As the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War approached, it occurred to me that I’d never heard the details of my parents’ service as young IDF soldiers during one of the most infamous conflicts in Jewish history.
So when I sat down with them recently for an interview, I was surprised to learn that their experiences were more dramatic – and even traumatic – than I had ever imagined. I also learned that they harbour anger toward Israeli leaders who they say failed them four decades ago.
Mira and Hanan Shefa still struggle to grasp how the Jewish state was caught so off-guard by an Egyptian and Syrian attack, on Oct. 6, 1973, resulting in one of the costliest wars in its history.
The 19-day war began with a surprise attack by Egyptian forces that advanced virtually unopposed across the Bar-Lev Line, a barrier to prevent the Egyptian army from crossing the Suez Canal that was considered to be impenetrable.
As a majority of Israeli soldiers had been released to observe Yom Kippur, the barrier was left scarcely manned.
As a result, in the early hours of the war, Israel suffered hundreds of casualties, and – despite the fact that it won the war – the perception that Israel was invincible following the stunning 1967 Six Day War victory was at best shaken, and at worst, destroyed.
In the months that followed the war, which claimed nearly 2,700 Israeli lives, a commission of inquiry was formed to investigate how then-prime minister Golda Meir and her military intelligence had operated in the days leading up to the conflict.
Excerpts from that commission were released last month, confirming that intelligence failures, coupled with Meir’s inexperience and timidity, contributed to the Arab armies’ early success.
“We were shocked that [Egyptian forces] were already on the other side of the canal in just a few hours and that no one stopped them,” said Mira, who was 19 when the war broke out, and just days away from finishing her compulsory service.
Before the war, Mira was stationed in Baluza, the main Israeli base in northwest Sinai, about a half-hour drive from Bar-Lev and the Suez Canal.
Her job was to provide entertainment and recreation for soldiers stationed in the bunkers built along Bar-Lev.
About three months before the end of her service, Mira had made arrangements to serve at the Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, where she held an administrative position admitting injured soldiers, keeping track of their treatment and keeping them comfortable.
“When the war broke out, I was supposed to go home for Yom Kippur. I was packed and everything,” she said, switching from Hebrew to English.
“Before we got the news that the war broke, we got all the injured soldiers from Sinai. It was so chaotic and no one knew anything,” she said adding that she and her colleagues worked for about 48 hours straight, taking hour-long catnaps as the injured soldiers continued to pour into the hospital.
About 600 Israeli soldiers were killed and hundreds more were wounded during the first 30 hours of the war – the heaviest casualties ever suffered by Israel in such a short time frame.
“I saw men on the stretchers with their guts falling out,” she said, bursting into tears, covering her mouth with a quivering hand.
“It was terrible. They came without names, without anything,” she said, speaking through her tears. “Without arms, without legs. I fainted one time… And then I had to let the parents know.”
One of the most difficult tasks Mira faced was trying to find out the identity of a soldier who was declared dead upon arrival.
“We didn’t know his name. He came naked. No papers, no clothing,” she said, explaining that the medics had ripped off his clothes to try to revive him, even stripping him of his dog tags, which are used to identify soldiers.
Knowing that he was hit in the Sinai near Baluza, where she had served for a year and a half, she called the intelligence officers at the base, pleading for information that might help her identify him.
Hanan Shefa still struggles with some of the decisions Israeli leaders made during the war, which cost nearly 2,700 Israeli lives.
Tears forming anew, lifting her hands to her head, she recalled the urgency in the officer’s voice.
“He said, ‘What do you want from my life? Everyone is being killed! I can’t talk to you! They’re burying us!’ And most of those people died. I was there for a year and a half, and I knew those people.”
Surprised at herself for breaking down emotionally during the interview, Mira recalled how strong she was, still just a teenager, in performing her grim tasks.
“I remember one father, when I was talking to him about his son, I was explaining that I had to discharge him and he didn’t like that. He slapped me in the face. People didn’t know how to react. It was so hard,” she said.
“But I was automatic. Like a robot.”
While Mira continued to struggle with the hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers that flooded the hospital, 21-year-old Hanan was working as a flight technician on French Super Perlon helicopters in the 114th Squadron based at the Tel Nof airbase.
In addition to maintaining helicopters, Hanan also accompanied the pilots to solve any mechanical problems during flights.
Although the war broke out on Oct. 6, Hanan, who had gone home to Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev on Erev Yom Kippur, began to suspect that something serious was unfolding the evening before.
“We knew something was going on because some of my friends on the kibbutz – one was in one of the elite units – were already being called in.
“The next day, our air force sent airplanes to do air manoeuvres. That was a sign for us to go back to our bases.”
By the time Hanan made it back to his airbase, he saw Phantom fighter jets sitting on the tarmac.
“We heard our troops asking for support, and they wouldn’t let us take off,” he said.
He doesn’t know why they were grounded, but according to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Israeli Air Force failed to destroy the Arabs’ anti-aircraft systems in the early hours of the war, which prevented Israel from providing aerial support to its ground forces.
“I remember that we were so upset and we were asking our commanders what the hell was going on. They said, ‘Don’t ask questions now. Now, you do what we tell you.’ I felt for years that some soldiers were sacrificed, and that hurt me so much,” he said, gripping his chest.
It wasn’t until the following day that Hanan was sent on his first mission.
He and his crew were sent on a 24-hour mission – landing only to refuel – to fly with radar-disrupting electronics to allow fighter jets to fly out.
“During the flight, there were bombs exploding all around us. I was a new flight technician and I didn’t have this experience at all. I asked them to close the curtains over the windows so I wouldn’t see the bombs because I felt nauseated. I was afraid,” he recalled.
“I flew with some guys who were in the 1967 war and they said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.’ But I didn’t.”
Hanan was also sent on rescue missions to pick up pilots who had ejected from their planes.
He recalled one rescue in particular, during which his instincts and adrenaline took over.
“To cover him, I was shooting in an area where I thought there might be enemy soldiers. But he was injured, and he couldn’t run to the helicopter, so I jumped down and ran to him and dragged him on. Our medic grabbed the gun from me when I jumped down, to cover me. It wasn’t my job to do this. Actually, I disobeyed orders, but my instincts took over and instead of the medic jumping out, I did.”
Both Mira and Hanan agreed that despite the heavy casualties suffered in the first two days of the war, there was never a doubt that Israel would come out victorious.
“When you’re young, you feel invincible. We didn’t even think of it as a possibility. That’s why soldiers are 18 years old. They think nothing can happen to them,” Hanan said.
But looking back, they both still have so many questions and so much anger.
“I can’t explain why they left so few soldiers on the Bar-Lev line” Hanan said. “We were caught with our pants down.”
In Meir’s recently released testimony, she conceded that “it’s possible, maybe even certain,” that if they had mounted a pre-emptive strike, “boys who are no longer would still be alive.”
Mira believes it was an intelligence failure that cost the young country so many soldiers.
“Israel should have known that her neighbours were going to attack,” she said, her voice rising in anger.
“But they didn’t believe that it was going to happen.”