In the following piece, the author analyzes the ramifications of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and offers his opinions, some of which are likely to be controversial, on the effect the war had on Israel and Egypt. Reprinted with permission from The Yom Kippur War: The Epic That Transformed the Middle East (Schocken Books).
The Yom Kippur War marked a major turning in the Israel-Arab confrontation. By restoring pride to Egypt and a sense of proportion to Israel, it opened the way to the Camp David peace agreement in 1979. Fifteen years later, Israel signed a peace agreement with Jordan. In the ensuing years, the Jewish state would weave discreet economic and political ties with other Arab countries, from Morocco to the Gulf states, as demonization [of Israel by the Arab states] began to give way to realpolitik.
The possibility of renewed war in the Middle East would remain ever present, particularly when the unresolved Palestinian issue inflamed passions. But the Yom Kippur War, despite its disastrous opening for Israel, had enhanced its military deterrence, not diminished it.
Photo courtesy of
the Egged History Archive-via PikiWiki.
It is hard to imagine a more propitious opening hand than the one Egypt and Syria dealt themselves in October 1973–achieving strategic and tactical surprise in a two-front war, fought according to plans they had rehearsed for years, and supported by a superpower [the Soviet Union]. Yet the war ended with the Israeli army on the roads to Cairo and Damascus. The chances of Israel ever permitting itself to be surprised like that again would appear unlikely. Israel too had been taught a painful lesson about the limitations of power and the danger of arrogance.
Hope in the Foxhole
Even before the shooting had completely stopped, there were glimmers of recognition in both camps of the human face in the foxhole opposite.
Amir Yoffe’s battalion, positioned on the edge of Suez City, exchanged heavy fire with Egyptian troops despite the cease-fire until a U.N. contingent arrived on Sunday, October 28, to insert itself between the two forces. As the blue-helmeted peacekeepers deployed, soldiers on both sides raised their heads above their firing positions and looked across at the men they had just been shooting at. The Egyptians were the first to react. Passing through the U.N. force, they reached an Israeli armored infantry company.
The company commander radioed Yoffe to report his position being inundated by Egyptian soldiers. “Take them prisoner,” said Yoffe, assuming that was the reason they had come over.
“They don’t want to surrender,” said the company commander. “They want to shake hands.” Some of the Egyptians kissed the Israeli soldiers they had been firing at a few minutes before. Angry shouts from Egyptian officers brought their men back.
When an army entertainment troupe performed for Yoffe’s battalion a few days later, the songs included one written after the Six Day War mocking Egyptian soldiers who fled the battlefield, leaving behind their boots in the sand. Soldiers went up to the performers afterwards and suggested that they drop that song from their repertoire After three weeks of grueling battle, such easy derision of the enemy was jarring.
Predictions of Peace
The most striking fraternization occurred at the opposite end of the line, near Ismailiya. The morning after the first cease-fire went into effect, Capt. Gideon Shamir was deploying his paratroop company along a spur of the Sweetwater Canal when he saw Egyptian commandos encamped in an orchard 100 yards away. They were apparently part of the unit with which he had clashed the previous night. The cease-fire was already being violated elsewhere along the line, but Shamir, from a religious kibbutz [communal settlement] in the Beisan Valley, wanted to ensure that there would be no more killing in his sector.
Telling his men to cover him, and taking a soldier who spoke Arabic, he descended into an empty irrigation ditch leading towards the orchard. Shamir shouted to the Egyptians as he approached–“Cease-fire, peace”–so as not to take them by surprise. The ditch provided ready cover if needed. The Egyptians, about 20 of them, held their fire as the two Israelis presented themselves.
The commandos summoned their company commander, introduced himself as Major Ali. Shamir told the Egyptian officer that he wanted to avoid shooting. The war was over, he said, and it would be foolish for anyone on either side to be hurt. Ali agreed. He surprised Shamir by saying he believed that Sadat wanted not just a cease-fire but peace with Israel.
In the coming days, soldiers from both sides ventured out into the clearing between the two positions and fraternized. When shooting broke out in adjacent sectors, they hurried back to their respective lines. Initially, when there was shooting at night, the Egyptians fired at Shamir’s positions, although they did not do so by day. The paratroopers held their fire, and after a few nights the Egyptians opposite no longer fired either.
Before long, the commandos and paratroopers were meeting daily to brew up coffee and play backgammon. Soccer games followed. The men came to know each other’s first names and showed off pictures of wives and girlfriends. There was an occasional kumsitz, with the Egyptians slaughtering a sheep and Shamir’s men contributing food parcels from home.
Word of the local armistice quickly spread and similar arrangements were forged in other sectors. Even Ariel Sharon [an Israeli general at the time] visited to see what was going on. At one point, Ali told Shamir he had permission from his superiors to take him on a visit to Cairo. However, Israeli intelligence officers, fearful that their with h Egyptian counterparts intended to get information from him, ruled itout. The Israeli intelligence officers, for their part, tried to ascertain from Ali, through Shamir, the fate of Israeli pilots shot down in the area, but without success.
In a discussion between Shamir and Ali that the Israeli officer transcribed immediately afterwards, Shamir asked about an editorial in a newspaper asserting that Egypt would never recognize Israel. The editorial had been reported on the radio
“That’s just propaganda,” said the commando major. “The truth is that we want peace and that we’re moving towards it.”
“Why doesn’t [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat say so?” asked Shamir.
“Sadat can’t say so explicitly. He’s a new leader, and although some of the intelligentsia support him, his problem is to win the support of the common people, who are still hypnotized by the figure of Nasser [the previous Egyptian leader].”
A year before, said Ali, he had participated in a meeting of officers with Sadat. Ali was then a captain and the lowest-ranking officer present. “Sadat said that we have to concern ourselves with Egypt’s internal development and that if Israel would only show serious intentions of withdrawing from Sinai he would talk with it.”
Matters had to progress in stages, said Ali. “First, the war has to stop. After a year or two we will travel to Tel Aviv and you to Cairo.” According to what the Egyptian soldiers told their Israeli counterparts, Ali’s uncle was a very senior officer.
The Seeds of Peace
The day after the disengagement agreement was signed, Ali brought his battalion commander as well as a colonel whose branch was not made clear. They wanted to hear from the Israeli captain what he thought about the agreement, evidently to probe at field level the seriousness of Israel’s declarations. They seemed satisfied by Shamir’s assurances that Israel really intended to pull back. Before departing, the Egyptian officers said they hoped that relations between the two countries would come to emulate the relations between Shamir’s and Ali’s men.
The Egyptian commandos and the Israeli paratroopers were at the spearheads of their respective armies. That these motivated fighters, left to themselves, chose at first opportunity to lay aside their weapons and break bread together on the battlefield said something about what the war had wrought.
After the 1967 war, Egypt perceived that its honor could be retrieved only in a renewed war, while Israel, certain of victory, was not overly intimidated by the prospect. In 1973,both sides emerged from the confrontation with honor intact and a desire not to taste of war again.
The Yom Kippur War had begun with a surprise attack, but history, that master of paradox, provided an even more surprising ending, one that left behind on the furrowed battlefield the seeds of peace, however fragile. Not even Sadat, dreaming under his tree in Mit Abul-kum, had conjured up a vision as surrealistic as his journey to Jerusalem [which led to the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt].
For Egypt, the war was a towering accomplishment. For Israel, it was an existential earthquake, but one whose repercussions were ultimately healthier than those of the Six Day War. The trauma of the war’s opening was not a nightmare to be suppressed but a national memory to be perpetuated, a standing reminder of the consequences of shallow thinking and arrogance. Israel’s battlefield recovery, in turn, reflected a society with a will to live and a capacity to improvise amidst chaos. Israel would bear its scars but itwould e sustained by the memory of how, in its darkest hour, its young men bunted the nation’s crumbling ramparts and held.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.