Destruction and Death – This is what the attacking Arabs wanted to bring on Israel in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Yet, thanks to divine intervention and thousands of brave IDF fighters, they were all repelled and Israel even managed to expand its land.
The Yom Kippur War broke out on the 6 October in 1973 when the neighbouring Arab countries of Egypt and Syria decided to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.
Fortunately, their plans did not come to fruition thanks to the heroism of thousands of other IDF fighters, many of whom gave their lives during the Yom Kippur War.
For the Israelis the Yom Kippur War was a life or death situation and history has already taught them what that usually meant.
A Nation Built for Survival
With the memories of the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War still fresh in their minds they knew they had to give their best – even if that meant the ultimate sacrifice.
This kind of mindset is instilled in every IDF soldier – and to drill it in, many swear an oath at the ancient fort of Masada – reminding them what fate awaits if the enemy succeeds.
At Masada, on top of a cliff they stand in front of the flag of Israel and swear to stand firm forever in the defence of their ancestral land.
The 44th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war is soon upon us so I decided to visit the Golan Heights to find out more about the fighting that took place there.
Some of the most ferocious battles took place around here in the Golan Heights, where there is still evidence of the life and death fighting from all those years ago.
Visiting the Golan Heights
The Golan Heights is probably one of the most beautiful parts of Israel, yet many tourists avoid it because of the memories of war and the various demilitarized zones. While I visited I encountered no danger and everyone was very friendly, so I would recommend a visit to anyone travelling to Israel.
The road network in the entire country is amazingly efficient, the people are welcoming and there are plenty of tourist trails in the hills and valleys where anyone can re-live the moments when Israel was fighting for survival.
Here, in the Golan Heights, a few dozen Israeli units faced off hundreds of Syrian tanks in a bloody fight in 1973.
In many parts of the Golan Heights there are still tanks and burnt out trucks scattered in the countryside and along some roads lie ruined towns and minefields – gruesome reminders of the years gone by.
I wanted to learn more about the events that took place here and about the bravery of a handful of men, who, through their actions of heroism gave everything they could to save their motherland.
Meeting Three Yom Kippur War Heroes
To do this, I arranged to meet three veterans, all of whom fought in the Yom Kippur War.
They were Armoured Company Commander Amnon Sharon, Tank Battalion Commander Avigdor Kahalani and Sergeant Major Uri Ehrenfeld.
Sharon and Ehrenfeld told me about their harrowing experience while in captivity and how they coped with the trauma in the succeeding years.
Later, Kahalani recounted the days which he spent at the Golan Heights, facing off hundreds of Syrian tanks and saving Israel from certain destruction in the process.
Sharon and Ehrenfeld were unfortunately captured and tortured while on duty during the war, whereas Kahalani fought in the Golan Heights, ultimately leading its battalion to victory.
Amnon Sharon’s Story
First, Sharon and I drove to the Beit Halohem rehabilitation center for the veterans in the north of Tel Aviv.
Beit Halohem has a big swimming pool, a gym, a huge garden and various exhibition areas. The center helps injured veterans readjust to life outside the army and provides a place to meet others who had gone through a similar experience.
It was here during lunch when Sharon recounted his harrowing experience during the Yom Kippur War.
Sharon was in the reserve army in the south of the Golan Heights when the Syrians captured him. They took him to a prison camp where they tortured him for months.
At times the Syrians would hang him by his shoulders and ankles and beat him until he lost conscientiousness – other times they would interrogate him and then break his arms as a punishment when they didn’t get the answers they were looking for.
Turning to Art
He has now turned to art to express his sorrow and get the pent up pain off his chest. The figurines you can see on the video were made by Sharon and depict him in positions in which the Syrians tortured him during the months of captivity.
He said that perhaps the most difficult thing for him was that he didn’t even know anything about the things they were asking him about, so after a while he just began to make it up as they went along.
Sharon slept in very small cell the size of a shed without clothes in the cold Syrian winter. When he lay on the floor he could not properly stretch out all the while shards of glass were cutting into his skin.
He had to sleep on the floor with broken bones, beaten up and in absolute discomfort – and he had to endure this for weeks before he got a mattress.
At first he was happy to sleep on a mattress but then panic sat in: he took it as a sign that they would want to keep him there much longer.
Together we also visited the largest tank museum in the country called Latrun in the Ayalon Valley. Latrun is also home to memorial wall, listing all the fallen soldiers, including some of Amnon’s friends. There is also a cinema where the museum screens short films in English and Hebrew about the various wars Israel has fought during its short history.
Unfortunately Sharon’s story of torture was not unique during and after the Yom Kippur War.
Uri Ehrenfeld – Captive of Egypt
When Sergeant Major Uri Ehrenfeld was captured by the Egyptians near the Suez Canal, he was brutally beaten and tortured for months. The injuries caused by the beatings ultimately made him disabled and suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He now works with other soldiers, young and old, helping them overcome the same difficulties and to make life easier for them in whatever way possible.
“I was serving in the demolition paratroopers, airborne unit and I volunteered for a mission 24 hours before the war broke out,” said Ehrenfeld.
He was assigned to the Suez Canal, to the most southern Israeli outpost opposite the city of Suez, right at the spot where the Suez Canal drops into the sea. The Egyptians tried to conquer his post and they fought for 8 days but they ultimately had to surrender.
The Egyptians transferred them from the Suez Canal to the City of Cairo to a military jail where he spent about two months in solitary isolation.
“They were beating us, while driving there and later on during the interrogations. I mean, I got 100 percent disability – some of it is from the wounds that I got during the war during the fighting and some of it from the captivity,” Ehrenfeld added.
After Latrun, Sharon and I drove back to Tel Aviv where I arranged to meet another tank commander, Avigdor Kahalani.
Avigdor Kahalani – Hero of the Golan Heights
Kahalani was a Battalion Commander during the Yom Kippur War and he inspired and motivated the other soldiers to stay put for several days in spite of the huge enemy advancing on them. In the end his bravery helped save the country from almost certain destruction.
I went to meet Kahalani in his apartment in Tel Aviv where he recounted the events of that faithful period.
“For all my life I was a soldier, I fought in Lebanon, the Golan Heights and many other places protecting the country from generation to generation,” Kahalani said.
“My father fought for the country, I fought for the country, I have two tech commanders in my family – there are two sons and a daughter – she is in the 7th army corp, and my grandson just finished his time in the army” he added.
The ratio between the Israeli and Syrian tanks was sometimes one Israeli tank against eight or ten Syrian tanks. The Israelis used British tanks – the Centurion.
“I thought we had the best tanks in the world but it was not true,” Kahalani said.
That’s because the silhouette of the Syrian tanks was one meter lower than the Israeli’s tanks and all their tanks were camouflage coloured – so the IDF fighters couldn’t identify them.
The Syrian armour was also better than the Centurion’s and the main Syrian gun was a 115 milimeter Soviet unit against the Israeli’s 105.
“They could shoot far away, more than four-five kilometres. And they also had an infrared system, which they used to shoot at night without any obstacles,” Kahalani said.
Motivation – Kahalani’s Biggest Obstacle
However, for Kahalani the most difficult was to motivate his soldiers to follow his orders and face off the enemy.
“The combat was really hard and my problem at that time was to lead my people to invade against the hills that we should hold to protect the area and to stop the enemy there.”
Kahalani ordered them to move but nobody followed at first. He was moving in the front and alone, perhaps one tank joining him only.
So he decided to use the last weapon that he thought he had. It was talking about the value of life, talking about the value of their Jewish nation.
The Story About Chickens
He told them: “look what happened, look, the Syrian soldiers, how they fight so well – look at the motivation of them. What happened to us? We are Jews, we are better than them! Am I seeing chicken in my units?”
“If you want to join me, join me!”
And with that he started to move. As he approached the hilltop he looked back and miraculously he saw another tank join him and another and more.
Kahalani said: “I prayed to the G-d ‘please let me be first at the top of the hill before the enemy will come!”
In the end, when Kahalani and his battalion arrived it was already dark and there were already some Syrian tanks but they shot them.
“The valley was dark and I was the only person that knew what was going on down there and we started shooting like crazy but we stopped them!”
Ultimately, after several days of brave fighting and losing dozens of Israeli soldiers they managed to hold the enemy back and even advance forward.
“We survived and we stopped them all – later in the valley we found 250 tanks!”
Thanks to the bravery of these three and thousands of other soldiers, the Golan Heights has been described as the most peaceful area of Israel for the past 44 years.
So get your boots on to discover this region and to pay your respects to the brave men that defended this land.