. Meir proved that the faith placed in him was justified, just as he had when Arik chose him to lead the Rimon Unit 30 years earlier. He brought all his virtues to bear in his new post, and it came as no surprise to anyone when his tenure was extended twice. The story of Israel is the story of extraordinary people like Meir Dagan, who became legends in their own lifetime.