On the Golan Heights, One Battle Still Rages On

The Yom Kippur War may have ended 40 years ago, but the battle to write the history of the fierce skirmishes in the Golan Heights is still going strong.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The asphalt on the Petroleum Road in the center of the Golan Heights is full of holes and cracks. I drive slowly on the crumbling road, circumvent the Nafah Camp and advance southward until I arrive at a small monument in the shade of a tree to the right of the road. On my left, a column of tanks is raising clouds of dust. In the background you can hear the sounds of artillery fire. I wonder if the shots are coming from the Syrian side of the border or whether they are part of an Israel Defense Forces exercise on the Golan, which I’ve encountered by mistake.

The modest monument alongside the Petroleum Road states: “In memory of our esteemed commanders and friends Col. Yitzhak Ben-Shoham and Maj. Benjamin Katzin, who fell on October 7, 1973, in the Yom Kippur War.” A field of thorns surrounds the site, where the commander and operations officer of the 188 “Barak” Armored Brigade fell.

One hundred meters to the south stands a similar monument, on the site where, on the same day, Lt. Col. David Yisraeli, Ben-Shoham’s deputy, was killed. Next to it is an old khaki turret, its barrel facing north.

It’s a strange feeling. Forty years have passed since the Yom Kippur War, but on the Golan it sometimes seems as though the war is still going on. It’s not only the sounds of explosions and the speeding tanks. There are minefields marked almost everywhere, and the skeletons of tanks are used as targets in many places. Turrets of old Syrian tanks double as rusting monuments. Concrete blocks scattered around the area announce that I should be careful, because there’s a firing zone in front of me. There are army camps scattered along the roads.

At Tel Saki, for example, it’s hard to tell whether I’m visiting an active outpost − one that will at any moment be used as a shelter by the fighters opposite the border fence with Syria − or a memorial, battle heritage and tourism site meant to commemorate the heroes of that previous war. The machine guns at the outpost are rusting, but who knows. In the valley, I wonder for a moment whether the tanks standing opposite, 200 meters east of the memorial site, are in active use or are 40-year-old vestiges.

The understanding that the war has not yet ended emerges mainly from conversations. Something strange is happening to the memories of the Yom Kippur War. With the passage of time, they are becoming more powerful, trying to come out and be heard. After years of silence, there is now a genuine struggle taking place. “What will they remember of us?” the graduates of that war constantly ask themselves. And they are investing great efforts so the version they themselves believe will be heard and engraved in history.

They were 25 or 30 years old at the time; today they’re almost 70. The most
prominent characteristic they share is that, for them, none of the intensity with which they recall the Golan campaign has been lost.

Every one of the participants with whom I spoke knew exactly where he was and what he did at every moment during the second week of October 1973. Several of the interviewees said, “Our story hasn’t been properly told, and the time has come.”

Books about the Golan campaign have appeared regularly in recent years, with several others being published now. The commemorative sites and monuments are constantly multiplying. The number of participants in tours following the trail of the fighters and the fighting in the Golan is steadily increasing. Why did it take 40 years for this strong need to tell, to share the memory, to determine its proper place in history, to awaken?

‘A great victory’

Haim Danon was discharged from the army in 1970 and came to the Yom Kippur War as a young, 27-year-old reserve officer, in the 679th Reserve Armored Brigade commanded by Col. Ori Orr. Over the course of two hours, he tells me what he did at every moment from Yom Kippur afternoon until the fighting ended. The description is amazingly detailed and precise.

During the war, he was appointed a battalion commander, and 40 years later he recalls the range of fire, who was wounded where, and what exactly happened at every hour. “We, the fighters, remember the Yom Kippur War as a war that ended in a great victory. We stopped them, we made them withdraw, we recaptured the territories taken from us, and we played a major part in the breakthrough into Syria. We didn’t discuss the national trauma or the failure.”

We are sitting in a spacious office in the Tzur Yigal industrial park. Danon now owns a large company that imports and sells machinery for earthworks, but it’s easy to see that his military past is still part of his present. In the office, there are pictures of bulldozers alongside pictures of tanks and of the 679th Brigade heritage site and lookout on Mount Shifon, of which he is proud. Danon serves as chairman of the 679th Brigade’s association. During our meeting, he doesn’t answer the phone when it rings until one time, checking the screen, he says, “Excuse me, I have to answer. It’s my brigade commander.”

When we resume our conversation, he tells me that he named his vineyard in the Golan Heights “188,” after Ben-Shoham’s armored brigade, which suffered serious losses in the war. When asked why it took decades until they began working vigorously to perpetuate their place in history, Danon thinks for a moment. “Our story wasn’t told,” he replies clearly. “Tremendous emotional resources were required of us in that war, and after it, many of us simply wanted to return home. We served in the reserves for over seven consecutive months; we didn’t have the strength to deal at the time with history, with the media, with what people would remember. Others did so, and only after more than 30 years did we suddenly realize that our place in the national memory was absent.”

Danon admits the postwar attention lavished on another brigade was also a spur. “I take my hat off to the 7th Armored Brigade [commanded by Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, one of whose battalion commanders was Avigdor Kahalani], but it’s important to understand that we also did very important work, and we simply didn’t discuss it for a long time. They did so from the first moment. We woke up only when we realized what was happening with Kahalani’s In Fighters’ Footsteps project [in which the Defense Ministry took schoolchildren on organized tours of battle zones in the Golan]. Suddenly we realized that if we didn’t wake up, the story of the war would be told without us, and we couldn’t let that happen. We convinced [Kahalani] to include us in the project. I have a lot of respect for him, he’s a real hero and a friend, but I have to say that he appropriated for himself a large part of the memory of the war on the Golan.

“That’s what people remember today − the fighting of the 77th Armored Battalion, Kahalani’s battalion in ‘Emek Habakha’ [the valley of tears], but that’s only a small part ... of the combat on the Golan. He knew how to leverage that success and we didn’t.”

During my visit to the Golan, I go to two adjacent sites of the 679th Brigade. The memorial site to the right of Highway 91 is the black turret of a Syrian tank, surrounded by the names of the Israeli brigade’s fallen soldiers. A short distance away, at the top of Mount Shifon, a heritage site was dedicated a year ago. Danon is very proud of the site, which includes a large amphitheater and was built in spite of the objections of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Yehuda ‏(Dudi‏) Wegman began the war as the deputy commander of a company in the 7th Brigade and ended up as a commander of a battalion force in the 679th Brigade. In recent years he has been preoccupied mainly with military history, and he lectures on it in both the IDF and elsewhere. In a phone interview, he tells me, “What is known among the general public is Kahalani’s battle in Emek Habakha and the battle heroically waged by Zvi ‘Zvika’ Greengold. There’s no question that both should be honored, but it’s important to remember that this campaign was composed of hundreds of different incidents, and a large percentage have never been told.”

“The IDF also failed to do enough to present a true, complete picture,” he adds. “The tendency is still to deal with the first 24 hours only, out of a week of fighting. The big story of the fighting on the Golan has yet to be written.”

Shortchanged by history

Aviram Barkai, a former tank commander and today a tour guide, attributes some of the current rush to tell the tale to the lasting influence of the book “Hasufim Batzariah” ‏(“Exposed in the Turret”‏), written by historian Shabtai Teveth after the Six-Day War. “It’s impossible to exaggerate the influence of that book. Kahalani, for example, appears there as a company commander, and he really understood the importance of publicity.”

About three years ago, Barkai published the book “Al Blima” ‏(“On the Edge: The Story of the 188th Brigade”‏), about his Yom Kippur War. “Age is doing a large part of the work here,” he explained at his home in Kochav Ya’ir. “We’re at a stage in life where you stop for a moment, realize that your youth is over, and you do root-canal work.

“The men of the 188th Brigade felt they were shortchanged compared to the exposure enjoyed by Kahalani. They were frustrated by the fact that their story wasn’t heard, while their sister brigade, the 7th, received all the glory. They expected Ben-Gal and Kahalani to give them credit for their part in the victory, and that didn’t happen.”

Barkai acknowledges that some of his motives for bringing out his book were his anger and frustration at the fact the brigade had been shortchanged for years in the historical perspective.

Barkai says that when he interviewed them, he insisted that the men of the 188th be magnanimous to their colleagues from other units. “I told them, ‘This is your opportunity to be compassionate, to be generous.’ I promised that we would touch on every detail, but I repeated the fact that Yanush [Ben-Gal] was not the Syrian enemy. He’s a hero who fought a heroic war, and afterward he may not have given enough credit to others.”

Film director Renen Schorr is also, to a large extent, responsible for the nature of the postwar historical memory. In 1973, he was a young military correspondent for the IDF magazine Bamahane, where he published a series of articles on the war, which were very popular at the time. The series focused on the 7th Brigade commanded by Ben-Gal, and on the stories of Kahalani and Greengold. It was in these articles that the name “Emek Habakha” was coined, referring to the area in the northern Golan where the major tank battles of the 77th Battalion were fought.

Forty years on, and now a well-known filmmaker, as well as director of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, Schorr still feels involved in everything related to the collective memory of the campaign on the Golan. “After in-depth research that lasted for several months, I wrote a series of articles. First the articles about 7th Brigade were published, and caused an uproar. Afterward I published articles about the 188th Brigade, too, so I don’t understand their repeated complaints about being shortchanged.”

Schorr calls Kahalani, Greengold and Ben-Gal “genuine heroes,” and describes Ben-Gal’s battle conduct as “exemplary.” He says Ben-Gal was able to see beyond the battle and to understand the people who served with him. In Schorr’s opinion, there was nobility in Ben-Gal’s treatment of his subordinates. What Greengold did − almost single-handedly holding off Syrian tank divisions in a beat-up Centurion tank − was, according to Schorr, “a huge Hollywood-type story.”

When asked to explain Kahalani’s place in the collective memory, Schorr describes Kahalani as a rare combination of hero and gifted storyteller. “He has a great deal of charisma and charm, and it’s no wonder that he was able to attract others with his story.”

When I ask Kahalani himself why so much time passed until his colleagues began describing the war on the Golan, he laughs. “Because now we’re turning in our equipment. Our age is talking and we want to make sure we have time [to tell the tale]. We experienced a serious trauma and have now arrived at an awakening, which I welcome. These books aren’t a replacement for history, and it still has to be written and published, like the book about the 7th Brigade [“Ad Gvul Hayekholet,” by Ilan Sahar] that is now being published.”

Kahalani, who himself served as a Knesset member for seven years in the 1990s and as an internal security minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government, says he still stands behind every word he wrote immediately after the war, in “Oz 77” [the English version was called “The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s War On the Golan”]. “I’m surprised at the accuracy of the facts there. Even today, 40 years later, nothing can be refuted.”

However, Kahalani’s tone changes when I quote other interviewees to him, specifically the words “appropriated for himself.” He sounds more upset, not smiling as at the start of the conversation. “My book is a description of one battalion,” he says. “I barely knew what was happening with me, so how do they want me to write the history of the entire campaign? How can they come to me with complaints? I wrote exactly what I felt. I wouldn’t change a word in the book, even today.”

He says his book sold 140,000 copies in Hebrew and about another 50,000 in English. To that we should add the In Fighters’ Footsteps project, which Kahalani has been leading for the past nine years. The program has brought 40,000 students to Emek Habakha, where they learn about the campaign in the Golan.

“I tell them that I’m old and I’m asking them to guard the flag for me,” explains Kahalani. He says the female teachers cry “and the students applaud.”

Questions about the “shortchanging” of the 188th Brigade disturb Kahalani. “How is it possible that they’re saying I caused the 188th to disappear? As someone who today heads the Soldiers’ Welfare Association, I’m telling you that I invest far more in the 188th than in the 7th Brigade, just so they won’t talk about it − and I do it with love. It’s true we’re all pensioners and we like to wax nostalgic about the past, but the statement I believe in most these days is, ‘The future is clear and fixed, but the past changes.’ There’s nothing truer when it comes to the campaign for the Golan.”

Later, I come upon several youth counselors in the Taglit-Birthright project who are sitting under the trees at the Emek Habakha Site. Nearby, two veteran master sergeants are repairing one of the old tanks standing on the side. One of the counselors tells them: “Don’t touch Kahalani’s private tank! He’ll be furious.” The master sergeants laugh, adding, “Don’t tell him. He’ll probably show up here soon. We’re goners.”

Tel Saki. A cross between an outpost and tourism site.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Emek Habakha (the Valley of Tears). the 77th Armored Battalion fought there.Credit: Moshe Gilad