By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH
Was Ashraf Marwan's war warning significant, given that it arrived only a few hours before the Arab attack? Public discussion about Marwan has focused almost entirely on the espionage aspect and not on the operational consequences of his warning. An analysis of the fighting, however, can conclude with a high degree of likelihood that Marwan saved the Golan Heights for Israel.
His message reached Tel Aviv about 4:30 a.m. on Yom Kippur morning. At a crowded meeting in prime minister Golda Meir's office in Tel Aviv which began at 8 a.m., she heard defense minister Moshe Dayan oppose mobilization on the grounds that war was not certain, while chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar urged immediate mobilization. About 9 a.m., Meir decided in Elazar's favor.
Marwan's message indicated that war would start at 6 p.m. In fact it began at 2 p.m. This still left five hours after Meir's decision for the mobilization process to get into gear before the sirens sounded.
When the Syrians struck, reserve tank units were already organizing in camps at the foot of the Golan and elsewhere in the Galilee, the men shedding civilian clothes for uniforms and arming and fueling their tanks. In furious battles during the day, the regular army units on the front line held the Syrians at bay. But with darkness, the Syrians began to penetrate through gaps in the line.
The first reserve unit to reach the Heights was a rapid reaction tank force of company strength which crossed the Bnot Ya'acov Bridge and went into action against a large Syrian force on the Tapline Road about 10:30 p.m., only some 13 hours after mobilization began. The unit was almost completely wiped out in a few minutes, but Syrian movement was halted in this sector.
A three-tank reservist platoon was dispatched across Arik Bridge and up the Yehudia Road close to midnight. As they climbed, the lieutenant in charge, who had not commanded a tank in years, tried to remember how the radio worked and the proper way of issuing orders. When they reached they top, they almost immediately engaged in a skirmish with Syrian tanks which went on for much of the night.
Dawn revealed the extent of the Syrian breakthrough. Much of the southern Golan had fallen and the remaining IDF forces faced overwhelming odds. OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi told Dayan that he was not certain he could hold. Dayan helicoptered up to see for himself. From Northern Command, he telephoned air force commander Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled to urge him to send aircraft north. "The Third Temple is in danger," he said, referring to the state of Israel. Sam-6 missiles downed six Phantoms in the first attack. Against these sophisticated defenses, the air force could do little to stop the Syrian tanks.
Preparations were begun to evacuate the Golan. At 4:30 a.m. Northern Command ordered documents brought down from army bases. Dayan ordered the Jordan River bridges mined in the event that the Syrians attempted to continue their attack into Israel. Bulldozers were deployed to cut the roads leading down from the Heights.
Meanwhile, scattered elements of a reserve brigade commanded by Col. Ori Orr crossed the Bnot Ya'acov Bridge and began to mount the Heights. As they approached the main IDF base at Nafakh, they found Syrian tanks on the camp's perimeter, firing into it. In brutal battles, Orr's tanks managed to push the Syrians back and form a thin line.
Maj.-Gen. Dan Laner, commanding a newly formed reserve division, positioned himself near Arik Bridge in a half-track with radios and maps. Like a fire chief directing his engines to a five-alarm fire, he channeled the reserve units streaming in from around the Galilee up an array of roads to battle sectors. A brigade directed up the Gamla ascent found a Syrian brigade already occupying the high ground with a view of Lake Kinneret and Tiberias. In a grinding uphill battle, the reservists pushed the Syrians back.
Almost all reservist tanks went into battle lacking equipment from maps to machine guns. Pressed to make all possible speed, virtually none took time to boresight their guns before reaching the battlefield, a vital procedure aligning the sight and the gun.
By nightfall, the reserve units had carved out a tenuous foothold on the Heights. The Syrians were still full of fight and had yet to throw into battle two large divisions, but their initial drive had been stopped and the battle lines would now shift steadily eastward toward Damascus.
The battle for the Golan had hung by a thread, one no thicker than the few hours of warning Marwan had provided.
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