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Eye Witness Report: with Israeli Forces in Occupied Egypt

November 6, 1973
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

While Premier Golda Meir and her American hosts debated the plight of the Third Army this week, the same debate went on in hundreds of Israeli army positions along the west bank of the Suez Canal. Doubtlessly it goes on too among the Third Army soldiers. Israeli soldiers are thoroughly aware of the political factors which are turning their military victory into a draw. They know, from the radio and newspapers, the reasons that prompted Israel to agree to the provision of food and water supplies to the beleaguered Egyptian force. They expect there will be more Israeli concessions on this issue. They understand it all–but they do not agree with it.

Perhaps it is natural. I spoke to young soldiers who fought to secure the Israeli penetration into Egypt, and were now standing guard over the makeshift jetty where Egyptian motor rafts and amphibious troop-carriers were loading the life-saving supplies to sustain the army they thought they had beaten. They told me their general had visited earlier in the day–and had assured them that he, too, was opposed to feeding the Egyptians. But it was a political decision. The supply transfer proceeds at a snail’s pace. By Thursday night, some 60 trucks in all had been unloaded into the rafts–in a period of four days. I saw long queues of trucks, both at the water’s edge waiting to be unloaded, and at kilometer 101 on the Cairo-Suez road, which is the checkpoint through which the trucks, under UN aegis, cross from Egyptian to Israeli lines.

The checkpoint provides an interesting example of continuous direct negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Once or twice a day a top general comes down from each side (yesterday’s Israeli general was Yisrael Tal, the Deputy Chief of Staff) to discuss the cease-fire. But all day long the Israeli and Egyptian majors and captains at the checkpoint are in contact. I saw an Egyptian major, immaculate and ramrod straight, stride through the Israeli lines, talking as he went with the Israeli major. The latter was also well turned out, but ate an apple as he spoke. The trucks stretch back in a long line towards the Egyptian lines. They contain plastic cans of water, crates of pitta bread, and boxes of tubes, phials and bottles of medicine. Neither the Israelis nor the UN troops who look on as all this slowly happens, seem in any great hurry. And the Egyptians seem to accept the slow pace of things resignedly.

At the disembarkation point the trucks back up two at a time for several hundred unarmed Egyptian soldiers to manually unload them into the motor rafts as armed Israeli soldiers look on. Instead of forming a “chain” which would be the most efficient and speedy method, the Egyptian soldiers each take a load on their shoulders and walk the whole wobbly way to the rafts. Their officers give orders, but do no manual work themselves. The soldiers are patently tired out even before they begin work at midday–and after some hours they are sweating freely. An Israeli soldier told me that a UN man suggested to the officers that they replace the tired men with others. But the officers assured him that Egyptian soldiers are strong and capable. Some hundred yards from the transport point I saw an Egyptian officer lying dead on the sand. Apart from him, I saw no bodies on the canal’s west bank –the Israeli army had removed them all. The ravages of war, however, are apparent everywhere with burned out tanks and vehicles dotting the landscape–just like Sinai itself.

The town of Suez seems to have suffered badly–though a lot of the visible damage is still from the 1968 artillery barrages. Some modern blocks of flats are badly scarred from tank fire–the results of Egyptian infantry having taken up positions in and around them. The oil refineries, in Israeli hands, seem untouched by the war. Since 1968 they had been operating at less than half their full capacity. Now they are completely silent. The cease-fire lines run through the heart of the town. An imposing white mosque with colorful domed calling is an Israeli forward position. Its fine exterior has been heavily pockmarked. Neither in the town of Suez nor in the village of Fayid to the north near the Israeli bridges did I see any Egyptian civilians. If there were any they seem to have left. But apparently there were not many even before the war. Most of the area is a succession of military camps, installations and an airfield (at Fayid) and there are few signs of normal civilian life.

The UN troops, blonde Scandinavians, are friendly and a happy bunch. They share rations with the Israeli soldiers and chat about wives and children in Tel Aviv or in Cyprus. They carry Carl-Gustav submachine guns, which the Israeli soldiers assure them is far inferior to their own Uzis or Belgian FN rifles. They drive around in British army jeeps hastily stuck in Cyprus with Swedish or Finnish insignia. In this roundabout way, the British have managed at last to get into the peace-keeping act. The UN will be receiving heavier vehicles mounting two heavy machine guns, the UN soldiers told me. Their orders: to shoot only in self-defense. They seemed powerless Thursday morning when Israeli and Egyptian guns opened up briefly near the canal bridges. The Israeli spokesman explained that the Egyptians sought to improve their positions and the Israelis succeeded–by some tank shots–in preventing this. I saw smoke clouds as shells fell and heard the booms in the distance. But by 9 a.m. it was all over, and life under the cease-fire had resumed its normal flow.

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