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Fifty years on, divided Israel remembers the war for its survival

Published 10/06/2023, 12:11 AM
Updated 10/06/2023, 11:57 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Entrepreneur Uzy Zwebner looks at pictures of his brother Yonti who was killed fighting the Egyptians in the Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in his apartment in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Emily Rose and James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war that brought the country to the verge of catastrophic defeat, but the wartime unity that helped it survive seems a distant memory to a generation increasingly at odds over the country they inherited.

The war began on Oct. 6 with a surprise attack on two fronts by Syrian tank columns and Egyptian brigades that caught Israeli forces off guard at the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

Completely unprepared and with many soldiers on leave, Israel's army buckled initially before regaining the initiative and repelling its enemies in a series of decisive encounters on the northern Golan Heights and in the southern Sinai desert.

"There was terrifying fear, but we had faith that ultimately we would overcome – we had to," said Uzy Zwebner, 69, who was rushed into battle against the Egyptians at the start of the war as a newly trained tank commander, before being wounded.

The half-century anniversary has seen a flurry of newspaper editorials, television documentaries and features airing criticism of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and her government for their failure to prepare.

Several of Israel's leaders fought in the war as young men, including conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Labour Party premier Ehud Barak, and their experience helped solidify a determination to do whatever they believed necessary to protect Israel's security from outside enemies.

Increasingly, however, any sense of unity has been eroded in a climate of increasing polarisation over the internal dynamics of Israeli society, brought out most clearly this year in the poisonous battle over Netanyahu's plans to overhaul the powers of the judiciary.

The issue has exposed deep divisions between his nationalist-religious supporters and more liberal and secular sections of Israeli society, posing major questions about the constitutional foundations of Israel and its future direction.

Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in weekly protests against the changes, which the government says are needed to rein in overmighty liberal judges who encroach into politics, but which critics regard as an assault on Israel's country's democratic foundations.

Among the protesters, large numbers of military reservists have declared they would refuse to attend duty, prompting warnings from the military establishment that the country's security was potentially at risk.

"The ability to manage a dispute is one of the signs of a healthy society, but a dispute that is followed by a deepening of polarisation and division in Israeli society is dangerous," the army chief of staff General Herzi Halevi said in a speech last month commemorating the 1973 war.


Although the war itself induced an immediate sense of national unity, many Israelis also felt profound shock that the country had been left exposed, fighting for its life as Syrian and Egyptian tanks poured across the battlefield.

Coming a few years after the 1967 war in which Israeli forces defeated their Arab neighbours in less than a week, capturing territories where Palestinians now seek statehood, the cost in lives and the unpreparedness of the country in 1973 sparked recriminations which have continued to this day.

Israeli forces, helped by U.S. airlifts of supplies and equipment, battled numerically superior Syrian and Egyptian formations backed by the Soviet Union, before a U.N.-brokered ceasefire halted the fighting after some three weeks.

Over 2,600 Israelis including Zwebner's brother were killed. On the other side, no exact casualty figures are known but estimates run as high as 15,000 Egyptian and 3,500 Syrian dead.

Five years later, Israel signed a peace deal with Egypt, its first with an Arab country, then with Jordan in 1994, followed in 2020 by normalisation agreements with two Gulf states under the Abraham Accords.

For many front-line soldiers, the war remains a traumatic event but the feeling many express five decades later is pride in having helped save their country.

"I had a meeting with my friends this week which really made me emotional, but you feel very much like you saved the existence of Israel," Zwebner said.

For Zwebner, who himself opposes the judicial overhaul, a lesson of the 1973 war was that people had to be prepared to think for themselves rather than blindly accepting what leaders of any kind said.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Entrepreneur Uzy Zwebner looks at pictures of his brother Yonti who was killed fighting the Egyptians in the Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in his apartment in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

"I think it's good ultimately so leaders don't think that whatever they do is just taken for granted and that they are allowed to do anything."

(This story has been corrected to remove the reference to the largest loss of life in a single war in paragraph 15)

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