Menu JTA Search

War Diary: How It All Began

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Friday, eve of Yom Kippur. The country is almost at a total standstill in preparation for Judaism’s holiest day; almost – because there seems to be some movement of military vehicles. Nevertheless, people go to Kol Nidre and the evening service of Yom Kippur. As they leave the synagogues they see instead of the usual complete lack of vehicles, army trucks and cars and civilian cars moving along the streets. People here immediately guess that something is going on with Syria, since there had been tension along that border for sometime.

In Jerusalem early Saturday morning a single Phantom jet swoops over the center of town at 7 a.m. passing over the Western Wall where hundreds of people are already at prayer. Other planes can be heard further off.

For several days the Syrians had been massing troops and armor along the Israeli line on the Golan Heights. It brought tension, but no one had an idea that war was around the corner. About the same time Egypt announced it has alerted its forces along the Suez Canal. There was no immediate reason for that move – no internal or external pressures on Sadat. The only aim was therefore – an attack on Israel.

A day before Yom Kippur the Syrians moved their forces into an offensive deployment. Information gathered by Israeli Intelligence proved that the Egyptians and Syrians were coordinating an attack on Israel. The time chosen – Yom Kippur, to surprise Israelis while in synagogues or fasting at home. Diplomatic efforts were made to prevent the war. Friendly governments were provided with confirmed information as to the intention of Syria and Egypt.

MOBILIZATION STARTS ON SMALL SCALE

Mobilization starts on a small scale Friday afternoon and some reserve soldiers are called just before Kol Nidre. Later at night more reserve units are mobilized and movement on roads becomes heavier in spite of Yom Kippur.

Premier Golda Meir, who is in Tel Aviv, calls in the American Ambassador Kenneth Keating Saturday and reports to him on the situation. At noon, news of the dangerous situation has reached Mrs. Meir and she calls an extraordinary government session. It’s Yom Kippur and never was such a meeting held on such a day. But it has become a question of “pikuah nefesh” – a question of life and death. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan reports to the Cabinet on the latest development and gets permission to continue mobilization.

Reports are also heard on efforts to persuade Arabs to refrain from war. But while the Cabinet is in session news arrives war has started at 1:50 p.m. (local time) as Syrian and Egyptian forces launch a coordinated attack on the Golan Heights and the Suez Canal front. War is on.

EGYPTIANS, SYRIANS LAUNCH DAY OF INFAMY

Egyptians launch their attack by pushing forces over the Suez, Canal, laying several bridges and sending some armor as well. A number of Israeli positions are captured by the Egyptians who establish bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the canal. The attack follows an intensive air activity by the Egyptian air force against the Israel positions, installations and camps. At the same time the Egyptians attempt to send in several commando units to attack and capture several points in the Sinai.

Air battles develop during which 10 Egyptian helicopters carrying airborne troops are downed Fierce fighting starts along the Suez Canal as the Israeli forces deployed there attempt to check the Egyptian advance.

The Syrians open up with a terrific artillery barrage all along the Golan Heights and the settlements in the Huleh area. Then vast numbers of Syrian armor and infantry move and the Syrians gain some points, a Syrian commando unit approaches unobserved the lonely Israeli position on top of Mount Hermon – 2200 meters above sea level. Heavy fighting is everywhere. Regular Israeli army units wage a delaying tactic in anticipation of the reserve units of the Israeli army.

REALIZATION OF WAR’S BEGINNING STARTS SLOWLY

It is after 2 p.m. Saturday when many people are resting between services that the air raid sirens begin to wail. Many people do not take them seriously and public shelters are by no means full. However, Israel Radio which shut down for Yom Kippur (the only time it is completely off the air), comes on after the sirens and begins to report calls for policemen, medical staff and others on emergency footing to report to duty.

The all clear sounds 45 minutes later – and Yom Kippur loses its usual sight. Cars are everywhere. People are called to units from synagogues. Buses move around and pick up recruits. Private cars carry sons and husbands to war. The reserve units are beginning to form. Many soldiers arrive at callup points still wearing their talises.

Shortly before the last service of Yom Kippur a second alarm is sounded in Tel Aviv. This time everyone goes to the shelters. It takes 45 minutes until the all-clear is sounded. Israel is put on a total blackout and the usual festive dinner after Yom Kippur is held in semi-darkness or in darkened rooms. Cars have their lights dimmed, and street lights and traffic lights are out. Residents are instructed to fasten tape on glass windows and glassware at home. Television begins operating even before the end of Yom Kippur. People are glued to their TV sets and radios and take them to the shelters.

Flash! Flash! Israeli naval units sink five Syrian boats, four of them missile boats in a sea battle off. Tartous in Syria. Israeli naval units clash with Egyptian vessels opposite Sharm el Sheikh. Israeli naval units-sink three Egyptian rubber boats with soldiers preparing for an attack on Israeli-held Sinai.

Sunday morning. Fierce battles both in Sinai and the Golan Heights. Egyptians are building bridges on Suez and by midday there are 400 Egyptian tanks in Sinai. There are 10 or 11 bridges constructed by the Egyptians. Israeli Air Force planes go into action.

Sunday afternoon. Israeli Air Force planes destroy the Syrian dense anti-aircraft network. Israelis gain air superiority and start a massive action against the attackers. In the Golan Heights. Syrian tanks and convoys are constantly attacked. By night some lull in the fighting is recorded-but it is a difficult night and another day of fighting is ahead.

EFFORT MADE TO MAINTAIN SEMBLANCE OF NORMALCY

Meanwhile in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, people try to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Schools are closed but stores are open and offices operate with small staffs. The bus companies maintain restricted services despite the need of the vehicles by the military. Housewives are out in force buying food although the government has

In Jerusalem, unlike the period before the Six-Day War people walk around with a feeling of general safety. This is something new to Jerusalemites who had been on the battlefront of every previous war. However, their previous experiences causes a rush on foodstuffs and groceries are soon out of bread and long lines are formed for milk and eggs. People lug home big bags of flour and sugar.

Commerce Minister Haim Barlev issues administrative orders banning food hoarding as an offense, but it does not stop people. However, many housewives seek to persuade each other while standing on line that they always bought large supplies on Sunday. Young men are almost completely absent from the city centers because of the mobilization. Anxiety can be seen on peoples faces although all are confident that Israel will win.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, all stores are closed and streets deserted except for some young men jeering at tourists. Police and border patrols are armed to the teeth. In East Jerusalem, Arab policemen patrol the silent streets and alleys alongside Israeli policemen. However, Arab taxi drivers do a brisk business as Jewish drivers are called up. Lod Airport is closed to all incoming and outgoing flights. However, some 2000 tourists manage to leave Sunday morning by six flights when the airport is temporarily opened.

In Jerusalem, tourists seem unperturbed as crowds of them continue to make their way through the Old City and to the Holy Places. Many tourists complain that Israeli radio should have more English broadcasts than just the regular three-times-a-day English news. Some Israeli newspapers have difficulties in distribution because of the mobilization of their men and vehicles. All the newspapers carry banner headlines saying that Egyptian and Syrian penetrations are held.

Few of the 50,000 Arab workers from the territories who usually come to work in Israel do so Sunday. But the territories are reported quiet. By nightfall Sunday, all Israel is under effective blackout. Tel Aviv and other cities are pitch black and car headlights are ordered painted blue. All major political parties agree to suspend the election campaign until the war is over.

ISRAEL WARNED OF MASSIVE BUILD-UP

Hours before the first shots were fired – but when it became clear that war was imminent – Israel’s diplomatic machinery swung into action. Mrs. Meir herself summoned U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Keating while top Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv called in other Western envoys.

The message was the same to all of them: “Ten days of build-up have culminated both on the Canal and on the Golan in imminent Arab attacks. On the Golan, Syria has massed its entire army and air force plus artillery and tanks. On the Canal, Egypt is poised to cross. We, Israel, have no intention of attacking either Syria or Egypt. We will, of course, act to repulse them if they attack,”

The foreign envoys were asked to pass this on to the Arab governments in a last ditch effort to prevent the fighting. Even after it failed and fighting began, officials continued to summon envoys to explain to them Israel’s position above all stressing that Israel had not begun the fighting, that the Arabs had chosen Yom Kippur especially hoping to catch Israel off guard, and that this was a purely defensive war on Israel’s part. The United Nations truce observers confirmed that the Egyptians and Syrians had crossed the cease-fire lines.

NEXT STORY