A few years ago I attended a wedding here in Israel where just before the ceremony the brother of the bride lit a memorial candle for their father who was killed in the Yom Kippur War. Decades later the echoes of the Yom Kippur War are still felt in Israel.
The Yom Kippur War began 43 years ago on October 6, 1973 on the Jewish Day of Atonement and was the fiercest Arab-Israeli war since the War of Independence in 1948. Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, catching Israel off guard. Committing the cardinal sin of warfare, Israeli Intelligence and strategic planners underestimated their enemy, convincing themselves that the Arabs lacked the ability to alter their combat methods. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal at five points and Syrian forces attacked at two points on the Golan Heights.
Eventually, after absorbing horrendous losses, on the northern front Israeli troops pushed the Syrians back to the cease-fire line by October 10 despite the arrival of Iraqi troops to support the Syrians. By October 12, the Israelis had advanced to within 40 kilometers of Damascus. This was in a large part due to the bravery of the Armoured Corps. In particular, the inspirational leadership and courage and personal example of both Avigdor Kahalani and Tzvika Greengold, who led their severely outnumbered, and outgunned exhausted troops and helped stem the Syrian onslaught until the reserves arrived, stand out. Both were awarded Israel’s highest decoration for bravery.
On the southern front, in the course of the first days of the war, Egyptian troops forced the Israelis to give up the “Bar Lev Defense Line” on the east bank of the Suez Canal. On October 16, Israel sent a taskforce, led by Ariel Sharon, across the Suez Canal to attack Egyptian tanks, missile sites, and artillery on the West Bank. Within a few days, Israeli forces were at the outskirts of the city of Ismailiya and some 100 kilometers from Cairo.
In the later stages of the Yom Kippur War, after Israel repulsed the Syrian attack on the Golan Heights and established a bridgehead on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal, international efforts to end the fighting were intensified. On October 20, the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, flew to Moscow, and, together with the Soviet government, the US proposed a cease-fire resolution in the UN Security Council. On October 24, 1973, the cease-fire went into effect, thus ending the fighting.
Despite committing huge strategic and doctrinal errors, the IDF prevailed, thanks in no small part to the courage, initiative and combat skills of its soldiers, particularly its elite armour crews and commanders. General Rafael Eitan said in an address to soldiers of the armoured corps after the war:
If we had not stopped the Syrians on the Golan Heights, then the State of Israel would have been destroyed…This division saved Israel from defeat, from catastrophe…I want to stress and make it clear to you; you saved the people of Israel. First and foremost, you!”
During 18 days of fighting, Israel casualties were more than 2,500 killed. Egypt lost 7,500 soldiers and Syria lost 7,300. The war marked the beginning of the end of the Labour party’s monopoly on Israel politics and led to the resignation of the Prime Minister Golda Meir, followed four years later by the Likud electoral victory led by Menachem Begin. More importantly, the traumatic high number of casualties caused by hubris and arrogance led Israel to a national self-evaluation that eventually resulted in the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt.
Tuvia is the author of “For the Sake of Zion: A Curriculum of Israel Education” (JAFI: 2016)