Soldiers as sitting ducks
Recently found declassified documents show how the Foreign Ministry managed to avoid telling the whole, ugly truth about events surrounding the Six-Day War in 1967.
The lead headline of Haaretz on Sunday, July 16, 1967, announced: "Heavy attacks by the Egyptians along the canal." Above it, in small print, was a summary of the casualties: Eight Israelis killed, 40 wounded, and two missing." The focal point of the battles was the Suez Canal. "A concerted Egyptian artillery offensive, incorporating tanks, cannons and mortars, while employing air sorties, was launched in the past two days against Israel's forces on land and in the water all along the Suez Canal," the report said.
Once-classified material recently discovered in the Israel State Archives trains a spotlight on a number of security incidents in 1967, including the aforementioned Suez attack just one month after the Six-Day War. The contents of some of these eye-opening documents are being revealed here for the first time.
On July 14, 1967, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem cabled the Israeli consulate in New York. The telegram was labeled "top secret," "urgent," and "for [a certain person's] eyes only." In the body of the document it stated, "The background to the incidents of this morning in the canal region is as follows: Ahead of the UN's appearance in the canal region we wanted to create an Israeli presence in the waters of the canal itself. For this purpose Israeli boats were introduced at five locations in the canal. We anticipated fire [in response] and indeed fire opened up along the entire line."
The man who discovered this and other forgotten archival documents is Yaron Cohen, a lawyer who is studying for a master's degree in history at Tel Aviv University and who wrote a thesis under Prof. Aron Shai on Israel's foreign policy.
"The document speaks for itself," Cohen says. "The Israel Defense Forces sacrificed soldiers on the altar of propaganda and other interests. It sent them to their deaths, ostensibly due to security demands, but did not divulge to them the real purpose and the fact that the outcome of the mission was foretold."
The director of the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa, Nir Maor, explained the circumstances surrounding the event: "After the Six-Day War the Egyptians continued to cruise on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. The defense minister, Moshe Dayan, said that 'it is unthinkable that they are operating boats and we are not, so we too will operate.' So they brought in a few guys from the naval commando unit to demonstrate a counter-presence, and it snowballed into an open-fire incident."
None of the naval personnel were killed in the incident. The fatalities were soldiers from other units, who were injured in the battles that subsequently broke out in the sector. Eventually, as the website of the Israel Navy Veterans Association puts it, "in the wake of the navy's activity, Egyptian sailing along the canal was indeed suspended."
Avraham Yasur was one of the 10 soldiers on the rubber dinghies in the canal. Despite the fact that the Egyptians had already opened fire on other boats, he set sail on the mission, accompanied by his friend Yaakov Kahanov. Earlier this month Yasur recounted his experience. "We set out in a rubber boat, armed only with an Uzi and a large Israeli flag, opposite the enemy's positions. We knew that it was almost like a red flag. We were really exposed. It was tempting fate, but our assignment was to test how the Egyptians would respond to Israeli boats in the canal. And indeed, when we were deep into the canal, across from the city of Suez, we came under heavy fire."
After their dinghy was hit, the soldiers found shelter on the Israeli side of the canal. There, behind a concrete pillar, they waited for hours in the hopes that the IDF's armored forces, which were supposed to cover them, would open fire on the Egyptians and enable them to escape.
"But the force wasn't functioning at all and the Egyptians came unhindered with two boats filled with soldiers and fished us out of the water," Yasur recalled.
The men who were caught spent half a year in Egyptian captivity. After their release the IDF chief of staff awarded them the Medal of Distinguished Service.
Yasur, who is 65 today, has worked in shipping ever since. "At that age, 19 or 20, in the atmosphere of that era and thanks to the education we received, that's what we did. Those were the days, those were the values on which we were raised," he said.
Another soldier in one of the rubber boats was Uri Be'eri, a former naval commando. He sailed along with another commando, Haim Shturman. Be'eri was wounded by Egyptian fire. He and Shturman were also awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service for this mission. Two years later Shturman was killed in another operation.
Be'eri discussed the events in '67 in an interview he gave three years ago to the IDF magazine Bamahane. "I guess we were young then," he said. "Also they didn't really give us the option of not volunteering, so we went."
Be'eri and Shturman, who had planned to go out to sea in the evening hours of July 13, 1967 in their own boat, were asked to wait around until daybreak, so the Egyptians would be able to spot them.
"We saw the Egyptian company commander distributing bullets to his soldiers. They were lying in ambush and we were cruising," Be'eri recalled. "It's very nice to see the enemy tense but doing nothing, while you cruise along nonchalantly."
An hour later, though, the Egyptians began shooting. "We never thought to refuse an order. We were young and thought we could handle anything," he said. "There was a provocation here, in a sense. But we didn't really think they would dare open fire on us. All in all, they were after a crushing defeat in the Six-Day War, and we thought that this was not exactly the classic time, from their standpoint, to lift their heads."
Another declassified, newly revealed Foreign Ministry document deals with the sinking of the destroyer Eilat while on a routine patrol along the Sinai coast on Saturday, October 21, 1967. Four missiles launched from an Egyptian boat anchored at Port Said struck the Eilat, killing 47 sailors and wounding another 100 or so. This was the first time a naval vessel was sunk by a missile boat in wartime.
The history books say the destroyer was sunk in international waters - outside Egypt's territorial waters - and therefore the action was in contravention of the law and the cease-fire agreements. But on October 26, 1967, five days after the maritime disaster, the Israeli consulate in New York sent a document classified "top secret" to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
"Verified data in the hands of the U.S. government prove that the destroyer was struck in Egyptian territorial waters," the document stated. "The site was a little under 12 miles from the Egyptian shore ... The U.S. conveyed its grave concern that the Eilat was patrolling an area so close to the territorial waters without maintaining a safety range."
The fact that the destroyer was ultimately found outside of Egyptian waters was explained in the document by it being "pulled by the water current."
The UN defines territorial waters as a strip spanning 12 nautical miles (around 22 kilometers ) from a country's shoreline. If the Foreign Ministry document is correct, the Eilat invaded Egypt's territorial waters and itself violated the cease-fire between the countries.
The commander of the destroyer, Yitzhak Shoshan, now 82, wrote in his memoirs that the Eilat had indeed patrolled "right under the noses" of the Egyptians, but emphasized that it did not invade "their sovereign waters." The number that he categorically cited with respect to its location was 13.5 miles - in other words, just outside Egyptian territory.
In his book, "The Last Battle of the Destroyer Eilat," which came out 19 years ago (in Hebrew ), Shoshan described his meeting with the commander of the Israel Navy at the time, Shlomo Erel, who visited him in the hospital after he was wounded.
"He approached my bed and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Where were you when it happened?' 'At a range of 13.5 miles from Port Said,' I replied. I saw the relief on his face. I understood his concern regarding the destroyer's location at the time of its sinking. He came back to visit me the next day, mainly to confirm to me that I had indeed been right about the ship's location."
The details that appear in the Foreign Ministry document also contradict the Israeli government's official statements about the case. Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said after the boat was sunk: "This despicable attack has an intolerable meaning. This heinous attack came for absolutely no reason. The destroyer was outside the territorial waters. This is a most dangerous violation of the international maritime laws and must also be seen as an unprecedented violation of the cease-fire agreement."
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan also condemned the sinking, as did MK Shimon Peres. "Attacking the destroyer while it was on its routine patrol is tantamount to assaulting a peaceful passerby, and therefore the cease-fire violation is most blatant," said the man who is now president.
Museum director Maor said that under international law, if a battleship enters another state's territorial waters it is in fact violating its sovereignty.
"I guess it is possible that the ship really did go a few meters in and 'scraped the edge' of the border. That could certainly be," he noted. But, he added, with 20-20 hindsight, "that was not the intention or the order they [the Israelis] were given. I think the Egyptians would have fired on them regardless, even from a distance of 13 or 14 miles."
Many details in the story of the destroyer's sinking have never been published. In a 2005 interview with Yossi Melman in Haaretz, Shoshan said that the greatest secret still remaining in this affair is the story of the intelligence failure that preceded the sinking, and the IDF's efforts to conceal it to this day.
One of the documents just unearthed describes how Israel tried to conceal the involvement of IDF soldiers in the looting of UN headquarters in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv neighborhood during the Six-Day War. Soldiers from the Jordanian Legion conquered the building and began firing at Israeli troops from inside. After a few hours the IDF charged the compound and the Jordanian force withdrew. The UN observers were removed and the IDF took the building's UN flag down, raising the Israeli flag in its place.
A short time after the battle, the head of the UN observers in the region, General Odd Bull, visited the building in hopes of collecting his belongings and examining the equipment his men had left behind. But the IDF commanders refused to allow him access to the site, citing security reasons.
Michael Pragai, then a department head at the Foreign Ministry, described his impressions of a visit to the compound on June 9.
"Our soldiers took a lot of property belonging to the UN personnel, particularly from the private apartment of General Bull, and also helped themselves to food and goods, etc., in storage. The UN cars were badly damaged," Pragai wrote in the recently revealed, declassified memo. He added that after his visit, senior IDF commanders decided that "the place would be cleaned, and an attempt made to blur as much as possible any signs of looting."
Moreover, Gershon Avner, who was Israel's ambassador to Canada at the time, complained in a letter to a Foreign Ministry representative in Jerusalem - also found in the state archives - about the looting of a Canadian UN observer's personal belongings in the Armon Hanatziv compound. Avner scolded the official for not taking action to find the soldiers who were involved in the crime: "It is strange to hear that suddenly the army cannot determine the individual makeup of units. I presume that it is possible to know when the looting took place, and according to that, to know which unit was there at the time. If the units were also rotated every few hours, then one can, if one wishes to, place the claim of conscience before all of the units that passed through there."
In reply to instructions he received from the official in Jerusalem, Avner wrote: "If you seriously think it is possible to write a letter 'without apologizing for anything' and to excuse the matter by saying the Jordanians were the ones who started the war, then it is difficult to see what sort of world you are living in. If even a sober-minded fellow such as yourself, who has served and worked in hasbara [government-sponsored public relations] in the West, thinks that such an argument can penetrate the mind of even a great fan of Israel's - then it is obvious why sometimes our hasbara cannot succeed. It is trying to talk in terms that a priori have no chance whatsoever of being accepted in the conceptual universe of the Western world! Be reasonable."
The upshot was that UN Secretary-General U Thant conveyed a strongly worded protest to Israel's Foreign Ministry, and wrote that Bull had reported to him that, contrary to the assurances he had been given by Israel, many valuables belonging to UN personnel were indeed looted by IDF soldiers.
Fortunately for Israel, the UN chose not to expose the affair publicly.