Debacle in the Desert

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Operation Karameh in March 1968 was the Israel Defense Forces' biggest and most ambitious peacetime operation ever. It exacted a heavy price from Israel, including 30 dead, some of them soldiers who were missing in action and were only declared fallen many years later. There were also 96 wounded, a downed fighter plane, and several combat vehicles demolished by Jordanian artillery. These vehicles were abandoned in the field and later displayed as war trophies in Jordanian victory parades in Amman.

The operation's chief target, Yasser Arafat, exploited the foul-ups, fled the scene and continued to lead the Palestine Liberation Organization in a prolonged battle with Israel from Jordan and Lebanon. Although the general facts were common knowledge, the details were concealed. Israel never set up a commission of inquiry.

At IDF field headquarters ‏(front, from left‏): Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkiss. Credit: Miki Astel

Recently, a participant in that battle published a book on the subject: "White Coat, Black Beret," by Dr. Asher Porat, published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad (in Hebrew ). Additionally, confidential documents on the operation have also been declassified. Porat's memoirs and the documents complement each other.

Haim Bar-Lev became IDF chief of staff on January 1, 1968. He had been a battalion commander in 1948, a brigade commander in 1956, a commander of the Armored Corps, head of the General Staff's operations branch, and deputy chief of staff in the 1967 Six-Day War. He was the only chief of staff before Dan Halutz to reach that post without experience as the head of one of the IDF's regional commands.

Israel's political leadership at the time was split into factions. Whereas Prime Minister Levi Eshkol belonged to Mapai, then a member of the Labor Alignment, his rival, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, headed the Rafi party. Dayan would illegally excavate at archaeological sites and, during one of those forays at Mishmar Hashiva, on the eve of Operation Karameh, he was injured and had to be hospitalized.

During this period, Israel was being plagued by terror attacks and incursions from Jordan. In late January, the submarine Dakar, with a crew of 69, was reported missing. March 8 became a national day of mourning after the missing sailors were officially declared casualties after several futile search missions.

On March 18, near Be'er Ora in the southern Arava Desert, near the Jordanian border, a bus carrying students from Tel Aviv's Herzliya Gymnasium ran over a land mine. A teacher and a physician were killed and 28 students were wounded.

Spokespeople for the government and the IDF said Israel would soon retaliate. Bar-Lev pushed the government not to wait until Jordan and the PLO canceled their ensuing state of readiness and went back to routine. Two days later, the IDF launched two operations simultaneously: Operation Asuta, carried out by Southern Command in the Jordanian Arava, and Operation Karameh (at the time known as Operation Tofet), carried out by Central Command. In the latter, Arafat's headquarters in Karameh was attacked, only a few kilometers east of the Jordan River.

According to IDF files, two years earlier, in July 1966, when the West Bank was still under Jordanian control, the IDF carried out a military exercise focused on crossing the Jordan in the Northern Valleys region. On October 16, 1967, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin was presented with the operational plans for Asuta and Tofet, both of which were intended to be contingency retaliatory actions in the eastern Jordan Valley.

On December 13, responsibility for the execution of Operation Karameh, scheduled for the next night, was placed in the hands of both Brigade 35 of the Paratroop Corps and the Sayeret Matkal special-operations force. The operation was called off, rescheduled for March 12 and then called off again.

According to one of the documents, one intelligence source was a former Fatah member, code-named "Grotius," who became the "Shin Bet security service's informer" and who was "familiar with the base in Karameh and its surroundings." Grotius arrived in Jordan on the eve of the Six-Day War as a member of the 421st commando battalion of the Palestine Liberation Army. After deserting his battalion, he trained in Syria at the Hama camp and slipped into the West Bank.

On the eve of Operation Karameh, Bar-Lev pressed Southern Command: "Not one child, not one elderly person, not one woman is to be killed. It is very important that we attain that goal. A front should not be opened if the sound of explosions is heard. This is not a Wild-West movie where, if the other guy makes a move, you shoot him down." Bar-Lev was 43 at the time; Dayan was 52. Perhaps that's why Bar-Lev instructed the troops before Operation Karameh to "leave the civilians alone, unless an old man of 60 picks up a rifle and starts shooting."

He told Central Command there was a definite possibility that the operation would turn into a full-fledged battle. "If that happens, we will certainly come out on top, but it is important that our victory be swift and with few casualties." If in an operation like this the IDF were to sustain many casualties, the entire effort would not have been justified, he said.

"You must be strict about moving in careful combat formation. The only one who will be sitting in the armored personnel carrier will be the commander, who will be monitoring the operation. Should our planes carry out missions against Jordanian tanks and artillery? In principle, the answer is no. If even one plane is downed, this operation will be worth zero."

The orders for Operation Karameh state: "Central Command will be in charge, will kill and capture Fatah personnel in the Karameh district, will display an IDF presence in the field and will retreat when ordered to do so." A daytime operation, thought the planners, would drive Fatah men from Karameh straight into the hands of ground forces that would be brought in by helicopters and would block all escape routes. An appendix to the orders specifies: "Under no circumstances are women and children to be harmed. Women and children will be evacuated to a central location and strict measures must ensure that no harm will come to them. Men carrying weapons must be killed. Our forces will not be wearing camouflaged battle fatigues [worn by the terrorists]."

The planning was based on the assumption that the Jordanian army "would behave along the lines it did in the Six-Day War, at least after the initial breakthrough. Its intervention will not be too serious; however, if it should prove to be serious, the air force will knock out the artillery and the army will knock out the enemy's tanks."

In March 1968, Asher Porat was the chief physician of the 7th Brigade, an armored brigade. As a doctor, who was older than other staff officers, he was close to Maj. Gen. Shmuel "Gorodish" Gonen, who would lead Southern Command in October 1973. According to the operation's plan, a single armored company of the 7th Brigade would face an entire Jordanian brigade. Porat, a veteran of the Six-Day War, writes in his book that he was amazed that, in view of the disparity between the Israeli and the much larger Jordanian forces, Gorodish was refusing to receive artillery support.

"I don't want it said afterwards that we won the battle thanks to the artillery and not the tanks," was the brigade commander's response. "During the battle, Gorodish would do the impossible in order to rescue and evacuate the wounded," Porat writes. "But I would have dispensed with the heroics of rescue under fire and would have preferred measures to ensure that there would be no casualties whatsoever. And where was Central Command? Where was the General Staff?"

Alongside Gonen in the operation was another seasoned veteran of the wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967, Col. Rafael "Raful" Eitan. He was also a brigade commander. Eitan commanded the 80th Brigade, the Jordan Valley Brigade.

Porat heard the commander of a tank battalion, Lt. Col. Uri Bar-On, warn Eitan that the "ground on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley might be flooded or be a quagmire because of rainfall or irrigation. Raful's body became very tense, and, with a stern look in his eyes, he spoke in an aggressive tone to Bar-On: 'Why are you so knowledgeable about the terrain on the other side of the Jordan?' Bar-On replied that, as a child, he would ride his bicycle from Jerusalem to Jericho and then in the Jordan Valley, so he was very familiar with both the Israeli and the Jordanian sides of the Jordan Valley."

Eitan was furious. "You were a kid then and you're still a kid now," he told Bar-On. Eitan said that if Bar-On repeated his warning during the discussion at Central Command, "You'll frighten all the fence-sitters and weak-kneed members of Central Command. And there are a lot of people like that in Central Command who just might delay or cancel the operation. I think you should keep your mouth shut."

Bar-On did not back down: "The quagmire could prove a real problem. The tanks will sink in the mud. This matter must be taken into serious consideration." Eitan expressed his contempt with a gesture of his hand.

At Karameh, Porat took extraordinary chances; he lost his left arm, after rescuing several wounded soldiers, and received the Medal of Courage. After his discharge as a colonel, he became the director of Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava.

A week after Operation Karameh, a General Staff inquiry was conducted. Actually, it was a meeting of the operation's participants, held at the Beit Hahayal soldiers hostel in Tel Aviv. That Friday, commanders and staff officers were called in to deal with an incident in northern Israel. In the afternoon, Bar-Lev told the lecturers to hurry up with their talks; he did not want the military chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, to accuse the participants of "desecration of the Sabbath by a state agency."

At the meeting, the chief of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, said that a week before the operation, MI had carefully analyzed all possible scenarios of what the enemy might do. "The details that were available to us came from two sources: Fatah members, who were our prisoners and who were interrogated, and secret agents," Yariv said. "These two sources can supply a lot of information, but the problem is that they are not always very precise. They have not received special training in analyzing aerial photos and they find it difficult to identify targets in such photos."

Col. Asher Levy, chief of staff of the Southern Command, was in charge of Operation Asuta. Sayeret Shaked, an elite special-operations force, carried out a mission against the Fatah base at the Safi police station in Jordan in an attempt to isolate the Eilat-Aqaba region. The mission was completed as planned without any casualties.

Levy pointed out that "it was emphatically specified that only Fatah members carrying weapons and offering resistance with firearms were to be killed. Fatah members who had dropped their weapons, and also civilians, were not to be harmed. Fortunately, except for an elderly Arab who was accidentally run over by a tank because he could not be seen, no civilians were harmed."

In the area under Central Command's jurisdiction, in the Jordan Valley, the Jordanian army stationed a division opposite IDF troops; the division included four brigades, a battalion of Patton tanks and 10 artillery batteries. Not far away was a unit of the Iraqi army.

According to Yariv, "Over the past few days, before the operation, information was received about a significant reinforcement of Fatah personnel in Karameh; the reports spoke of hundreds of Fatah members. Afterwards, it emerged that the reinforcements were not in the hundreds, but numbered far more, because the reports had not included young residents of the village who were forcibly recruited by the terrorist organizations."

An Israeli employee of a foreign embassy - probably American - was suddenly called up for military reserve duty, and in this way his employers received confirmation that the operation would be carried out soon. The information was sent from Tel Aviv to the CIA and then on to Jordan's King Hussein, who passed it on to Arafat. In the future, Yariv suggested, an Israeli working for a foreign embassy should not be called up "when only 1,500 or 1,800 reservist soldiers are being recruited," as opposed to a wartime situation, in which there is a general call-up of reservists.

A warning to Jordan not to intervene, which was relayed by the CIA, supplied a further alert to Arafat and prompted the Jordanian army to intervene. As the helicopters leading the blocking force had a hard time crossing the Judean Hills, leaflets intended to encourage the terrorists to flee were distributed far too early in Karameh. In the flyers, Bar-Lev noted, "Anyone who owned a vehicle, including our friend Abu Amar [Arafat], just got into that vehicle and fled." The fighting became heavy and lasted more than 14 hours.

Armored vehicles that were hit east of the Jordan and ended up being left in the field included three Centurion tanks, one of which was gutted by fire; a burned out Sherman tank; as well as two APCs, a truck and a jeep, all of which were also gutted by fire. Another six tanks, though hit badly, were rescued. Twenty-eight Jordanian tanks were destroyed. The Jordanian army and the PLO together came out of the Battle of Karameh with 196 killed, 90 of them armed, and 132 personnel taken prisoner by Israel.

The operation's climax was the demolition of two Israeli tanks. According to Shmuel Gonen, "The chief of staff contacted me and asked me over the radio about the two tanks. I told him that the only way they could be rescued would be to capture the entire area. I still hold to that opinion. I said that to rescue them I would need another tank battalion. It was decided not to carry out a rescue operation.

"Personally, I'm grateful for that decision; we would have ended up with many more casualties. The lead tank sustained three hits. We could have fired at it and burned it, but we didn't because we were afraid that all or some of the crew members were still inside, and that maybe they were alive. Of the 44 tanks and three rescue tanks that we deployed, 27 were hit and three were left in the field. The air force did not silence the artillery, which knocked out the tanks. Many of the casualties were caused by the artillery. I'm told that it's hard to silence the artillery. I don't know why; the Piper planes discovered where the batteries were."

According to the commander of the 35th Brigade, Dani Matt: "We were told that Karameh was a small village, but there were 5,000 houses there. That's a pretty big town. The mission was to simultaneously seize control of certain key areas to prevent people from fleeing Karameh, as well as defined targets, like Abu Amar's house. They had an advance warning of 23 minutes. In several places, the helicopters landed only meters away from the Arabs. They fought to the bitter end, hurling hand grenades into the APCs."

Paratroop commanders whose forces took part in the bitter fighting included Matan Vilnai, who led the Sayeret Matkal, and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who commanded the light armored vehicle force Duchifat. "If only someone had given Matan a loudspeaker or two, we would have had fewer casualties," one major general said later.

According to Lt. Col. Arik Regev, chief of Central Command's operations branch, "Maybe I'm making the mistake of my life, but if I am, I should do it now. I have a right to my opinion, and those who don't agree with me are simply hiding from the truth. We didn't expect the Jordanian army to fight the way it did. I don't believe that the commander of the 7th Brigade thought that so many of his tanks would be hit. I'm sure that no one thought that the enemy would respond with artillery fire. You're allowed to make a mistake in assessing a situation but, it seems to me, there was a moment when the assessment could have been altered - when we saw that things weren't turning out as we had thought and that the Jordanians weren't fleeing to Amman. Had we thought that the Jordanian army would act as it did, I'm convinced the air force would have struck first."

His commander, Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkis, head of Central Command, tried to paint a rosier picture: "The General Staff's aims in Operation Tofet were more or less achieved, in my opinion. As in any operation, we had foul-ups. None of us knew the situation in the field."

Narkis complained about the presence of curious senior commanders who were uninvited guests; they sat tightly packed with the members of his advance command post and their elbows hid the battle maps. For years, the public was not made aware of the fact that Narkis had failed at Karameh and that, after the operation, he was dismissed as head of Central Command. The commander of the artillery corps, Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, was urgently summoned to extricate the forces that could be saved.

Bar-Lev summed up: "In plain view, Fatah located its central headquarters three and a half kilometers from the border. When the Jordan was at low tide, they planned a large-scale renewal of terror. The question facing us was: What should we do? We had four options. The first option was to stop them at the border. Let's not forget that we've had some success in that area. But in the past few weeks, 24 people have been killed on the border as a result of infiltrations via the Jordan River, 11 of whom were civilians, and another 86 have been wounded. The second option was to hit them with bombs and mortar shells. But they were deeply dug in and would not have suffered many casualties. The third option was to carry out a night raid. The Fatah target was well prepared for a night raid and they had set up ambushes right up to the Jordan. There was no assurance that we would capture or kill many terrorists, and we ourselves would pay a heavy price.

"The fourth option was a daytime attack where we would seize control of the area and isolate and kill the terrorists. That option was not chosen after the incident with the bus carrying those high school students; it was recommended a week or more before the incident. The IDF planned and made preparations for the battle and was battle-ready a week before the operation.

"Did the price we paid justify what we achieved? That's a hard question to answer. It's impossible to speculate what these 300 or more Fatah members would have been capable of doing had it not been for this operation. But what naturally occurs in a battle during wartime should not occur in a battle during peacetime - when you have time to plan, check, patrol, carry out a sortie and photograph. The armored forces went too far forward. The goal here was not to capture a fortification or to knock out a few tanks; the goal was to secure the area of operations. [That caused the problem of] having to rescue a tank, where it was not clear whether one of the crew members was still inside, and if so, whether he was still alive and how much blood the rescue would cost after we had already lost 17 soldiers."

Bar-Lev's final summation: "The mission was completed successfully, but with diversions and failures that I'm not willing to allow in peacetime operations. Too much self-confidence and too much contempt for the enemy's capabilities. What is valid globally, strategically and operationally is not valid for every battle. The fine details were not considered and the analysis was not thorough. Things that we can accept when the whole IDF is in combat cannot be tolerated when 1,300 or 3,000 soldiers take part in a routine security operation, even a large-scale one.

"The blow that this operation has delivered to the enemy and the contribution that it has made to the IDF's image in the public's eyes were not what should have and could have been attained .... The fact that planes attacked artillery that continued firing, and the fact that IDF weapons were abandoned in Jordan portray the IDF as an army that has not shed its weak spots. That can serve as an encouragement to the enemy."

This summary doesn't have to be updated much to adjust it to the present with Hezbollah and Lebanon, or Hamas and Gaza, taking the place of Fatah and Karameh.