A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Golan 1973 and Hermonit: Part Two

As I noted in Part One of this post yesterday, the fighting in Golan 40 years ago right now during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War tends not to be remembered (except in Israel and Syria) as well as the "Crossing" of the Canal and the fight for Sinai. These posts focus primarily on the fierce tank battles at the northern end of the Golan Heights, around Hermonit and the so-called "Valley of Tears," but first it is worth placing the fighting in the broader context of the Golan Front. This is of course a short blog post and there are many highly detailed accounts for those who want more detail; I have to leave a lot out.

On October 6, the first day of the war, Syria had the advantage of surprise; as is well known, Israel only began full mobilization a few hours before the attack, and there had been no time to reinforce the Golan, where Israeli troops were deployed in ten strongpoints slightly behind the 1966 ce. asefire lines. Against this relatively small infantry presence and only 177 Israeli tanks, Syria deployed three infantry divisions, each with a attached armored brigade; two armored divisions were in reserve behind the lines. Total tanks available were about 1,400. Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar reportedly estimated that the Israeli defenses were sufficient, so low was his estimation of Syrian fighting ability. Syria, for its part, realized it would require at least 24 hours for Israeli mobilization to reinforce the Golan, and its war plan called for it to recover the Golan by the end of the first day.

From north to south the Syrians deployed their 7th Infantry Division,  9th Infantry Division. and 5th Infantry Division. On the Israeli side, Officer Commanding Northern Command Yitzhak Hofi was away, meeting with Elazar, when the war broke out.

In the first day's fighting, the Syrian thrusts penetrated deep in the central and southern parts of the line, where the ground is more level and the Syrians were able to bypass the isolated Israeli infantry positions. But the greatest blow to the Israelis was Syria's helicopter-borne seizure of the Israeli observation post on Mount Hermon, a key early warning and listening post at the northern end of the Golan, from which the whole battlefield could be seen.

Much of the first day's  battle was focused on the central and southern sectors, with the Syrian 5th Division attacking toward Rafid in the south, and the 9th Division pushed through to Kushniya and sought to take Quneitra, the Golani capital before 1967, and threaten the Israeli headquarters at Nafakh. On October 7 Syria committed the 1st Armored Division to support the 9th, but as Israeli reserves began to firm up and resistance stiffened, the southern and central sectors stabilized. It was in these sectors that the Syrians penetrated farthest into the occupied Golan, reaching the TAPLINE Road and the Quneitra area, but they failed to reach their goal of reaching the Jordan River Bridge at Banot Ya'acov/Banat Ya‘qub, though at its height, one Syrian column was within three miles of the bridge.
The crucible of the fiercest tank fighting was on the northern end of the Golan Front, particularly from October 7-9.  The earlier post shows the war memorial at Hermonit at the heart of the fighting.

Hermonit is a small mountain that lies southward from Mount Hermon (Arabic Jabal al-Sheikh), the landmark mountain on the Israel/Syria/Lebanon border. Just as Hermonit means "Little Hermon," it is known in Arabic as "Tal al-Sheikh," (hill of the sheikh) while Hermon is "Jabal al-Sheikh" (mountain of the sheikh, said to be derived from its snow cover, like a white-haired sheikh's). Some say the Druze have a legend that Hermonit is the wife of Hermon. Hermonit is one of the many extinct volcanic cones that form the eastern spine of the Golan.

To the south of Hermonit lay another volcanic cone known in Arabic as Tal al-Makhfi and to the Israelis as "Booster." A ridge running between the two came to be known as the "red ridge"; in front of that ridge was a valley which, when littered with burning tanks after the battle, came to be known as the "Valley of Tears."

Gen. Abrash
In the northern sector the Syrian 7th Infantry Division (really a mechanized division with an attached armored brigade) led the attack. Its Commander, Brig. Gen. ‘Omar Abrash, faced the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade under Avigdor "Yanush" Ben-Gal. General Abrash, who would be killed in the battle, was somewhat unusual for the largely Soviet-trained Syrian Army: he had attended the US Army's Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Ben-Gal, who had fought in the 1956 and 1967 wars and who would command in Lebanon in 1982, had been moved into position just as the war broke out.

Stationed on Hermonit was the 77th Armored Battalion, led by Col. Avigdor Kahalani, who would make his name in the battle.  It is curious that all the units at the start of the battle had 7s in their designation.

In Part Three, a look at the battle itself and the later events of the 1973 war in the Golan.

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