Israeli Veteran Calls 1973 War a Necessary ‘Slap in the Face'

A sign warning against landmines from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War is placed at a field at a position near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on September 5, 2023. (AFP)
A sign warning against landmines from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War is placed at a field at a position near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on September 5, 2023. (AFP)
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Israeli Veteran Calls 1973 War a Necessary ‘Slap in the Face'

A sign warning against landmines from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War is placed at a field at a position near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on September 5, 2023. (AFP)
A sign warning against landmines from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War is placed at a field at a position near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on September 5, 2023. (AFP)

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 badly 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, 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".

'Critical moment'

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 Armored 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.

After days of fierce fighting, the Syrians retreated.

"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 utilize 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 Valor, Israel's highest military distinction. The citation honored his "wondrous leadership and personal heroism in a difficult and complicated battle, whose outcome changed the course of the Golan Heights campaign".

Wake-up call

After the initial floundering, Israel, mobilizing 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.

Both sides suffered heavy losses in the three weeks of fighting. More than 2,600 Israeli soldiers were killed and more than 9,500 Arab troops were dead and missing.

Many historians argue that Israel's 1967 victory had instilled a sense of invulnerability among its political and military leadership.

So, despite the heavy losses, Kahalani, who lost a brother in the conflict, argues the 1973 war was a necessary wake-up call.

Its effect was like "a very strong slap in the face", he said, arguing that it "brought our sanity back to a certain extent".

"Had the reservists been mobilized two days earlier, it's likely that the war could have been avoided," he said.

But members of then-prime minister Golda Meir's government were "hesitant," Kahalani noted, "even when they had all the indications that there was about to be a war".

The shock of Israel's unpreparedness changed everything, he said of the deep soul-searching and high-profile resignations that followed.

'Moment of truth'

A year after the war, a commission was set up to investigate Israel's level of military preparedness and its reaction to the outbreak of the war.

The army's top commander David Elazar and the head of military intelligence Eli Zeira resigned. Meir, while not directly implicated by the commission, stepped down as prime minister in 1974.

Kahalani stayed in the army, reaching the rank of brigadier general, before resigning and joining the Labour Party in 1992.

He later left to form a centrist party and served as public security minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's first government from 1996-1999.

To Kahalani, the 1973 war was the trigger that pushed Israel to develop more sophisticated weapons, such as the Iron Dome missile defense system, and to achieve the military technological edge it enjoys today.

But above all, the conflict served as a timely warning of Israel's "existential problem" which Kahalani argues is now embodied by arch-enemy Iran.

Israel charges that Iran, whose leaders have called repeatedly for its destruction, is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, a goal Tehran denies.

"The moment of truth will come, I have no illusions," Kahalani said of a potential showdown with Iran.

When that day comes, he said, he hopes that "Israel will have courageous leadership".



What Are the Challenges Faced by Hezbollah after 8 Months of Fighting Israel?

People inspect the destruction outside a charred building hit by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Lebanese town of Wadi Jilo, east of Tyre, on June 6, 2024. (AFP)
People inspect the destruction outside a charred building hit by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Lebanese town of Wadi Jilo, east of Tyre, on June 6, 2024. (AFP)
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What Are the Challenges Faced by Hezbollah after 8 Months of Fighting Israel?

People inspect the destruction outside a charred building hit by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Lebanese town of Wadi Jilo, east of Tyre, on June 6, 2024. (AFP)
People inspect the destruction outside a charred building hit by an Israeli airstrike in the southern Lebanese town of Wadi Jilo, east of Tyre, on June 6, 2024. (AFP)

Hezbollah is facing mounting challenges in its eight-month long conflict with Israel in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, which unilaterally launched the fight in the South, believed that its war in support of Gaza would last a few days or week.

However, the Iran-backed party is now confronted with an open conflict that has transformed into a war of attrition of its forces and no one knows when the fight will end or whether it will develop into a wide-scale conflict against Hezbollah throughout Lebanon.

Experts said the greatest challenge Hezbollah is contending with is Israel’s ongoing assassination of its top commanders.

Political activist and Hezbollah critic Ali al-Amine said another challenge is the possibility that the conflict may spiral into a wide-scale war that the party does not want.

Such a war will lead to unpredictable changes and consequences, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Another challenge is the extent to which Hezbollah’s security has been compromised given Israel’s “unprecedented ability in killing several of the party’s top security, military and technical officials.”

“No one predicted that it would be this compromised,” he added.

Another challenge is related to morale and politics. The party will need to regain the trust of its supporters, who believed that it was capable of deterring any Israeli assault on border towns and villages, which have been devastated during the war, al-Amine remarked.

The destruction has prompted several supporters to reconsider whether they would invest in the South - a Hezbollah stronghold - after the war is over, he noted.

04 June 2024, Lebanon, Naqoura: A Hezbollah flag is seen hanged on rubble of destroyed houses caused by Israeli air raids in the Lebanese southern village of Naqoura, located at the Lebanese-Israeli border. (Marwan Naamani/dpa)

Political and strategic affairs researcher retired general Khalil al-Helou said the greatest challenge faced by Hezbollah is the incessant assassination of its top commanders and Israel’s targeted strikes against its positions in the South.

The continuation of the fight will turn the war into one of attrition against the party, he told Asharq Al-Awsat, while dismissing Hezbollah’s shooting down of four Israeli drones.

Another challenge is that Hezbollah is greatly outgunned by Israel, especially in terms of the artillery at the country’s disposal and its air power. Hezbollah doesn’t possess artillery that can rival Israel’s.

Israel also boasts drones that can carry out precise hits, while the party has suicide drones, which can be effective, but it is unknown if they are successful in hitting their targets, Helou said.

Head of the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research retired general Hisham Jaber said the greatest threat faced by Hezbollah is the possibility that Israel could invade Lebanon.

Hezbollah will definitely not instigate such a war, he told Asharq al-Awsat, but Israel prefers such a scenario.

Should a large-scale war happen, the destruction and casualties will be immense, and Hezbollah will be held responsible for this by internal Lebanese parties, he explained.

“Yes, Israel is being depleted and it is more in crisis than Lebanon, but the attrition is also affecting Hezbollah on all levels,” he added.

“Despite the challenges, Hezbollah cannot stop the war, because it will appear defeated. So, the war will continue and expand in the coming months, but it will not cross a certain line because ultimately a wide-scale war will lead to Iran and the United States’ involvement and they both don’t want that,” he stated.