Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Travels with Abe: It was May 1967, Independence Day in Israel and the 1967 war with the Arabs

Forwarded to me from a good friend in Israel, “Abe.” Abe discusses Israel in May 1967 and his recollection of the 6 day war.  Much has changed in 40 years that has passed.  How soon the world forgets.   Enjoy.

It was May.

It was May of 1967. A State of Emergency was declared on Independence Day. Reserves were mobilized and every Israeli who was capable of breathing was doing something to help. Schoolchildren were digging trenches and filling sandbags. A call went out, “We need volunteers for the Lebanese Border.”

In Israel, high schools have a program called, “Gadna’.” Gadna’ is actually run by a department of the IDF. It runs for about 4 hours a week for all four years of high school and consists of elements from IDF Basic Training. Kids climb ropes with full kit, learn the use and care of firearms (small arms) and go on forced marches. Night tactics and Squad Training are also learned. By the time Abe was 17, he was a basically trained soldier without having yet been drafted.

Abe was seventeen and a half years old in May. Kibbutzim on the Lebanese border were aware that all the manpower and force of the IDF would be concentrated on the Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian borders. Syria and Egypt were both rattling their sabers and moving troops up to the border. Jordan hadn’t declared yet, but it looked like it would join the fray, even as Israel declared that, if Jordan wouldn’t attack, Israel would leave it alone. Egypt ordered the UN contingent, that was stationed as a barrier between Israel and the Gaza Strip, (that was in Egypt), out of its territory.

The word went out…Youths over 16, who were Gadna’-trained, were needed on the Lebanese border.

Israel has a plan called “Melah.” An acronym for “Mesheq Lish’at Herum”  (Emergency Industry). Since, at a time of war, all able-bodied men and many women, are mobilized, how does the economy function. The system makes sure that, although most of the economy is shut down, certain, vital goods are manufactured and distributed. That is the function of Melah.

The kibbutzim on the border are a part of Melah. Their needs were twofold; 1) Was the need for manpower to supply food to the population through the coming war and, 2) Was the need for trained soldiers to patrol the Lebanese border, as the IDF was concentrated on the other borders.

The IDF considered the Lebanese border to be of much lower priority than the other three. Syria, a long-time nemesis, sat atop the Golan Heights and would shell the Galilee every now and then. The Kibbutzim sitting at the foot of the Golan, in Eastern Galilee, suffered especially. There were children who had spent close to half their lives in bomb-shelters. A full-scale assault coming down the Golan Heights would be hard to stop, and would take both manpower and firepower.

Jordan had the most disciplined and best-trained, if smallest, of the Arab militaries arrayed against us. Jordan also bordered both Saudi Arabia and Iraq, both of which were making war-noises. We were braced for an attack from these countries through Jordan. West Jerusalem, our capital, sat on the border with Jordan and was in danger. Egypt had the largest Military by far. They were moving troops up to the border and had military airfields deep in the Sinai, well within range of Israel. They had blockaded the Straits of Tiran, in southern Sinai, effectively strangling our Red-Sea port of Eilat. This, according to international law, was a de-facto act of war.

The Lebanese border was left to fend for itself. There was a low-level possibility that Syria would attack through Lebanon as well as through the Golan. There was also a possibility of terrorists taking advantage of the fact that the border was less protected, and infiltrating.

The call went out asking for volunteers over 16 who had had at least 2 years of Gadna’. My sister was, at the time, on Kibbutz Eilon. The Kibbutz sat (and still sits) north of Israel’s Northern Road, near the border. The area is full of pine forests. Abe volunteered and went north. He and his comrades were housed, two to a room, on the Kibbutz and ate in the communal Members’ dining room. During the day, they would do the agricultural work, alongside volunteers from Europe and the Americas. At night the Gadna’ boys became an army unit.

The joke was that the Lebanese border was guarded by “the 70 year-olds and the 17 year-olds.” (That was a later joke. The original joke had been that the IDF Band was guarding the border).

The 60 and 70 year-olds, veterans of WW2 and the 1948 War of Independence were the NCOs and the officers. Abe and his comrades, the 16 and 17 year-olds, were the grunts. We would report at sundown. Some of them would mount jeeps and patrol, along with a veteran per jeep. Others would patrol, with Mauser rifles, the whole village. Yet another detail, would guard the bomb shelters, in which the smaller kids slept at night.

The security jobs were rotated so that every Gadna’ youth had a chance to do them all. Patrolling with a Jeep was both fun and scary. They were teenagers with guns, ready to fight a war and they were scared. They didn’t talk about it much between themselves but, every once in a while, they would have frank discussions. The open threats that were coming from the Arab countries surrounding the State of Israel were frightening. They had, however, an unshakable faith in the IDF,

In Israel, there’s a well known and much used phrased, “Kol HaKavod LeTzahal.” Literally, it translates as, “All honour to the IDF.” It means that the population understands that the IDF is all that prevents its wholesale slaughter, and trusts it. This phrase is used when a civilian gives up his bus seat to a tired soldier, or when a total stranger pays for a soldier’s meal at a restaurant.

The news spread…General Moshe Dayan, the hero of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, and Israel’s most famous soldier, was appointed Minister of Defense. A calm descended on Israel. People volunteered to dog trenches and organize shelters for civilians. Soldiers, on their way to the front, were invited to free meals by total strangers. We all felt a bond. The atmosphere was that of an impending holocaust, but they were calm and united.

A new song was a big hit. Written by Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s most popular songwriters and sung by Shuli Natan. Shuli Natan, a female soldier, had been serving as a Hebrew teacher for immigrants. Everyone sang the song. They couldn’t get enough of it.

Around June 4th or so, Dayan said, in a press conference, that the time was not right to react. In his words it was, “both too early and too late, to react to the Arab aggression.” He had also authorized leave for some army units, and that relaxed the three countries threatening Israel. The next day, just before dawn, Israel struck the Egyptian and Syrian air forces destroying most of their aircraft on the ground.

They didn’t know what was going on until the third day of the war. All they knew was that, “Egyptian armoured forces have attempted to invade Israel, and they are fighting back.” On June 8th, they discovered just how crushing their attack had been. We had captured the whole Sinai Peninsula. They were in the West Bank and encircling East Jerusalem. Syria was still pounding their villages in the Galilee, but troops were being sent there from the south. The euphoria was beginning. Abe remember hearing, on the radio, the sound of the Shofar, (ram’s horn), being blown at the Western Wall by General, Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, Chief Chaplain of the IDF, and he cried along with everyone else. It was unbelievable.

On the sixth day, they finished taking the Golan Heights, and a Cease-fire was imposed by the UN. They had taken the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Old City of Jerusalem including the Temple Mount, and the Golan Heights…and they sang “Jerusalem of Gold.”

Tzeth’a Leshalom VeShuvh’a Leshalom