My Golani Brigade unit stationed itself at Tel Shams. We received supplies, fresh fruit and vegetables. We received ammunition and clean work uniforms. Packages and letters from home began to arrive. We shared everything.
Some of our squads established forward operating bases, some with as little as a few empty 55 gallon fuel drums, others in abandoned Syrian bunkers in the middle of nowhere. We began a series of nighttime long-range reconnaissance patrols. We were all of 20 kilometers from Damascus, and with powerful binoculars we could see the outskirts of that city.
Dressed only in our uniforms, with everything we needed on our backs, we would walk for hours until we reached a designated coordinate. We spread out and we waited, bathed in sweat. The ground had turned cold during October on the Syrian plateau, and after an hour or so, prone, focused on whatever might move, I began to shiver from the cold night air. There was no relief until we headed back, with the weight of equipment and the walking eventually bathing us in sweat again.
It was on the way back from one of these long-range reconnaissance patrols that we came under fire from Syrian commandos. A huge fireball exploded behind me. It was from an RPG fired by one of the Syrians. Our squad’s machine gunner opened fire with his Belgian FN MAG, as did the rest of us with our personal weapons. Within minutes the remaining Syrian commandos surrendered and we escorted them back to Tel Shams, to hand them over to our intelligence officers later that morning.
The Syrian army established a pattern that followed us well past the October 25 1973 ceasefire date. Whenever the skies were clear, whenever there was no precipitation, rain during October and November, and snow later on, we could count on bombardments from Syrian artillery. All was quiet when it rained or snowed. We prayed for rain, and later on we prayed for snow.
Word spread quickly that our IDF had been forced into the October 25 ceasefire. Diplomatic pressure had been brought to bear upon Golda Meir’s government by then secretary of state Henry Kissinger. He acted upon the instructions of President Richard Nixon. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had sent President Nixon a letter threatening to intervene in the conflict. Perhaps too much Soviet equipment had fallen into Israeli hands. Perhaps too many military secrets would be shared by Israel with the USA.
My squad moved from Tel Shams to one of the abandoned Syrian bunkers that lay a few miles to the north-east. We established a series of 48 hour leaves. It would take me that long to reach my kibbutz, just a mile and a half north of the Gaza strip, shower, and come right back again.
It was on my very first leave, during the first few days of November 1973, that I found out about three more casualties from my kibbutz. The news was devastating. Of the four members of my kibbutz killed in the war, two were married, their children now orphaned. Two were young men, barely past their teens.
With a duffle bag filled with clean socks and work uniforms, along with all manner of cookies and other snacks for my Golani brothers, I headed back north to the warm reception of my squad brothers. A new set of orders awaited me. Under Israel’s emergency laws, I would not be released from my mandatory service. I would remain in uniform indefinitely.
The ceasefire between Syria and Israel was a fragile one. We continued our night patrols and posted guards at a number of points along the road leading to Damascus. Two events stand out in my memory, the first being that one morning we saw a lone figure walking from the Syrian side towards us. As the young man approached we saw that he was not armed. One of my friends, fluent in Arabic, asked the young man, “Where do you think you’re going?” to which the Syrian replied that he was on his way to see his brother, supposedly at Tel Shams. No one on the Syrian side had bothered to inform this young man that he was heading directly into Israeli hands. We made arrangements to transfer him to our military intelligence after offering him water and food.
The second event taught me just how easy it was to make mistakes. After a night of lying in wait, ready to ambush any Syrian patrol that might attempt to do harm, the order came in, just after 3 a.m., to “fold” and return to the forward operating base we now called “home”. A small squad to the north of us began its way back, but neglected to notify my squad, still prone, not locked but loaded with a round in the chamber. At the last moment I recognized the distinctive gait of S., who led his squad right past our position. With a rapid series of signals I let my squad know that these were not Syrian soldiers.
Later, safely back in the bunker, I let S. know how close he had come to dying as a result of “friendly fire”. My platoon settled into that routine for the next seven months. I could not imagine what lay ahead.