TEL AVIV (Sep. 27)
There is only one picture on Avigdor Kahalani’s desk in his Tel Aviv office: a photo from the 1973 Yom Kippur War of his tank crew looking frazzled and war-weary.
Kahalani, now Israel’s public security minister, has lost the wild curly locks he had when the photo was taken.
But he still has the rounded dark face and youthful smile he had 25 years ago, when he led his tank battalion to a dramatic victory on the Golan Heights in one of the most famous battles of the war.
For his role, Brig. Gen. Kahalani was awarded the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest military honor, and became one of Israel’s best-known war heroes.
Twice a year, Kahalani — who spent a year hospitalized from injuries sustained in the 1967 Six-Day War — climbs to the ramparts perched above a valley in the Golan known as Emek Habacha, or the Valley of Tears, to comfort the families of his men who died in action.
Each time, he relives the story of how, against all odds, his unit of about 30 tanks repelled Syrian forces more than 10 times larger who launched an attack to recapture the Golan Heights conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1973, he recalls in his Tel Aviv office, Israeli soldiers on the Golan were more prepared than their comrades in the Sinai, who were taken completely by surprise by the Egyptian assault across the Suez Canal.
Kahalani’s unit, Battalion 77 — known as “Oz,” or courage, from the Hebrew letters having the numerical equivalent of 77–was stationed on the Golan from the start of Rosh Hashanah for the second straight year.
At 10:00 a.m. on Oct. 6, 1973, a few hours before the Syrians and Egyptians launched simultaneous attacks on Israeli positions, Kahalani was told that war was imminent and he then ordered his troops to be ready in the turrets.
“I don’t understand how the orders weren’t given in the Sinai,” he says, noting that some soldiers in Sinai outposts were playing soccer when the first shells struck.
Although they had been warned, Battalion 77 was nonetheless taken by surprise when the first Syrian jets struck.
After Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War, Kahalani and his comrades were sure Israeli planes would destroy Syria’s air force before it got off the ground.
Evening descended and Kahalani’s tanks were positioned. But night fighting posed the biggest challenge: Syria’s Russian-made tanks were equipped with infrared night-vision equipment that Israel’s tanks lacked.
That night, Kahalani pulled out his infrared binoculars and found that his tank was illuminated with an infrared shine invisible to the naked eye.
“I took the binoculars off and looked at the tank [and saw] darkness. I put the binoculars on again, and I saw the tank was illuminated.”
He realized that a Syrian gunner had sighted him. “The only thing left for him to do was to press the trigger,” he recalls.
Kahalani frantically ordered his driver to pull back. They were not hit, but they realized how vulnerable they were in the dark.
Later, Kahalani spotted a tank he thought was Israeli just 20 yards away, its taillight lit — a dangerous move in the dark.
Frustrated after trying to figure out who was risking exposing the battalion, Kahalani radioed a neighboring crew to shine a light. He then realized it was a confused Syrian tank.
“His cannon was facing the Syrians, and he was standing to my right as if I was his commander,” he says, adding with characteristic understatement in his soft- spoken voice: “So I shot him and hit him.”
As battalion commander, Kahalani had to maintain calm even in the face of life- threatening dangers.
“It wasn’t easy,” he says. “But I think it’s easier for commanders to overcome fear because they are on stage the entire time.”
“I personally saw death stare me in the face several times,” he says. “And I also had a feeling that we wouldn’t be able to stop [the Syrians]. There were definitely moments like that.”
Kahalani described such moments in his book, “Oz 77,” translated into English as “The Heights of Courage,” which gives a blow-by-blow account of the war. While technical at times, the book’s stark realism conveys the thrills and fears of battle down to the smallest details.
The morning after he destroyed the confused Syrian tank, Kahalani looked around and saw the burnt-out shells of Syrian tanks destroyed the night before.
He ordered his tanks to advance 100 yards to the positions overlooking the Valley of Tears.
The serenity was quickly shattered and dust clouds formed as Syrian tanks and armored vehicles began rumbling into the valley in an attempt to climb up to the Israeli positions.
As a battalion commander, Kahalani faced a dual challenge, since he had to give orders to his units while at the same time commanding his own tank crew to fend off nearby threats.
Two days later, after what seemed like an endless string of battles, Battalion 77 was pushed to the brink.
“Everything was falling apart,” he says, choking up for a split-second in the only show of emotion while he spoke in his Tel Aviv office. “It felt like we wouldn’t be able to face them.”
But they had no choice. As Kahalani’s men tried to regain their previous positions overlooking the valley, Syrian tanks emerged again. Ammunition and fuel dwindled, casualties mounted and as Kahalani tried to come up with a plan, three Syrian tanks appeared at point-blank range. With Kahalani directing the turret, his gunner destroyed them, one after another.
To regain their positions, Kahalani had to motivate his weary-yet-wary men to cross an open field and expose themselves completely to enemy fire.
After several failed attempts, Kahalani summoned a stoic calm to explain why they must roll forward, raising his voice only for the last word: “Move!”
They rolled forward and grabbed the strategic high ground just minutes before the Syrian forces did. A fierce, close-range battle broke out as Kahalani’s tanks crushed the last remaining Syrian forces headed up the hill. With the positions they had secured, Battalion 77 could not be beaten.
At the very end, only four of Kahalani’s tanks were fully functional. Kahalani’s forces suffered 14 casualties, including 12 commanders, and dozens more had been wounded.
Kahalani’s political views were molded by his war experiences.
The Third Way Party, which he founded after breaking away from the Labor Party before the 1996 elections, believes in pressing ahead with peace with the Palestinians.
But it is more hawkish on returning the Golan to Syria.
“The war was a traumatic experience. I have two sons who are tank commanders, and I don’t want them to go through what I did,” he says. “I also understand that I can’t rule the Palestinian people.”
“But I don’t trust anyone in the world to defend me,” he says.
Even if Syria is willing to make full peace with Israel to get back the Golan, Kahalani first wants to test that peace.
The minute Israel has full peace with Syria, a peace like Belgium has with France or Switzerland has with Germany, he adds, “That is a peace I’ll be willing to give up land for.”