A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
October can be one of the loveliest months in Israel, with deep blue skies, bright sunshine and temperatures that lure you to the beach with idyllic images of enjoying the seashore.
But for more than half of one October, I watched as Israel was turned into the center of a war zone, and everyone in the country at the time surely will not forget it as long as they live.
It happened in 1973, and started on October 6, which was Yom Kippur, the most sacred Jewish holiday. Most religious Jews were observing the “Day of Atonement” as usual by resting, fasting and praying.
So it was relatively quiet throughout the land. Everything seemed fine.
Until suddenly, in the afternoon, everything changed
. Knowing that many Israeli soldiers would not be at their posts on that holiday, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack. Israelis, caught off guard, needed time to mobilize forces while Arab armies made significant advances.
The war lasted 18 days. I was a foreign correspondent working in Israel and covered the ongoing conflict. It was most intense in the Sinai and Golan Heights areas which Israel still held six years after capturing them in another war with its neighbors.
While reporting, I managed to hook up with an Israeli medical evacuation unit across the northern border in Syria. It was waiting to go into action if any soldiers on the frontline ahead of us had to be taken off the battlefield.
One day, when they were hearing nothing about battle action, members of the Israeli unit parked on a barren desert plain. The sun was high, a cloudless sky was touching chocolate dusty earth, the air was still and silent, and soldiers were taking a break.
A good time, I thought, to grab lunch. So I began eating from a can while propped on top of an Army "halftrack," a military vehicle with wheels and the cross-country capabilities of a tank.
That’s when my crisis began.
“MiG, MiG,” shouted a soldier on another halftrack from a position behind a 7.52mm machine gun.
Everyone around me ran for cover, knowing the warning that a Soviet-built jet fighter plane was seen. Me? I was as inexperienced and ineffectual in combat as a small boy shooting his cap pistol at an imagined target from a bedroom window in New York in a conceived scenario of the Korean War.
I decided to dive under the halftrack and to lie on the ground, with a Sony tape recorder over one shoulder and a camera over the other. As the warplane came screaming in with the pilot firing cannons, I was clutching dirt and hoping an Israeli F-4 Phantom fighter would swoosh in and knock out the MiG.
Good luck with that; Israeli planes were busy elsewhere, trying to counter Syrian and Egyptian forces in their assault. Now I had an inkling of what soldiers experience in foxholes and trenches -- hearts in mouths -- when they come under shell fire.
And I not only was trying to survive without a foxhole, but also under the very target that the MiG pilot wanted to hit.
Realizing my mistake, I got really frightened -- my chin on the ground, eyes wide shut. What if the MiG pilot fired on the lightly armored vehicle covering me and it burst into flames? I tend to think the worst.
“Where are our planes?” I muttered.
“Our?” I’m American, not Israeli. I excused the un-journalistic mistake by recalling, much later, that the Phantom was built by McDonnell-Douglas, a giant U.S. company.
Fortunately, that MiG missed its target and zoomed off.
There wasn't a Phantom in sight when I rolled out from under the halftrack. Then, with the camera and tape recorder bobbing against my sides, I jumped into a cluster of grayish white rocks nearby, scraping my left shoulder raw on one of them.
The MiG never returned, but we hightailed it out of there, back to the rear on the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
I was far from my comfort zone in my first foreign assignment for United Press International. It was what I requested, but I didn't expect to be in a state of fright while covering a war.
Eventually, my boss dispatched me to all battlefields, including those on territory held by the Israelis such as the Golan Heights, where Syrian tanks flowed like a river toward Israel proper, and the Sinai, where Egyptian tanks had crossed the Suez Canal.
Later, I went across the 200-yard-wide Suez waterway on a pontoon bridge and into Egypt, down along its Red Sea coast. Israelis referred to the Egyptian front west of the canal as Africa.
My work abroad came after two years in New York on the UPI "foreign desk," where metal desks were pushed together to form a rectangular unit that we called “Cables.” One day, the top editor, Bill Landry, came up behind me and whispered in my left ear.
“Do you want to go to Saigon?” he asked.
“Thanks very much, Bill, but I’m waiting for the Middle East to open up,” I replied. Without another comment, he sauntered off.
The Vietnam War was still hot in that fall of 197I, and I've often wondered how long I'd have lasted if I had been covering that long, losing struggle. I was the type of reporter who had to "go out and see" what was happening, like many of my colleagues during those terrible hostilities. That’s how you get killed.
Then, in early 1972, I got a chance to go to Israel. The man in charge of UPI headquarters in Tel Aviv decided to switch to the company's TV news operation to make more more money. I was sent to replace him in late May.
For the next seven years, I worked in an environment filled with violence -- first as a reporter, then as a bureau manager. It was the age of terror in Israel, with a wide range of attacks.
Attacks came on land from Lebanon, in rubber rafts from the Mediterranean Sea, and by planes toward what then was known as Lod Airport. The airport was not far from the coastal White City, as Tel Aviv was getting to be known, an homage to white cement apartment buildings there.
Soon after my arrival, I got a call one evening from someone in the bureau to tell me there was a massacre in the airport terminal and that I should go there immediately. The perpetrators turned out to be three men in the “Japanese Red Army,” a proxy for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The men had come from Europe with machine guns hidden in violin cases and they blasted their way through crowds, killing 26 people and wounding 80 others. Eight fatalities were Israeli, 17 were Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico and the last victim was a Canadian.
The only surviving gunman, Kozo Okamoto, was shot, arrested and sentenced to life in prison, but he was freed in 1985 as part of a deal with Palestinians to exchange prisoners.
Covering that awful incident at the airport was only the first of the challenges that I faced in reporting on politics and violence in Israel. There were so many more afterward that one of my favorite editors began calling me "horseshit and gun smoke.” I loved it.
RIchard Gross was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief, a Pentagon reporter, and Baltimore Sun opinion page editor
The "Yom Kippur War" was costly for Israel, Egypt, and Syria. All three countries had significant casualties and losses of military equipment. Negotiations for peace were the first public meetings between Israeli and Arab officials in a generation.