Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, a famed Israeli general credited with stopping the Syrian advance on the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, passed away on Saturday at the age of 80.
Ben-Gal was commander of the 7th Armored Brigade during the war, and oversaw the defense of the Golan Heights against a significantly larger Syrian armored force. He later served as chief of the IDF’s Northern Command.
Ben-Gal was born in 1936 in Lodz, Poland. The family escaped to the Soviet Union when World War II broke out, and on the way there he and his sister lost touch with their parents. The two succeeded in reaching British-Mandate Palestine via Iran.
He joined the Israeli military’s Armored Corps in 1955. He advanced in the ranks over the years, finally coming to command the 7th Brigade.
He gained fame during the Yom Kippur War when a Syrian force comprised of 700 tanks faced Israel’s 175. Ben-Gal’s troops — notably including Avigdor Kahalani, commander of the 77th tank battalion — were able to block the Syrian advance until reinforcements arrived.
Despite great uncertainty at the outbreak of the war as to whether Israel would be able to hold off the Syrian Army, by the end of four days of fighting, just a few dozen Israeli tanks had been lost, while the mechanized 7th Brigade managed to destroy hundreds of Syrian tanks and armored personnel carriers.
At the end of the war, the commanders of the IDF and defense minister Moshe Dayan told Ben Gal he had “saved the State of Israel,” he recalled in an interview to Channel 1 in 2014.
While that war is generally considered a low-point in Israel’s military history, Ben-Gal viewed the campaign as an unequivocal Israeli achievement. He once called it “a tremendous victory, immense, the greatest in Israel’s history and greater even than the War of Independence.”
Ben-Gal was later appointed to the Operations Directorate in the General Staff, and helped plan Operation Entebbe — the 1976 rescue of Israeli hostages held hostage by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the late 1970s he served as OC Northern Command and in the First Lebanon War (1982) was one of the leaders of the military invasion of Lebanon.
He was considered a favorite for the position of chief of staff in 1983, but lost the job to Moshe Levi and left the army in 1985.
Later in life, Ben-Gal served in various management positions including as head of the Tahal water infrastructure group and as chairman of the board of directors for Israel Aerospace Industries.
“During the darkest days of the Yom Kippur War, when the fate of the nation hung in the balance, Yanush and his brave soldiers defended our northern border with their lives,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, after news of Ben-Gal’s death broke. “He will be remembered as one of the greatest commanders the people of Israel have known.”
President Reuven Rivlin called Ben-Gal “a commander who left his mark on Israeli security” and said “the people of Israel owe him an eternal debt.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Ben-Gal’s life was “amazing and one of a kind… Yanush was at the heart of military work, always present when the most critical decisions were made… He was a soldier and a commander to the very fiber of his being.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.