The formative moment of Ariel Sharon’s life came in May 1948; not with the Declaration of Independence – which he heard on the radio wafting out of an open window on his way to kiss his girlfriend Gali before a mission – but with the battle for Latrun, 11 days later, in which he was left for dead.
At the time, Jews and Palestinians had been fighting for six months. Arab forces controlled the ridges along the road to Jerusalem, barring the delivery of anything beyond sporadic convoys of food and water. The corridor to the capital, dominated by the town of Latrun and the Crusader castle looming over the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, was held by Jordanian troops and Palestinian militia.
The Haganah’s 7th Brigade, a newly formed unit mostly manned by Holocaust survivors, some of whom had never before fired a weapon, was given the task. Sharon, then still known as Scheinerman, commanded the 1st Platoon of B Company of the 32nd Battalion, the only battle-hardened fighting force in the brigade.
On May 25, in the afternoon, he lay in the shade of an olive grove and wrote a letter to his parents. It was published years later in Ram Oren’s account of the battle, “Latrun,” and speaks both to Sharon’s underappreciated facility with words and his view, as the quintessential sabra, of the European Jewish refugees and their plight: “My platoon and I are lazing in an olive grove, passing the heat of the day, thinking pre-battle thoughts, blending with the water-smoothed stones and the earth, feeling part and parcel of the land: a rooted feeling, a feeling of a homeland, of belonging, of ownership. Suddenly a convoy of trucks stopped next to us and unloaded new, foreign-looking recruits. They looked slightly pale, and were wearing sleeveless sweaters, gray pants, and striped shirts. A stream of languages filled the air, names like Herschel and Yazek, Jan and Maitek were thrown around. They stuck out against the backdrop of olives, rocks, and yellowing grains. They’d come to us through blocked borders, from Europe’s death camps.
“I watched them. Watched them strip, watched their white bodies. They tried to find fitting uniforms, and fought the straps on their battle jackets as their new commanders helped them get suited up. They did this in silence, as though they had made their peace with fate. Not one of them cried out: ‘Let us at least breathe the free air after the years of terrible suffering.’ It is as if they’d come to the conclusion that this is one final battle for the future of the Jewish people.” [The letter was republished in “Ariel Sharon: A Life,” a 2006 biography, which this reporter translated.]
The plan was to attack at midnight. The commanders, though, quarreled through the dark hours of the night and only sent the troops into the field at 4 a.m. Sharon, 20 years old, led the battalion into battle.
The column cut through the fog and the rigid wheat and promptly came under Jordanian fire. In his autobiography, “Warrior,” written with David Chanoff, Sharon said that, under machine gun fire, he “sensed rather than saw men dropping suddenly or sliding slowly into the fog.”
Shortly after five in the morning, “in a moment of startling swiftness,” the sun burnt away the haze, and the platoon, which had been leading several hundred men, found itself alone on an open patch of earth. The olive grove above them, on Latrun hill, “looked like it was spitting fire.”
Sharon led the platoon to a gully, a small indentation in the earth that provided the most meager cover, and took stock: his sergeant had been wounded. The platoon radio took a bullet and was inoperable. None of them had water, as canteens had not been found before the battle, and behind them, the wheat fields burned from the artillery rounds. Up ahead, through the billowing smoke, the Jordanian troops laid down long bursts of machine gun fire.
They were trapped.
“On the bright side,” Sharon wrote, “we had a good supply of hand grenades and ammunition for our Sten guns and Czech rifles.”
The slightest movement from members of the 1st Platoon provoked enemy fire. Soldiers who shifted carelessly were shot and dragged to the back of the gully, where an oozing, muddy trickle of water turned red with blood. Flies and gnats descended on the wounded. Jordanian Bedouin soldiers began flitting out of the olive grove and launching frontal assaults. Only when they were within 40 yards of the position, and only after the Hagannah soldiers heard the calls of Itbah al-Yahud, kill the Jews, did they open fire, repulsing wave after wave of Arab offensives.
Sharon was plagued by thirst and desperate for the day to darken into night. He re-wound his watch so often, he told Chanoff, that the stem came off in his hand.
By one in the afternoon, half of the platoon was dead and nearly all the rest were wounded, and Sharon, who had entered the battle with one arm in a cast, was shot in the abdomen. “Raising myself to see what was happening, I felt something thud into my belly, knocking me back. I heard my mouth say ‘Imah’ – mother, and the instant it was out I glanced around to see if anybody had heard,” he wrote in “Warrior.”
A little later in the afternoon, a palpable shift descended on the battlefield. The Israeli guns opened fire, and Sharon, completely cut off from the rest of the force, told his men to get ready for a charge. He was sure the Israeli artillery was the precursor to a larger offensive. But looking over his shoulder, amid a sudden calm in the barrage, he saw how mistaken he had been: the artillery fire had enabled the brigade to retreat. The hills behind him, where the 72nd Battalion had guarded their flank, were covered with Palestinian villagers. “I looked back and saw that I had misinterpreted the sudden silence,” he wrote in a piece for Yedioth Ahronoth in 1998 and which was reprinted in his son Gilad’s memoir, ‘Sharon: The Life of a Leader.’ “The entire mountainside behind us was covered with Arab villagers. They butchered our wounded, the ones left in the field by other units.”
“All around me,” he continued, “the dead and the wounded. All friends, all from the Sharon region, most from a single village. People you grew up with. Here they were, right in front of you, in this awful field, close to death, and there was nothing you could do for them. They were lost. ”
One of them, Simcha Pinchasi, described in “Warrior” as “a wonderful boy from Kfar Saba,” had been hit in both legs and couldn’t move. He’d been manning the machine gun all day. “With a look and a quick nod he indicated that he would cover the withdrawal,” Sharon wrote. “But Arik,” he said, “before you go, give me a grenade.” I gave it to him, knowing there was no hope whatsoever, not for him and most likely not for the rest of us either. There was no one whom I could ask to carry him, just as there was no one who could carry me. Our eyes caught for a moment, then I turned to go. And as I did I had a momentary image of his parents as they were when I last saw them in their village.”
The order to retreat and leave men like Pinchasi behind, he said years after the battle, was the most difficult one he ever had to issue. “There were others, of varying magnitudes, of different degrees of responsibility, but none was as grave as that one,” he wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth article. “I looked at my wounded. I knew I was seeing them for the last time. I knew they would be butchered. I gave the order. For the first and last time in my life as a commander, I gave the order: retreat, retreat and leave the wounded in the field.
“There was no choice. I had to save the few that were still alive. I lay there, tormented by pain. The few who were able to move, passed me by. “Should we leave you here, too?” Yes, me too. I saw the eyes of those who fled. They contained shock and sorrow, immense pain. That look accompanies me to this day, always.”
Eventually, after pointing the way and parting with Pinchasi, Sharon set out on his own, dragging his body across the smoldering earth. Sure that he would not be able to clear even one rocky terrace, he slithered along, with “the sounds of the pillage and the slaughter being perpetrated by the villagers knock[ing] upon my eardrums.”
One soldier, a native of one of the villages near his hometown of Kfar Malal, “looked at him long and hard” at the nature of his wound and his blood-soaked uniform, and “parted with him in silence,” according to the account in Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom’s “Ariel Sharon: A Life.”
Yakov Bugin, a 16 year-old soldier under his command, who had just joined the platoon and who himself had been shot in the jaw and was missing a large part of his face, found Sharon on his back, eyes open, looking at the sky. Sharon, unable to remember the soldier’s name, told him to “run, escape, save yourself.”
Bugin, though, wordlessly helped him through the hellish vista, boosting him up over terraces and relying on Sharon’s infallible sense of direction to guide them back through the killing field. “We had no choice but to stand tall and walk through the field in full view of the armed Palestinian peasants,” Bugin told Hefez and Bloom. “Once we stood up, we could see the Arabs shooting our wounded right beside us. They saw us, but luckily they were too busy looting the bodies to raise their weapons and kill the two miserable, bleeding soldiers limping past…All they would have had to do to kill us is raise their weapons to their shoulders. They wouldn’t even have had to run. That’s how Arik and I made our way through the field, surrounded by Arabs, until we slowly distanced ourselves from them. We were lucky that Arik knew the area well and that he had binoculars, which helped us find the area for wounded soldiers.”
They continued like that for hours, until Sharon, spotting the jeep that would rescue them, passed out.
But he did not forget the experience. As commander of the Paratroops and Unit 101, Israel’s first true elite force, he made it an ironclad rule that the injured never be left in the field. And when, in September 2001, he became the first Likud prime minister to say that Israel “wants to give the Palestinians what no one else ever has: the opportunity to establish a state of their own,” he did so, not by coincidence, at Latrun.