Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bloody Gaza


Labor Knesset member Ori Orr recounts the brutal battle of the Rafiah Junction, which was fought as the armored corps began its push into Sinai. The second of three eye witness accounts provided to 'Bamahane - IDF Magazine' by men who took part in the key moments of the Six Day War, which helped change the course of Jewish, Middle East and world history.
Early morning, the first soldiers of the Seventh Brigade's elite unit get up to prepare the vehicles for "dawn alert." The loose camouflage nets, damp with morning dew, cover the jeeps, armored cars and tanks along the avenues of eucalyptus on the border roads.
Shlomo, the only tank officer in the elite unit, removes the net from the new 20-mm. cannon, and strokes the weapon. Shlomo earned his place in the unit on the strength of his skill in operating these cannons.
Second Lieutenant Shaul Grohag, commander of the jeep platoon, is wide awake this morning. "Does the company commander want a report from the night lookout?" he says, gently shaking my shoulder. I smile. Shaul is the perfect officer, taking care of every detail. He hardly slept all night, but the report is ready."What's the situation?" I ask."All quiet," he replies. Deputy company commander Yossi Almagis has already heated shaving water on the camp stove - but of course, Turkish coffee comes first."
It's 6 a.m. The whole patrol is awake. Boys who have only heard gunfire during training exercises, and have never heard the whistle of a shell from close by, look at me and wait for what I have to say. They all saw me come back late at night from the last briefing at regiment headquarters, and are anxious to know whether it was the final briefing before the beginning of a war. The only walkie-talkie in the company, set for listening only, was in my armored command car. There was complete radio silence in the whole patrol.
Every soldier knew that the code word was "Red Blanket," and that it meant "turn on the walkie-talkies, break radio silence and set out immediately to lead the regiment into battle."
Bentzi Zur, the unit's operations sergeant, is preparing the armored command car. But even he doesn't know if today is the last day of the long waiting period which began on Independence Day, when the company was brought straight back after the parade in Jerusalem. Bentzi, who has a marvelous sense of humor and loves to sing, goes on humming the Nahal band's songs, and turns up the volume of the walkie-talkie.
Evening, night, dawn of June 5, 1967. Quiet. No planes. Nothing is happening, the soldiers think. Yesterday, the company commander said it would probably begin today.
7:30 a.m. formation after formation of planes roar past above us, heading for the Gaza Strip and Sinai. A minute later we hear the code, "Red Blanket," coming sharp and clear from the company commander's walkie-talkie.
I gather the company and say: "This is it. We've learned our objectives, we've practiced them thoroughly. I'm relying on you. Everyone in their vehicles - we're off."
A last-minute rush. Everyone writes a few words home on postcards while leaning on the hood of a jeep, the side of an armored car or the hull of a tank. Someone peeks at what Yarkoni, the armored-car platoon commander from Kibbutz Na'an, is writing, and copies the sentence: "It's just starting. See you later."
The patrol starts to move. First goes Yossi's squad, leading the Patton battalion. The two squads under my command begin to overtake the Centurion battalion, so as to lead the brigade out of the built-up area of the Gaza Strip around the Rafiah Junction. The unit's two clerks, Sara and Nira, are left behind in the dust, gathering up the postcards. They wave goodbye through tears. A last memory from another world, from home.
Yossi's squad enters the approaches to Abasan Al-Kabir, in the suburbs of Khan Yunis. Egyptian soldiers stand by the road in amazement, watching the line go past. One waves to our soldiers, who look cautiously back. Is this war?
Suddenly, hell opens its mouth. Artillery shells, machine guns, anti-tank guns - everything is being shot at! The force begins to look for a way into Khan Yunis. Yossi finds a path leading west and begins to advance until he is stopped by a deep anti-tank trench. Behind it is the Gurinov post, and above it a tower.
The line stops. Yossi, standing in the first armored car, shoots, and loads his 0.5 with a new belt, then suddenly collapses and falls on the floor of the armored car. There is a sniper at the top of the bullet-ridden tower, a few dozen meters away, and he has hit Yossi. When the jeep reaches the armored car there is nothing to do but bring Yossi's body back to the Green Line. Our beloved deputy company commander was the first fatality.
Boaz, the jeep platoon commander, takes command of the unit and carries on the assault, leading the Patton battalion through Khan Yunis toward Rafiah.
The two squads under my command carry on, and confront the sights of war for the first time. Fallen enemy soldiers near an eliminated post. A dead donkey. An old peasant running away. A little boy waving a white flag. Amos and Eli's two squads navigate past the huts to the outskirts of Rafiah, passing the UN camps and the Centurion battalion, and begin to lead the brigade. Everyone stops and raises visors. I run up to the brigade commander and receive permission to lead the advance.
Quiet in the area of the junction. Nothing is visible. The whole area is covered with linseed bushes. Everything confirms the unit's advance information about outposts north of the junction. Eli begins to deploy west of the junction, with his tanks in the lead. I begin to deploy with Amos's squad, tanks and jeeps, toward the ridge that commands the whole junction.
Suddenly shooting breaks out, with heavy shelling on all sides. While we are deploying, two tanks hit mines but go on shooting.
This encounter is a complete surprise. None of us knew about the area north of the junction. Enemy soldiers begin appearing on all sides. Along the whole area, Egyptian T-34 tanks take up positions and begin heavy fire. A 20-mm. armored car is hit by a shell before it can get off the road.
Lieutenant Shlomo, the car's commander, gets out quickly to rescue the driver, but while he is opening the dented door, the armored car receives a direct hit. Later, the extent of the disaster became clear: all eight soldiers in the car were killed when the shell hit.
The rest of the tanks, jeeps and armored cars, including mine, begin moving away from the main road - which is within range of the heavy fire - and begin the assault.
At 150 meters in front of the line of Egyptian positions, we realize we are going through a minefield, including anti-tank mines. As I call for a halt, my own armored car hits a double mine and turns on its side. I have no choice but to continue on foot, since turning back now would have caused many casualties.
Gabi (today talk-show host Gabi Gazit), hits a mine with his jeep. He is wounded in the face from machine-gun fire, and his foot is shattered by the mine. The other soldiers in the jeep join the assault. Yarkoni, the jeep commander, jumps into the trench with his Uzi and begins mopping it up. A wounded Egyptian, whom he left behind, aims his Kalachnikov at Yarkoni's back and squeezes the trigger.
Amos, the team commander, and Muki lift Yarkoni onto the jeep and begin to take him back, still under fire. Yarkoni smiles crookedly at Amos and says, "Amos, this is the end."
The battle for the Rafiah junction is heated. In a surprise battle, the patrol on its own, without any alternative, conquers almost the entire area north of the junction. The toll is heavy, and includes Yarkoni.
The patrol squads organize quickly to carry on moving. Yossi's team arrives from Khan Yunis, and the company becomes two squads instead of three. All the dead and wounded are evacuated to the Rafiah railway station - the company's assembly point, where the elite unit had volunteered to assemble the wounded of all the other units.
Shaul Grohag, wearing an Australian bush hat he found lying around, circulates among the soldiers, some of whom are still in shock, patting them on the shoulder and encouraging them.
Operations Sergeant Bentzi comes up to me with a request. "Can I join Shaul in the lead jeep? The armored command car hit a mine, and I can't go with you anyway." Shaul's jeep goes after the team's tanks to the Jarda area, on the way to El-Arish. A tank is hit by a shell and stops. Shaul stops the jeep and asks the tank company commander if he needs any help. Before he receives an answer, the jeep receives a direct hit and bursts into flames. Shaul, Bentzi and Yoram are killed on the spot.
On the first night of the war, June 5, the patrol stops at El Arish. I look at the survivors, trying to work out who was wounded and who was killed. The men gather quietly, loading ammunition, filling up gas tanks, eating rations in little groups with sooty faces. They make almost no sound, trying to huddle together and protect one another - children who have been forced to grow up in just one day.