The October failures

Miko Peled

Mondoweiss  /  October 7, 2023

In October 1973, and again in October 2023, Israel suffered a breakdown in political and military command. It could not have imagined that the Arabs were capable or courageous enough to launch such a daring attack.

At the time of writing, Palestinian fighters from Gaza are in control of several Israeli settlements, mostly surrounding Gaza in the Naqab region. It has been close to sixteen hours, and still, the Israeli army and other security forces are scrambling to find the light switch, so to speak. In a combined military operation that included rocket attacks and a massive ground invasion, Palestinians from Gaza launched an unprecedented attack into 1948 Palestine, or “Israel.”

Israeli journalist Oded Ben-Ami, who broke the news about the surprise attack on October 6, 1973, was on the air today. He referred to today’s attack as a fog shock while referring to 1973 as the October 6 failure. Today, he said that we are now witnessing the October 7 failure. In both cases, all the systems that were supposed to prevent or at least warn of a surprise attack of such magnitude collapsed. 

It has been more than ten hours, and Israelis in settlements throughout the Naqab and especially around Gaza are under siege, with Palestinian fighters in control and only a small Israeli military presence. What is perhaps even harder to grasp is that Palestinian fighters have entered and now control the Gaza Brigade headquarters of the IDF — this is where the brigade commander, a general, is stationed. Palestinians from Gaza are walking freely around a military base in disbelief by deserted Israeli tanks.

Meanwhile, thousands of wounded are in Israeli hospitals in the region, with reports streaming in of over 200 Israelis dead from this attack. Palestinians in Gaza are reporting that they have scores of hostages. 

Each year during the days and weeks leading up to October 6, the Israeli press publishes articles, stories, and, from time to time, a show-for-the-first-time movie clip or testimony about the 1973 October War, also known as the Yom Kippur War. The surprise attack launched by the Egyptian and Syrian armies on Yom Kippur Day of 1973 was devastating not only for the Israeli military but also for the Israeli public. Now, five decades after the October 6 disaster, Palestinians have given Israelis another rude wake-up call. 

I will never forget the day the 1973 war started. It was a sunny afternoon on Yom Kippur, and being a non-practicing Jewish home, we were not in synagogue or fasting. I was hanging out at a friend’s house when the news of war broke, and the sirens began. My friend’s father suggested I go home, which I did. My house was just a five-minute walk, but it felt eerie. We lived in a quiet community just up the hill from Route 1, which is the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It was a very quiet day because it was Yom Kippur, and there was no traffic or public transportation, and it felt strange to know that another war was taking place.

Up to that point, Israelis were used to short, decisive wars and heroic operations where the Israeli army, one of the finest in the world — or so we believed — was always victorious and the Arabs humiliated. When I arrived home, my father was on the phone with his friend and former comrade in arms, retired general Ezer Weizman. They were both senior members of the Israeli high command just a few short years prior to this, and both retired after the 1967 war. 

An Israeli reporter broadcasting live from Tel-Aviv now said that “Israelis thought that the era of big wars is over,” as scenes of fighting with Palestinian fighters in Sderot and other Israeli settlements are shown in real-time. What Israelis forgot, or perhaps never realized, is that Israeli soldiers are not brave and certainly not invincible. For decades now, it has been shown that, fighter-for-fighter, the Israelis are inferior to their Arab counterparts.

The common wisdom used to be  that after the defeat and humiliation of the 1967 war, “the Arabs wouldn’t dare to attack us.” Well, attack, they did, and in 1973, they caught the Israeli military with their pants down. Israeli reservists were asleep in their bunkers as the Egyptian army was building bridges to allow thousands of troops to cross the Suez Canal into the Sinai peninsula. These Egyptian troops then proceeded to go into the Israeli bunkers, kill and take Israeli soldiers prisoner. Then it was the Sinai desert that the Egyptian forces took, now entire Israeli settlements that are occupied by Palestinian forces.

The Egyptian army marched comfortably and without resistance into the Sinai Peninsula, and the Syrian army marched into the Golan Heights, both territories occupied by Israel in 1967. It is said that the Syrians could have taken the Golan Heights and reached the Galilee without resistance had they not stopped out of concern that they were marching into a trap.

I still remember Israeli army chief of staff General David Elazar speaking in 1973 saying, “we will break their bones, we will defeat them,” and my mother laughing bitterly as she said, to herself mostly, “you were supposed to prevent this and now so many young boys are dead.” Knowing her, the pain she expressed was for the death of boys on all sides of the war.

Ezer Weziman retired and joined the right-wing party Herut — the precursor of today’s Likud, and my father retired to embark on an academic career, as well as what was regarded in Israeli politics as left-wing politics. The two remained friends for life. When the war broke out, the knee-jerk reaction was to call up the generals who made up the 1967 high command so they could save the day.

Some of those generals were still in service, so they called up the ones that had retired — all but two: my father, Matti Peled, and Ezer Weizman. Weizman was now a politician, so he could not be called up. My father was a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan — the Golda-Dayan duo — because for several years, he had been calling on the Israeli government to make peace with its Arab neighbors. 

The list of accusations that can be made against the Golda-Dayan duo is too long for this article, but what, in my humble opinion, should be the main accusation is that the war could have been averted altogether had it not been for their hubris. From 1970, when Anwar Sadat became President of Egypt, he had been calling for a peace agreement with Israel, and the Golda-Dayan-led government ignored him. After three years of trying to peacefully get the territories that were taken from Egypt returned, he opted for war.

Palestinians have been calling for their freedom for decades, so this attack, well-planned and executed, should have been anticipated. However, Israel has shown once again that its military is an incompetent, overly proud, and overly confident army.

During those years, my father had written for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv and had done quite a lot of public speaking. He called on the Israeli government to engage in peace talks with its Arab neighbors, including the PLO, which he referred to as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. He particularly criticized the Golda-Dayan duo. He was scathing in his remarks regarding their lack of foresight and cowardice and for acting irresponsibly by ignoring Sadat’s call for peace. Needless to say, there was no love lost there.

Another personal aspect of the story has to do with my brother, Yoav Peled. He was studying in the U.S. at the time and was part of an initiative to get former Israeli officers who were in the U.S. to return immediately and fight for their country. He returned as well, and I recall picking him up at the airport and taking him directly to an army base so he could take command of a tank unit and join the war against the Egyptians. If this sounds like madness, it is because it was. Still, that was the atmosphere that prevailed at the time.

The Israeli command then, as today, was in complete chaos. We had lost contact with my brother, and no one knew where he was. The Israeli army suffered heavy casualties; large numbers of soldiers were missing in action, and there was no way of knowing if a particular soldier was dead or alive or perhaps taken prisoner. Today, this is true as well, with one exception: Israeli civilians are the ones killed, injured, and missing because no one imagined the Arabs were capable or courageous enough to launch such a daring attack. 

Just as it was then, so it is today, a breakdown of communications. But what was worse then was that because some of the retired generals were back, there was no clear chain of command, meaning that the breakdown of command was at the highest level of the military. 

After the war was over, a commission of inquiry absolved the government of any wrongdoing and placed all the blame on the army leadership. But there was plenty of blame to go around, and absolving the government was a big mistake — because the army took its orders from the government, not the other way around. 

There was reliable intelligence that the Egyptians were going to attack in 1973. This intelligence came from different sources, including the Mossad, military intelligence, and even Jordan’s late King Hussein, who had warned the Israeli government that the war was imminent. One can only wonder how the Israeli intelligence services are going to justify the lack of preparedness for the October 7, 2023 attack.

Six years later, Egypt got the Sinai Peninsula back, and a peace agreement was signed between the two countries. The Golda-Dayan duo were voted out of office, although Dayan managed to return to high office in the new right-wing government. Golda maintained her legacy as a great leader — although she was clearly not.

In October 1973 and again in October 2023, Israelis got a taste of their own medicine.

As the humiliation of the 1973 war still burns in the hearts and minds of Israelis, a new and perhaps greater humiliation is now present. In the wars that preceded 1973, Israel always attacked when its enemies were weak and unprepared. In October 1973 and again in October 2023, Israelis got a taste of their own medicine. What’s more, they fell apart militarily and politically. 

One thing is certain: regardless of how successful this operation turns out, Palestinians are likely to pay a heavy price. My friend, the activist Issa Amro from Hebron/Al-Khalil, is reported to have been severely beaten and arrested by Israeli soldiers. According to a report from Hebron, he is in need of medical care. He is but one example. Hopefully, this Palestinian military success will lead to real political gain for all Palestinians.

Miko Peled is an Israeli writer and activist living in Washington, DC