June 5, 1967. Israel is surrounded by enemies who want nothing less than her utter extinction. The Soviet-equipped Egyptian Army has massed a thousand tanks on the nation’s southern border. Syrian heavy guns are shelling her from the north. To the east, Jordan and Iraq are moving mechanized brigades and fighter squadrons into position to attack.
June 10, 1967. The Arab armies have been routed, their air forces totally destroyed. Israel’s citizen-soldiers have seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. Moshe Dayan has entered the Lion’s Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem to stand with the paratroopers who have liberated Judaism’s holiest site—the Western Wall.
Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the war—fighter and helicopter pilots, tank commanders and Recon soldiers, paratroopers, as well as women soldiers, wives, and others—bestselling author Steven Pressfield tells the story of the Six Day War as you’ve never experienced it before.
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About the Author
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Lenart with his F4U Corsair at the battle for Okinawa, 1945.
A NOTE ON HYBRID HISTORY
Before I address what this book is, let me state what it is not.
It is not a comprehensive history of the Six Day War. Entire battles have been left out. Critical contextual material such as the international diplomatic and political state of affairs prior to the war, the point of view of the Arabs, even the history of the Jewish people, has been included only as it touches upon the testimony of the central personalities of this piece, the war veterans themselves. Even within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), units whose contributions to victory were essential—the Golani Brigade, Ugda Yoffe, the Harel and Jerusalem Brigades, the Sayeret Matkal, the navy, and many others—receive only passing mention.
The Lion’s Gate tracks the experiences of a limited number of IDF units—Mirage Squadron 119 of the air force, the 7th Armored Brigade (in particular its Reconnaissance Company), Helicopter Squadron 124, Paratroop Battalion 71, and several others. Even within these formations, only a limited number of individuals are profiled. The book’s primary material comes from sixty-three interviews I conducted in Israel, France, and the United States, totaling about 370 hours. The focus is deliberately personal, subjective, and idiosyncratic.
Nor does this book pretend to document the “facts” of the war. The meat of this narrative is the testimony of soldiers and airmen. It is their memories. Memory can be a tricky animal. Is it “truth”? Is it “history”? Is it “fact”?
I am less concerned with these questions, which are ultimately unanswerable, than with the human reality in the moment. What fascinates me is the subjective immediacy of the event. I want to be in the cockpit, inside the tank, under the helmet. What is important to me is the event as the man or woman experienced it.
Memory, we know, is notoriously unreliable. Memory can be self-serving, self-glorifying, self-exonerating. Memory fades. People forget. Memory contains gaps and blank spots.
Then there is the Rashomon effect. The attentive reader will discover instances in this book where three individuals present three different versions of the identical event in which all three participated. This phenomenon happened during the interviews themselves. When I spoke with more than one person at a time, one friend would often contradict another. “No, that happened before dark. Don’t you remember?”
The reader must keep these considerations in mind when evaluating the accounts presented in these pages.
A word, too, about the treatment of material within the interviews. In some instances the interviewee’s speech is transcribed verbatim. In others, I have edited, inverted order, altered tense, used time compression, and employed other narrative devices. The interviews were conducted in English. For most participants, English is a second or third language. Several interviews involved translation on the spot by my colleague Danny Grossman. In configuring the material for use in this book, I have sometimes retro-imagined the interviewee’s prose as if it had been spoken in his or her primary language.
Books. A number of the individuals interviewed—Yael Dayan, Ruth Dayan, Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen, Uzi Eilam, Ran Ronen, Giora Romm, Morele Bar-On, Avigdor Kahalani, and others—have themselves written works in full or in part about the Six Day War. I have, with these writers’ permission, interpolated material from their published works into these spoken narratives.
One unit featured in this book is the Reconnaissance Company of the 7th Armored Brigade. Members of this group produced a documentary, We Looked Death in the Eye . . . , about their experiences in the 1967 War. I have employed the same practice with this film as I have with books, taking certain quotes spoken on camera and integrating them into the individual speakers’ narrations.
I must alert the reader to another intentional violation of the conventions of history writing. Moshe Dayan died in 1981. I conducted my interviews during 2011 and 2012. Clearly I could not have spoken with Dayan. Yet I have written “his” chapters in the first person, as if in his own words.
Why am I calling this book “hybrid history”? Because I have elected in its composition to employ techniques from a number of disciplines—from journalism and academic history, from conventional nonfiction and narrative nonfiction, and from New Journalism.
The Dayan chapters must be considered the latter. Dayan did not dictate these sentences into my tape recorder. They are not his testimony or his recounting of events. However, I have made every effort to be as true to the historical Moshe Dayan as my limitations of knowledge and imagination permit.
Fortunately Dayan left an autobiography, a diary of the Sinai Campaign of 1956, an extraordinary personal testament titled Living with the Bible, and a number of other published works. In addition, many excellent biographies exist, penned by his colleagues and contemporaries. I was privileged as well to interview a number of individuals who were extremely close to Dayan: his first wife, Ruth; his daughter, Yael; his nephew Uzi; as well as associates and fellow officers Neora Matalon-Barnoach, Shlomo Gazit, Morele Bar-On, Michael Bar-Zohar, Aharon Yadlin, and Zalman Shoval. That being said, the reader should bear in mind while reading the Dayan chapters that I have at some points crossed the line into pure speculation.
On my office shelves sit 107 books about the Six Day War and its antecedents. Why write another? The answer is I wanted to tell the subjective story, the on-the-ground and in-the-air saga, in a way I have not seen it told before, even if it meant taking liberties with academic and journalistic conventions.
The swift passage of the years is a factor as well. Many of the veterans interviewed for this book are in their late sixties; no few are in their seventies, eighties, or nineties. They may not tell their stories on the record again.
I am a Jew. I wanted to tell the story of this Jewish war, fought by Jews for the preservation of the Jewish nation and the Jewish people. I don’t pretend to be impartial. At the same time, I have tried, despite license taken, to tell the story straight.
I alone am responsible for the structure, theme, and editorial choices in this book. I chose what to put first and what to put last, what to leave in and what to leave out. The veterans honored me by telling me their stories, but responsibility for the final shape and content of this work rests with me alone.
Three weeks before the war, I went to visit my brother Nechemiah in Jerusalem. He and I were born there. The city is our home.
Major Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen is a pilot and commander of Squadron 124, Israel’s first and leading helicopter formation.
Nechemiah was twenty-four years old then, a captain in the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s special forces. Along with Ehud Barak, the future prime minister, he was the most decorated soldier in the army. Nechemiah had been awarded five medals for valor—one Medal of Distinguished Service and four Chief of Staff Citations.
Nechemiah had been promoted from lieutenant four months earlier, transferred to the elite 35th Paratroop Brigade, and made a company commander. This was to give him experience commanding formations larger than the twelve-man teams of the special forces.
The date of our visit was May 15, Independence Day. My wife, Ela, and I had gone with our children to the parade in West Jerusalem. Nechemiah phoned and invited us to come out to his command post for a visit. “It’s safe,” he said. “Bring the kids.”
Nechemiah’s outpost was at Abu Tor, in the middle of no-man’s-land. Abu Tor is the highest hill immediately south of the Old City. The site controls access by road from Jordan and dominates the southern approach to Old Jerusalem.
Nechemiah had about fifty paratroopers in posts along the armistice line, four or five in each. He had set up his headquarters in a beautiful old red-stone villa, which had been abandoned for almost twenty years, since the fighting in 1948. All around the house were barbed wire, barricades, machine-gun posts. Signs read DANGER—MINES. It was a gorgeous spot in the middle of a junkyard.
Down the hill were posts and fortifications of the Arab Legion. These were King Hussein’s elite troops, British trained, wearing their famous red-and-white-checked keffiyehs. My kids were thrilled to see enemy soldiers so close.
Nechemiah and I spent two hours together. We went up on the villa’s high, flat roof. The site looked like any other field outpost occupied by young soldiers—sandbags and high-powered binoculars, cases of combat rations, bedrolls tucked into corners, a half circle of rucksacks with weapons and helmets ready for action.
You must understand that Nechemiah and I come from a very humble family. We grew up playing in alleys and side streets and on the stony hillsides of a city we could not claim as our own. Jerusalem was under British rule then. There was no Israel. We Jews had no country.
When the state was founded in 1948, the army of Jordan won the battle for Jerusalem. The Arab Legion drove our forces out of the Old City, burned over fifty synagogues, killed every Jew they could find.
Nechemiah and I understood this and hated it, even as boys. When we grew up we became soldiers and officers. We ceased talking like angry children and began planning like military professionals. Nechemiah is a paratrooper, I am a pilot. It’s up to us. We have to do the job.
This is how we saw the situation, Nechemiah and I, on the roof of the villa above no-man’s-land. We both knew that war was coming. “Does it frustrate you, brother,” I asked, “to be stuck here in Jerusalem when the fighting will surely be in Sinai or Syria?”
Our understanding in that moment was that war would not come to the Holy City. Jordan wouldn’t risk attacking Israel; she might lose. And Israel could not make the first move. The outside world would never let her.
From our rooftop, my brother and I could see the poplar grove above the Western Wall—our people’s most sacred site—so close it seemed we could almost touch it, yet cut off from us by barbed wire and minefields and the combat posts of the Arab Legion.
“Look there, brother,” I said. “I can spit and reach Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac. There you see David’s Tower and what is left of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. All this is ours. What is stopping us from taking it, ahuyah?” I employed the Arabic word for brother, which we all used in our family. “Are we waiting for the United Nations or the world powers to give us permission? The Jordanians don’t hold the Old City by ancient right. It was never part of their country. They seized it by force in 1948!”
I asked Nechemiah what he thought the Americans would do in our place. Would their army sit still for one minute if a foreign power occupied Pennsylvania Avenue? Would the British stand idly by if another nation held even one lane of London? What would the Russians do?
I can hear my brother’s answer as if he were standing before me now. “Ahuyah,” he said, “if war comes, it will come to Jerusalem too. We are going to liberate the Old City.”
I didn’t believe him. I thought to myself, This is only a dream. Every combat alert at the time was against the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Iraqis. Never against the Jordanians.
“It will happen,” my brother said. “You will see.”
We embraced then and took our leave. That was the last time I saw Nechemiah alive.
My younger brother—I am older by eight years—was ordered with his company to join the main body of the 35th Paratroop Brigade along the frontier with Egypt. He was killed in Gaza on the first day of the war.
My helicopter squadron was assigned that day to fly medevac missions in northern Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The emergency call came over my own squadron radio net: “Mass casualties near Gaza City.”
I dispatched one of my pilots, Reuven Levy, to handle the evacuation. It never occurred to me that my brother could be among the dead. He was too good, too smart. Nothing could happen to him.
Levy was ordered by an officer on-site to say nothing to me about Nechemiah’s death. “Cheetah is a critical squadron commander,” Levy was told. “The nation needs him operating at full capacity.”
So I flew night and day throughout the war, in Gaza and Sinai, in the West Bank and Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights, and knew nothing of what had happened to my brother.
On the last day, when all Israel was flooding into liberated Jerusalem to touch the stones and behold the miracle that many had believed would never come to pass, I was in the office of the base commander at Tel Nof Air Base, being informed at last that my brother had not survived to witness this day. In that hour, my world ended.
THE VOICE OF THUNDER
The state of Israel is the size of New Jersey. The combined landmass of its twenty Arab enemy states is more than a million square miles larger than the rest of the United States.
In 1967, the population of Israel was 2.7 million. Many were immigrants recently evicted from Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East. These newcomers possessed few skills that could be used in the defense of the nation. Most could not even speak Hebrew. The state of Israel existed within a sea of 122 million Arabs, outnumbered by more than forty to one.
Lieutenant Zeev Barkai is the twenty-three-year-old operations officer of Paratroop Battalion 71. He is a kibbutznik from Kibbutz Kinneret on the Sea of Galilee. He will be awarded the Itur H"z, Israel’s second-highest decoration for valor, for his actions during the Six Day War.
In 1967, there was no TV station in Israel. We had only one radio station, Kol Israel, the Voice of Israel. But we could see Arab TV. There was a station in Jordan and one in Egypt, along with the Voice of Thunder out of Cairo, an all-day radio broadcast (in occasionally laughable Hebrew) whose normal propaganda had been cranked up now to crisis-hysteria level, seeking to terrify the Israeli populace.
Jews, the Arab people have decided to rid Palestine of your presence. Therefore pack your bags and flee before death overtakes you. Tel Aviv will be a ruin. Our bombs will hit their targets. Where will you run to, Zionists?
You tried to laugh this stuff off, but it got to you. Remember the song “The End,” by Jim Morrison and the Doors? It was popular then. There was a line that said something like “This is the end, my friend, this is the end.” That’s what those weeks felt like.
Cairo TV played endless footage of Arab mobs in the streets, carrying banners and chanting, “Kill the Jews!” and “Death to the Zionists!” The Voice of Thunder quoted Azzam Pasha of the Arab League from 1948:
This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.
The Arab world had a leader then—Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt—such as it had not had in the modern era before or since. (Egypt was then still officially the United Arab Republic, though its partner, Syria, had withdrawn from the union in 1961.)
Nasser’s vision was pan-Arabism: one state stretching from Central Asia across the Middle East and Africa to the Atlantic. He wanted a modern Arab world, secular, socialist, armed with the latest weapons and equipped with the newest technology. To that end, Egypt and Syria had allied themselves with the Soviet Union, which was then at the peak of its wealth and power.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser, left, with army chief Abdel Hakim Amer and Egyptian pilots a few days before the war.
Nasser’s Russian-supplied air force possessed 480 combat aircraft, all jets, including 180 MiG-17s and MiG-15s, 80 MiG-19s, and 130 of the latest MiG-21s, capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. In addition, the EAF had 20 Sukhoi-7 fighter-bombers and 70 Tupolev-16 and Ilyushin-28 bombers, plus 90 Ilyushin and Antonov transport planes and 60 helicopters. Israel had no bombers at all. The Syrian Air Force augmented Egypt’s with 120 more Soviet-built planes, including MiG-19s and MiG-21s. The Iraqis could contribute 200 more.
Egyptian armor consisted of roughly 1,200 tanks, including 300 new Soviet T-54s and 200 of the even newer T-55s. These were the same tanks the Russian Army used. Syria possessed 550 more Soviet tanks, and Iraq added 630, for a total of 2,400, not counting Lebanon’s pledged 130 and 100 more from Saudi Arabia. Against this, Israel’s armored brigades could put into the field only 800 tanks—250 British Centurions, 200 American M48 Pattons, plus 150 light AMX-13s and 200 Super Shermans, World War II tanks up-gunned and reconfigured for desert fighting.
Into Sinai over the past month Nasser had poured 950 tanks, 1,100 armored personnel carriers, 1,000 artillery pieces, and 100,000 troops. The Egyptian and Syrian air forces were trained by Soviet instructors. Air defense radar was Soviet built and Soviet installed; in many cases it was Soviet manned. Egypt’s ground defenses in Sinai—minefields, artillery “boxes,” and bunker emplacements—were built by and designed by Soviet engineers according to the latest Soviet military doctrine.
The bone in Nasser’s throat was us. At the Arab League Summit in 1964, thirteen nations under Nasser’s leadership had created the United Arab Command, a military entity pledged to eradicate “the Zionist entity.” The word “Israel” appeared on no Arab maps.
My unit was called up on May 21. The way it works in Israel is you belong to the reserves. Israel’s standing army then consisted of only three brigades. The IDF is a reservist army. For the force to reach full strength, reserve units are mobilized, meaning their men must leave their civilian jobs and report for military duty. The whole economy grinds to a halt.
My friend Yoram Zamosh, our “A” Company commander, was driving a tractor when a taxi came to mobilize him—the army sent cabs for officers. Zamosh’s radioman, Moshe Milo, was plowing a field too, on his Caterpillar D4. He was a sergeant; a bus collected him along with the other enlisted men on the kibbutz. Yoram and Moshe both had to run for home, with no time even to say good-bye. Just grab a toothbrush, leave a note, and go.
Our battalion assembled at a place called Camp Israel next to Lod airfield, outside Tel Aviv. Paratroop units need to be near airfields for obvious reasons. Tel Nof Air Base was the main facility for paratrooper training. A fence divided the base into two parts. On one side were the swimming pool, the cinema, and the ice cream shop. That was the pilots’ side. On the other side were the jump towers, the obstacle course, and the barracks. That was our side.
Three-quarters of the men in our battalion came from kibbutzim or moshavim (-im is a suffix indicating plural in Hebrew). A kibbutz is a communal farm where all land and goods are held in common. A moshav is similar, except individual families are permitted to possess and farm their own piece of land.
On kibbutzim in those days children were raised not by their parents but communally. They lived in a “Children’s House” and grew up, supervised by their teachers and caretakers, among the other children. The pioneer ideals were still very much in practice then. All kibbutz members were equals. No one got a salary. Meals were taken in the communal dining hall.
Some kibbutzim had only one telephone. The idea of owning your own car was unheard of. The typical kibbutz might possess a couple of old clunkers—a Peugeot or Deux Chevaux or an Israeli-made Studebaker Lark. If you needed to drive somewhere—say, into the city to see a doctor—you put your name on a list and hoped the committee gave you the keys. We rode buses or bicycles or walked. Everybody walked.
A kibbutz could be tough sometimes. When our battalion commander, Uzi Eilam, was twenty years old and had completed his first army service, he wanted to study at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Uzi was already an outstanding leader. Clearly he was destined for big things. The kibbutz took a vote and turned him down. They wanted him at home, working the land.
People think that Israelis of that era were religious. That’s not true. On the kibbutz in those days the ethic was socialist, communal, Zionist—not antireligious but definitely nonreligious. Moshe Dayan, who was born on Israel’s first kibbutz, Deganiah Alef, had never had a bar mitzvah. Many of us were like that. We could light a candle, but we knew only a handful of prayers.
In Israel the fifties and early sixties were called Tekufat HaTzena, the “period of austerity.” The economy was struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of whom had been expelled from Arab countries. These were often poor and lacking Western skills or education. On the kibbutz, at least we had enough to eat. You can tell someone who grew up during the Austere Period because their teeth have no cavities. No one could afford such luxuries as sugar or candy.
Israel, as I said, is small. On the kibbutz farms where I and Zamosh and Milo and others of our battalion grew up, you felt like you were living in Kansas. Yet Tel Aviv—our Manhattan—was only an hour and a half away.
At our base near Lod, the brigade began training in earnest. We were so new, we had never even jumped as a brigade. Soon we would be jumping in combat, the rumors said, in Sinai. We lived in shelter halves—two-man tents—in orchards under orange and lemon trees and listened at night on our transistors to the Voice of Thunder. The news was full of stories of Nasser’s troop and tank buildup in Sinai. The UN had a peacekeeping force in the desert. Would they stop him? On May 18 Nasser ordered them out and they went. By May 22 he had closed the Straits of Tiran, sealing off our port of Eilat.
Would there be war? On May 24 we were ordered to stand ready; D-day would be the next morning. That order was rescinded, then repeated on May 25, 26, and 27, and again on May 29 and 30. Each time we stood down, the politicians gave a different excuse. They were “seeking a negotiated settlement” or “exhausting all diplomatic options.” Mostly they were trying to get the Russians to tell Nasser to back off or to convince the Americans or the British and the French to come in on our side.
When you’re a twenty-three-year-old lieutenant, you care nothing for any of this. All you know is that every day that passes without the government making a decision gives the enemy more time to prepare, more time to bring up tanks and guns, more time to dig in and fortify. Every twenty-four hours means more of us will die.
I remember getting a twelve-hour pass to go home because my mother had taken sick. I hitchhiked but got left off about fifteen kilometers short as darkness was falling. From the road I could look east down the valley toward Jordan. King Hussein’s army had 176 new American Patton tanks; from the border they could reach my kibbutz in under an hour. Syrian armor could roll down from the Golan Heights and be overrunning our defenses even sooner.
Where I stood was only a few kilometers past the ruins of ancient Megiddo—Armageddon of the Bible. I tried not to think of it, but that song by the Doors kept playing in my head.
DOWN IN THE DESERT
I was living in Athens when I got a cable from my father asking me to come home at once. It was understood that no Israeli would wish to be elsewhere when the nation was in danger. For my father, who understood the political and military dynamics of the Middle East as well as any man, to write such a note could mean only one thing: war was imminent.
Yael Dayan is the twenty-seven-year-old daughter of former army chief of staff Moshe Dayan. She has published two well-received novels, as well as essays and journalism, and has acquired a measure of celebrity in the European press. She is also a segen mishne, a second lieutenant, in the reserve forces of the IDF.
I flew back on BEA to Lod, the British-built airfield that would become Ben-Gurion International. My mother picked me up. The date was May 25, 1967. We drove to the mobilization center in Tel Aviv, where I presented my military identification and requested to be sent south, to the Egyptian front. The desk sergeant smiled. “And where do you think everyone else wants to go?”
But my request was approved.
Driving home, my mother and I listened to Nasser’s latest radio harangue, in which the Egyptian president declared that “our ultimate objective will be the destruction of Israel.”
Nasser announced that the armies of Egypt and Syria were now under unified command. He invited Jordan to join. Egypt’s president was, he said, in daily contact with the leaders of a dozen other Arab states, every one of which had pledged troops, arms, or money.
I had dinner with my father that night. He had been visiting the fighting units at the front and was in high spirits. He joked that I had achieved in two hours what he had been unable to accomplish in two weeks: the acquisition of an actual job.
I asked him in what capacity he had been touring the forward units.
“As a uniformed soldier, accompanied by a conducting officer,” he said. Ezer Weizman, who was IDF chief of operations (and my father’s brother-in-law; Ezer’s wife, Reumah, was my mother’s sister), had gotten my father mobilized, though without rank or authority. “I show up as a simple pain in the neck.”
He had met with Ezer that morning, my father said, and later with his dear friend Meir Amit, who was Israel’s chief of intelligence. Egypt now had nearly a thousand tanks in Sinai, threatening our southern border. If you were offered a post, Amit had asked my father, would you take it? Dayan gave him this note for Prime Minister Levi Eshkol:
I have asked Ezer Weizman to arrange my formal mobilization for active service so that my presence in an army unit will be legal and proper. If you or the chief of staff consider that I may be of help in this war by being given a specific task, I shall, of course, accept. If not, I shall continue in the meantime to be attached to combat units so that I may see developments at close quarters and be able to express practical views on the strength of the army and on what may be done.
We talked about my assignment. I had been detailed as a correspondent to the ugda of General Ariel Sharon, which was dug in now at Nitzana on the Egyptian frontier.
An ugda is a formation unique to the Israeli Army. Approximately the size of a division, it is configured of independent brigades for the purpose of accomplishing a specific objective or confronting a particular foe. An ugda is a onetime formation. It takes its name from its commander. On the Sinai border, the army had mobilized three. In the north, Ugda Tal (No. 84) under General Israel Tal; in the center, Ugda Yoffe (No. 31) under General Avraham Yoffe; in the south, Ugda Sharon (No. 38) under General Arik Sharon. An independent armored brigade, the 8th, under Colonel Albert Mendler, was positioned farther south, opposite Kuntilla.
My father had been out of the army for ten years, but in the public mind he remained the hero of the ’56 Sinai Campaign and the paragon of the Israeli fighting commander. While we dined, guests continually approached the table, no few in obvious states of agitation.
“When will the government call you, Moshe?”
“Will they make you minister of defense?”
“The people are behind you, General Dayan.”
I asked my father if he expected to be given a command by Prime Minister Eshkol.
“He will call you before he calls me!”
My father spoke of the distinction between “intent” and “objective.” In any military order, intent is inscribed above and supersedes objective.
The issue with Eshkol, he said, was that his intent was to preserve Israel at any cost. To that end, the prime minister set the nation at the beck and call of the Western powers, specifically the United States, while stalling and refusing to make a decision based on our strength alone.
But the prime minister’s intent, my father said, cannot be to preserve Israel at the price of sacrificing her fighting spirit and independence of action.
“To bang on the powers’ doors is to cut off our own balls. We know it and Nasser knows it. What has kept Israel safe for ten years is our enemies’ fear to strike us. The prime minister’s intent must be ‘to preserve the nation by destroying the forces arrayed against it.’”
We are being bullied, my father said, and the only way to handle a bully is to punch him in the face.
“What would you do?” I asked.
“Strike now. As soon as possible. Meet the enemy straight-up and destroy him. There is no other way.”
Outside, my father’s car was waiting. The hour was nearly midnight. He was leaving for the headquarters of Southern Command in Beersheba.
“The prime minister will address the nation in a couple of days,” I said. At the mobilization offices, I had heard of a radio speech planned for the evening of May 29. “Will you listen?”
“Yes,” Moshe Dayan said. “But without relish.”
THE DEATH BURST
The last thing on my mind was Eshkol’s speech. I supposed I would listen when it came on. But my job was to kill MiGs, not to worry about politics. I was so deeply absorbed in my own flying and training that nothing could penetrate the bubble.
Lieutenant Giora Romm is a twenty-two-year-old fighter pilot with Squadron 119 based at Tel Nof Air Base. He will become the first and only “ace” of the Six Day War, shooting down five MiGs.
Every fighter squadron, and probably every operational unit in the world, breaks down into two generations: the old guys—the captains and majors at the top of the food chain—and the young lieutenants at the bottom.
The captains and majors are the senior pilots, the squadron commander and his deputies. In Squadron 119, these are the fliers with operational experience. They had fought in the Sinai Campaign of ’56. They had flown reconnaissance missions over Egypt and Syria and Jordan. They had experienced “triple-A”—antiaircraft artillery. They had engaged in dogfights. They had made kills.
We young guys had done none of that. We tried to imagine what war was like, but the feat was beyond us. To us, war was a cinematic mash-up of Pierre Clostermann memoirs and old Battle of Britain movies.
The old guys were married and had families; they lived in the colony of bungalows in the administrative part of the base. They had cars and washing machines. Their wives took care of everything for them. I was twenty-two. I was six feet two and weighed 154 pounds. I shared a room in the bachelor officers’ quarters with another pilot, Avramik Salmon. I had no wife. My car was at home with my parents in Tel Aviv. I rode a bicycle. I did my laundry at Ran Ronen’s house, our squadron commander. His wife, Heruta, helped all of us. She hung our socks and flight suits on the line out back and folded them up in neat piles, which we collected later.
Every pilot thinks his squadron is the best. I did and still do. Here’s a story that will tell you about our commander, Ran Ronen:
In training for air-to-air combat, a kill is awarded based on the film in the gun camera. You must have one full second with your pipper—the gunsight—zeroed on the body of the plane you’re competing against. But at that time a practice called “demonstration shots” was permitted. You were allowed to cite gun camera film even if you were not in a sure-kill position and you had not held your sights on the target for a full second. The purpose of this practice was simply to demonstrate at the end of the day, in the briefing room with Ran and the other pilots, that you had been on the other guy’s tail and not the other way around.
One day Ran called the squadron together. “This is bullshit!” he said in that voice that could make you jump six inches out of your chair. From now on, Ran declared, pilots would be allowed to activate the gun camera only when the competing plane was dead center in our sights—a certain kill. And we had to keep that plane in the bull’s-eye for a full second, sixteen consecutive frames of film.
The pilots groaned when they heard this. Do you know how hard it is to keep an enemy in your gunsights for a full second?
“I have no compassion for you,” declared Ran. The sure-kill, sixteen-frame standard would now be called “the death burst.”
If you wanted to be credited with a kill, you had to produce the death burst.
The next day, when the squadron went up to practice dogfighting, skill levels elevated by 40 percent. It was amazing. Every pilot raised his game. You had to. There was no other way to achieve the death burst.
When I was fifteen, I applied for and was accepted into a new military boarding school associated with the Reali School in Haifa. The Reali School was the elite high school in Israel. The military school was a secondary school version of West Point. We attended classes at Reali in the morning and underwent our military training in the afternoon.
I don’t believe there is an institution in Israel today that can measure up to the standards of that school. Why did I want to go there? I wanted to test myself. At that time in Israel the ideal to which an individual aspired was inclusion as part of a “serving elite.” The best of the best were not motivated by money or fame. Their aim was to serve the nation, to sacrifice their lives if necessary. At the military boarding school, it was assumed that every graduate would volunteer for a fighting unit, the more elite, the better. We studied, we played sports, we trekked. We hiked all over Israel. We were unbelievably strong physically. But what was even more powerful were the principles that the school hammered into our skulls.
First: Complete the mission.
The phrase in Hebrew is Dvekut baMesima.
Mesima is “mission”; dvekut means “glued to.” The mission is everything. At all costs, it must be carried through to completion. I remember running up the Snake Trail at Masada one summer at 110 degrees Fahrenheit with two of my classmates. Each of us would sooner have died than be the first to call, “Hey, slow down!”
Second: Whatever you do, do it to your utmost. The way you tie your shoes. The way you navigate at night. Nothing is academic.
Third: En brera. “No alternative.”
We are Jews; we are surrounded by enemies who seek our destruction and the extermination of our people. There is no alternative to victory.
In Squadron 119, Ran led us according to these principles. Complete the mission. Perform every action to perfection. Follow through at any cost.
Then there was one final principle, which was, and remains to this day, the secret weapon of IAF fighting doctrine. Here is how it was taught to me:
I was talking with an older pilot. He asked me what I considered to be Ezer Weizman’s most important contribution to the air force. Ezer was the IAF’s boldest and most flamboyant commander.
“That’s easy,” I said. “He got us seventy-two Mirages.” Meaning the magnificent French-built warplanes that we flew in our squadron.
“No, Giora,” the veteran said. “Ezer introduced the culture of the ruthlessly candid debriefing.”
At the end of each training day, the squadron met in the briefing room. Ran stood up front. He went over every mistake we had made that day—not just those of the young pilots, but his own as well. He was fearless in his self-criticism, and he made us speak up with equal candor. If you had screwed up, you admitted it and took your medicine. Ego meant nothing. Improvement was everything.
An operational squadron flies only one type of plane. In the IAF of ’67 these were all French made: twin-engined Vautour fighter-bombers; single-engine Ouragans that looked like American F-84 Thunderjets; the subsonic Mystères and supersonic Super Mystères; and the pride of the air force, the Dassault Mirage IIIC fighter-interceptor.
How do I feel about the Mirage? I’ll tell you a story:
After the war, when the Mirage was replaced by the American F-4 Phantom, I moved on to a Phantom squadron. One day the ground crew was pushing my plane into its cell when we accidentally dinged one wingtip. As punishment my squadron commander grounded me. I phoned a friend, the commander of a Mirage squadron. He invited me to come and fly.
When I settled into the Mirage cockpit, tears welled in my eyes.
The Mirage is an aircraft like no other. You sit up front and high. You can see everything. The controls are close, and they respond to a touch. You fly a Mirage with your fingertips.
A Mirage is fast. When you light the afterburner, the aircraft leaps. And it’s beautiful. It has that Coca-Cola body. Delta wings. Silver. The engine may be prone to flameouts and compression stalls, and you had to land with your nose so high you could barely see the runway, and without flaps (the delta wings had none), but in the vertical dimension the Mirage was untouchable. Nothing in the sky was a match for her.
We were training to attack Egypt. The enemy had fourteen major fields in Sinai, the Nile delta, and the south. Each IAF squadron had its target list—primaries and secondaries. You had to know them all. The planes would attack in formations of four. In ours and the two other Mirage squadrons—the 101 at Hatzor and the 117 at Ramat David—each aircraft would be armed with two 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) bombs. The bombs would be dropped at specific points on specific runways at an hour and minute that was calculated precisely to coincide with attacks by every other squadron in the air force on every other Egyptian field.
The bombing runs would be followed by three passes of strafing in a 270-degree pattern, alternating the turning direction twice. Meaning you struck first from, say, the north, then the east or west, then the south or north. With our 30-millimeter cannons we would attack enemy aircraft on the ground. We knew where every plane was parked and at what hours the pilots returned from their early morning patrols.
Every squadron in the Israel Air Force would participate in the attack. Only 12 planes out of 202 would be held back to defend the nation’s skies. Every machine that could fly would participate, including the ancient Fouga Magisters from the flight school. The Fougas would be outfitted with rockets to attack ground targets and to provide close air support for the infantry and armor.
How do you turn 202 planes into 404? By the skill of the maintenance crews on the ground. In most air forces 75 percent would be a spectacular combat readiness figure, meaning that seventy-five out of a hundred planes were fit to fly. On 5 June ’67 the IAF had 100 percent of its aircraft ready for takeoff. Our ground crews could turn a plane around in minutes. They could squeeze four or five sorties out of every plane every day. On paper the enemy may have had more aircraft, but we could put more planes into the air.
By mid-May Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran. Egypt was sending more and more tanks into Sinai. Squadron 119 was ordered to move onto the base full-time. Training hours went from ten to twelve to fourteen. When we weren’t flying, we were briefing or debriefing or studying our tasks and our assignments.
For me, this was heaven.
What had motivated me to become a fighter pilot? To seek single combat in the sky. To test myself at what was, to my mind, the pinnacle of skill, resourcefulness, and daring.
There was only one moment during the waiting period when I felt fear. News came that the Egyptian 4th Armored Division had been deployed to Sinai. The 4th, we all knew, was Nasser’s crack division, equipped with the heaviest and most modern Soviet tanks. I was at a military dinner and found myself for a moment beside Motti Hod, the air force chief.
“Motti,” I said—only in Israel can a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant address the commander of the air force not just by his first name but by his nickname. “What do you think about the Egyptian 4th Division moving forward in Sinai? Should we be frightened?”
“Giora, this is news I have prayed for. Let Nasser bring all his divisions forward. The more he brings, the more we will destroy.”
I thought, Wow, that is an interesting way of looking at things! It turned me around completely.
So as the evening of the prime minister’s address approached, I was more worried about my laundry than about what Levi Eshkol had to say to the nation. Would Ran’s wife have time to get my socks and skivvies into the washing machine? I was really concerned about this.
Let the rest of the country agonize over politics and diplomacy and whether or not the Americans were going to ride to our rescue. I refused to lose sleep over this. I had my Mirage. I knew how to fly it and with luck I was going to get the chance. That was all I knew and all I cared to know.
The waiting goes on. Our company is stationed among rolling dunes near Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz on the Gaza Strip/Egypt frontier. It’s hot. A hundred Fahrenheit by nine in the morning.
Eli Rikovitz is a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant, a platoon commander in the Recon Company of the 7th Armored Brigade. He will be awarded the Itur HaMofet, the Medal of Distinguished Service, for his actions during the Six Day War.
An armored brigade in ready position spreads out over miles. Each morning at 03:30 the entire formation—hundreds of tanks, half-tracks, and support vehicles—is awake and at full alert, helmets on, chin straps buckled, all engines roaring, all radio nets open. We are waiting for the Egyptians to attack at dawn. When they don’t, we stand down.
If there is a formula for driving young soldiers nuts, this is it.
A reconnaissance company’s job is to find the enemy and to lead our tanks. We drive American CJ-5 jeeps, souped up to our own standards. What this means is we steal from other units all the extra fuel, ammo, and rations we can load onto the makeshift racks that we’ve welded onto our jeeps. When the tires start sinking into the sand, we know we’ve put on too much.
Across the border from us waits the Egyptian 7th Division, with four more divisions behind it in central Sinai. In the Gaza Strip, a few kilometers northeast of our position, is another enemy division, the Palestinian, as well as a near-division-size task force, the Shazli Force, named after its commander, General Saad Shazli—of nine thousand men and two hundred tanks and guns.
We are one division, Ugda Tal, with two others—Sharon’s and Yoffe’s—to our south.
Our company, Palsar Seven, will be the first to cross the border. We will lead the tanks of the 7th Armored Brigade. The plan is for the brigade’s two armored battalions to strike north from Kerem Shalom on the Israeli side toward Rafiah Junction on the Egyptian. There the main road turns west toward El Arish in Sinai. El Arish is our ultimate objective.
Can we do it?
We are full of confidence.
We are all young in the Recon Company because we’re regular army. Reserves are older—twenty-two to fifty. To be in a regular outfit means you’re serving your compulsory service. You’re a kid. You went in at eighteen. The oldest guy in Palsar Seven is our company commander, Ori Orr. He’s twenty-eight. I’m twenty-one.
“Palsar” is an acronym for Plugat Siyur, which simply means “reconnaissance company.” “Seven” means we’re part of the 7th Armored Brigade. The guys in my platoon are so young that we don’t have wives. Only a few have girlfriends. When we send postcards home, we write to our parents.
My mom and dad live in Zahala, a suburb of Tel Aviv built for army and defense ministry personnel. Yitzhak Rabin, the army chief of staff, is our neighbor. Growing up, my friends and I would catch rides to school with him. He’s a good guy. I used to swim at night in the Zahala pool; Rabin would be there doing laps. Moshe Dayan’s house is two streets over.
My mother sends me articles from the newspapers, Haaretz (“The Land”) and Maariv (“Evening”). The editorials are full of calls for Prime Minister Eshkol’s resignation, or at least for him to give up his post as minister of defense. People are demanding a unity government. Here in the desert we don’t give a damn about such stuff. Let us fight. We’re young and we believe we’re bulletproof.
Every few days, word comes that we’re going to attack. Tomorrow is D-day, we are told. There have been eight D-days so far, maybe nine—I can’t remember. Each time we are told the attack code and the time of H-hour. New plans are issued, based on the positions to which the Egyptian forces have moved during the previous night.
Our job in Recon is to guide the tanks to their new ready positions. This is done after dark, to avoid observation by the enemy’s air force or by his long-range observation posts. A tank alone in the dark will nosedive into the first ditch it comes to. Our jeeps guide them. It usually takes till two or three in the morning. We snooze under blankets in the sand or in our vehicles. The three-thirty wakeup comes; every engine fires up, every soldier runs through whatever mental stuff he does to get himself ready to face his own death.
Then the word comes: Stand down.
I have two guys in my outfit who are natural comics: Gabi Gazit and Benzi Zur. They’re both about twenty. To Gabi and Benzi, I am an old man. They ask me for advice about sex and marriage. What do I know? They ask about death. “You tell me,” I say.
We are all friends in Recon.
Sergeant Miriam Lamm atop a communications vehicle during a reserve training exercise.
Miriam Lamm is pilot Giora Romm’s fiancée. She is a sergeant, twenty-two years old, a code specialist in the headquarters group of Ugda Tal:
I am among the few women with the combat troops. My fiancé, Giora, is a fighter pilot in Mirage Squadron 119. I’m a coder/decoder, part of General Tal’s command group. I will ride in an armored half-track when and if war comes and we cross the border.
Our section’s half-track, unlike those of the combat troops, is enclosed. I don’t like it. I know I should feel safe inside this armored box, but I’d rather see what’s going on outside. I feel like I’m in a coffin.
My father is in the reserves. He’s fifty-one. Men love being in the reserves; it makes them feel proud. Three weeks ago, two officers in uniform came to our door with a notice, Call-up Order No. 8. This is the hottest, most urgent category of mobilization order. My father hurried to grab his gear. But the officers said, “We are here for your daughter, Sergeant Miriam Lamm.”
My dad was crestfallen.
Call-up Order No. 8 meant you had to leave right that moment. You went with the officers.
I said good-bye, feeling so bad for my father, and went to join Tal’s division.
Menachem Shoval is a nineteen-year-old trooper in the Recon Company of the 7th Armored Brigade, part of Ugda Tal:
In Israel when you turn eighteen the army takes you and puts you wherever it needs you or wherever your tests say you will do best. But you can volunteer before then, if you want, for special units like the paratroops or the Sayeret Matkal. I have always wanted Recon.
The Recon company of an armored brigade is an elite unit. You’re supposed to pass a battery of physical and intelligence tests, which, of course, you must. But the real selection process is chaver mayvee chaver, “a friend brings a friend.”
I have not yet completed my training. This worries me a little. Our company may be in action soon. I wish I had had more time to learn everything I’m supposed to know.
In the American army, I understand, a recruit goes through basic training, then advanced training in his military specialty. Only after that is he assigned to a unit.
That’s not how it works in Israel. In the IDF you go straight to your actual outfit. The outfit trains you from scratch. Our formation, the Recon Company of the 7th Armored Brigade, has been training all over Israel. We learn how to operate on foot and in jeeps, day and night, in all types of weather. You live rough. Camps have no cooks, no laundry, no hot showers. The team whips up its own chow and washes its own clothes. You’re trained by the same guys you’ll be serving with. You live in tents or trailers that are more like hobo jungles than military bases.
Navigation exercises are the meat of Recon training. Night nav. Have you ever seen a “blind map”? It shows topography only. No roads, no cities, no landmarks.
The object of a night navigation march is to trek from one prescribed point to another in a sequence that may include ten or twelve stations. This is the hardest thing I have ever done. One station may be a rock. Just a rock. You have to find it in the dark in the middle of nowhere and then write in your notebook what you have discovered. A white X, say, painted on the underside of the rock. The next station may be a kilometer away, or ten kilometers. You have to complete the circuit before the sun comes up.
To observe a great navigator like Eli Rikovitz or Amos Ayalon, the Recon platoon commanders, is like watching Beethoven. These guys read a map like you or I read a book. They don’t scratch their heads, they don’t furrow their brows. They look and see. This is amazing to me.
Will we use any of these skills when we cross the Egyptian border? I don’t know. Nobody does. Will war come? Can we win?
Intelligence reports keep coming in saying that the Egyptians have brought up Stalin tanks, a whole brigade, to block the approaches south of Rafiah—the very area our outfit is slated to attack. Stalin tanks are the heaviest Russian armor from World War II. A Stalin tank packs a 122-millimeter main gun. The cannons on our Pattons are 90-millimeters and on our Centurions 105-millimeters. Stalin tanks were designed by the Russians to knock out the heaviest German tanks, the huge Tigers and Panthers. I can’t imagine what damage a 122-millimeter gun can do.
My husband is mobilized on May 21. The unit he commands, Paratroop Battalion 71, is one of the last to get orders, though clearly the call-up is imminent. Uzi has been meeting with his company commanders in our living room all week. I serve coffee and sweet rolls, while the officers spread maps on the floor and on top of the piano.
Dr. Naomi Eilam is a pediatric physician serving in the department of health. Her responsibilities include two villages of new immigrants, Yemenite Jews, to which she commutes under armed guard because of fedayeen incursions from Jordan. She is twenty-nine years old and has been married to her husband, Uzi, since 1954.
I have been an army wife for almost thirteen years and have come to hate the word “operational.” It means that my husband is somewhere across the border, usually at night on a reprisal operation, or in some other position where he may be wounded or killed. Uzi has already been shot twice, once by our own forces. Not even Israeli wives get used to that.
Uzi fought in the Sinai Campaign in ’56, the victory that all of Israel believed had bought us a decade or more of peace. Even when our forces were compelled by the Americans and the Russians to withdraw from Sinai in 1957, Israelis acceded to the necessity with cautious optimism. UN peacekeepers took over our soldiers’ posts in Sinai. The desert became a demilitarized zone, a buffer between us and the Egyptians. Nasser could no longer move bombers or tanks close to our border. The Great Powers guaranteed it. They would hold their shield over Israel. Beneath this, we dared to feel safe.
Suddenly in ’67 everything changed.
On May 15, Israel’s Independence Day, the radio reported Egyptian divisions moving into Sinai. Neighbors and friends reacted with shock. Nasser can’t do that, can he? The UN is supposed to stop him.
But each day brought further Egyptian incursions.
On May 18, Nasser ordered the United Nations out of Sinai entirely. Our ambassadors appealed to the Security Council. Surely Secretary-General U Thant will stand up to these Egyptian provocations. But two days later UN peacekeepers were packing up their equipment and pulling out.
More Egyptian divisions rolled into Sinai. Nasser had long since nationalized the Suez Canal; now he sent paratroopers to seize Sharm el-Sheikh, closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Our port of Eilat had been cut off by this clear and flagrant act of war.
The Arab world exploded with joy. Nasser’s boldness ignited anti-Israeli passions across North Africa and the entire Middle East. Mobs filled the streets in a dozen Arab nations, chanting, “Kill the Jews!” and “Death to the Zionists!” Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia pledged troops to Nasser. So did Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco.
How could this be happening? Where were our allies? The Americans, mired in Vietnam, dilated and demurred. The State Department claimed to have literally lost the 1956 letter in which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had guaranteed Israel’s territorial integrity.
France, after her costly war in Algeria, had adopted a strategy of befriending the Arabs. When our foreign minister, Abba Eban, called upon Charles de Gaulle to honor France’s post-Sinai pledge to stand by Israel, the French president rebuffed him with contempt. “That was 1957,” he said. “This is 1967.”
That same night, France cut off all arms shipments to Israel.
As for Great Britain, the hearts of her people may have been in the right place, but the nation’s politicians had tied their hopes for Middle East oil and influence to their former client states Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Whitehall was not keen to shed British blood in defense of a couple of million pain-in-the-neck Jews who had last made headlines in London in 1946 when their underground fighters blew up British military headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
In the suburb of Yehud, where Uzi and I lived, homes started emptying as husband after husband was called up for war. I drove into Tel Aviv one morning and found Allenby Street so deserted that I could walk across at midblock, an act that would have been suicidal two weeks earlier.
Families were leaving the country. I knew two in our neighborhood. The airport at Lod was so busy with outbound flights that a grim joke began circulating: “Will the last one out please turn off the lights?”
Along Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, shopkeepers were shuttering their businesses. Doorways had been sandbagged, windows taped or shielded by roll-down iron gates. I had been nine years old during the War of Independence in 1948. I remember Egyptian Spitfires attacking Tel Aviv unopposed (Israel had not even a single antiaircraft gun), dropping bombs and making strafing runs down civilian streets.
This time would be far worse. Nasser had Soviet bombers, Ilyushins and Tupolevs. If the city started to burn, who or what could stop it? Half the fire trucks had been mobilized. Even the city buses were gone. Almost all had been activated as transport for the troops. Taxis had been called up as well, along with bread vans, milk trucks, even dump trucks and panel vans. The one truck I saw from the Tnuva Dairy was carrying reservists.
City parks and soccer fields were being consecrated as graveyards. There seemed to be blood drive tables in every office building. Hotel lobbies had been made over into casualty collection centers. In a drugstore I was handed a mimeographed sheet—instructions for the identification and burial of the dead.
Uzi dug a trench in our backyard. He is an engineer so he did it exactly per specifications, with a zigzag at the halfway point so that if a bomb or mortar shell landed at one end, the blast wouldn’t kill you at the other.
Digging trenches at Gan Shmuel.
The first morning when the sirens sounded, I was alone in the kitchen with the baby. I grabbed her, in her diaper, and dashed out to the trench in my robe. I had left the coffee percolator going. I remember thinking, Do I dare go back inside to turn it off?
Finally, after about fifteen minutes sitting there in the trench, just me and the baby, I decided it was silly and went back into the house. Later we learned that the civil defense people had not yet figured out that they were supposed to blow the all-clear siren when the air raid alert was over.
Our quiet suburb was only seven or eight kilometers from the international airport, but the surrounding fields and hills were wilderness. The armistice line was so close that Jordanian raiders crossed almost every night. My medical responsibilities included two Yemenite villages, Bareket and Tirat Yehuda. These were settlements for Jews from Yemen who had been expelled from their home country by Muslim pogroms, airlifted to Israel by our own pilots and planes, and settled on land belonging to the state. Poverty was extreme but the newcomers bore it with patience and dignity. I was the only Western person providing medical aid—and the first woman physician my patients had ever seen. The most common injury I treated was burns, inflicted on the flesh of ailing villagers by their native healers as a means of driving out dybbuks, or evil spirits. This, so close to the airport that we could see planes passing close overhead, bearing our countrymen evacuating to London or New York.
My superiors at the health department had determined that it was too risky for me to drive to these villages alone, because of the fedayeen who would cross from Jordan, so each morning two soldiers picked me up in a jeep and provided an armed escort. These soldiers had now been returned to active duty. So I drove myself in our old Peugeot.
Every morning the newspapers said we were going to war. Then they said we weren’t. This went on day after day. The state of suspense became unbearable. Every twenty-four hours that passed without a decision produced greater stress on the nation’s already struggling economy, not to mention its collective sanity.
So we citizens very much wanted to hear what Prime Minister Eshkol had to say in his address to the nation. We were anxious. We were frightened. We wanted our minds set at ease, one way or the other.
A Jew’s worst enemy is often himself. We think too much. Will we now second-guess ourselves into annihilation? As a physician I knew that decisions must often be made without perfect knowledge. I wanted to scream to the politicians: Do something! Make up your minds!
What Americans speak of as the IDF—the Israel Defense Forces—we Israelis call Zahal. The word is an acronym for Zva Haganah L’Israel. In the early 1950s the government built a colony of housing outside Tel Aviv exclusively for officers of the army. The settlement is called Zahala. My house is at 11 Joab Street. In the Bible, Joab was King David’s nephew and commander of his army.
General Moshe Dayan achieved worldwide renown in 1956 with Israel’s spectacular victory over Egypt in what became known as the Sinai Campaign. As chief of staff, Dayan was considered the architect of this triumph. Now, in May 1967, he has been out of the army for ten years. He is a civilian, a member of the Knesset from a small, out-of-power opposition party.
The combat arms of Israel are constituted, organized, and commanded according to a doctrine different from that of other nations. The Israel Defense Forces include as essential elements that other militaries consider unnecessary, and deliberately do without components (such as medium- or long-range bombers) that other armed forces view as indispensable. The reason is that the IDF was created for, and has evolved to wage, a very specific type of war, to be fought in a very specific place, against a very specific enemy.
In 1962, when the first French-built Mirage IIICJ fighters arrived in Israel (designated by their builders “J” for Juif, the French word for “Jew”), they had been modified at air force chief Ezer Weizman’s insistence to suit the IAF’s unique combat mission.
Gone was the rocket booster engine designed to catapult the interceptor into the stratosphere. Relegated to auxiliary use was air-to-air missile armament. Ezer and his chief test pilot, Danny Shapira, demanded guns: two DEFA 30-millimeter cannons. Also added were hangers for two 500-kilogram bombs.
Why these alterations? Because high-altitude interception is not a priority in a nation whose enemies’ military runways lie within twenty-five minutes’ flying time of her population centers. Our air force instead needed jets that could bomb and destroy enemy airfields, strafe armored columns and troop concentrations, and take on opposing fighters in old-fashioned dogfights in the sky.
Israel possesses none of the strategic geographical advantages of, say, the United States. Our nation does not have a 3,000-mile-wide body of water on one coast and a 5,000-mile-wide ocean on the other. She does not enjoy friendly relations with states along her borders, nor does she possess military alliances upon which she can depend.
Israel’s frontiers are not borders, recognized by her neighbors and by the international community, but armistice lines, which may be declared null and void and overthrown arbitrarily at any hour.
I was military commander of the Jewish-controlled half of Jerusalem in 1948, when the Green Line was drawn, separating the infant state of Israel from her enemy Jordan. I drew the line in concord with Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah al-Tell, my counterpart from the Arab Legion. The instrument we used, a chinagraph pencil, happened to be green. Where the line chanced to pass along neighborhood streets, one side became Israeli, the other Jordanian. When the pen passed over a house, one half of that dwelling fell under the jurisdiction of the Hashemite kingdom, the other half under that of the Israeli military command. In effect the home had to be abandoned. It became, inevitably, one of scores of blockhouses and bricked-up strongpoints lining the corridor of minefields and barbed-wire entanglements that divided Jerusalem.
A strategy of defense-in-depth is not possible in a nation that is only nine miles wide at its waist and whose commercial concentrations and population centers lie within artillery range of its enemies. Offense is the only effective posture. War, if war comes, must be fought on the enemy’s territory, not our own.
The IDF and IAF have been built upon the principles of speed, aggression, and audacity. An Israeli lieutenant or captain in the field does not expect the luxury of being able to appeal for instructions to higher command. He is on his own and has been trained to fight that way. “To the commander of an Israeli unit,” I wrote in Diary of the Sinai Campaign,
I can point on a map to the Suez Canal and say: “There’s your target and this is your axis of advance. Don’t signal me during the fighting for more men, arms, or vehicles. All that we could allocate you’ve already got, and there isn’t more. Keep signaling your advances. You must reach Suez in forty-eight hours.” I can give this kind of order to commanders of our units because I know they are ready to assume such tasks and are capable of carrying them out.
I arrive home from visiting units of the Southern Command late on the afternoon of May 28. Prime Minister Eshkol will address the nation this evening. I have no clue what he will say. Will he announce a resolution to the crisis? Will he proclaim an accord guaranteed by the United Nations or the Great Powers? Will he declare war?
My wife, Ruth, is preparing dinner. I tell her I have spoken with our daughter, Yael, and ask about our two sons, Assi and Udi, both of whom have been mobilized with their reserve units, and about my nephews Uzi and Jonathan. Jonathan, the son of my sister Aviva, is in the navy. Uzi is the son of my brother Zorik, who was killed in the War of Independence; he is an officer in the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s special forces.
I myself have been in the field with the troops for the past five days. On Friday I visited Avraham Yoffe’s division, facing Sinai, and reviewed battle plans with him and two of his brigade commanders, Colonel Yissachar “Yiska” Shadmi and Colonel Elhanan Sela. A message came for me that morning from Prime Minister Eshkol. I flew back from Beersheba and met him at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. He said he wanted to form a committee, Ministerial Defense and Foreign Affairs, on which I would serve.
I refused. I will accept no “advisory” position. I insist upon a combat command. If none can be found for me, I will drive a tank or a truck. I will not permit Eshkol or his government to neutralize my voice by sidelining me into a ceremonial role.
What I hate most about the dallying and dithering of the cabinet is that they stem from lack of faith in our fighting men and commanders. Our troops are young lions. It is catastrophic in terms of spirit and morale for the nation to be overtaken by hysteria and go beating at the doors of the Powers, begging to be rescued.
At the level of state—meaning the deliberations of the prime minister and the cabinet—a clear and decisive intention must be agreed upon. This must be beyond tactical and strategic, beyond local or regional, and beyond the time frame of the present.
It must answer the question: Where does the country need to be at the end of this crisis?
Remember, we can destroy the army of Egypt to the last man and last tank, and that force will be reconstituted within eighteen months, by draft or conscription from that nation’s limitless manpower and by resupply of weaponry and training from its sponsor, the Soviet Union.
Egypt and Syria are client states of the Russians, whose interests in the Middle East are in their view essential and permanent.
For us, victory, in the sense that the Allies achieved over the Axis in World War II, is not possible. We cannot defeat the Arabs. There are too many of them and their sponsor states are too powerful.
Within such limitations, then, what is possible? The prime minister and the cabinet must answer this. I despair of Eshkol because he is not thinking in these terms. In his view, the issue is “How can Israel be preserved?” This is the wrong question to ask, because it permits such an answer as “By a negotiated settlement imposed by the Powers.” Such an outcome will save Israel for the moment, but it will do so at the expense of deterrence, which is the only true basis for security for a nation of 2.7 million surrounded by enemies whose numbers are greater than 120 million.
At the same time Chief of Staff Rabin, whom I respect, is thinking in penny packets, proposing to seize the Gaza Strip and use it as a bargaining chip in dealing with Nasser. Bargaining chip for what? Egypt knows that Gaza, with its quarter of a million refugees, is a nest of hornets. She wants it even less than we do.
The proper question to ask is not “How can Israel be preserved at any cost?” but “How can Israel be preserved into the future?”
To this question at this time, no reply is possible except by the sword. The enemy must be dealt such a blow that he will be deterred from striking again, or threatening to strike, for as long as possible.
Therefore our objective cannot be mere seizure of land or the swapping of territories of dubious value. It must be the destruction of the Egyptian Army, not in part and not in detail, but totally and in a straight-up fight—tank against tank, plane against plane, man against man.
There are jacks for ten telephones in my house, from my days as army chief of staff, but only two are hooked up now, and those are manned by Ruth, between household chores and affairs of business, and whatever helpful neighbor happens to have stopped by.
I sit with my wife now for a light supper of salad, fish, and bread with olive oil. The radio on the counter is already tuned to Kol Israel, over which Levi Eshkol’s speech to the nation will be broadcast, but I check it again, twice, to be sure the dial is right.
“How much longer till the prime minister speaks?” asks Ruth.
I check my watch.
A SECOND SHOAH
In May of ’67 when a reservist was called up, his car was also recruited. The army didn’t have enough vehicles. I was in seventh grade then. The strangest part of that whole strange month was the way cars kept disappearing. You’d walk out each morning and the street would be emptier than it was the night before.
Haim Koren is a thirteen-year-old in the working-class neighborhood of Bat Galim in Haifa. He will earn his PhD in Middle Eastern studies from Ben-Gurion University in 1993. In 2012 he will be appointed Israel’s ambassador to South Sudan.
Throughout the waiting period, we listened to Kol Ha’Raam, the Voice of Thunder, out of Cairo. The station’s leading announcer, respected throughout the Arab world, was Ali Ahmad Said. Said did not rant or bluster. His broadcasts were more frightening because they were delivered in a reasonable and unemotional tone. He spoke as if he were reporting the news.
“Your time is over, Jews. The experiment in nationhood that the Zionist entity has managed to sustain for nineteen years is due to expire.”
Ahmad Said explained, in Hebrew with an accent, how Egyptian heavy bombers would devastate Tel Aviv and Haifa. He advised his Israeli listeners to get away while they still could. To remain was folly. “Save yourselves and your families!”
At thirteen, you are not too young to grasp the significance of events unfolding around you. Naturally you ask your parents to explain what is going on. How serious is it that every young man from our building has left for the army, or that all the taxis and buses are gone? How much should we believe of what we’re hearing on the radio?
Many in our neighborhood were Holocaust survivors. Our parents never spoke of this. We children grew up knowing nothing of the Shoah. Our mothers and fathers were protecting us. We were sabras, Israel-born, brave and independent. When our parents answered our questions, their replies were confident and positive. But their voices betrayed them.
In seventh grade I already had a serious interest in Arab history and culture. I was fluent in Arabic; I read Arab newspapers and listened to Arab radio. It was clear to me that Nasser spoke not only for Egypt but for the entire Arab world. His broadcasts were greeted with as much enthusiasm in Damascus and Baghdad as they were in Cairo and Alexandria.
The qadis of Egypt’s mosques had been ordered to declare jihad—holy war—against the Jews. Radio Damascus’s number one song was “Cut Their Throats!” Mobs marched in the streets; thousands chanted for Israel’s destruction.
Nasser preached the concentric community of the Arab world, with Egypt and himself at its epicenter. His voice called 122 million Arabs to unity and summoned them to loose their rage upon our two and a half million Jews.
How would our government respond to these threats? In Israel then, the prime minister was also the minister of defense. He commanded the army. When would Eshkol give Nasser his answer?
I remember my mother telling me over breakfast, “Tonight Eshkol will speak. This evening the prime minister will address the nation.”
In our part of the country, Levi Eshkol was revered. He was from the north, as we were. He had been a farmer and an engineer. And he had steered the state successfully through a number of crises in the economy, immigration, and agriculture.
Finally tonight Eshkol would speak. Finally Nasser and Ali Ahmad Said would get their answer.
I couldn’t wait to hear.
THE STUTTERING SPEECH
My first reaction was to laugh. I thought it was a joke. This couldn’t really be happening.
Lieutenant Giora Romm hears Eshkol’s speech at the home of his squadron commander, Major Ran Ronen, at Tel Nof Air Base, along with the other pilots of Squadron 119.
I had a friend at Kol Israel, the radio station, who told me later that the prime minister had read through the text of his speech twice in rehearsal and hadn’t flubbed a word.
What happened apparently, when the program went live, was that Eshkol’s aide Ady Yoffe substituted a revised version of the text at the last minute. Some of the changes were handwritten. The prime minister was taken by surprise. For a few seconds, he forgot he was sitting before an open microphone. He turned to his aide and asked, “What is this word?” We could all hear it.
Haim Koren, thirteen, is listening at home in Bat Galim with his mother and father:
He was stuttering. We could hear the prime minister stammer. The air went dead. For a moment it seemed like the whole broadcast was going to be cut off.
I thought I could hear in the background the engineer, or whoever controls such things, trying to shut down the program in midspeech.
Lieutenant Avigdor Kahalani is a tank company commander with the 7th Armored Brigade, stationed opposite Gaza in a forward position along the Egyptian frontier:
Voice is everything when you command. As a company commander in a tank battalion, you have fourteen four-man crews listening to you through their headsets. Many times in combat, when I have been frightened or unsure, I have deliberately paused to be certain that I had my voice under control. You don’t want your men to hear that chicken voice.
Yael Dayan is with General Arik Sharon’s headquarters on the Egyptian border:
I had driven with my friend Dov Sion from the front to Beersheba to file a story. Dov is a colonel, General Sharon’s liaison with the General Staff. He and I heard the prime minister’s speech on the car radio, driving back from Beersheba.
Much has been made of Eshkol’s stumbling over the text. But the problem was the text itself. People were desperate for decisiveness. Instead they heard a call for patience. Wait for the Powers. Give diplomacy a chance.
I thought of the troops in the trenches listening to this mess. Some wept, I heard. The speech was a turning point. After that, the people took over. The need for decisiveness overrode all other concerns.
Itzik Barnoach listens from Burgata in the Sharon Plain, where he and his mobilized reserve unit have been training for four weeks:
I had a transistor and I said, My God, this schmuck is not only talking nonsense, he’s stuttering! We were not afraid, but we were anxious. The whole world is against us, we don’t know what will happen. We hoped this speech would declare war! So this was even worse. It was a disaster. A disaster.
Dr. Naomi Eilam is the wife of Major Uzi Eilam, commander of Paratroop Battalion 71:
Next day the editorials clamored for action. Either Eshkol had to go or he must cede the defense portfolio to someone else. After two interminable weeks of crisis, it was clear to all that the nation’s political leadership remained paralyzed by indecision and irresolution.
The year 1967 was not the first time that Israel’s survival had hung by a thread. Nineteen years earlier, before the nation had even declared its independence, the armies of five Arab nations—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon—had massed on its borders, preparing to invade. Their intention was to wipe out the state of Israel before it could even be born.
What People are Saying About This
“Few histories of this critical war peel back the layers of elation and tension running through the six days of battle like The Lion’s Gate.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Deeply reported and compellingly told.”
—The Los Angeles Times
“I was in awe of The Lion’s Gate.”
“This story from the Israeli air force is one of the greatest management lessons you’ll read.”
“A brilliant look into the psyche of combat. Where he once took us into the Spartan line of battle at Thermopylae, Steven Pressfield now takes us into the sands of the Sinai, the alleys of Old Jerusalem, and into the hearts and souls of soldiers winning a spectacularly improbable victory against daunting odds.”
—General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army, ret.; author of My Share of the Task