‘How fast can you run?’ A soldier remembers

Under Ariel Sharon, Zvi Rome chased terrorists in Gaza, demolished land mines in Sinai and, in '73, crossed the Suez Canal

There’s a saying in Hebrew that connotes unswerving loyalty and self-sacrifice. Roughly translated, it means: “Through fire and water.”

My husband Zvi did both – literally – for Arik Sharon; the controversial warrior, commander and prime minister who was laid for his final rest Monday, borne on the shoulders of officers of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) General Staff.

A simple soldier on active duty with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 1969-1972, Zvi was hand-picked to join Sayeret Shaked, an anti-terror commando force personally designed by Sharon, then commander of Israel’s Southern Command.

Sharon’s Sayeret was commanded by Benjamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, now a veteran lawmaker, former defense minister and candidate to succeed Shimon Peres as Israel’s next president. During Israel’s so-called War of Attrition, the Sayeret distinguished itself by adapting modern methods to age-old guerilla warfare as it hunted down terrorists in the dunes of Sinai, the mountains of Biblical Edom and along the monotonous sands of the long Arava plain bordering Israel and Jordan.

Sayeret desert patrols trained camels to ride in specially-rigged command cars that would rush them and their Bedouin trackers to the last known sight of cross-border intrusion; a modern twist on ancient reconnaissance.

They were steeped in Sharon’s doctrine of proactive, probing operations deep in enemy territory; never stopping until the mission was complete; yet never leaving anyone behind. Their training, while hard and painful, paid off in operations, where they reflexively prevailed through the inevitable fog of war.

When back at base, they’d just as soon raid a warehouse of a well-stocked unit nearby rather than wait for the bureaucrats to resupply them with needed equipment. But as lenient as Sharon was for his boys in Shaked, there would be hell to pay if any of them exaggerated, misrepresented or attempted to obfuscate operational failings in after action reports.

From their base at Beit Kama, near the southern desert town of Beersheba, Zvi and mates from the Sayeret’s Company B made nightly raids into Jordan, ambushing Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters backed by Saudi forces who repeatedly attempted infiltrations and mortar strikes against civilian and industrial targets on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea.

By the end of 1970, as the Hashemite Kingdom reasserted control over its shared desert border with Israel, Zvi redeployed with what remained of Company B to northern Gaza. By that time, casualties and reassignments had reduced the company to a point where they could all fit into a single command car.

But despite their dwindled force strength, the Company B warriors eagerly awaited their new mission, where Sharon – according to his 1989 autobiography Warrior – taught them “to think as if they themselves were hunted terrorists.”

Together with Fuad – and later on Danny Matt (Wolf) — Sharon trained parts of the Sayeret to talk, dress and act like locals; it was one of the first undercover units of the IDF. Others — like my husband and mates from Class of ’69 Company B — operated in uniforms considered deviant at the time, but much more appropriate for chasing terrorists through Gaza’s congested camps and alleyways.

With Sharon’s blessing, they ditched awkward fitting helmets, heavy red combat boots and cumbersome gear for sneakers, a grenade and two extra clips for their personal Kalashnikovs.

In less than a year – from spring of 1971 to early 1972 — Sayeret Shaked arrested or killed all but about eight of the 308 terrorists on their mission list, performing much of the heavy lifting for Sharon’s Gaza-wide counter-terror clean-up campaign which ultimately claimed 104 kills and 742 arrests.

In his autobiography, Sharon credited his Gaza cleanup operations for a decade of calm. “For ten years afterward, there was no terrorism in Gaza; it was completely peaceful,” he wrote. “Achieving this had required innovation and imagination. But more than that, it had required the will to fight these people and destroy them. It also required a struggle against the inertia of the army, the inevitable tendency of any army toward organization and regularity and order – exactly the characteristics that soldiers must shed to become – as I called them – anti-terror guerillas… capable of creating a new situation for every terrorist every day.”

At least three layers of command separated my husband – a humble sergeant — from the beloved theater commander. Nevertheless, he remembers Sharon as being ever-present in the field, reassuring the young soldiers with that curiously soft voice that belied his booming persona and bear of an appetite.

Sharon’s visits to the base always began with what the guys called “hamim v’tayim” – “hot and tasty” — knowing full well that business would have to wait until that beast of an appetite was sufficiently fed.

During Zvi’s stint in Gaza, he had two up close and personal encounters with Sharon.

Zvi Rome served under Ariel Shaked in Sayeret Shaked (photo: courtesy Barbara Opall-Rome)
Zvi Rome served under Ariel Sharon in Sayeret Shaked (photo: courtesy of Barbara Opall-Rome)

The first followed an early morning event in Khan Yunis, when a local taxi driver stopped some 10 meters from the jeep Zvi and two buddies were patrolling in. The taxi driver got out, hurled a grenade in their direction and immediately ran away. While the buddy in the back seat instinctively caught the grenade and threw it out, Zvi took off in pursuit of the attacker.

“But he’s alive!”

After a quick chase and warning shots, he found the guy hiding in a local courtyard, on his knees with hands up. Zvi cuffed him and brought him back to the company commander.

A short while later, Sharon’s chopper landed near the command post, wanting to hear first-hand of the morning’s event. As the theater commander sat down for the requisite “warm and tasty,” Zvi remembers Sharon asking what they did with the body.

“When I pointed to the Palestinian in the corner who was still cuffed and on his knees, Arik looked at me and the other guys in utter exasperation, saying more to himself than to us: ‘But he’s alive!’”

“How fast can you run?”

Zvi’s second close encounter with Sharon involved a demolition mission in Sinai, where local Bedouin had collected dud land mines they apparently planned to sell on the black market. Zvi, an explosives expert (and sharpshooter), was tapped for the job.

Again, the chopper landed at their base in Beit Kama, and Zvi joined Sharon and other officers for an overflight of the site. “I remember we flew in silence over vast stretches of golden sand until we suddenly saw this huge dark pile of metal down below. Arik watched me as I was going through my inventory of fuses, trying to decide which would be best suited for the job… Apparently they all looked too short to him, because Arik turned to me and asked, ‘How fast do you run?’

“When I responded, ‘With or without shoes?’, he ordered me to leave all unnecessary gear behind.

Sharon took off in his chopper while Zvi was still at work rigging the pile and did not witness the detonation itself. In hindsight, Zvi concedes that was probably a good thing, since several of the duds didn’t blow up, but flew straight up in the air, forcing him to dodge 15-kilo plates falling from the sky.

Crossing the canal

Later, as a reservist in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Zvi was part of Battalion 3, Brigade 421 of Armored Division 143 that Sharon led across the Suez Canal to ultimately encircle the Third Egyptian Army.

In the chaos of the time, Zvi was attached to a reconnaissance company of the armored battalion of then Lt. Col. Shimon Ben-Shoshan rather than Sayeret Shaked, which was then commanded by Amatzia Chen. After receiving a circa-World War II Belgian FN rifle and assigned to an obsolete chain-tracked APC, Zvi set out on Saturday night, Oct. 6 for the eight hour-or-so trek to the canal.

Along with the rest of Division 143, Zvi waited on the Israeli side for ten days until Sharon defied orders and started his advance across the canal. He remembers it taking “only minutes” to cross, but an eternity to erase the horror inflicted on IDF tank crews by Egypt’s Soviet-supplied shoulder-fired Sagger anti-tank missiles.

For several days, Zvi worked on adrenaline and very little rations guarding tanks moving forward and driving back and forth across the IDF-laid bridge transporting wounded to evacuation points.

At one point, he led a squad ordered to clear out bunkers from an abandoned Egyptian Air Force SAM-2 base. The first of two squads to arrive on the scene, Zvi remembers seeing one missile affixed to its launcher, ready for firing.

This was to be the third event triggering contact with the commander and renegade warrior credited with turning the tide of the war.

“Who the hell shot that missile?”

Zvi remembers the two squads wrestling with a dilemma. Should they proceed directly to their assigned mission of bunker-clearing and leave that huge missile as is? What if someone on the Egyptian side managed to launch it before IDF specialists could neutralize it properly? After two weeks of watching Israel Air Force fighters at work over the canal, all were loath to have even one more pilot put at risk.

“Nobody could agree on what to do, so I eventually decided to try to blow it up,” Zvi recalled.

“The problem was that all I had was an ancient 03 gun, which was good for nothing beyond 100 meters. I managed to hit the engine and we all waited to see what would happen. Nothing. So we started talking amongst ourselves what to do next when suddenly we saw green smoke, and then red smoke, and then the missile took off like crazy, doing figure-eights in the sky.”

Back at their command cars, it wasn’t long before Zvi and his squad mates heard that familiar voice through the clutter of their radios fixed on Channel 40 asking: “Who the hell shot that missile?”

Zvi spent half a year inside Egypt, and his reconnaissance company of Ben-Shoshan’s armored battalion was one of the last to leave Sinai.

He remembers fondly his last encounter as a soldier under Sharon’s command.

It was Jan 20 in Sinai. The entire division had gathered to cheer their wartime commander, who was formally departing the IDF for a career in politics.

After 40 years, Zvi couldn’t possibly remember his commander’s parting words, but they were easily located in Warrior, Sharon’s autobiography, an excerpt of which follows:

“We fought. Hundreds of our best fighters fell in battle, and many more were wounded. But we won. You won, despite everything. And you did it with devotion and self-sacrifice, with stubbornness and valor.”

What Zvi does remember, after 40 years, is the tears blurring his vision as he watched Sharon standing erect in the back of an M113 APC driving away, in a firm final salute.

About the Author
Barbara Opall-Rome, a 25-year veteran reporter on defense and security issues, is Israel Bureau Chief for Defense News, a Washington, DC-based international weekly. She appears regularly on i24 News as a commentator on strategic-political affairs.
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