In the early hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as Israel struggled to beat back invading Egyptian and Syrian forces, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told his staff to begin looking into drafting teens and elderly ex-reserves soldiers into the fight, fearing the Jewish state may not have the manpower it needed for the battle.
The comments are part of a series of transcripts and reports declassified by the Defense Ministry on Monday, showing the fears, deliberations and painful internal conversations by the Israel Defense Forces’ top brass and senior political leadership during a conflict that even at the time was considered poorly prepared for and managed.
The ministry’s archive released the transcripts from IDF General Staff meetings for the first five days of the war, as well as the final intelligence report given to IDF chief of staff David “Dado” Elazar and defense minister Moshe Dayan on October 5, 1973, one day before the war broke out.
The following day, the Egyptians and Syrians launched their attacks, catching the IDF off-guard. The war was hard-fought and grueling with significant setbacks in the early days, leading to candid expressions of concern by the country’s leaders over Israel’s ability to win it.
“What do I fear in my heart more than anything? That the State of Israel will in the end be left without enough weapons to defend itself… There won’t be enough tanks, there won’t be planes, there won’t be people, there won’t be people trained to protect the land of Israel,” Dayan told the IDF General Staff according to the newly released transcripts.
The then-defense minister told the army to consider conscripting people too old to perform reserve duty or too young to have yet been drafted.
“Check the possibility of enlisting all those we released, to enlist the youths, for reservists in order to put them into tanks, in the air, whatever is needed. We’ll get tanks [from the United States] and there won’t be people. Take the elderly people we’ve released, take the young we haven’t yet taken from age 17,” Dayan told the army’s top brass.
Dayan worried how the country would react to Israel’s initial losses.
“Whoever hasn’t yet been shocked will not be shocked because we’ve reached the number of tanks [lost] in the Six Day [War],” he said.
The defense minister also expressed concerns that Israel’s Arab population, which had been living under martial law until 1966, would fight against the government, causing more problems for the country during the war.
“The internal Arabs: They’ll definitely… when the blood rises to their heads, we’ll again need to deal with them with all kinds of actions — not demonstrations, but with martial law and police and border guards because they can go to the transportation routes and keep us busy,” Dayan told the IDF General Staff.
This uprising never occurred. And in fact, many Arab Israelis pitched in for the war effort: replacing Jewish reservists at work, donating blood, purchasing government war bonds and helping with civil defense.
Help sought from abroad
Fighting in both the Sinai Peninsula against the Egyptian military and in the Golan against the Syrians — and without the aerial superiority Israel enjoyed in the 1967 Six Day War thanks to advanced air defense systems supplied by the Soviet Union — stretched the IDF thin and threatened to deplete the Jewish state’s arsenals.
Israel hoped that the United States and some European countries would provide weapons and support during the war.
On October 8, Elazar told Tzvi Tzur, a former IDF chief and assistant to Dayan, that Israel needed 300 to 500 tanks, 48 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter jets and 24 Douglas A-4 Skyhawk jets.
“We need them pretty soon,” Elazar said.
However, Tzur warned that the US might be slow to provide the military aid, thinking that Israel was doing too well in the war.
“My impression is that they’re living on information that this isn’t so bad and saying: Those Jews can get by,” he said.
The head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, said he had been briefing the Americans every night on the war effort, “and yesterday I gave them a briefing that was pretty bleak.”
Elazar instructed him to “give them another [bleak briefing] tonight.”
In the end, the US provided 22,325 tons of tanks, planes, artillery cannons and munitions over the course of the war in a US Air Force operation known as Nickel Grass.
‘Likelihood of fighting low’
An intelligence report handed to Dayan and IDF chief Elazar a day before fighting broke out opens a window into the various signs that the country’s intelligence community missed in not seeing the surprise attack coming.
The intelligence report notes the Egyptian military moving additional weapons toward the border and other signs that Cairo might be preparing for war: an irregular change of radio codes, cancellation of air force courses, a call-up of all aerial brigade commanders, and Egyptian soldiers being given permission not to fast during the month of Ramadan.
“At this stage, there are no signs of concrete preparations for initiating action by the Egyptian air force, though the steps taken do improve their capability to switch into operational activities,” the report noted.
In Syria as well, IDF Military Intelligence notes that there is a “feeling among Syrian officers and soldiers that large-scale fighting is expected, with no explanation for who will initiate it and what the background for it will be.”
Yet the report ends with the assessment: “The likelihood that the Egyptians intend to renew fighting is low… The likelihood of an independent Syrian action (without the Egyptians) remains low.”
Setbacks on the Suez, success in Syria
In a rare glimpse into the internal struggles within the IDF top brass, the ministry also declassified IDF chief Elazar’s phone call with the head of the IDF Southern Command Maj. Gen. Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen in which the army commander informed the general that he was being replaced on the southern front by former IDF chief Chaim Bar-Lev.
Gonen was later blamed for many of the initial failures of the war by the 1974 investigatory Agranat Commission and shortly thereafter moved to Africa to live the rest of his life in relative obscurity.
During the war, some of Israel’s hardest fought battles were against Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula.
The first few days of fighting saw poor management and confusing orders from the commanders in the Sinai Peninsula.
Then-Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, who had been brought back into the military to command the 143rd Armored Division at the start of the war, was seen as a loose cannon who was skilled but could not be relied upon to carry out orders.
This view was solidified when he went against Gonen’s wishes and carried out attacks on Egyptian positions on October 9 with the 143rd Armored Division — a gambit that initially failed but was later salvaged into a victory when his division fought off an Egyptian counterattack.
“It’s a war crime. Today, he — against orders — went to the water and fought a big battle — against orders — lied to Gorodish. And I’m listening to him on the radio, and I see that he’s lying to me. And now he’s asking for permission to cross to the second bank [of the Suez Canal],” Elazar said.
And so following several days of heavy losses and poor direction on the southern front, Dayan and Elazar decided that they needed to bring in former IDF chief of staff Bar-Lev to take over for Southern Command chief Shmuel Gonen.
“I’m deeply concerned that neither Dado nor I will [take over commanding the Southern Command], that we won’t be able to do it, and the people who are there — Gorodish, Arik, all of them — I don’t trust them,” Dayan told Bar-Lev over the phone.
Bar-Lev, who was then the minister of trade and industry, agreed to come in to help, so Elazar had to make the uncomfortable phone call to inform Gonen that he was being replaced.
“Shmulik, I have an unpleasant announcement for you. Chaim Bar-Lev is coming down to you and above you. He will see what’s going on with Arik [Sharon] today. He will speak with you and he will decide, he will also hear what you want and if you want to stay with him, actually, I’ll put it another way: If he wants you to take the 143rd and Arik will go home, or if you want to stay as his deputy and Arik will remain. This is the decision of the defense minister and the prime minister, and I want you to receive it well,” Elazar said.
Gonen’s reaction is not documented in the declassified transcript, but from Elazar’s reactions, the general does not seem to take the news well.
In an apparent effort to soften the blow, Elazar told Gonen that he was only doing this because Bar-Lev was a former IDF chief of staff, making the decision at least appear less bad.
“If it was a general, I wouldn’t do it. But it’s a lieutenant general, a chief of staff, and you two together will be great. Shmulik, okay. He will be with me soon and tonight he’s going down [to the front]. I highly recommend that you stay there. Good. Think about it,” Elazar said.
In addition to apparently seeking to support his subordinate, Elazar expressed concerned that the public would lose faith in the military if Gonen abandoned the war effort entirely.
“[Gonen] told me: I’m going home. This could be like we’re telling the nation of Israel: We failed in the attack against the Egyptians because of the commander, not because of… This has a disastrous public impact,” Elazar said.
Gonen ultimately remained in the Southern Command throughout the war, but operations were led by Bar-Lev.
Shortly thereafter, the fighting in the south began to improve as the IDF fought off the Egyptian attack and launched its own counterattack.
Toward the beginning of this campaign, the IDF lured the Egyptians into a trap by having Elazar speak to Bar-Lev over easily intercepted radio waves, convincing them that the situation was dire and about to break, when in fact the Israeli troops were prepared to launch a powerful counterattack.
“He’ll tell me that the situation is tough and that he hopes they don’t attack him again. I’ll give him permission to retreat if they attack him again. Then maybe they will attack him again when they hear this conversation. We’re being as clever as we can, and in the meantime, you should know that things are going very well,” Elazar told then-prime minister Golda Meir.
The IDF’s fight against Hafez Assad’s Syrian military was far simpler.
I want a dramatic turn, I want someone to shout, ‘Gevalt! Nations are being killed, hold your fire, everyone hold your fire’
After repelling the initial surprise attack, on October 9 Elazar determined that it was time to start hitting back hard, bombing deep inside the Syrian home front.
“The Syrian Army, I want to break it tomorrow. Sorry, today,” he said.
“I want a dramatic turn, I want someone to shout, ‘Gevalt! Nations are being killed, hold your fire, everyone hold your fire.'”
A final ceasefire was reached on October 25, with Israel retaining control of the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, which it had conquered in the Six Day War.
Over 2,500 Israeli soldiers died and thousands more were injured in the fighting, along with thousands of Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi troops.