Fri, Oct 03, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Middle East still fighting 30 years after end of Yom Kippur War

By Matt Spetalnick  /  REUTERS , JERUSALEM

It was during the first desperate hours of Egypt's surprise attack across the Suez Canal that artillery gunner Moshe Sadeh received an order he never imagined he would hear as an Israeli soldier -- to retreat.

"It was a shock," he recalled 30 years after the bitter campaign for control of western Sinai.

"Everything in our training told us, `Go forward, don't give up an inch and the Arabs will quit,'" he said.

But a fierce, two-pronged offensive by Egypt and Syria on Oct. 6, 1973, shattered the Israeli army's myth of invincibility, restored Arab pride after a string of crushing defeats and shook up the Middle East in ways still being felt today.

In the months leading up to the war, Israeli leaders had been aware that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria might try to reconquer Sinai and the Golan Heights, territories their countries lost in 1967.

And yet, due to a mix of over-confidence, miscalculations and intelligence failures, Israel was caught off guard when the attacks came on Yom Kippur, holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Sadeh, a New York-born accountant, had just returned home from morning prayers at a Jerusalem synagogue when air raid sirens sounded the call to arms.

Little more than 24 hours later, he was manning a mobile artillery battery in the parched landscape of the Sinai peninsula, firing shell after shell at Egyptian forces pouring across to the eastern side of the canal.

Mahmoud, then a 29-year-old Egyptian soldier, remembers crossing the waterway with his comrades and breaking through Israel's vaunted Bar-Lev Line of forts, bunkers and sand barriers.

"It was difficult but it was the sweetest moment," he said at the October Museum in Cairo, where a large diorama, complete with sound effects and flashes of light, gives Egypt's official version of the war as a great victory for the Arabs.

Bleak days for Isreal

Indeed the situation looked bleak for Israel during the first week as the Syrian and Egyptian armies advanced on two fronts, inflicting heavy losses. At first, some Israelis even feared the very existence of their country was at risk.

But Israel then went on the counterattack, repelling the Syrians, encircling the Egyptians and making gains beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines before international pressure brought the fighting to an end.

Even the Sinai pull-back that unsettled Sadeh's artillery crew was short-lived. Their unit soon joined up with armored columns led by General Ariel Sharon for a counter-thrust across the canal onto the Egyptian mainland.

It was a move widely credited with turning the tide of the war and also cemented Sharon's image as Israel's warrior-protector, which nearly 27 years later would propel him into the prime minister's office during another crisis.

"Our army was caught with its pants down," said Sadeh, now 56. "But we recovered and again taught our enemies a lesson."

Israel puts its official death toll from the 18-day war at about 2,300. Egypt and Syria have been less forthcoming about their casualties. Military historians estimate Egyptian losses at 7,000 to 15,000 men and Syria's at 3,000 to 3,500.

Analysts say the outcome should be judged not militarily but politically -- as the forerunner to land-for-peace deals that would eventually be struck not only between Israel and Egypt but with the stateless Palestinians as well.

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