January 4, 1998
Digging Behind Yesterday’sHeadlines
Other Voices/Yehuda Lev
Readers of the Los Angeles Times on Saturday,May 15, 1948, saw this headline stretching across the top of fivecolumns on Page 1.
"Jewish State Recognized by U.S. in SurpriseMove, Air Raiders Bomb Tel Aviv"
Underneath the headline were threestories - one dealing with President Truman's announcement, one withthe opening hours of Israel's War of Independence, and the third withJewish reaction in Los Angeles ("with a spirit of solemnity," wrotethe Times reporter) to the news from the Middle East.
Within the newborn state itself, there was muchsolemnity and little celebration. Only 650,000 strong, Israelis werepreparing to withstand attacks from four neighboring Arab states andincreased fighting with 1,200,000 Arab Palestinians against whomthere had already been bloody warfare since the precedingNovember.
To this was added the fact that Jerusalem wasunder siege, cut off from the rest of Israel by Jordan's Arab Legion,arguably the best fighting force in the Middle East. On the daybefore the state came into being, the Legion captured Jerusalem's OldCity, defeating all attempts by Israel's best soldiers, the Palmach,to break through its walls. Its defenders had been led off to prisoncamps in Jordan.
Tel Aviv, bombed by Egyptian planes on May 15, wasthe target of an Egyptian army that crossed the Negev border andbegan a drive towards Israel's largest city, 60 miles to the north.The Syrian Army, reinforced by Iraqi detachments, began moving downthe Golan Heights into the Jordan Valley, capturing one settlementand probing Israeli defenses along the Jordan River.
That was the bird's-eye view of thesituation.
Yehuda Lev in Israel army uniform, and YehudaLev, 50 years later.
The worm's-eye view, which I shared with the restof the soldiers in the newly created Israeli Army, was somewhatdifferent. For many of us, volunteers from abroad, it was a time foracute nervousness about the viability of the new state. This led to aserious concern about what we should do if the precarious venturewere to collapse under the blows of the assailants. This was, wefelt, a serious possibility.
That first day was, to my recollection, extremelyhot and dusty. May is not a comfortable month in the Middle East, andworse, we did not have the sense of security that comes withpossessing the tools of war. Accustomed as I was to the largesse ofthe American military, it was a shock to be told, in a combat unit,that there was no weapon for me ("Just take one from a dead body," mycommanding officer said) and to learn that our vehicles had beenstolen off the Tel Aviv streets. ("They'll be of more use with usthan in Tel Aviv" was that same officer's reasoning.)
We were outnumbered and outgunned, but we learnedquickly. We discovered that most Arab soldiers were afraid of thedark, so we attacked at night. We learned that they might have littlemotivation and poor leadership, but that the Arabs would fightfiercely and well if trapped, so where possible, we provided themwith an escape route. We learned that, except for the Jordanians, theArabs took no prisoners, so we left none of our wounded behind,whatever the price in additional casualties. And we learned veryearly on that this was an expensive war in lives and that we simplywould have to accept heavy losses and keep going.
The worm's-eye view may lack distance, but itfocuses well on those who share the travails of combat. My closestfriend in the battalion was Moshe, a veteran of the partisans who hadfought the Nazis in the forests of Central Europe. He was an expertat disposing of enemy guards silently, with a knife. Fortunately forme, he was also versed in the art of producing gourmet dishes fromscrawny fowl. It was a talent that served us well in October when wecaptured Beersheva and bunked down in a mud hut with a dozen or sochickens. Moshe and his jeep were blown apart by a mine inDecember.
Then there was David, from Detroit, who shared akibbutz trench with Jameson, a volunteer from South Africa. One dayEgyptian shells began falling on us. David was out of the trench andunprotected. Suddenly, from the midst of the fog of cordite, smokeand flying sand, we heard his voice shouting."Jameson, are you home?""Yes." Pause. "Are you entertaining company?" "Yes." By that timeDavid located the trench and flopped in.
Fifty years have passed since Israel's War ofIndependence. Today's Middle East wars are fought with smart bombsand missiles, supersonic aircraft and chemical and bacterialwarheads. The 6,000 Israelis who perished during the 14 months of theWar of Independence could be equaled by the casualty figures for asingle minute in tomorrow's conflict.
Today the question no longer is "How do we win thewar?" It is "How do we save the peace?" No one wins today's wars inthe Middle East.
Yehuda Lev writes from Providence.R.I.