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Gaza War – a painful echo of hubris of 1973



I was a battalion physician in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Those who fought and survived hoped that the bitter lessons of that war had been learned and that Israel would never experience a similar catastrophe. Tragically, one day after the 50th anniversary of that war, history repeated itself with the devastating Hamas attack of 7 October. The similarities between these events are chillingly striking.

The Yom Kippur War began with an attack by Egypt and Syria on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. There were many signs that war was imminent. Both countries visibly massed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on their borders with Israel. Substantive warnings came from Israeli intelligence services, as well as Jordan’s King Hussein and the spy Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of the late Egyptian president, Abdel Nasser. Notably, a week before Yom Kippur, Russian military advisors in Syria and Egypt sent their families back home. Israel’s front lines were poorly defended – there were only 500 reserve soldiers stationed on the Suez Canal facing Egypt, and only 3 000 on the Golan Heights facing Syria.

After the victories of the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Arabs had been quickly and soundly defeated, both the Israeli military and the general population were still collectively steeped in hubris. They ignored the costly War of Attrition of the early 1970s, and seemed to ignore the rearming of Arab armies which had acquired new anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, thereby erasing both the air and armoured corps superiority of Israel.

By 1973, the military defence of Sinai was based on a line of fortification called the “Bar-Lev Line”, as well as a plan to ignite gasoline over the Suez Canal should the Egyptian army try to cross it. The Israeli army had also installed a sophisticated system intended to provide early warning of an incipient attack. None of these worked as the Egyptian army attacked on Yom Kippur. The Bar-Lev Line was overrun within hours; both the plan to set fire to the canal and the early warning system were complete failures.

The Israeli government was held captive by the premise created by the chief of military intelligence that the Arabs, lacking sufficient military aircraft, were incapable of mounting an attack against Israel.

Similarly, on 7 October 2023, Hamas lured Israel into believing that it wasn’t planning to attack. Rather, as the entity holding power in the government, it projected the illusion that its resources were focused on the economic rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip. The plan to invade Israel was kept secret by Hamas leadership, and wasn’t even revealed to its own invading forces until the morning of the attack.

The attack on 7 October took place on the Jewish holidays of Shabbat and Simchat Torah, which occurred on the same day, when relatively few soldiers were stationed on the border with Gaza. The reduced number of soldiers reflected the belief of the commanders of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that Hamas was incapable of mounting an effective attack and that any potential invasion would be prevented by both a fortified security wall and a system of automated weapons. The IDF had erected observation towers and relied on surveillance balloons to monitor activities in Gaza. Meanwhile, it diverted troops from the border to deal with the growing unrest in the West Bank. As has been extensively documented, Hamas bulldozed and bypassed the supposedly impenetrable Israeli wall by flying over it and attacking from the Mediterranean Sea. It destroyed the observation towers and the military communication systems, thus overwhelming poorly defended Israeli settlements and military installations with thousands of attackers. The renowned IDF was powerless to stop the catastrophic onslaught.

In hindsight, there were multiple warnings for months, if not longer, that Hamas had been planning an attack on Israel. First, its attack plan, known as “Jericho Walls”, was known to Israeli intelligence. Second, both the Egyptian and the United States intelligence agencies had warned Israel about the risk of an imminent assault from Gaza. Third, Hamas fighters had been viewed practicing the takeover of Israeli military and civilian locations using models of Israeli communities. Finally, analysts and spotters trained to analyse border irregularities warned that Hamas had begun preparations for an attack.

Just as in 1973, neither the military high command nor the political establishment took these warnings seriously, belittling the capabilities of Hamas and dismissing the warnings from other intelligence sources as well as their own border spotters.

And, as in the Yom Kippur War, those on the frontlines were sacrificed and those who rushed in to assist them were outnumbered and outgunned. While only Israeli soldiers took the brunt of the attacks during the Yom Kippur War, on 7 October, the full range of the Israeli population was victimised, including children and the elderly.

The 7 October massacre shook Israel to its core; its long-term effects are yet to be realised.

It’s critical that for Israel to survive and fulfil its promise of being a democratic and safe haven for all its citizens, it must engage in a thorough and painful investigation to unearth the roots of this massive failure in strategic intelligence and display of national arrogance, to learn, understand, and incorporate the bitter lessons of 7 October. History mustn’t be allowed to repeat itself.

  • Itzhak Brook MD is professor of paediatrics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and the author of “In the Sands of Sinai – A Physician’s Account of The Yom Kippur War”.

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