Remembering the October War, 46 years on
This October 6 marks the 46th anniversary of the war between Egypt, Syria and Israel. Nothing in the Middle East is ever simple and even the name given to this conflict was disputed. In the Arab world, it became known as "Harb Ramadan" - named after the holy Muslim month during which the war was launched - or "Harb Teshrin" (the October War). In Israel it became known as the Yom Kippur War.
Egypt and Syria factored in their planning of the war that thousands of Israeli soldiers would be on leave to celebrate the holiest of Jewish holidays with their families.
The Arab armies had the advantage of surprise and in the initial stages of the war it counted for much. Indeed the first few hours of the war the Arab armies had the advantage.
The Egyptians managed to cross the Suez Canal and capture Israel’s defensive position known as the Bar Lev Line, an intricate line of defensive positions consisting of interconnecting trenches, fox holes and reinforced machine gun positions.
But The Egyptians threw more men into the battle than the Israelis could kill as wave after wave of soldiers paddled across the narrow waterway and up the steep sand berms. Israelis machine guns jammed from continuous firing. Using water cannons to breach through the sand berms Egyptian soldiers eventually made it up the eastern bank of the Canal.
On the Golan Heights, the Syrians managed to make some advances and recaptured some ground previously occupied by the Israelis in June 1967.
It is often said that war is the failure of politics, indeed it is.
Of all the wars fought in the region between the Arabs and Israelis, none was more important than the October War. Without it, peace would have never been possible.
The utter defeat of the Arabs in the June 1967 war shamed the Arab world. In that context the Arabs could never bring themselves to negotiate on an equal footing with Israel.
In 1967, Israel, then barely 20 years in existence managed to occupy the entire Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, at the same time the Jewish State captured the Golan Heights from Syria and took the entire West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan.
In the days and weeks that followed the June 67 war the entire region fell into a state of anaemic depression where particularly youth felt a sense of guilt and shame. Under such circumstances, the Arabs could never bring themselves to sit at the same negotiating table with the Israelis. Something had to be done first.
That’s when the planning for the 6 October war began.
The October War has been the costliest in armament since World War II. The Arabs lost nearly 2,000 tanks and approximately 500 warplanes. Israel’s lost 804 tanks and 114 warplanes. And 407 vehicles destroyed. Human casualties were high. Egypt lost between 5,000 and 15,000 dead; and 8,372 captured.
Syria lost 3,000 and 3,500 killed and 392 captured. Israel lost 2,520-2,800 dead; 7,250 wounded
The monetary cost exceeded $20 billion.
The paradox of this war was that’s both sides claimed victory. In Egypt and Syria avenues and bridges, as well as newspapers were named after 6 October. The date was made a national holiday.
To some extent both sides won while to some degree they both lost.
The war served as wakeup call to both sides. The Arabs who long believed that Israel was invincible, impenetrable and impregnable realised that the Israelis were just as vulnerable as they were.
The Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, thought to be the most efficient intelligence gathering organisation in the region failed to detect Arab preparations for the war. The Israeli intelligence service, reputed to have penetrated the highest level of Syrian and Egyptian military circles, just drew a blank on this war.
For the first time since the creation of the state of Israel the Arabs had successfully planned, prepared and executed an offensive on such a large scale without alerting the Israelis.
The crossing of the Suez Canal and the taking of the Bar Lev Line, thought to be impregnable was a major victory for the Egyptian army, and a fantastic morale booster for the Egyptian people. In fact it was a great morale booster in all of the Arab world.
For the Syrians the initial stages of the war was great success and fierce fighting on the Heights helped erase the bitter memories of ‘67.
Even when Israeli warplanes bombed Damascus the mood in the Syrian capital remained jubilant.
In Israel the mood in Israel was reversed. People started to question the leadership. How could they allow t he enemy to come so close to defeating Israel?
It was largely the bittersweet victories and defeats that helped pave the way towards peace. The October War helped both sides accept the fact that there could be no alternative to peace through negotiations.
Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly.
He covered the October War from the Syrian front.