For almost two weeks before the Yom Kippur War, Maj.-Gen.Yitzhak Hofi, who died this Monday at 87, was the only member of the IDF General Staff who believed that the Arabs were preparing to attack.
As commander of the Northern Front, Hofi could see from Mount Hermon the three Syrian divisions between the Golan Heights and Damascus deploying more tanks and artillery than ever before. What worried him most was the presence of SAM-6 anti-aircraft batteries unusually close to the front.
The SAM-6 was the most advanced of the Soviet-made missiles in Arab hands, and the air force had no ready solution for it. The missiles’ forward deployment meant that the batteries covered not only the Syrian front line but the skies over the Golan as well. Were the Syrians thinking of sending ground forces onto the Golan? Hofi did not believe that the Arabs were ready for all-out war, just six years after the Six Day War.
But they might attempt to capture an Israeli settlement or an army outpost. The Syrians had 800 tanks and thousands of infantrymen in attack position. All he had was an understrength armored brigade, the 188th, with 77 tanks, as well as 200 infantrymen dispersed in 10 small outposts. The Syrian front was only 400 meters from his. In a worst-case situation, he would normally rely on the air force to stop a Syrian attack. But with the SAM-6s, this was no longer certain.
The General Staff, of course, knew all this, but it was assured by the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.- Gen. Eli Zeira, that the Arabs would not be ready for war for at least two years. Hofi was not reassured. Neither were the front-line troops on the Golan and along the Suez Canal who were told that the massing of enemy forces that they could see was only a routine military exercise.
To many of them, the signs of war were clear.
At a meeting of the General Staff on September 24, 1973, three days before Rosh Hashana, Hofi asked permission to deviate from the agenda, which was devoted to the acquisition of warplanes. The Syrians, he said, were in position to strike without warning. He questioned whether his thin forces could stop them without substantial reinforcement. As the discussion went around the table, none of the other generals related to Hofi’s remark. However, defense minister Moshe Dayan, who happened to attend the meeting, called the officers to order as it was about to end.
“The General Staff can’t let [Hofi’s] remarks pass without comment,” he said. “If what he says holds water, we need a plan for dealing with it.” Even though the threat of war was not taken seriously, the 7th Armored Brigade was duly ordered to the Golan. The last of its tanks would reach the heights Yom Kippur morning, October 6.
At 2 p.m. on the holy day, the Syrians struck, in coordination with a massive Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal. Israel had been caught by surprise, with its reserves, twothirds of the army, unmobilized.
By early evening, the southern half of the Golan had been breached. Three hundred Syrians tanks had crossed the line, and there were fewer than 30 tanks from the 188th Brigade left to oppose them, ammunition almost gone. The newly arrived 7th Brigade, holding the northern half of the line, was still largely intact but under heavy pressure. Reserve forces were organizing in the Galilee but would probably not reach the Golan till the next afternoon.
Dayan helicoptered up to Northern Command at dawn and was taken aback by the gloom. Hofi told him bluntly that the Golan might have to be abandoned. “Only the air force can stop them,” he said.
Trucks were evacuating intelligence documents from divisional headquarters on the heights, and rear echelon soldiers had begun to fall back on their own.
It was not until noon that Hofi, who had been awake all night, could lie down for a nap. He was roused by Brig.-Gen. Moshe “Moussa” Peled, commander of the reserve 319th Armor Division which had been ordered north by Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar.
“Where do you want me?” Peled asked. Hofi told him to set up a defense line along the Jordan River at the foot of the Golan, inside Israel proper. Peled was shocked by this implied abandonment of the Golan. “I believe we have to attack,” he said. Hofi looked calm but Peled believed he was laboring under the strain of the apocalyptic events of the past day. Hofi agreed to wait until former IDF chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, acting as a trouble shooter for Elazar, arrived in a few hours. When he did, Bar-Lev opted for Peled’s plan. Peled’s tanks would mount the heights from the southern end and drive north, cutting the Syrian supply lines. With his attack, the tide would begin to turn.
Dayan had found Hofi to be “collapsing, tired, worn out” from the unrelenting pressure. A veteran officer was appointed his deputy, to serve as a steadying hand. However, Hofi himself steadied as the reserves began to arrive and the Syrian drive was halted. Responding to later criticism of Hofi, his staff officers would testify that he had performed coolly and competently despite the extraordinary circumstances.
His most critical contribution to the war, however, had been his plea at the General Staff two weeks before. The 7th Brigade, which his words conjured up, saved the Golan by holding on until the reserves arrived.
As eventful as Hofi’s military career had been, his life took an even more adventurous turn in 1974 when he doffed his uniform and was appointed head of the Mossad by his old Palmah comrade, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Hofi’s watch would include the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation and secret contacts in Morocco that would lead eventually to the Egypt-Israel peace accord in 1979.
Veteran Mossad watcher, journalist Amir Oren described him this week as one of the two best leaders in the Mossad’s history.
Abraham Rabinovich, a former Jerusalem Post reporter, is author of The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East.