TEL AVIV: A decorated Israeli veteran of tank battles on the Syrian front in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Avigdor Kahalani remembers the conflict, despite its heavy toll, as a “slap in the face” Israel needed.
The twin attack by Egypt and Syria on October 6 caught Israel by surprise on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar -- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement -- when the nation comes to a virtual standstill.
When the fighting erupted, Kahalani was a 29-year-old lieutenant-colonel commanding the 77th tank battalion in the Golan Heights that overlook Syria. He had only just returned to active duty after spending a year in hospital for follow-up treatment of severe burns he had suffered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
That war had seen Israel conquer the Golan Heights, Sinai, West Bank and east Jerusalem, humiliating its foes and dramatically redrawing the regional map -- but also creating what was later deemed a dangerous sense of complacency.
As soon as the new war broke out on two fronts, Kahalani knew that Israeli forces were badly outnumbered, the 79-year-old recalled in an interview with AFP at his home in Tel Aviv. Syria had eight to 10 times more tanks than Israel and “their tanks were better than ours”, he said.
“All of a sudden we understood that it´s a total war, we´re losing territory,” he recalled, adding that within 24 hours the Syrian forces “had conquered almost all of the Golan Heights”. “There were moments when someone looking from the outside would have said: ´you have no chance´,” he recalled.
“But we won,” he added with a wry smile. Within three days, the Israeli forces seemed on the verge of defeat, with Syrian forces directly threatening Israel´s core territory. But, in a dramatic turn of events on the battlefield, Kahalani´s unit and battalions of the 7th Armoured Brigade were able to halt the Syrian momentum.
“I had to lead the attack to reconquer the hills from where we could stop them,” the former tank commander said. “And then came, on this line, around 160 tanks, and we were only 10 or 12 that had to stop them.” After days of fierce fighting, the Syrians retreated. Historians say that Kahalani personally disabled 45 of the 150 enemy tanks his unit had taken out.
“That was a critical moment, when you´ve strained every muscle in your body, after four days of combat with nearly no food, without sleep, with just a few ammunition rounds left in your tank.
“You utilise every muscle, every thought, to be better than them, to win,” said Kahalani, who is celebrated as a living legend in Israel and regularly speaks with young conscripts. In 1975, Kahalani received the Medal of Valour, Israel´s highest military distinction. The citation honoured his “wondrous leadership and personal heroism in a difficult and complicated battle, whose outcome changed the course of the Golan Heights campaign”.
After the initial floundering, Israel, mobilising all reserve units and supported by a US airlift, was able to redress the battlefield situation. Israeli forces counter-attacked Egypt and crossed the Suez Canal, while in the north its soldiers retook the Golan. Fighting ended with a UN-validated ceasefire on October 25.