The Yom Kippur War: Glimmers of humanity in a brutal battle

Reflections on life from both sides of the conflict.

General Ariel Sharon and chief of southern command, Aluf Shmuel Gonen, visiting an IDF outpost in the Sinai (photo credit: GPO)
General Ariel Sharon and chief of southern command, Aluf Shmuel Gonen, visiting an IDF outpost in the Sinai
(photo credit: GPO)
With dawn, Avi Ohri struggled to his feet and looked about him. Fort Hizayon was a total ruin. Men from the command bunker lay dead in the courtyard, their hands tied behind them. All the other Israelis in the Suez Canal fort were either also dead, or had been taken captive. There was no sign of the Egyptian soldiers to whom the garrison had surrendered.
The night before, a flamethrower fired into the medical bunker killed everyone except Ohri, who had been napping at the far end. His lungs were seared and he was desperately thirsty.
As he staggered out the fort entrance, an Egyptian armored personnel carrier approached. A squad of soldiers descended and formed a line. Facing Ohri, they took magazines out of their pouches and slammed them into their Kalachnikovs. Ohri tried to shout that he was a doctor, but no words came out of his burned throat. He felt like a gasping fish.
Suddenly, a jeep dashed up the road and stopped between him and the soldiers. An officer descended. He approached Ohri, who slid to the ground, his legs no longer able to support him. The officer tossed a canteen to the Israeli, who gulped down its contents and asked for another, then another. The officer came forward and offered him a biscuit, but Ohri could not get it down his throat. “More water,” he whispered.
Meanwhile, the soldiers from the personnel carrier approached. One kicked Ohri, then a second. Others were about to join in when shells exploded. Everyone ran into the fort and took shelter in the trenches. Ohri was with the officer and his driver, the others some distance away. Ohri 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 Ohri. “They’re just fellahin (peasants).”
The officer nodded. Then, signaling to his driver, he yanked Ohri to his feet and the three ran to the jeep amid the falling shells. As they sped off, the officer blindfolded Ohri and tied his hands. When the jeep stopped, the officer took leave of the Israeli, who was led to a shell hole and told to sit.
From time to time he was given water. When the blindfold was removed, scores of soldiers were looking down at him. His face was blackened and his clothes were covered with the blood of wounded men he had treated.
Someone asked Ohri his name, rank and serial number. When he said he was a doctor, a soldier was called forward, apparently a medic. The soldier spoke English well and said he would test Ohri’s medical knowledge. “What do you take for heartburn?” he began. Ohri asked for a pencil and paper. He was able to furnish answers to the medic’s satisfaction.
They were near the Suez Canal and Ohri was led to a boat, which ferried him across. As he was being lifted out, 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, the Egyptian doctor examining him, a Christian Copt, diagnosed bronchitis. An Israeli captive doctor standing alongside said to the Egyptian: “He’s not going to make it.” Forcing his words out, Ohri said “I’m going to live.” (Ohri would recover and have a distinguished medical career.)
EGYPTIAN TELEVISION cameraman Mohammed Gohar had been hastily dispatched from Cairo to film Israeli POWs. The results were to be flown to Amman that day and shown on Jordanian television, which could be picked up in Israel.
The 21-year-old cameraman was led to a group of prisoners. They sat in rows – unshaven, heads bowed, with the vacant look of men who have surrendered to their fate. Egyptian soldiers were milling about. Gohar asked his military escort to have the soldiers moved away. Also the wounded prisoners.
That done, he examined those remaining. There were 16 in all, and he made his calculations about light and camera angles.
Before beginning to shoot, he looked at the prisoners again, this time not with the camera’s eye but his own. It was, he realized, the first time he had ever seen Israelis. He had never even seen a photograph of one. He knew only the grotesque cartoons in Cairo newspapers of Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir.
He was astonished to see that the soldiers looked perfectly normal – in fact, like himself. They were about his age, and many of them had olive skin like him. The expression they wore was what he expected his would be in their situation.
Some raised their heads and look at him quizzically. He understood what they were thinking, and from eye contact he believed they were beginning to understand something of what he was thinking.
Gohar would in time become the official photographer of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. But from that moment on the bank of the Suez Canal, at the high point of Egyptian military achievement, he became a believer in peace with Israel.
FOR SOLDIERS on both sides of the Yom Kippur War, the conflict left mental scars that would be long in healing, if healed at all. Lt. Shimon Maliach, a paratrooper who had fought at the Chinese Farm, was haunted by the memory of Lt. Rabinowitz, whom he had left wounded on the battlefield. One of the doctors to whom the traumatized Maliach told the story in the hospital found Rabinowitz alive in a Beersheba hospital and brought Maliach a tape recording from him. He had managed to crawl to the rear before the Egyptians reached him.
Two years later, returning from a visit to the Golan, Maliach entered a restaurant in Haifa and noticed a mother and young boy sitting at the far end of the room. Across the table from them was a man with red hair, his back to the door. The boy was about two years old. Maliach instantly thought of his gravely wounded red-haired comrade who had told him he wanted to live because his wife was due to give birth. Maliach could not see the face of the man across the restaurant but ran up to him shouting “Rabinowitz.” It was indeed him. The two men embraced and wept and told each other their stories and wept again.
Maliach no longer prayed on Yom Kippur. He would spend the day alone, sometimes in an empty apartment, sometimes in the Judean Desert, where he would upbraid God for what he had permitted to happen.
SGT. MUHMAD NADEH had not despaired of God, but he had come to despair of life. Even after the ceasefire, the soldiers of Egypt’s Third Army remained surrounded in the desert. In a fanciful bit of escapism, Nadeh drew up a list of his favorite music, plays, films and books. Almost all were Western. The Koran and its Modern Interpretation, third on his literary list, was the only Arabic entry.
Nadeh recorded in his diary that his commander had demoted him to private and struck him for refusing to work because he was ill. Ten days later, Nadeh and six comrades crossed the canal at night in an effort to infiltrate through the Israeli lines. In an encounter with an Israeli patrol, they were all killed. The diary found on Sgt. Nadeh’s body was handed over to intelligence officers.
Six years later, two Israeli journalists, who obtained the diary from the army, traveled to a slum in Alexandria to hand it over to Nadeh’s parents. The parents agreed to publication of excerpts. These included a last will and testament in English. “When the moment comes, remember me,” it said. “I fought for my country. Millions of my countrymen dream of peace. It may be that the unknown is beautiful. But the present is more beautiful.”
EVEN BEFORE the shooting had completely stopped, there were glimmers of recognition in both camps of the human face in the foxhole opposite.
An infantry company besieging Suez City exchanged fire with Egyptian troops despite the ceasefire, until a UN force inserted itself between them. The Egyptians were the first to react. Laying down their weapons, they passed through the UN line to reach the Israelis opposite.
The company commander radioed battalion to report that his position was inundated by unarmed Egyptian soldiers. “Take them prisoner,” said the commander.
“They don’t want to surrender,” said the company commander. “They want to shake hands.” Some of them, he reported, were kissing Israeli soldiers. Shouts from Egyptian officers brought the men back.
A few days later, when an entertainment troupe performed for the company, their songs included one from the Six Day War, mocking Egyptian soldiers who fled the battlefield. After the show, members of the unit urged the troupe to drop that song from their repertoire. After three weeks of grueling battle, such derision of the enemy was jarring.
The morning after the ceasefire was declared, Capt. Gideon Shamir was deploying his paratroop company along a spur of the Sweetwater Canal near Ismailia when he saw Egyptian commandos encamped in an orchard 100 yards away. The ceasefire was already being violated elsewhere along the line, and Shamir, from a religious kibbutz, was determined to avoid unnecessary casualties.
Taking a soldier who spoke Arabic, he descended into a ditch, shouting to the Egyptians as he approached: “Cease fire; peace.” The ditch provided ready cover, if needed, but the commandos permitted the two Israelis to approach. They summoned their company commander, who introduced himself as Major Ali. Shamir said it would be foolish for anyone to get hurt now. Ali agreed.
In the coming days, soldiers from both sides ventured into the clearing and fraternized. Before long, they were meeting daily to brew up coffee and play backgammon. Soccer games followed. Men came to know each other’s first names and showed off pictures of wives and girlfriends. There was even a kumzitz, with the Egyptians slaughtering a sheep and Shamir’s men contributing food parcels from home.
Word of the local armistice spread, and even Gen. Sharon came to see what was going on. In a discussion with Ali one day, Shamir asked about an editorial in a Cairo newspaper, reported on Israel Radio, asserting that Cairo would never recognize Israel.
“That’s just propaganda,” said the major. ”The truth is that we want peace and we’re moving toward it.”
“Why doesn’t Sadat say so?” asked Shamir.
“He’s a new leader, and although some of the intelligentsia support him, his problem is to win the support of the common people, who are still hypnotized by the figure of Nasser.”
A year before, said Ali, he had participated in a meeting of officers with Sadat. Ali was then a captain and the lowest-ranking officer present. “Sadat said that we have to concern ourselves with Egypt’s internal development, and that if Israel would show serious intentions of withdrawing from Sinai, he would talk with it.”
Said Ali: “After a year or two, we will travel to Tel Aviv, and you to Cairo.”
The day after the disengagement agreement was signed, Ali brought his battalion commander and a colonel, whose branch was not made clear, to meet Shamir. Before departing, the Egyptian officers said they hoped that relations between the two countries would come to resemble the relations between Shamir and Ali’s men.
The Egyptian commandos and the Israeli paratroopers were at the spearheads of their respective armies. That these motivated fighters, left to themselves, chose at first opportunity to lay aside their weapons and break bread on the battlefield was testimony to what the war had wrought.
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War, The Boats of Cherbourg and The Battle for Jerusalem.
He can be reached at [email protected]