The Courage to Refuse

In Sinai, on the last night of the Yom Kippur War, the GOC Southern Command ordered Lieutenant Yossi Cohen to attack and hold Hamutal hill. Cohen ignored the directive and pulled his troops back a little, thus saving many lives. This summer, Prof. Cohen visited Israel, met with some of his men and spoke for the first time on record about the events of '73.

Shraga Elam
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Shraga Elam

It was supposed to be the last day of the Yom Kippur War. Exactly 34 years ago we were ordered to attack two high, sandy hills in Sinai, opposite Ismailia, code named "Hamutal" and "Machshir." We were told that there were only a few Egyptians there, but afterward it turned out that both sites were part of an Egyptian division's formation. Fortunately for us, because our armored infantry company was still on half-tracks, we were given the mission of attacking only in the second wave, after Hamutal would be captured. The result was that we observed the first wave from behind, like in a movie, as they encountered a superior Egyptian force and went up in flames against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Instead of charging ahead, we were sent to pull out the wounded of the first wave and afterward to hold the area that had been taken on Hamutal. In the meantime, darkness fell, but the Egyptians illuminated the area with flares and continued to fire at us uninterruptedly. Over the wireless my buddies heard our force commander getting an order from the brigade commander, Yoel Gonen (Gorodish), to stay put. Our commander, a lieutenant in the reserves, explained to Gonen that if we did not get out of there, we would all be killed. In the wake of what seemed to us to be the officer's "refusal of order," we were authorized to abandon the hill, and were able to find cover in the bed of a small wadi.

When dawn broke and the cease-fire took effect, we saw large numbers of Egyptian soldiers in the hills opposite us. Only the courage of that lieutenant, who dared to refuse an order under fire, saved us. Because our company was seconded to the 274th Armored Brigade only ahead of this assault, and I did not know the officer; he remained engraved in my memory over the years as an anonymous hero to whom I owe my life.

A year ago, when the story of Lieutenant Adam Kima was made public - he refused to obey a suicidal order toward the end of the Second Lebanon War - I decided to try to find "my" officer. I did not know his name. Buddies from the unit whom I contacted were also unable to help. Dr. Danny Asher, a military historian and a brigadier general in the reserves, gave me the name of someone from the tank unit, and from him I learned the officer's name: Lieutenant Yossi Cohen. After that I managed to locate a few members of Cohen's unit. All of them admired him deeply, even without any connection to his behavior that night. They knew he lived in the United States, but no one knew where and no one knew any of his relatives in Israel. As a last resort, I contacted the Israel Radio program through which people try to locate missing relatives and friends. Yossi Cohen's sister happened to hear the broadcast and made the necessary contacts. Within a few weeks we met on the air. A month ago, during a visit to Israel by Prof. Cohen, I met him in person for the first time.

Ninth assault

Our assault on the hill called Hamutal was the ninth attempt by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to take the site. Four years ago, Itai Asher published an article in the daily Maariv about the attacks, and summed it up thus: "Nine times IDF armored battalions tried to take Hamutal hill, nine times they assaulted the high dune on both sides of the road leading to the Suez Canal, nine times they backed off, battered, wounded and dead, leaving behind the scorched bodies of dozens of their commanders and buddies."

It is hard to believe, but after eight failed attacks, when we were assigned the mission of taking the hill, no one bothered to tell us what had happened to those who tried before us, and no one told us about the size of the Egyptian force that was lying in wait for us there. In the view of Yossi Cohen, the officers who sent us to execute that last assault on Hamutal are responsible for all the losses of his unit: three killed, 18 wounded and an unknown number of psychological casualties. "In retrospect, it can be said that they murdered those who were killed there," he says.

"I didn't know, either [what had gone on before]," says Brigadier General (res.) Yoel Gonen, the brigade commander at the time. If he had known then what he knows now, he adds, he would have violated the order himself. "I received a report that the Egyptians were retreating. If I had known about the earlier assaults, I would not have gone into action. On the other hand, my brother, Shmuel [GOC Southern Command] knew about the earlier attacks. In the middle of the attack I was contacted by Gideon Altschuler, who was in charge of the headquarters of Arik [Ariel] Sharon, who told me to be careful because there had been many previous assaults. But we were already inside."

That is not entirely accurate, because Yoel Gonen knew at least about the results of the previous assault, the eighth. On Friday, October 19, his brigade was given responsibility for Hamutal and Machshir. A battalion that was seconded to the brigade, under the command of Major Aryeh Artzi, which had taken part in a previous assault on the hill within a different brigade framework, was ordered to launch an attack again - also on Hamutal. (Gonen says he received the command effectively only when the assault was at its height.) Again the attacking force came under Egyptian missile fire, and the sector commander, Sasson Yitzhaki, ordered the soldiers to stop the action. Three disabled tanks and a company commander remained on Hamutal, and all the efforts to pull them out failed. The eighth assault on the hill had ended.

The next day, October 20, Yitzhaki ordered Yoel Gonen to attack Hamutal again. "I knew that Artzi had failed in the attack on the 19th," Gonen confirms, "but he was only a battalion commander and I was a brigade commander." Ahead of this attack, a force called Atzlut was established - half of what remained of the 274th Brigade, including two companies of captured Soviet T-55 tanks and two companies of armored infantry, one mounted on Zeldas [M113 light armored personnel carriers], and the other, my company, on half-tracks.

The company of Zeldas was made up of soldiers who had just completed their compulsory army service, while our company was composed mostly of former Nahal (combining military and kibbutz service) soldiers, "old-timers" of 26, who had already fought in the Six-Day War. Apart from one platoon, we had spent most of the Yom Kippur War doing nothing, in the northern Sinai sector, next to the Baluza base; generally the shells flew over our heads on their way to more important targets. Typically for this war, I had a machine gun which, despite efforts by various technicians, refused to fire more than one bullet without jamming.

The Atzlut force was placed under the command of the deputy battalion commander, Yossi Cohen, a 27-year-old lieutenant in the reserves, who knew the area from his regular army service. The brigade commander, who met him for the first time at the start of the war, was immediately impressed by the military capability of the longhaired "rebel."

On October 21, Cohen was sitting on his director's chair on top of a tank as singer Arik Einstein performed for the troops, and reading a novel by Jack London. Our convoy of half-tracks arrived, and the company commander, a major that wanted to report to the "commander," could not believe that the hippie with the stripes of rank on his shoulders and wearing Palladium shoes (which were banned in the Armored Corps), was actually in charge of the force. The company commander's mood did not improve when he learned that the man was only a lieutenant.

As a precautionary measure, Cohen did not want to launch the attack until the late afternoon. Even though we were being sent to take on a supposedly small Egyptian force, we were promised air support and an artillery barrage before we set out. However, both Gonen and Cohen remember only two Phantoms that dropped bombs from an altitude of 30,000 feet. The artillery barrage, meant to "soften up" the Egyptians, also remains in my memory as no more than symbolic.

From our lofty observation point, with an unimpeded view of the spectacular sunset, I remember burning Zeldas on the slopes of Hamutal. Some of them had struck mines, others had been hit by missiles. When our presence was discovered, we, too, became the targets of accurate shelling: At every place we fled from, shells landed within seconds.

Cohen, who was already on Hamutal with his tanks, summoned us to extricate the wounded from the disabled Zeldas. Flat-trajectory Egyptian fire from Machshir crashed into Hamutal, and it was only by a miracle that we were not hit. Strangely, try as I might, I can't remember anything else about the dangerous rescue operation.

On the wireless my buddies heard the brigade commander, whom Cohen had briefed on the situation, ordering him to stay on the hill. Cohen explained that if he were to do that, we would not survive, as we were stuck there without any real cover, like ducks in a shooting gallery. He suggested that the armored infantry pull back and that the ranks withdraw to a back slope and hide there.

'More metal'

"I knew what was happening," Yossi Cohen says, revealing that he was in breach not only of the brigade commander's order, but also of a directive from the GOC Southern Command. "According to the firepower from Machshir, I understood that there was a terrifying force there, but I did not want to say that over the central [communications] network. I knew that everyone in the area was listening, because this was the only battle going on that night; to this day I meet people who heard me then. So I asked Yoel Gonen to switch to the second network, and I told him, 'Listen, there are a lot of casualties here and the situation is bad. If we stay, the Egyptians will use us for target practice and there is no way we will get out of here alive. We have to come down from the hill.' To which he said, 'No, stay!'

"I tried to explain the situation to him again, and then his brother came on air and told me, 'This is the GOC speaking' - and also ordered me to stay. I tried again to explain what was going on, but he insisted: 'You are not the first or the last who is doing things like this.' I replied, 'If you think I am afraid, you are wrong. I am ready to stay here alone, but not to leave anyone else here. If you order me to do that, I will obey the order.' But he was adamant. I realized that he did not understand the situation. I broke off communications and told the crew that if they were asked after the war, they should say that the radio broke down."

Michael Kalai, the battalion's operations officer, who had followed the conversation over the communications network, remembers, like many others, both Cohen's cool, calm and collected tone of voice, but also the furious Major General Shmuel "Gorodish" Gonen asking, "Who is the force commander there?" Told it was a lieutenant, he snapped, "Can't we send over someone with more metal on his shoulders?" Shortly afterward, the deputy brigade commander was sent to the hill.

Was that the extra "metal" your brother wanted?

Yoel Gonen: "No. The ranks are only a sign. In cases like that you don't check what is on the shoulders, but what there is between the legs."

Gonen was apparently apprehensive that the question was an implicit criticism of him for not having gone to the hill himself. "It was a small attack on the fringes of the brigade," he explains. "I did not have to be there. I have proof that I was usually with the forces that were engaged in combat. I don't know exactly what the deputy brigade commander did there."

Cohen: "I don't know why you sent him."

Gonen: "What - was I supposed to come?"

Cohen: "No. The company commander of the armored infantry unit came to me, and his attitude was completely different. He said, 'Yossi, you are a hero. Listen, the deputy brigade commander is sitting there in the half-track and isn't doing anything. What are we supposed to do?' I told him to collect all the soldiers, make a chain and comb the area eastward in order to bring in all the dead and wounded, and after that they would leave."

When the cease-fire came into effect officially, on October 24, the hill remained in Israel's hands. According to Cohen, that proves that his refusal of the order not only saved the lives of many soldiers, but also brought about the completion of the mission: the conquest of Hamutal, which would have been impossible if done in the way formulated by the high command.

Cohen says that on the eve of the attack on Hamutal, he did not know that a cease-fire was imminent. Would he have refused the order to attack the hill if he had known that eight previous attempts had failed, at the potentially heavy price of losing his life? "Yes," Cohen replies. He did not do so "because I never imagined that a commanding officer would send us to almost certain death. Refusal of the order came after it was clear to me that the mission could be accomplished without further sacrifice of life and limb! In retrospect, my considerations turned out to have been right."

Under what conditions, in your opinion, must a commander in the field refuse an order?

Cohen: "The question would not arise if the system were working properly. Here I have to explain what I mean by that kind of system. First, the question was never raised in the courses I took part in. In a properly run army there is a need to talk about problems like these frankly and honestly. Second, if the commanders in the rear trusted the junior commanders in the field, in the same way that the field commanders trusted the senior commanders in the rear, we would not be talking about Hamutal today. Third, when possible, the commanders of all ranks have to explain to their troops the motivation behind fateful decisions and, to one degree or another, leave the decision about whether the goal can be achieved to the field commanders. When these and similar procedures are not properly carried out, the commitment of the field commander is first and foremost to the safety of his troops. That said, every case must be judged on its merits."

After the Yom Kippur War, Cohen adds later, he prevented his soldiers from killing Egyptian prisoners and threatened to shoot anyone who violated his order. He takes greater pride in that today than he does in the Hamutal event.

Talk of a coup

With the passage of time, our memory tends to play tricks on us. Many soldiers and officers, including Yossi Cohen himself, are convinced that he refused to carry out an order issued by the brigade commander. But Yoel Gonen now claims that he did not insist on his original order, but, on the contrary: He was persuaded by Cohen's explanation and accepted his suggestion to remove the forces from Hamutal. Thus, as far as he is concerned, there was no refusal of order, only temporary differences, which were resolved with the agreement of both parties. In an interview to Maariv in 2003, he even described the pullback from Hamutal as his decision: "I received an order to capture the hill. I made a small effort, but when things became complicated, I decided to come down from the hill, so as not to beat my head against the wall."

There is also more than one version about what happened afterward. According to Cohen, all the armored infantry left Hamutal during the night and only he remained with his tanks on a back slope. However, what my buddies and I remember is that we did not actually vacate the site, but hid overnight in a nearby small wadi. At dawn we saw that the hills opposite us were packed with Egyptian soldiers staring at us.

That astonishing image is one of the few that remains engraved in my memory. Because the cease-fire took effect, we were not fired on, nor did we open fire. What we did was to get out of there, fast. Here, too, my vivid personal memories and those of some of my friends clash with the official version, according to which the cease-fire only took effect in the evening.

According to Gonen, the disparities in our attitudes toward the battle are due to the differences between the viewpoint of a soldier and that of the brigade commander. "For you it was something big, because it was the only point at which you went into battle, but for us it was a little speck in the campaign. You were there and to you it looked like the whole world. The whole thing was just a bleep. Hamutal was not a heroic battle or a significant one. What Yossi did, by means of which he managed to hold onto Hamutal, has no importance today in terms of whether the border passes in one place or another, because we ceded everything, but at the time it was important."


Gonen: "Because we look for the achievements, for the conquest. We look for the success. It's good for my ego and it's good for his ego that we took part of the hill."

To Cohen, the last battle for Hamutal is of far greater significance: "First of all, the people who fought and made the sacrifice. Each of them, the wounded, the killed, and also those who emerged from it whole (at least physically), is a marvelous being. In addition, the last battle reflects a simple fact: Missions can be fulfilled without shedding unnecessary blood. What hurts me most of all is the death of a dear friend, Gad Boneh, and to my last day I will believe that I did not do everything I could have to preserve his life; I grieve for him; his love for me was more pleasing than a woman's love."

Gonen relates that he admires and loves Cohen to this day, and at the time even tried to promote him by two ranks and appoint him battalion commander. "My brother was already a broken man. If he had remained, Yossi would have received the ranks. My brother knew exactly how many times Hamutal was attacked and where the forces there remained, and where Yossi remained. We could be satisfied that part of Hamutal remained in our hands."

When Cohen describes how he helped establish a protest movement after the war that sought to change the system, Gonen remarks that someone can do that "only with cannons," and relates his own experience: "After the war I visited Dado [David Elazar, the chief of staff in the war] at his home and told him, 'Don't let my brother go down, because if he goes down you will go down ... Second, don't let Golda [Meir, the prime minister] oust you, which has already begun to happen. Let's oust her.' He replied, 'Yoelchik, do you want a military coup?' 'Yes,' I told him. There was an opportunity then for a revolution."

In an interview to Adam Baruch in 1987 (published in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth), the late Shmuel Gonen also talked about that possibility: "I could have organized forcefully against my removal from Southern Command. Believe me, I could have. People would have joined me. But we don't do things like that. That would be the end of the State of Israel .... An army must take its authority from the civilians."

The Shin Bet security service, apparently aware of the mood that gripped the Gonen brothers, searched Shmuel Gonen's house and found more than 100 firearms, but only four of them without a permit.

Memories from Wadi Salib

There are very few officers who would disobey an order and say "No" to the GOC. Yossi Cohen doesn't think he did anything special, and therefore did not agree to be interviewed in the past.

"After all, it is impossible to do anything else, there was simply no choice," he tells me. "You are not the first who claims that I saved his life. The admiration that was shown toward me afterward bothered me very much. In the battalion I would say a word and immediately everyone would run to carry out the order. It was really unpleasant for me."

At the same time, he notes that he has had problems with authority since childhood. He comes from a Mizrahi family (of Middle Eastern or North African descent), which lived in great poverty near the Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa. His father, a skilled tailor but an alcoholic, did not spare the rod on him and even tied him up with chains as punishment. That did not prevent the boy from becoming a gifted pupil in school, albeit not an obedient one. One of his teachers tried to suppress the rebellious child, but without success. The boy, who knew Arabic from home, sympathetically observed the uprising of the Moroccan immigrants in Wadi Salib in 1959. The brutal suppression of the rebellion, and the discrimination he himself experienced, left him with deep scars. At school, he relates, he tried to hide his meager origins, and on one occasion classmates actually followed him to see where he lived. When he was 15, the relatives of his Ashkenazi girlfriend tried to persuade him to part with her. Some time later, he encountered another the objections of another girlfriend's family to their relations.

As a member of the maritime society Zevulun, he was drafted into the Israel Navy (1964), took an officers' course and took part in the operation to blow up the refineries in Syria in the Six-Day War. He says that immediately after the war, he reached the conclusion that the occupation was corrupting and that Israel must therefore leave all the territories it had conquered. Despite this, as he was signed up for the career army until 1969, he switched to the Armored Corps, which he considered more serious than the navy. He completed the officers' course with top grades, even though he became known for his insubordination, for refusing to carry out orders that he found illogical.

The Armored Corps, with its tough discipline, accepted the unusual officer and gave him extraordinary freedom, as he made up for his "deficiencies" with his talent and resourcefulness. Asked by a particularly terrifying officer why he did not get a haircut, Cohen retorted: "It's none of your business." (After the Yom Kippur War, when there was concern about a possible Egyptian gas attack and a strict order came down to shave off beards - to enable gas masks to be worn - no officer dared demand that of Cohen.) Friends relate that on the one hand, there were complaints that he was running his unit like a gang, but on the other hand, he was chosen to execute complicated and dangerous missions.

Already then Cohen attributed supreme importance to the safety of his soldiers. In an exercise that was held not long before the Yom Kippur War, weather conditions made it difficult for tank drivers to see their route. Cohen, along with the rest of the commanders, was ordered to tell the drivers to open the hatches and drive with their heads outside. Cohen was afraid that this would endanger the drivers, and in his unit everyone kept the hatches closed. He notes that in another unit that took part in the exercise, a driver was killed when he was struck by the tank's cannon.

In a company commanders' course Cohen met another officer who was making the switch to the Armored Corps. He relates that Ehud Barak was so impressed by him that he wanted to transfer him to Sayeret Matkal, the ultra-elite commando unit, where the Palestinian Arabic Cohen knew from home could be put to good use. But at the end of the course Cohen stayed in the Armored Corps. Even though he was a demanding officer, and particularly strict when it came to safety, he gained the almost blind admiration of his troops - not least because he protected them from the senior command echelons. The company sergeant major, David Haimi, recalls one occasion when he was caught in a truck that had been commandeered during the war, whose driver exceeded the speed limit. The brigade commander, Yoel Gonen, wanted to punish them, but Cohen came to their defense, arguing that the truck was incapable of doing more than 50 kilometers an hour. To prove the point, he himself drove the vehicle down a descent with one foot on the gas pedal - and the other on the brake.

After completing his stint in the career army, Cohen studied psychology and statistics at university. One of his professors was Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and he was pleased to discover that they were in agreement on political issues. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, he was backpacking in Sinai, and when he was mobilized in the reserves he stood out because of his long hair, because he was a vegetarian who did not wear leather shoes, and because he took an interest in ecology and in mysticism. (Cohen became a vegetarian almost naturally, he says, as his parents rarely ate meat, and after he watched the kapparot ceremony ahead of Yom Kippur - when one's sins are symbolically expiated by the slaughter of a fowl - there was no turning back.)

"For me," Cohen explains, "the Yom Kippur War was a failure, and I decided that the system had to be changed. After our release we went to the Knesset and held a small demonstration. We decided to establish a movement to try to change things and called it Yisrael Shelanu (Our Israel). Afterward extremist elements from the right wing began to penetrate the movement and take it over. That was the last straw, and in 1975 I left Israel."

He went to the United States with his American wife, and completed a doctorate in environmental sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He is now a professor of mathematical ecology in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota. At 61 his rebelliousness has abated, but his research associate, Prof. John Pastor, says this impression is misleading, and that Cohen is on the brink of a revolutionary breakthrough in evolution theory by means of mathematical models that he has developed.

Cohen has not severed his ties with Israel. He continues to be concerned about what is going on in the country, particularly by the discrimination against Mizrahim and the rot that he feels has spread at the top. However, his feeling is that the stench is less disturbing to those who live within it and are used to it, than to those who experience it from the outside. W