ON THE SUEZ CANAL FRONT (Feb. 21)
Israeli vehicles bearing the last Israeli soldiers from the Israeli bridgehead on the west bank of the Suez Canal today carried such signs on their sides as “Goodbye Africa,” and “Our Leaving Egypt is a Hope for Peace.” Standing here, for the last time on the massive land bridge built by Israelis across the canal, I watched the almost endless convoys of trucks, tanks, half-tracks, buses. jeeps, armored troop carriers and self-propelled guns moving eastward to the Sinai Peninsula, masses of men and equipment indicating how huge the force had been that Israel placed on the canal’s west bank.
The scene had a slight carnival flavor. Tank crewmen threw colored smoke grenades. Vehicle antennae became masts on which colorful balloons flags and even pieces of cloth fluttered in the breeze. Soldiers were seen opening bottles of champagne, mainly to produce noises, among a variety of makeshift noise-makers. The long convoy came to a standstill when the lead units reached the western end of the bridge and found a parade in progress. A crack brigade of paratroopers, the first Israelis to cross the canal westwards, heard their commander recount that event of 129 days ago and then tell them “we fold our flag here with a desire and a hope for peace.”
Lt. Eli Cohen, the first Israeli soldier to set foot on the west side of the canal, was invited to lower a flag on a mast. He did so. The soldiers then returned to their vehicles and moved to the east side of the canal–all but one unit, whose members ended the Israeli presence on the west canal bank by swimming the 80 meters to the south bank. The pullout was completed on schedule at noon, Sinai time.
Among the returning troops were men who had not taken off their field uniforms for four months. Some had dusty equipment, many had beards. All had the look of soldiers proud of their accomplishments, both in smashing through the Egyptian weak spot on the east bank in October and in the withdrawal today. The paratroop commander said “It was a good feeling when we crossed westwards. Now we have mixed feelings but we hope that it will be for peace.” A few more explosions resounded from the west bank as Israeli engineers made their last demolitions and then they too crossed the bridge.
Military police struggled to keep the convoys moving smoothly but they were hampered by each soldier taking a last look or a last picture At midday, the paratroop commander handed over a huge wooden key to the officer in command of the United Nations Emergency Force, which took over the area evacuated by Israel today to turn it over later to the Egyptians. Israeli units now on the east bank will stay in their positions until March 5 when the final phase of disengagement will be ended. Until then, Israeli liaison officers will remain on the west bank at the tripartite command post north of Fayid.
Meanwhile, Israel returned today 22 more Egyptian POWs captured during the war. The exchange took place at the United National year tara-Baloosa road checkpoint under the auspices of the Red Cross. These POWs comprised several scores of Egyptian soldiers and officers that were captured or gave themselves up to Israeli forces after the conclusion of the major POW exchange which followed the cease-fire.