38 Soldiers Killed. Who Approved the Action?

"Dan was exceptional in the war. Not only the Air Force, but Dan himself was exceptional. Intelligent and cooperative and purposeful. All the things that clung to him in peace time dropped away," says the chief of staff. This is not about Dan Halutz and Lebanon; the chief of staff who is being quoted is Moshe Dayan. Dan in Major General Dan Tolkovsky, and the war is Sinai Campaign of late October-early November 1956.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the campaign, Halutz's General Staff last week convened to hear surveys about that distant war. In the background, of course, were comparisons to the present, with the Egyptian army in the role of Hezbollah and with talk about intelligence, operational and command shortcomings, as though half a century had not gone by.

When the plane carrying the GOC Southern Command Assaf Simhoni, Lt. Colonel Asher Dromi and the pilot Benny Gordon crashed in Jordan, killing all three, a note was found on one of the officers, which was handed over to Egypt and published there:

"There are no standing orders for the [Sinai] war, there was no coordination with higher levels, the war room did not serve the different branches in the least, on some days there was no major general and no chief of staff at headquarters, there was no communication with the units and reports did not arrive from below, there was no effective use of the intelligence work. N.B. There were no cigarettes."

Halutz and the generals listened to Dayan's bureau chief, retired colonel Mordechai Bar-On, and to the head of the Operations Department at the time, retired major general Yeshayahu Gavish. The IDF's History Department prepared an abstract - not entirely accurate, somewhat incoherent and also far from complete. For example, it said nothing about quite a few cases of the murder of Egyptian prisoners.

One of the episodes discussed was the battle of Mitla Pass - "a heroic but unnecessary battle," as the IDF admits, in which 38 soldiers died for nothing. The basic facts are known. According to the prior plan, the 890th Battalion, under the command of Major Rafael Eitan, was supposed to parachute west of the Al-Hitan defile, known popularly as the Mitla, dozens of kilometers from the Suez Canal, to create a pretext for British and French intervention in an Israeli-Egyptian war.

The mistaken deciphering of an aerial photograph raised the suspicion that an Egyptian force was present at the Mitla ("Cyprus," in the IDF code) and as a result the parachute drop was moved to the defile's east, to the Parker Memorial (code name: "Jamaica").

When the 890th Battalion's mother brigade, the 202nd, under the command of Lt. Colonel Ariel Sharon, linked up with it, Sharon - with the main part of the war being fought without him and threatening to produce new heroes - strove to enter the Mitla. The General Staff and Southern Command delayed authorization for this until a visit by the chief of staff of Southern Command headquarters, Lt. Colonel Rehavam Ze'evi. The exultant photograph that was taken during the meeting between Ze'evi and Sharon, and the closeness between them, which was documented in a private conversation minutes before Ze'evi left in a light plane, froze into bitter enmity after the patrol ran into trouble.

The scandal that was fomented in the wake of the battle, which took place on October 31, resulted in a revolt by the Paratroops' officers against Sharon and brought about the suspension of his promotion. His responsibility for the lethal entanglement was asserted in a "secret-personal" report drawn up by Major General Haim Laskov, formerly the deputy chief of staff and commander of the Armored Corps, who in the war was the commander of a division (which operated in a different sector) and afterward became GOC Southern Command - and as such was Ze'evi's direct superior.

What is new in the documents, which are here being published in full for the first time, is not the facts themselves but the portrayal of the twisting and turning of those involved. Dayan could have appointed a general who was not involved in the fighting in the south to investigate the episode, such as the GOC Northern Command, Yitzhak Rabin. However, he lost little time in appointing Laskov, who was present for part of the conversation between Sharon and David Ben-Gurion, who was both prime minister and defense minister. It was this conversation that enshrined Sharon's reputation as a violator of orders and a teller of tall tales.

Lt. Colonel Sharon reports to the minister of defense at the residence of David Ben-Gurion, Keren Kayemet Avenue, Tel Aviv, November 4, 1956, 8 P.M.

Ben-Gurion, 70, is sick in bed. "Infect." Running a high fever. Oscillating between fear and euphoria. Dayan is his favorite son in the army, but not the only son. Also close to him are two officers whom Dayan seeks to distance but whom Ben-Gurion has designated for chief of staff: Laskov and Sharon. (Laskov succeeded Dayan as chief of staff.)

Ben-Gurion (B-G): Did you have many casualties?

Sharon: I had 39-40 killed and 130 to 140 wounded. The battalion parachuted on Monday at 5 P.M. and took up a defensive deployment in the area of the Mitla defiles, on the side close to us, so that we would not be cut off. On Tuesday afternoon we traveled very fast. At 4:30 we reached the nakal.

B-G: What is the name, nakal or nahal?

Sharon: The Arab maps say nakal. We used Arab maps.

B-G: What does nakal mean in Arabic?

Yitzhak Navon, B-G's secretary: That I don't know. Nahal is a date tree.

Sharon: There are no dates there. The method of the attack was as follows: the force moves a distance of two kilometers, stops, starts shelling, and the half-tracks and tanks go into action... At 10:30, 11 we reached the spot where the battalion was camped.

B-G: What is the place called?

Sharon: It has no special name. We called it Jamaica. We linked up with them, and everything was fine. According to the plan we were supposed to continue and get to the other side of the mountain defile. When we started to move, at a quarter to four, we received a cable not to move.

B-G: Did the boys have time to rest?

Sharon: They didn't rest, they worked. We started to dig, to prepare and organize at the site. In the meantime we noticed that Egyptians were in the area. We discovered an observation point of Arabs; they shelled [us] a bit, using 120-mm mortars. An inconvenient situation developed, though it wasn't dangerous, in that we were sitting in a lower place than them and they were sitting on ridges above and we had no depth. We were at the edge of the defile facing an open area. I requested authorization to move inside. At first I did not get the authorization, but at midday I was given the okay to carry out a patrol inside but not to go in, in order to create a deeper area. We called in the Air Force, which dealt with them that morning, and also informed us that they no longer saw them [the Egyptians].

At 1:30 I issued an order to a force that consisted of three companies - two on half-tracks and one on regular vehicles - three tanks and a 120-mm battery to go in. An hour later a runner came to me and said they had entered an area between hills, into an enemy locality of battalion strength, and that their situation was very difficult - they were being fired on from both sides - and we had to rush them help with all speed.

Here the enemy did something extraordinary. They did not disperse on the hilltops but entered the cliffs and built burrows in them, so that from the air nothing could be seen. When we interrogated the prisoners, we discovered that there were two battalions there, 10 antitank guns, [and] at least 10 medium machine guns, and they started to rain down heavy fire. Afterward I went to the place, to see how they had organized there. It is very interesting, and very unusual for Arabs to do something like that: inside the walls of the rocks, at different heights, they dug holes, and there are also natural cavities there, and they moved in a force of 600, and there was terrible fire from there.

We sent in more forces, we sent in artillery, but nothing helped, it was impossible to get the force out. Motta [Gur] was up front, [Aharon] Davidi stayed behind him and reported to me the whole time on the situation. We decided to send forces onto the hills from both sides, to move down in order to attack the enemy forces, but we were not very successful, because when our force came down from the right side, the force on the left side fired at it, and vice versa. There was a horrific war there, it was a terrible thing.

B-G: What is the place called?

Sharon: The place we wanted to reach is called Mitla Pass. The ridge itself has no name....

Laskov enters.

B-G: You look like you did when you came from Latrun that time, but then you were gloomier. Now you are in a better mood, no? What is it?

Laskov: There are many aspects to the business. The looting, that is not good. Arik [Sharon] was on the border, he had it good.

B-G: They had nothing to loot, [but] not because they are righteous men. What could they loot in the desert?

Sharon: We found huge storerooms there, but we did not loot them....When dark fell we sent in another infantry force and we succeeded in evacuating our casualties, who mingled with their casualties. On Thursday morning there was a minor skirmish, but it ended. The next day we counted between 150 and 160 of their dead. We entered every burrow and fired into it, we threw grenades at them and stabbed them...

B-G: Haim is angry at his officers who are looting. I find this robbing strange. I remember in 1948, then it was something else, at that time all the kibbutzim [Hebrew: meshakim] joined in.

Laskov: And now, didn't [Kibbutz] Nir Yitzhak come to Rafah, and didn't all the kibbutzim come like gypsies who pounce on anything? A soldier enters a storeroom and opens a box of spare parts; he doesn't know what it is, dumps it on the floor and leaves. What does he get from that? Another one grabs a commando knife - I can understand taking one as a souvenir, but why take three?

B-G: And this isn't necessarily the Oriental communities.

Laskov: We found train cars, engines, fuel transporters, a cow farm.

B-G: The cows should be sent to the kibbutzim.

Laskov: They will sell them on the black market immediately, as very good kibbutzim do.

B-G, to Sharon's wife: Shalom, Margalit, I can imagine how anxious you were during these days.

Margalit Sharon: Somewhat a lot.

Dayan reports to Ben-Gurion at his residence, November 5, 9 P.M.

B-G (delighted): Sinai is in our hands. A week or two weeks ago I didn't believe in the whole thing. The whole thing has changed. Now it is reality. Sinai is in our hands.

Dayan: At 9:30 A.M. all the units entered Sharm el-Sheikh, Avraham Yaffe on one side and Raful [Rafael Eitan] with the Paratroopers from the other side.

B-G: Where is the oil?

Dayan: Between A-Tur and the gulf. That is the hard place for us to hold, it's the end of the world.

B-G: You have a ground corps mentality. There are also ships.

Dayan: Was Haim here?

B-G: Haim was here, Arik, Assaf and Dan were here.

Dayan: Was Haim happy?

B-G: Haim is a bit embittered, also happy.

Dayan: Embittered about what?

B-G: Not now. I told him there is no reason to be embittered.

Dayan: Is Arik pleased?

B-G: Yes. That war in the burrows was terrible. How did we win there, how did they capture it! People entrenched like that can hold out a very long time. I think this is one of history's unique operations.

Dayan: It would have taken Hannibal three years.

B-G: There were no planes then! He lugged elephants across the Alps.

Dayan's bureau chief, Bar-On, to Laskov, November 16, 1956:

"Re: Investigation of the attack at the Mitla. In regard to the chief of staff's directive for an examination concerning the attack by the 890th Battalion on the enemy at the Mitla Pass on Wednesday, October 31, 1956, I am herein sending you a section of the transcript of Arik's report to the defense minister after the operation. The excerpt provides an excellent description of the events by Arik himself and will help us clarify the matter. The cables and orders of the high-command post are still being searched for and I will send them to you soon."

Laskov debriefs Sharon and reports to Dayan, December 4, 1956.

"On November 30, in accordance with your orders, I clarified with the commander of the 202nd Brigade the background of the operation from the monument to the Mitla, and the following is a summary of what he said. On October 29, at 3 A.M., he had a meeting with the GOC South (Simhoni, who was killed) in which it was proposed and authorized to break through from the site of the parachute drop westward, as the site of the drop had changed. This was in order to deploy a battalion on each side of the defile. On the 30th, after the 202nd Brigade commander reached Area 890, he saw that the battalion was positioned in an inconvenient place. He held a pre-operation briefing and issued an order to proceed with movement. He called in air support. He received a cable from high-command post that there would be no air support. He decided to move without air support. At approximately 4 A.M. a cable was received from high-command post prohibiting 'forward progress.' The convoy stopped. The 890 tactical locality was of particular concern to the brigade commander, because there was no dominant terrain; it was crowded and room for maneuverability was lacking in regard to the Mitla defiles to the west. The brigade commander notes that our planes, which attacked the enemy between Suez and the Mitla, reported that there is no enemy between Suez and the 890 tactical locality.

"On the 31st, between 10 and 11 A.M., the chief of staff / South [Ze'evi] appeared. The area was scouted with him and authorization was received for a reconnaissance patrol, with the proviso not to get involved in serious combat, only to find out whether enemy forces were there. The brigade commander [Sharon] notes that he is certain he reported to the chief of staff / South that there was no authorization to move west. The policy of 'no bloodletting' was known, but the presence of the force in exposed terrain with no view of the area to the west determined the brigade commander's judgment. The size of the force that was sent out was one company with eight half-tracks, three AMX tanks, a 120 mm battery and a [second] company mounted on regular vehicles. These two elements were positioned in the rear and were intended for rescue if the forward half-tracks were to get stuck. The fact is that the half-tracks and the rest of the force passed by ... after they came under fire. The two companies were given the mission of dealing with the roads on both sides so as not to abandon the two half-tracks. The road was blocked by Egyptian vehicles."

Ze'evi debriefs himself and reports to Laskov, December 4, 1956:

"Re: Attack by 202nd Brigade at Mitla Pass. On October 31 I visited brigade headquarters. The brigade commander asked me whether he could send a patrol toward the Mitla Pass. I responded affirmatively, emphasizing that if this entailed casualties, it was not to be done (the words I reiterated were: 'We must not pay a price in Jewish blood'). The brigade commander issued the same order to the force commander in my presence. Before leaving, I saw that two or three companies were organizing. I remarked on this and the brigade commander on the spot ordered the force to be reduced and be limited to one company. I did not know about a previous request by the brigade to capture the pass, but I did know the chief of staff's policy that there must be no bloodletting in unnecessary operations, because the conditions on the front were going to change within a day or two, as a result of the involvement of additional elements, and we would be able to make gains more cheaply. Accordingly, I reiterated 'not to use force and not to pay in Jewish blood.'"

Laskov to Dayan, December 4 1956.

Laskov hastily dictates conclusions - including typos that remained uncorrected in the original - in favor of Ze'evi and against Sharon.

"Re: Attack by the 202nd west of the monument. In general: In accordance with the letter from your bureau, I examined the events. I have not yet received the cables from the high-command post that were promised. After examining the events, the following are my conclusions: The chief of staff / South did not authorize the movement westward. He authorized only a patrol westward in order to ascertain information about the enemy. He did not know about the agreement between the GOC [Southern] Command and the 202nd Brigade commander from the 29th of the month or about the high-command post order prohibiting movement westward.

"There are discrepancies between the remarks of the 202nd Brigade commander to the defense minister and what he said (when I questioned him) on the following points: 1. That the authorization of the chief of staff / South was for a patrol and not for movement westward. 2. The size of the force, which was inappropriate for the limited mission of a patrol which the chief of staff / South permitted. I do not find that the chief of staff / South exceeded his authority or that he acted contrary to the decision of the high-command post and the policy of the General Staff. The 202nd Brigade commander violated the orders of the high-command post and, according to the testimony of the defense minister, also the directives of the chief of staff / South.

"At the same time, we cannot ignore the situation of the 202nd Brigade commander, which prompted him to do what he did."

Ben-Gurion to Dayan, December 10, 1956:

"Dear Moshe, Yesterday I had a conversation with Arik about the Mitla matter. I am not qualified to make a judgment about the episode itself, and I think you should call in Arik to clarify to you why he did what he did. But I have a depressing feeling that there is a bad spirit among the commanders: gossip, grumbling, insecurity and the like. We know that this in part due to the parochialism that is felt within almost all circles in Israel, but I am certain that you have the ability, if you pay proper attention, to rectify this in large measure. You have been blessed with enough sense and cleverness and loyalty to the IDF to enable you to overcome this to a great degree. As supreme commander of the army, this is your task, and I am also certain you have the skill and the wisdom to do it.

Yours, D. Ben-Gurion."