Revealed: How 'Luck' Saved Tel Aviv From Bombs During the Yom Kippur War

Defense Ministry declassifies and publishes trove of documents in honor of 40th anniversary of October 1973 war.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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It was just a fluke that Tel Aviv was not bombed during the Yom Kippur War, according to previously classified documents that were released on Sunday by the Defense Ministry, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the war.

The commander of the Israel Air Force at the time testified to the Agranat Commission, which investigated the October 1973 war, that he did not believe Israel’s most densely populated areas were adequately protected from Syrian or Egyptian bombing raids. In fact, enemy aircraft could have dropped 10 bombs on Tel Aviv, Maj. Gen. Benny Peled said.

"The fact that not a single bomb from a conventional aircraft hit Tel Aviv – I can say that's just chance," Peled, who died in 2002, told the commission.

Peled said the air force knew about the Egyptian army's state of readiness and possession of ground-to-air missiles, but that military aircraft were not granted permission in August and September of 1973 to go on surveillance missions "every two days or as often as we wanted."

That authorization was not forthcoming because of Israel's fear of an Egyptian response. "The general assessment was that the readiness and the fears of the Egyptians were so high that in order to prevent an incident … it was better not to get them angry," said Peled.

The head of the commission, then-Supreme Court President Shimon Agranat, asked Peled if he thought the Egyptian army was holding a training exercise rather than preparing, along with the Syrian army, to invade Israel.

"First of all, it wasn't an assessment, it's not a matter of assessment, but rather the information was that this was an exercise," said Peled. Asked if it was seen as an exercise that could turn into an attack, Peled responded in the affirmative, saying: "Yes. My assessment was that it could develop into an attack. Now the question is the probability of its developing into an attack. It's all an issue of probability."

The commission members asked Peled his views on the warning given Israel by one of its agents in early October, who said the Egyptian exercise would end in war. Peled responded: "Had I known the source, I would guess, given 20/20 hindsight, that I would have started a terrible scandal with the director of Military Intelligence if such information was passed on and considered to be unlikely."

Then-Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau said the agent, whose name has been redacted, has a record including many warnings that "were not proven false." Peled said: "If I had known everything and I considered him a good source, and his information was good even if his assessments were unclear, with retrospective wisdom I say: I would not have remained silent."

In a separate document, Maj. Gen. Avraham Adan, who led the 162nd Division in efforts to push Egyptian forces back across the Suez Canal and died last year, is recorded as telling the commission that the Israeli army did not take the Arab armies seriously enough.

"In retrospect, if I ask myself what I have to say about my attitudes toward preparedness for war, I can say that I was not complicit in complacence, in anything related to preparation and strengthening [the forces], but I certainly blame myself for being scornful," Adan testified. "Among the lessons of the Yom Kippur War, the lesson that is most saddening for me, above everything else, is that an army as small as ours took the issue of balance of power too lightly. And if we want to be a small and brave army, we have to be equipped with good weapons systems … And we need the automatic weapons of the infantry to be better than those of the Egyptians and not worse than those of the Egyptians. So what happened was that two armies encountered each other, one large and equipped with the best of modern weaponry – equipped with night vision, equipped with a profusion of artillery, equipped with a lot of tanks, equipped with a lot of modern armored personnel carriers – and an army that was small and poorly equipped."

Maj. Gen. Herzl Shapir, who headed the army's personnel directorate during the war, told the commission he thought some of the mistakes of the Yom Kippur War were linked to the glorification of Israeli generals after the 1967 Six-Day War. Yigael Yadin, who commanded the army in Israel's early years and was a member of the commission, asked Shapir about a general who had removed operations sergeants from his helicopter to make room for journalists, and asked: "What was the reason for that? How could something like that happen?" Shapir said he had predicted such behavior after the Six-Day War, as he saw a public thirsty for heroes and military leaders thirsty for prestige.

Shapir also told the commission that the senior officers avoided the soldiers serving under them. "I think the commanders were worried about clashes with the soldiers, whether because of embarrassment or because they were insecure about giving out answers," he said.

Israel Air Force commander Benny Peled, at right, with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan during the Yom Kippur War.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office