The testimony of Yitzhak Hofi, the Israel Defense Forces GOC Northern Command during the Yom Kippur War, before the Agranat Commission, gives a glimpse into the deployment of Syrian troops in the months preceding the attack.
In a testimony before the state commission of that examined the opening stages of the war, chaired by the president of the Supreme Court, justice Moshe Agranat, released on Thursday by the IDF Archives, Hofi stated that Syria's emergency deployment in the period before the 1973 war comprised 850 tanks and 60 artillery batteries. Because the previous winter had been relatively mild, Hofi said, Syrian forces had been reduced; but slowly the forces returned, he added, until they had reached full strength and beyond.
Primary reports concerning the developments in Syrian territory came from the command’s observation posts on the Golan Heights; however Hofi noted that they could not provide a full picture of what was happening at the front.
“The only direct sources the Northern Command had were the network of observation posts … on the Golan Heights, and that could warn of certain minimal movements,” he testified, “but they couldn’t verify because the tanks were usually in dugouts and it wasn’t possible to see them at the front lines, and only some of the artillery batteries were [visible] by our observation posts.”
On September 11, 1973, an aerial photograph showed that Syrian deployment along the front was being reinforced; the photo showed some 540 tanks and 70 artillery batteries. The explanation given was the Syrians’ fear of an Israeli strike.
Hofi stated that “[Then-Syrian president Hafez] Assad left to attend the Non-Aligned Nations Conference in Algiers, and on September 10 there was a meeting of Assad, [then-Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat and [Jordan’s King] Hussein in Cairo.
“The assessment was that there was no other explanation - because Assad had traveled - to assure that nothing would happen in his absence, the Syrian army had returned to full emergency deployment … that because of his trip, to make sure nothing would happen while he is away, that we wouldn’t take advantage of when he was away, perhaps also for internal reasons he had redeployed the armed forces in the front line.”
Subsequent aerial surveillance footage disclosed that the Syrians continued to build up their forces along the border: On September 24 there were already 670 tanks and 101 artillery batteries deployed.
“One could deduce from this that they had offensive intentions,” he said, adding that at that point “The Syrian army could have launched an attack without the need of any other preparations that we would notice.”
Just before war began, he said, the Syrians were practically on the border fence, with 760 tanks and 140 artillery batteries.
Early on the morning of October 2, as the IDF faced this mounting deployment, the Northern Command intelligence chief received notice that a Syrian attack was possible. Hofi told the commission that he received the alert during a call-up exercise that the reserve Armored Corps brigade was conducting in the Pilon camp. The phone call was from the intelligence officer, who was not present at the exercise.
“We tried to clarify this with the General Staff, as well as with operations directorate, but no one knew anything about this alert over there,” Hofi said. “[The intelligence officer] tried to get hold of MI personnel, but it turned out they were at home. I don’t remember at what time, but after that there was an assessment that it [the warning] was nothing.”
Hofi told the commission that he did not know the source of the warning delivered by the command’s intelligence officer, nor did he know from whom the officer had received it.
Later, a probe into was launched within the MI.
“After this happened the MI head conducted an inquiry - whether they warned or didn’t warn, why they knew, why they didn’t know. I think our intelligence officer came out of it fine, because he actually did get the report and delivered it to me,” Hofi said. “But there had been some kind of mess-up in transmitting the information within MI, and as a result MI didn’t know and they got to sleep well. Nor did anyone in the Operations Branch know about it.”
In these newly released testimonies, Hofi also describes a comprehensive plan prepared by the Northern Command months before the Yom Kippur War, concerning the evacuation of women and children from the settlements on the Golan Heights, should an attack take place.
The residents of these settlements, however, were not aware of the plan because the Northern Command did not want to undermine morale.
In fact, Hofi's testimony reveals, the command’s divisions and brigades not aware of the plan either, “because of the negative influences and arguments that would have broken out over the existence of such plan.”
Hofi stressed that the plan, which was finalized on May 31, 1973, was not related to any specific event or development, but merely something the officers wanted to have “so that we could shorten the process of such an evacuation.
“We prepared it just for ourselves … because of the public ramifications of it we didn’t want to inform the settlements, even though it included some measure of preparation by the settlements for evacuation. But in this case we preferred not to undermine the morale in the settlements when it wasn’t required, and we prepared it in case there would ever be such a need.”
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